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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Actress in High Life » CHAPTER IV.
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 Celia.—Here comes Monsieur Le Beau. 
Rosalind.—With his mouth full of news. 
Celia.—Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young. 
Rosalind.—Then shall we be news-crammed. 
???????? ???????? ???????? As You Like It.
The next morning Colonel L'Isle was seated in his room, wrapped in his cloak, with a brasero filled with wood embers at his feet; for it was one of those windy, chilly days, not uncommon in this fluctuating climate, and he was still invalid enough to be keenly sensitive to these sudden changes of temperature. He was, too, so completely wrapped up in his meditations, that his servant had twice to announce that the adjutant was in the next room.
"Here, already!" said L'Isle; "I did not expect him until ten o'clock." He looked at his watch. "But it is ten already. Here have I been thinking for two hours, and have never once thought of the regiment. I am acquiring a sad habit of day-dreaming, or, rather, my mind has not yet recovered its tone. Ask Lieutenant Meynell to walk in here."
The regimental business was soon dispatched, and the adjutant, who was a capital newsmonger, began to detail the local news of the day. L'Isle liked to keep himself informed of what was going on around him, on the easy terms of listening to the adjutant. But this morning he seemed to tire soon at the details of small intelligence, much of which was of a sporting character, such as this: "Warren has succeeded in buying the famous dog at Estremoz; they say he will collar a wolf without ceremony, and throttle him single-handed; and he has the knack of so seizing a wild boar, that he can never bring his tusks to bear upon him."
"I hope," said L'Isle, "that Warren will show us many trophies of his prowess, or his dog's rather, in the hunt."
"He had to pay well for him, though. Fifty moidores was the least his owner would take for him."
"I sincerely trust that Warren will get fifty moidores' worth of sport out of him."
"He went out yesterday to try him," continued Meynell, "but Hatton, who was with him, got such a fall (he is a villainous rider, without knowing it), that they had great trouble in getting him back here, and it broke up the day's sport."
"Is he much hurt?" asked L'Isle.
"No permanent injury. But he fell on his head, and, at first, they thought the time come for firing blank-cartridges over him."
"I trust, if Hatton is bent on dying in the field, he will choose some occasion when they do not fire blank-cartridges."
As his colonel seemed little interested in his sporting intelligence, the adjutant turned to a topic that looked a little more like business. "I see that Commissary Shortridge has got back."
"Ah!" said L'Isle, suppressing a yawn, "where has he been?"
"He has been to Lisbon."
"What carried him there?" mechanically asked the colonel, evidently not caring to know.
"Business of the commissariat, he says."
"So I suppose," said L'Isle, carelessly.
"But I suppose no such thing," said Meynell. "The first thing these fellows think of is not the supply of the troops, but their own comfort. He only went to Lisbon to bring his wife here."
"What!" said L'Isle, with sudden interest, "is Mrs. Shortridge in Elvas?"
"Yes. She came with him last night."
"And is she to remain here any time?"
"As long as we stay," answered Meynell, surprised at the interest his superior now showed at his intelligence. "That is, if Shortridge can establish her here comfortably. You know, since the king's money has been passing through his hands, and some of it has stuck to his palms, he has begun to give himself airs. He speaks with the most gentlemanly disgust of the narrow and inconvenient lodgings they are obliged to put up with. He told me they were in the dirtiest part of the town, in the midst of the filthiest of these Portuguese, and sooner than let Mrs. Shortridge stay there, he will take her to Portalegre, or back to Lisbon."
"There will not be the least need of that," said L'Isle, quickly; "this house is large and convenient enough"—and he looked round the apartment into the room beyond—"and is one of the best situated in Elvas."
"But you are occupying it yourself, sir. What good will that do, Shortridge?"
"Oh, I will give it up to Shortridge. It is quite thrown away on a bachelor like me. Now I am on duty again, I prefer being near the regiment, and shall take rooms at the barracks."
"Shortridge will be exceedingly obliged to you. But," added Meynell, fishing for information, "I did not think you cared a farthing whether the commissary got into good quarters or no."
"The commissary!" said L'Isle, looking round on his companion with an air of surprise; then he added, in a tone of contempt, "he may lie in a ditch. Many a better man has done it. It is Mrs. Commissary for whom I would find good quarters."
"Oh, indeed!" said Meynell, elevating his eyebrows a good deal, "I overlooked that. But I was not aware that you had ever seen her."
"Oh, many times: in Lisbon, last year. Indeed, on one occasion I did her a well-timed service."
"What was that?—if I may be allowed to ask."
"Why, Mrs. Shortridge, though an excellent woman, is a little afflicted with the disease of sight-seeing, and had thrust herself, with a party of other heretics, into the Patriarchal Church, to witness the rending of the veil. Do you know what that means, Meynell? I believe you are not well drilled in theology."
"Not popish theology."
"Nor any other, I fear. However, a large detachment of the live and dead saints were there, and, certainly, half the rabble of Lisbon. In the rush of this devout crowd, Mrs. Shortridge got separated from her party, and, between alarm and exhaustion, fell, fainting, on the pavement. She would soon have been trampled to death, had I not picked her up and carried her out bodily. I had to swear awfully at the rabble to make them give way."
"That was no small service," said Meynell; then, glancing at the colonel's thin form, "I am afraid you could not repeat it just now. Mrs. Shortridge is a plump little body."
"I suppose not. Yet there is no knowing what exertions a man might make to save a pretty woman. However, she has been very grateful ever since, and whenever we meet we are excellent friends. I am glad Shortridge has brought her here. She is a different sort of person from himself. She has some very pleasant traits of character—in fact, she is a very good woman," and he sank into a reverie, apparently thinking over Mrs. Commissary's good qualities.
Meynell had nothing more to tell, and, hopeless of extracting any thing more, now took leave. But when he had gone out of the room, his colonel called him back to inquire where Shortridge was now lodged. Having given as precise an answer as he could to this question, the adjutant departed, trying as he went, to frame such a definition of a good woman as would fit his view of this case.
This little conversation seemed to have revived L'Isle a good deal. He looked out of the window and pronounced the wind to have fallen, and that, after all, it was a very pleasant day. Calling his servant to bring his boots and brush his clothes, he was soon after on the pra?a of Elvas.
This exhibited a busy scene; for the troops quartered in Elvas created a market, and drew a concourse of people from the surrounding country. Asses laden with, or just unladen of, country produce, were grouped about the square, each with his nose tied up in a net, that he might not eat his saddle or panniers. Bullock carts were seen here and there, among them, many of the oxen lying down with their legs doubled under them, taking advantage of the halt to enjoy their siesta. A crowd of peasants hovered about, and the sonorous Spanish mingling with the abrupt and nasal Portuguese, the short black jackets and montero caps, among the hats and vests, generally brown, showed that many of these men had come across the Spanish border. Here was the pig merchant, with his unquiet and ear-piercing merchandise, and the wine merchant, with his pitchy goat-skin sacks, full of, and flavoring the vinho verde Colonel Bradshawe so much abhorred. Here were peasant women, with poultry, and sausages, and goats'-milk cheese; and young girls, persuasively offering for sale the contents of their baskets, oranges, chesnuts, bolotas, and other fruits and nuts. Here, in the crowd, was a monk; there, a secular priest, and of friars a plenty. And here, in the midst of them, were the broad-faced English soldiers, touching their caps as L'Isle passed among them—their faces growing broader as they remarked to each other, that there was still something left of the colonel. Here, too, were the lounging citizens of Elvas, who might have personified otium cum dignitate, or plain English laziness, but for the presence of some of the gentlemen of the brigade, who were sauntering about with their hands in their pockets, as if caring for nothing, and having nothing to do, or at once too proud and lazy to do it—not much caring which way their steps led them, but expecting, of course, every one to get out of their way. Yet a spark of interest would, at times, shine out from them at the sight of a neat figure, or a pretty face, among the rustic belles, whose love of bright and strongly contrasted colors in dress, attracted the eye, and gave variety to the scene.
Some of these gentlemen stopped L'Isle to talk with him. But, avoiding any prolonged conversation, he hastened across the pra?a, into one of the narrow and uncleanly streets, along which he picked his way, wishing that he had authority, for a few days, to turn the good people of Elvas, clergy and all, into scavengers, and enter on a thorough purification of the place, beginning with the persons of the people themselves. A moral purification might possibly follow, but could not possibly precede this physical cleansing. Walking along, divided between these thoughts and the necessity of looking for the place he was searching for, he heard himself called by some one behind him. He turned; it was Commissary Shortridge himself, who being rather pursy, was a little out of breath through his exertions to overtake him.
Now, there were a good many things that L'Isle despised. But, if there was any thing that he did despise beyond all others, it was a commissary—a fellow who makes his gains where all other men make their losses; who devotes himself to his country's service for the express purpose of cheating it; who seizes the hour of its greatest want and weakness, to bleed it most freely; who, as often as he can, sells to his country straw for hay, chaff for corn, and bones for beef; the master-stroke of whose art is to get passed, by fraudulent vouchers, accounts full of imaginary articles, charged at fabulous prices; in short, a man who loves war more than Mars or Achilles; reaping, amidst its blood and havoc, a rich harvest in safety. Our commissary was not quite equal in professional skill to some of his brethren. Perhaps he had some small remnant of conscience left, or of patriotism, or of loyalty, or of caution, which withheld him from plundering king and country with both hands. Nevertheless, from being an unprosperous London tradesman, he had, in a few years, contrived to line his pockets exceedingly well, and had now grown ambitious of social position.
How came it then, when the commissary had expressed very copiously his delight at seeing Colonel L'Isle again, and yet more at seeing him so much better in health and strength than he had dared to hope, L'Isle condescendingly gave him to understand that the pleasure of this meeting was not all on the commissary's side? When Shortridge congratulated him on his promotion, and yet more on the high deserts that had drawn it upon him, L'Isle's manner implied that the commissary's good opinion gave him greater confidence in himself. How could L'Isle do this? Simply because the proudest and best of us can tolerate, and even flatter, those we despise, when we have urgent occasion to use them.
The commissary then said, "I have brought Mrs. Shortridge with me to Elvas."
"I am very glad to hear it," answered L'Isle, without betraying that he knew it before. "Even one English lady is a precious addition to our society in this dull place."
"Mrs. Shortridge has never forgotten your rescuing her from under the feet of the idolatrous rabble of Lisbon. She is still a strong friend of yours, and will be delighted to see you, as soon as she is mistress of a decent apartment."
"Where is she now?"
"Not far from here—but in such an abominable hole, that a lady is naturally ashamed to be caught there by any genteel acquaintance."
"I am truly sorry to hear that she is so badly lodged."
"Our officers," said Shortridge, "have taken up all the best houses; and the troops being quartered here has attracted such an additional population from the country around, that I was afraid I would have to carry Mrs. Shortridge to rooms in the barracks."
"That will never do," said L'Isle. "But, pray, if I am in her neighborhood, let me call on Mrs. Shortridge, and welcome her to Elvas."
Thus urged, the commissary led the way, and soon reached his lodgings. They found the lady in a room of some size, but dark, dirty, and offensive enough to eye and nose to disgust her with Elvas and drive her back to Lisbon, without unpacking the numerous trunks, baskets, band-boxes, and portable furniture which lumbered the room. These her man-servant was arranging, under her direction, while she was good-humoredly trying to pacify her maid, who, with tears in her eyes, was protesting that she could not sleep another night in that coal-hole, into which the people of the house had thrust her, and which they would persist in calling a chamber.
Mrs. Shortridge, a plump and pretty woman of eight-and-twenty, was a good deal fluttered at seeing such a visitor at such a time. She declared "that she did not know whether she was more delighted or ashamed to see Major—I beg your pardon—Colonel L'Isle, in such a place; we, who have been accustomed to a suite of genteel apartments wherever we went."
L'Isle cast his eye around the forlorn and dismal walls. "Let me beg you, Colonel L'Isle, to be conveniently near-sighted during your visit. I would not, for the world, have our present domicil, and our household arrangements, minutely inspected by your critical eye."
Without minding her protest, he completed a deliberate survey; then said, suddenly, "Why, Shortridge, how could you think of shutting up a lady in such a dungeon? If Mrs. Shortridge were not the best-tempered woman in the world, it would cause a domestic rebellion, and we would soon see her posting back to Lisbon, and London, perhaps, without leave or license. Do you forget how she yearns after the two little boys she left at home, that you venture to aggravate so her regrets at leaving England?"
"How can I help it?" said Shortridge, looking much out of countenance; "I have been into a dozen houses, and these rooms are the largest and least comfortless I can find."
"I would pitch my tent in the pra?a, and pass the winter in it," said L'Isle, "sooner than share with these people the pig-sties they call their houses."
"But a lady is not quite so hardy or fearless as a soldier," said Mrs. Shortridge, "and needs more substantial shelter and protection than a canvas wall."
"I have some thoughts of getting rooms in the barracks," said Shortridge; "but it is not pleasant for a lady to be in the midst of the rank and file."
"Of course not. By the by," said L'Isle, as if he had just thought of it, "I intend, as soon as I get quite well, to take quarters at the barracks; I lodge too far from the regiment now. I may as well hasten my removal, and transfer my present abode to you. My house is large, well situated, and not more dilapidated than every thing else is in this country. It will suit Mrs. Shortridge as well as a Portuguese house can suit an English lady."
"But I cannot think of turning you out of it," said Mrs. Shortridge. "You are still an invalid, and need every comfort and convenience about you."
"I am nearly as well as I ever was in my life," answered L'Isle; "a little like the lean knight of La Mancha, it is true, but time and good feeding will soon cure that. And, let me tell you, good feeding is the order of the day here just now. I am only afraid we will eat up the country around, before the opening of the campaign. But my present house has a fault to me, which will be none to you. There is no stabling for my horses, unless I follow the Portuguese custom, and lodge them in the ground-floor of the house. I have to keep them at the barracks, and like to be so quartered that I can put my foot in the stirrup at a minute's warning."
The commissary and his wife made many scruples at accepting his offer, but L'Isle overruled them, and at length it was settled that he should march out at the end of three days, and Mrs. Shortridge and suite should garrison the vacant post.
"And now I will leave you," said L'Isle; "I will finish my visit when you are more suitably lodged. I know how annoying it must be to a neat English woman to receive her friends in such a place as this." And he left Mr. and Mrs. Commissary full of gratitude for his attentions, and of a growing conviction that they were people of some importance and fashion.
The military gentlemen in Elvas had, most of them, abundant leisure on their hands, and, like the Athenians in St. Paul's day, spent their time in little else "than either to tell or to hear some new thing every day." Colonel Bradshawe, strolling about the pra?a with this praiseworthy object, had the luck to meet with Adjutant Meynell, and at once began to pump him for news. But the adjutant, being a man of the same kidney, needed no pumping at all. He at once commenced laying open to the colonel, under the strictest injunctions to secrecy, the thing weighing most on his mind, which was the curious little conversation he had just held with his own colonel, not forgetting to give a few extra touches to the expressions of satisfaction that the news of Mrs. Shortridge's arrival had called forth. After sifting and twisting the matter to their own satisfaction, they parted, and the colonel continued his stroll, chewing the cud of the last news he had swallowed. An hour or so after, whom should he meet with, by the greatest good luck, but the commissary himself. Now, Shortridge was rather a favorite with the colonel, being a man who knew how to make himself useful. For instance, he was the very agent who had so judiciously declined purchasing the refuse sherry wines which Soult, Victor & Co. had contemptuously left on the market; while, with equal judgment and promptitude, he had laid in for the mess an abundant stock of the best port, malmsey and Madeira. Two such cronies, meeting for the first time for ten days, had much conference together; in the course of which the colonel learned all about the straits Mrs. Shortridge was put to for lodgings, and how she was to be relieved through the considerate kindness of L'Isle. This led to a minute account of the occasion on which their acquaintance began, and rather an exaggerated statement of the social relations existing between the aristocratic colonel and the Shortridge firm.
"I have been sometimes galled and ruffled by his haughty manner," said the commissary; "but now I know it is only his manner. He is very considerate of other people, and is getting more and more agreeable every day."
The commissary not having, like the colonel, nothing to do, now took his leave; a little surprised, however, seeing how glad Bradshawe had been to meet with him, at his not inviting him to dine that day with the mess, as he had often done before.
It was observed at the mess table of the —— regiment, that the colonel was in particularly fine spirits to-day. Always companionable, he this day enjoyed his dinner, his glass, and his jokes, and other men's jokes, with peculiar gusto. At length, however, the table grew thin. Duty, pleasure, satiety, and restlessness, took off man after man, particularly of the younger officers, and the colonel was left at last to the support of three or four of his special confidants, the stanchest sitters in the regiment.
Gathering them around him, he called for a fresh decanter, filled their glasses, and ordered the last servant out of the room. After slowly draining his glass, and dwelling awhile on the rich flavor of the wine, he remarked: "We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Shortridge, for the good faith in which he executes these little commissions. They are, we should remember, quite beside his official duties. I never tasted better Madeira of its age in my life—it almost equals my lord's best, which is ten years older; and I do not think that Shortridge made more than two fair profits out of us. I met him, by the by, to-day, and would have had him to dine with us; but, for certain reasons, I think his best place, just now, is at home, watching over his domestic relations."
"What is there in them," exclaimed one of the party, "that needs such close watching?"
The colonel seemed for a moment to debate in his own mind the propriety of making a revelation, then said: "We are all friends here; and, while it is desirable in our profession, and in all others, to know thoroughly the men we live among, still there are many little things that are not to be published on parade, like a general order."
His discreet auditors assenting to this truth, he then gave a full detail of Adjutant Meynell's morning conversation with his colonel, painting broadly and brightly L'Isle's surprise and delight on hearing that Mrs. Shortridge was in Elvas. "What do you think of that, Fox?"
Captain Fox thought L'Isle very imprudent. "But he is young yet, and lacks secrecy and self-command."
"I had not well digested what Meynell had told me," continued Bradshawe, "when I met Shortridge, and lo! L'Isle had already found them out in their dirty lodgings," and the colonel went on to repeat and embellish Shortridge's narrative of L'Isle's kind attention, and the origin of their intimacy. Various were the comments of the company on the affair. But they all agreed to the justness of their colonel's criticism, when he remarked: "That scene in the Patriarchal Church must have been exceedingly well got up. I should like much to have been by. Have you ever remarked that a woman never faints out-and-out, when there is no man near enough, and ready enough, to catch her before she falls to the ground?"
This was a physiological fact, as to female fainting, that some of the company admitted was new to them.
"Now, you are all sharp fellows," said Bradshawe, with a patronizing wave of the hand; "and some of you profess to be men of intrigue; yet I doubt whether any one of you can tell me why the house is not handed over to Shortridge until at the end of three days."
One suggested one reason; another, another. But wine had failed to sharpen their wits, and he scornfully rejected their solutions.
"Three days may be needed," said he, gravely, "to fit a double set of keys to every lock in the house. Shortridge will have one. L'Isle may keep the other, and with it the power of letting himself in and out at any minute of the twenty-four hours."
How stupid did his companions think themselves. The thing was now patent to the dullest apprehension.
"It is curious," continued the colonel, "that Shortridge, so keen a fellow in all business transactions (for both we and the government have found him too sharp for us before now), should be in these little delicate domestic relations such an egregious gull. You all know I do not view these little matters from the parson's point of view; but still, there is a propriety to be observed. To think," continued Bradshawe, with a countenance of comic horror, "of his proposing to make our friend Shortridge lie in a ditch, for his accommodation! Our punctilious comrade is getting to be a very bare-faced fellow. Just snatched from the brink of the grave, too," added he, in a sudden fit of pious indignation. "What a deliberate, cold-blooded fellow!"
Having thus, by fitting a few chance hints to each other, brought out a pretty piece of Spanish intrigue, that would have delighted Calderon or Lope de Vega, the colonel emptied the decanter by filling the glasses all round, and each man emptying his glass, the company dispersed.


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