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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER VI. ENTER A NEW ENGLANDER.
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Hiram Winthrop's emancipation had come a little earlier, and it had come after this fashion.

It was early spring along the lake shore, and Hiram had wandered out, alone as usual, into the dense marshy scrub that fringed the Creek, near the spot where it broadens and deepens into a long blue bay of still half-frozen and spell-bound Ontario. The skunk-cabbage was coming into flower! It was early spring, and the boy's heart was glad within him, as though the deacon, and the cord-wood, and the coming drudgery of hoeing and weeding had never existed. Perhaps, now, he should see the trappers again. He wandered on among the unbroken woods, just greening with the wan fresh buds, and watched the whole world bursting into life again after its long wintry interlude; as none have ever seen it waken save those who know the great icy lake country of North America. The signs of quickening were frequent in the underbrush. The shrill peep of the tree-frog came to him from afar through the almost silent woodland. The drumming of the redheaded woodpecker upon the hickory trunks showed that the fat white grubs were now hatching and moving underneath the bark Close to the water's edge he scared up a snipe; and then, again, a little farther, he saw a hen hawk rise with sudden flappings from the clam-shell mound. Hark, too; that faint, swelling, distant beat! surely it was a partridge! He looked up into the trees, and searched for it diligently: and there true enough, settling, after the transatlantic manner, on a tall butternut (oh, heterodox bird!), he caught a single glimpse of the beautiful fluttering creature, as it took its perch lightly upon the topmost branches.

It was so delightful, all of it, that Hiram never thought of the time or his dinner, but simply wandered on, as a boy will, for hour after hour in that tangled woodland. What did he care, in the joy of his heart, for the coming beating? His one idea was to see the trappers. At last, he saw an unwonted sight through the trees—two men actually pushing their way along beside the river. His heart beat fast within him: could they be the trappers? Spurred on by that glorious possibility, he crept up quickly and noiselessly behind them. The men were talking quite loud to one another: no, they couldn't be trappers: trappers always go softly, and speak in a whisper. But if they weren't trappers, what on earth could they be do down here in the unbroken forest? Not felling wood, that was clear; for they had no axes with them, and they walked along without ever observing the lie of the timber. Not going to survey wild lands, for they had none of those strange measuring things with them (Hiram was innocent of the name theodolite) that surveyors are always peeping and squinting through. Not gunning either, for they had no guns, but only simple stout walking-sticks. 'Sech a re-markable, on-common circumstance I never saw, and that's true as Judges,' Hiram said to himself, as he watched them narrowly. He would jest listen to what they were sayin', and see if he could make out what on airth they could be doin' down in them woods thar.

'When I picked him up,' one of the men was saying to the other, in a clear, distinct, delicate tone, such as Hiram had never heard before, 'I saw it was a wounded merganser, winged by some bad shot, and fallen into the water to die alone. I never saw anything more beautiful than its long slender vermilion bill, the very colour of red sealing wax; and its clean bright orange legs and feet; and its pure white breast just tinged at the tip of each feather with faint salmon, or a dainty buff inclining to salmon. I was sorry I hadn't got my colours with me: I'd have given anything to be able to paint him, then and there.'

Hiram could hardly contain himself with mingled awe, delight, and astonishment. He wanted to call out on the spur of the moment 'I know that thar bird. I know him. 'Tain't called that name you give him, down our section, though. We call him a fisherman diver.' But he didn't dare to in his perfect transport of surprise and amazement. It wasn't the strange person's tone alone that pleased him so much, though he felt, in a vague indefinable way, that there was something very beautiful and refined and exquisitely modulated in it—the voice being in fact the measured, clearly articulate voice of a cultivated New England gentleman, such as he had never before met in his whole lifetime: it wasn't exactly that, though that was in itself sufficiently surprising: it was the astounding fact that there was a full-grown, decently clad man, not apparently a lunatic or an imbecile, positively interesting himself in such childish things as the very colours and feathers of a bird, just the same as he, Hiram Winthrop, might have done in the blackberry bottom. The deacon never talked about the bill of a merganser! The deacon never noticed the dainty buff on the breast, inclining to salmon! The deacon never expressed any burning desire to pull out his brushes and paint it! All the men he had ever yet seen in Geauga County would have regarded the colours on the legs of a bird as wholly beneath their exalted and dignified adult consideration. Corn and pork were the objects that engaged their profound intellects, not birds and insects. Hiram had always imagined that an interest in such small things was entirely confined to boys and infants. That grown men could care to talk about them was an idea wholly above his limited experience, and almost above what the deacon would have called his poor finite comprehension.

'Yes,' the other answered him, even before Hiram could recover from his first astonishment. 'It's a lovely bird. I've tried to sketch him myself more than once. And have you ever noticed, Audouin, the peculiar way the tints are arranged on the back of the neck? The crest's black, you know, glossed with green; but the nape's white; and the colours don't merge into one another, as you might expect, but cease abruptly with quite a hard line of demarcation at the point of junction.'

'Jest for all the world as ef they was sewed together,' Hiram murmured to himself inaudibly, still more profoundly astonished at this incredible and totally unexpected phenomenon. Then there were two distinct and separate human beings in the world, it seemed, who were each capable of paying attention to the coloration of a common merganser. As Hiram whispered awestruck to his own soul, 'most mirac'lous!'

He followed them up a little farther, hanging anxiously on every word, and to his continued astonishment heard them notice to one another such petty matters as the flowering of the white maples, the twittering of the red-polls among the fallen pine-needles, the wider and ever wider circles on the water where the pickerel had leaped, nay, even the tracks left upon the soft clay that marked the nightly coming and going of the stealthy wood-chuck. Impossible: unimaginable: utterly un-diaconal: but still true! Hiram's spirit was divided within him. At last the one who was addressed as Audouin said casually to his companion, 'Let's sit down here, Professor, and have our lunch. I love this lunching in the open woods. It brings us nearer to primitive nature. I suppose the chord it strikes within us is the long latent and unstruck chord of hereditary habit and feeling. It's centuries since our old English ancestors lived that free life in the open woods of the Teutonic mainland; but the unconscious memory of it reverberates dimly still, I often think, through all our nature, and comes out in the universal love for escape from conventionality to the pure freedom of an open-air existence.'

'Perhaps so,' the Professor answered with a laugh: 'but if you'll leave your Boston philosophy behind, my dear unpractical Audouin, and open your sandwich-case, you'll be doing a great deal more good in the cause of hungry humanity than by speculating on the possible psychological analysis of the pleasure of picnicking.'

Hiram didn't quite know what all that meant; but from behind the big alder he could, at least, see that the sandwiches looked remarkably tempting (by the way, it was clearly past dinner-time, to judge by the internal monitor), and the Professor was pouring something beautifully red and clear into a metal cup out of the wicker-covered bottle. It wasn't whisky, certainly; nor spruce beer, either: could it really be that red stuff, wine, that people used to drink in Bible times, according to the best documentary authorities?

'Don't, pray, reproach me with the original sin of having been born in Boston,' Audouin answered, with a slight half-affected little shiver. 'I can no more help that, of course, than I can help the following of Adam, in common with all the rest of our poor fallen humanity.' (Why, that was jest like the deacon!) 'But at least I've done my very best to put away the accursed thing, and get rid, for ever, of our polluted material civilisation. I've tried to flee from man (except always you, my dear Professor), and take refuge from his impertinent inanity in the bosom of my mother nature. From the haunts of the dry-goods man and the busy throng of drummers, I've come into the woods and fields as from a solitary desert into society. I prefer to emphasise my relations to the universe, rather than my relations to the miserable toiling ant-hill of petty humanity.'

'Really, Audouin,' the Professor put in, as he passed his friend the claret, 'you're growing positively morbid; degenerating into a wild man of the woods. I must take you back for a while to the city and civilisation. I shall buy you a suit of store clothes, set you up in a five-dollar imported hat, and make you promenade State Street, afternoons, keeping a sharp eye on the Boston ladies and the Boston fashions.'

'No, no, Professor,' Audouin answered, with a graceful flourish of his small white hand: (Hiram noticed that it was small and white, though the dress the stranger actually wore was not a 'store suit.' but a jacket and trousers of the local home-spun); 'no, no; that would never do. I refuse to believe in your civilisation. I abjure it: I banish it. What is it? A mere cutting down of trees and disfiguring of nature, in order to supply uninteresting millions with illimitable pork and beans. The object of our society seems to be to provide more and more luxuriously for our material wants, and to shelve all higher ideals of our nature for an occasional Sunday service and a hypothetical future existence. I turn with delight, on the other hand, from cities and railroad cars to the forest and the living creatures. They are the one group of beautiful things that the great Anglo-Saxon race, in civilising and vulgarising this vast continent, has left us still undesecrated. They are not conventionalised; they don't go to the Old Meeting House in European clothes Sunday mornings; they speak always to me in the language of nature, and tell me our lower wants must be simplified that the higher life may be correspondingly enriched. The only true way of salvation, after all, Professor, lies in perfect fidelity to one's own truest inner promptings.'

Hiram listened still, all amazed. He didn't fully understand it all; some of it sounded to him rather affectedly sentimental and finnikin; but on the whole what struck him most was the strange fact that this fine-spoken town-bred gentleman seemed to have ideas about the world and nature—differently expressed, but fundamentally identical—such as he himself felt but never knew before anybody else in the whole world was likely to share with him. 'That's pretty near jest what I'd have said myself,' the boy thought wonderingly, 'if I'd knowed how: only I shouldn't ever have bin able to say it so fine and high-falutin.' They finished their lunch, and sat talking a while together under the shadow of the leafless hickories. The boy still stopped and watched them, spell-bound. At last Audouin pulled a head of flowers from close to the ground, and looked at it pensively, with his head just a trifle theatrically on one side. 'That's a curious thing, Professor,' he said, eyeing it at different distances in his hand: 'what do you call it now? I don't know it.'

'I'm sure I can't tell you, the Professor answered, taking it from him carelessly. I don't pretend to be much of a botanist, you see, and I'm out of my element down here among the lake-side flora.'

Hiram could contain himself no longer.

'It's skunk-cabbage,' he cried, in all the exultation of boyish knowledge, emerging suddenly from behind the big alder. 'Skunk-cabbage, the trappers call it. Ain't it splendid? You kin hear the bees hummin' an' buzzin' around it, fine days in spring, findin it out close to the ground, and goin' into it, one at a time, before the willows has begun to blossom. I see lots as I kem along this mornin', putting out their long tongues into it, and scarin' away the flies as they tried to get a bit o' the breakfast.'

Audouin laughed melodiously. 'What's this?' he cried. 'A heaven-born observer dropped suddenly upon us from the clouds!

You seem to know all about it, my young friend. Skunk-cabbage, is it? But surely the bees aren't out in search of honey already, are they?'

''Tain't honey they get from it,' the boy answered quickly. 'It's bee-bread. Jest you see them go in, and watch 'em come out again, and thar you'll find they've all got little yaller pellets stickin' right on to the small hairs upon their thighs. That's bee-bread, that is, what they give to the maggots. All bees is born out of maggots.'

Audouin laughed again. 'Why, Professor,' he said briskly, 'this is indeed a phenomenon. A country-bred boy who cares for and watches nature! Boston must have set her mark on me deep, after all, for I'm positively surprised to find a lover of nature born so far from the hub of the universe. Skunk-cabbage, you call it; so quaint a flower deserves a rather better name. Do you know the tassel-flower, my young fellow-citizen? (we're both citizens of the woods, it seems). Do you know tassel-flower? is it out yet? I want to find some.'

'I know it, some,' Hiram answered, delighted, 'but it ain't out yet; it comes a bit later. But I kin draw it for you, if you like, so's you can know it when it comes into blossom.' And he felt in his pocket for some invisible object, which he soon produced in the visible shape of a small red jasper arrowhead. The boy was just beginning to scratch a figure with it on a flat piece of water-rolled limestone when Audouin's quick eye caught sight, sideways, of the beautifully chipped implement.

'Ha, ha,' he cried, taking it from Hiram suddenly, 'what have we here, eh? The red man: his mark: as plain as printing. The broad arrow of the aboriginal possessor of all America! Why, this is good; this is jasper. Where on earth did you get this from?'

'Whar on airth, 'Hiram echoed, astonished anew; 'why jest over thar: I picked it up as I kem along this morning. Thar's lots about, 'specially in spring time.'Pears as if the Injuns shot 'em off at painters and bars and settlers and things, and missed sometimes, and lost 'em. Then they lie thar in the ground a long time till some hard winter comes along to uncover 'em. Hard winters, the frost throws 'em up; and when the snow melts, the water washes 'em out into the furrers. I've got crowds of 'em to home; arrowheads and tommyhawks, and terbacker pipes, an' all sorts. I pick 'em up every spring, reglar.' Audouin looked at the boy with a far more earnest and searching glance for a moment; then he turned quickly to the Professor. 'There's something in this,' he said, in a serious tone, very different from his previous half-unreal banter. 'The bucolic intelligence evidently extends deeper than its linguistic faculties might at first lead one to suspect.' He spoke intentionally in hieroglyphics, aiming his words above the boy's head; but Hiram caught the general sense notwithstanding, and flushed slightly with ingenuous pride. 'Well, let's see your drawing,' Audouin went on, with a gracious smile, handing the boy back his precious little bit of pointed jasper.

Hiram took the stone weapon between finger and thumb, and scratching the surface of the waterworn pebble lightly with its point in a few places, produced in a dozen strokes a rough outline of the Canadian tassel-flower. Audouin looked at the hasty sketch in evident astonishment. It was his turn now to be completely surprised. 'Why, look here, Professor,' he said very slowly: 'this is—yes, this is—actually a drawing.'

The Professor took the pebble from his hands, and scanned it closely. 'Why, yes,' he said, in some surprise. 'There's certainly a great deal of native artistic freedom about the leaf and flower. It's excellent; in fact, quite astonishing. I expected a diagrammatic representation; this is really, as you say, Audouin, a drawing.'

Hiram looked on in perfect silence: but the colour came hot and bright in his cheek with very unwonted pleasure and excitement. To hear himself praised and encouraged for drawing was indeed a wonder. So very unlike the habits and manners of the deacon.

'Do you ever draw with a pencil?' Audouin asked after a moment's pause, 'or do you always scratch your sketches like this on flat bits of pebble?'

'Oh, I hev a pencil and book in my pocket,' Hiram answered shyly; 'only I kinder didn't care to waste the paper on a thing like that; an' besides, I was scar't that you two growed-ups mightn't think well of my picturs that I've drawed in it.'

'Produce the pictures,' Audouin said in a tone of authority, leaning back against the trunk of the hickory.

Hiram drew them from his pocket timidly.

'Thar they are,' he murmured, with a depreciatory gesture. 'They ain't much, but they're all the picturs I knowed how to draw.'

Audouin took the book in his hand—Sam Churchill's ten-cent copybook—and turned over the well-filled pages with a critical eye. The Professor, too, glanced at it over his shoulder. Hiram stood mute and expectant before them, with eyes staring blankly, and in the expressive uncouth attitude of a na?f shamefaced American country boy.

At last Audouin came to the last page.

'Well, Professor'—he said inquiringly.

'Something in them, isn't there, eh? This boy'll make a painter, I surmise, won't he?' The Professor answered only by opening a small portfolio, and taking out a little amateur water-colour drawing. 'Look here, my son,' he said, holding it up before Hiram. 'Do you think you could do that sort of thing?'

'I guess I could,' Hiram answered, with the unhesitating confidence of inexperienced youth. 'ef I'd on'y got the right sort of colours to do it with.'

The Professor laughed heartily. 'Then you shall have them, anyhow,' he said promptly. 'Native talent shall not go unrewarded for the sake of a paltry box of Prussian blue and burnt sienna. You shall have them right off and no mistake. Where do you live, Mr. Melibous?'

'My name's Hiram,' the boy answered, a little smartly, for he somehow felt the unknown nickname was not entirely a courteous one: 'Hiram Winthrop, and I live jest t'other side of Muddy Creek deepo.'

'Winthrop,' Audouin put in gaily. 'Winthrop. I see it all now. Good old Massachusetts name, Winthrop: connected with the hub of the universe after all, it seems, in spite of mere superficial appearances to the contrary. But it's a pretty far cry to Muddy Creek dép?t, my friend. You must be hungry, ain't you? Have you had your dinner?'

'No, I ain't.'

'Then you sit down right there, my boy, and pitch into those sandwiches.'

Hiram lost no time in obeying the seasonable invitation.

'How do you find them?' asked Audouin.

'Real elegant,' Hiram answered.

'Have some wine?'

'I never tasted none,' the boy replied:

'But it looks real nice. I don't mind ef I investigate it.'

Audouin poured him out a small cupful. The boy took it with the ease of a freeborn citizen, very unlike the awkwardness of an English plough-boy—an awkwardness which shows itself at once the last relic of original serfdom. 'Tain't bad,' he said, tasting it. 'So that's wine, then! Nothing so much to go gettin' mad about either. I reckon the colour's the best thing about it, any way.'

They waited till the boy had finished his luncheon, and then Audouin began asking him a great many questions, cunningly devised questions to draw him out, about the plants, and the animals, and the drawings, and the neighbourhood, and himself, till at last Hiram grew quite friendly and confidential. He entered freely into the natural history and psychology of the deacon. He told them all his store of self-acquired knowledge. He omitted nothing, from the cuffs and reprobation to Sam Churchill and the bald-headed eagles. At each fresh item Audouin's interest rose higher and higher. 'Have you gone to school, Hiram?' he asked at last.

'Common school,' Hiram answered briefly. 'Learnt much there?'

'Headin', writin', spellin', 'rithmetic, scrip-tur', jography, an' hist'ry an' const'tooshun of the United States,' Hiram replied, with the sharp promptitude begotten of rote learning.

Audouin smiled a sardonic Massachusetts smile. 'A numerous list of accomplishments, indeed,' he answered, playing with his watch-chain carelessly. 'The history of the United States in particular must be intensely interesting. But the Indians—you learnt about them yourself, I suppose—that's so, isn't it, Hiram? What we learn of ourselves is always in the end the best learning. Well, now look here, my boy; how'd you like to go to college, and perhaps in time teach school yourself?'

'I'd like that fust-rate,' Hiram answered; 'but I think I'd like best of all to go to sea, or to be a painter.'

'To be a painter,' Audouin murmured softly; 'to be a painter. Our great continent hasn't produced any large crop of prominent citizens who wanted to be painters. This one might, after all, be worth trying. Well, Hiram, do you think if I were to ask your father, there's any chance that he might possibly be willing to let you go to college?'

'Nary chance at all,' Hiram answered vigorously. 'Why, father couldn't spare me from the peppermint an' the pertaters; an' as to goin' to college, why, it ain't in the runnin' any way.'

'Professor,' Audouin said, 'this boy interests me. He's vital: he's aboriginal: he's a young Ant?us fresh from the bare earth of the ploughed fields and furrows. Let's till him; without cutting down all the trees, let's lay him out in park and woodland. I'll have a try, anyhow, with this terrible father of yours, Hiram. Are you going home now?'

'I reckon I must,' the boy answered with a nod. 'He'll be mad enough with me as it is for stopping away so long from him.'

'You'll get a thrashing, I'm afraid, when you go home?'

'I guess that's jest the name of it.'

'Professor,' Audouin said, rising resolutely, 'this means business. We must see this thing right through immediately to the very conclusion. The boy must not have his thrashing. I'll go and see the father—beard the Geauga County agriculturist in his very lair: dispute his whelp with him: play lambent lightning round him: save the young Ant?us from sinking in the natural course of things into one more pickier of pork and contented devourer of buttered buckwheat pancakes. There's a spark in him somewhere: I'm going to try whether I can manage to blow it up into a full-fed flame.'


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