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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER V. EMANCIPATION.
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Churchill,' said the vicar, pulling up his cob opposite the gate of the little market garden, 'I want to speak to you a minute about that boy of yours. He's twelve years old and more, I should say, by the look of him, and he's hanging about the village all his time, doing nothing. Do you want a place to put him to? What are you going to do with him?'

'Wull, passon,' Sam Churchill answered, touching his hat in a semi-deferential manner (as a liberal politician, Sam was constitooshionally agin the passon), 'Us did think o' zendin' un to school a bit longer, and tryin' vor to prentice un to zum trade zumwhere; but if a good place at sarvice was goin' a beggin', wy, me an' 'is mother wouldn't stand in the way of 'is takin' it, sartinly, noways.'

'Don't send the boy to school any more, Churchill,' the vicar said decisively. 'This education business is being overdone. You allowed your other boy—Sam I think you called him—to read a pack of nonsensical books about going to sea and so forth, and what's the result? He's gone off to America and left you alone, just as he was beginning to be fitted for a useful assistant. Depend upon it, Churchill, over-education's a great error.'

'That's just what my missus do zay, zur,' Sam chimed in respectfully. 'If us 'adn't let Sam read them Cap'n Marryat books, 'ur do zay,' e 'ouldn't never 'ave gone off a-zeekin' 'is fortune awver yander to 'Murrica. Howsom-dever, what place 'ave 'ee got in yer eye vor our Colin, passon?'

'Let him come to the vicarage,' the parson said, 'and I'll train him to be my own servant. Then he can get to be a gentleman's valet, and take a good place by-and-by in London. The boy's got good manners and good appearance, and would make a capital servant in time, I don't doubt it.'

'Wull, I'll talk it awver wi' the missus,' old Sam replied dubiously.

When Colin was asked whether he would like to go to the vicarage or not, he answered, with the true west-country insouciance, that he didn't much care where he went, so long as the place was good and the work was aisy: and so, before the week was out, he had been duly installed as the vicar's buttons and body-servant, and initiated into the work of brushing clothes, opening doors, announcing visitors, and all the other mysteries of his joint appointment.

The vicar of Wootton was a very great person indeed. He was second cousin to the Earl of Beaminster, the greatest landowner in that part of Dorset; and he never for a moment forgot that he was a Howard-Russell, the inheritor of two of the noblest names in England, and of nothing else on earth except a remarkably narrow and retreating forehead. The vicar was not clever; to that he had no pretensions: but he was a high-minded, honourable, well-meaning English gentleman and clergyman of the old school; not much interested in their new-fangled questions of High Church, and Low Church, and Broad Church, and all the rest of it, yet doing his parochial duty as he conceived of it in a certain honest, straightforward, perfunctory, official fashion. 'In my young days, my dear,' he used to say to his nieces (for he was a bachelor), 'we didn't have all these high churches, and low churches, and mediumsized churches, that people have nowadays.

We had only one church, the Church of England. That's the only church that I for my part can ever consent to live and die in.'

In the vicar's opinion, a clergyman was an officer charged with the maintenance of spiritual decorum in the recognised and organised system of this realm of England. His chief duty was to dispense a decorous hospitality to his friends and equals, to display a decorous pattern of refined life to his various inferiors, to inculcate a decorous morality on all his parishioners, and to take part in a decorous religious service (with the assistance of his curates) twice every Sunday. The march of events had latterly compelled him to add morning prayer on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent to this simple list of functions; but further than that the vicar resolutely refused to go. When anyone talked to him about matins and evensong, or discussed the Athanasian Creed, or even spoke of the doings of Convocation, the vicar sniffed a little with his aristocratic nose, and remarked stiffly that people didn't go in for those things in his young days, thank goodness. So far as his opinion went, he hated innovations; the creeds were very good creeds indeed, and people had got along very well with them, and without matins or convocations, ever since he could remember.

Still, the vicar was a man of taste. A cousin of Lord Beaminster's and a vicar of Wootton Mandeville ought, he felt, in virtue of his position, to be a man of taste. Not an admirer of new fads and fancies in art: oh, no, no; by no means: not a partisan of realism, or idealism, or romanticism, or classicism, or impressionism, or any other of their fashionable isms; certainly not: but in a grand, old-fashioned, unemotional, dignified sort of way, a man of taste. The vicar had two Romneys hanging in his dining-room; graceful ancestresses with large straw-hats and exquisitely highborn eighteenth-century Howard faces (the Russell connection hadn't then got into the family); and he had good engravings from originals in the Vatican and the Pitti Palace well displayed in his drawingroom: and he had even a single small Thorwaldsen, a Thetis rising from the sea, which fronted him as he sat in the oak-wainscoted study, and inspired his literary efforts while engaged on the composition of his three annual new sermons. It was impossible to enter the vicarage, indeed, without feeling at once the exact artistic position of its excellent occupant. He was decorously ?sthetic, just as he was decorously religious and decorously obedient to the usages of society. The Reverend Philip Howard-Russell, in fact, hated enthusiasm in every form. He hated earnest dissent most of all, of course; it was an irregular, indecorous, unauthorised way of trying to get to heaven on one's own account, without the aid of the duly constituted ecclesiastical order: but he hated all nonsense about art almost equally. He believed firmly in Raffael and Michael Angelo, as he believed in church and state: he thought Correggio and Guido almost equally fine; but he had a low opinion of the early Italian masters, and would have looked askance at Botticelli or Era Angelico, wherever he found them, even in a ducal mansion. He didn't live (as good fortune would have it) to see the extremely ill-balanced proceedings of Mr. Burne Jones and his school: indeed the vicar could never have consented to prolong his life into such an epoch of 'movements' and 'earnestness' as our own: but he distinctly recollected, with a thrill of horror, that when he was a tutor at Christ Church there were two or three young men who got up something they called a Preraphaelite Brotherhood, which ultimately came to no good. 'One of them, by name Millais,' he used to say, 'got rid of all that nonsense at last, and has become a really very promising young painter: but as to the others, that fellow Hunt, and a half-Italian man they call Rossetti—well, you know the things they paint are really and truly quite too ridiculous.'

On the whole, Colin Churchill liked his place at the vicarage fairly well. To be sure, passon was exacting sometimes; he had a will of his own, the Reverend Philip, and knew what was becoming from the lower classes towards their natural superiors—but, for all that, Colin liked it. The work wasn't very hard; there was plenty of time to get out into the fields still and play with Minna at odd minutes; the vicarage was pretty and prettily furnished; and above all, it was full of works of art such as Colin had never before even imagined. He didn't know why, of course, but the Romneys and the Thorwaldsen in particular took his fancy immensely from the very first moment he saw them. The Thetis was his special adoration: its curves and lines never ceased to delight and surprise him. An instinctive germ of art which was born in all the Churchill family was beginning to quicken into full life in little Colin. Though the boy knew it not, nor suspected it himself, he was in fact an artistic genius. All the family shared his gifts more or less: but in Colin those gifts were either greater by original endowment, or were more highly developed by the accidents of place and time—who shall say which? Perhaps Sam, put where Colin was, might have become a great sculptor: perhaps Colin, put where Sam was, might have become a respectable American citizen. And perhaps not. These are mysteries which no man yet can solve, least of all the present biographer.

The vicar had a large collection of prints in his study; and when visitors came who were also men of taste with no nonsense about them, it was his custom to show them his collection on a little frame made for the purpose. On such occasions, Colin had to perform the duty of placing the prints one after another upon the frame: and while the vicar and his guests looked at them critically, the boy, too, would gaze from behind them, and listen open-mouthed to their appreciative comments. There was one picture in particular that Colin especially admired—a mezzotint from a fresco of the Four Seasons, by a nameless Renaissance artist, in an out-of-the-way church at Bologna. Perhaps it was the classical bas-relief air of the picture that struck the boy's fancy so much; for the native bent of Colin Churchill's genius was always rather sculpturesque than pictorial: but at any rate he loved that picture dearly, and more than once the vicar noticed that when they came to it, his little page lingered behind abstractedly, and didn't go on to the next in order as soon as he was told to.

'Churchill,' the vicar once said to him sharply on such an occasion, 'why don't you mind when you're spoken to? I said “Next!” Didn't you hear me?'

'I beg your pardon, zur—sir, I mean,' Colin answered, relapsing for the moment into his original barbarism: 'I heer'd you, but—but I was a-lookin' at it and forgot, sir.'

The vicar gazed at the boy for a moment in mute astonishment. 'Looking at it!' he murmured at last, half to himself, with a curious curl about the corner of his mouth; 'goodness gracious, what are we coming to next, I wonder! He was looking at my mezzotints! Extraordinary. Young Churchill looking at my mezzotints!—The next, you see, Colonel, is a very rare print by Cornelius Bloemart after Mieris. Exquisitely delicate engraving, as you observe; very remarkable purity and softness. A capital conjunction in fact: no burin but Bloemart's could render so finely the delicate finish of Frans Mieris. The original is almost worthy of Gerard Douw; you've seen it, I dare say, at Leyden. Next, boy: next.—Looking at it! Well, I declare! He says he was looking at it! That man Churchill always was an ill-mannered, independent, upstanding sort of fellow, and after all what can you expect from his children?

In spite of occasional little episodes like this, however, Colin and the parson got on fairly well together in the long-run. The parson's first task had been, of course, to take care that that boy's language should be reduced to something like the queen's English: and to that effect, Capel, the butler (better known in Wootton as the Dook, on account of his distinguished and haughtily aristocratic manners) had been instructed to point out to Colin the difference in pronunciation between the letters hess and zud, the grammatical niceties of this, these, those, they and them, and the formalities necessary to be used by men of low estate in humbly addressing their duly constituted pastors and masters. Colin, being naturally a quick boy, had soon picked up as much of all this as the Dook was able to teach him; and if there was still a considerable laxity in the matter of aspiration, and a certain irregularity in the matter of moods and tenses, that was really more the fault of the teacher than of the pupil. The Dook had been to London and even to Rome, and had picked up the elegant language of the best footmen in west-end society. Colin learnt just what the Dook taught him; he had left behind the crude West-Saxon of the court of King Alfred, on which he had been nurtured as his mother-tongue, and had almost progressed to the comparatively cultivated and cosmopolitan dialect of an ordinary modern English man-servant.

At first, little Minna was in no small degree contemptuous of Colin's 'vine new-vangled talkin'.' '“Don't you,” indeed,' she cried one day in her supremely sarcastic little manner, when Colin had ventured to use that piece of superfine English in her very ears, instead of his native West-Saxon 'don't 'ee;' 'vine things we're comin' to nowadays, Colin, wen the likes o' thee goes sayin' “don't you.” I s'pose 'ee want to grow up an' be like the Dook, some o' these vine days. Want to be a butler, an' 'old theeself so stiff, and talk that vine that plain volk can't 'ardly tell what thee's talkin' about. Gurt stoopid, I do call 'ee.' But Colin, in spite of ridicule, continued on his own way, and Minna, who had her pride and her little day-dreams on her own account, too, at last began to think that perhaps after all Colin might be in the right of it.

So, being a west-country girl with a mind of her own (like most of them), Minna set to work on her part also to correct and get rid of her pretty, melting native dialect. She went to school at the British National School (the vicar had carefully warded off that last disgrace of the age, the blatant board school, from his own village ); and even as Colin set himself to attain the lofty standard of excellence afforded him by the Dook, so did Minna do her best to follow minutely the voice and accent of the head pupil-teacher, who had actually been for three terms at the Normal College in London. There she had picked up a very noble vulgar London twang, learnt to pronounce 'no' as 'na-o,' and acquired the habit of invariably slurring over or dropping all her short unaccented syllables.

In all these splendid characteristics of the English language as currently spoken in the great metropolis, Minna endeavoured to the best of her ability to follow her leader; and at the end of a year she had so far succeeded that Colin himself complimented her on the immense advance she had lately made in her new linguistic studies.

Colin's greatest delight, however, was still to go down in the afternoon, when the vicar was out, to the brook in the meadow, and there mix up as of yore a good big batch of plastic clay with which to model what he used to call his little images. The Dook complained greatly of the clay, 'a nasty dirty mess, indeed, to go an' acshally bring into any gentleman's house, let alone the vicar's, and him no more nor a page neither!' but Colin managed generally to appease his anger, and to gain a grudging consent at last for the clay to be imported into the house under the most stringent sumptuary conditions. The vicar must never see it coming or going; he mustn't be allowed to know that the Dook permitted such goings-on in the house where he was major-domo. On that point Mr. Capel was severity itself. So when the images were fairly finished, Colin used to take them out surreptitiously at night, and then hand them over to Minna Wroe, who had quite a little museum of the young sculptor's earliest efforts in her own bedroom. She had alike the Thetis after Thorwaldsen (a heathenish, scarce half-clad huzzy, who shocked poor Mrs. Churchill's sense of propriety immensely, until she was solemnly assured that the original stood in the vicar's study), and the Infant Samuel after the plaster cast on the cottage mantelpiece; as well as the bust of Miss Eva, the vicar's favourite niece, studied from life as Colin stood behind her chair at night, or handed her the potatoes at dinner. If Miss Eva hadn't been eighteen, and such a very grand young lady, little Minna might almost have been jealous of her. But as it was—why, Colin was only the page boy, and so really, after all, what did it matter?

For three years Colin continued at the vicarage, till he was full fifteen, and then an incident occurred which gave the first final direction to his artistic impulses.

One afternoon he had been down to the brook, talking as usual with his old playmate Minna (even fifteen and thirteen are not yet very dangerous ages), when he happened, in climbing up that well-known clay cliff, to miss his foothold on the sticky slippery surface, and fell suddenly into the bed of the stream below. His head was sadly cut by the flints at the bottom, and two neighbours picked him out and carried him between them up to the vicarage. There he was promptly laid upon his own bed, while Capel sent off hurriedly for the Wootton doctor to staunch the flow of blood from the ugly cut.

When the vicar heard of the accident from the Dook, he was sitting in the drawing-room listening to Miss Eva playing a then fashionable gavotte by a then fashionable composer. 'Is he badly hurt, Capel?' the vicar asked, with decorous show of interest.

'Pretty bad, sir,' the Dook answered in his official manner. 'I should judge, sir, by the look of it, that the boy had cut a artery, sir, or summat of that sort; leastways, the wownd is bleeding most uncommon profusely.'

'I'll come and see him,' the vicar said, with the air of a man who decorously makes a sacrifice to Christian principles. 'You may tell the poor lad, Capel, that I'll come and see him presently.'

'And I will too,' Eva put in quickly.

'Eva, my dear!' her uncle observed with chilling dignity. 'You had better not. The sight would be a most unpleasant one for you. Indeed, for all of us. Capel, you may tell Churchill that I am coming to see him. Eva, I'm afraid I interrupted you: go on, my dear.'

Eva played out the gavotte to the end a little impatiently, and then the vicar rose after a minute or two of decent delay (one mustn't seem in too great a hurry to sympathise with the accidents which may befall one's poorer neighbours), and walked in his stately leisurely fashion towards the servants' quarters. 'Which is Churchill's room, Capel?' he asked as he went along. 'Ah, yes, this one, to be sure. Poor lad, I hope he's better now.'

But as soon as the vicar stood within the room, which he had never entered before since Colin had used it, he had hardly any eyes for the boy or the surgeon, and could scarcely even ask the few questions which decorum demanded as to his state and probable recovery.

For the walls of Colin Churchill's bedroom were certainly of a sort gravely to surprise and disquiet the unsuspecting vicar. All round the room, a number of large sheets of paper hung, on which were painted in bright water-colours cartoon-like copies of the engravings which formed the chief decoration of the vicar's drawing-room.

'Who did these?' he asked sternly.

'Me, sir,' the boy answered, trembling, from the bed.

The Reverend Philip Howard-Russell started visibly. He displayed astonishment even before his own servants. In truth, he was too good a judge of art not to see at a glance that the pictures were well drawn, and that the colouring, which was necessarily original, had been harmonised with native taste. All this was disquieting enough; but more disquieting than all was another work of art which hung right on the top of Colin's bed-head. It was a composition in clay of the Four Seasons, reproduced in bas-relief from the mezzotint in the vicar's portfolio, over which he now at once remembered Colin had so often and so constantly lingered.

Though he ought to have been looking at the boy, the vicar's eyes were fixed steadily during almost all the interview on this singular bas-relief. If the water-colours had merit, the vicar, as a man of taste, could not conceal from himself the patent fact that the bas-relief showed positive signs of real genius. It was really most untoward, most disconcerting! A lad of that position in life to go and model a composition in relief from an engraving on the flat, and to do it well, too! The vicar had certainly never heard of anything like it!

He said a few words of decorously conventional encouragement to Colin, told the surgeon he was delighted to hear the wound was not a serious one, and then beckoned the Dook quietly out of the room as he himself took his departure.

'Capel,' he said, in a low voice on the landing, 'what on earth is the meaning of that—ur—that panel at Churchill's bedside?'

'Well, sir, the boy likes to make a mess with mud and water, you see,' the butler answered submissively, 'and I didn't like to prevent him, because he's a well-conducted lad in gen'ral, sir, and he seems to have took a awful fancy to this sort of imaging. I hope there ain't no harm done, sir. I never allows him to make a mess with it.'

'Not at all, not at all, Capel,' the vicar continued, frowning slightly. 'No harm in the world in his amusing himself so, of course; still'—and this the vicar added to himself as though it were a peculiarly aggravating piece of criminality—'there's no denying he has reproduced that mezzotint in really quite a masterly manner.'

The vicar went back to the drawing-room with a distressed and puzzled look upon his clean-shaven clear-cut countenance. 'Is he badly hurt, uncle?' asked Eva. 'No, my dear,' the vicar replied, testily; 'nothing to speak of; but I'm afraid he has made himself a very singular and excellent bas-relief.'

'A what?' cried Eva, imagining to herself that she had overlooked the meaning of some abstruse medical term which sounded strangely artistic to her unaccustomed ears.

'A bas-relief,' the vicar repeated, in a disgusted tone. 'Yes, my dear, I'm not surprised you should be astonished at it, but I said a bas-relief. He has reproduced my Bologna Four Seasons in clay, and what's worse, Eva, he has really done it extremely well too, confound him.'

It was only on very rare occasions that the vicar allowed himself the use of such doubtful expressions, and even then he employed them in his born capacity as a Howard-Russell rather than in his acquired one as a clergyman of the Church of England.

'Eva, my dear,' he said again after a long pause, 'the boy's head is bandaged now, and after all there's really nothing in any way in his condition to shock you. It might be as well, perhaps, if you were to go to see him, and ask Mr. Walkem whether the cook ought to make him anything in the way of jelly or beef-tea or any stuff of that sort, you know. These little attentions to one's dependents in illness are only Christian, only Christian. And, do you know, Eva, you might at the same time just glance at the panel by the bed-head, and tell me by-and-by what you think of it. I've great confidence in your judgment, my dear, and after all it mayn't perhaps be really quite so good as I'm at first sight inclined to believe it.'

When niece and uncle met again at dinner, Eva unhesitatingly proclaimed her opinion that the bas-relief was very clever (a feminine expression for every degree of artistic or intellectual merit, not readily apprehended by the ridiculous hair-splitting male intelligence). The vicar moved uneasily in his chair. This was most disconcerting. What on earth was he to do with the boy? As a man of taste, he felt that he mustn't keep a possible future Canova blacking boots in his back kitchen; as a Christian minister, he felt that he must do the best he could to advance the position of all his parishioners; yet finally, as a loyal member of this commonwealth, he felt that he ought not to countenance people of that position in life in having tastes and occupations above their natural station. Old Churchill's son, too! Could anything be more annoying? 'What on earth ought we to do with him, Eva?' he asked doubtfully.

'Send him to London to some good artist, and see what he can make of him,' Eva replied with astonishing promptitude. (It's really wonderful how young people of the present day will undertake to solve the most difficult practical problems off-hand, as if there were absolutely nothing in them.)

The vicar glanced towards the Dook uneasily. 'It's a very extraordinary thing,' he said, 'for a lad of his class to go and dream of going and doing. I may be old-fashioned, Eva, my dear, but I don't quite like it. I won't deny that I don't quite like it.'

'Haven't I read somewhere,' Eva went on innocently, 'that Giotto or somebody was a peasant boy who fed sheep, and that some one or other, Cimabue, I think (only I don't know how to pronounce his name properly), saw some drawings he'd made with a bit of charcoal on some rock, and took him for his pupil, and made him into, oh, such a great painter?

I know it was such a delightfully romantic story, wherever I read it.'

The vicar coughed drily. 'That was in the thirteenth century, my dear,' he said, in his coldest and most repressive tone. 'The thirteenth century was a very long time ago, Eva. Society hadn't organised itself then, as it has done in our own day. Besides, the story has been critically doubted. Ci-ma-bu-e,' and the vicar dwelt carefully on each syllable of the name with a little distinct intonation which mutely corrected Eva's faulty Italian without too obtrusively exciting the butler's attention, 'had probably very little to do with discovering Giot-to.—Capel, this is not the green seal claret. Go and decant some green seal at once, will you.—My dear, this is a discussion which had better not be carried on before the servants.'

In three days more the Dook was regaling the gossips of the White Lion with the whole story how the vicar, with his usual artistic sensibility, had discovered merit in that lad of Churchill's, and had found out as the thing the lad had made out of mud were really what they call a bas-relief, 'which I've seen 'em, of course,' said the Dook, loftily, 'in lots of palaces in Italy, carved by Jotter, and Bonnomey, and Jamberty, and all them old swells; but I never took much notice of this one o' young Churchill's, naterally, till the vicar came in; and then, as soon as ever he clapped eyes on it, he says at once to me, “Capel,” says he, “that's a bas-relief.” And then, I remembered as I'd seen just the same sort of things, as I was sayin', over in Italy, by the cart-load; but, Lord, who'd have ever thought old Sam Churchill's son could ever ha' done one! And now the vicar's asted Sam to let him get the boy apprenticed to a wood-carver: and Sam's give his consent; and next week the boy's going off to Exeter, and going to make his fortune as sure as there's apples in Herefordshire.'

The idea of the wood-carver may be considered as a sort of compromise on the vicar's part between his two duties, as a munificent discoverer of rising talent, and a judicious represser of the too-aspiring lower orders. A wood-carver's work is in a certain sense artistic, and yet it isn't anything more, as a rule, than a decent handicraft. The vicar rather prided himself upon this clever sop to both his consciences: he chuckled inwardly over the impartial manner in which he had managed to combine the recognition of plastic merit with the equal recognition of profound social disabilities. Eva, to be sure, had stood out stoutly against the wood-carving, and had pleaded hard for a sculptor in London: but the vicar disarmed her objections somewhat by alleging the admirable precedent of Grinling Gibbons. 'Gibbons, you know, my dear, rose to the very first rank as a sculptor from his trade as a wood-carver. Pity to upset the boy's mind by putting him at once to a regular artist. If there's really anything in him, he'll rise at last; if not, it would only do him harm to encourage him in absurd expectations.' Oh, wise inverted Gamaliels! you too in your decorous way, with your topsyturvy opportunism, cannot wholly escape the charge of quenching the spirit.


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