To Sally, whose often bewildered blue eyes so generally had to see life through the eyes of others, this Wellington life in the golden 'seventies was difficult to compass. Everybody seemed rich except herself—who couldn't even send pretty clothes to Tiffany's babies. Everywhere she saw her friends ceasing to cut down their husband's trousers for the boys and ordering fine broadcloth by the dozen yards; and candles were simply rampant on dinner-tables, and the new Government House on Lambton Quay was lit up all over almost every night. Yet the more money Mr Lovel had (and Jermyn said he was very rich) the less he liked to part with it. How wonderful it would be, thought Sally, walking past the shops with Mr Lovel, to go in and buy hundreds of yards of grenadine and tarletan and lovely useless things for Tiffy, and Noah's Arks and leaden soldiers and … oh, everything else for Tiffy's little boys.
Jermyn was rich too. Roddy (who had gone away, as far as America this time) said Jermyn's rooms at the Queen's Hotel were palatial and he must be making a pile out of his scribblings. It always hurt Sally when Roddy talked of Jermyn's “scribblings,” although she didn't like them herself so well as she used to do. I suppose I'm growing old, thought Sally, who had never looked for faults in any but herself.
Faults were assuredly the last thing a rising man should look for in himself, thought Jermyn, taking his mail at the crowded post-office, when the English boat came in and returning to his “palatial rooms” to be very grave over it for a long time. So many bouquets the mail page 423 brought him (and they were increasingly pleasant). And something else it brought, about which he must consult Sally. But she can't expect me to do otherwise, he thought, and then felt a twinge of shame. All her life Sally had never expected enough … and so that was what she had got, for the world goes like that. And since the world is the only thing that matters one felt sorry for Sally.
He moved about the sitting-room, where he kept up a kind of celibate elegance in spite of Victorian land-ladies; stood critically before the long narrow mirror in its gilded frame. At fifty-odd he didn't look within ten years of it. No grey yet in the loose fair waves of hair; few wrinkles round the brown eyes, which had not lost much of their light; a figure slim and graceful still (only he could be aware of a faint stiffness); an interesting face, with the mouth barely sagged at all; an interesting personality….
Quite unknowing that he was trying to see himself in the eyes of the presenters of all the bouquets, Jermyn took his malacca cane and grey doeskin gloves, cocked his tall hat at its usual angle and went out to call on Sally. I hope to the Lord she won't cry, he thought. Oh, the terrible strength of woman's weakness. Yet, but for her, he might have married long ago; been tied neck and foot, instead of being free to take this great chance now offered to him. After all, he had something for which to thank Sally, poor wretch, he thought, Mr Pepys's tag coming easily to his mind.
Wellington (who never forgot that her motto was “Suprema a situ”) was looking very conscious of supremacy and prosperity, with the little waves sparkling all across her great harbour set like a cup at the bottom of bush-hung hills. There were wreaths of white manuka, flashes of golden gorse on the hills, and quite a display of bunting on the big and little craft nosing against the black wharves. Streets were like corkscrews and houses like birds'-nests, all jaunty in the sun; and comfortable citi- page 424 zens going about their business were eager to greet Jermyn, who had been such a power in the papers before he refused to report any more of these fantastic parliamentary doings. Besides, as a gentleman whose books are not only read but bought by England, this little colony couldn't expect him to waste more time on her.
Perfumed notes (often on coloured paper with lace edges and occasionally a coronet) told him by each English mail of A Summer's Day or Young Lovers lying (bound in white vellum) with Mr Moore's “Melodies” and Mr Tennyson's “Poems” on the thick plush covers of centre tables in drawing-rooms, of the quantities of fair eyes weeping oceans over his heroines, the quantities of palpitating hearts that could be made happy for ever by his autograph. At first the caustic Jermyn in him revolted (though curiously pleased); had felt that a few blunt letters from males might supply a robuster stimulus. But he never got them, and the perfumed notes were so charming, and the cheques sent by his publishers so large….
So now Jermyn wrote for the dear ladies; gaining his knowledge of them at the bread-and-butter dances, very popular while Parliament was sitting; at archery meetings and croquet-parties and while riding on the hills behind Kelburn, in drawing-room tête-à-têtes, where females, discovering in him a mellower flavour than the harsh colonial vintage, continued crowning him until he now walked naturally like a conqueror.
Like a conqueror he came to Peregrine's bijou residence, where Sally's verbenas met him with a scarlet blush; and oleanders, arum lilies, roses, and little eager daisies handed him on with ripples of humility to the chintz drawing-room, in which Sally had so few of the fashionable baubles to fill her soul with, as other ladies did.
What does she fill it with, he thought, laying stick and hat on a side-table, looking round, delicately drawing page 425 off his gloves. On the mantel was a silver frame in which Jerry was grouped with his wife and baby in fashionable attitudes; another of Roddy, more Don Rodrigo than ever in wide sombrero and a cloak. Such a mess Roddy had made of his life, wandering everywhere when he might have written songs to live in white vellum covers on ladies' tables.
Frowning at Roddy, Jermyn did not hear Sally coming in, and so she stood a moment to control that little jump of the heart his presence always gave her. Mr Lovel was growing more like these new hard black steel nibs every year; yet Jermyn was continually more suggestive of a quill pen with a large bright feather writing in ever looser-flowing lines. I do think such silly things, thought Sally, feeling that this rather placid, rather florid Jermyn was really handsomer than ever—if you didn't remember a tragic Jermyn burning up with tempestuous brown eyes, tilting with sharp lance at all the trickeries and negations.
Jermyn turned, and his smile had a slight constraint. Sally's panniered gown of blue-and-buff checked alpaca was in the mode, and so was the ruffle at her white throat, and the little black silk pocket hanging from her waist; but she contrived to impart to them a kind of simplicity, a childishness which was so much the essential Sally that he was finding it increasingly hard to meet. Yes, assuredly she would cry….
“Oh, Jermyn. Is the English mail in? Did you hear about your book?”
“Certainly. I have heard a great deal. I have some letters and critiques to read you.”
“I'm so glad. Wait till I get my sewing. Wristbands for Jerry, his wife has so little time,” she explained, setting out the mother-of-pearl inlaid workbox, the little gold thimble, the embroidery scissors, the emery pin-cushion shaped like a strawberry. Roddy (extravagant boy) had had the thimble made from the first gold he got in Southland; Tiffy had sent the scissors (receiving a penny in page 426 exchange so as not to cut love); the strawberry was from Jerry. In some way it was easier to meet Jermyn's extraordinary correspondence, which pleased him so surprisingly, when supported by her children. “Now I'm ready,” she said, sitting (this simple Sally) sheer in the light from the window, which showed the grey in her hair, the delicate wrinkles round eyes and mouth.
“H'm,” said Jermyn, clearing his throat. “About twenty epistles from admiring readers. You won't want to hear them.”
“Of course I do.” Since Jermyn had apparently brought them he must not be disappointed, though Sally did wish some of the readers would find in Jermyn's books what must be there, even if she were not clever enough to find it herself … some reverberation of the tempests that had claimed him, some effluence of the spirit that compensates for all things, something of the sorrow and the conquests that she and he had shared.
But he seemed satisfied; so let him read them with his beautiful intonation, let him pause impressively on sentences that made her want to laugh, let him look up at the end of each of the turgid things for applause.
Oh, Jermyn, I don't understand, she always wanted to cry. Surely you can't like all this? But since he seemingly did, it must be Sally who was stupid, as she always was. These English ladies must know so much better than a Sally who had never been anywhere or done anything. “Oh, Jermyn, how vastly she does admire you. Oh, isn't that nice? I liked that bit too, Jermyn!”
At last Jermyn put the perfumed envelopes away and took out a long document like a will or something. “From my publishers,” he said.
“Oh, what do they say? It is sure to be very nice,” cried Sally, so glad to get rid of the sentimental ladies.
Jermyn got up and leaned against the mantel where he read the document right through without stopping, even to “Your obedient servants” at the end. When he page 427 stopped, his voice seemed to go on echoing in the quiet room as Sally had heard it echoing in her heart for over thirty years. She waited for it to cease. Perhaps presently it would really say something….
“Well?” said Jermyn, rather impatiently.
“Oh, Jermyn, how wonderful!”, (Even her lips knew by now what he wanted.) “Of course you must go. How much they admire you.”
“You see how it is?” He was moving the mantel ornaments about with his long fastidious fingers, never looking at her. “Now I have got my public, I must keep it, and there is no way of doing that but by getting into touch with life of the present day. Period work—as I have just read you—is going out of vogue. Unless I go to England I shall not keep my fame … and that my publishers think it considerable is clear by the terms they offer me.”
Were these pretty scented notes, these underlined gushings fame? Sally supposed so. Gentlemen (she would never get rid of that belief) knew so much more than women. Fame—any kind of fame—must be the proper thing for gentlemen to strive for. Even Mr Lovel was famous now, and only Sally knew how cross he got if his claret was not properly mulled.
“Why, Jermyn, of course you must go to England and be famous,” she said.
“I … I regret … naturally … leaving you …” muttered Jermyn, moving a vase of flowers in front of Roddy, whose smiling eyes had been such a help.
“But I shall be so proud. Oh,” cried Sally, openly dabbing her face since he saw the tears, “I'm only crying because I'm so proud. It is wonderful. You are being wasted out here.”
“I have always felt that.” He was conscious of a slight disappointment. This parting would make no sort of scene in a book. Not that he would ever have used it, of course, but an artist naturally assimilates everything.page 428
“Perhaps … some day you might come to me, Sally.”
Sally knew she was not very clever, but she had wits enough to meet that.
“I never could. Don't think of it. Think of all the fine ladies you'll be meeting. Those who write to you, you know. You ought to marry them … I mean one of them. They could help you so much. They understand.”
Did they? Did they understand as she did this Jermyn who, for all his cleverness, knew so little of women that the bits of her he was always putting in his books were only the superficial Sally, her silly little ways and sayings, the muddles she made of things. But of course, as a gentleman, he could not write about a Sally struggling always towards Eternity … especially as he didn't believe in it. So many years since last the glad trumpets had sounded in Eternity for Sally. Yet (in spite of the gushing ladies) she couldn't help hoping to find Jermyn there. He was smiling now, looking pleased.
“Well, they do seem to understand, don't they? The letters they write…. I am vastly beholden to them. As an artist…. But we shall always be good friends, Sally?”
“Oh, yes.” They had been good friends for so long now. The lover Jermyn had been gone for so long now. “Always good friends, Jermyn.”
Peregrine came in, and for once both were glad to see him. Sally ran for wine and cake. Mr Lovel always liked wine and cake for his guests, and Jermyn was a guest now. “Jermyn's going to England,” she cried. Anything would be easier than hearing him say it.
“Probably you are better out of this country,” said Peregrine, sitting down stiffly. “Not claret, my dear. I would prefer Burgundy.”
Burgundy (he felt) gave just the extra fillip necessary to a man who, having lived through the tumults of 'seventy-five and 'seventy-six, was finding this year of 'seventy-seven almost too much for him. It was surprising page 429 that parliaments could continue to show such unabated and alarming energy.
“How is Grey?” asked Jermyn, sipping his wine with relish. The simple comforts of humanity are so necessary after scenes with women.
Grey, said Peregrine acidly, was behaving as might have been expected of a person who had left gardening on Kawau Island to fling himself into politics as a private member in order to fight against the abolition of the provinces. “A dozen provincial parliaments kept up by a population of four hundred thousand. Ridiculous. Naturally they had to go,” he said, staring into his glass as though he saw the provinces drowning there like flies.
“Certainly getting rid of them has made the central parliament more powerful,” agreed Jermyn, yawning a little. These colonial mare's nests were less than nothing to a man with his feet already setting on larger ways.
And Sally had once actually suggested that he should write about New Zealand. There is nothing to write of, he had told her. No history, no tradition, nothing of the least importance to anyone outside itself. England takes not the slightest interest in all her little rag-tags of Empire, he had told a Sally asking if they couldn't all be joined together in one large splendid cloak. You did write about her once, said Sally, who would never understand that young men will be foolish and waste their powers.
Peregrine continued: “Representation by provinces merely made bedlam. One might have only one hundred members and another sixteen hundred. How could any central parliament possibly adjudicate all their wants? Scandalous nonsense. But Grey is an old woman.” Thus he disposed of the provincial parliaments as he emptied his glass, and ignored the impassioned eloquence of Grey, who had made history by forming New Zealand's first Opposition and was still scampering up and down the country making speeches … which was more than indecent in a man of nearly seventy.page 430
“I wonder why old women are always thought to be so stupid,” murmured Sally, but the gentlemen disdained to reply to anything so obvious.
Peregrine said: “It is well we have Atkinson as Premier.” (Since you weren't chosen yourself, thought Jermyn.) “Naturally he got his following through his wartime service, and possibly at this juncture he can do more for the country with his plain bluntness than another with Grey's brilliant rhetoric.”
“We haven't such another.” Jermyn got up. All those dainty missives to be answered, as well as the publishers…. But Grey and his Opposition had done something. Besides rousing Auckland to the extent of wanting to go to war under them, they had scotched the religious side of the new Free and Compulsory Education Bill. So schools were to be entirely secular, and Peregrine's eyes became quite glassy with fury when he spoke of that. To a man who read morning prayers every day of his life, and would (one felt) even if there were no more than a canary-bird to listen, secular education was Grey's crowning crime.
“An eternal disgrace to any country. No prayers to open the schools with. Purely a vendetta of revenge against abolition. I always suspected Grey.”
Yet you upheld him for long enough, thought Jermyn. Peregrine would always uphold governors and parliaments, no matter what their colour.
“He's a great man, though. He fights—and how he fights—for what he believes in,” said Jermyn, going away with his courteous good-byes, his kind smile to Sally. Always friends, eh? it seemed to say and a something not quite dead in Sally nearly cried: No, no. Enemies is better than being friends for you and me, Jermyn. Friends so often forget each other….
“I have papers to look over in the library,” said Mr Lovel. “Pray see that I am not disturbed, my dear.”
To Sally it seemed that this quiet room could never be page 431 disturbed again, never be anything but empty again. She took up her sewing; but the light was fading too fast for fading eyes. “I must get glasses,” she murmured, going to pick a dead rose out of the silver vase on the table. Such a pity all lovely things must die….
Jerry, having married Miss Clara Scott in Christchurch, had had no need of Darien's ministrations there. But since she had refused to turn out of Bendemeer, she consented to build him a cottage nearer the river, where he was very happy planning the great mansion which was to be another Lovel Hall some day. Already he and Clara had decided on the number of rooms and the width of the veranda; and meanwhile she had her baby, and he had his work on Bendemeer … which had expanded amazingly since England's great loan flooded the country with present and prospective wealth.
Fate, having been niggardly with this new land for so long, now tried another game on it. Lifting the cornucopia to her shining shoulder she poured out riches in such bewildering floods that everybody wondered what they had been about to think they had had enough before, and plunged so swiftly into spending and speculation that one almost heard the splash.
Of course we can never have enough, declared the gentlemen, hurrying to buy from the provincial governments, before they were abolished, any amount of land at £2 the acre, with no restrictions other than the childish one that the sale must not be for less than twenty acres. A monstrous useful restriction, that, considered the gentlemen, planning their new blocks with everywhere nineteen-and-a-half acres between, which (since they couldn't be bought) presently became absorbed in the blocks already bought. In Canterbury all the big stations were increasing, and immigrants coming with a few hun- page 432 dred pounds in their pockets were quite squeezed out. The small man is a danger. How can any hand-to-mouth settler establish first-class breeds of sheep and cattle as we can, said the English county gentlemen, conscious of their duty to New Zealand, of new county families already opening eyes and mouths with infant cries.
To Darien this new game of piracy was the best fun yet; and she went to it with such gusto that Bendemeer soon had blocks stretching away to the foothills, where thousands of succulent snowgrass acres were gradually coming under the hoof; and sheep, cattle, and horses roamed where they would until the mustering time. Many station-owners increased their land by mortgage. But Darien paid in bags of gold, and let everyone know it, for the same reason that she had had the covers of her brood-mares fitted with silver chains and “Bendemeer” done on the outer gates in gilt studs.
“I'll wear gold studs in my nose if I like. I can afford it,” said Darien, keeping a watchful eye on fencing-gangs at work in the blazing sun, on the deadly mischief of the nor'westers, the biting southerly busters that brought the snow. “Be careful with those survey-pegs,” she ordered as the low sod walls rose on the level tussock, to be sown later with gorse and protected by shining wires until the gorse grew. Already many fences were high enough for good jumping; so these gentlemen riders of the Plains put their heads together, establishing kennels for drag-hunts, since there were plenty of weka-birds and imported pheasants and quails but no foxes.
Andrew declared that we must import hares. But meanwhile drag-hunts were excellent fun; with men, women, and children all following somehow, and uproarious evenings at Durdans, at Bendemeer and elsewhere, and no end of Witney blankets for a sleepy man to roll himself in on the floor when all was done.
For Janet hunts were a combined ecstasy and anguish, for hidden wire in the fences trapped many and somer- page 433 saults were common. But gentlemen looked so gallant, so well-turned-out on their well-bred horses, and the master in his green coat she would never forget-until there was another one next year. With her slim girlish body of eighteen and a mind as near eight years old as Linda could manage it, Janet would have been a continual danger to young men if she had been less shy.
Sophia was Janet's greatest comfort at these times. Sophia, who had come to cook and be bullied by Darien when Major Henry died, was always interested in the gentlemen, though she said it was their souls, while Janet was so innocently interested in their bodies.
Since these were the spacious days, a good twenty men and several women crowded into Bendemeer one evening when the hunt was done and the red frosty sunset gave place to the great red fires. All the Plains stations kept full larders of chines of beef, hams, legs of mutton, endless bacon, and eggs for hungry men; all sideboards gleamed with bottles, and beer-barrels were continually full. So Darien fed her horde; and the men ranged where they would, and the women sat and talked over the fire with skirts drawn up…. Tiffany and Darien, Jerry's jolly Clara, and Sophia, whose cap and shawl Darien had long since stuffed under the copper. If you can't be good in a tartan gown and those sausage-curls I bought you in Christchurch, you can be wicked, said Darien. I'd rather you were anyway.
But since Sophia couldn't be wicked even in false curls she warmed her toes and thought of her curios while the others talked and laughed. Darien had been so kind in giving her an outhouse for her curios, and there they lay in rows on the shelves—Maori axes and deep-grooved tops that sounded the high whining note for the tangi when you spun them, paper-weights with snow-storms inside, and glass candlesticks an inch long, a kaleidoscope where bits of coloured glass fell into different designs, scraps of kauri gum, shells carved into cameos, Maori mats page 434 and poi-balls…. My collection really is beyond price, thought Sophia, who intended to have it priced some day and give all her ensuing wealth to the Chinese missions.
The men came in, and there was a deal of laughter and joking, and Sophia went to bring great jugs of cocoa topped with cream and huge thick slabs of currant cake while Tiffany lay back among cushions, watching Brant being as intent as anyone else. So intent on all he did, this man she loved. So incredible that her wild self should love Brant with his close instincts of the English county gentlemen, his bringing up of their two boys in English ways … with nurseries, and coming in for dessert, and cricket-balls already in their little hands, and an English public school in prospect by and by. Like Frank Crofts and everyone else, Brant was setting out to raise an English county family on the Plains … and Tiffany laughed and let him, knowing that her own battle ran so much deeper than that.
The Englishman's harem instinct was near as strong in Brant as in papa … or in that Caesar whose wife must be above reproach. And though his innate justice always tempered it with courtesy, that wouldn't help much if ever he knew that she had been what he called a fallen woman. What with the exquisite terror of that knowledge and the expectation that careless Darien might any day let it out, Tiffany felt herself living in glorious insecurity from day to day and was conscious that she had found a proper method of combating dullness. Without that fear she would undoubtedly have fought Brant … who didn't know how lucky he was.
About her the talk jumped from sheep to fishing, to the paradise duck which gave such good shooting, to the tentative crops now appearing on the Plains, and back to the sheep by which they chiefly lived. “I'll show you my purebred Saxon merinos to-morrow,” promised Darien, who had just imported them from Germany. “None of you page 435 have anything to touch 'em. Wake up and sing something, Tiffy. You're not earning your keep.”
Chorus-songs where everyone could shout were best after so much cake and cocoa, and the gentlemen did so well with “John Peel's” tally-hos that Darien clapped her hands. “I do love noise,” she said.
All a little crude and colonial, thought Brant Hutton, but we will better it in time. Tiffany (he felt, watching her so vital and gay at the piano) was already bettered. At times I could almost think her English, he thought, gratefully bestowing the highest praise he had.
For those men who stayed all night there were mattresses and chaff sacks on the big-room floor, while Tiffany slept in the second bed in Sophia's room. But there was not much sleep in it, with Sophia bringing her pale scared eyes close to whisper about Linda's Prue. “I fear she's in love with one of our station-hands. A gentleman,” said Sophia, very impressive.
“Nonsense, dear. She's only seventeen.” Sophy was always fearing something.
“Every girl is in love at seventeen. Over and over. But there are no gentlemen like those splendid officers in these days,” sighed Sophia.
“If you'd said Janet, now….”
“Oh, she's never out of it, though Linda won't let her talk to men, and I do teach her hymns about ‘Brief life is here our portion and men were deceivers ever.’ But Prue never has before, and Bethune is a gentleman though just a tramp Darien picked off the road,” said Sophia, looking so dreadful in a red flannel dressing-gown and all her false curls off that Tiffany shut her eyes.
Quantities of tramping swaggers of all classes since the Westland gold-fields were no longer doing what they should, and every station-owner gave orders to his hut-cook to feed two nightly, though if there were more they had to ask at the house. Bethune, it appeared, had asked at the house, and Darien, liking his manner, had given page 436 him a job at the fencing. “She enjoys bullying gentlemen,” said Sophia, feeling how often Darien mistook her for a gentleman. “And Prue is always riding over with messages from Linda, who never troubles to come herself.”
Linda, as Tiffany knew, rarely troubled to do anything now that her daughters were old enough to do it for her. Even Caroline had been turned over to the girls, who were so dutifully busy from dawn till dark that one would have marvelled they could think of love, except that it seems indigenous in everybody. For most women, thought Tiffany, sons soon become individuals; but daughters often remain merely projections of themselves, specially invented to receive all the knocks. Linda's daughters were those parts of herself which she projected in vicarious sacrifices … and if she could help it they would never be anything else.
“I'm glad you told me, Sophy, dear, and I'll ask Linda if she will let Prue stay with me for a while. Don't speak to anyone about it. It would only make trouble.”
Lying near the open window while Sophia slept with a flannel petticoat of silent protest round her head, Tiffany thought how Prue had always been one of the rebellious Lovels, belonging to this new land as her father and mother did not; for Linda proudly talked of being English-born, neglecting to mention that she had been weaned by a goat on the voyage out. It has given us colonials such a false idea, thought Tiffany. Trying to adapt all the old hidebound beliefs and traditions to our new outlook and surroundings, and making such a muddle of both. We should have started at the beginnings, before man had so overridden nature with art….
But of course we couldn't with so much against us. Those who heard the voice of the new land, which is the sweet wise voice of the Ancient of Days, were helpless against authority. And so in time they ceased to hear; and the methods of what Roddy called English-and-water page 437 went on … sheltered old-world teaching in an unsheltered land….
Jerry (who had learned men in eight years of war) had known Bethune's type at once when meeting him tramping across the paddock with his swag. Here was one of that mysterious wandering gentleman-army which scribbled French, Latin, and even Greek on the whare walls when halting for the night before going on among the other vagabonds now infesting the Plains. Jerry could read the stupid, plaintive, and often foul scribbling of thieves and gaol-birds and other passing shadows; but he couldn't read the Greek and Latin, which, said Hutton, was as well. “All damned souls, these) gentlemen tramps,” said Hutton, and Jerry was always tender with damned souls.
“Come far?” he asked pleasantly, reining his horse in.
“Buckingham Palace. Oxford before that,” said the man, looking up with a faint grin on his thin tired face. Jerry offered his pouch without patronage. He looked Oxford anyway.
“Have a pipe with me? Jolly cold, isn't it?”
“Thanks.” Those trembling hands lighting up were too eager, told too clearly how long the privation had been. “God! That's good. Any chance of a job? I'm set for a month … more if you can hold my cheque back.”
Drink, of course. But they wanted fencers. Jerry said: “Go up to the house and ask for Lady Calthorpe. Say Mr Lovel sent you. What's your name?”
“Bethune … among friends. In gaol or the Salvation Army, I'm Smith.”
Shameless? Or more likely so eaten by shame that he had to flaunt it at everyone. I hope Darien takes him, thought Jerry, riding on round the sheep cropping frozen turnips in the road-paddock. Ploughing was still timid on the Plains since the nor'wester had a way of getting under page 438 the furrow and lifting all the earth into the next paddock. But horses must have oats and barley, and sheep must have winter feed. And with wheat the price it was everyone was defying the nor'westers. Bendemeer had six hundred acres in wheat this year. Shelter-plantations and fences are helping a lot, thought Jerry, feeling very friendly to the sheep. Their sharp clattering hooves and little grating coughs gave them a queer faint personality.
Darien had taken Bethune and, because she firmly refused to give him his cheque, he had stayed on through the hunting-weather, the windy spring, and into shearing-time, becoming so vigorous in the process that, despite his tiresome gentleman-ways, the men liked him to work with. How he had first met and talked to Prue he didn't remember. Probably he had been mending a gate and thinking of another woman when she rode by, pausing to ask a question.
Such questions she asked, this sleek-haired girl with her long eyes full of fire and wonder. So famished for knowledge that she would take it from a tramp. Good Lord, what are her folk about to let such innocence and ignorance run loose, thought Bethune, talking with Prue while digging post-holes near the Durdans boundary, or clearing a slip on the river-cutting where sheep were driven for water, or strolling after the day's work beside a gum-plantation, as the long evenings drew on.
Prue, slipping off for a lonely gallop when she could avoid her sisters and her duties, found her head filling, from Bethune's talk, with wonderful entrancing affairs. Bugles calling and kilts swinging on the heights of Stirling Castle, knights fighting in the steep Perugia streets until the cobbles ran with blood, Don Quixote wandering with his white floating hair, scraps of the romance languages wherein Petrarch sang of Laura, Roland shouted to his men before he blew his horn, D'Artagnan diced and laughed, the lovers of Seville went wooing….
“Tell me more of Spain,” commanded Prue, who only page 439 needed fan and mantilla to be Spain herself. So Bethune told her of the Alhambra gardens where the little fountains and the nightingales sang the warm night through, and of the towers upon the walls, each haunted by the languorous amorous ghosts of some fair lady waiting in solitude for her Moorish lord.
Yet Prue had the strong crude fibre of this land in her too, telling him how ashamed he should be of remaining a station-hand when he knew so much….
“Perhaps I am ashamed,” said Bethune, straining up a wire to the post.
“Go away, then,” said Prue, finding the words stab her heart.
“With a big cheque? I'd be in gaol in a week. I drink, you know.” He straightened up, looking at her under his dark brows, pleased to see her painful flush at his brutality. But she met him fiercely.
“Any man should be able to control himself. I'm learning to, and I'm just a girl.”
“That's why. You haven't been tempted….” He watched her. Soon he would tempt her … and she'd prove no stronger than another. “You don't have to find your comfort in mental saturnalias, Miss Prue,” he said, gathering up his tools and going on to the next post, while Prue rode home, her mind gloriously tapestried with the loveliness of the ancient world.
Now shearing, that sacred imperious festival of the year, was coming to the Plains, marching station by station towards the hills, and wherever it reigned at the moment men left their daily affairs to serve the sheep. Even the fencers left their work and wrought in the yards, thrusting and beating long lines of grey panting bodies up the race with manuka-boughs and forebent knees. Hut-cooks had two helpers, and several fresh-killed sheep hung daily page 440 on the gallows by the killing-pens. Dogs barked in dozens and fought in couples for the entertainment of their masters through the long hot evenings, and sheep cried day and night, as unhappy in their new white agility as they had been when gasping under the heavy weight of fleece. Each fleece was a golden fleece in these good days, and each ear of wheat was a grain of gold, and Darien, standing with Tiffany in the door of the Bendemeer shed, said no more than everyone else was thinking.
“Soon I'll be rich beyond the dreams of avarice,” said Darien. Even those who had mortgaged up to the hilt believed that they would too. This great aristocracy of the hills and Plains was no more than beginning to arrive at its own.
Tiffany had ridden down from Peak Hills with Hutton, come to try if he could get the shearers next. “Crofts is after them,” Darien told him. “But they may take you instead because yours is the bigger shed.” Somewhat touchy and high-handed, the shearers, coming often in numbers from Australia, working their way south through the New Zealand sheds. Hutton would speak to the leaders when work was done, but now he was watching the wool-classer at the long table. A good wool-classer was the kind of gentleman for station-owners to go on their knees to.
“Come on,” said Darien, moving forward. Tiffany hesitated. This dear man of hers did try so hard to keep her like an English lady. If only he knew all that I do know about things, thought Tiffany, finding continual humour in her daily struggles to be as ignorant as Brant thought her, finding endless stimulation in the high risks she had taken. Despite all their efforts (and Brant would try loyally) nothing could re-establish his belief in her as the perfect woman if he should know fully what had been between her and Dick Sackville. Brant, like any other English gentleman, demanded the utter perfection of page 441 purity in his wife. But, since being perfect was a little dull at times, she followed Darien into the shed.
“That second Maori is ringer this year,” said Darien, looking down the dim broad board flecked with light from the little windows, with the flash of clicking blades, the gleam of steadily-moving naked arms and torsos. Like machinery those muscular arms were moving; opening up the fleece with the long straight blow, purling it away in creamy folds glistening richly with the yolk, until the fleecy came pattering to gather up the full robe, the scared stripped sheep went out through the trap, and the shearer reached into the pen for another.
Poetry in this, thought Tiffany, feeling that she would never write poetry again. Brant wouldn't like the only kind that was natural to her. But she could enjoy the beauty of those rippling muscles, those brown Maori bodies glossy as hazelnuts, the sheep with their yellow patient eyes. And she could enjoy these rich meaty smells of sheep and heated men and oil, and tar dabbed on a wound, and dust and sheep-dip from the yards outside.
Maori shearers were a poor exchange for proud Heke strutting on the Beach with his warriors behind him; for kind old Waka Nene, who had given her so many toys; for the young Hemi, who gave so much more than toys…. All forgotten now, along with the mighty pride and tradition of the chiefs. Te Kooti, last of all the rebels, had bowed now to Fate. Oblivion had come to the great fighting chiefs with the huia feathers of royalty in their hair….
“Forgive me for leaving you, dear,” said Brant, rather hurried at her elbow. “I had no notion you were in here. Shall I take you to the house?”
Tiffany went with him meekly past the clatter of the wool-press, the sharp orders of the classer, the men moving the great bales aside with iron hooks. All these lusty hasty joys were not for Brant Hutton's wife, and Darien was perhaps the only lady on the Plains who went more page 442 than once in the season to the shearing-shed. They grant us the once as a raree-show, thought Tiffany, smiling with her hand on Brant's arm. “What a dear you are,” she said, a little protectingly.
Brant patted her hand, looking away to the nor'west arch over the hills. Already the air was electric with the nor'west's dry hot breath. “I hope it won't bring the river down, darling. I'd better have left you at home.”
“Sultan swims better than the mare. I'd probably have to pull you out … why, Prue!”
Some months since she had seen Prue, whom Roddy called Andalusia … which fitted her as neatly as Don Rodrigo fitted him. But this was a wakened Andalusia whose red ripe lips kissing Tiffany seemed kissing love itself, so warm and close they were. My gracious, thought Tiffany, alarmed; surely old Sophia couldn't have been right for once. She's never right. Why should she be this time? thought Tiffany, going with Prue between the heavy scents of jasmine, the frail winy scent of little banksia roses into the long room where Sophia was clattering crockery.
“I vow you must be dying for tea,” fussed Sophia, who always felt like a ministering angel when she had a teapot in her hand. “It is such a comfort. How is your dear grandma, Prue?”
“Not very much of a comfort just at present,” said Prue, sitting on the end of the sofa like a mermaid in her close green habit. “We're short of butter, and grandma is taking it to heart so much mamma sent me over for some. Two pounds, if you can spare it, please.”
“Well, I don't churn till the morning and the shearers are eating it all, but if you could stay the night….”
“Oh, I could. In fact, I daren't go home without it. Thank you, Aunt Sophy.”
Prue's dark eyes shone. She melted into sudden liveliness, running to carry cups and cake. It can't be, thought page 443 Tiffany who, since Linda had refused to lend Prue to Peak Hills, had put the matter away as one of Sophia's mare's nests. Prue's sleek young head on its slender neck was assuredly too proud to stoop to any tramp, no matter what his Begats might be. Perhaps Linda has let a lover into Durdans at last, thought Tiffany, asking after Deb and Janet.
Janet, it appeared, had a new tune to practise and Deb a new puppy to train. And what have you got, wondered Tiffany, watching this gay Prue as Darien and the gentlemen came in. Prue, she knew only too well, was one of the rebellious Lovels, choosing to live dangerously, like Roddy, like herself. Not so many years since she had come on Prue biting her arms behind the gum-plantation, and had said in surprise: “I thought I was the only child who had ever done that.”
“It's my own arm,” returned Prue, glowering. “I suppose I can do what I like with it. It's the only part of me that I can.”
Yes, a vessel of wrath and bound to explode some day, Tiffany had thought, sitting on the tussock beside her.
But now this Prue, looking sideways with her long languorous eyes, moving with her young grace, seemed so very delectable a woman that Darien asked in her blunt fashion: “When are you girls going to be married?”
“Ask mamma,” said Prue, a little bitter.
“Oh!” Darien sat up, her strange eyes suddenly lit. “Putting spokes in your wheels, is she? I suspected it. I would have bet young Taverner was after Janet last year, but now he's got a girl in Christchurch.”
“Mamma says it's indecent for girls to talk to young men,” said Prue, so exactly prim-mouthed Linda that Tiffany had to laugh.
“You haven't arranged my marriage yet, Darien,” said Sophia, coquettish under the false curls.
“The Lord did that when he made you. Come back to the shed, you men,” said Darien, getting up.
Once at least in a long and profitable season shearers and shepherds serenaded The House and received the thanks of the Boss—with a full barrel of beer as well. It was a great and dignified rite, not vouchsafed at every station. The very air round the huts trembled to-night with excitement, and men naturally particular and men who had never been known to wash-up before now stripped and scrubbed under the tap of the big tank. And but for straying dogs eating all the soap, only heaven knew when they'd have done, thought Bethune, who had chosen to manage his own toilet in secret.
Standing presently with this rough crew he would see Prue sitting in a white gown among the ladies and gentlemen, among the little tables with their whisky-glasses, the starry jasmine-flowers … and would that teach her anything? Would she see what she was doing, or would her generous impatient heart be ready to leap the barriers then? Which do I want it to be, he wondered, watching the rouseabouts sleek their hair with foul-smelling dripping begged from the cook, watching a macaroni of a shearer busy with a pink cambric tie on his new black shirt. All these hard-working fellows, seeing a shearing through, taking their big cheques and going on to the next shed were better men than himself, who dared not take his cheque—dared not drink the beer to-night … but would!
Round him in the warm dusk was a murmuring of voices, of tunes softly sought for and repeated, of accordions getting whisperingly to work, while now and then the melody that is in every Maori throat rolled grandly out in a phrase and died away. A broken underflow of harmonies and discords going anxiously with the tramping feet in the moonlight past the young gorse-hedges golden with their bloom; past the blocks of sheds and stables and outhouses, past the gardens where the warm night page 445 was loaded with fragrance of flowers and grasses, where the pervading odour of sheep was embedded in all the other odours, like scent in ambergris.
Knowing the value of this ceremony, Robertson led with his bagpipes, while behind him the low uneasy searching for tunes went on. On the lawn he ceased and with shufflings and coughings the men spread out in a half-circle, while the leader of the shearers stepped forward, delivering the formula in a low gabble.
“Lady Calthorpe, ma'am. Me and the men thought we'd like to come and give you a little moosic, ma'am.”
“Very good of you, Chote,” said Darien clearly out of her big chair. “We're all ready.”
Prue had never heard a shearer's serenade before, and at Durdans she would have had to listen indoors behind drawn curtains. But here she unbelievably was in a long Island chair on Bendemeer veranda; with Darien and Tiffany and Clara and Sophia, with Jerry and Brant Hutton and several other men. And there were three lamps set in the open window behind. Darien receiving a serenade was not hiding her red head under a bushel. It glowed as she sat in state below the lamps, with all her diamonds on to do honour to her men.
Tiffany saw Prue's face as she leaned forward into the light for a moment. A strangely vital, disembodied Prue, as though her young soul were going off somewhere with just that pointed chin, those scarlet lips, those long and smouldering eyes. Then she sat back suddenly, and Tiffany thought, “She's seen Bethune,” and saw him herself, standing a little apart with his shabby clothes, his easy gentleman air….
Between the curtains of the roses the audience looked out, tolerantly smiling on flower-beds grown darker and sweeter, on the awkward bulks of the shuffling men. Accordions made a false start; then another. Now the harsh husky voices, the rich power of the Maoris were page 446 launched like an avalanche on the immemorial song of the shearing-sheds:
Oh, the ship she bore the name of the Golden Vanitee,
And they said she would be robbed by some Spanish rover free
As she sailed along the Lowlands … Lowlands….
As she sailed along the Lowlands, low….
In mournful monotony song followed song, with the accordions filling up the gaps, and presently Tiffany noticed that the gap beside her was no longer filled by Prue, Nor was Bethune out there in the flicker of moon-light. She slipped away hastily behind the chairs. Ignorant as Prue was she knew better than this. But Tiffany too had known better, and that hadn't stopped her when love called. Once she too had come by way of the preparing loves—sunrises, a windy sky of light, a flower, or some other immortal art of nature's wooing, and so with opening heart to meet the wooing of a man.
The orchard beyond the macrocapa fence was the likeliest place, thought Tiffany, hurrying along the path with heart in her throat. Slender shadows of young trees everywhere now … and there, where apple- and cherry-trees studded the night with frail stars, a thicker shadow stood among the long grass. At her step it parted, and Prue was gone, silent as a ghost. But Bethune stood still to meet Tiffany. Was he hoping she'd think it was a kitchen-maid he had been embracing here? She said, coldly:
“You can come to the house for your cheque after breakfast to-morrow, Bethune.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hutton.” His voice was colourless, but she had heard his gasp and pity suddenly overcame her.
“Oh, I'm sorry. But you must have known…. Why have you done this to her?”
“Why am I a man, you meant to say, didn't you?”
He made a half-laugh, a half-sneer of it, shuffling away without more words through the orchard towards the page 447 men's huts. Going back to the Salvation Army and the gaol, and boots with broken uppers, and a soul with broken pride. Tiffany went slowly up to the veranda, where Prue was in her place, lying far back with hands gripped on the sides of her chair. Establishing an alibi, the poor brave child. Oh, why are our lessons so hard to learn, thought Tiffany pityfully. The serenaders, growing breathless and thirsty for beer, sang like a dirge:
Hark, I hear the bugle call-ing.
Good-bye, Dolly Gray….