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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XXII. HIRAM GETS SETTLED.
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Hiram,' Audouin said, as soon as Sam and Colin had left the hotel, 'it's time for us, I surmise, to be setting about the same errand. Before we begin to look at the sights of Rome, we must arrange where you ought to locate yourself, and when you ought to commence your artistic studies.

Hiram looked blankly enough out of the window into the dusty piazza, and answered in a tone of some regret, 'Well, Mr. Audouin, if you think so, I suppose it'll be best to do it, though I can't say I'm in any particular hurry. Where do you contemplate making inquiries?'

'Why,' Audouin replied in his easy confident fashion, 'there's only one really great painter now in Rome in whose studio I should like to put you, Hiram, and that's Seguin.' Hiram's face sank. 'Seguin,' he echoed somewhat gloomily. 'Ah, Seguin! But he's a figure painter, isn't he, surely, Mr. Audouin?' Audouin smiled his pleasant smile of superior wisdom. 'Well, Hiram,' he said, 'you don't come to Rome to paint Chattawauga Lake, do you? Yes, Seguin's a figure painter. And you'll be a figure painter, too, my dear fellow, before you've finished—yes, and a great one. Seguin's one of the finest living artists, you know, in all Europe. It's a great honour to be admitted into the studio of such a master.'

If somebody in authority had said to Hiram Winthrop, 'You must go to Seguin's and paint heroic figure pictures, or have your head cut off,' Hiram Winthrop would no doubt have promptly responded with dogged cheerfulness, 'A sainte guillotine, done,' or words to that effect, without a moment's hesitation. But when Lothrop Audouin, his guide and benefactor, said to him in a voice of friendly sympathy, 'You'll be a figure painter too, before you've finished, Hiram,' he no more dreamt of refusing or doubting (save in his own inmost soul) than a docile child dreams of resisting its parents in the matter of their choice of its school or its lessons. So he took his hat down from its peg, and followed Audouin blindly, out into that labyrinth of dirty lanes and ill-paved alleys which constitutes the genuine Rome of the native-born modern Romans.

Audouin led the way, through the modernised shops and gay bustle of the Corso, to a small side street, with squalid blotchy houses rising high against the sky on either hand, and a crowd of dirty ragged children loitering in the gutter, save when an occasional rickety carriage, drawn by a tottering skinny horse, dashed round the dark corners with a sudden swoop, and scattered them right and left with loud chattering cries into the gloomy archways. All was new and strange to Hiram, and, if the truth must be told, not particularly inviting. Past the Spaccio di Vino, the squalid temple of Dionysus, where grimy Romans in grubby coatsleeves sat drinking sour red wine from ill-washed tumblers; past the tinker's shop, where some squat Etruscan figure crouched by a charcoal stove hammering hopelessly at dilapidated pannikins; past the foul greengrocery, where straw-covered flasks of rancid oil hung up untemptingly between long strings of flabby greens and mouldering balls of country cheese; past many other sights and sounds, dimly visible to Hiram's eyes or audible to his ears in the whirl and confusion of an unknown city; till at last Audouin wheeled round the corner into the Via Colonna (where Colin had gone before), and stopped in front of a large and decently clean house, bearing on the lintel of its great oak door a little painted tin plate, 'Atelier de M. J.-B. Seguin.' Audouin turned with a smile to Hiram, poor dazzled, half-terrified Hiram, and said in a tone of some little triumph, 'There, you see, Hiram, here we are at last; in Rome, and at the great man's studio!'

And was this Rome! And was this the end of all his eager youthful aspirations! Hiram had hardly the courage to smile back in his friend's face, and assume an air of pretended cheerfulness. Already he felt in his heart that this great, squalid, sordid city was really no place for such as him. He knew he would never like it; he knew he could never succeed in it. England, beautiful, smiling England, had quite unaffectedly charmed and delighted him. There, he could find a thousand subjects ready to his hand that would exactly suit his taste and temper. It was so rich in verdure and tillage; it was so pregnant with the literary and historical interests that were nearest and dearest to him. But Rome! the very first glimpse of it was to Hiram Winthrop a hideous disillusionment. Its dirt, its mouldiness, its gloom, its very antiquity—nay, in one word, to be quite frank, its picturesqueness itself, were all to his candid American soul unendurably ugly. He hated it from top to bottom at first sight with a deadly hatred; and he felt quite sure he should hate it cordially as long as he lived in it.

Very Philistine, of course, this feeling of dissatisfaction on Hiram Winthrop's part; but then, you know, the Americans are a nation of Philistines, and after all, no man can rise wholly superior to the influence of his lifelong social environment. Indeed, it isn't easy even for an Englishman to take kindly just at first to the dirt and discomfort of southern European cities. He may put the best face upon the matter that he can; he may sedulously and successfully disguise his disgust lest he be accounted vulgar, narrowminded, insular, inartistic; he may pretend to be charmed with everything, from St. Peter's to the garlic in the cookery; yet in his heart of hearts he feels distinctly that the Vatican barely outweighs the smells of the Ghetto, and that the Colosseum scantily atones for the filthy alleys of the Tiberside slums that cover what was once the Campus Martius. It takes some residence to get over the initial disadvantages of an Italian city. But to an American-born, an unregenerate, not yet cosmopolitanised or Italianate American, fresh from the broad clean streets and neat white houses of American cities, the squalor and griminess of Rome is a thing incredible and almost unutterable. Hiram gazed at it, appalled and awestruck, wondering how on earth he could ever manage to live for a year or two together in that all-pervading murky atmosphere of dust-laden malaria.

Besides, was he not a little sore and disappointed that Gwen had seen him, and had utterly forgotten him? Was he not just a trifle jealous, not only of Audouin, but also of Colin Churchill? All these things go to colour a man's opinion of towns and places quite as much as those recognised and potent refractive agents, the nature of his digestion or the state of the weather.

They were duly ushered up into M. Seguin's private room, and there the great painter, after a few minutes' delay, came to see them. He was a short, dry-looking, weazened-up little man, with a grizzled French moustache waxed at the ends, and an imperturbable air of being remarkably well pleased with himself, both physically and mentally. Audouin took him in hand at once, as if by agreement, and did all the talking, while Hiram stood silent and confused quite in the background. Indeed, a casual observer might easily have imagined that it was Audouin who wished to be the Frenchman's pupil, and that Hiram Winthrop was merely there as a disinterested and unconcerned bystander.

'Has Monsieur got any specimens of his work with him?' M. Seguin asked Hiram at last condescendingly. 'Anything on which one might form a provisional judgment of his probable talents?'

'I've brought a few landscapes with me from America, if you would care to see them,' Hiram answered submissively.

'To see them! Not at all, Monsieur. Do I wish to look at landscapes for my part? Far from it! Let us admit that you do not come here to me to learn landscape. The human figure—the divine human figure in all its sublime grandeur—there, Monsieur, is the goal of the highest art; there is the arena of the highest artist.' M. Seguin brought his hand carelessly down upon the fragment of ribbon on his own left breast as he finished this final sentence, as though to imply with due delicacy of feeling that he considered the highest artist and Jean Baptiste Seguin as practically convertible expressions.

Hiram inclined his head a little, partly to hide a smile. 'I'm afraid, Monsieur,' he said humbly, 'I have nothing to show you in the way of figure painting.'

'Well, well,' Seguin answered with a polite expansion of his two hands, 'give yourself the trouble to come here to-morrow morning and prepare to copy a head of mine for the Salon of last year. You have seen it?—no? then this way, Messieurs, 'I will show it to you!''

The tone of exalted condescension in which he uttered those four words, 'Je vous la montrerai,' was as though he meant to afford them a glorious treat which would render them for ever after perfectly happy.

Hiram and Audouin followed the weazened-up little man into another room, where on an easel in the light stood his great Salon painting of Sardanapalus and the Egyptian Princess. As in everything that Seguin has painted, there was undoubtedly a certain meretricious beauty and force about it. The technique, indeed, was in its way absolutely perfect. The flesh tones had a satiny transparency; the draperies were arranged with exquisite skill and supreme knowledge; the touch was everywhere firm and solid: the art displayed was throughout consummate. Even the figures themselves, viewed as representing their historical namesakes, were not lacking in a certain theatrical grace and dignity.

Hiram felt instinctively that Sardanapalus was the masterpiece of a great artist, who had a marvellous hand and a profound knowledge of painting, but no soul in him; and even Audouin recognised at once that though the workmanship was as nearly perfect as the deepest study and the finest eye could possibly make it, yet there was a something still more profoundly artistic that was evidently wanting to the first conception of Seguin's masterpiece.

M. Seguin himself stood still for a minute or two with his hand on his hip, lips half parted and eye entranced, as though absorbed in contemplation of his own great work of art, and then glanced round sideways quite accidentally to see how its beauty affected the minds of the two strangers. Having furtively satisfied himself that Hiram was just then really appreciative of the clever light that fell obliquely upon Sardanapalus's dusky shoulder, and that Audouin was duly admiring the exquisitely painted full round arm of the Egyptian Princess, he turned to them in front once more, like one recalled from the realms of divine art to the worky-day world of actuality, and resumed the discussion of their present business.

'You will come then, to-morrow, Monsieur, and do me a study of the head of Sardanapalus. If by the time you have finished it, you display a talent worthy of being evoked, I will then accept you as one of my pupils. If not—which I do not, for the rest, anticipate—you will understand, Monsieur, in that case, that it will be with the greatest regret that I shall be compeled—ah, good; you recognise the necessity laid upon an artist.—Antoine! These gentlemen—my time, the time of an artist, is very precious. Good day, Monsieur, good day to you.'

'And if he accepts you, Hiram,' Audouin said, when they got outside, 'you'd better arrange to take an apartment somewhere with young Churchill—furnished apartments suitable for art-students are cheap at Rome, they tell me—and get your meals at a trattoria. That'll make your money go farther, I estimate.'.

Hiram sighed, and almost wished in his own heart that M. Seguin would have the kindness not to recognise in him a talent worthy of being evoked by so great a master. But alas, fate willed it otherwise. M. Seguin pronounced the head, though but feebly representing the mixed virile force and feminine delicacy of his own Sardanapalus, 'sufficiently well painted, as the work of a beginner;' and Hiram was forthwith duly enrolled among the great French painter's select pupils, to start work as soon as he had had a fortnight with Audouin, 'for inspecting the sights of the city.'


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