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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER VII. THE DEACON FALTERS.
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Boston has worn itself out. The artificial centre of an unnatural sickly exotic culture ever alien to the American soil, it has gone on studying, criticising, analysing, till all the vigour and spontaneity it may ever have possessed has utterly died out of it from pure inanition. The Nemesis of sterility has fallen upon its head in the second generation. It has cultivated men, fastidious critics, receptive and appreciative intellects by the thousand; but of thinkers, workers, originalities, hardly now a single one.

Lothrop Audouin was the very embodiment of the discontent and mocking intellectual nihilism begotten of this purely critical unoriginative attitude. Reaction against American materialism was the mainspring of his inner being. He felt himself out of harmony with the palace cars on the New York Central Railroad; jarring and conflicting with the big saloons of the Windsor Hotel; unappreciative of the advertising enterprise on the rocks of the Hudson River; at war with mammoth concerns, gigantic newspapers, Presidential booms, State legislatures, pop corn, saw mills, utilisation of water power, and all the other component elements of the great American civilisation. Therefore, being happily endowed by fate and his ancestors with a moderate competence, even as moderate competences go on the other side of the Atlantic, he had fled from Boston and the world to take refuge in the woods and the marshes. For some years he had hidden himself in the western hill district of Massachusetts; but being driven thence by the march of intellect (enthroned on a steam plough), he had just removed to a new cottage on the shore of Muddy Creek, not far from its entry into Lake Ontario. There he lived a solitary life, watching the birds and beasts and insects, sketching the trees and shrubs and flowers, and shunning for the most part his fellow-man, save only his friend, the distinguished ornithologist, Professor Ezra P. Hipkiss, of Harvard College, Massachusetts.

The Professor had left them, intending to return home by himself; and Audouin walked back alone with the boy, noticing at every step his sharp appreciation of all the natural signs and landmarks around him. At last a sudden thought seemed to strike Hiram. He drew back a second in momentary hesitation.

'Say,' he said falteringly, 'you ain't one of Father Noyes's crowd at Oneida, are you?'

Audouin smiled half contemptuously.

Father Noyes is a New Haven fanatic who has established an Agapemone of his own in northern New York; and to Hiram, who had heard the Oneida community spoken of with vague horror by all the surrounding farmers from his babyhood upward, the originally separate and distinct notions of Father Noyes and the Devil had so coalesced that even now in his maturer years they were not completely differentiated or demarcated. 'No, no,' Audouin answered reassuringly: 'I'm not one of the Oneida people, my boy: I'm quite free from any taint of that sort. I'm a Boston man; a Boston man, I said; even in the woods that sticks to me. “Patri? quis exul,” I think the line runs, “se quoque fugit.”' Hiram didn't understand exactly what he was driving at, but he went along satisfied at least that his strange acquaintance, though he spoke with tongues, was not directly connected either with Father Noyes or the Devil.

By-and-by they reached the high-road, and came at last opposite the bare gate that gave access to Deacon Winthrop's yard. Audouin gazed about him drearily at the dreary prospect. 'A very American view, Hiram,' he said slowly: 'civilisation hard at work here; my boy, we must try to redeem you out of it.'

Hiram looked up in the stranger's face curiously. He had grown up among his native surroundings so unquestioningly, after the fashion of boys, that, though he knew it was all very ugly, hopelessly and hideously ugly, it would never even have occurred to him to say so in so many words. He took it for granted that all the world was of course dull and uninteresting, except the woods, and the weeds, and the marshes, and the vermin. He expected always to find all man's handicraft a continuous course of uglification, and he never suspected that there could by any possibility be anything beautiful except untouched and unpolluted nature. If you had told him about the wonders and glories of art, he would simply have listened to you then in mute incredulity.

Audouin lifted up the latch of the gate and walked into the yard; and the deacon, seeing him approach, strode to meet him, in no very amiable frame of mind, thinking it probable that this was only another one of Hiram's undesirable trapper acquaintances. To say the truth, the misapprehension was a natural one. Audouin was coarsely dressed in rough country clothes, and even when he spoke a nature like the deacon's was hardly of the sort to be much impressed by his quiet cultivated manner. 'Wal, cap'n,' the deacon said, coming towards them, 'what might you be lookin' after this mornin', eh? I presume you air on the look-out for horses?'

Audouin smiled and bowed with a dignity which suited strangely with his rude outer aspect. 'No, sir,' he answered in his bland voice. 'I'm not looking out for horses. I met your son here—a very interesting boy—down by the Creek, and I have come up here with him because his individuality attracted me. I wanted to have a talk with you about him.' As it happened, to speak well of Hiram, and before his face too (the scapegrace!), wasn't exactly the surest path to the deacon's esteem and affection. He coughed nervously, and then inquired in his dry manner, 'Trapper?' 'No, not exactly a trapper,' Audouin replied, smiling again faintly. The faint smile and the 'exactly' both misled and exasperated the deacon.

'Farmer, then?' he continued laconically, after the fashion of the country.

'No, nor farmer either,' the New Englander answered in his soft voice. 'I am Mr. Audouin, of Lakeside Cottage.'

The deacon scanned him contemptuously from head to foot. 'Oh, Mister Audouin,' he said significantly. 'Wal, Mister Audouin, so you've bought up that thar ramshackle place of Hitchcock's, hev you? And what air you goin' to dew with it naow you've got it? Clear off the timber, I reckon, and set up rafting.'

'God forbid,' Audouin replied hastily. (The deacon frowned slightly at such obvious profanity.) 'I've taken the place just because of its very wildness, and I merely wish to live in it and watch and sympathise with nature. I see your son loves nature, too, and that has formed a bond of union between us.'

'Wal,' the deacon murmured meditatively, 'that's all accordin' to taste. Hiram is my own son, an' if the Lord has bin pleased to afflict us in him, mother an' me ain't the ones to say nothin' agin him to casual strangers, anyway. But I don't want to part with him, Mister Audouin; we ain't lookin' out for a place for him yet. Thar's work enough for him to do on this farm, I kin tell you, ef on'y he'd do it. You wasn't in want of any butter or eggs now, was you?'

'No, Mr. Winthrop,' Audouin answered seriously, leaning against the gate as he spoke. 'I see you quite misunderstand me. Allow me a moment to explain the position. I'm a Boston man, a man of independent means, and I've taken Lakeside because I wish to live alone, away from a world in which I have really very little interest. You may possibly know, by name at least, my uncle, Senator Lothrop, of Syracuse;' (that was a horrid bit of snobbery, worthy almost of the old world, Audouin thought to himself as he uttered it; but it was necessary if he was to do anything for Hiram). 'Well, that's my card—some use in civilisation after all—Lothrop Audouin; and I was wandering in the woods by the Creek this morning with my friend, Professor Hipkiss of Harvard, when I happened to fall in quite accidentally with your son here. He charmed us by his knowledge of nature all around, and, indeed, I was so much interested in him that I thought I would just step over and have a little conversation with you about his future.'

The deacon took the little bit of pasteboard suspiciously, and looked with slowly melting incredulity at Audouin's rough dress from head to foot. Even upon his dense, coarse, materialised mind the truth began to dawn slowly that he was dealing with a veritable gentleman. 'Wal, Mr. Audouin,' he said, this time without the ironical emphasis upon the 'Mister,' 'what do yer want to dew with the boy, eh, sir? I don't see as I kin spare him; 'pears to me, ef he's goin anywhar, he may as well go to a good farmer's.'

'You mistake me still,' Audouin went on. 'My meaning is this. Your son has talked to the Professor and myself, and has shown us some of his sketches.' The deacon nodded ominously. 'Now, his conversation is so intelligent and his drawings so clever, that we both think you ought to make an effort to give him a good education. He would well repay it. We have both a considerable influence in educational quarters, and we would willingly exert it for his benefit.'

The deacon opened his eyes with astonishment. That lad intelligent? Why, he was no judge at all of a bullock, and he knew scarcely anythin' more about fall wheat'n a greenhorn that might hev kem out from Ireland by the last steamer. However, he contented himself upon that head with smiling sardonically, and muttered half to himself, 'Edoocation; edoocational influence; not with members of the Hopkinsite connection, I reckon.'

Audouin carefully checked the smile that threatened to pull up the corners of his delicate mouth. He was beginning to understand now what manner of man he had got to deal with, and for Hiram's sake he was determined to be patient. Fancy such a lad living always exposed to the caprices of such a father!

'No,' he said gravely, 'not with the Hopkin-sites, but with the Congregationalists and others, where your boy would not be interfered with in his religious convictions.'

''Tain't entirely satisfactory,' the deacon continued. 'Consider my persition as one set in authority, as it were, in the Hopkinsite connection. Hiram ain't bin nowhar so far, 'ceptin' to common school, an' I dunno as I hev made up my mind ever to send him any-whar else. Boys loses a lot o' time over this here edoocation. But ef I was to, I guess I should send him to Bethabara Seminary. We hev a seminary of our own, sir—we of the Believin' Church, commonly known as the Hopkinsite connection—at Athens in Madison County, which we call Bethabara, because we surmise it's the on'y place in America whar the Gospel is taught on thorough-goin' Baptist principles. We air not only for immersion as agin sprinklin', mister, but also for scriptooral immersion in runnin' water as agin the lax modern practice of or'nary immersion in tanks or reservoyers. That's why we call our seminary Bethabara—Athens bein' sitooated on the Musk-rat river close above its junction with the Jordan; an' that's why, ef I was goin' to send Hiram any whar, I should send him whar he could hear the Gospel expounded accordin' to the expositions an' opinions of Franklin V. Hopkins, of Massachusetts, which air the correck ones.'

'This question will take a little time to thrash out,' Audouin answered with unruffled gravity. 'May I ask, deacon, whether you will courteously permit me to take a chair in your house and talk it over fully with you?'

'Why, certainly,' the deacon answered with a doubtful look that clearly belied his spoken words. 'Hiram, you jest go an' drive up the cows, sonny, an' mind you put up the fence behind you, jest the same as you find it.'

They went together into the dreary living-room, a room such as Audouin had seen in duplicate ten thousand times before, with a bare wooden floor, bare walls, a white pine table, a rocking-chair, a bunk, some cane seats, a stove, and a cheap lithograph of a vacant-looking gentleman in a bag-wig and loose collar, whom an inscription surmounted by a spread eagle declared largely to have been first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. (Lithographs of the sort are common in American farmhouses, and are understood to be posthumous libels on the intelligence and personal appearance of George Washington.) Audouin seated himself humbly on the bunk, and the deacon took his accustomed place in the rocking-chair, where he continued to sway himself violently to and fro during the whole interview.

Audouin began by pleading hard for education for Hiram, and suggesting, as delicately as he was able, that if pecuniary difficulties barred the way, they might perhaps be easily smoothed over. (As a matter of fact, he would willingly have given freely of that dirty paper, stamped with the treasury stamp, that they call money, to free such a lad as Hiram Winthrop from the curse of that material civilisation that they both so cordially detested.) He praised Hiram's intelligence and his wonderful talent for drawing: spoke of the wrongfulness of not allowing full play to his God-given faculties: and even condescended to point out that Hiram educated would probably make a much larger fortune (ugh! how he shuddered over it) than Hiram set to do the drudgery of a farm which he hated and always would hate. The deacon listened, half-wrathful; such open aiding and abetting of sinful rebelliousness and repining was almost too much for him; his only consolation was that Hiram wasn't along to listen to it all and drink in more unfilial sentiments from it.

But Audouin soon made one convert at least. Mrs. Winthrop, with her hard unlovable face, sat silently listening beside the stove, and picking over the potatoes for the spring planting. In her shrivelled mother's heart, she had always been proud of Hiram; proud even of his stubbornness and rebellion, which in some dim, half-unconscious fashion she vaguely knew to be really a higher, nobler sort of thing at bottom than the deacon's stern, unbending fidelity to the principles of Solomon and the Hopkinsite Confession. Somewhere away down in the dark unfathomed depths of Mehitabel Winthrop's stunted personality there lay a certain stifled, undeveloped, long-since-smothered germ of human romance and feminine sympathy which had blossomed out in Hiram into true love of art and of nature. Deadened as it was in her by the cruel toilsome life of Muddy Creek, with its endless round of dull monotonous labour, as well as by the crushing defeat experienced by all her girlish ideals in the awful reality of the married state with Zephaniah Winthrop, the deacon's wife still retained in some half-buried corner of her soul a little smouldering spark of the divine fire which enabled her in a doubtful halffrightened fashion to sympathise with Hiram. It was very wrong and weak of her, she knew: father was right, and Hiram was a no-account, idle loiterer: but still, when he spoke up to father, to his very face, about his novel-reading, and his birds-nesting, and his drawing, Mrs. Winthrop was somehow aware of a sneaking admiration and pride in him which she never felt towards the deacon, even during his most effective and unctuous exhortation. And now, when she heard Audouin praising and speaking well of her boy for those very, things that the deacon despised and rejected, she felt that here was somebody else who could appreciate Hiram, and that perhaps, after all, her own instinct had not in the end entirely misled her.

'Zeph,' she said at last—it was many years since she had called him 'Zeph' habitually, instead of 'Father' or 'Deacon'—'Zeph, I think we might manage to send Hiram to college.'

The deacon started. Et tu, Brute! This was really almost too much for him. He began to wonder whether the universe was turned upside down, and all the powers that be were hereafter to be ranged on the side of rebelliousness and opposition. To say the truth, his godly horror was not altogether feigned. According to his lights, his dusky and feeble lights, the deacon wished and believed himself to be a good father. He held it his clear duty, as set forth in his reading of the prophets and apostles, to knock this idle nonsense out of Hiram, and train him up in the way he should go, to be a respectable corn-raising farmer and shining light of the Hopkinsite connection. These habits of hunting 'coons and making pictures of rattlesnakes, into which the boy had lapsed, were utterly abhorrent to the deacon's mind as idle, loitering, vagabond ways, deserving only of severe castigation His reading of English classics appeared as a crime only one degree less heinous than frequenting taverns, playing cards, or breaking the Sabbath. The boy was a bad boy, a hopelessly bad boy, given him as a thorn in the flesh to prevent spiritual boasting: on that hypothesis alone could the deacon account for such a son of perdition being born of such believing and on the whole (as poor worms go) extremely creditable parents.

And now, here was this fine-spoken, incomprehensible Boston critter, who had took that ramshackle place of Hitchcock's, and didn't even mean to farm it—here was this unaccountable phenomenon of a man positively interested in and pleased with Hiram, just because of these very self-same coon-hunting, snake-drawing, vagabond proclivities. The Deacon's self-love and selfrespect were deeply wounded. Audouin had already been talking with the boy: no doubt he had set him even more agin his own father than ever. No doubt he had told Hiram that there was something fine in his heathenish love for Injun tommy-hawks, in his Bohemian longings for intercourse with ungodly trappers (men to whom the Sabbath was absolutely indifferent), in his wicked yearning after Pickwick's Papers, and the Complete Dramatic Works of William Wakefield. The deacon couldn't bear to stultify himself after all, by sending Hiram to school at the request of this favourer of rebellion, this vile instigator of revolt against paternal authority, this Ahithophel who would lure on a foolish Absalom with guileful counsel to his final destruction.

'Wal, Het,' the Deacon said slowly, 'I dunno about it. We must take time to consider and to wrastle over it.'

But Audouin, now thoroughly in earnest, his sense of plot-interest vividly aroused, would hear of no delay, but that the question must be settled that very evening, he saw the deacon wouldn't entertain the idea of Hiram being sent somewhere to prepare for Yale or Harvard, where Audouin would have liked him to go: and so, with a diplomatic cleverness which the deacon, if he could have read his visitor's mind, would doubtless have characterised as devilish, he determined to shift his ground, and beg only that Hiram might be sent to Bethabara. In a year or two, he said to himself, the boy would be older and would have a mind of his own; and then it would be possible, he thought, to send him to some college where his intellectual and artistic nature might have freer development than at the Hopkinsite Seminary. Bit by bit, the Deacon gave way: he couldn't as a consistent church member and a father with the highest interests of his son at heart, refuse to let him go to Bethabara, when a mere stranger declared he saw in him signs of talent. He yielded ungraciously at last, and told Audouin he wouldn't stand in the way of the boy's receivin' a good edoocation, purvided allus it wa'n't contrary to the principles of Franklin P. Hopkins.

'Very well,' Audouin said with a sigh of relief. 'I'll write and inquire about the matter myself this very evening.'

'Address the Secatary,' Mr. Winthrop put in officially, 'Bethabara Seminary, Athens, N.Y.' Audouin made a note in his memorandum book of the incongruous address with a stifled sigh.

'Mother,' the deacon said, 'call in Hiram.' Mrs. Winthrop obeyed. Hiram, who had been loitering about the wood-shed in wonder at what this long interview could portend, slunk in timidly, and stood with his ragged hat in his hand beside the table.

'Hiram,' said the deacon, solemnly, with the voice and air of a judge publicly addressing a condemned criminal, 'that gentleman thar has been conversin' with mother an' me relatively to the desirability of sendin' you to an edoocational establishment, whar you may, p'raps, be cured from your present oncommonly idle and desultory proclivities. Though you hev allus bin, as I confess with shame, a most lazy lad, sonny, an' hev never done anything to develop your nat'ral talents in any way, that gentleman thar, who has received a college edoocation hisself at one of our leadin' American Universities, an' who is competent by trainin' an' experience to form an opinion upon the subjeck, believes that you dew possess nat'ral talents of which you ain't yet giv any open indication.'Tain't for me to say whether you may hev inherited them or not: it is sufficient to point out that that thar gentleman considers you might, with industry and application, dew credit in time to an edoocational institoot. Such an institoot of our own denomination is Bethabara Seminary, located at Athens, New York. Thar you would receive instruction not at variance with the religious teachin' you hev enjoyed in your own residence an' from your own parents. An eminent Hopkinsite pastor is installed over that institoot as President; I allood to Elder Ezra W. Coffin, with whose commentary on the prophet Ezekiel you air already familiar. Mother an' me has decided, accordingly, that it will be for your good, both temporal and sperritooal we hope, to enter junior at Bethabara Seminary. That gentleman thar will make inquiries relatively to the time when you kin be received into the institootion.

We trust that when you he ventered upon this noo stage in your career, you will drop them habits of idleness an' insubordination for which it has been my dooty on a great many occasions to correck you severely.' Hiram stood there dazed and trembling, listening with blank amazement to the deacon's exhortation (the same as if it was conference), and only vaguely taking in the general idea that he was to be sent away shortly to some school or other somewhere. Andouin saw at a glance the lad's timid hesitation, and added kindly: 'Your father and mother think, Hiram, that it would be well to send you to Bethabara' (he suppressed his rising shudder), 'so that you may have opportunities of learning more about all the things in which you're already so much interested. You'll like it, my boy, I'm sure; and you'll get on there, I feel confident.'

The boy turned to him gratefully: 'That's so, I guess,' he answered, with his awkward country gratitude; 'I shall like it better'n this, anyhow.'

The deacon frowned, but said nothing.

And so, before a week was over, Hiram had said good-bye to his mother and Sam Churchill, and was driving over in the deacon's buggy to Muddy Creek deepo, ong rowt for Athens, Madison County.


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