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page 133


The year wound its way into the hot Christmas weather, with a dance of heat on the fern and the harbour like milk, curdled here and there by passing boats. Major Henry, missing Jermyn, took much notice of Roddy and Tiffany, finding pleasure in enlarging their innocent minds beyond the strait limits of Peregrine and his dogmas … and all other dogmas that preached what they did not practise.

“I'm going to be a Mohammedan,” announced Tiffany, borrowing Major Henry's best rug for a prayer-carpet and sneaking down to the bush-gully to conduct her orisons among the birds. “Now I am a Confucian,” she cried, coming out of a tattered book on old China with glowing eyes. Making her soul, this intense childish Tiffany revelling with the immortals while Darien played havoc with the mortals and provoked several private duels.

Never, thought Darien, did I know anyone could be so happy. Handsome macaronis, balls, routs, kettledrums, picnics by land and water, riding-parties—Darien in a long rust-colour habit and wide hat with sweeping plumes was even bowling over Captain Lord Calthorpe, the adamantine barracks bachelor.

Very thin about the legs, little Lord Calthorpe in his tight glossy Hessian boots, and always too redolent of scent and brandy. But all the young ladies were envious, and Letitia Baizey so far forgot her pledged friendship as to call Darien an odious cat.

So what more could a girl ask to fill the days while waiting for Jermyn, who had gone to Sydney or the South Island (both as remote as the moon). I ask no more, thought Darien, snipping little curls from her abundant bright hair for fob-lockets, scattering breast-knots to be mumbled over by male lips, and contriving, despite Peregrine's niggardliness, to do with an old sprigged muslin of Sally's and a few ribbons what other girls couldn't do with a banking-account.

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She grows lovelier all the time, thought Sally, fondly peeping through her fingers during morning prayers. And indeed Darien was lovely in the clear sunlight this morning, with faint violet shadows beneath her dark-lashed changing eyes and a paler rose on the fair skin. But she felt suddenly red right down to her white ruffle when a little later she put herself in the way of Mr Lovel going for his hat.

“I have to inform you,” she said with all the majesty she could muster, “that I engaged myself to two gentlemen last night and I don't want either of them. Will you kindly tell them so?”

“Oh, Darien!” gasped Sally.

“You did what?” demanded Peregrine, really unable to believe his ears.

“Two gentlemen. Double-banked. And … and I don't know what to do with the fools,” said Darien, feeling hysterics coming very fast. “If only men knew what they look like on their knees … both knees and he forgot to pull his trousers up … don't stare at me like that! I won't have it. Your eyes are too close together. I always say so. Sally,” cried Darien, feeling the hysterics arrived, “why do you let his eyes be too close together … ?”

“Stop that infernal nonsense,” said Peregrine, almost forgetting his dignity. “Am I to understand that you accepted proposals from two of Mr Seager's guests last night?”

“They were so funny. I wanted to see how funny they could be. Men in love are always so peculiar. Oh, don't stamp. Don't. It makes you so funny to-o,” giggled Darien, collapsing into a chair and mopping her eyes.

“Oh, darling,” cried Sally, rushing with a glass of water. Peregrine plucked her away.

“Kindly leave this to me, my dear. What are the names of these deluded gentlemen, Miss Vibart?”

“Oh, not deluded, I think. A little d-drunk, perhaps….”

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“Their names, if you please … should you happen to know them.”

“Of course I know them…. I don't know Mr Milliken's Christian name, though Bertram would suit him. That fop Calthorpe has as many names as a fine puss gentleman might be expected to. Eustace Algernon Charles——”

“Am I to understand that you have accepted Lord Calthorpe?” Peregrine felt himself cooling down amazingly. No good record attached to this young sprig of the nobility who (said rumour) had been cashiered from the Hussars and squeezed by anxious relatives into an infantry regiment sailing for the colonies, the relatives promising that he would receive a handsome remittance so long as he stayed there. But few lords with handsome remittances grew on colonial bushes, and all the Auckland mammas were after this one … who must have been drunker than usual to allow himself to be caught.

But caught he'd stay now, thought Peregrine, promising to go up to the barracks and attend to the matter immediately.

“Tell him to give you that curl of mine he has in the locket with the diamonds,” said Darien, feeling herself reviving a little. “Leta Baizey is in the chased one.”

“Oh, Darien,” said Sally helplessly as Peregrine went out. Darien sighed.

“It's terrible to be a woman and say what you don't mean and be caught on the hop. I'm not half ready to marry yet, Sally. Women get nothing out of marriage … though they do get something out of engagements. Presents and envy and things.” She wiped her eyes and stood up. “Oh, dear, I wish I hadn't got in a panic. Two engagements at once would be so amusing and experiencing.”

Sally suggested that an engagement with Darien would probably be experiencing although not very amusing for the gentlemen.

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“I have no wish to amuse them … idle fops,” said Darien, beginning to tidy her hair. Since Jermyn wouldn't propose, all men were monsters. “Men are monsters, Sal-volatile, and so conceited you wouldn't believe. It is women,” cried Darien, suddenly feeling herself inspired, “who carry all the burden of this horrid pioneering. But who will go down to history as the heroes of it? Not women.”

“We … we do what we can, dear,” said Sally, bewildered.

“What we can? I should just think we did. It's only we who have made it possible. And men….” Darien (who could be shrewd enough when she chose) went on to picture men keeping voluminous diaries in order to explain to posterity how each of them had saved the country single-handed—if it should be saved, which was uncommon doubtful since they held the reins.

“And will there be any mention of women in those diaries, Sally? Not one, I'll wager. In a few generations,” cried Darien, waving her arms like a prophetess, “all the women who made New Zealand possible will be forgotten. Even I will be forgotten. And the men will still be putting up statues to each other. My diary will tell posterity the truth, anyway,” she cried, rushing off to it, while Sally put the china together with trembling hands, quite frightened at this tumbling of the gentlemen off their pedestals.

Preparing to tumble another gentleman off, Peregrine sent in his card to Lord Calthorpe who, somewhat limp in a saffron gown with green cords, was cursing his batman because breakfast tasted like hell. He greeted his visitor sulkily. “What'll you have? A chair? Brandy? Shall I send for some eggs? Gad, I must have been on the tiles properly last night. Can't remember how, though,” he added, scratching a sandy head under the gold-tasselled nightcap.

Quite prepared for this, Peregrine reminded him so page 137 clearly and skilfully that the little lord sat up straight for once.

“My eye, did I though? I must have been blind drunk. 'Ssure you, Mr Lovel, I always stop short of proposals. Promised my family … word of honour, don't y'know. Accepted me, did she? Doosed awkward, that. I thought she had more sense. Well … just tell her I was in my cups, will you? In my cups and no harm done … I hope?”

“As Miss Vibart's guardian, sir,” said Peregrine, at his stateliest, “I am entitled to ask what you mean by that. Are you repudiating an engagement which Miss Vibart in all good faith has already made public?”

“Has she, though? By Jove! Doosed awkward, that. Bloody awkward,” said Lord Calthorpe, collapsing again and staring feebly at Peregrine.

“Are you repudiating the engagement, sir?”

“Oh, no, no. By no means. Can't do that … can I? Gentleman can't … can he?” said Calthorpe, who was always discovering to his sorrow that he had been born a gentleman. “If gal sticks to it—she does stick to it? Eh?”

“Would she have announced it otherwise? I confess I am at a loss to understand your attitude, sir, when I have come to offer my congratulations on your conquest of a particularly charming lady.”

“Eh? Oh, cert'nly. Mettlesome filly…. Doosed good in you and all that. Have some brandy? I … I don't think I fell quite well,” said the little lord, pouring it out.

“Nor does she, poor child. She was weeping with excitement when I left. You know what women in love are, my lord,” said Peregrine, offering balm to go with the brandy. And the two appeared to blend so well that before he left Calthorpe had almost reconciled.

“Stops the others chasing me, eh? Won't it? 'Ssure you, sir, mammas are the devil. I scarcely dare get drunk. I'll page 138 get drunk to-night, though. No more danger, eh? Well, I can't go and call this mornin'. Parade duty. I'll be up this evenin' if she's still stickin' to it. Eh? You think she will be stickin' to it?”

“Can you doubt her?” said Peregrine, going off to interview Lieutenant Milliken. If Darien made any more trouble he'd put her in the stocks.

Milliken, being frankly detrimental, was easily managed. “I love her, sir,” he said, sadly. “But of course it was too much luck for me. I … I wish her happy. I know I am … unworthy….”

“What woman can resist a title and diamonds? Calthorpe has both,” said Peregrine, finishing a fruitful morning by presenting the Southern Cross and the Chronicle offices with a few extremely important scrawled words procured from Calthorpe, and returning to Darien who (how like a woman!) received his news in the aloof manner one might associate with queens, while Sally (who never had any sense) wept copiously.

“Well, of course I didn't really suppose he'd want to give me up, and I fancy an engaged gentleman is quite funny. Did you tell him I won't return his presents when I break it off, even if he is mean enough to want them?”

Sally, looking up timidly at Mr Lovel, saw something in his face that did not go with breakings-off and cried harder. Surely not even Mr Lovel could force darling reckless Darien into that? But Jermyn had once said that it was God's great jest to allow Adam to develop his ego before Eve appeared and he had been developing it ever since. Mr Lovel's ego spreading across the world so darkened it that it was quite difficult to fulfil her promise to Tiffany and presently beg that the child might go to school at Mrs Dupont's.

“Mrs Dupont? Who is she? Is it a School of Detention?” demanded Peregrine, remembering a Tiffany who would certainly be the better for that.

“A … a seminary for the daughters of gentlemen, just page 139 opened in Commercial Bay. Lady Martin is sending her daughters…”

“I should not dream of it. A girl has no need for tuition outside her home. A blue-stocking in my family? No, I thank you. Let Tiffany learn to do her duty by her parents and her brothers and she will, I hope, later do her duty by her husband and her children. I very much dislike publicity for females,” declared Peregrine, still smarting under Darien's publicity.

He took a turn through the room, glancing at Sally sitting so quiet in her pale flowing muslin with that decorous little cap on her bent head, and an unexpected rush of thankfulness went through him. “If she grows up like you, my dear, I shall be well content,” he added more kindly. “And Caroline don't mean to send her girls, you know.”

Caroline had sniffed at Mrs Dupont. But that, according to Major Henry, was quite understandable since Caroline would certainly find preventing education so much easier than educating herself up to the girls' possible standard.

So Sally said, “Yes, Mr Lovel,” and went to tell the bad news to Tiffany, who ran straightway down to Major Henry and became a Buddhist.

“How many more religions are there?” she asked, seriously doubting if any single religion would be enough comfort just now.