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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XLV. HOVERING.
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Acute Roman fever is a very serious matter. For seven days Audouin lay in extreme danger, hovering between life and death, with the crisis always approaching but never actually arriving. Every day, when the English doctor came to see him, Audouin asked feebly from his pillow, 'Am I getting worse?' and the doctor, who fancied he was a nervous man, answered cheerfully, 'Well, no, not worse; about the same again this morning, though I'm afraid I can't exactly say you're any better. Audouin turned round wearily with a sigh, and thought to himself, 'How hard a thing it is to die, after all, even when you really want to.'

Colin Churchill came to see him as soon as ever he heard of his illness, and sitting in the easy-chair by the sick man's bedside, he said to him in a reproachful tone, 'Mr. Audouin, you don't play fair. You've broken the spirit of the agreement. Our compact was, no suicide. Now, I'm sure you've been recklessly exposing yourself out upon the Campagna, or else why should you have got this fever so very suddenly?'

Audouin smiled a faint smile from the bed, and answered half incoherently, 'Chapter of accidents. Put your trust in bad luck, and verily you will not be disappointed. But I'm afraid it's a terribly long and tedious piece of work, this dying.'

'If you weren't so ill,' Colin answered gravely and sternly, 'I think I should have to be very angry with you. You haven't stood by the spirit of the contract. As it is, we must do our best to defeat your endeavours, and bring you back to life again.'

Audouin moved restlessly in the bed. 'You must do your worst, I recognise,' he said; 'but I don't think you'll get the better of the fever for all that: she's a goddess, you know, and had her temple once upon the brow of the Palatine. Many have prayed to her to avoid them; it must be a novelty for her to hear a prayer for her good company. Perhaps she may be merciful to her only willing votary. But she's long about it; she might have got through by this time. Anyhow, you mustn't be too hard upon me, Churchill.'

As for Hiram, Audouin's illness came upon him like a final thunderclap. Everything had gone ill with him lately; he had reached almost the blackest abyss of despondency already; and if Audouin were to die now, he felt that his cup of bitterness would be overflowing. Besides, though he knew nothing, of course, of Audouin's interview with Colin Churchill, he had a grave suspicion in his own mind that his friend had egged himself into an illness by brooding over Truman's visit and Hiram's own proposals for returning to America. Of course all that was laid aside now, at least for the present. Whatever came, he must stop and nurse Audouin; and he nursed him with all the tender care and delicacy of a woman.

Gwen came round often, too, and sat watching in the sick-room for hours together. The colonel objected to it seriously—so very extraordinary, you know; indeed, really quite compromising; but Gwen was not to be kept away by the colonel's scruples and prejudices; so she watched and waited in her own good time, taking turns with Hiram in day and night nursing. It was all perfect misery to Audouin; the more he wanted to die for Gwen's and Hiram's convenience, the more utterly determined they both seemed to be to keep him living somehow at all hazards.

On the seventh day, the crisis came, and Audouin began to sink rapidly. Gwen and Hiram were both by his bedside, and Colin Churchill and Minna were waiting anxiously in the little salon alongside. When the doctor came, he stopped longer than usual; and as he passed out, Colin asked him what news this morning of the poor patient. The doctor twirled his watch-chain quietly. 'Well,' he said, in his calm professional manner, 'I should say it was probable he would get through the night; but I doubt if he'll live over Sunday.'

'Then there's no hope, you think?' Minna asked with tears in her eyes.

'Well, I couldn't exactly say that,' the doctor answered. 'A medical man always hopes to the last moment, especially in acute diseases. The critical point's hardly reached yet. Oh yes, he might recover; he might recover, certainly; but it isn't likely.'

Colin and Minna sat down once more in the empty salon, and looked at one another long, without speaking. At last there came a knock at the door. Colin answered 'Enter,' and a servant entered. 'A card for Signor Vintrop,' he said, handing it to Colin. 'The bringer says he must see him on important business immediately.'

Colin cast a careless glance at the card. It was that of a well-known Roman picture-dealer, agent for one of the largest firms of fine art auctioneers in London. 'How very ill-timed,' he said to Minna, handing her the card. At any other moment, Hiram would have been delighted; but it's quite impossible to trouble him with this at such a crisis.

'Does he want to buy some of Mr. Winthrop's pictures, do you think, Colin?' Minna asked anxiously.

'I'm sure he does; but it can't be helped now. Tell the gentleman that Mr. Winthrop can't see him now, if you please, Antonio. He's watching by the side of the American signor who is dying.'

Antonio bowed and went out. In a minute he returned once more. 'The person can't wait,' he said; 'the affair is urgent. He wishes to give Signor Vintrop an important commission. He wishes to buy pictures, many pictures, immediately. He has come from the studio, hearing that Signor Vintrop was at the hotel, and he wishes particularly to speak with him instantaneously.'

Colin looked at Minna and shook his head.

'This is very annoying, really, Minna,' he said with a sigh. 'At any other time, it would have been a perfect godsend; but now—one can't drag him away from poor Audouin's bedside. Tell the gentleman, Antonio,' he went on in Italian, 'that Mr. Winthrop can't possibly see him. It is most absolutely and decidedly impossible.'

Antonio went away, and for half an hour more Colin and Minna conversed together in an undertone without further interruption. Then a knock came again, and Antonio entered with a second card. It bore the name of another famous Roman picture-dealer, the agent for the rival London firm. 'He says he must see Signor Vintrop without delay,' Antonio reported, 'upon important business of the strictest urgency.'

Colin hesitated a moment. 'This is really very remarkable, Minna,' he said slowly, turning over the card in great perplexity. 'Why on earth should the two principal picture-dealers in Rome want to see Hiram Winthrop so very particularly on the same morning?'

'I can't imagine,' Minna answered, looking at the card curiously. 'Don't you think, Colin, you'd better see the man and ask him what's the meaning of it?'

Colin nodded assent, and went to the door to speak to the dealer. As he did so, a second servant stepped up with yet another card, that of a Manchester picture-agent in person.

'What do you want to see Mr. Winthrop for in such a hurry?' Colin asked the Italian dealer. 'How is it you all wish to buy his pictures the same morning? He's been in Rome a good many years now, but nobody ever seemed in any great haste to become a purchaser.'

'I cannot tell you, signor,' the dealer answered blandly; 'but I have my instructions from London. I have a telegram direct from a most illustrious firm, requesting me to buy up the landscapes, and especially the American landscapes, of Signor Vintrop.'

'And if Mr. Winthrop's too ill himself to come and show me his studio,' the Manchester agent put in, in English, 'perhaps, sir, you might step round yourself and arrange matters with me on his behalf.'

Colin hesitated a moment. It was an awkward predicament. He didn't like to go away selling pictures when Audouin was actually dying; and yet, knowing what he knew, and taking into consideration Audouin's particular mental constitution, he saw in it a possible chance of saving his life indirectly. Something or other had occurred, that was clear, to make a sudden demand arise for Hiram's pictures. If the demand was a genuine one, and if he could sell them for good prices, the effect upon Audouin might be truly magical. The man was really dying, not of fever, of that Colin felt certain, but of hopeless chagrin and disappointment. If he could only learn that Hiram's landscapes were meeting with due appreciation after all, he might perhaps even now recover.

Colin went back to Minna for a few minutes' whispered conversation; and then, having learned from Gwen (without telling her his plans) that Audouin was no worse, and that he would probably go on without serious change for some hours, he hurried off to the studio between the two intending purchasers.

As he got to the door, he saw a small crowd of artistic folk, mostly agents or dealers, and amongst them he noticed a friend and fellow-student at Maragliano's, the young Englishman, Arthur Forton. 'Why, what on earth's the meaning of this, Forton?' he asked in fresh amazement. 'All the world seems to have taken suddenly to besieging Winthrop's studio.'

'Ah, yes,' Forton answered briskly; 'I thought there was sure to be a run upon his bank after what I saw in Truman's paper; and I happened to be at Raffaele Pedrocchi's when a telegram came in from Magnus of London asking him to buy up all Winthrop's landscapes that he could lay his hands upon at once, and especially authorising him to pay up to something in cypher for Chattawauga Lake or some such heathenish Yankee name or other. So I came round immediately to see Winthrop, and advise him not to let the things go for a mere song, as Magnus is evidently anxious to get them almost at any price.'

Colin listened in profound astonishment. 'Truman's paper!' he cried in surprise. 'Why, Winthrop positively assured me that Truman told him he ought to go back at once to America.'

'So he did, no doubt,' Forton replied carelessly. 'Indeed, he tells him so in print in Fortuna Melliflua. Here's the cutting: I cut it out on purpose, so that Winthrop might take care he wasn't chiselled, as you were, you know, over “Autumn and the Breezes.”'

Colin took the scrap of paper from the little pamphlet from Forton's hands, and read the whole paragraph through with a thrill of pleasure.

'And yet from this same entirely damned land of America,' ran Mr. Truman's candid and vigorous criticism, 'some good thing may haply come, even as (cynical Nathaniel to the contrary notwithstanding) some good thing did indubitably come out of Nazareth of Galilee. The other day, walking by chance into a certain small shabby studio, down a side alley from the Street of the Beautiful Ladies at Rome, I unearthed there busily at work upon a Babylonian Woe one Hiram Winthrop, an American artist, who had fled from America and the City of Destruction to come enthusiastically Romeward. He had better far have stopped at home. For this young man Winthrop, a God-sent landscape painter, if ever there was one, has in truth the veritable eye for seeing and painting a bit of overgrown rank waterside vegetation exactly as nature herself originally disposed it, with no nice orthodox and academical graces of arrangement, but simply so—weeds and water—no more than that; just a tangled corner of neglected reeds and waving irises, seen in an aerial perspective which is almost stereoscopic. Strange to say, this American savage from the wild woods can reproduce the wild woods from which he came, in all their native wildness, without the remotest desire to make them look like a Dutch picture of the garden of Eden. Moreover, he positively knows that red things are red, green things green, and white things white; a piece of knowledge truly remarkable in this artificially colour-blind age of dichroic vision (I get my fine words from a scientific treatise on the subject by Professor Stilling of Leipzig, to whose soul may heaven be merciful). There was one picture of his there—Chattawauga Lake I think he called it—which I had it in my mind to buy at the moment, and had even gone so far as to purse up my lips into due form for saying, “How much is it?” (as we price spring chickens at market), but on deeper thought, I refrained deliberately, because I am now a poor man, and I do not want to buy pictures at low rates, being fully of opinion, on good warranty, that the labourer is worthy of his hire. So I left it, more out of political than personal economy, for some wealthier man to buy hereafter. Yet whoever does buy Chattawauga Lake (the name alone is too repellant) will find himself in possession, I do not hesitate to say, of the finest bit of entirely sincere and scrupulous landscape that has ever been painted since Turner's brush lay finally still upon his broken palette. And young Mr. Hiram Wintlirop himself, I dare predict, will go back to America hereafter and give us other landscapes which will more than suffice to wash out the Babylonian woes whereupon he is at present engaged in sedulously wasting a most decisive and categorical genius.'

Colin took the scrap of paper in his hands, and went with Forton into the disorderly studio.

'May I take it to show Winthrop and Audouin?' he asked.

Forton nodded.

They turned to the pictures, and Chattawauga Lake having been duly produced, Colin found himself at a moment's notice turned into a sort of amateur auctioneer, receiving informal bids one after another from the representatives of almost all the best picture firms in the whole of England.

He had soon got rid of Chattawauga Lake, and before an hour and a half was over, the agents had almost made a clean sweep of the entire studio. Even the Babylonian Woe was bought up at a fair price by one enthusiastic person, on the ground that it had been immensely enhanced in value by being mentioned, although unfavourably, in a note of Truman's. The great critic had simply made Hiram Winthrop's fortune; people were prepared to buy anything he might paint now, on the strength of Truman's recommendation.

As soon as Colin had got rid of the more pressing purchasers, he left Forton in charge of the studio, and ran back hastily to Audouin's hotel. Would the good news be in time to save the dying man's life? that was the question. Colin wondered what he could make of it, and turned over the matter anxiously in his own mind, as he went back to Minna, Gwen, and Hiram.


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