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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER II. RURAL ENGLAND.
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It was a beautiful July morning, and Colin Churchill and Minna Wroe were playing together in the fritillary fields at Wootton Mandeville. At twelve years old, the intercourse of lad and maiden is still ingenuous; and Colin was just twelve, though little Minna might still have been some two years his junior. A tall, slim, fair-haired boy was Colin Churchill, with deep-blue eyes more poetical in their depth and intensity than one might have expected from a little Dorsetshire peasant child. Minna, on the other hand, was shorter and darker; a gipsy-looking girl, black-haired and tawny-skinned; and with two little beady-black eyes that glistened and ran over every moment with contagious merriment. Two prettier children you wouldn't have found anywhere that day in the whole county of Dorset than Minna Wroe and Colin Churchill.

They had gathered flowers till they were tired of them in the broad spongy meadow; they had played hide-and-seek among the eighteenth-century tombstones in the big old churchyard; they had quarrelled and made it up again half a dozen times over in pure pettishness: and now, by way of a distraction, Minna said at last coaxingly: 'Do 'ee, Colin, do 'ee come down to the lake yonder and make I a bit of a vigger-'ead.'

'Don't 'ee worrit me, Minna,' Colin answered, like a young lady who refuses to sing, half-heartedly (meaning all the time that one should ask her again): 'Don't 'ee see I be tired? I don't want vor to go makin' no vigger-'eads vor 'ee, I tell 'ee.'

But Minna would have one: on that she insisted: 'What a vinnid lad 'ee be,' she cried petulantly, 'not to want to make I a vigger-'ead. Now do 'ee, Cohn, ther's a a good boy; do 'ee, an' I'll gee 'ee 'arf my peppermint cushions, come Saturday.'

'I don't want none o' your cushions, Minna,' Colin answered, with a boy's gallantry; 'but come along down to the lake if 'ee will: I'll make 'ee dree or vower vigger-'eads, never vear, an' them vine uns too, if so be as you want 'em.'

They went together down to the brook at the corner of the meadow (called a lake in the Dorsetshire dialect); and there, at a spot where the plastic clay came to the surface in a little cliff at a bend of the stream, Colin carved out a fine large lump of shapeless raw material from the bank, which he forthwith proceeded to knead up with his hands and a sprinkling of water from the rill into a beautiful sticky consistency. Minna watched the familiar operation with deepest interest, and added from time to time a word or two of connoisseur criticism: 'Now thee'st got it too wet, Colin;' or, 'Take care thee don't putt in too much of thik there blue earth yonder; or, 'That's about right vor the viggeread now, I'm thinkin'; thee'd better begin makin' it now avore the clay gets too dried up.'

As soon as Colin had worked the clay up to what he regarded as the proper requirements of his art, he began modelling it dexterously with his fingers into the outer form and fashion of a ship's figure-head: 'What'll 'ee 'ave virst, Minna?' he asked as he roughly moulded the mass into a bold outward curve, that would have answered equally well for any figure-head in the whole British merchant navy.

'I'll 'ave the Mariar-Ann,' Minna answered with a nod of her small black head in the direction of the mouth in the valley, where the six petty fishing vessels of Wootton Mandeville stood drawn up together in a long straight row on the ridge of shingle. The Mariar-Ann was the collier that came monthly from Cardiff, and its figure-head represented a gilded lady, gazing over the waves with a vacant smile, and draped in a flowing crimson costume of no very particular historical period.

Cohn worked away at the clay vigorously for a few minutes with fingers and knife by turns, and at the end of that time he had produced a very creditable figure-head indeed, accurately representing in its main features the gilded lady of the Mariar-Ann.

'Oh, how lovely!' Minna cried, delighted. 'Thik's the best thee'st made, Colin. Let's bake un and keep un always.'

'Take un 'ome an' bake un yourself, Minna,' the boy answered. 'We ain't got no vire 'ere. What'll I make 'ee now? 'Nother vigger-'ead?'

'No!' Minna cried, with a happy inspiration.

'Make myself, Colin.'

The boy eyed her carefully from head to foot. 'I don't s'pose I can do 'ee, Minna,' he answered after a pause. 'Howsonedever, I'll try;' and he took a fresh lump of the kneaded clay, and began working it up loosely into a rough outline of the girl's figure. It was his first attempt at modelling from life, and he went at it with careful deliberation. Minna posed before him in her natural attitude, and Colin called her back every minute or two when she got impatient, and kept his little sitter steadily posed till the portrait statuette was fairly finished. Critical justice compels the admission that Colin Churchill's first figure from life was not an entirely successful work of sculpture. Its expression was distinctly feeble; its pose was weak and uncertain; its drapery was marked by a frank disregard of folds and a bold conventionalism; and, last of all, it ended abruptly at the short dress, owing to certain mechanical difficulties in the way of supporting the heavy body on a pair of slender moist clay legs. Still, it distinctly suggested the notion of a human being; it remotely resembled a little girl; and it even faintly adumbrated, in figure at least, if not in feature, Minna Wroe herself.

But if the work of art failed a little when judged by the stern tribunal of adult criticism, it certainly more than satisfied both the young artist and the subject of his plastic skill. They gazed at the completed figure with the deepest admiration, and Minna even ventured to express a decided opinion that anybody in the world would know it was meant for her. Which high standard of artistic portraiture has been known to satisfy much older and more exalted critics, including many ladies and gentlemen of distinction who have wasted the time of good sculptors by 'having their busts taken.'

Meanwhile, down in the village by the shore, Geargey Wroe, Minna's father, was standing by a little garden gate, where Sam Churchill the elder was carefully tending his cabbages and melons. 'Zeen our Minna, Sam!' he asked over the paling. 'Wher's 'er to, dost know? Off zumwhere with yer Colin, I'll be bound, Sammy. They're always off zumwhere together, them two is, I vancy. 'E's up to 'is drawin' or zummat down to lake there. Such a lad vor drawin' an' that I never did zee. 'Ow's bisness, Sammy?'

'Purty good, Geargey, purty good. Volks be a-comin' in now an' takin' lodgin's, wantin' garden stuff and such like. First-rate family from London come yesterday down to Walker's. Turble rich volk I should say by the look o' un. Ordered a power o' fruit and zum vegetables.'Ow's vishin', Geargey?' 'Bad,' Geargey answered, shaking his head ominously: 'as bad as ur could be. Town's turble empty still: nobody come 'ceptin' a lot o' good-vor-nothin' meetingers. 'Ootton ain't wot it 'ad used to be, Sammy, zince these 'ere rail-rawds. Wot we wants is the rail-rawd to come 'ere to town, so volks can get 'ere aisy, like they can to Sayton. Then we'd get zum real gintlevolk who got money in their pockets to spend, an'll spend it vree and aisy to the tradesmen, and the boatmen, and the vishermen; that's wot we wants, don't us, Sammy?'

'Us do, us do,' Sam Churchill assented, nodding.

'Ah, I do mind the time, Sammy,' Geargey said regretfully, wiping his eyes with the corner of his jersey, 'w'en every wipswile I'd used to get a gintleman to go out way, who'd gi' us share an' share alike o' his grub, and a drap out o' his whisky bottle: and w'en we pulls ashore, he sez, sez'e: “I don't want the vish, my man,” sez'e; “I only wants the sport, raly.” But nowadays, Lard bless 'ee, Sam, we gets a pack o' meetingers down from London, and they brings along a hunk o' bread and some fat pork, or a piece o' blue vinny cheese, as 'ard as Portland stone. Now I can't abare fat pork without a streak o' lean in it, 'specially when I smells the bait; and I can't tackle the blue vinny, 'cos I never 'as my teeth with me: thof my mate, Bill-o'-my-Soul, 'e can putt 'isself outside most things in the way o' grub at a vurry short notice, as you do well know, Sam, and I never seed as bate made no difference to 'e nohow. But these 'ere meetingers, as I was a sayin' (vor I've got avore my story, Sammy), they goes out an' haves vine sport, we'll say; and then, w'en we comes 'ome they out and lugs out dree or vower shillin's or so, vor me an' my mate, an' walks off with 'arf-a-suvren's worth o' the biggest vish, quite aisy-like, an' layves all the liddle fry an' the blin in the boat; the chattering jackanapes.'

''Ees, 'ees, lad, times is changed,' Sam murmured meditatively, half to himself; 'times is changed turble bad since old Squire's day. Wot a place 'Ootton 'ad used to be then, 'adn't ur, Geargey? Coach from Darchester an' 'bus from Tilbury station, bringin' in gurt folks from London vor the sayson every day; dinner party up to vicarage with green paysen an' peaches, an' nectarines,———''An' a 'ole turbat,' Geargey put in parenthetically. 'Ay, lad, an' a 'ole turbot every Saturday. Them was times, Geargey; them was times. I don't s'pose they ther times ull never come again. Ther ain't the gentry now as ther'd used to be in old Squire's day. Pack o' trumpery London volk, with one servant, comin' down 'ere vor the sayson—short sayson—six week, or murt be seven—an' then walkin' off agin, without so much as spending ten poun' or so in the'ole parish. I mind the times, Geargey, when volks used to say 'Ootton were the safety valve o' the Bath sayson. Soon as sayson were over up to Bath, gentlevolk and ladies a-comin' down 'ere to enj'y thesselves, an' spendin' their money vree and aisy, same as if it were water. Us don't see un comin' now, Geargey: times is changed turble: us don't see un now.'

'It's the dree terms as 'as ruined 'Ootton,' Geargey said, philosophically—the research of the cause being the true note of philosophy.

'It's they dree terms as 'as done it, vor sartin.'

'Why, 'ow's that, Gearge?'

'Well, don't 'ee see, Sam, it's like o' thik. W'en they used to 'ave 'arf-years at the schools, bless 'ee, volks with families 'ad used to bring down the children vrom school so soon as the 'arf-year were over. Then the gurt people ud take the young gentlemen out vishin', might be in June, or July may-be, and gee a bit o' work to honest visher-people in the off-sayson. Then in August, London people ud come an' take lodgin's and gee us a bit more work nice and tidy. So the sayson 'ad used to last off an' on vrom June to October. Well, bime-by, they meddlesome school people, they goes an' makes up these 'ere new-vangled things o' dree terms, as they calls 'em, cuttin' up the year unnat'ral-like into dree pieces, as 'adn't used to be w'en we was children. Wot's the consequence? Everybody comes a-rushin' and a-crushin' permixuous, in August, the 'ole boilin' o' 'em together, wantin' rooms an' boats and vishermen, so as the parish baint up to it. Us 'as to work 'ard vor six or seven week, and not give satisfaction nayther; and then rest o' the year us 'as to git along the best us can on the shart sayson. I can't abare they new-vangled ways, upsettin' all the constitooted order of things altogither, an' settin' poor vishermen at sixes and sevens for arf their lifetime.'

'It's the march of intellect, Geargey,' Sam Churchill answered, deprecatingly (Sam understood himself to be a Liberal in politics, and used this convenient phrase as a general solvent for an immense number of social difficulties). 'It's the march of intellect, no doubt, Geargey: there's a sight o' progress about; board-schools an' sich like: an' if it cuts agin us, don't 'ee see, w'y us 'as got to make the best of it, however.'

'It murt be, an' agin it murtn't; and agin it murt,' Geargey murmured dubiously.

'But any way, wher's Minna to, Sammy?—that's wot I comed vor to ax 'ee.'

'Down to vield by lake, yander, most like,' Sam answered with a nod of his head in the direction indicated.

'I'll go an' vetch her,' said Geargey; 'dinner's most ready.'

'An I'll come an' zee wot Colin's up to,' added Sam, laying down his hoe, and pulling together his unbuttoned waistcoat.

They walked down to the brook in the meadow, and saw the two children sitting in the corner so intent upon their artistic performances that they hardly noticed the approach of their respective fathers. Old Sam Churchill went close up and looked keenly at the clay figure of Minna that Colin was still moulding with the last finishing touches as the two elders approached them. 'Thik ther vigger baint a bad un, Colin,' he said, taking it carefully in his rough hand.

''ee'aven't done it none so ill, lad; but it don't look so livin' like as it 'ad ought to. Wot do 'ee think it is, Geargey, eh? tell us?'

'Why, I'm blowed if that baint our Minna,' Geargey answered, with a little gasp of open-mouthed astonishment. 'It's her vurry pictur, Colin: a blind man could see that, of course, so soon as 'e set eyes on it. 'Ow do 'ee do it, Colin, eh? 'Ow do 'ee do it?' 'Oh, that baint nothin',' Colin said, colouring up. 'Only a little bit o' clay, just made up vor to look like Minna.'

'Look 'ee 'ere,' Colin,' his father went on, glancing quickly from the clay to little Minna, and altering a touch or two with his big clumsy fingers, not undeftly. 'Look 'ee 'ere; 'ee must putt the dress thik way, I should say, with a gurt dale more flusterin' about it; it do zit too stiff and starchy, somehow, same as if it wur made o' new buckram. 'ee must put in a fold or two, 'ere, so as to make un sit more nat'ral. Don't 'ee see Minna's dress do double itself up, I can't rightly say 'ow, but sununat o' tkik there way?' And he moulded the moist clay a bit with his hands, till the folds of the drapery began to look a little more real and possible.

'I'd ought to 'ave drawed it first, I think,' Colin said, looking at the altered dress with a satisfied glance. ''ave 'ee got such a thing as a pencil about 'ee, father?'

Old Sam took a piece of pencil from his pocket, and handed it to Colin. The boy held it tightly in his fingers, with a true artistic grasp, like one who knows how to wield it, and with a few strokes on a scrap of paper hit off little Minna far better than he had done in the plastic material. Geargey looked over his shoulder with a delighted grin on his weatherbeaten features. 'I tell 'ee, Sam,' he said to the old gardener, confidentially, 'it's my belief that thik ther boy'ull be able one o' these vine days to paint rale picturs.'


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