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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XIII. AN EVE IN EDEN.
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Once a year, and once only, Hiram had a holiday. For a glorious fortnight every summer, Sam Churchill and his partner gave their head draughtsman leave to go and amuse himself wheresoever the spirit led him. And on the first of such holidays, Hiram went with Audouin to the Thousand Islands, and spent a delightful time boating, fishing, and sketching, among the endless fairy mazes of that enchanted region, where the great St. Lawrence loses itself hopelessly in innumerable petty channels, between countless tiny bosses of pine-clad rock. It was a fortnight of pure enjoyment for poor drudging advertisement-drawing Hiram, and he revelled in its wealth of beauty as he had never revelled in anything earthly before during his whole lifetime.

One morning Hiram had taken his little easel out with him from Alexandria Bay to one of the prettiest points of view upon the neighbouring mainland—a jutting spit of ice-worn rock, projecting far into the placid lake, and thickly overhung with fragrant brush of the beautiful red cedar—and was making a little water-colour sketch of a tiny islet in the foreground, just a few square yards of smooth granite covered in the centre with an inch deep of mould, and crowned by a single tall straight stem of sombre spruce fir. It was a delicate, dainty little sketch, steeped in the pale morning haze of Canadian summer; and the scarlet columbines, waving from the gnarled roots of the solitary fir tree, stood out like brilliant specks of light against the brown bark and dark green foliage that formed the background. Hiram was just holding it at arm's length, to see how it looked, and turning to ask for Audouin's friendly criticism, when he heard a clear bright woman's voice close behind him speaking so distinctly that he couldn't help overhearing the words.

'Oh, papa,' the voice said briskly, 'there's an artist working down there. I wonder if he'd mind our going down and looking at his picture. I do so love to see an artist painting.'

The very sound of the voice thrilled through Hiram's inmost marrow as he heard it, somewhat as Audouin's voice had done long ago, when first he came upon him in the Muddy Creek woodland—only more so. He had never heard a woman's voice before at all like it. It didn't in the least resemble Miss Almeda A. Stiles's, or any other one of the lady students at Bethabara or Orange, who formed the sole standard of female society that Hiram Winthrop had ever yet met with. It was a rich, liquid, rippling voice, and it spoke with the soft accent and delicate deliberate intonation of an English lady. Hiram, of course, didn't by the light of nature recognise at once this classificatory fact as to its origin and history, but he did know that it stirred him strangely, and made him look round immediately to see from what manner of person the voice itself ultimately proceeded.

A tall girl of about nineteen, with a singularly full ripe-looking face and figure for her age, was standing on the edge of the little promontory just above, and looking down inquisitively towards Hiram's easel. Her cheeks had deeper roses in them than Hiram had ever seen before, and her complexion was clearer and more really flesh-coloured than that of most pale and sallow American women. 'What a beautiful skin to paint!' thought Hiram instinctively; and then the next moment, with a flush of surprise, he began to recognise to himself that this unknown girl, whose eyes met his for an infinitesimal fraction of a second, had somehow immediately impressed him—nay, thrilled him—in a way that no other woman had ever before succeeded in doing. In one word, she seemed to him more womanly. Why, he didn't know, and couldn't have explained even to himself, for Hiram's forte certainly did not lie in introspective analysis; but he felt it instinctively, and was conscious at once of a certain bashful desire to speak with her, which he had never experienced towards a single one of the amiable young ladies at Bethabara Seminary.

'Gwen, my dear,' the father said in a dried-up Indian military tone, 'you will disturb these artists. Come away, come away; people don't like to be watched at their duties, really.'

Gwen, by way of sole reply, only bent over the edge of the little bluff that overhung the platform of rock where Hiram was sitting, and said with the same clear deliberate accent as before, 'May I look? Oh, thank you. How very, very pretty!'

'It isn't finished yet,' Audouin said, taking the words out of Hiram's mouth almost, as he held up the picture for Gwen's inspection. 'It's only a rough sketch, so far: it'll look much worthier of the original when mv friend has put the last little touches to it. In art, you know, the last loving lingering touch is really everything.'

Hiram felt half vexed that Audouin should thus have assumed the place of spokesman for him towards the unknown lady; and yet at the same time he was almost grateful to him for it also, for he felt too abashed to speak himself in her overawing presence.

'Yes, the original's beautiful,' Gwen answered, taking her father's arm and leading him down, against his will, to the edge of the water: 'but the sketch is very pretty too, and the point of view so exquisitely chosen. What a thing it is, papa, to have the eye of an artist, isn't it? You and I might have passed this place a dozen times over, and never noticed what a lovely little bit it is to make a sketch of; but the painter sees it at once, and picks out by instinct the very spot to make a beautiful picture.'

'Ah, quite so,' the father echoed in a cold unconcerned voice, as if the subject rather bored him. 'Quite so, quite so. Very pretty place indeed, an excellent retired corner, I should say, for a person who has a taste that way, to sit and paint in.'

'It is beautiful,' Audouin said, addressing himself musingly to the daughter, 'and our island in particular is the prettiest of all the thousand, I do believe.'

'Your island?' Gwen cried interrogatively. 'Then you own that sweet little spot there, do you?'

'My friend and I, yes,' Audouin answered airily, to Hiram's great momentary astonishment. 'In the only really worthy sense of ownership, we own it most assuredly. I dare say some other man somewhere or other keeps locked up in his desk a dirty little piece of crabbed parchment, which he calls a title-deed, and which gives him some sort of illusory claim to the productive power of the few square yards of dirt upon its surface. But the island itself and the enjoyment of it is ours, and ours only: the gloss on the ice-grooves in the shelving granite shore, the scarlet columbines on the tall swaying stems, the glow of the sunlight on the russet boles of the spruce fir—you see my friend has fairly impounded them all upon his receptive square of cartridge paper here for our genuine title-deed of possession.'

'Ah, I see, I see,' the old gentleman said testily. 'You and your friend claim the island by prescription, but your claim is disputed by the original freeholder.'

The three others all smiled slightly. 'Oh dear, no, papa,' Gwen answered with a touch of scorn and impatience in her tone. 'Don't you understand? This gentleman——'

'My name is Audouin,' the New Englander put in with a slight inclination.

'Mr. Audouin means that the soil is somebody else's, but the sole enjoyment of the island is his friend's and his own.'

'The so-called landowner often owns nothing more than the dirt in the ditches,' Audouin explained with a wave of the hand, in his romantic mystifying fashion, 'while the observer owns all that is upon it, of any real use or beauty. For our whole lifetime, my friend and I have had that privilege and pleasure. The grass grows green for us in spring; the birds build nests for us in early summer; the fire-flies flit before our eyes on autumn evenings; the stoat and hare put on their snow-white coat for our delight in winter weather. I've seen a poet enjoy for a whole season the best part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed he had only had out of it a few worthless wild apples. We are the real freeholders, sir; the man with the title-deeds has merely the usufruct.'

'Oh, ah,' the military gentleman repeated, as if a light were beginning slowly to dawn upon his bewildered intelligence. 'Some reservation in favour of rights of way and royalties and so forth, in America, I suppose. Only owns the dirt in the ditches, you say,—the soil presumably. Now, in England, every landowner owns the mines and minerals and springs and everything else beneath the soil, to the centre of the earth, I believe, if I've been rightly instructed.'

'It can seldom be worth his while to push his claims so far.' Audouin replied with great gravity, still smiling sardonically.

Gwen coloured slightly. Hiram noticed the delicate flush of the colour, as it mantled all her cheek for a single second, and was hardly angry with his friend for having provoked so pretty a protest. Then Gwen said with a little cough, as if to change the subject: 'These islands are certainly very lovely. They're the most beautiful thing we've seen in a six weeks' tour in America. I don't think even Niagara charmed me so much, in spite of all its grandeur.'

'You're right,' Audouin went on (a little in the Sir Oracle vein, Hiram fancied); 'at any rate, the islands are more distinctly American. There's nothing like them anywhere else in the world. They're the final word of our level American river basins. You have grand waterfalls in Europe; you have broad valleys; you have mountains finer than any of ours here east at least; but you've nothing equal in its way to this flat interwoven scenery of river and foliage, of land and water. It has no sublimity, not a particle; it's utterly wanting in everything that ordinarily makes beautiful country; but it's absolutely fairy like in its endless complexity of channels and islands, and capes and rocks and lakelets, all laid out on such an infinitesimally tiny scale, as one might imagine the sylphs and gnomes or the Lilliputians would lay out their ground plan of a projected paradise.'

'Yes, I think it's exquisite in its way,' Gwen went on. 'My father doesn't care for it because it's so flat: after Naini Tal and the Himalayas, he says, all American scenery palls and fades away into utter insignificance. Of course I haven't seen the Himalayas—and don't want to, you know—but I've been in Switzerland; and I don't see why, because Switzerland is beautiful as mountain country, this shouldn't be beautiful too in a different fashion.'

'Quite so,' Audouin answered briskly. 'We should admire all types of beauty, each after its own kind. Not to do so argues narrowness—a want of catholicity.'

The military gentleman fidgeted sadly by Gwen's side; he had caught at the word 'catholicity,' and he didn't like it. It savoured of religious discussion; and being, like most other old Indian officers, strictly evangelical, he began to suspect Audouin of High Church tendencies, or even dimly to envisage him to himself in the popular character of a Jesuit in disguise.

As for Hiram, he listened almost with envy to Audouin's glib tongue, as it ran on so lightly and so smoothly to the beautiful overawing stranger. If only, now, he himself dared talk like that, or rather if only he dared talk after his own fashion—which, indeed, to say the truth, would have been a great deal better! But he didn't dare, and so he let Audouin carry off all the conversation unopposed; while Audouin, with his easy Boston manners, never suspected for a moment that the shy, self restraining New Yorker countryman was burning all the time to put in a little word or two on his own account, or to attract some tiny share of the beautiful stranger's passing attention. And thus it came to pass that Audouin went on talking for half an hour or more uninterruptedly to Gwen, the military gentleman subsiding meanwhile into somewhat sulky silence, and Hiram listening with all his ears to hear what particulars he could glean by the way as to the sudden apparition, her home, name, and calling. They had come to America for a six weeks' tour, it seemed, 'Papa' having business in Canada, where he owned a little property, and having leave of absence for the purpose from his regiment at Chester. That was almost all that Hiram gathered as to her actual position; and that little he treasured up in his memory most religiously against the possible contingency of a future journey to England 'And you contemplate returning to Europe shortly?' Hiram ventured to ask at last of the English lady. It was the first time he had opened his lips during the entire conversation, and he was surprised even now at his own temerity in presuming to say anything.

Gwen turned towards the young artist carelessly. Though she had been evidently interested in Audouin's talk, she had not so far even noticed the painter of the little picture which had formed the first introduction to the entire party. 'Yes,' she said, as unconcernedly as if Europe were in the same State; 'we sail next Friday.'

It was the only sentence she said to him, but she said it with a bright frank smile, which Hiram could have drawn from memory a twelvemonth after. As a matter of fact, he did draw it in his own bedroom at the Alexandria Bay Hotel that very evening: and he kept it long in his little pocket-book as a memento of a gleam of light bursting suddenly upon his whole existence. For Hiram was not so inexperienced in the ways of the world that he couldn't recognise one very simple and palpable fact: he was in love at first sight with the unknown English lady.

'Really, Gwen,' the military gentleman said at this point in the conversation, 'we must go back to lunch, if we're going to catch our steamer for Montreal. Besides, you're hindering our friend here from finishing his picture. Good morning—good morning; thank you so very much for the opportunity of seeing it.'

Gwen said a little 'Good morning' to Audouin, bowed more distantly to Hiram, and taking her father's arm jumped lightly up the rocks again, and disappeared in the direction of the village. When she was fairly out of sight, Hiram sat down once more and finished his water-colour in complete silence.

'Pretty girl, Hiram,' Audouin said lightly, as they walked back to their quarters at lunch-time.

'I should think, Mr. Audouin,' Hiram answered slowly, with even more than his usual self-restraint, 'she must be a tolerably favourable specimen of European women.'

Audouin said no more; and Hiram, too, avoided the subject in future. Somehow, for the first time in his life, he felt just a little bit aggrieved and jealous of Audouin. It was he, Hiram, who had painted the picture which first caught Gwen's fancy—he called her 'Gwen' in his own mind, quite simply, having no other name by which to call her. It was he who was the artist and the selector of that particular point of view; and yet Audouin, all unconsciously as it seemed, had stepped in and appropriated to himself, by implication, the artistic honours of the situation. Audouin had talked his vague poetical nature-worship talk—it seemed to Hiram a trifle affected somehow, to-day; and had monopolised all Gwen's interest in the interview, and had left him, Hiram (the founder of the feast, so to speak), out in the cold, while he himself basked in the full sunshine of Gwen's momentary favour. And yet to Audouin what was she, after all, but a pretty passing stranger? while to him she was a revelation, a new birth, a latter-day Aphrodite, rising unbidden with her rosy cheeks from the very bosom of the smiling lake. And now she was going back again at once to Europe, that great, unknown, omnipotential Europe; and perhaps Hiram Winthrop would never again see the one woman who had struck him at first sight with the instantaneous thrill which the man who has once experienced it can never forget. Colin Churchill hadn't once yet even asked himself whether or not he was in love with Minna; but Hiram Winthrop acknowledged frankly forthwith to his own heart that he was certainly and undeniably in love with Gwen.

Who was she? that was the question. He didn't even know her surname: his sole information about her amounted exactly to this, that she was called Gwen, and that her father had been quartered at Chester. Hiram smiled to himself as he recollected the old legend of how St. Thomas à Becket's mother, a Saracen maiden, had come to England from the East, in search of her Christian lover, knowing only the two proper names, Gilbert and London. Was he, Hiram Winthrop, in this steam-ridden nineteenth century, in like manner to return to the old home of his forefathers, and make inquiry with all diligence for Gwen, Chester? The notion was of course too palpably absurd (though Audouin would have been charmed with it). Yet there can be no denying that from the moment Hiram met that beautiful English girl by the Lake of the Thousand Islands, his desire to see Europe was quickened by yet one more unacknowledged, but very powerful private attraction. If anybody had talked to him about marrying Gwen, he would have honestly laughed at the improbable notion, but in the indefinite way that young men often feel, he felt as though some vague influence drew him on towards Gwen, not as a woman to be wooed and won, but as a central object of worship and admiration.

At the hotel, they didn't know the name of the English gentleman and his daughter; the clerk said they only came for a day and expected no letters. Another guest had asked about them, too, he mentioned casually; but Hiram, accustomed to looking upon his friend as so much older than himself as to have outgrown the folly of admiring female beauty, never dreamt of supposing that that other guest was Lothrop Audouin. He searched the 'Herald,' indeed, a week later, to see if any English officer and his daughter had sailed from New York on the Friday, but there were no passengers whom he could at all identify with Gwen and her father. It didn't occur to him that they might have sailed, as they did sail, by the Canadian mail steamer from Quebec, where he couldn't have failed to discover them in the list of passengers; so he was left in the end with no other memorial of this little episode save the sketch of that sunny face, and the two names, Gwen and Chester. To those little memorials Hiram's mind turned back oftener than less solitary people could easily imagine during the next long twelve months of dreary advertisement-drawing at long, white, dusty, sun-smitten Syracuse.


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