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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » Volume 2 CHAPTER XV. A DOOR OPENS
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Another year had passed, and Colin, now of full age, had tired of working for Cicolari. It was all very well, this moulding clay and carving replicas of afflicted widows; it was all very well, this modelling busts and statuettes and little classical compositions; it was all very well, this picking up stray hints in a half-amateur fashion from the grand torsos of the British Museum and a few scattered Thorwaldsens or antiques of the great country houses; but Colin Churchill felt in his heart of hearts that all that was not sculpture. He was growing in years now, and instead of learning he was really working. Still, he had quite made up his mind that some day or other he should look with his own eyes on the glories of the Vatican and the Villa Albani. Nay, he had even begun to take lessons in Italian from Cicolari—counting his chickens before they were hatched, Minna said—so that he might not feel himself at a loss whenever the great and final day of his redemption should happen to arrive. The dream of his life was to go to Rome, and study in a real studio, and become a regular genuine sculptor. Nothing short of that would ever satisfy him, he told Minna: and Minna, though she trembled to think of Colin's going so far away from her—among all those black-eyed Italian women, too—(and Colin had often told her he admired black eyes, like hers, above all others)—poor little Minna could not but admit sorrowfully to herself that Rome was after all the proper school for Colin Churchill. 'The capital of art,' he repeated to her, over and over again; must it not be the right place for him, who she felt sure was going to be the greatest of all modern English artists?

But how was Colin ever to get there?

Going to Rome costs money; and during all these years Colin had barely been able to save enough to buy the necessary books and materials for his self-education. The more deeply he felt the desire to go, the more utterly remote did the chance of going seem to become to him. 'And yet I shall go, Minna,' he said to her almost fiercely one September evening. 'Go to Rome I will, if I have to tramp every step of the way on foot, and reach there barefoot.

Minna sighed and the tears came into her eyes; but strong in her faith and pride in Colin, strong in her eager desire that Colin should give free play to his own genius, she answered firmly with a little quiver of her lips, 'You ought to go, Colin; and if you think it'd help you, you might take all that's left of my savings, and I'd go back again willingly to the parlour-maiding.'

Colin looked at the pretty little pupil-teacher with a look of profound and unfeigned admiration. 'Minna,' he said, 'dear little woman, you're the best and kindest-hearted girl that ever breathed; but how on earth do you suppose I could possibly be wretch enough to take away your poor little savings? No, no, little woman, you must keep them for yourself, and use them for making yourself—I was going to say into a lady—but you couldn't do that, Minna, you couldn't do that, for you were born one already. Still, if you want me to be a real sculptor, I want you, little woman, just as much to be a real educated gentlewoman.' Colin said the last word with a certain lingering loving cadence, for it had a good old-fashioned ring about it that recommended it well to his simple straightforward peasant nature.

'Well, Colin,' Minna went on, blushing a bit (for that last quiet hint seemed half unintentionally to convey the impression that Colin really possessed a proprietary right in her whole future), 'we must try our best to find out some way for you to go to Rome at last in spite of everything. You know, meanwhile, you've got good employment, Colin, and that's always something.'

'Ah yes, Minna,' Colin answered with his youthful enthusiasm coming strong upon him, 'I've got employment, of course; but I don't want employment; I want opportunities, I want advice, I want instruction, I want the means of learning, I want to perfect myself. Here in London, somehow, I feel as if I was tied down by the leg, and panting to get loose again. I like Cicolari, and in my own native untaught fashion I've done my best to improve myself with him; but I feel sadly the lack of training and competition. I should like to see how other men do their work; I should like to pit myself against them and find out whether I really am or am not a sculptor. Let me but just go to Rome, and I shall mould such things and carve such statues—ah, Minna, you shall see them! And the one delight I have in life now, Minna, is to get out like this, and talk it over with you, and tell you what I mean to do when once I get at it. For you can sympathise with me more than any of them, little woman. I feel that you can realise my longing to do good work—the work I know I'm fitted for—a thousand times better than a mere decent respectable marble-hacking workman like Cicolari.'

Poor little Minna! She sighed again, and her heart beat harder than ever. It was such a privilege for her to feel that Colin Churchill, with all that great future looming large before his young imagination, still loved her best to sympathise with him in his artistic yearnings. She pressed his arm a little, in her sweet simplicity, but she said nothing.

'You see,' Colin went on, musingly, for he liked to talk it all over again and again with Minna, 'art doesn't all come by nature, Minna, as most people fancy; it wants such a lot of teaching. Of course, you've got to have the thing born in you to begin with; but you might be born a Pheidias, it's my belief, Minna, and yet, without teaching, the merest wooden blockhead at the Academy schools would beat you hollow as far as technicalities went. Look at the dissecting now! If I hadn't saved that five pounds that Sir William gave me for carving the group on the mantelpiece, I should never have known anything at all about anatomy. But just going in my spare time for those six months to the anatomy class at the University College Hospital—why, it gave me quite a different idea altogether about the human figure. It showed me how to clothe my bare skeletons, Minna.'

'I never could bear your going and doing that horrible dissection, all the same, Colin,' Minna said with a chilly little shudder. 'It's so dreadful, you know, cutting up dead bodies and all that—just as bad as if you were going to be a medical student.'

'Ah, but no sculpture worth calling sculpture's possible without it, I tell you, Minna,' Colin answered warmly. 'Why, Michael Angelo, you know—Michael Angelo was a regular downright out-and-out anatomist. It can't be wrong to do like Michael Angelo, now can it? That was a man, Michael Angelo! And Leonardo, too, he was an awful stickler for anatomy as well, Leonardo was. Why, every great sculptor and every great painter that ever I've read of, Minna, had to study anatomy. I suppose the Greeks did it, even; yes, I'm sure the Greeks did it, for just look at the legs of the Discobolus and the arms of the Theseus; how the muscles in them show the knowledge of anatomy in the old sculptors. Oh yes, Minna, I'm quite sure the Greeks did it. And the Greeks! well, the Greeks, you know, they were really even greater, I do believe, than Michael Angelo.'

'Well, Colin,' Minna answered, with the charming critical confidence of love and youth and inexperience, 'I've seen all your engravings of images by Michael Angelo, and I've seen the broken-nosed Theseus, don't you call him, at the Museum, and I've seen all the things you've sent me to look at in the South Kensington; and it's my belief, Rome or no Rome, that there isn't one of them fit to hold a candle any day to your Cephalus and Aurora, that you made when you first came to London; and I should say so if the whole Royal Academy was to come up in a lump and declare your figures weren't worth anything.'

A week or two passed, and Minna, busy at staid Miss Woollacott's with her little pupils, saw no more chance than ever, though she turned it over often in her mind, of helping Colin on his way to Rome. Indeed, the North London Birkbeck Girls' School was hardly the place where one might naturally expect to find opportunities arise of such a nature. But one morning, in the teachers' room, Minna happened to pick up the 'Times,' which lay upon the table, and, looking over it, her eye fell casually upon an advertisement which at first sight would hardly have attracted her attention at all, but for the word Rome printed in it in small capitals. It was merely one of the ordinary servants' advertisements, lumped together promiscuously under the head of Wanted.

'As Valet, to go abroad (to Rome), a young man, not exceeding 30. Good wages. Some knowledge of Italian would be a recommendation. Apply to Sir Henry Wilberforce, 27 Ockenden Square, S.W.'

Minna laid down the paper with a sickening feeling at her heart: she thought she saw in it just a vague chance by which Colin could manage to get to Rome and begin his education as a sculptor. After all, it was the getting there that was the great difficulty. Colin had ten or eleven pounds put away, she knew, and though that would barely suffice to pay the railway fare on the humblest scale, yet it would be quite a little fortune to go on upon when once he got there. Minna knew from her own experience how far ten pounds will go for a careful person with due economy. Now, if only Colin would consent to take this place as valet—and Minna knew that he had long ago learnt a valet's duties at the old vicar's—he might get his passage paid to Rome for him, and whenever this Sir Henry Wilberforce got tired of him, or was coming away, or other reasonable cause occurred, Colin might leave the place and employ all his little savings in getting himself some scraps of a sculptor's education at Rome. Wild as all this would seem to most people who are accustomed to count money in terms of hundreds, it didn't sound at all wild to poor little Minna, and it wouldn't have sounded so to Colin Churchill.

But should she tell Colin anything about it? Could she bear to tell him? Let him go away from her across the sea to that dim far Italy of his own accord, if he liked; it was his fortune, his chance in life, his natural place; she knew it; but why should she, Minna Wroe, the London pupil-teacher, the Wootton fisherman's daughter—why should she go out of her way to send him so far from her, to banish herself from his presence, to run the risk of finally losing him altogether? 'After all,' she thought, 'perhaps I oughtn't to tell him. He might be angry at it. He might think I shouldn't have looked upon such a place as at all good enough for him. He's a sculptor, not a servant; and I got to be a schoolmistress myself on purpose so as to make myself something like equal to him. It wouldn't be right of me to go proposing to him that he should take now to brushing coats and laying out shirt studs again, when he ought to be sculpturing a statue a great deal more beautiful than those great stupid, bloated, thick-legged Michael Angelos. I dare say the wisest thing for me to do would be to say nothing at all to him about it.'

'Miss Wroe,' a small red-haired pupil called out, popping her shock head through the half-open doorway, and shouting out her message in her loudest London accent, 'if yer please, ye're ten minutes late for the fourth junerer, and Miss Woollacott, she says, will yer please come at once, and not keep the third junerer waitin' any longer.'

Minna ran off hurriedly to her class, and tried to forget her troubles about Colin forthwith in the occult mysteries of the agreement of a relative with its antecedent.

But when she got back to Miss Woollacott's lodgings at Kentish Town that evening, and had had her usual supper of bread and cheese and a glass of water—Miss Woollacott took beer, but Minna as a minor was restricted to the beverage of nature—and had heard prayers read, and had gone up by herself to her small bare bedroom, she sat down on the bedside all alone, and cried a little, and thought it all out, and tried hard to come to the right decision. It would be very sad indeed to lose Colin; she could scarcely bear that; and yet she knew that it was for Colin's good; and what was for Colin's good was surely for her own good too in the long-run. Well, was it? that was the question. Of course, she would dearly love for Colin to go to Rome, and learn to be a real sculptor, and get fame and glory, and come back a greater man than the vicar himself—almost as great, indeed, as the Earl of Beaminster. But there were dangers in it, too. Out of sight, out of mind; and it was a long way to Italy. Perhaps when Colin got there he would see some pretty Italian girl or some grand fine lady, and fall in love with her, and forget at once all about his poor little Minna. Ah, no, it wasn't altogether for Minna's good, perhaps, that Colin should go to Italy.

She sat there so long, ruminating about it on her bedside without undressing, that Miss Woollacott, who always looked under the door to see if the light was out and prevent waste of the candles, called out in quite a sharp voice, 'Minna Wroe, how very long you are undressing!' And then she blew out the candle in a hurry, and undressed in the dark, and jumped into bed hastily, and covered her head up with the bedclothes, and had a good cry, very silently; and after that she felt a little better. But still she couldn't go to sleep, thinking about how very hard it would be to lose Colin. Oh, no, she couldn't bear to tell him; she wouldn't tell him; it wasn't at all likely the place would suit him; and if he wanted to go to Rome and leave her, he must just go and find a way for himself; and so that was all about it.

And then a sudden glow of shame came over Minna's cheeks, as she lay there in the dark on the little iron bedstead, to think that she should have been so untrue for a single moment to her better self and to Colin's best and highest interests. She loved Colin! yes, she loved him! from her childhood onward, he had been her one dream and romance and ideal! She knew Colin could make things lovelier than any other man on earth had ever yet imagined; and she knew she ought to do her best to put him in the way of fulfilling his own truest and purest instincts. Should she selfishly keep him here in England, when it was only at Rome that he could get the best instruction? Should she cramp his genius and clip his wings, merely in order that he mightn't fly away too far from her? Oh, it was wicked of her, downright wicked of her, to wish not to tell him. Come of it what might, she must go round and see Colin the very next day, and let him decide for himself about that dreadful upsetting advertisement. And having at last arrived at this conclusion, Minna covered her head a second time with the counterpane, had another good cry, just to relieve her conscience, and then sank off into a troubled sleep from which she only woke again at the second bell next morning.

All that day she taught with the dreadful advertisement weighing heavily on her mind, and interposing itself terribly between her and the rule of three, or the names and dates of the Anglo-Saxon sovereigns. She couldn't for the life of her remember whether Ethel-bald came before or after Ethelwulf; and she stumbled horribly over the question whether this was a personal or a demonstrative pronoun. But when the evening came, she got leave from Miss Woollacott to go round and see her cousin (a designation which was strictly correct in some remote sense, for Minna's mother and Cohn's father were in some way related), and she almost ran the whole way to the Marylebone Road to catch Colin just before he went away for the night from Cicolari's.

When Colin saw the advertisement, and heard Minna's suggestion, he turned it over a good many times in his own mind, and seemed by no means disinclined to try the chances of it. 'It's only a very small chance, of course, Minna,' he said dubitatively, 'but at any rate it's worth trying. The great thing against me is that I haven't been anything in that line for so very long, and I can't get any character, except from Cicolari. The one thing in my favour is that I know a little Italian. I don't suppose there are many young men of the sort who go to be valets who know Italian. Anyhow, I'll try it. It'll be a dreadful thing if I get it, having to leave you for so long, Minna,' and Minna's cheek brightened at that passing recognition of her prescriptive claim upon him; 'but it'll only be for a year or two; and when I come back, little woman, I shall come back very different from what I go, and then, Minna—why, then, we shall see what we shall see!' And Colin stooped to kiss the little ripe lips that pretended to evade him (Minna hadn't got over that point of etiquette yet), and held the small brown face tight between his hands, so that Minna couldn't manage to get it away, though she struggled, as in duty bound, her very hardest.

So early next day Colin put on his best Sunday clothes—and very handsome and gentlemanly he looked in them too—and walked off to Ockenden Square, S.W., in search of Sir Henry Wilberforce.

Sir Henry was a tall, spare, wizened-up old gentleman, with scanty grey hair, carefully brushed so as to cover the largest possible area with the thinnest possible layer. He was sitting in the dining-room after breakfast when Colin called; and Colin was shown in by the footman as an ordinary visitor. 'What name?' the man asked, as he ushered him from the front door.

'Colin Churchill.'

'Mr. Colin Churchill!' the man said, as Colin walked into the dining-room.

Sir Henry stared and rose to greet him with hand extended. 'Though upon my word,' he thought to himself, 'who the deuce Mr. Colin Churchill may be, I'm sure I haven't the faintest conception.'

This was decidedly awkward. Colin felt hot and uncomfortable; it began to dawn upon him that in his best Sunday clothes he looked perhaps a trifle too gentlemanly. But he managed to keep at a respectful distance, and Sir Henry, not finding his visitor respond to the warmth of his proposed reception, dropped his hand quietly and waited for Colin to introduce his business.

'I beg your pardon, sir,' Colin said a little uncomfortably—he began to feel, now, how far he had left behind the Dook's early lessons in manners—'I—I've come about your advertisement for a valet. I—I've come, in fact, to apply for the situation.'

Sir Henry glanced at him curiously. 'The deuce you have,' he said, dropping back chillily into his easy chair, and surveying Colin over from head to foot with an icy scrutiny. 'You've come to apply for the situation! Why, Wilkinson said, “Mr. Colin Churchill.'” 'He mistook my business, I suppose,' Colin answered quietly, but with some hesitation. It somehow struck him already that he would find it hard to drop back once more into the long-forgotten position of a valet. 'I came to ask whether it was likely I would suit you. I can speak Italian.'

That was his trump card, in fact, and he thought it best to play it quickly.

Sir Henry looked at him again. 'Oh, you can speak Italian. Well, that's good as far as it goes; but how much Italian can you speak, that's the question?' And he added a few words in the best Tuscan he could muster up, to test the applicant's exact acquirements.

Colin answered him more quickly and idiomatically than Sir Henry had expected. In fact, Cicolari's lessons had been sound and practical. Sir Henry kept up the conversation, still in Italian, for a few minutes, and then, being quite satisfied on that score, returned with a better grace to his native English. 'Have you been out as a valet before?' he asked.

'Not for some years, sir.' Colin replied frankly. 'I went out to service at first, and was page and valet to a clergyman in Dorsetshire—Mr. Howard-Bussell, of Wootton Mandeville——-'

'Knew him well,' Sir Henry repeated to himself reflectively. 'Old Howard-Russell of Wootton Mandeville! Dead these five years. Knew him well, the selfish old pig; as conceited, self-opinionated an old fool as ever lived in all England. He declared my undoubted Pinturicchio was only a Giovanni do Spagno. Whereas it's really the only quite indubitable Pinturiccliio in a private gallery anywhere at all outside Italy.'

'Except the St. Sebastian at Knowle, of course,' Colin put in, innocently.

Sir Henry turned round and stared at him again. 'Except the St. Sebastian at Knowle,' he echoed coldly. 'Except the St. Sebastian at Knowle, no doubt. But how the deuce did he come to know the St. Sebastian at Knowle was a Pinturiccliio, I wonder? Anyhow, it shows he's lived in very decent places. Well, and so you used to be with old Mr. Howard-Russell, did you? And since then—since then—what have you been doing?'

'At present, sir,' Cohn went on, 'I'm working as a marble-cutter; but circumstances make me wish to go back again to service now, and as I happen to know Italian, I thought perhaps your place might suit me.'

'No doubt, no doubt. I dare say it would. But the question is, would you suit me, don't you see? A marble-cutter, he says—a marble-cutter! How deuced singular! Have you got a character?'

'I could get one from Mr. Russell's friends, I should think, sir; and of course my present employer would speak for my honesty and so forth.'

Sir Henry asked him a few more questions, and then seemed to be turning the matter over in his own mind a little. 'The Italian,' he said, speaking to himself—for he had a habit that way, 'the Italian's the great thing. I've made up my mind I'll never go to Rome again with a valet who doesn't speak Italian. Dobbs was impossible, quite impossible. This young man has some Italian, but can he valet, I wonder? Here, you! come into my bedroom, and let me see what you can do in the way of your duties.'

Colin followed him upstairs, and, being put through his paces as a body-servant, got through the examination with decent credit. Next came the question of wages and so forth, and finally the announcement that Sir Henry meant to start for Rome early in October.

'Well, he's a very fair-spoken young man,' Sir Henry said at last, 'and he knows Italian. But it's devilish odd his being a marble-cutter. However, I'll try him. I'll write to your master, Churchill—what's his name—I'll write to him and enquire about you.'

Colin gave him Cicolari's name and address, and Sir Henry noted them deliberately in his pocket-book. 'Very good,' he said; 'I'll write and ask about your character, and if everything's all correct, I shall let you know and engage you.'

Colin found it rather hard to answer 'Thank you, sir;' but it was for Rome and art, and he managed to say it.


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