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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » I Walked in Arden » Chapter Ten WE SHARE OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS
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Christmas Eve was only three days away, bringing with it the formal announcement of our engagement. I received several letters from my father, as well as from my mother and sister. They accepted the situation, but I knew the family well enough to detect considerable uneasiness between the lines. My mother was once or twice frankly doubtful. Did I know America well enough to choose the right type?—a question which made me smile, as I thought of Helen. My sister asked even more feminine questions. What was Helen like? Was she fond of sports? A good sort? Or was she very serious-minded, like so many Americans? My sister, who was much younger than myself, had been born in England and had never set foot in America. I felt a certain difficulty in explaining Helen to her, although I had no doubt the two girls would be good pals on sight. My father was not so disconcerting; yet there was also an under-current of doubt and displeasure in his comments. Nothing but taking Helen to England and displaying her there would really straighten this out, I concluded.

Meanwhile I concealed all this from Helen. The family wrote her cordial and welcoming letters. We were busy with our preparations, and the factory was also an inescapable task. Knowlton was remorseless. I received no special favours at his hands in the way of extra time off. After I had quite recovered from my part in Prospero's tragic melodrama, the grindstone was held to my nose again. The young people of Deep Harbor, particularly the girls, took an absorbing interest in Helen and me. It was all so romantic, they said—the horseback riding, the attempt to murder me, and our resolution to go abroad. "It is such a consolation for you, my dear," a delicious old lady said to Helen, "that you are going to live in England, for you will always have your own church wherever you go."

Mr. Claybourne, having reached his decision, apparently more or less dismissed us from his mind as much as was possible. I dined on Sundays at the house as a matter of course. Mrs. Claybourne kept up her wailing, as was natural to her temperament. I think she enjoyed having a standing grievance. It saved her the trouble of inventing a fresh one each day. When friends dropped in to talk matters over, a pastime to which Deep Harbor was much addicted, she would burst into tears at each mention of the word "England." What would become of her, with her only daughter over four thousand miles away, she did not know. But of course no one in the house had any consideration for her feelings, she would go on to explain—least of all her own daughter, who seemed actually to be looking forward to the separation. This was not fair to Helen, who loved her father with a passionate devotion and was sympathetically affectionate toward her mother. As a matter of fact, there were times when Helen minded the thought of leaving her family a great deal, and I had, upon those occasions, to paint the future in the brightest possible colours. Not that Helen doubted for an instant the love which had governed our choice. It was the natural reaction of a young girl not yet out of her teens to the realization that her new and unknown life to come would mean the breaking of all her old ties. She felt it more than even her father or her mother seemed to guess.

In the evening we read aloud, a rather sober occupation for two young lovers. Helen was eager to know the books I liked, and I to know hers, while together we explored new fields and made them our own. We were given the back drawing room to ourselves, and there, before a natural gas fire, which was the usual Deep Harbor translation of the Yule log, we would sit on a little sofa, Helen with her feet tucked up under her and her head on my shoulder, while I read. We read hardly any slush and but little romance, for of the latter we had now enough of our own. We were too young and eager to be at life to have any patience with slush. We did not know its value as an anodyne, for we had no need of anaesthetics of any kind. We wanted to get into life as quickly as possible and fashion it to suit ourselves. We were therefore more interested in Ibsen and Shaw, in Hauptmann and Nietzsche, in William Morris and Anatole France, than in the current novels from the circulating library.

I don't think we were priggish in our seriousness. We kept our reading to ourselves and never spoke of it to others. We looked upon it as necessary preparatory study before embarking together upon our future. We wanted to know, as far as we had time to learn, what writers and thinkers had to say about this world that seemed so beautiful to us. When they were bitter, hard, or cynical, we laughed and pitied them. But most of all we enjoyed the new vistas they revealed, and neither Anatole France nor Nietzsche frightened us one bit. We looked upon a great man's mind as something independent of his experience. That he said life was cruel did not to us imply anything further than an interesting point of view which it was good fun to discuss. We felt sure that William Morris was right and the others wrong. We laughed over Shaw because we could feel him striking into Deep Harbor's vitals—and it amused us, knowing Deep Harbor, to see the skill with which he did it and the latter's blissful unconcern. The Deep Harbor Eagle ran a leader one morning to prove Shaw a clown and a mountebank. We were tempted to cut it out and send it to Shaw, but we didn't know his address.

On Christmas eve was to be our dinner and dance at the country club. The country club was situated several miles out of town upon the lake shore. It was a large wooden building of "Colonial" architecture, which means that it had a broad verandah, facing the lake, with high wooden columns in front, walls covered with white shingles, and shutters painted green. You drove out via the west lake road. Its membership was rigidly limited to four hundred, and the dues were absurdly high. Only the financially elite could afford to belong and play upon its tame nine-hole course. It boasted a waiting list of over a hundred names. Sons were put down for it before going away to college, in the hope that they would be elected by the time they had graduated. All the important social functions of Deep Harbor took place there, and some, if gossip were true, not quite so decorous as these.

It was Miss Hershey, the professional chaperone, who had decided upon the country club as the only suitable rostrum from which to announce our engagement. The dinner party was to be a small one, not over twenty couples, and the other young people were to come in later for the dance. The flowers were ordered from Buffalo and the music from Detroit. The chef of the country club was to procure, by means best known to himself, partridges, and a professional caterer was to furnish the ice-cream. All this Miss Hershey was responsible for. She took charge of all arrangements, and Mr. Claybourne, who was a sensible man and hated display, had not a word to say. Least of all were Helen and I allowed to interfere.

At six on the appointed day I reported at the Claybourne residence on Myrtle Boulevard in full regalia, but withal a curious dryness in my throat. Knowlton had dropped in to grin at me while I dressed, and he had completed my nervousness. "To speak your own language," he had said, as I made ready to leave, "what price Deep Harbor, now, old thing?" Knowlton was coming to the dance; Miss Hershey had crossed his name off the dinner list.

"Go to hell, Knowlton," I replied, slamming the door. I could feel his grin following me through the panels all the way downstairs.

At the Claybournes' I found Mrs. Claybourne collapsed in tears upon the sofa, now that she was to face the casting of the die, and Mr. Claybourne bending over her trying to coax her to drink a cocktail which he held in one hand. Still protesting that alcohol always gave her a sick headache, she finally drank it with what I thought rather practised skill. Meanwhile Mr. Claybourne made violent signs at me to efface myself, which I did by retreating to the back of the passage until Helen should come down. Miss Hershey was out at the country club putting the finishing touches to the table.

Helen appeared at last, in a really grown-up evening gown, a bunch of Parma violets pinned to her bodice. My eyes swam a bit as I went forward to meet her, and my legs were most unsteady.

"Lady Grey Eyes," I stammered, and clung to her hand. She was much more composed than I. Save for the bright light that danced and sparkled in her eyes, she might have gone through a hundred such affairs.

"Look, Ted," she whispered. Behind her came Leonidas, new washed and with a small bunch of violets tied by a blue ribbon to his collar. Leonidas sat down and tried to remove the violets with his paws. We both laughed.

"Is he going?" I asked.

"Of course not, you dear idiot," Helen replied. "But I had to dress him up for the occasion."

At that moment a carriage arrived containing Miss Hemphill and her escort, and into this Mr. Claybourne bundled Helen and me. He would follow with Mrs. Claybourne later. The ride out to the country club was cold and long. The roads were partly frozen and partly covered with snow. We bumped in and out of ruts and the horses steamed. Inside, however, we were all giggles and laughter. Miss Hemphill and her young man, a clerk in the Deep Harbor Smelting Company, teased us, until we reached the club, with well meant but rather elephantine wit.

Soon after we got there the whole dinner party arrived, and we sat down in a deafening uproar of shrill conversation and laughter. The crowd was composed entirely, with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Claybourne, of young friends of Helen's. I was the only non-Deep Harborite present. It seemed a little queer, and once or twice I thought of my father and wondered what he was thinking. Was I really doing the thing he would approve? Then I would look at Helen, and reassurance would return. No one could possibly disapprove of her. The family would be thankful I had been so lucky. Indeed, my luck was a constant source of wonder to me. How on earth was it possible that Helen should love me? It was beyond reasoning out. And as I pondered this miracle, I could feel Helen's hand steal under the tablecloth and give mine a gentle touch. It was true, then. Once we were caught at this, by the young man on the other side of Helen, and a great to-do of laughter and teasing followed. I was horribly embarrassed that I had put Helen in such a predicament, and a little angry, but she didn't seem to mind the noise at all. How they could talk, those young people! The girls seemed to be screaming, so sharp and shrill were their voices; my ears ached. Every one spoke at once, at the topmost pitch, and no one listened for a reply. I have no idea what it was all about, for I was in such a daze I could neither eat nor make out what was being said. Once or twice Helen said: "Steady, Ted. Try to look cheerful," and I would pull myself together with a smile at her and venture a remark.

After dinner the pandemonium increased with the arrival of those invited to the dance. The orchestra played dance music at what I should have thought an incredible speed. I blundered badly in dancing and left bruises, I fear, on more than one dainty instep. I was at home only when I danced with Helen, but Miss Hershey's etiquette forbade that this should be very often. As hostess Helen had to dance with as many of the young men as possible. Sometimes I lurked gloomy in a corner, disliking the public display of Helen that the party implied. Each time Miss Hershey's watchful eye would ferret me out, and I would be handed over to another young creature.

Dancing in Deep Harbor was a skilful art. The young people of the town approved or condemned newcomers according to the measure of their proficiency on the polished floor. Never did any one earn more deservedly a reputation as an execrable dancer than I did that evening. Some of my partners, I could see, frankly pitied Helen. In Deep Harbor, to marry a man who could not dance, or was a bad dancer, was to hang a social old-man-of-the-sea about one's neck. It doomed all "good times" as far as that couple were concerned. Hence the genuine pity which I saw in the eyes of some of Helen's friends.

A respite came when Knowlton appeared. After he had danced with Helen, I took him around and introduced him to as many young ladies as I was able to identify. Miss Hershey helped me out with a few names, although I was supposed to know them all. Knowlton's eyes twinkled, and the crows' feet at their corners were crinkled with restrained amusement as I took him through the ceremonies of introduction. We escaped for a few moments for a cigarette in the sun-parlour, a portion of the verandah enclosed with glass in the winter time.

"Well, Ted," he grinned at his cigarette, "I certainly have to laugh when I think of you doing the social honours for me in Deep Harbor. I have to hand it to you, Ted, and I mean this seriously. Miss Claybourne's the best of the bunch. She's an A-number-one winner, and you are a damned lucky kid."

"Thanks, Knowlton; I agree with you."

Knowlton puffed his cigarette reflectively. "It's great to be a kid," he said at length. "I never was," he added rather unexpectedly. "When I ought to have been, I was selling goods and studying to be an engineer, evenings. I'm not kicking; I guess I had a pretty good time—even when I didn't know where the next meal was coming from."

I was silent, for it was most unusual for Knowlton to wax confidential about himself.

"But now that things are beginning to come my way, I see a little what I've missed. I'm getting grey here over the temples, Ted, and I'm doggoned if I don't envy you," he finished with queer irrelevance. We both smoked in silence. It is a difficult matter for two men to say what is on their minds. I liked Knowlton, and I wanted to tell him I did, but I didn't dare try for the words.

"I guess we are none of us, Ted," he went on, "as practical and hard-headed as we make ourselves out to be. I used to think I had no time to bother with women."

"He travels furthest who travels alone," I murmured, rather startled by such a quotation on such an evening.

"It's a mistake, Ted," Knowlton came back. "It isn't true. The fellow who said that was trying to conceal bankruptcy with a little window-dressing."

"Knowlton," I stammered, making a desperate effort, "I—I—"

He cut in on me. "Thanks, Ted. I like you too. Let's let it go at that," and he threw away his cigarette stub and went in to the ballroom. I sat and wondered at the hint of tragedy the always smiling Knowlton had shown me. "After all," I reflected, "he is still young." "Ah, but he is not a kid, don't you see?" my old annoyer Reason interjected. "That's the point." I lit another cigarette. "I wonder why it is great to be a kid?" I asked. Reason was prompt with a reply, "Because kids enjoy everything without stopping to think."

I looked up, to see Helen in the doorway, surrounded by formally attentive swains.

"Ted," said Helen coming up to me. "This is our dance. How could you?"

It was the first time I had ever been conscious of hurting her, and I was truly contrite. I explained about Knowlton as we danced around the room.

"The poor old dear," said Helen. "You would never guess it from those adorable crow's feet of his."

"Knowlton isn't old," I objected, almost shocked.

"Well," Helen went on, "he's almost middle-aged."

But we soon changed the subject, for we had more important things to talk about.

The dance came to an end at last, since there is a limit to the physical endurance of even the youth of Deep Harbor. I was fagged, and, now the excitement had passed, there were deep circles under Helen's eyes. "Take me home, Ted," she whispered, and with infinite craft and skill, we eluded Miss Hershey and got a carriage to ourselves.

We sat for a long time in silence, as we bounced over the ruts, her hand resting in mine.

"It is Christmas day, dearest," I bent over her and said. She looked into my eyes.

"Our first Christmas together, Ted. How many will there be?" Suddenly there came a little catch in her voice, and she cried against my shoulder, as if frightened. I comforted her, and she again looked up, a smile coming through wet eyes.

"Christmas. We'll never forget, will we Ted?"

We looked out at the arc lamps of Deep Harbor ahead. On the left, the frozen, snow-covered lake looked like some strange continent of the moon in the glowing light. The fields and vineyards were dimly white, with dark patches showing. The snow had been thinned by a thaw. We looked together, now ahead, now left, now right, that we might impress the scene on our memories forevermore. It was very still save for the rattle of the carriage and the occasional voice of the driver speaking to his horses. Far on the other side of the town the flare of a Bessemer steel works suddenly lit up the sky, for its furnaces never rested, day or night.

I kissed her good-night at her door and walked down Myrtle Boulevard, in the dawn, alone. At my rooms I found a letter from my father, together with a generous check. "Buy Helen a Christmas present out of this," was his only comment on sending me the money. I could not sleep, but the factory was to be shut down on Christmas Day, so the loss of sleep did not matter. The future stood before me like an impenetrable wall. I wanted to see the other side. It seemed absurd, preposterous, that one couldn't fathom that mystery. It was not fair to make one face life without knowing what to expect. Of what use were hopes or plans, if out of that void some unforeseen thing struck at one? Yet fear, I knew, was more deadly than any blow that could come from the dark. One must grope ahead, like a child going into a cellar, but if one feared the dark, then the thing would become intolerable. It would add terrors that were not there and deprive one of the power to deal with the things that were.

What was it Helen had asked? How many Christmas days would there be for us? Granting three score and ten as the limit, there should be not less than fifty such days. Fifty times to remember all that today meant to us. "I wonder why most stories stop when they are married?" I asked myself. "Don't they dare tell the rest of it?" Reason refused to make any comment, for Reason, too, was baffled by that mystery of the future.

Christmas dinner was a solemn family function held at three o'clock in the afternoon. Besides Helen, Mrs. Claybourne, Mr. Claybourne, and me, there were Helen's Uncle Peter, from Dayton, Ohio, and his wife. Uncle Peter and Aunt Ethel had come to Deep Harbor with a double motive—to spend Christmas and to inspect the potential nephew-in-law. Uncle Peter was affable and jocose, slightly older than his brother, Mr. Claybourne, but similar in type. He had not quite the same force of character or skill in business, I decided after hearing one of his anecdotes. Anecdotes are a sore betrayer of man's mental make-up. They should be told only by persons who have nothing to fear from self-revelation. Aunt Ethel was a woman of firmness and impregnable self-complacency. "In Dayton we—" was her regular introduction to the simplest statement. She wore gold-bowed invisible glasses and had pastry-coloured hair. Of the two I immediately plumped for Uncle Peter and his anecdotes. They were more reassuring than Aunt Ethel's views upon conduct.

Mrs. Claybourne had marvellously recovered from the day before. She was in a mood as closely approximating the cheerful as one could expect. In fact, I had never before seen her thus close to having a good time. The shortcomings of Jane, the maid, seemed the only flies in her ointment. These were gone over rather thoroughly with Aunt Ethel, but were mostly out of the way by the time we sat down to dinner. According to Helen, Jane was a treasure who survived endless faultfinding and nagging with the patience of a saint; in Mrs. Claybourne's account, she was a wilful conspirator against the tidiness, peace, and happiness of the whole house. The fact that Jane had been with the Claybournes three years seemed to me evidence in favour of Helen's version.

The dinner was truly marvellous. There is no other word to express it. Mr. Pickwick never fared better at Dingley Dell. Such turkeys as America produces do not grow again until heaven is reached. Before a fine specimen of this delectable bird was eaten on this day, Uncle Peter, rather vigorously prompted by Aunt Ethel, said grace. Uncle Peter spoke the kind of grace that one makes up as one goes along, and he landed himself in a sentence from which there was no retreat, either forward or backward. Just as Helen mischievously and irreverently kicked me on the shin under the table, Uncle Peter cut the Gordian knot of his rhetoric by a loud "Amen." My laugh, therefore, did no damage to the proprieties. Helen and I were too light-hearted and hungry to be abashed by any amount of family. Excitement had spoiled our appetites on the day before, but now there was no stopping us. We laughed so loudly at Uncle Peter's anecdotes that he gave himself an encore on several of them, and we clearly were his firm friends. Our plates went back for turkey and cranberry sauce again and again. Mr. Claybourne produced his champagne and ran through all his favourite toasts. Mrs. Claybourne smiled at least three times. Aunt Ethel declined champagne with great firmness, and her eye upon Uncle Peter noticeably reduced the quantity he would have drunk. He had to snatch it in nervous sips when his wife seemed most engaged. He was, therefore, always a glass behind Mr. Claybourne and me. I grew reckless enough, in spite of a severe shin kick from Helen, to propose Aunt Ethel's health. Uncle Peter enthusiastically seconded me, seeing a chance to get down a whole glass, and Mr. Claybourne joined in. Aunt Ethel was compelled to acknowledge the compliment with rather a frigid bow, and I gathered that "we in Dayton" didn't drink many toasts in champagne. After dinner Uncle Peter forced one of his black cigars upon me and imperilled all the structure of good feeling the dinner had built up in me. Deep Harbor gave me many opportunities to curse the proximity of the island of Cuba to the United States. In spite of the cigar, Helen and I skipped away, under a volley of Uncle Peter's winks, and sat down to talk things over.

"Do you feel any more engaged than you did yesterday?" I asked.

Helen smiled and turned over the pages of a book I had given her. "Yesterday," she replied, "the family tolerated us, but really ignored the fact of our engagement. Today they regard it as something that has actually happened—and all because we sat at table with a lot of friends and told them what they knew already."

"The world, it appears to me, is conducted by a series of meaningless ceremonies," I remarked in my wise manner. "It will be the same over our marriage. Nothing could make us mean any more to each other than we do now—but the family will attach great importance to the marriage."

"Don't be silly, Ted," said Helen,—unexpectedly, to me, taking the side of convention. "Of course they will. We have to be married."

"I'm not arguing against it," I said, and Helen gently slapped me. "But I wonder why?"

"My mother," Helen answered simply, "has a genuine belief in the ceremony of the church. To her, marriage is a sacrament."

"And what do you think?" I queried.

Helen looked out of the window thoughtfully. "I don't know, Ted, dear. I felt it was a sacrament when I opened my eyes, after the horse fell with me, and I found you holding me in your arms. I know then that nothing on earth could make us belong any more to each other than we did then. I think that would have been all I should have asked—just to know you loved me."

"That is all I want to know, Helen dear," I said, taking her in my arms. "But of course we shall get married according to the rules."

"You delicious idiot," Helen laughed, "of course we shall. Can you imagine Deep Harbor, if we didn't?"

The prospect was dazzling to the imagination. Miss Hershey and the daily Eagle between them—I laughed at the thought.

"I wouldn't do anything to hurt dad," Helen added softly, and I again held her close.

"I was only moralizing on this question of ceremonies, Helen precious," I whispered. "It has always amazed me that people attach such great value to them. I suppose it is, after all, because ceremonies have to be public, and they are thus a public acknowledgement of assumed obligations."

"If the church means anything to you, then its sanction must be a tremendous comfort," Helen mused. "I sometimes wish I knew what I believed, don't you, Ted?"

"I am trying to find out, but I don't know. Sometimes I think chemistry is the key to the mystery—and then it isn't. Chemistry didn't make your grey eyes, sweetheart. There is a Helen in them that no chemistry made."

"I don't think chemistry made Ted, either," she smiled shyly. "For if it did, he would be more logical."

"There's a nasty knock in that somewhere, young lady," I said in mock anger, "but I'm blest if I know where it is."

"I never know," she came back inconsequentially, "whether I love you more when you don't think, or when you tangle yourself up in whimsies trying to think."

"Neither of us has the faintest idea what truth is"—I began, preparing another disquisition. She cut me short: "No, Ted, we haven't. We begin life with just one certain fact and no more."

"What is that certain fact?" I asked.

"Can you ask, Ted? We love each other—that's all we know."

"It's enough," I said, kissing her mouth. She smiled at me, her face close.

"We'll begin with that, Ted darling."


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