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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER IX. CONSPIRACY.
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After that, Colin went many days and evenings to see Cicolari: and the more he talked with him and the more he watched him, the more dissatisfied did the boy get with the intractability of wood, and the more enamoured did he become of the absolute plasticity of clay and marble. How could he ever have been such a fool, he thought to himself, after having once known what he could do with the kneaded mud of Wootton lake, as to consent—nay, to consent gladly—to work in stupid, hard, irresponsive walnut, instead of in his own familiar, plastic, all potential material? Why, wood, do what you would to it, was wood still: clay, and after clay marble, would answer immediately to every mood and fancy and idea of the restless changeable human personality. The fact was the ten or twelve months Colin Churchill had spent at Exeter had made a vast difference to his unfolding intellect. He was going to school now—to the university of native art; he was learning himself and his own powers; learning to pit his own views and opinions against those of other and less artistic workmen. Every day, though he couldn't have told you so himself, the boy was beginning to understand more and more clearly that while the other artificers he saw around him had decent training, he himself had instinctive genius. He ought to have employed that genius upon marble, and now he was throwing it away upon mere wood. When one of the canons called in one day patronisingly to praise his wooden roses, he could scarcely even be civil to the good man: praising his wooden roses, indeed, when he saw that fellow Cicolari engaged in modelling from the life a smiling Bacchus! It was all too atrocious!

'Mai friend,' Cicolari said to him one day, as he was moulding a bit of clay in his new acquaintance's room, into the counterfeit presentment of Cicolari's own bust, 'you should not stop at ze wood wawrk. You have no freedom in ze wood, no liberty, no motion. It is all flat, stupid, ungraceful. You are fit for better sings. Leave ze wood and come, here and wawrk wiz me.'

Colin sighed deeply. 'I wish I could, Mr. Cicolari,' he said eagerly. 'I was delighted with the wood at first, and now I'm disgusted at 'un. But I can't leave 'un till I'm twenty-one, because I'm bound apprentice to it, and I've got to go on with the thing now whether I like 'un or not.'

Cicolari made a wry face, expressive of a very nasty taste, and went through a little pantomime of shrugs and open hand-lifting, which did duty instead of several vigorous sentences in the Italian language. Colin readily translated the pantomime as meaning in English: 'If I were you, I wouldn't trouble myself about that for a moment.'

'But I can't help it,' Colin answered in his own spoken tongue; 'I'm obliged to go on whether I choose to or not.'

Cicolari screwed himself up tightly, and held his hands, palms outward, on a level with his ears, in the most suggestive fashion. 'England is a big country,' he observed enigmatically.

Colin's face flushed at the vague hint, but he said nothing.

'You see,' Cicolari went on quickly, 'you are a boy yet. When you come to Exeter, you are still a child. You come from your own village, your country, and you know nossing of ze wawrld. Zis master and ze priest of your village between zem, zey bind you down and make you sign a paper, indenture you call it, and promise to wawrk for zem zese six years. It is ridiculous. When you come here, you do not know your own mind: you do not understand how it differs, wood and marble. Now you are older: you understand zat; it is absurd zat you muss stand by ze agreement.'

Cohn listened and took in the words eagerly. 'But what can I do, Mr. Cicolari?' he asked in suspense. 'Where can I go to?' 'England is a big country,' the Italian repeated, with yet another speaking pantomime. 'Zere are plenty railways in England. Zere is wawrk for clever lads in London. I have friends zere who carve in marble. Why should you not go zere?''

'Run away?' Cohn said, interrogatively.

'Run away, if you call it zat,' Cicolari replied, bowing with his curved hands in front of his breast, apologetically. 'What does it matter, ze name? Run away if zey will not let you go. I care not what you call it. Zey try to keep you unjustly; you try to get away from zem. Zat is all.'

'But I've got no money to go with,' Colin cried, faltering

'Zen get some,' Cicolari answered with a shrug.

Colin thought a good deal about that suggestion afterwards, and the more he thought about it, the more did it seem to him just and proper. A week or two later, little Minna came over to Exeter for a trip, nominally to do a few errands of household shopping, but really of course to see Colin; and to her the boy confided this difficult case of conscience. Was the signature obtained from him when he first came to Exeter binding on him now that he knew more fully his own powers, and rights, and capabilities?

Colin was by this time a handsome lad of sixteen, while little black-eyed gipsy-faced Minna, though two years younger than him, was already budding out into a pretty woman, as such dark types among the labouring classes are apt to do with almost Oriental precocity.

'What should you do, Colin?' she repeated warmly, as the boy propounded his question in casuistry to her for her candid solution. 'Why, just you go and do what Mr. Chickaleary tells you, won't 'ee, sure?'

'But would it be right, Minna?' Colin asked. 'You know I signed the agreement with them.'

'What's the odds of that, stupid?' Minna answered composedly. 'That were a year ago an' more, weren't it? You weren't no more nor a boy then, Lord bless 'ee.'

'A year older nor you are now, Minna,' Colin objected.

'Ah, but you didn't know nothing about this sculpturin' then, you see, Colin. They tooked advantage of you, that's what they did. They hadn't ought to have done it.'

'But I say, Minna, why shouldn't I wait till I'm twenty-one, an' then take up the marble business, eh?'

'What rubbish the boy do talk,' Minna cried, imperiously. 'Twenty-one indeed! Talk about twenty-one! Why, by that time you'd 'a' got fixed in the wood-carving, and couldn't change your trade for marble or nothin'. If you're goin' to change, you must do it quickly.'

'I hate the wood-carving,' Colin said, gloomily.

'Then run away from it and be done wi' it.'

'Run away from it! Oh, Minna, do you know that they could catch me and put me in prison?'

'I'd go to prison an' laugh at 'em, sooner nor I'd be bound for all those years against my will,' Minna answered firmly. 'Leastways I would if I was a man, Colin.'

That last touch was the straw that broke the camel's back with poor Colin. 'I'll go,' he cried; 'but where on earth can I go to? It's no use goin' back to Wootton. Vicar'd help 'em to put me in prison.'

'I'd like to see 'em,' Minna answered, with her little eyes flashing. 'But why can't you go to London like Mr. Chickaleary told you?' 'Cicolari, Minna,' Colin said, correcting her as gravely and distinctly as the vicar had corrected Miss Eva. 'The Italians call it Cicolari. It's as well to be right whenever we can, ain't it? Well, I can't go to London, because I've got no money to go with. I don't know as I could get any work when I got there; but I know I can't get there without any money; so that settles it.'

Minna rose from the seat in the Northernhay where they were spending Colin's dinner-hour together and walked slowly up and down for a minute or two without speaking. Then she said, with a little hesitation, 'Colin!'

'Well, Minna.'

'I could lend 'ee—lend you—nine shillin'.' 'Nine shillings, Minna! Why, where on earth did you get 'em from?'

'Saved 'em,' Minna answered laconically. 'Fish father give me. In savin's bank.'

'What for, Minna?'

Minna hesitated again, still more markedly. Though she was only fourteen, there was a good deal of the woman in her already. 'Because,' she said at last timidly,' 'I thought it was best to begin savin' up all my money now, in case—in case I should ever want to furnish house if I was to get married.'

Country boy as he was, and child as she was, Colin felt instinctively that it wouldn't be right of him to ask her anything further about the money. 'But, Minna,' he said, colouring a little, 'even if I was to borrow it all from you, all your nine shillings, it wouldn't be enough to take me to London.'

Minna had a brilliant idea. 'Wait for a 'scursion,' she said simply.

Colin looked at her with admiring eyes. 'Well, Minna,' he cried enthusiastically, 'you are a bright one, and no mistake. That's a good idea, that is. I should never have thought of that. I could carve you, Minna, so that a stranger anywhere'd know who it was the minute he set eyes on it; but I should never have thought of that, I can tell you.' Minna smiled and nodded, the dimple in her brown cheek growing deeper, and the light in her bright eye merrier than ever. What a vivacious, expressive little face it was, really! 'I'll tell you what I'd do,' Minna said, with her sharp determination as if she were fifty. 'I'd go first and ask Mr. What's-his-name to let me off the rest of my 'prenticeship. I'd tell him I didn't like wood, an' I wanted to go an' make statues. Then if he said to me: “You go on with the wood-carvin' an' don't bother me,” I'd say: “No, I don't do another stroke for you.” Then if he hit me, I'd leave off, I would, an' refuse to work another turn till he was tired of it. But if he hardened his heart then, an' wouldn't let 'ee go still, I'd wait till there was a 'scursion, I would, and then I'd run away to Mr. Chick-o-lah-ree's friends in London. That's what I'd do if I was you, Colin.'

'I will, Minna,' Colin faltered out in reply; 'I will.'

'Do 'ee, Colin,' Minna cried eagerly, catching his arm. 'Do 'ee, Colin, and I'll send 'ee the money. Oh, Colin, I know if you'd only get 'prenticed to the sculpturin', you'd grow to be as grand a man—as grand as parson.'

'Minna,' Colin said, taking her hand in his as if it were a lady's, 'thank you very much for the money, an' if I have to work my fingers to the bone for it, I'll send it back to 'ee.'

'Don't 'ee do that, Colin, oh don't 'ee do that,' Minna cried eagerly. 'I'd a great deal rather for you to keep it.'

When Colin told Cicolari of this episode (suppressing so much of it as he thought proper), the Italian laughed and showed all his teeth, and remarked with a smile that Colin was very young yet. But he promised staunchly to keep the boy's secret, and to give him good introductions to his former employer in London.

The die was cast now, and Colin Churchill resolutely determined in his own mind that he would abide by it. So a few days later he screwed up courage towards evening to go to Mr. Begg, his master, and for form's sake, at least, ask to be let off the remainder of his apprenticeship. 'At any rate,' he thought to himself, 'I won't try running away till I've tried in a straightforward way to get him to cancel the indentures I signed when I didn't really know what I was signing.'

Mr. Begg, that eminently respectable Philistine cabinet-maker, opened his eyes in blank astonishment when he actually heard with his two waking ears this extraordinary and unprecedented request. 'Let you off the rest of your time, Churchill!' he cried, incredulously. 'Was that what you said, boy? Let—you—off—the rest—of—your—time?'

'Yes,' Colin answered, with almost dogged firmness, 'I said that.'

'And why, Churchill?' Mr. Begg asked again, lost in amazement. 'And why?'

'Because, sir, I don't like wood-carving, and I feel I could do a great deal better at marble.'

Mr. Begg gazed up at him (he was a little man and Colin was tall) in utter surprise and hesitation. 'You're not mad, are you, Churchill?' he inquired cautiously. 'You're not mad, are you?'

'No, sir,' Colin replied stoutly; 'but I think I must have been when I signed them indentures.'

The cabinet-maker went into his little office, called Colin in, and then sat down in a dazed manner to hear this strange thing out to its final termination. Colin burst forth, then, with his impassioned pleading, astonishing himself by the flood of native eloquence with which he entreated Mr. Begg to release him from that horrid wood-carving, and let him follow his natural calling as a sculptor in clay and marble. He didn't know what he was doing when he signed the indentures; he had only just come fresh from his life as a servant. Now he knew he had the makings of a sculptor in him, and a sculptor alone he wished to be. Mr. Begg regarded him askance all the time, as a man might regard a stray dog of doubtful sanity, but said never a single word, for good or for evil. When Colin had worn himself out with argument and exhortation, the cabinet-maker rose from his high seat, unlocked his desk mechanically, and took out of it his copy of Colin's indentures. He read them all through carefully to himself, and then he laid them down with the puzzled air of one who meets for the first time in his life with some inexplicable practical enigma. 'This is very strange, Churchill,' he muttered, coolly, half to himself; 'this is really most remarkable. There's no mistake or flaw of any sort in those indentures; nothing on earth to invalidate 'em or throw doubt upon them in any way. Your signature's there as clear as daylight. I can't understand it. You've always been a good workman—the best apprentice, take you all round, I've ever 'ad 'ere; and Canon Melville, he's praised your carving most uncommonly, and so they all do. A good, honest-working, industrious lad I've always found you, one time with another; not such a great eater neither; and I was very well satisfied altogether with you till this very evening. And now you come and say you want to cancel your indentures, and go to the stone-cutting! Never heard anything so remarkable in all my life! Why, you're worth more than a hundred pounds to me! I couldn't let you go, not if you was to pay me for it.'

Poor Colin! how he wished at that moment that he had been idle, careless, voracious and good-for-nothing! His very virtues, it seemed, were turning against him. He had thrown himself so heartily into the wood-carving at first that his master had found him worth half a dozen common apprentices. He fumbled in his pocket nervously at little Minna's poor nine shillings which he had changed that very morning from her post-office order.

'Can't you understand, Mr. Begg,' he said at last, despairingly, 'that a fellow may change his mind? He may feel he can do one thing a great deal better than another, and he may have a longing to do that thing and nothing else, because he loves it?'

Mr. Begg gazed at him stolidly. 'Cabinetmaking's a very good trade,' he said in his dull methodical bourgeois tone; 'and so, no doubt, 's stone-cutting. But these indentures 'ere bind you down to the cabinet-making, Churchill, and not to the sculpture business.

There's your signature to 'em; and you've got to stick to it. So that's the long and the short of it.'

'But it's not the end of it,' Colin answered in his most stubborn voice (and your Dorsetshire man can be very stubborn indeed when he pleases): 'if you don't let me off my indentures as I ask you, you'll have to put up in future with what you can get out of me.'

Next morning, when it was time to begin work, Colin marched as usual into the workshop, and took up a gouge as if to continue carving the panel on which he was engaged. But instead of doing anything to the purpose, he merely kept on chipping off small splinters of wood in an aimless fashion for half an hour. After a time, Mr. Begg observed him, and came up to see what he was doing, but said nothing. All through the day Cohn went on in the same manner, and from time to time Mr. Begg looked in and found the work no further advanced than it had been last evening; still, he said nothing. When the time came to shut up the shop, Mr. Begg looked at him sternly, but only uttered a single sentence: 'We shall have the law of you, Churchill; we shall have the law of you.'

Colin stared him back stolidly and answered never a word.

For a whole week, this passive duel between the man and boy went on, and towards the end of that time Mr. Begg began to grow decidedly violent. He shook Cohn fiercely, he boxed his ears, he even hit him once or twice across the head with his wooden ruler; but Colin was absolutely immovable. To all that Mr. Begg said the boy returned only one answer: 'I mean to be a sculptor, not a wood-carver.' Mr. Begg had never seen anything like it.

'The obstinacy and the temper of that boy Churchill,' he said to his brother-tradesmen, 'is really something altogether incredulous.' (It may be acutely conjectured that he really meant to say 'incredible.')

Sunday came at last, and on Sundays Cohn went round to visit Cicolari. The Italian listened sympathetically to the boy's story, and then he said, 'I have an idea of mai own, mai friend. Let us both go to London together. I have saved some money; I want to set up on mai own account as a sculptor. You will go wiz me. I have quarrelled wiz Smeez. We will start tomorrow morning. I will pay you wages, good wages, and you will wawrk for me, and be mai assistant.'

'But I've only got nine shillings,' Colin answered.

'I will lend you the rest,' Cicolari said.

Cohn closed with the offer forthwith, and went home to Mr. Begg's trembling with excitement.

Early next morning, he tied up his clothes in his handkerchief, crept downstairs noiselessly and let himself out by the backdoor. Then he ran without stopping all the way to the St. David's station, and found Cicolari waiting for him in the booking office. As the engine steamed out of the station, Colin felt that he was leaving slavery and wood-carving behind him for ever, and was fairly on his way to London, Rome, and a career as a sculptor.

Mr. Begg, when he found that Colin was really gone, didn't for a moment attempt to follow him. It was no use, he said, to throw good money after bad: the boy had made up his mind not to work at woodcarving; he was as stubborn as a mule; and nothing on earth would ever make him again into a good apprentice. So, though he felt perfectly sure that that nasty foreigner fellow had enticed away the boy for his own purposes, he wouldn't attempt to bring him back or take the trouble to have him punished. After all, he reflected to himself philosophically, as things had lately turned out it was a good riddance of bad rubbish. Besides, it would be rather an awkward thing to come out before the magistrate that he had hit the boy more than once across the head with a wooden ruler.

Two days later, it was known in Wootton Mandeville that that lad o' Churchill's had gone and broke his indentures and runned away from Exeter along of a furrener chap o' the name of Chickaleary. The vicar received the news with the placid contentment of a magnanimous man, who has done his duty and has nothing to reproach himself with, but who always told you so from the very beginning. 'I quite expected it, Eva,' he said loftily; 'I fully expected it. Those Churchills were always a bad radical lot, and this boy's just about the very worst among them. When I discovered his slight taste for carving, I feared it was hardly right to encourage the lad in ideas above his station: but I was determined to give him a chance, and now this is how he goes and repays us. I did my best for him: very respectable man, Begg, and well recommended by Canon Harbottle.

But the boy has no perseverance, no application, no stability. Put him to one thing, and he runs away at once and tries to do another. Quite what I expected, quite what I expected.'

'Perhaps,' Eva ventured to say suggestively, 'if you'd sent him to a sculptor's in London at first, uncle, he might have been perfectly ready to stop there. But you see his natural taste was for sculpture, not for woodcarving; and I'm not altogether surprised myself to hear he should have left Exeter.'

The vicar put up his double eyeglass and surveyed Eva from head to foot, as though she were some wild animal, with a stare of mingled amazement and incredulity. 'Well,' he said slowly, opening the door to dress for dinner. 'Upon my word! What the young people of this generation are coming to is really more than I can answer for.'


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