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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Actress in High Life » CHAPTER II.
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 Oh sovereign beauty, you whose charms 
?All other charms surpass; 
Whose lustre nought can imitate, 
?Except your looking-glass. 
???????? ???????? ???????? Southey, from the Spanish.
The arrival of Lady Mabel Stewart was a god-send to the young officers of the brigade. Already the sources of interest afforded by the country around, began to fail them. Few men can long make a business of mere eating and drinking; red-legged partridges were getting scarce in that neighborhood, and boar hunting in the mountain forests was distant, laborious, and too often, fruitless of game. The scenery of the country, the costume and habits of the people, now familiar to their eyes, palled upon their tastes. They wanted something new to interest them, and were particularly delighted when this novelty came from home. But, above all, the black-haired, dark-eyed daughters of this sunny region grew many shades browner in their eyes. We look not at the daffodils when the lily rears its head. A new and higher order of beauty, rare even at home, now demanded homage, and it was freely paid.
Lord Strathern, a social and jovial man, had always been a favorite with his subalterns, but now his popularity attained its acme. His open house became headquarters, even more in a social than a military sense. It was a little court, and Lady Mabel played the queen regnant there.
Justly proud of her, her father encouraged this, taking all the attention she attracted as compliments to himself; and the gentlemen displayed great ingenuity in devising various excuses for being in frequent attendance at headquarters, in the service of her ladyship. Lieutenant Goring, the best horseman in the —— light dragoons, a squadron of which had been sent hither with the brigade, to fatten their emaciated steeds on the barley and maize of Alemtejo, established himself, uninvited, in the post of equerry, and sedulously devoted himself to training the beautiful Andalusian provided for Lady Mabel's own saddle. Of course, he had to be in attendance when she took the air on horseback. Major Warren, from a free, heedless sportsman, who followed his game for his own pleasure, became gamekeeper, or rather, grand huntsman, bound to lay the feathered, furred, and scaly tribes under contribution to supply her table and tempt her delicate appetite. A proud and happy man was he when skill or fortune enabled him to lay the antlered stag or tusked boar at her feet, and expatiate on the incidents of his sylvan campaign. He, of course, must be often invited to partake of the social meal. Captain Cranfield, of the engineers, had just returned from Badajoz, where he had been repairing shattered bastions, and patching up curtains sadly torn by shot and shell. He found Lady Mabel busy renovating, modernising and adorning the rude and comfortless apartments of her monastic quarters. Immediately his pencil, his professional ingenuity and skill are devoted to her service. He appoints himself architect, upholsterer and improver-general to the household. He designed elegant curtains, with graceful festoons for the misshapen windows, tasteful hangings to conceal bare walls of rough-hewn stone, picturesque screens to hide unsightly corners; and arranged and put them up with as much skill as if, with a native genius for it, he had been bred to the business. The commonest materials became rich chintz and costly arras in his hands, mahogany, or rose-wood, at his bidding. One morning so spent put him on an easier footing with Lady Mabel than a dozen casual meetings; and he quite got the weather gage of both equerry and huntsman, securing frequent and easy intercourse, while advising and assisting her in his inter-menial capacity, whereas these gentlemen's spheres of official duty lay properly out of doors. But he soon found a dangerous rival to take the wind out of his sails, in the person of Major Lumley, who, possessing great taste and skill in music, accidentally heard Lady Mabel singing in one room, while he was conversing with her father in the next. "She has," thought and said the major, "the sweetest voice in the world; and it only needs a little more cultivation to make it heavenly!" Lord Strathern thought so too. The major's instructive talents were put into requisition, and, from private practice, her father led her on, somewhat reluctant, to more public display, and soon the major and herself discoursed exquisite music to the ears of a score of officers, at a musical soirée. If, with the powers, she did not acquire the confidence of a prima donna, it was not his lordship's fault. Had propriety permitted, he would have brought up the brigade in close column of divisions, to hear Lady Mabel sing; and he could not help saying to the gentlemen beside him: "I have heard you young fellows talk about the nightingale, and have even known some of you spend hours in the moonlit grove, listening to their music, but my bird from foggy Scotland can out-warble a wood full of them." And no one felt disposed to contradict him.
How many others, irresistibly attracted, sought, each in his own way, to make himself agreeable, we will not undertake to say. Perhaps Ensign Wade, who, not yet eighteen, had just been rubbing off the school-boy in the last campaign, was the most madly in love with her; unless he was surpassed by little Captain Hatton, who, being but five feet three, had, to the great injury of his marching powers, magnanimously added an extra inch to his boot heels, that Lady Mabel might not look too much down upon him, when so happy as to stand beside her.
Hers was a curious position for a lady, and, yet, more for one so young. She instinctively looked round for the countenance and support which only female companions could give. But, of the very few ladies with the brigade, Mrs. Colonel Colville was at Portalegre, where her husband's regiment was quartered, the wife of Major Grey was shut up with him in his sick room; Mrs. Captain Howe had come out from home less to visit her husband than to cure her rheumatism in the balmy climate of Elvas; and the wife of Captain Ford had just, very injudiciously, presented him with two little Portuguese, who might have made very good Englishmen, had they first seen the light in the right place. If the brigade had suffered heavy loss in the last campaign, the ladies of the brigade were absolutely hors de combat, and could not furnish Lady Mabel even a sentinel in the shape of a chaperon. She felt that this was awkward; but, said she to herself, "If there were any impropriety in my situation here, Papa would not open his house so freely to the officers of the brigade." For she loved and admired him far too much to doubt his judgment on such a point. Now, Lord Strathern had dined the better part of his life at a regimental mess table; and when promotion at length removed him from that genial sphere, he felt selfish and solitary, if he took his dinner and wine without, at least, a corporal's guard of his brother officers around him. So far from deeming his daughter's arrival a reason for excluding them, she was a strong ally, and a delightful addition to his means of entertaining his friends. So she found herself suddenly the centre of a circle, composed of gentlemen only, most of them unmarried, young and gay, and admiring her. In short, Lady Mabel was finishing off her education in a very bad school, worse, perhaps, than a Frenchified academy, devoted to the education of the extremities, in the shape of music, dancing and gabbling French, with a dash of mental and moral training in the development of the sickly imagination of the head and the empty vanities of the heart.
For a time the dilapidated condition of kitchen and refectory restricted the scale of hospitality at headquarters. But Lady Mabel soon completed her reforms of house and household, in which she found old Moodie an able assistant. Captain Cranfield had to bring his labors of love to an end, and Lord Strathern celebrated the event by feasting a large party of his friends.
While the company was assembled, Lady Mabel led a party of the first comers through the apartments, to admire the results of the labor and taste bestowed upon them. Some of the more prying peeped into the kitchen to see what was going on there.
"I am glad to see," said Captain Hatton, "that though this is a monastic house, and this a fast day, we shall not have to dine orthodoxly, on bacalhao and sardinhas."
"Nor be bored with the long Latin grace," said Major Warren, "which the very walls of the refectory are tired of hearing and not understanding."
"Would rendering it into English reconcile you to its length?" asked Lady Mabel.
"Not in the least. I think nothing so heterodox as a long grace, while soup and fish grow cold."
"I am told," said Lady Mabel, ascending to the apartment above, "that this was the abbot's own room."
"That is very likely," said Captain Hatton, "from its neighborhood to the kitchen."
"It is not exactly the apartment," she continued, "which I would design for a lady's withdrawing room. But, if it satisfied the holy father before it was thus improved, it is too good for a heretic like me. I sometimes feel myself a profane intruder here, and, when I call to mind whom this building belongs to, and see so many red-coated gentry stalking at ease through dormitory, refectory and cloisters, I think of rooks who have fled the rookery, before a flock of flamingoes who usurp their place."
"The pious crows," said Captain Hatton, "would forgive our intrusion, did they see the bird of paradise that attracts us hither."
"Put a weight on your fancy, Captain Hatton," said Lady Mabel. "Such another flight and it may soar away altogether. Pray observe the admirable effect of those hangings, with which Captain Cranfield has concealed the dark and narrow passage that leads to the oratory."
Major Warren was provoked at the general admiration of Cranfield's taste and skill, and stung by the repeated thanks with which Lady Mabel repaid his labors, so he endeavored to turn them into ridicule.
"It is a thousand pities, Cranfield, that these happy designs should perish with their temporary use. Let me beg you to send a sketch of them to Colonel Sturgeon, the head of your department. They should be preserved among the draughts and plans of the engineer corps."
Cranfield was about to make angry answer, but Lady Mabel anticipated him by saying: "doubtless, whenever Colonel Sturgeon has occasion to turn monkish cloisters into ladies' bowers, it will save him a world of trouble to avail himself of these designs."
At this moment dinner was announced. Colonel Bradshawe, resolving that his juniors should not have Lady Mabel all to themselves, availed himself of his right of precedence, to hand her into the room, and seated himself at her right hand.
Full thirty guests occupied the space between her father's portly, but martial figure, and her seat at the head of the table; and though, Minerva-like in air and form, she presided there with exquisite grace, she shrunk from this long array, and sought a kind of privacy in devoting her attention, somewhat exclusively, to the senior colonel of the brigade. Knowing how important a matter dining was in his estimation, she soon made a conquest of him, by her judicious care in supplying his wants, tickling his palate, and coinciding in his tastes. She even, for his benefit, called into requisition the unwilling service of old Moodie, who had habitually taken his post behind her, like a sentinel, not troubling himself about the wants of the guests. The colonel might have choked with thirst before he spontaneously handed him a decanter.
Colonel Bradshawe having made himself comfortable, next sought to make himself agreeable. "What a delightful contrast between my situation to-day, and this day year, Lady Mabel."
"Where were you then?"
"About this hour we were fording the Aguada, in a snow storm, to invest Ciudad Rodrigo."
"That was somewhat different from our present occupation."
"We soon finished that little job, however, before we had suffered many privations there. But it proved to be but the opening of a campaign, which I began, after a time, to think would never come to an end."
"And, unhappily," said Lady Mabel, "it did not end quite so well as it promised to do."
"Fortune is a fickle mistress, and fond of showing her character in war," said the colonel. "Sometimes she favors one party with a run of luck, then shifts suddenly over to the other side. So with individuals, only there she is most apt to work at cross purposes. One pretty fellow deserves to live forever, and gets knocked on the head in the first skirmish; another deserves to rise, and all his good service is overlooked or forgotten; another gets praise and promotion for what he never did, or ought never to have done. Some men have such luck! There is L'Isle now, who, after being pushed on as fast as money and family interest could shove him; what next happens to him? Why just for blundering into a Spanish village, and being nearly taken with his whole command, he is made a lieutenant-colonel on the spot."
"That is a curious result of such a blunder."
"Curious, but true. This is capital port," interjected the colonel, emptying his glass. "We drank no such stuff as this during the last campaign. I would not disgust you with a detail of our privations; but you must know, Lady Mabel, that during the whole march from Madrid to Burgos, and thence, in retreat, to Ciudad Rodrigo, I never tasted a bottle of wine that deserved the name, except one of Peralta, of which I feel bound to make honorable mention. I met with it by great good luck at the posada at Buitrago; but when I called for another, it was so excellent that the landlord had drank all himself. The stuff we had to drink was made by pouring water on the skins of grapes already pressed. After they had been well macerated in it, it was allowed to ferment and grow sour, then sold to us at the price of good liquor."
"That accounts," said Lady Mabel, "for the provident care you lately showed, in laying in a stock of better liquor for your winter's use. Is it true that you sent a special agent to Xeres de la Frontera, to select the best sherry for the regimental mess?"
"Not exactly a special agent," said the colonel, disclaiming it with a gentle wave of the hand; "but, finding a trusty person, and a capital judge, going thither, we did charge him with a little commission that way."
"I was sorry to hear of your disappointment," added she, in a commiserating tone. "I am told that he found that the firm of Soult, Victor & Co., had already taken up all the oldest and best wine on credit, that is, without paying for it; and you had to put up with new and inferior brands, or go without any."
"It is but too true," said the colonel, with a sigh. "Those rascally Frenchmen had drained the country of everything worth drinking; our agent, very wisely, under the circumstances, made no purchase there, and I am glad of it; for I have since learned, that the Amontillado, which had been recommended to us as the dryest of sherry wines, is made from a variety of grapes plucked before they are ripe."
"How lucky," said Lady Mabel, in a congratulatory tone, "that you have since found out that this wine is made of sour grapes."
A faint suspicion that she was laughing at him induced him to change the topic. "You were never abroad before, I believe. This part of the country has some drawbacks; but I think you will find it, during the winter, a very pleasant part of the world."
"We will all endeavor to make it so to you, Lady Mabel," said Major Warren, who, impatient of his superior's monopoly, here tried to edge in a word. But the colonel cut him short with "That's a mere truism, Warren, a self-evident proposition. Let us have nothing more of that sort. One of the peculiarities of this climate, Lady Mabel, is that it has a double spring: one in February and another in April. Then we will see you take your appropriate place in the picture, representing the heyday of youth in the midst of spring, and beauty, surrounded by flowers."
She bowed low, in suppressing a laugh at this elaborate compliment, and said, "Will spring be so soon upon us?"
"In a fortnight you may gather the same flowers which at home you must wait for till May."
"Not the same flowers," said she, quickly. "Portugal has a Flora peculiar to itself, embracing very few of our native British plants. I am on my strong ground on this topic, being a pupil of Dr. Graham, who relieves his graver studies by striving to rival King Solomon in the knowledge of plants, 'from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on the wall.' I am pledged to carry home a vast hortus siccus for him."
"Oh! a scientific young lady—perhaps a little of a blue-stocking, too," said the colonel to himself. "I must hash up a dish to suit her peculiar taste. Though no botanist," continued he aloud, "there is one plant that has strongly attracted my attention, and I recommend it to yours; though your hortus siccus will hardly contain a fair specimen of it."
"What is that?" said she, on the qui vive to hear of some rare plant.
"It is the cork-oak," said the colonel, solemnly. "Its rough exterior has led tourists and artists, and even naturalists, to treat it with neglect, while it is daily contributing to the comfort, delight, and civilization of the world."
"It may, perhaps," said Lady Mabel, hesitating, "be said to do all that you attribute to it."
"Does it not strike you as passing strange, Lady Mabel, (apropos to our subject, pray take a glass of wine with me,) that the Romans, who were, doubtless, a great and a wise people, should have been masters of Spain and Gaul, and of their forests of cork trees for centuries—that these Romans," continued he, growing eloquent on the subject, "who had the tree in their own country, though not, perhaps, in the full perfection of its cortical development, and did apply its bark to a number of useful purposes, including, occasionally, that of stoppers for vessels, should yet never have attained to the systematic use of it in corking their bottles!"
"Strange, indeed," said Lady Mabel. "It was shutting their eyes against the light of nature; for, we may say, that the obvious final end of the cork tree is to provide corks for bottles."
"A great truth well expressed," said the colonel. "Such an oversight has hardly a parallel; unless it be in their invention of printing and never using it. For we see, in the baker's name, stamped on the loaves found in Pompeii, and words impressed on their pottery and other articles, what amounts to stereotype printing; yet they never went on to separate the individual letters, and so become compositors and printers in the usual sense of the art. But they could certainly get on better without printing than without corks."
"Undoubtedly. For the world may—indeed, has—become too full of books; while there is little fear of its becoming too full of bottles; they get emptied and broken so fast."
"I wonder whether Horace," continued Colonel Bradshawe, with a thoughtful air, "when he opened a jar of Falernian, was obliged to finish it at a sitting, to prevent its growing sour? Wine out of a jar! Think of that. With a wooden or earthen stopper, made tight with pitch. Think of having your wine vinho-flavored with pitch! like the vinho verde of these Portuguese peasants, out of a pitchy goat-skin sack."
Lady Mabel looked nauseated at the idea, and the colonel swallowed a glass of Madeira, to wash away the pitchy flavor. "Yes," said he, shaking his head gravely, "they must have often felt sadly the want of a cork. How would it be possible to confine champagne (I am sorry this cursed war prevents our getting any,) until it is set free with all its life and perfection of flavor, just at the moment of enjoyment! They had glass, too, and used glass, these Romans, yet persevered in keeping their wine in those abominable jars. It proves how little progress they had made in the beautiful art of glass-blowing; and, of course, (here the colonel took up a decanter of old Madeira and replenished his glass, after eyeing approvingly the amber-colored liquor,) they were ignorant that wines that attain perfection by keeping, ripen most speedy in light-colored bottles."
"Indeed!" said Lady Mabel, "I did not know that. But I learn something new from you every moment."
"And that," said he, nodding approvingly at her, "is something worth knowing. I doubt, after all, whether these Romans, with the world at their beck, really knew much of the elegant and refined pleasures of life. Setting aside their gladiatorial shows, and the custom of chaining the porter by the leg to the doorpost, that he might not be out of the way when friend or client called on his master, and similar rude habits, there is enough to convict them as a gross people. They put honey in their wine, too! What a proof of childish, or rather, savage taste! Lucullus' monstrous suppers, and Apicius' elaborate feasts, are better to read about than to partake of. Give me, rather, a quiet little dinner of a few well-chosen dishes and wines, and three or four knowing friends, not given to long stories, but spicy in talk, and I will enjoy myself better than 'the noblest Roman of them all.'"
"But, Colonel Bradshawe, how did you become so familiar with Roman manners? Many of us know something of their public life, their wars, conquests, seditions and laws; but you seem to have put aside the curtain, and peered into the house, first floor, garret and cellar."
"You overrate my learning, Lady Mabel; my tastes naturally lead me to inform myself on some points that may seem to lie out of the common road. Some people take the liberty of calling me an epicure. I admit it so far as this: I hold it to be our duty to enjoy ourselves wisely and well. Much as I esteem a knowing bon vivant, I despise an ignorant glutton, or undiscriminating sot. To know how to make the most of the good things given us, is, at once, a duty and a pleasure. This conviction has led me to heighten what are called our epicurean enjoyments, by investigating the history of cookery, the literature of the vineyard, and other cognate branches of learning."
"You have devised a happy union of intellectual and sensual pleasure, well calculated to heighten both."
"Why were these good things given us," said the colonel, gracefully waving his hand over the table, "but that we should ascertain their uses, and apply them accordingly?"
"I begin to understand your philosophy, in letting none of the good things of life run to waste, but rather receiving them all in the spirit of thankfulness."
"In those few words you express the essence of my philosophy."
"There may be," continued Lady Mabel, "as much piety, and certainly more wisdom, in frankly enjoying the good things given us, than in despising the world which God made, and rejecting the blessings it teems with, like these self-tormenting ascetics, the monks and friars around us."
"Heaven help your simplicity, Lady Mabel! They only pretend to do so, the hypocrites! Rest assured, every one of these fellows is on the sly."
"What! No exceptions? Is it true of every one—
'His eyes are set on heaven, his heart on earth?'"
"It fits them to a man!" said the colonel. "Their vocation is securing to themselves the god things of this world, by promising to others the blessings of the next: and as for the friars, true to their motto, Nihil habentes et omnia possidentes, they profess to hold no special property, merely that the whole country might be bound to maintain them. They know the value of the good things of this life, and how to enjoy them in a corner."
"These odd-looking monks and friars attract me much," said Lady Mabel: "perhaps they will not bear a close inspection; but, with all my prejudice against them, I must own, that many seem truly devout, and the friars, at least, very zealous in their labors among the people."
"Yet the people, except the women," said Bradshawe, "are losing faith in their greasy reverences."
"Women are everywhere more devout than men," she answered; "and I do indeed observe their greasy reverences, as you call them, conversing oftener with our sex than yours."
"Observe more closely, Lady Mabel, and you will see that they are most zealous for the conversion of the young women, the tender lambs of the flock. They care little for a tough, smoke-dried, old woman's soul." This was said with a knowing, wink, and caused some merriment among his juniors within ear-shot.
A gradual but perceptible change was coming over the colonel's manner, which Lady Mabel did not like. In fact, Lord Strathern had pushed the bottle briskly, though sometimes slighting it himself, as did many of his guests; but Bradshawe made it a point of conscience to take toll every time it passed him. He had, moreover, violated one of his own maxims, in talking incessantly while imbibing his liquor; so she took advantage of the next pause in his conversation to leave the table.


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