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Chapter VIII. — Here Comes the Duchess

page 99

Chapter VIII.
Here Comes the Duchess

“Oh, my dear paws and whiskers… . here comes the Duchess.”

—The Rabbit, in “Alice in Wonderland.”

I don't care what anyone may say, a youthful journalist whose first encounter with the vicereine of her native land is when partially submerged in a mud bath remains, for the rest of her natural life, under a somewhat severe social handicap. She feels a wild desire to shriek with mirth at inopportune moments.

To be absolutely candid, it wasn't a full-length, nudist-cult sort of mud bath, but it was quite bad enough. Lavish display of mud-plastered anatomy, in that nightmare cellar beneath the old Bath Buildings at Rotorua. And, of course, in showing Lady Alice Fergusson hither and yon among their bubbling pools and awful-looking mud cauldrons, they wouldn't dream of missing out their nearest approach to Hell. In walked she, looking very stately.… .

Years later in Wanganui she was guest of honour at an evening arranged for a very varie-gated collection of British farmers… delightful folk, they were, all talking in their own “shire” dialects to keep the unsophisticated colonial both puzzled and amused. In walked she, looking very stately… aquamarines, I remember, delicately blue as the water of cave-pools against her black gown. And, like the dormouse, my faint longing page 100 to say enigmatically “My name is Mud,” was quite definitely suppressed.

I felt much happier when I learned that as a girl, one of the Earl of Glasgow's gay young family, she broke her leg attempting to ride a cow in the neighbourhood of Auckland Government House. Moreover, when the vice-regal party paid state visits to lovely, lonesome little Opononi, on the Hokianga river-opening, she was the despair of the unadventurous, for ashore in normal fashion she would not go. She used the hawsers as a tight-rope: walked them with intrepid calm.

I wasn't the only person to feel some slight embarrassment during that long-ago visit of Sir Charles and Lady Alice Fergusson to Rotorua. Staying there at the time was a splendid-looking Samoan chief, a personage of some importance, for he was honoured by a special visit from their Excellencies. He spoke several languages perfectly, had liquid dark eyes, wore the Samoan lava-lava of blue flowered cloth, in conjunction with immaculate European garb from the waist upwards. He was receiving some treatment at the Rotorua baths, and was a great favourite with the nurses. One of them was persuaded to accompany him for a walk through the lovely public grounds on a sultry afternoon. Too sultry it proved for the handsome chief. A few yards, and he ruthlessly discarded his coat, revealing the presence beneath of nothing whatsoever beyond bronzed skin, until one came to the lava-lava somewhere about his middle. Of course, now Mr. Gandhi has broken us all in to loin-cloths, via the moving picture, but in those days we were very unsophisticated, and the nurse returned with her sangfroid a pitiful remnant of its old self.

Now, whilst everyone wants to be a journalist except the journalists (and they, poor dears, would rather be writers or, failing that, receive pay that would satisfy a navvy), I never yet have met any- page 101 one who definitely owned up that she wanted to be a social writer, gossip writer, lady editor—call the horrible task just what you please.

Of course, some of the social “buds” themselves think that writing chatty paragraphs about their fellows is one way of earning pin-money, but the trouble with the social bud editress is not merely that she can't spell, but that she has positively no small talk. Moreover, a few weeks after she has started she begins to feel the chill draught of unpopularity… and the desk thereof knows her no more.

Which explains why the “social whirl” (you must talk in cliché when writing about this depressing subject) is usually left to quite unassuming and hard-working professional women, who as a general rule like dogs and gardens, only care for talk in a discreet moderation, and at nights probably shed briny tears into their bolsters over the bitterness with which Mrs. Browne has complained to the editor on discovering her name, minus the all-important E. in the social column.

The American Consul's Fourth of July receptions are the only New Zealand social ceremonies at which I have noticed something like the Australian custom of press segregation… . and there, of course, nobody ever minds, because the main item on the programme is always a complex American dinner, pies in profusion, demanding the devil of a lot of concentration. After that there are musical items and the Star-Spangled Banner, none of which is conducive to a wild yearning for the society of your fellow-creatures.

Thing to do, should Fate definitely decree that a social reporter, in the sweat of your brow, you must be until times get brighter, is to look out for the funny side. Almost invariably there is a funny side, and if you can't see it at the moment, later you may.

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First garden party: it was 'way back in the dark ages; I was still on the Dominion, but an Auckland paper, desirous of one of those swollen circulations, had appointed a Wellington social correspondent. I was It.

Out at the Hutt, it was.… An old house, peak-gabled, dreaming in a garden whose wide green lawns were streaked here and there with copper and rose glory of zinnias. Kindly, world-worn, health-worn, the hostess looked. But in phalanxes and legions, in trumpeting droves and madding herds, down the driveway advanced the cars—long, sleek, shiny ones. It was a very important garden-party. Coates was Prime Minister then, majestic in top-hat: women drifted by, the young ones magically slim as flowers, and clad in soft, dark hues: the older ones were more interesting. But it became evident that normal procedure was to do one of two things.… If you were a man, you sneaked to the whisky buffet. If you were a woman, you sauntered to the fortune-teller's tent. A fortune-teller will go down anywhere and at any time, because whilst all women are not fools, all women are eternal optimists.

There were brighter moments even in social reporting. Always and always, the smell of macro-carpa will bring back to me an amazingly muddy autumn day, a point-to-point meeting near Marton, and the sheer good-hearted admiration with which country folk, the obviously poor ones too, spoke of “The Old Master” (one of the Riddifords).

See him coming over the last and stiffest fence .… white-haired, white-moustached, his once gorgeous canary-coloured coat mud-splashed… . But they cheer as he goes by. And I hope there will never be a day when they don't cheer someone as undaunted and upright. Laughter, good-humour, the mud-splashed horses who started out so glossy and self-satisfied… they do tend to break up the page 103 foolish little cardboard boxes in which we shut away our decency.

I don't agree with the stupid dictum that post-war youth must be inevitably in the wrong. We've something of a national inferiority complex; therefore we suppress individuality with all haste, therefore we make the same ungraceful motions to the same really hideous musical discords, therefore we all look more or less alike. (Speaking as a “social writer” of long and painful experience, I can conscientiously say that the bright young things do look to me very much more alike than would a similar number of Chinese, similarly placed.)

But I do love the old places and old things, haloed by the graciousness which was before all this inferiority complex business began.

There is a terraced garden I wrote of once (the late Sir Edward Mitchelson's, in Auckland). It may be true there is sometimes winter and bleakness here, but among late summer's roses you would never believe it, for the sunshine has settled down like a golden-winged bird. Little paths are followed past the roses, each flinging out her snare of “wild scents and subtle essences,” until you come to the bush border-line, and hear a bellbird chime far away in the pensive green caverns.…

But the place I love is the vinery. Its grapes, huge pointed clusters, are turning amber or near blood-red.… Its vines were planted in Auckland's early days, and like gnarled, roughened arms the great vines twist up the wall, coil across the glass roofs.…

“But still the vine her ancient ruby yields,
And still a garden by the water blows.”

He built and planted, made a garden that can't possibly die. If I were allowed just one sentence in which to give advice to an inoffensive grandchild or some such innocent, I'd say: “For God's sake, don't build a suburban bungalow.” For so doing is to end page 104 up by hating your neighbour as you hate yourself, if not worse.

The number of mistakes you make when writing social gossip is only rivalled by the number which you miraculously, and through no fault whatsoever of your own, avoid making. Sometimes you don't.

We're modern, and all that: yet when I rang up an Auckland lady to discover if it were truth that her husband had initiated a vogue for Highland dancing, and when she retorted blithely, “How should I know, I don't live with him?” I think a little confusion on my part was more or less excusable.

I've only once been threatened with a libel action. That, in Christchurch, came out of a clear sky. Friends introduced me to the pride of their bosoms .… a woman farmer, young, pretty, plucky, who had salvaged a bankrupt holding, vetted her own cows, brought up a family, and still looked pretty as pink may, singing old Hebridean songs at a more or less toothless piano. Heroine of the 'waybacks. … It was explained, almost with diagrams, that just like that she was to figure in a future issue of the Christchurch Sun. She did. Everyone else said it was a rather nice article, but she and a lawyer sent me a letter. My first impulse was to commit suicide: my second was to invite her to use her sense of humour, if any. That was that.

In a country town, lady editing has complications more and murkier, and you have to go very, very canny with the ultra-religious sororiety: the ones who want to prohibit everything and everyone, and who in middle life develop, as a rule, into broad-minded social workers who bring birth control memos. before women's organizations.

There was a country dance at a little place near Wanganui. It was a jolly sort of dance. That place seemed, by some skilful means, to have produced a bumper crop of really attractive lassies and lads. Their refreshment consisted of claret cup, which was in vogue in the wicked city when I was a child at page 105 school. More, the simple villagers enjoyed it. Next morning a paper, not mine, but our deadly rival, came forth with an anonymous letter which made you feel that the gates of Hell were sporting banners of welcome for those youthful dancers. If there was nothing over-stimulating in the claret cup, severely demanded the writer, why then did young girls have recourse to it? As a matter of fact, stimulants were unquestionably present: and did not this increase susceptibilities… but here the matter became so delicate that none but the pure-minded if anonymous letter-writer would have ventured to deal with it.

The boys and girls were annoyed. They tracked the writer to her anonymous lair. There were tears and an apology. She was secretary to a branch of an organization which makes “temperance” the most intemperate item on its not very well-considered programme.

I often wonder if these women have been told too much or too little about the Facts of Life.

As a matter of fact, having trailed wearily from one cabaret to another during a period of years which I hate to think about, I can't honestly say that I've seen a single youth or maiden in a condition which, were I a police sergeant, I would unhesitatingly docket as “Soused.” This though I was present at the police raid which broke up the Aero Club Ball at the Peter Pan Cabaret in Auckland a few years ago.

That occasion was rather fun. The humour was made all the more pointed by the fact that Auckland's Mayor, Mr. Geo. W. Hutchison, the one libelled during the riots by Time, and a man of most temperate habits, was among those present. He bore it manfully, but didn't look happy. Everyone, at first, had two theories: one was that the police squad was part of a rag: the other was that the police squad felt thirsty. There was much tasting of glass contents, anyhow.

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Names were taken after the raid. Only one of them, an inoffensive stranger, of male sex, was ever charged in court. But names were taken, and not all of them were those of males or of strangers.

My own opinion is that the raid practically made the reputation of the cabaret. The Police Ball that year was said to be marked by an unusually heavy mountain-dew fall.

I only ever met one Aucklander who supplied liquor in what I should describe as the grand manner to his comrades at a certain red-letter cabaret night. It was a fancy dress ball, and he made a magnificent Mephistopheles. Just as magnificent in its way was his suitcase, containing champagne, burgundy, cocktails, stiffer liquors for the menfolk. Need I add that he is not merely a newspaper man but the proprietor of a well-known Auckland periodical?

The usual thing, however, is the discreet appearance of a few cocktails which bear no slight resemblance in strength and flavour to one of those mouth-wash concoctions. The young 'uns will do anything to follow a fashion. Only God can explain how their digestions continue to fight on manfully: I don't mean against liquids, but against solids. A little cafe, all-night affair and of allegedly “Bohemian” characteristics, became highly popular. No party was complete without bacon-and-eggs, steak-and-onions, or saveloys here, in the small hours. I went once to write it up. The restaurateur liked that, and was hospitable… the hospitality taking the form of yards of steak and miles of onion. Next day I was down with a slight touch of ptomaine poisoning. I lie not, and can prove it. Well, it only increases my absolute veneration for our young people's insides.

One of the fashions which has, oddly enough, become very popular among “society buds” since the depression started is the idea of a professional career. Perhaps it isn't so odd. Many of their page 107 parents are well-to-do on paper only, and, once having curtseyed at Government House, the fledglings are kept on exceedingly short commons. Wellington started the mode. An eminent K.C.'s blonde daughter, and her friend, and now among our land's prettiest young married women, joined the rank-and-file of a large and enterprising drapery store… not quite, so it was said, at rank-and-file salaries. “The Two Marjories,” blonde and brunette, were much advertised as mannequins. Counters in the store also became more or less popular with charming lasses usually to be seen only on the purchasing side thereof. Excellent, save from the shopgirls' point of view.

Auckland now boasts society girls, some of them the children of very wealthy men, in almost every branch of trade. Auckland does not yet, however, boast any provision of the barest and commonest decencies of life for unemployed women who haven't wealthy parents to back them up.

In Auckland for a while, since my paper though illustrated boasted no camera-man: and since freelance camera-men who went forth to races invariably returned hopefully smiling and laden with pictures of the most incredible women in yet more unbelievable millinery: I was either amateur photographer or camera-man's aide-de-camp myself. Photographing women at Kennel Shows, with or without dog: photographing women in the great open spaces, on horse, partly on horse, or abruptly and entirely off horse: photographing sunbathing beauties, as nearly in the nude as might be, at Auckland bays suddenly popular with the “crowd”: it was all in the game, and some of it was amusing, though I think women should be entitled to bring libel actions about photographs just as they may about the printed word.

One of the quaintest little items of duty was visiting houses, writing them up, taking snapshots of anything from Japanese cut velvet to the unusually nude row of bronze statues boasted by one page 108 fine Auckland home in Mountain Road. These were censored even from our very broadminded pages!

It was lovely, at times: lovely just to wander down into gardens where every harshness of landscape had been conquered, and roses laughed, and great fat gold-dusted bees made themselves at home in the delicate penstemons, and sundials counted none but the happy hours.

There was a little Rima, a child with folded hands, looking down thoughtfully into the clearnes of water faintly tinted with the cool broken green of mosaic. At the very bottom of that garden is a grove of silver birch trees: they are the priestesses of the tiniest white temple place, a ridiculous little temple; no doubt its proprietors mistake it for a summerhouse. But when a thin knife-edge moon cuts through the shadows, and sharpens in silver against the delicate madder rose twigs, there can be little doubt as to what office it actually serves. Inscrutable Dian above, ringed silver birch trees and little temple below, have their own understanding.

The oldest house in Christchurch is uninhabited but still survives. It was put together with wooden pegs, because the Deans brothers, who brought out its every other requisite from their native Scotland, somehow failed to remember a little thing like nails.

Even modern “Riccarton House,” where Mrs. Deans lives with something of the stateliness of pioneer days, is seventy-seven years old. Queer little wooden steps and stairs lead down abruptly from one ground level to another. There have been Nimrods among the Deans' clansmen, and the hall is bedecked with hunting trophies—from tiger to New Zealand moose, from a wicked-looking Captain Cooker to a forlorn little black bear, who was probably having a wonderful time in the Canadian heights until he stayed too long at his blueberry patch, and the wily huntsman added him to the collection.

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Outside are the broken greens and grey-blues of the queerest old garden. It is lovely in two ways… a little with the steadfastness of green lawn and English trees, but far more with the keener, fiercer fragrances of the New Zealand bush. Between these two camps of the forest there is open warfare, and the shy native things are, alas, in retreat. The Deans' bush is the only unspoiled haven for the trees and birds of Maoriland anywhere near Christchurch .… . what little glory of trees brown-plained Canterbury ever had was ruthelessly shorn away by the early comers. But here, a little stream meandered under cream-plumed shimmer of huge toi-toi bushes, crimson-billed pukekos with thoughtful expressions waded downstream, and a dart of wings meant riri-riro, the Maori's little bird of laughter, adventuring in the sunlit spaces. Once, when the estate was larger, it had boasted a rookery. There are only two in New Zealand: when the great turnip-lantern moon glowed yellow against misty Christchurch evenings, low on the horizon, I used to pass by the big bluegum trees that shelter the rooks, and listen for the funny conversation of their black legions.

English people grow to love the native bush very dearly…… the clean poignancy of its smells, rotting leaves and trodden purple berries and tiny manuka leaves combined, and perhaps the heavy sweetness of wild honey: and the amber of little deep pools, and golden mosses under slender grey trees: and most of all the flickering companionship of the native birds, whose song is half laughter, the sweetest and clearest on earth. Coming out from his English home to die in Auckland, the old Earl of Orford would never allow cats or dogs to invade his bush-surrounded home at Manurewa. For though he was an old man when he saw Auckland first, he made friends with the native birds.

It was in Christchurch, and by accident, that I found out I was bee-immune (i.e., proof against all page 110 stings.) The path of duty led to a woman bee farmer, her abode at Rangiora. Would she give me a story about the beauty of bee-farming? She would do more: she whisked me into an ancient Ford, and drove at an astonishing speed in the direction of the farm itself. It was in a haunted orchard. Under the desolate old trees which dropped their blossom unheeded on the grass, Italian Blacks and German Browns, an ever-dancing, ever-moving Gulf Stream of bees, guarded the hives more efficiently than any ghost could do.

Afraid of bees? She treated them with a motherly mixture of severity and contempt. And to my own amazement, I found myself draped in an inadequate sort of bee-veil, but with no gloves or other weapons of defence, brushing bees from the great golden combs with a macrocarpa bough. The bees took no notice. Then, unsealing the combs, straining the honey, seeing it come up clear and dark gold… . it was all rather delightful, and I still think that to retire and become a bee-farmer is a quite dignified outlet for any woman's energies. I carried home a vasty golden comb. This was awkward. It occupied practically all the shelf-space in my tiny flat, and eat as I would, bestow it on inoffensive neighbours as I might, I couldn't keep up with its melting moments. Finally the horrid remains, done up with as much care as an inconvenient corpse, found their way into the dustman's tender care.

Manuka honey… dark, sweet, gathered by the droning wild bees whose nests are high up in rimu or manuka… . is the best of all. You can smell Australia in scented boronia, the little brown-cupped sort that grows wild. You can taste the New Zealand bush in manuka honey. They collect it and use it at Chateau Tongariro, which is an unusually discerning sort of thing for any Government enterprise.

Another occupation of some dignity and much entertainment is that of turkey-girl. The Countess page 111 of Orford was the first to set the turkeys, real and imposing gobblers as served with cranberry sauce at Canadian Christmases, in flight, so to speak, through Auckland. Her home at Manurewa was the abiding-place of a very handsome flock, great friends of her little daughter, Lady Anne Walpole. When, after the Earl of Orford's death, Lady Orford returned to England, she handed over the turkeys to an Auckland friend whose beautiful home is a sort of enchanted island, its road under the sea at high tides.

On Puketutu Island, the turkeys flourished exceedingly, and to their shining regiments were added magnificent gobblers from Canada, Indian braves in full warpaint of crimson wattles and bronze and blue chests. Turkey chicks, hundreds of them, at all stages from the incubators to the cheeky friendliness of the youngster who has discovered the world to be a pretty good place, ran the island's green dales to their own liking. I believe Puketutu Island, which grows almost everything known to the needs of man, has a corner in the turkey market hereabouts… . and deserves it, for the lady of the turkeys puts her good-humoured heart into looking after the big flocks.

There was the strawberry-finch house, in Remuera somewhere… . its mistress had begun her aviary ages ago, and lo, the backgrounds of a huge old house given up to the glory of scarlet-plumed cardinal birds, to the devotions of blue and pale green lovebirds, to strawberry finches, about as big as the toy ornaments of a dolls' house garden. Hundreds of them, and to minister unto their comfort, this house was the purchasing end of a rather quaint industry. It imported and reared meal-worms… . bird gourmandizers find them a toothsome mouthful… . . to me it seemed a very curious destiny to be born, carefully transported thousands of miles across the ocean, and raised in mealy luxury, merely that some pert hussy of a strawberry page 112 finch might be provided with an appetising morsel.

Just here and there, one finds New Zealand women who have resolutely refused to “stay put.” Whilst no doubt doing their duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call them, they do a little more into the bargain. I did like my lady gardener, the first professional one in New Zealand. Her name was Mrs. Henry Fisher; she was slender and white-haired, and she had been a private person, to wit, the wife of a schoolteacher, until something told her that she had the gardener's cherished gift, “green fingers.” She didn't start out as a fad or a capitalist. She took hedge shears and hied herself forth into the wilderness, seeking little professional tasks. In between times, she read and dreamed and planned about gardens. Now she makes them, and the ones I have seen are very beautiful…… soft colour-masses, iris and flowering creeper, shading against crazy paths or wise-looking little old sun-dials.

I have also met lady vets., lady members of the nurserymen's association, even a lady builder who had completed her own abode with the quaintest of lych gates.

It's all such a queer matter of contrasts. Lady Yule, third wealthiest woman in England, complaining bitterly of the exorbitant charges made by our Russell launchmen, more bitterly yet of the fact that her two poodles were not allowed to land either here or in Australia: sailing away, a defiant figure arrayed in gorgeous pyjamas, with the local Tourist Department murmuring plaintively about a small account not yet settled.… .

And a great house of stone in an Auckland garden, a house whose hall rose darkly through the two storeys, in the English fashion. You think that at the top of the stairs you can see a laughing, running girl in primrose, but she is only a painted ghost, a picture. The wireless is concealed in a page 113 beautiful old Louis Seize cabinet of rosewood, and spinning-wheels, dark and old as that on which La Belle au Bois Dormant pricked her inquisitive little finger, stand in unexpected corners. Upstairs there's a Turkish bath, rose and gold. Its walls are all of mirrors, rose-lighted, amber-lighted… whichever way you look, rose and golden ghosts, and round the top little painted scenes from the hunting or duck-shooting skyscapes. These things, and a home like something built by an Arabian Nights djinn, had its owner loved: he was to die before a year. It was he who effected the best long-distance job of burglar-catching that I have ever heard about. His sumptuous fishing-lodge was broken into, all its movables neatly tied up for the exit. But his supply of liquor was too temptingly good…… In the morning, the burglars, sunk in the innocent dreamless slumbers of the toper who couldn't be awakened by an earthquake, were duly discovered and captured. It was rumoured that the owner of the lodge was amused until he saw how disgustingly untidy they had left the place, then he bent his whole energies to securing them a really stiff sentence.

If society consists of a body of individuals with some real tie of feeling between them, we have no society in New Zealand as yet: there are ties of prejudice and self-interest, but of genuine feeling, no. However, there are some lovely gardens, some very nice dogs, and the sun shines here as elsewhere.