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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XXIV. GWEN AND HIRAM.
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Everybody who went to Audouin's picnic at the Alban lake agreed that it was one of the most delightful entertainments given at Rome during the whole of that season.

The winter—Hiram and Cohn's first winter in Italy—had worn away quickly enough. Hiram had gone every day, as in duty bound, to paint and be chidden at M. Seguin's studio; for Seguin was one of those exalted teachers who instruct rather by example than by precept; who seem to say perpetually to their pupils, 'See how much better I have done it or would have done it than you do;' and he never for a moment succeeded in inspiring the very slightest respect or enthusiasm in Hiram's simple, quiet, unostentatious, straightforward American nature. Of course Hiram worked hard; he felt he ought to work hard. Audouin expected it of him, and he would have done anything on earth to please Audouin; but his heart was not really in it for all that, though he wouldn't for the world have acknowledged as much even to himself, and he got on far less well than many other people would have done with half his talent and half his industry. He hated the whole artifice of drapery and models, and clever arrangement of light and shade, and marvellous minuteness of technical resources, in which his French master positively revelled. He longed for the beautiful native wildness of the American woodlands, or still more, even, for the green hedgerows and parks and meadows of that enchanted England, which he had seen but in a glimpse for two days in his whole lifetime, but in whose mellow beauty, nevertheless, his heart had immediately recognised its true fatherland. It may have been narrow and sectarian and unappreciative in Hiram; no doubt it was; but he couldn't for the life of him really care for Seguin's very greatest triumphs of artistic ingenuity. He recognised their extraordinary skill, he admitted their unrivalled cleverness as tours de force of painting, he even admired their studied grace and exquisite composition as bits of harmonious form and colour; but he never could fall down before them in the least as works of art in the highest sense, or see in them anything more than the absolute perfection of cold, hard, dry, unspiritualised mechanical aptitude.

As for Colin, now that Sam had gone back to England, on his way home to America (Sam used the expression himself quite naturally now), he had thrown himself with the utmost fervour into the work of Maragliano's studio, where he soon rose to the acknowledged position of the great master's most favourite pupil. The model of the Calabrian Peasant which he built up upon the blacksmith's framework was the last copy he had to do for Maragliano. As soon as it was finished, the master scanned the clay figure with his quick critical eye, and cried almost contemptuously, 'Why, this is mere child's play for such a man as you, I see, Churchill. You must do no more copying. To-morrow you shall begin modelling from the life.' Colin was well pleased indeed to go on to this new and untried work, and he made such rapid progress in it that even Maragliano himself was quite surprised, and said confidentially to Bazzoni more than once, 'The young Englishman will go far. He has the spark of genius in him, my friend; he is a born sculptor.'

It was all so different too in Rome, from London, where Colin had been isolated, unknown, and almost friendless. There was nobody there except Cicolari—and Minna; dear little woman, he had almost omitted her—with whom he could talk on equal terms about his artistic longings and ideas and interests. But at Rome it was all so different. There was such a great society of artists! Every man's studio was open to his fellows; a lively running fire of candid criticism went on continually about every work completed or in progress. To live in such an atmosphere of art, to move amongst it and talk about it all day long, to feast his eyes upon the grand antiques and glorious Michael Angelos of the Vatican—all this was to Colin Churchill as near an approach to unmixed happiness as it is given to human beings to know in this nether world of very mixed experiences. If only he had had Minna with him! But there! Colin Churchill loved art so earnestly and singlemindedly that for its sake he could well endure even a few years' brief absence in Rome away from poor, little, loving, sorrowing Minna.

Gwen meanwhile, in spite of the colonel, had managed to see a great deal from time to time both of Colin and of Audouin. The colonel had indeed peremptorily forbidden her in so many words to hold any further communications of any sort with either of them. Colin, he said, was a person clearly beneath her both in birth and education, while Audouin was the most incomprehensible prig of a Yankee fellow he had ever had the misfortune to set eyes upon in the whole course of his lifetime. But the colonel was one of those forcible-feeble people who are very vehement always in language, but very mild in actual fact; who threaten and bluster a great deal about what they will never do, or what they will never permit, but who do or permit it all the same on the very next occasion when opportunity arises. The consequence was that Gwen, who was a vigorous young lady with a will of her own, never took much serious notice of the colonel when he was in one of his denunciatory humours, but went her own way peacefully, and did as she chose to do herself the very next minute.

Now, at the same hotel where the Howard-Russells were stopping there was a certain Mrs. Wilmer, a lady with two daughters (perfect sticks, Gwen called them), to whom Gwen, being herself alone and motherless, thought it well to attach herself for purposes of society. It's so convenient, you know, to have somebody by way of a chaperon who can take you about and get invitations for you. Happily Mrs. Wilmer, though herself as commonplace a village Lady Bountiful as ever distributed blankets and read good books to the mothers' meeting every Wednesday, was suddenly seized at Rome, under the influence of the genius loci, with a burning desire to know something about art and artists; and Gwen made use of this new-born fancy freely to go round the studios with Mrs. Wilmer, and of course to meet at times with Colin and Audouin.

At last April came, and Audouin, who had been getting very tired of so much city life (for his hermit love for the woods and solitude was only one half affected), began to long once more for the lonely delights of his own beloved solitary Lakeside. He would have been gone long before, indeed, had it not been for a curious feeling which for the first time in his life, he felt growing up within him—Audouin was falling in love with Gwen Howard-Russell. The very first day he ever met her by the Lake of the Thousand Islands, he had greatly admired her frank bold English beauty, and since he had seen a little more of her at Rome, he had found himself insensibly gliding from admiration into a less philosophical and more human attitude. Yes, he had almost made up his mind that before he left Rome, he would ask Gwen whether she would do him the supreme honour of accompanying him back to America as the mistress of Lakeside.

'Papa,' Gwen said, one bright morning in April, 'Mrs. Wilmer wants me to go with her to-day to a picnic at the Lago d'Albano.'

'A picnic!' the colonel cried severely. 'And in the Campagna, too! My dear child, as sure as fate, you'll all get the Roman fever.'

'Albano isn't in the Campagna, papa,' Gwen answered quietly. 'At least it's right up ever so high among the mountains. And Mrs. Wilmer's going to call for me at halfpast eleven.'

'Who gives the picnic?'

Gwen bit her lip. 'Mr. Audouin,' she answered shortly.

'Mr. Audouin! What, that mad Yankee man again! Then, mind, Gwen, I say you're not to go on any account.'

'But, papa, Mrs. Wilmer has accepted for me.'

'Never mind. I say, I won't allow you. Not a word more upon the subject: I won't allow you. Now, remember, I positively forbid it, and pray don't re-open the question.'

At half-past eleven, however, Gwen came down, dressed and ready. 'Papa dear,' she said, as unconcernedly as if nothing at all had been said about it, 'here's Mrs. Wilmer waiting for me outside, and I must go. I hope we shan't be back late for dinner. Good morning.'

The colonel only muttered something inarticulate as she left the room, and turned to his cigar for consolation.

'What, you here, Mr. Churchill,' Gwen cried, as they all met together a few minutes later at the Central Railway Station. 'I had no idea you were to be of the party. I thought you were so perfectly wedded to art that you never took a minute's holiday.'

'I don't often,' Colin answered, smiling; 'I have so much leeway to make up that I have to keep always at it, night and morning. But Maragliano, who's the best and most considerate of men, when he heard that Mr. Audouin had been kind enough to invite me, insisted upon it that I must give myself a day's recreation. Besides, you see,' he added after a momentary pause, looking down as if by accident into Gwen's beautiful eyes, 'there were such very special attractions.'

Gwen made a little mock curtsey. 'What a pretty speech!' she said laughingly. 'Since you've come to Rome, Mr. Churchill, you seem to have picked up the Roman habit of paying compliments.'

Colin blushed, with some inward embarrassment. The fact was, Gwen had misunderstood his simple remark: he was thinking, not of her, but only of the tomb of Pompey and the old Roman Emissary. But Gwen noticed the faint crimson rising to his cheek, and said to herself, not without a touch of pardonable vanity, 'Our young sculptor isn't quite so wholly swallowed up in his art as he wants us to believe, then. He dreams already of flying high. If he flies high enough, who knows but he may be successful.'

What a handsome young fellow he was, to be sure, and what a natural gentleman! And what a contrast, too, in his easy unselfconscious manner, to that shy, awkward, gawky slip of a Yankee painter, Mr. Hiram Winthrop! Hiram! where on earth did he get the name from? It sounded for all the world just like a fancy character out of 'Martin Chuzzlewit.'

'And you too, Mr. Winthrop! Of course we should have expected you. I don't wonder you're always about so much with Mr. Audouin. I think him, you know, the most charming talker I've ever met with.'

Hiram could have sunk into the ground with mortification at having thus always to play second fiddle to Audouin, whose grizzling hair made him seem to Gwen so much a confirmed old bachelor that she didn't think there could be any danger at all in openly speaking out her admiration for his powers as a talker.

They went by train to the station at Albano, and then drove up to the shores of the lake in carriages which Audouin had ready in waiting. Recluse and hermit as he was, when he went in for giving an entertainment, he gave it regally; and the picnic was universally pronounced to be the most splendid success of the Roman season. After lunch they dispersed a little, as people always do at picnics (or else what would be the use of that form of reunion?) and Colin somehow found himself, he didn't quite know how, strolling with Gwen down the Galleria di Sopra, that beautiful avenue of shady evergreen oaks which leads, with innumerable lovely glimpses of the lake below, from Albano towards Castel Gandolfo. Gwen, however, knew well enough how it had all happened; for she had angled most cleverly so as to avoid the pressing attentions of Audouin, and to pair off in apparent unconsciousness with the more favoured Colin. Mrs. Wilmer, walking behind with another guest to do the proprieties, had acquiesced most heartily in this arrangement, and had even managed to promote it diligently: for did it not compel Mr. Audouin to link himself for the afternoon to dear Lilian, and was it not well known that Mr. Audouin, though an American, was otherwise a most unexceptionable and eligible person, with quite sufficient means of his own to marry most comfortably upon? Whereas this young Mr. Churchill, though no doubt wonderfully clever, and a most estimable young man in his own way, was a person of no family, and with all his fortune still to make by his own exertions. And Mr. Audouin had really hardly a trace, after all, of that horrid American singsong.

'Yes,' Gwen was saying, as they reached the point of view near the Emissario: 'Signor Maragliano told me that before many months were over, he should advise you to begin modelling a real life-size figure from the life of your own invention; for he thinks you would be only wasting your time in working much longer at mere copying or academy work. He wants to see you begin carrying out some of your own beautiful original conceptions. And so do I too, you know: for we feel in a way, papa and I, as if we had discovered you, Mr. Churchill.—Shall we sit down here awhile, under the oak trees? This broad shade is so very delicious.'

She gave Colin her hand, to help her down the first bit of the side path to the old Roman conduit; and as she did so, she looked into his face with her lovely eyes, and smiled her thanks to him expressively. Cohn took her hand and helped her gently down. 'You're very good to interest yourself so much in my work,' he said, with no trace of shyness or awkwardness in his manner. 'I shall be glad indeed when I'm able to begin producing something worthy in real earnest.'

Gwen was really very beautiful and very kind and very cordial. He never for a moment remembered with her the original disparity of their stations, as he did with so many other grand ladies. She seemed to put him at his ease at once, and to be so frank and complimentary and even pressing. And then, her profile was magnificent, and her eyes were really splendid!

Ah, Minna, Minna, poor little Minna, in your big noisy schoolroom away over yonder in big noisy London, well may you tremble with a cold shiver running strangely through you, you know not why, and murmur to yourself, in your quaint old-world superstition, that somebody must be walking over your grave to-day somewhere or other!

'Rome's a perfect paradise to me, you know, Mr. Churchill,' Gwen went on, musingly. 'I never fully knew, before I came here, how much I loved art. I perfectly revel in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, and in studios such as Signor Maragliano's. What a fortunate life yours will be—to live always among so much exquisite beauty! I should love an artist's life myself—only I suppose I should never get beyond the most amateur water-colours. But a sculptor, especially! A sculptor's career seems to me to be the grandest thing on earth a man can live for! I'd willingly give half my days, do you know, if only I could be a sculptor.'

'It's a glorious profession, certainly,' Colin answered, with kindling eyes. 'It's such a grand thing to think one belongs, however humbly, to the same great troop as Pheidias, and Michael Angelo, and Gibson, and Thorwaldsen. That, alone, of course, is something in one's life to be really proud of.'

'Poor boy! he's obtuse,' Gwen thought to herself, commiseratingly. 'He doesn't follow up the openings one gives him. But never mind. He's very young still, and doesn't know when one's leading up to him. There's plenty of time yet. By-and-by he'll grow older and wiser.—What a beautiful reflection down there in the water, Mr. Churchill! No, not there: on the broader part beyond the Roman mason-work. I wish Mr. Winthrop could see it. It's just the thing he'd like so much to put on paper or canvas.'

'You're interested in Winthrop, then, are you?' Cohn asked innocently.

'Interested in him? Oh, yes, I'm interested in all art and in all artists—though not of course in all equally. I mean, I like sculpture even better than painting. But I saw a water-colour drawing of Mr. Winthrop's when I was in America, you know, where I first met him, which I thought very pretty. I can remember it yet—a sketch of blended trees and water among the channels of the Thousand Islands.'

'I've seen it,' Cohn answered: 'he's brought it with him, as well as several other American landscapes. Winthrop draws admirably, I know, and his treatment of foliage and water seems to me quite extraordinarily good. He'll make a fine artist, I'm quite confident, before he's done with it.'

Gwen pouted a little to herself. 'It's plain,' she thought, 'that Mr. Churchill isn't a person to be easily piqued by praising anybody else.' And must it not be candidly admitted that in most women's eyes such complete absence of jealousy is regarded rather as a fault in a man's nature than as a virtue? (Mind, fair and courteous reader, if I may for a moment address you personally, I say 'in most' not 'in all women's.' You yourself, like present company generally, always, of course, form one of the striking and praiseworthy exceptions to every vile masculine innuendo aimed at the real or supposed peculiarities of 'most women.' Indeed, it is on purpose to allow you that flattering loophole of escape that I always artfully employ the less exclusive or general expression.)

They sat for a while talking idly on the slope by the path that leads to the Emissary, till at last Audouin, having managed to shift off dear Lilian for a while upon another man of the party, strolled up as though by accident to join them. 'Do I intrude upon a tete-a-tete?' he asked with apparent carelessness, as he sat down upon the rocky ledge beside them. 'Is Mr. Churchill discoursing high art to you, Miss Russell, and peopling the romantic glen below with yet unhewn Egerias and Faunuses? How well this Italian scenery lends itself to those pretty half-theatrical Poussinesque embellishments! and how utterly out of place they would all look among the perfectly unkempt native savagery of our American woods and waters!'

Gwen smiled. 'We weren't discussing high art, Mr. Audouin,' she said as she drew a circle in the dust with the tip of her parasol. 'In fact we want you here to throw a little touch of fancy and idealism into the conversation. To tell you the truth, Mr. Churchill and I were only pulling to pieces the Miss Wilmers' dresses.'

'Ah, but even dress itself is in its way a liturgy, Miss Russell,' Audouin went on quickly, glancing half aside as he spoke at her own dainty bodice and little frill of coffee-coloured laces. (Gwen hadn't the least idea what he meant by a liturgy in this connection; but she thought it was something very beautiful and poetical to say, and she felt sure it was meant for a compliment; so she smiled graciously at it). 'People sometimes foolishly say that young ladies think a great deal too much about dress. For my part, it often occurs to me, when I look at other women; that they think a great deal too little of it. How rarely, after all, does one see art subservient here to nature—a beautiful woman whose dress rather expresses and accentuates than mars or clashes with her own individual type of beauty.'

'How complimentary he is,' thought Gwen; 'and at his age too! Why, I positively believe he must be very nearly forty!'

'Shall we go down and look at the Emissary?' Colin asked, interrupting Audouin's flow of pretty sentimentalities. 'It's very old, you know, Miss Russell: one of the oldest existing works of Roman engineering anywhere in Europe.'

Audouin jumped up again, and led the way down to the Emissary, where the guide was already standing, impatiently expecting so many visitors, with the little taper in his hands which he lights and sets floating down the stream in order to exhibit to the greatest advantage the full extent of the prehistoric tunnel. 'Can't I manage to shake off this fellow Churchill somehow or other,' Audouin thought to himself in inward vexation, and get half an hour's chat alone with Miss Bussell? I do believe the creature'll checkmate me now, all by his ridiculous English heavy persistency! And yet, what a scholars mate, too, to go and be shelved by such a mere hobbledehoy of a fellow as this young man Churchill!'

Half way down the steep path, they came unexpectedly upon a solitary figure, sitting with colour-box open and sheet of paper before him, just above the entrance to the old tunnel. Audouin started when he saw him. 'Why, Hiram,' he cried, 'so there you are! I've been hunting everywhere for you, my dear fellow. We couldn't, any of us, imagine where on earth you had evanished.'

Hiram didn't look up in reply, and Gwen's quick eye immediately caught the reason, though she couldn't guess at its explanation—the young American painter had certainly been crying! Sitting here alone by himself, and crying! Gwen's heart interpreted the tears at once after a true woman's fashion. He had left some little rustic sweetheart behind in America, and he didn't care to sit and chat gaily among so many other women, while she was alone without him; but had crept down here with his paint-box by himself, to make a small sketch in perfect solitude, and think about her. But who would ever have imagined that that gawky shock-headed American boy had really got so much romance in him!

'Oh, I just came down here, Mr. Audouin, to take a little view of the lake,' Hiram answered evasively, without raising his eyes. 'The bit was so pretty that, as I'd brought my things along, I couldn't resist painting it.'

'But what a shame of you,' Gwen cried, 'to run away and desert us, Mr. Winthrop. You might at least have given us the pleasure of watching you working. It's always so delightful to see a picture growing slowly into form and shape under the hands of the artist.'

Hiram's voice had a touch of gratitude in it as he answered slowly, 'I didn't know, Miss Russell, you were likely to care about it.'

'Oh, he always loves solitude,' Audouin answered lightly, in a tone that cut Hiram to the quick. 'He doesn't care for society at all. I'm afraid, in that respect, Winthrop and I are both alike—lineal descendants of the old Red Indian. There's nothing he loves so much as to get away to a corner by himself, and commune with nature, with or without his colours, just as he's been doing now, in perfect solitude. And after all, solitude's really the best society: solitude's an excellent fellow by way of a companion. Even when we're most alone, we have, not only nature with us, but such a glorious company of glorified humanity that has gone before us. We walk with Shelley down the autumn avenues of falling leaves, or we meditate with Pascal beside the great breakers of Homer's much-resounding sea. We look with Claude at the shifting lights and shades on the craggy hillside opposite there, or we gaze upon the clouds and the sunset with something of the halo that flooded the dying eyes of Turner. Somebody has well said somewhere, Miss Russell, that without solitude no great thing was ever yet accomplished. When the regenerators of the world—the Messiahs and the Buddhas—wish to begin their mission as seer and founder, they first retire for forty days' fast and meditation in the lonely wilderness. And yet, I begin to think that our solitude oughtn't to be too profound or too continuous. (Perhaps mine has been so.) It ought to be tempered, I fancy, by continual congenial intercourse with some one other like-minded spirit. After all, there's a profound truth of human nature expressed in the saying of the old Hebrew cosmogonist—“It is not good that man should be alone.”'

'So I've always thought,' assented Colin Churchill gravely.

Audouin was vexed at the interruption, partly because he was just in the middle of one of his fluent, high-flown, transcendental periods, but still more because it came from that wretched interloper of a young English sculptor. He was just about to go on with a marked tone of continuity, when Gwen prevented him by taking up Hiram's unfinished picture. 'Why, this is beautiful!' she cried, with genuine enthusiasm. 'This is even better than the Alexandria Bay drawing, Mr. Winthrop: I like it immensely. What a lovely tint of purple on the crests of the little wavelets! and how beautifully you've done the steep sides of the old crater. Why, I do believe you ought to be a landscape painter, instead of going in for those dreadful historical pictures that nobody cares about. What a pity you've gone into Mr. Seguin's studio! I'm sure you'd do a thousand times better at this sort of subject.'

'We've considered very carefully the best place in which to develop my friend Winthrop's unusual powers,' Audouin answered in a cold tone; 'and we've both quite come to the conclusion that there's no teacher better for him anywhere than Seguin. Seguin's a really marvellous colourist, Miss Russell, and his mastery of all the technical resources of art is something that has never yet been approached, far less equalled, in the whole history of painting.'

Hiram looked up very shyly into Gwen's face, and said quite simply, 'I'm so glad you like it, Miss Russell. Your appreciation is worth a great deal to me.'

'More compliments!' Gwen thought to herself, smiling. 'They're all at it this afternoon. What on earth can be the meaning of it? My new poplin must be really awfully fetching.' But her smile was a kindly one, and poor Hiram, who hadn't much to treasure up in his soul, treasured it up sedulously for months to come among his dearest and most precious possessions.

In the end, as it happened, Audouin never got the chance of speaking alone with Gwen during the whole picnic. It was very annoying, certainly, for he had planned the little entertainment entirely for that very purpose; but really, as he reflected to himself at leisure in his own room that evening, it was after all only a postponement. 'In any case,' he thought, 'I wouldn't have insulted her by proposing to her to-day; for it is insulting to a woman to ask her for her hand until you can see quite clearly that she really cares for you. A human soul isn't a thing of so light value that you can beg for the gift of it into your safe keeping on a shorter acquaintance than would warrant you in asking for the slightest favour. A woman's heart, a true and beautiful woman's heart, is a dainty musical instrument to be carefully learnt before one can play upon it rightly. To take it up by force, as it were, and to say at a venture, “Let me see whether perchance I can get a tune out of this anyhow,” is to treat it with far less tenderness and ceremony than one would bestow upon an unconscious Stradivarius. So perhaps it was wisely ordained by the great blind Caprice which rules this universe of ours that she and I should not speak alone and face to face together to-day at Albano.'

But Hiram lulled himself to sleep by thinking over and over again to himself that night, 'She smiled at me, and she admired my drawing.'


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