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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER X. MINNA IMPROVES HERSELF.
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Five years is a long slice out of a young man's life, but the five years that Colin Churchill spent with Cicolari in London were of a sort that he need never have regretted; for though the work he learnt to do in the Italian's little shop and studio in the Maryle-bone Road was mainly self-taught, he found Cicolari always sympathetic and anxious to help him, and he had such opportunities of study and improvement at the British Museum, and the South Kensington, and the great houses in the suburban counties, as he could never have obtained in the artless wilds of his native west country. It was a grand day for Colin, the day when he first entered the smoky galleries in Great Russell Street and feasted his eyes on those magnificent Hellenic torsos, carved by the vivifying chisel of Pheidias himself. Cicolari was an easy master: he had an Italian's love of art for art's sake and he was proud of 'mai Englishman,' as he used to call him; the boy whom he had himself discovered in the midst of a profoundly inartistic race, and released from the petty drudgery of an uncongenial vulgar calling. He felt a genuine interest in Colin's success; so he allowed the boy as much time as possible for visiting the places where he could see the finest works of art in England, and helped him to see those which are usually locked up in rich men's tasteless houses from the eyes of all who would most appreciate them.

Colin's own taste and love for art, too, were daily developing. He saw all that he could see, and he read about all that he couldn't see, spending every penny of his spare money (after he had repaid poor little Minna's nine shillings) on books about sculpture and painting; and making frequent visits to the reading-room and galleries at the great Museum. Now and then, too, when the trade in mourning widows was slack, when busts were flat and statuettes far from lively, Cicolari would run down into the country with him, and explore the artistic wonders of the big houses. At Deepdene they could look at Thorwaldsen's Jason and Canova's Venus: at Knole they gazed upon Vandycks, and Rey-nolds's, and Constables, and Gainsboroughs; in London itself they had leave to visit the priceless art collections at Stafford House, and half a dozen other great private galleries. So Colin Churchill's mind expanded rapidly, in the midst of the atmosphere it should naturally have breathed. Not books alone, but the mighty works of the mightiest workers, were the documents from which he spelt out slowly his own artistic education. Later on, men who met Colin Churchill at Rome—men who had gone through the regular dull classical round of our universities—were astonished to find that the Dorsetshire peasant-sculptor, of whom they had heard so much, was a widely cultivated and well-read man. They expected to see an inspired boor wielding a sculptor's mallet in a rude labourer's hand: they were surprised to meet a handsome young man, of delicate features and finely-stored mind, who talked about Here and Aphrodite, and the nymphs who came to visit the bound Prometheus, as if he had known them personally and intimately all his life long in their own remote Hellenic dwelling places.

And indeed, though the university where Colin Churchill took his degree with honours was not one presided over by doctors in red hoods and proctors in velvet sleeves, one may well doubt whether he did not penetrate quite as deeply, after all, into the inmost recesses of the great Hellenic genius as most men who have learnt to write iambic trimeters from well-trained composition masters, with the most careful avoidance of that ugly long syllable before the cretic in the two last feet, to which the painstaking scholar attaches so much undue importance. Do you think, my good Mr. Dean, or excellent Senior Censor, that a man cannot learn just as much about the Athens of Pericles from the Elgin Marbles as from a classical dictionary or a dog-eared Thucydides? Do you suppose that to have worked up the first six Iliads with a Liddell and Scott brings you in the end so very much nearer the heart and soul of the primitive Ach?ans than to have studied with loving care the vases in the British Museum, or even to have followed with a sculptor's eye the exquisite imaginings of divine John Flaxman?

Why, where do you suppose Flaxman himself got his Homer from, except from the very same source as poor, self-taught Colin Churchill—Mr. Alexander Pope's correctly colourless and ingenious travesty? Do you really believe there is no understanding the many-sided essentially artistic Greek idiosyncrasy except through the medium of the twenty-four written signs from alpha to omega? Colin Churchill didn't believe so, at least: and who that has seen his Alcestis, or his Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, or his Death of Antigone, can fail to admit that they are in very truth the direct offshoots of the Hellas of Sophocles, and ?schylus, and Pheidias?

All Cohn Churchill's reading was, in its way, sculpturesque. Of poetry, he loved Milton better than Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the painter's poet, Milton the sculptor's; and he wearied out his soul because he could never rise in clay to his own evasive mental image of the Miltonic Satan. He read Shelley, too, most Greek of Englishmen, and took more than one idea for future statues from those statuesque tragedies and poems. But best of all he loved ?schylus, whom he couldn't read in the original, to be sure, but whom he followed through half a dozen translations till he had read himself into the very inmost spirit of the Agamemnon and the Pers? and the Prometheus. The man who has fed his fancy on ?schylus, Milton, and Shelley, and his eyes on Michael Angelo, Thorwaldsen, and Flaxman, is not, after all, wholly wanting in the elements of the highest and purest culture.

Two years after Colin went to live at the little workshop in the Marylebone Road, another person came to swell the population of the great metropolis by a unit, and to correspondingly diminish the dwindling account at Wootton Mandeville. Minna Wroe was now sixteen, and for a year past she had been living out at service as kitchen-maid at the village doctor's. But Minna was an ambitious small body, and had a soul above dish-cloths. So she kept the precious nine shillings that Colin had returned to her well hoarded in her own little purse, and added to them from time to time whatever sums she could manage to save from her small wages—for wages are low in Dorsetshire, and white caps cost money both for the buying and washing, you may be certain. When her sixteenth birthday had fairly come and gone Minna gave notice to her mistress, and at the end of her month started off to London, like so many other young people of both sexes, to seek her fortune.

'Dear Colin,' she wrote to him a day or two before from the doctor's at Wootton, 'I am coming up to London to look out for a situation on Monday next, and I should be very glad if you could meet me at Paddinton Station at 6.30. I have not got a situation but I hope soon to get one there is lots to be had in London and has you are their I should like to be in London. Please dear Cohn come to meet me as I am going to Mrs. Woods of Wootton till I get a situation to lodge with love from all so no more at present from your old Friend, Minna.'

Colin took the letter from the postman, as he was working at the clay of a little bas-relief for a mural tablet, and read it over twice to himself with very mingled and uncertain feelings. On the first reading he felt only a glow of pleasure to think that little Minna, his old playmate, would now be within easy reach of him. Cohn had never considered himself exactly in love with Minna (he was only eighteen), and he had even indulged (since the sad truth must out) in a passing flirtation with the young lady at the open greengrocer's shop just round the corner; but he was very fond of Minna for all that, and in an indefinite way he had always felt as if she really belonged to him far more than anybody else did. So his first feeling was one of unmixed pleasure at the prospect of having her to live so near him. On the second reading, however, it did strike even Colin, who was only just beginning his own self-education in literary matters, that the letter might have been better spelt and worded and punctuated. He had been rising-in the social scale so gradually that, for the first time in his life, he then felt as if Minna were just one single level below him, intellectually and educationally.

He pocketed the letter with a slight sigh, and went on moulding the drapery of St. Mary Magdalene, after the design from a fresco in St. John Port Lateran. Would Minna care at all about Flaxman, he wondered to himself mutely; would she interest herself in that admirable replica by Bartolini; would she understand his torso of Theseus, or his copy in clay of the Florentine Boar, or his rough sketch for a Cephalus and Aurora? Or would she be merely a London housemaid, just like all the girls he saw of a morning cleaning the front door-steps in Harley Street, and stopping to bandy vulgar chaff with the postman, and the newspaper boy, and the young policeman? Two years had made a great deal of difference, no doubt, to both of them; and Cohn wondered vaguely in his own soul what Minna would think of him now, and what he would think of Minna.

On Monday, he was down at the station true to time, and waiting for the arrival of the 6.30 from Dorchester. As it drew up at the platform, he moved quickly along the third-class carriages, on the look-out for anybody who might answer to the memory of his little Minna. Presently he saw her jump lightly, as of old, from the carriage—a mignonne little figure, with a dark, round, merry face, and piercing black eyes as bright as diamonds. He ran up to greet her with boyish awkwardness and bashful timidity. 'Why, Minna,' he cried, 'you've grown into such a woman that I'm afraid to kiss you; but I'm very glad indeed to see you.'

Minna drew herself up so as to look as tall as possible, and answered with dignity:

'I should hope, Colin, you wouldn't want to kiss me in any case here in the station. It was very kind of you to come and meet me.'

Colin observed at once that she spoke with a good accent, and that her manner was, if anything, decidedly less embarrassed than his own. Indeed, as a rule, the young men of the working classes, no matter how much intellectual or artistic power they may possess, are far more shy, gauche, and awkward than the young women of the same class, who usually show instinctively a great deal of natural refinement of manner. He was immediately not a little reassured as to Minna's present attainments.

'I want to go to Mrs. Wood's,' Minna said, as calmly as if she had been accustomed to Paddington Station all her lifetime; 'and I've got two boxes; how ought I to get there?'

'Where is Mrs. Wood's?' Colin asked.

'At Dean Street, Marylebone.'

'Why, that's quite close to our place,' Colin cried. 'Are they big boxes? I could carry 'em, maybe.'

'No, you couldn't carry them, Colin. Why, what nonsense. It wouldn't be respectable.'

Colin laughed. 'I should have done it at Wootton, anyhow, Minna,' he answered; 'and a working stone-cutter needn't be ashamed of anything in the way of work, surely.'

'But a sculptor's got to keep up his position,' Minna put in firmly.

Colin smiled again. Already he had a nascent idea in his own head that even a sculptor could not bemean himself greatly by carrying a wooden box through the streets of London for a lady—he was getting to believe in the dignity of labour—but he didn't insist upon this point with Minna; for, young as he was, he had a notion even then that the gospel for men isn't always at the same time the gospel for women. Even a good woman would feel much less compunction against many serious crimes than against trundling a wheelbarrow full of clean clothes up Begent Street of an afternoon in the height of the season.

So Cohn was for calling a porter with a truck; but even that modified measure of conveyance did not wholly suit Minna's aristocratic fancy. 'Are they things cabs, Cohn?' she asked quietly.

'Those things are,' Cohn answered with a significant emphasis. Minna blushed a trifle.

'Oh, those things,' she repeated slowly; 'then I'll have one.' And in two minutes more, Cohn, for the first time in his life, found himself actually driving along the public streets in the inside of a hansom. Why, you imperious, extravagant little Minna, where on earth are you going to find money for such expenses as these in our toilsome, under-paid, workyday London?

When they reached Mrs. Wood's door, Cohn, feeling that he must rise to the situation, pulled out his purse to pay for the hansom, but Minna waved him aside with a dignified air of authority. 'No no,' she said, 'that won't do; take my purse, Cohn. I don't know how much to pay him, and like enough he'd cheat me; but you know the ways in London.'

Colin took the purse, and opened it. The first compartment he opened contained some silver, wrapped up in a scrap of tissue paper. Colin undid the paper and took out a shilling, which he was going to hand the cabman, when Minna laid her hand upon his arm and suddenly checked him. 'No, no,' she said, 'not that, Colin. From the other side, please, will you?'

Colin looked at the contents of the little paper once more, and rapidly counted it. It was nine shillings. He caught Minna's eye at the moment, and Minna coloured crimson. Then Cohn knew at once what those nine shillings were, and why they were separately wrapped in tissue paper.

He paid the cabman, from the other half, and put the boxes inside Mrs. Wood's door way. 'And now may I kiss you, Minna?' he asked, in the dark passage.

'If you like, Colin,' Minna answered, turning up her full red lips and round face with child-like innocence, Colin Churchill kissed her: and when he had kissed her once, he waited a minute, and then he took her plump little face between his own two hands and kissed her rather harder a second time. Minna's face tingled a little, but she said nothing.

The very next morning Minna came round, by Colin's invitation, to Cicolari's workshop. Colin was busy at work moulding, and Minna cast her eye around lightly as she entered on all the busts and plaster casts that filled the room. She advanced to meet him as if she expected to be kissed, so Colin kissed her. Then, with a rapid glance round the room, her eye rested at last upon the Cephalus and Aurora, and she went straight over to look at it with wondering eyes. 'Oh, Colin,' she cried, did you do that? What a lovely image!'

Colin was pleased and flattered at once. 'You like it, Minna?' he said. 'You really like it?'

Minna glanced carefully round the room once more with her keen black eyes, and after scanning every one of the plaster casts and unfinished busts in a comprehensive survey, answered unhesitatingly: 'I like it best of everything in the room, Colin, except the image of the man with the plate over yonder.'

Colin smiled a smile of triumph. Minna was not wholly lacking in taste, certainly; for the Cephalus was the best of his compositions, and the man with the plate was a plaster copy of the Discobolus. 'You'll do, Minna,' he said, patting her little black head with his cleanest hand (to the imminent danger of the small hat with the red rose in it). 'You'll do yet, with a little coaching.'

Then Colin took her round the studio, as Cicolari ambitiously called it, and explained everything to her, and showed her plates of the Venus of Milo, and the Apollo Belvedere, and the Laocoon, and the Niobe, and several other ladies and gentlemen with very long names and no clothes to speak of, till poor Minna began at last to be quite appalled at the depth of his learning and quite frightened at her own unquestioning countrified ignorance. For as yet Minna had no idea that there was anything much to learn in the world except reading and writing, and the art of cookery, and the proper use of the English language. But when she heard Colin chattering away so glibly to her about the age of Pheidias, and the age of the Decadence, and the sculptors of the Renaissance, and the absolute necessity of going to Rome, she began to conceive that perhaps Colin in his own heart might imagine she wasn't now good enough for him; which was a point of view on the subject that had never before struck the Dorsetshire fisherman's pretty black-eyed little daughter.

By-and-by, Colin began to talk of herself and her prospects; and to ask whether she was going to put herself down at a registry office; and last of all to allude delicately to the matter of the misspelt letter. 'You know, Minna,' he said apologetically, feeling his boyish awkwardness far more than ever, 'I've tried a lot to improve myself at Exeter, and still more since I came to London. I've read a great deal, and worked very hard, and now I think I'm beginning to get on, and know something, not only about art, but about books as well. Now, I know you won't mind my telling you, but that letter wasn't all spelt right, or stopped right. You ought to be very particular, you know, about the stopping and the spelling.'

Before he could say any more, Minna looked full in his face and stopped him short immediately. 'Colin,' she said, 'don't say another 'word about it. I know what you mean, and I'm going to attend to it. I never felt it in my life till I came here this morning; but I feel it now, and I shall take care to alter it.' She was a determined little body was Minna; and as she said those words, she looked so thoroughly as if she meant them that Colin dropped the subject at once and never spoke to her again about it.

Just at that moment two customers came to speak to Colin about a statuette he was working at for them. It was an old gentleman and a grand young lady. Minna stood aside while they talked, and pretended to be looking at Cephalus and Aurora with a critical eye, but she was really listening with all her ears to the conversation between Colin and the grand young lady. She was a very grand young lady, indeed, who talked very fine, and drawled her vowels, and clipped her r's, and mangled the English language hideously, and gave other indubitable signs of the very best and highest breeding: and Minna noticed almost with dismay that she called Colin 'Mr. Churchill,' and seemed to defer to all his opinions about curves and contours and attitudes. 'You have such lovely taste, you know, Mr. Churchill,' the grand young lady said; 'and we want this copy to be as good as you can make it, because it's for a very particular friend of ours, who admired the original so much at Rome last winter.'

Minna listened in awe and trembling, and felt in her heart just a faint twinge of feminine jealousy to think that even such a grand young lady should speak so flattering like to our Colin.

'And there's the Cephalus, Papa,' the grand young lady went on. 'Isn't it beautiful? I do hope some day, Mr. Churchill, you'll get a commission for it in marble. If I were rich enough, I'd commission it myself, for I positively doat upon it. However, somebody's sure to buy it some time or other, so it's no use people like me longing to have it.'

Minna's heart rose, choking, into her mouth, as she stood there flushed and silent.

When the grand young lady and her papa were gone, Minna said good-bye a little hastily to Colin, and shrank back, crying: 'No, no, Colin,' when he tried to kiss her. Then she ran in a hurry to Mrs. Wood's in Dean Street. But though she was in a great haste to get home (for her bright little eyes had tears swimming in them), she stopped boldly at a small bookseller's shop on the way, and invested two whole shillings of her little hoard in a valuable work bearing on its cover the title, 'The Polite Correspondent's Complete Manual of Letter Writing.' 'He shall never kiss me again,' she said to herself firmly, 'until I can feel that I've made myself in every way thoroughly fit for him.'

It wasn't a very exalted model of literary composition, that Complete Manual of Letter Writing, but at least its spelling and punctuation were immaculate; and for many months to come after she had secured her place as parlour-maid in an eminently creditable family in Regent's Park, Minna sat herself down in her own bedroom every evening, when work was over, and deliberately endeavoured to perfect herself in those two elementary accomplishments by the use of the Polite Correspondent's unconscious guide, philosopher, and friend. First of all she read a whole letter over carefully, observing every stop and every spelling; then she copied it out entire, word for word, as well as she could recollect it, entirely from memory; and finally she corrected her written copy by the printed version in the Complete Manual, until she could transcribe every letter in the entire volume with perfect accuracy. It wasn't a very great educational effort, perhaps, from the point of view of advanced culture; but to Minna Wroe it was a beginning in self-improvement, and in these matters above all others the first step is everything.


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