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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » I Walked in Arden » Chapter Two I SET OUT ALONG A NEW TRAIL
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Sunset over the Hudson after a July thunderstorm; the observation platform of a Pullman, rushing toward a new and unknown world in the Middle West—such was the first stage of the trail leading to the heart of romance. Of course I did not know this then. In fact, the beauty of the sunset was considerably marred by the thought that the day before I had seen my father off for "home," for England, while I had been condemned to indefinite exile in a lake town famous for its manufacturing; and I felt much like the hero at the end of a certain type of Greek tragedy. No one could say when I should see England again, or once more browse along the bookstalls of Charing Cross Road, or drink a glass of stout at Scott's in Leicester Square. Not high ideals to long for, perhaps—but Charing Cross Road, the Empire on Leicester Square, or the noon-hour walks in Lincoln's Inn Fields, pausing perhaps for a quarter of an hour at the Soame Museum, or venturing as far as Chancery Lane, seemed to epitomize the things for which I was desperately homesick.

It had strained my loyalty to my father to the breaking point to accept the test he had put upon me. No word, however, of my resentment, of my sullen hatred for the task, had I allowed him to guess. He had gone aboard the steamer in one of his moods of extreme optimism—business would flourish as it never had before now I was to be at the helm. I had looked ruefully at the cancelled steamer ticket in my hand and had resolved to try, but in very truth I was sick at heart. As the boat left the dock, I turned away with some boyish tears in my eyes—and they were bitter tears. I hated and loathed, at that moment, the fate that had condemned me to the new venture. The roar and clang of the streets about the docks seemed symbols of all that was unlovely, of all that stood between me and what I wanted to do—symbols of the things I was to be mixed up with, no one knew for how long. Until I made the new business a success! It was easy to say—easy even for my father to pat me on the back and speak diffidently, as he looked the other way, of his confidence in me. He had so much more in me than I had in myself! I knew my own dangerous lack of ambition—my fondness for remaining a spectator, for doffing the world aside and bidding it pass; and here I was, entrusted with his future and that of my mother and sister.

What a plague had I to do with a factory and a manufacturing town on the Great Lakes? I knew nothing of either. All I asked was the moon—London, books, theatres, and the gorgeous solitude of rummaging in an enchanted cockney world. But that world could not be had, even in its simplest form, without money, and money I had to win in order to earn my right to the moon. There was nothing I had ever felt so incapable of winning. I knew I was full of a kind of inertia that terrified me. It would not matter to fail alone in such a task, but my failure would ruin my father—and others. And the inertia, the indifference, the hatred of it all frightened me. I knew it was no mood for success; yet I did not know how to fight against it.

"Now, Ted," said a crisp voice beside me, "we reach Deep Harbor at five-thirty A. M. That will give us time for breakfast, and get out to the factory by seven—when the whistle blows."

"Good heavens!" I thought with a start, coming back to the Pullman and reality with a horrible jerk. "Seven—" but words failed me.

"You'll have a chance to glance around the machine shop and pick out a location for the testing laboratory before the office force get down. Then we can have a look at the orders on the books and start making plans."

No time to get one's breath, no chance to edge into the cold water inch by inch—the thing was to be done at once. I was to jump from that Pullman platform into the deepest, coldest part of the stream.

"As soon as we've passed Storm King we'll go into the smoker and make a rough sketch of the laboratory lay-out, so we'll be ready for them in the morning."

I thought again of the ocean liner plunging in the opposite direction, and what my father was thinking at that moment. How had he dared trust me?

"Pshaw," said my companion, reading my thoughts with startling accuracy. "The Middle West isn't a bad place. You'll soon get used to it. Of course, it isn't Broadway," he added, with a sidelong look at me, "but you'll shake down all right. What do you think of the Hudson River? Nothing like this in England, I'll bet."

"Have you ever been there?" I parried.

"No. Little Old New York's good enough for me. I like live ones—not dead ones. There's Storm King over there—can you beat it? Look at the light over it—gosh, it's enough to make a fellow feel queer."

I looked; and the latter part of his remark was undoubtedly true. The thunder clouds still hung about in broken, irregular masses, through which radiated a startling copper glow, tapering off at the upper edges into green. The mountain itself was a dark shape sharply cut against the light side, while, beneath, the river was oily brass. All that was unknown, even sinister, was bound up in fearful beauty. I could not endure it, for it really frightened me. I got up hastily. "Let's go into the smoker—the laboratory sketch," I faltered.

"Sure!—good work! Let's get down to business and cut out the scenery." His words had a most ominous connotation—like the symbolism which critics allege they find in Ibsen's plays, I thought. The result was to drive away for a moment my gloom, and I smiled at my own mental comment.

As we went forward toward the smoker, I looked more closely at my new business associate, beginning with his back, which was all that was visible now. He was severely dressed with a sort of fussy neatness peculiar to the work of American business men's tailors. His shoes shone resplendent, his trousers were creased with painful accuracy, his back was erect and smooth as a duck's. Even his hair had been severely disciplined by his barber, and on it my friend had placed, with due care, a little checked golfing cap that might have been the product of a maker of Swiss watches, so exactly did the little grey and black squares match at the seams. "Engineering efficiency applied to personal attire," I thought to myself. "His clothes remind me of those planned by the mathematicians in Laputa, except that these American mathematicians use formulae of scientific accuracy."

As we took our seats in two large wicker chairs in the smoker I couldn't resist shaking on to the left sleeve of his coat, as if by accident, a cold ash from my empty pipe. Instantly he produced a handkerchief as fine and dainty as a lady's and violently flicked at his sleeve. I murmured an apology and smiled to myself. Then he carefully drew up his trousers so as not to spoil the crease, replaced his handkerchief, adjusted his invisible eye-glasses, and produced a pencil and paper.

"Now to business!" he said.

"One moment," I interrupted and touched the bell. The coloured porter appeared. I saw my friend frown ever so slightly. My sense of humour was returning fast, as I noted how easy it was going to be to tease this deadly earnest, efficient person. "Will you have a whiskey and soda or a bottle of Bass?" I asked in an innocent, friendly voice.

"Neither, thank you. When I have business to discuss I never touch liquor," he replied, with a most meaning emphasis upon the latter half of his statement, albeit politely enough. I inwardly resented hearing Bass's ale, or whiskey and soda for that matter, described as "liquor."

"Bring a bottle of Bass and a lemonade," I said to the porter, without consulting my companion further. "You must drink something," I added by way of apology. Actually I was under the impression that sweet lemonade would nauseate a grown man, if taken so soon after dinner. I wanted revenge for that word "liquor."

"Thanks—a lemonade is just a thing," he responded enthusiastically. "It's a very refreshing drink on a warm evening. You are very kind—have one of my cigars?" and he produced a black, oily looking object named after some Spanish infanta and having about the same figure as one of those estimable princesses. Now I felt toward a black cigar on a hot, stuffy train, when business was to be talked, about as he did toward "liquor"—and the similarity made me smile again. After all, our prejudices were the same, but involved different details. The lemonade arrived, he bit his aromatic monster, puffed it luxuriously, waved his glass ceremoniously at me, and took a deep draft of the sweet liquid, copiously mixed with Havana smoke. My glass of Bass, on the way to my lips, paused, and I shuddered. I began to wish, like Hamlet, that I had tried some other plan of revenge for that foul epithet "liquor."

"Now we are all set," he announced cheerily, which was more than I was sure my dinner was, but I said nothing. "Have you thought about the dimensions?" he continued.

"Of what?" I asked, my mind still on the problem of a compound of cigar and lemonade.

"The testing-laboratory, of course!" There was just a trace of irritation in his tone. I made a guilty effort to pull myself together.

"No, I haven't. But I've a list in my trunk of the machinery we need and the floor space it occupies. It's easy enough to figure it out from that."

"In your trunk!" he said in an awful voice. "Then what's the use of talking about it tonight?"

"That's what I wondered," I remarked amiably, "but I thought perhaps you had some ideas on the subject."

I could see from his expression that I had made a bad start. His face was sharp, keen, shrewd, but not at all intellectual. His eyes were bright and beady, and I knew, as I looked at him, that, for all his alert keenness and shrewdness, he knew nothing about anything except the business he had been taught. The latter he knew with an almost ferocious accuracy. On a specific engineering problem in his own field it would be hard to match him, but on constructive ideas which involved applying what he knew to broader questions—I had my doubts. There was no imagination, no background on which to build. I began to see my father's method in picking such an associate for me. On details this man couldn't go wrong—he would keep my part of the work practical, whereas I knew I was relied upon to see in what new paths this manufacturing company could be made to expand and develop. But first I had to learn the business. Therefore, as the present arrangement stood, I was my companion's subordinate.

"I'm sorry," I said; "I didn't think we could talk business until we had seen the factory, so I put all my data in my trunk."

"Well," he laughed, "I guess we'll gradually have to get you used to hustling. Here's a whole evening we might have used, and you've thrown it away. But I can give you some good advice about your new job, anyway."

"Please do," I remarked, anxious to atone for my error.

"Ted," he went on, "I'm a New Yorker, and I've made pretty good as an engineer. I've had to make my own way, and I don't know much about fancy living, but I know a hell of a lot about making and not making money."

"What do you mean by 'fancy living'?" I asked with genuine interest.

"Well, for one thing, going around in musical comedy clothes and drinking liquor when you ought to be on the job. Do you get me?"

It suddenly dawned on me, not all at once, but little by little, that he meant me! "Musical comedy clothes" rankled most, for I did not at first catch the full force of his suspicions.

"I got these clothes in Bond Street," I protested mildly.

"I don't know where you got them, but they look it," he said.

"Now, my boy, you're going to a town where people don't understand all this fancy foreign stuff. You've got to dress the part and get down to being a plain American where you started from. You've got to cut out the booze. I don't know about women, but your clothes give the wrong idea there too."

At last the total of his suspicions penetrated, and unfortunately I suddenly shouted with laughter. I rocked back and forth in my chair in uncontrollable delight. When I at last looked up, he was smoking his cigar at a most uncompromising angle, with a hurt look upon his face.

"My dear Knowlton," I gasped at last, "I have no idea what impression I have given you, but really your last insinuation was too much for me. Like most young men of my age I'm probably engaged or soon will be—and as for the rest, you needn't worry."

"What do you mean by 'probably engaged or soon will be'?" He asked, still suspiciously, but obviously somewhat relieved at this announcement.

"I'm twenty-three—one usually finds the thing imminent at that age."

"Hell!" he replied. "This is business, not a joke. Booze and women don't mix with business."

"I've never mixed them much—even for pleasure," I retorted. "I hate headaches, and uneducated people bore me so that, be they as beautiful as Cleopatra, I can make nothing of them. I assure you I shall be perfectly safe in Deep Harbor, or anywhere else that the most ancient profession flourishes."

"I get you," he said, "and I guess it's straight all right, from all I've heard. Takes you a lot of words to say it, just as it takes you too much time to do things. But you'll get over that. Point is, Deep Harbor won't see you at all. Not in those clothes."

"They are simple country tweeds," I protested once more, for the thought that I might have to wear his kind horrified me. "My tailor is supposed to know his business."

"They don't fit, and they're loud enough to scare all the trotting horses on State Street. Don't you ever get 'em pressed? If you go sitting around in cafés drinking English ale, you'll make a bad impression. We've got to build up a new business and we've got to get people's confidence in us to do it. You can't float around town in the Middle West like you was attending a house party and get away with it. People won't think you are serious—when they don't think you are worse."

"I see," I replied. "Business, as I understand it, is so serious a thing out here that its pursuit means banishing from one's life, as a start, all sense of humour and all the little comforts and conveniences. One can have electric light, a porcelain bath, steam heat, and a bank account, but one mustn't have comfortable clothes, easy-going habits, or a genial feeling for the absurdities of solemn living."

"There you go exaggerating everything I say. No wonder you know a lot about chemical experiments—your ideas tumble all over themselves. That's all right when you've got test tubes to pour 'em into, but you got to be careful how you spill 'em around Deep Harbor. What church do you attend?"

The suddeness with which this query came at me left me floundering once more.

"Church?" I queried, as if I had never heard of the institution.

"Hell, yes—church," Knowlton replied. "Nothing like being seen regularly at church when you hit a new town. You make friends that way, and it's good for business—makes people think you steady and dependable."

"Really, I had never before considered the church in the light of a business associate," I answered, "but I can see there is considerable point to what you say. I wonder Polonius didn't think of it."

"One of those classical guys you learn about in college, isn't he?"

"Yes—you would admire immensely his advice to his son. I'll buy you a calendar with it on when we get there. It's a lot like what you've been telling me."

"Well, I guess he was a wise guy, all right, and learned the way I did—from being up against it. That's worth all the book learning there is."

"But you learned your profession from books."

"Sure I did—scientific books. You can't put them in the same class with the stuff they fill you full of at college."

"There's a science of living—and some of that is in books too."

"Well, how about church? You've got the damnedest habit of steering the conversation off the subject I've ever seen. There's only one science of living—get the stuff, then you can live as you damn please."

"Surely you don't expect me to go to church just to help business."

"You mean to say you don't go to church at all?"

"About that. Once in a while to a cathedral—when I want to think or dream, and there happens to be a cathedral handy, or else to some little quiet parish church that I'm certain beforehand has an eleventh century smell."

"I'm a Presbyterian," he announced stoutly, as if I would dispute him, and bit off the end of another impossible cigar. "Everybody ought to be something." He had ignored my cathedral reply.

"True," I said, "but why Presbyterian when one might choose so many other things to be? Aren't they the people who believe something dreadful about babies?"

"My father was a Presbyterian—he was an old Scotch engineer and went to sea for forty years. I've always kept up what he thought, for no one ever got ahead of the old man—not much."

So this man was an idealist down underneath all that hard, surface veneer of remorseless business! It was quite obvious that the old Scotch engineer had not laid up treasures for his posterity, and yet he had left a clear impression that "no one ever got ahead of him"—an ideal of success, recognized as success, not built on the attainment of wealth. I felt a lot better about Knowlton—we were going to get on, I was certain. But I didn't dare tell him all this, for I knew he wouldn't understand. I was even sorry I had been flippant about Presbyterians. After all, it was a silly pose to patronize a man who had made his way from the bottom to the position of a first class engineer, whereas I had done nothing but read a few books and drift about the world.

"Knowlton," I asked, in all seriousness this time, "will you have another drink?"

"Thanks, I wouldn't mind one more of those lemonades."

Once more the porter came, and I ventured a second bottle of Bass.

"I'll be discreet in Deep Harbor," I apologized, "although I won't promise to give up Bass entirely. It's a link with home—almost a ceremony, you know."

"Oh, that's all right, Ted. I guess I've got you sized up all right. Go ahead and be your own boss. As long as you deliver the goods, that's all I ask. Do it in your own way."

The drinks arrived. "Bring a box of chocolate peppermints," he commanded the porter. "Good heavens—he's going to add that to his lemonade and cigars!" I thought. "What is that man's interior made of?"

"So you have already sized me up?" I asked as he munched a chocolate between alternate sips and puffs.

"Sure! I got you pretty straight down in the office in New York the day we signed the papers. I did think you might jump the track once in a while, though. And when you blew on to the train in that third act make-up, I thought perhaps you'd been out for a final fling at Broadway. But you're all right. Have some chocolate?"

"No, thanks. I am curious, though, to have my fortune told. Will I make good, do you think?"

"Ted, I'm going to be straight with you. I don't know. You may get folks sore at you, the way you always seem to be laughing inside you at the people who don't talk or think the way you do. You don't know it all yet, and you've got no patience with folks who don't belong to your gang. You haven't knocked around enough in real life to learn that there's several ways of getting there besides your way. You've lived abroad and picked up a lot of things I don't know anything about and never will, and you're a little stuck on your cargo. But I'm not so sure it's worth as much as you think in the open market—not in the manufacturing business in Deep Harbor. Still, a couple of years on the treadmill may work wonders."

"A couple of years!" I gasped.

"Well, you don't expect to take a new concern and make a fortune in twelve months the way they tell you in those story books, do you? Not if you was John D. Rockefeller, which you aren't."

"Two years in Deep Harbor," I murmured almost to myself.

"Oh, Deep Harbor's a pretty decent sort of a town. It's up-to-date. They've got a Chamber of Commerce full of live wires and the place is just beginning to hit its stride. Give the plants there now ten years, and the town will be full of millionaires. Of course, I can see your point—I'm a New Yorker myself, and the Bush League doesn't appeal any too strong to me. But the stuff lies buried out there in that burg, and you and I, Ted, are going there to dig some of it up. There's nothing like growing up with a town."

And with this final epigram, Knowlton got up, stretched, and guessed he would go to bed.

I bade him good-night and lit another pipe. I confess frankly that I found Knowlton's accurate powers of analysis disturbing. I who had flattered myself that I knew all about him with the first words he spoke, now made the humiliating discovery that he already knew more about me than I was ever likely to know about him. Furthermore, his estimate of me, if not too unfavourable, was still not very flattering. When at last I left the smoker for the sleeper, it was in as gloomy a frame of mind as when I first boarded the train.


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