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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XXXII. RE-ENTER GWEN.
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Lothrop Audouin and Hiram Winthrop were strolling arm in arm together down the Corso.

Audouin had just arrived from Paris, having crossed from America only a week earlier.

Four years had made some difference in his personal appearance; his beard and hair were getting decidedly grizzled, and for the first time in his life Hiram noticed that his friend seemed to have aged a great deal faster and more suddenly than he himself had. But Audouin's carriage was still erect and very elastic; there was plenty of life and youth about him yet, plenty even of juvenile fire and originality.

'It's very disappointing certainly, Hiram,' he said, as they turned into the great thoroughfare of the city together, 'this delay in getting your talents recognised: but I have faith in you still; and to faith, you know, as the Hebrew preacher said, all things are possible. The great tardigrade world is hard to move; you need the pou sto of a sensation to get in the thin edge of your Archimedean lever. But the recognition will come, as sure as the next eclipse; meanwhile, my dear fellow, you must go on working in faith, and I surmise that in the end you will move mountains. If not Soracte just at once, my friend, well at any rate to begin upon the Monte Testaccio.'

Hiram smiled half sadly. 'But I haven't faith, you know, Mr. Audouin,' he answered, in as easy a tone as he could well muster. 'I begin to regard myself in the dismal light of a portentous failure. Like Peter, I feel myself sinking in the water, and have no one to take me by the hand and lift me out of it.'

Audouin answered only by an airy wave of his five delicate outspread fingers. 'And Miss Russell?' he asked after half a second's pause. 'Has she come to Rome yet? You know she said she would be here this winter.'

As he spoke, he looked deep into Hiram's eyes with so much meaning that Hiram felt his face grow hot, and thought to himself, 'What a wonderful man Mr. Audouin is, really! In spite of all my silence and reserve he has somehow managed to read my innermost secret. How could he ever have known that Miss Russell's was the hand I needed to lift me out of the Sea of Gennesaret!'

But how self-contained and self-centred even the best of us are at bottom! for Audouin only meant to change the subject, and the deep look in his eyes when he spoke about Gwen to Hiram had reference entirely to his own heart and not to his companion's.

'I haven't seen or heard anything of her yet,' Hiram answered shyly, 'but the season has hardly begun so far, and I calculate we may very probably find her at Rome in the course of the next fortnight.'

'How he looks down and hesitates!' Audouin thought to himself in turn as Hiram answered him. 'How on earth can he have succeeded in discovering and recognising my unspoken secret?'

So we walk this world together, cheek by jowl, yet all at cross purposes, each one thinking mainly of himself, and at the same time illogically fancying that his neighbour is not all equally engrossed on his own similarly important personality. We imagine he is always thinking about us, but he is really doing quite otherwise—thinking about himself exactly as we are.

They walked on a few steps further in silence, each engaged in musing on his own thoughts, and then suddenly a voice came from a jeweller's shop by the corner, 'Oh, papa, just look! Mr. Audouin and his friend the painter.'

As Gwen Howard-Russell uttered those simple words, two hearts went beating suddenly faster on the pavement outside, each after its own fashion. Audouin heard chiefly his own name, and thought to himself gladly, 'Then she has not forgotten me.' Hiram heard chiefly the end of the sentence, and thought to himself bitterly, 'And shall I never be more to her then than merely that—“his friend the painter”?'

'Delighted to see you, Mr. Audouin,' the colonel said stiffly, in a voice which at once belied its own spoken welcome. 'And you too, Mr.—ur—Mr. ————'

'Winthrop, papa,' Gwen suggested blandly; and Hiram was grateful to her even for remembering it.

'Winthrop, of course,' the colonel accepted with a decorous smile, as who should gracefully concede that Hiram had no doubt a sort of right in his own small way to some kind of cognomen or other. 'And are you still painting, Mr. Winthrop?'

'I am,' Hiram answered shortly. [The subject was one that did not interest him.] 'And you, Miss Russell? Have you come here to spend the winter?'

'Oh yes,' Gwen replied, addressing herself, however, rather to Audouin than to Hiram. 'You see we haven't forgotten our promise. But we're not stopping at the hotel this time, we're at the Villa Panormi—just outside the town, you know, on the road to the Ponte Molle.

A cousin of ours, a dear stupid old fellow——'

'Gwen, my dear! now really you know—the Earl of Beaminster, Mr. Audouin.'

'Yes, that's his name; Lord Beaminster, and a dear old stupid as ever was born, too, I can tell you. Well, he's taken the Villa Panormi for the season; it belongs to some poor wretched creature of a Roman prince, I believe (his grandfather was lackey to a cardinal), who's in want of money dreadfully, and he lets it to my cousin to go and gamble away the proceeds at Monte Carlo. It's just outside the Porta del Popolo, about a mile off; and the gardens are really quite delightful. You must both of you come there very often to see us.'

'But really, Gwen, we must ask Beaminster first, you know, before we begin introducing our friends to him,' the colonel interjected apologetically, casting down a furtive and uneasy glance at Hiram's costume, which certainly displayed a most admired artistic disorder. 'We ought to send him to call first at Mr.—ur—Winthrop's studio.'

'Of course,' Gwen answered. 'And so he shall go this very afternoon, if I tell him to. The dear old stupid always does whatever I order him.'

'If we continue to take up the pavement in this way,' Audouin put in gravely, 'we shall get taken up ourselves by the active and intelligent police officers of a redeemed Italy. Which way are you going now, Miss Russell? towards the Piazza? Then we'll go with you if you will allow us.—Hiram, my dear fellow, if you'll permit me to suggest it, it's very awkward walking four abreast on these narrow Roman side-walks—pavements, I mean; forgive the Americanism, Miss Russell. Yes, that's better so. And when did you and the colonel come to Rome. Now tell me?'

In a moment, much to Hiram's chagrin, and the colonel's too, Audouin had managed to lead the way, tête-à-tête with Gwen, shuffling off the two others to follow behind, and get along as best they might in the background together. Now the colonel was not a distinguished conversationalist, and Hiram was hardly in a humour for talking, so after they had interchanged a few harmless conventionalities and a mild platitude or two about the weather, they both relapsed into moody silence, and occupied themselves by catching a scrap every now and then of what Gwen and Audouin were saying in front of them.

'And that very clever Mr. Churchill, too, Mr. Audouin! I hear he's getting on quite wonderfully. Lord Beaminster bought one of his groups, you know, and brought him into fashion—partly by my pushing, I must confess, to be quite candid—and now, I'm told, he's commanding almost any price he chooses to ask in the way of sculpture. We haven't seen him yet, of course, but I mean papa and my cousin to look him up in his own quarters at the very earliest opportunity.'

'Oh, a clever enough young artist, certainly, but not really, Miss Russell, half so genuine an artist in feeling as my friend Win-throp.'

Hiram could have fallen on his neck that moment for that half-unconscious piece of kindly recommendation.

A few steps further they reached the corner of the Via de' Condotti, and Gwen paused for a second as she looked across the street, with a little sudden cry of recognition. A handsome young man was coming round the corner from the Piazza di Spagna, with a gipsy-looking girl leaning lightly on his arm, and talking to him with much evident animation. It was Colin and Minna, going out together on Minna's second holiday, to see the wonders of the Vatican and St. Peter's.

'Mr. Churchill!' Gwen cried, coming forward cordially to meet him. 'What a delightful rencontre! We were just talking of you.

And here are other friends, you see, besides—Mr. Winthrop, my father, and Mr. Audouin.' Minna stood half aside in a little embarrassment, wondering who on earth the grand lady could be (she had penetration enough to recognise at once that she was a grand lady) talking so familiarly with our Colin.

'Miss Howard-Russell!' Colin cried on his side, taking her hand warmly. 'Then you've come back again! I'm so glad to see you! And you too, Mr. Audouin; this is really a great pleasure.—Miss Russell, I owe you so many thanks. It was you, I believe, who sent my first patron, Lord Beaminster, to visit my studio.'

'Oh, don't speak of it, please, Mr. Churchill. It's we who owe you thanks rather, for the pleasure your beautiful group of Autumn has given us. And dear stupid old Lord Beaminster used to amuse everybody so much by telling them how he wanted you to put a clock-dial in the place of the principal figure, until I managed at last to laugh him out of it. I made his life a burden to him, I assure you, by getting him to see how very ridiculous it was of him to try to spoil your lovely composition.'

They talked for a minute or two longer at the street corner, Gwen explaining once more to Colin how she and the colonel had come as Lord Beaminster's guests to the Villa Panormi; and meanwhile poor little Minna stood there out in the cold, growing redder every second, and boiling over with indignation to think that that horrid Miss Howard-Russell should have dropped down upon them from the clouds at the very wrong moment, just on purpose to make barefaced love so openly to her Colin.

It was Gwen herself, however, who first took notice of Minna, whom she saw standing a little apart, and looking very much out of it indeed among so many greetings of old acquaintances. 'And your friend?' she said to Colin kindly. 'You haven't introduced her to us yet. May we have the pleasure?' And she took a step forward with womanly gentleness to relieve the poor girl from her obvious embarrassment.

'Excuse me, Minna dear,' Colin said, taking her hand and leading her forward quietly.

'My cousin, Miss Wroe: Miss Howard-Bussell, Colonel Howard-Russell, Mr. Audouin, Mr. Winthrop.'

Minna bowed to them all stiffly with cheeks burning, and then fell back again at once angrily into her former position.

'And have you come to Rome lately, Miss Wroe?' Gwen asked of her with genuine kindness. 'Are you here on a visit to your cousin, whose work we all admire so greatly?'

'I came a week ago,' Minna answered defiantly, blurting out the whole truth (lest she should seem to be keeping back anything) and pitting her whole social nonentity, as it were, against the grand lady's assured position.

'I came a week ago; and I'm a governess to a little Russian girl here; and I'm going to stop all the winter.'

'That'll be very nice for all of us,' Gwen put in softly, with a look that might almost have disarmed Minna's hasty suspicions. 'And how exceedingly pleasant for you to have your cousin here, too! I suppose it was partly on that account, now, that you decided upon coming here?'

'It was,' Minna answered shortly, without vouchsafing any further explanation.

'And where are you going now, Mr. Churchill?' Gwen asked, seeing that Minna was clearly not in a humour for conversation. 'Are you showing your cousin the sights of Rome, I wonder?'

'Exactly what I am doing, Miss Russell. We're going now to see the Vatican.'

'Oh, then, do let us come with you! I should like to go too. I do love going through the galleries with an artist who can tell one all about them!'

'But, Gwen, my dear, Beaminster's lunch hour——

'Oh, bother Lord Beaminster's lunch hour, papa! Hire somebody to go and tell him we've been detained and can't possibly be back by lunch-time. I want to go and see the Vatican, and improve the opportunity of making Miss Wroe's better acquaintance.' Minna bowed again with bitter mock solemnity.

So they all went to the Vatican, spoiling poor little Minna's holiday that had begun so delightfully (for she and Colin had talked quite like old times on their way from the Via Clementina), and tiring themselves out with strolling up and down those eye-distracting corridors and galleries. It was a queer game of cross questions and crooked answers all round between them. Audouin, flashing gaily as of old, and scintillating every now and then with little bits of crisp criticism over pictures or statues, was trying all the time to get a good talk with Gwen Howard-Russell, and to oust from her side the unconscious Colin. Gwen, smiling benignly at Audouin's quaintly worded sallies, was doing her best to call out Colin's opinions upon all the works in the Vatican off-hand. Hiram, only anxious to avoid being bored by the Colonel's vapid remarks upon the things he saw (he called Raphaels and Guidos and Titians alike 'pretty, very pretty'), was chiefly engaged in overhearing the conversation of the others. And Minna, poor little Minna, to whom Colin paid as much assiduous attention as the circumstances permitted, was longing all the time to steal away and have a good cry about the horrid goings on of that abominable Miss Howard-Russell.

From the minute Minna had seen Gwen, and heard what manner of things Gwen had to say to Colin, she forgot straightway all her fears about the Italian Cecca creature, and recognised at once with a woman's instinct that her real danger lay in Gwen, and in Gwen only. It was with Gwen that Colin was likely to fall in love; Gwen, with her grand manners and her high-born face and her fine relations, and her insinuating, intoxicating adulation. How she made up to him and praised him! How she talked to him about his genius and his love of beauty! How she tried to flatter him up before her own very face! Miss Gwen was beautiful; that much Minna couldn't help grudgingly admitting. Miss Gwen had a delightful self-possession and calmness about her that Minna would have given the world to have rivalled. Miss Gwen had everything in her favour. No wonder Colin was so polite and courteous to her; no wonder poor little trembling Minna was really nowhere at all beside her. And then she had done Colin a great service; she had recommended Lord Beaminster and many other patrons to go and see his studio. Ah me! how sad little Minna felt that evening when she tried to compare her own small chances with those of great, grand, self-possessed Miss Howard-Russell! If only Cohn loved her! But he had as good as said himself that he didn't love her—not worth speaking of: he had said he kissed her 'strictly as a cousin.'

As Gwen and the colonel drove back in a hired botto to the Villa Panormi in the cool of the evening, Gwen said to her papa quite innocently, 'What a charming young man that delightful Mr. Churchill is really! Did. you notice how kind and attentive he was to that funny little cousin of his in the brown bonnet? Only a governess, you know, come to Rome with a Russian family; and yet he made as much of her, almost, as he did of you and me and Mr. Audouin! So thoughtful and good of him, I call it; but there—he's always such a perfect gentleman. I dare say that's the daughter of some washerwoman or somebody down at Wootton Mandeville, and he pays her quite as much attention as if she were actually a countess or a duchess.'

'You don't seem to remember, Gwen,' the colonel answered grimly, 'that his own father was only a kitchen gardener, and that he himself began life, I understand, as a common stonecutter.'

'Nonsense!' Gwen replied energetically.

'You seem to forget on the other hand, papa, that he was born a great sculptor, and that genius is after all the only true nobility.'

'It wasn't so when I was a boy,' the colonel continued, with a grim smile; 'and I fancy it isn't so yet, Gwen, in our own country, whatever these precious Yankee friends of yours may choose to tell you.'


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