Peregrine had sent for Tiffany quite in the Grand Mogul manner—and who could have expected anything else with his portrait, painted by Australia's best artist, hanging, eyeglass and all, in Parliament House? “Since your mother has been ailing for some considerable time,” he wrote, “I permit you to pay her a short visit. You will understand that it is solely for her sake….”
“Nice old gentleman,” said Darien, when Tiffany showed her the letter “Keepin' that fire hot for twenty-four years.”
“So it is,” said Tiffany, surprised. Four years since Brant was drowned in the big river flood of 1884, since she had let Peak Hills so the boys could stay at the English schools to which Brant had sent them. “Oh, do you think mamma is really ill?” she asked anxiously.
“Not she! Learnin' how to get her own way at last, that's all. It always did take Sal-volatile a damn long time to learn anything. I'd have taught that mean black rig something in a month. I did, too. You won't stay up there, Tiffy?”
It was nice to have Tiffy back at Bendemeer, since Sophia was so taken up with her curios that one always expected to find some in the soup or the shepherd's pie. Nearly as dangerous to dinners as the politics and governors of the early days, Sophy's curios.
“Could you see him allowing it?” said Tiffany, between a laugh and a sigh. Tiffy had got back her old brightness now, and might even go on marrying, thought Darien, who could never keep her hands off marriages. She had got Deb and Janet settled, though it had been a devil of a page 449 job, with Janet drowned in love and tears, and Linda never speaking to Darien again. But Prue had remained stubborn. Perhaps she really had cared for that Bethune, thought Darien, who never could understand why one man wasn't as good as another since all a woman needed of him was a home and comforts.
Fewer now to provide the home and comforts since the land-boom burst at the end of 'seventy-nine, setting so many of New Zealand's gentlemen to keeping their anxious noses to the grindstone. Yet in the South they still made gallant show with hunts and balls and races, and the shipping of frozen meat to England since 'eighty-two had helped many to their feet again. With wool and wheat worth nothing (and the whole world, it seemed, was in the same box) it was very convenient of sheep to turn into valuable mutton … though of course it meant great changes in breeding. But Darien was equal to that.
So far she and her fortune had been equal to holding off the little men now come nibbling everywhere on the edges of the great stations; but much of Durdans was gone, and Tiffy had had to sell some of Peak Hills. What with taxes and Liberal notions and voting by all males over twenty-one, said Andrew, the writing was not only on the wall, but in everybody's cheque book.
Sophia hurried in, dropping odds and ends from her loaded arms.
“Jerry brought me back … some of his Clara's mending … only not mended, and how could it be mended with six children and only one maid,” panted Sophia, pushing an old green hat of Darien's further off her pallid brow.
“Damn careless of Clara to have so many kids in these bad times,” said Darien, going out to speak to Robertson about the next draft of fattened lambs.
“Blessed is the man who has his quiver full … but I never was sure about women. Oh, will you help me, Tiffy? Thank you, but don't tell Clara, for I said I'd do them page 450 and it is so shocking to be thought untruthful. Though I do wonder why Truth lies in a well where nobody can see it…. This blue gingham is for the blue frocks, and the checked for the checked one…. I suppose we shall all have to wear white in heaven, though I do think a little colour would be more cheerful …if it isn't blasphemous to say so.”
“I fear you don't know the meaning of the word, Sophy dear,” said Tiffany, getting needles and thread. Something of a relief to be blasphemous occasionally, to indulge in rare flights of titanic ribaldry over Buddhist philosophers, fat old monks laughing in their wide sleeves, gods drunken on Olympus.
She and Linda's Prue often laughed together at Life, blasting their own hard way step by step towards the realities. Prue's existence, muffled in Caroline's bronchitis and Linda's self-absorbed fluffiness, needed a deal of blasting.
Tiffany, so happy with Brant, so tip-toe with her daily fear that kept her love a nervous living thing, had been quite bewildered with that stimulating menace gone. And now Brant might know that she had deceived him and would forgive her, as all good angels must … which seemed rather an anticlimax, somehow. Tiffany had never much wanted forgiveness unless she earned it.
“It really was a pity Jerry built Lovel Hall before the crash … though of course he couldn't have built it since,” said Sophia. “But such a big house. So hard to keep clean and tidy.”
So hard for any of us to keep our inner houses tidy … big or little. Mine never will be any more than Bendemeer is, thought Tiffany, looking round the familiar room. Except for increased shabbiness it had not changed. Wool of a different texture—southdowns, shropshires (Tiffany could never remember sheep)—filled the row of brass pots, and the files on Darien's desk would hold different names.page 451
But above the mantel Darien still smiled down in her young gorgeousness of red curls and white shining flesh and green drooping scarves, and in some way the essential Darien had not grown older. Still set on her piracies, still trampling those who got in her way, still piling up such wealth as she could, just as Nick Flower had done. What for? wondered Tiffany, who was nearly as poor as she ever had been (since all the Peak Hills income must go to the boys), and who felt that she did not mind at all.
There's lots of fun in life yet, she thought, hearing through the opened window Darien at her usual altercation with Robertson; leaning out before Sophia drew the blinds and lit the lamp to savour the June weather hesitating yet on the edge of winter. Ploughland, straw-stacks, the harsh sweetness of gorse blossom exhaled a faint ecstasy, tinctured with wood-smoke where men were burning grubbed gorse-roots in the next paddock—since sturdy gorse (like the sturdiness in all of us) continually refuses to stay within set bounds. The poplars she and Darien had planted twenty years ago were a row of golden candlesticks before the flaming altar of the West; Nature making her own oblation to her God….
“I really think I had better shut the window, Tiffy,” said Sophia, anxiously. “Night air is so harmful, and perhaps you will make the toast for tea….”
“I was just wanting a burnt offering,” said Tiffany, going to do it. After all, what oblations do most of us offer except to our stomachs?