A Little Masquerade by Gilbert Parker

Story type: Literature

“Oh, nothing matters,” she said, with a soft, ironical smile, as she tossed a bit of sugar to the cockatoo.

“Quite so,” was his reply, and he carefully gathered in a loose leaf of his cigar. Then, after a pause: “And yet, why so? It’s a very pretty world one way and another.”

“Yes, it’s a pretty world at times.”

At that moment they were both looking out over a part of the world known as the Nindobar Plains, and it was handsome to the eye. As far as could be seen was a carpet of flowers under a soft sunset. The homestead by which they sat was in a wilderness of blossoms. To the left was a high rose-coloured hill, solemn and mysterious; to the right–afar off–a forest of gum-trees, pink and purple against the horizon. At their feet, beyond the veranda, was a garden joyously brilliant, and bright-plumaged birds flitted here and there.

The two looked out for a long time, then, as if by a mutual impulse, suddenly turned their eyes on each other. They smiled, and, somehow, that smile was not delightful to see. The girl said presently: “It is all on the surface.”

Jack Sherman gave a little click of the tongue peculiar to him, and said: “You mean that the beautiful birds have dreadful voices; that the flowers are scentless; that the leaves of the trees are all on edge and give no shade; that where that beautiful carpet of blossoms is there was a blazing quartz plain six months ago, and there’s likely to be the same again; that, in brief, it’s pretty, but hollow.” He made a slight fantastic gesture, as though mocking himself for so long a speech, and added: “Really, I didn’t prepare this little oration.”

She nodded, and then said: “Oh, it’s not so hollow,–you would not call it that exactly, but it’s unsatisfactory.”

“You have lost your illusions.”

“And before that occurred you had lost yours.”

“Do I betray it, then?” He laughed, not at all bitterly, yet not with cheerfulness.

“And do you think that you have such acuteness, then, and I–” Nellie Hayden paused, raised her eyebrows a little coldly, and let the cockatoo bite her finger.

“I did not mean to be egotistical. The fact is I live my life alone, and I was interested for the moment to know how I appeared to others. You and I have been tolerably candid with each other since we met, for the first time, three days ago; I knew you would not hesitate to say what was in your mind, and I asked out of honest curiosity. One fancies one hides one’s self, and yet–you see!”

“Do you find it pleasant, then, to be candid and free with some one?… Why with me?” She looked him frankly in the eyes.

“Well, to be more candid. You and I know the world very well, I fancy. You were educated in Europe, travelled, enjoyed–and suffered.” The girl did not even blink, but went on looking at him steadily. “We have both had our hour with the world; have learned many sides of the game. We haven’t come out of it without scars of one kind or another. Knowledge of the kind is expensive.”

“You wanted to say all that to me the first evening we met, didn’t you?” There was a smile of gentle amusement on her face.

“I did. From the moment I saw you I knew that we could say many things to each other ‘without pre liminaries.’ To be able to do that is a great deal.”

“It is a relief to say things, isn’t it?”

“It is better than writing them, though that is pleasant, after its kind.”

“I have never tried writing–as we talk. There’s a good deal of vanity at the bottom of it though, I believe.”

“Of course. But vanity is a kind of virtue, too.” He leaned over towards her, dropping his arms on his knees and holding her look. “I am very glad that I met you. I intended only staying here over night, but–“

“But I interested you in a way–you see, I am vain enough to think that. Well, you also interested me, and I urged my aunt to press you to stay. It has been very pleasant, and when you go it will be very humdrum again; our conversation, mustering, rounding-up, bullocks, and rabbits. That, of course, is engrossing in a way, but not for long at a time.”

He did not stir, but went on looking at her. “Yes, I believe it has been pleasant for you, else it had not been so pleasant for me. Honestly, I don’t believe I shall ever get you out of my mind.”

“That is either slightly rude or badly expressed,” she said. “Do you wish, then, to get me out of your mind?”

“No, no—-You are very keen. I wish to remember you always. But what I felt at the moment was this. There are memories which are always passive and delightful. We have no wish to live the scenes of which they are over again, the reflection is enough. There are others which cause us to wish the scenes back again, with a kind of hunger; and yet they won’t or can’t come back. I wondered of what class this memory would be.”

The girl flushed ever so slightly, and her fingers clasped a little nervously, but she was calm. Her voice was even; it had, indeed, a little thrilling ring of energy. “You are wonderfully daring,” she replied, “to say that to me. To a school-girl it might mean so much: to me–!” She shook her head at him reprovingly.

He was not in the least piqued. “I was absolutely honest in that. I said nothing but what I felt. I would give very much to feel confident one way or the other–forgive me, for what seems incredible egotism. If I were five years younger I should have said instantly that the memory would be one–“

“Which would disturb you, make you restless, cause you to neglect your work, fill you with regret; and yet all too late–isn’t that it?” She laughed lightly and gave a lump of sugar to the cockatoo.

“You read me accurately. But why touch your words with satire?”

“I believe I read you better than you read me. I didn’t mean to be satirical. Don’t you know that what often seems irony directed towards others is in reality dealt out to ourselves? Such irony as was in my voice was for myself.”

“And why for yourself?” he asked quietly, his eyes full of interest. He was cutting the end of a fresh cigar. “Was it”–he was about to strike a match, but paused suddenly–“was it because you had thought the same thing?”

She looked for a moment as though she would read him through and through; as though, in spite of all their candour, there was some lingering uncertainty as to his perfect straightforwardness; then, as if satisfied, she said at last: “Yes, but with a difference. I have no doubt which memory it will be. You will not wish to be again on the plains of Nindobar.”

“And you,” he said musingly, “you will not wish me here?” There was no real vanity in the question. He was wondering how little we can be sure of what we shall feel to-morrow from what we feel to-day. Besides, he knew that a wise woman is wiser than a wise man.

“I really don’t think I shall care particularly. Probably, if we met again here, there would be some jar to our comradeship–I may call it that, I suppose?”

“Which is equivalent to saying that good-bye in most cases, and always in cases such as ours, is a little tragical, because we can never meet quite the same again.”

She bowed her head, but did not reply. Presently she glanced up at him kindly. “What would you give to have back the past you had before you lost your illusions, before you had–trouble?”

“I do not want it back. I am not really disillusionised. I think that we should not make our own personal experience a law unto the world. I believe in the world in spite–of trouble. You might have said trouble with a woman–I should not have minded.” He was smoking now, and the clouds twisted about his face so that only his eyes looked through earnestly. “A woman always makes laws from her personal experience. She has not the faculty of generalisation–I fancy that’s the word to use.”

She rose now with a little shaking motion, one hand at her belt, and rested a shoulder against a pillar of the veranda. He rose also at once, and said, touching her hand respectfully with his finger tips: “We may be sorry one day that we did not believe in ourselves more.”

“Oh, no,” she said, turning and smiling at him, “I think not. You will be in England hard at work, I here hard at living; our interests will lie far apart. I am certain about it all. We might have been what my cousin calls ‘trusty pals’–no more.”

“I wish to God I felt sure of that.”

She held out her hand to him. “I believe you are honest in this. I expect both of us have played hide-and-seek with sentiment in our time; but it would be useless for us to masquerade with each other: we are of the world, very worldly.”

“Quite useless–here comes your cousin! I hope I don’t look as agitated as I feel.”

“You look perfectly cool, and I know I do. What an art this living is! My cousin comes about the boarhunt to-morrow.”

“Shall you join us?”

“Of course. I can handle a rifle. Besides, it is your last day here.”

“Who can tell what to-morrow may bring forth?” he said.

……………………

The next day the boar-hunt occurred. They rode several miles to a little lake and a scrub of brigalow, and, dismounting, soon had exciting sport. Nellie was a capital shot, and, without loss of any womanliness, was a thorough sportsman. To-day, however, there was something on her mind, and she was not as alert and successful as usual. Sherman kept with her as much as possible–the more so because he saw that her cousins, believing she was quite well able to take care of herself, gave her to her own resources. Presently, however, following an animal, he left her a distance behind.

On the edge of a little billabong she came upon a truculent boar. It turned on her, but she fired, and it fell. Seeing another ahead, she pushed on quickly to secure it, too. As she went she half-cocked her rifle. Had her mind been absolutely intent on the sport, she had full cocked it. All at once she heard the thud of feet behind her. She turned swiftly, and saw the boar she had shot bearing upon her, its long yellow tusks standing up like daggers. A sweeping thrust from one of them leaves little chance of life.

She dropped upon a knee, swung her rifle to her shoulder, and pulled the trigger. The rifle did not go off. For an instant she did not grasp the trouble. With singular presence of mind, however, she neither lowered her rifle nor took her eye from the beast; she remained immovable. It was all a matter of seconds. Evidently cowed, the animal, when within a few feet of her, swerved to the right, then made as though to come down on her again. But, meanwhile, she had discovered her mistake, and cocked her rifle. She swiftly trained it on the boar, and fired. It was hit, but did not fall; and came on. Then another shot rang out from behind her, and the boar fell so near her that its tusk caught her dress.

Jack Sherman had saved her.

She was very white when she faced him. She could not speak. That night, however, she spoke very gratefully and almost tenderly.

To something that he said gently to her then about a memory, she replied: “Tell me now as candidly as if to your own soul, did you feel at the critical moment that life would be horrible and empty without me?”

“I thought only of saving you,” he said honestly.

“Then I was quite right; you will never have any regret,” she said.

“I wonder, ah, I wonder!” he added sorrowfully. But the girl was sure.

The regret was hers; though he never knew that. It is a lonely life on the dry plains of Nindobar.