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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Actress in High Life » CHAPTER XIX.
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 ?Don Pedro.—By this light he changes more and more. I think he 
be angry, indeed. 
?Claudio.—If he be, he knows how to turn his girdle. 
?Benedict.—Shall I speak a word in your ear? 
?Claudio.—God bless me from a challenge. 
 ??  ??  ?? Much ado about Nothing.
Sir Rowland Hill, with a stout division, had been posted during the winter at Coria, facing Marshal Soult in the valley of the Tagus—holding him to bail not to disturb the peace and quiet of the British army cantoned along the frontier. The Marshal had now swallowed or pocketed all that he could find in the rich, but hapless vale of Plasencia, and of late had been casting hungry glances on the country south of the river. This had induced Sir Rowland to ride over from Coria to Alcantara, to look to his line of communication with the southern provinces. This old city had been long sinking into decay; the French General, Lapisse, spent one night in it four years ago; and well nigh completed the work which time had begun. Still its position and its famous bridge, one arch of which had been blown up, and had now been hastily repaired, made it an important point at this time.
In a Gothic hall, which looked as if it had not long since been visited by the Vandals, but which had of old been often thronged with members of the once chivalrous order of Alcantara, now as effete in knighthood as that of Malta; a military secretary was writing at a small table, at the dictation of Sir Rowland Hill, who stood near, perchance, as good a knight as ever trod that floor. Officers came in to him, and were sent out again on various missions. Lord Strathern was seated by a larger table at the other end of the room, conversing gaily with his fellow-travelers from Elvas, and waiting Sir Rowland's leisure.
Sir Rowland presently looked at his watch, and raising his voice, inquired—"My Lord, has L'Isle come yet?"
"Not yet," Lord Strathern answered with a smiling countenance, while Sir Rowland's expressed disappointment. He knew that the commander-in-chief was about to order a combination of simultaneous movements. Every part of the allied force from Gallicia to Andalusia had its task allotted, and he was anxious to know how far the Conde di Abispal's could be relied on.
"L'Isle is usually before his time," said Sir Rowland. "Do you think he got my order yesterday?"
"I have little doubt of it," said my lord.
"But I doubt his being here soon," said Bradshawe, dipping in his oar to trouble the waters. "He had to go last night to a concert in Elvas."
"A concert detain him! I do not understand that."
"Nor I, Sir Rowland," said Bradshawe coolly. "I only heard it without pretending to understand it."
Sir Rowland looked puzzled, but his unfinished dispatch claimed his attention, and he turned again to his secretary.
Meanwhile Lord Strathern was in high spirits. "The hour has come, but not the man!" he said, and began to triumph over Conway, and laugh at L'Isle so merrily, that he would have soon found it in his heart to forgive the latter all his offensive strictures on him. But, suddenly, his merriment gave place to a look of surprise and disappointment. Conway, turning to ascertain the cause, saw L'Isle walk into the room as if he had come hither at his leisure; yet, something in his bearing, betrayed that his pride was in arms.
"I am glad to see you, L'Isle," said Sir Rowland. "I were loath to close my dispatch without adding the intelligence you might bring me. By the bye, some of these gentlemen thought that you would not be here so soon."
"They must have supposed that I had not received your order, sir," said L'Isle, glancing haughtily round on Lord Strathern; "but, having got it, I am here."
"It seems to have cost you hard riding though, and more fatigue than you are yet equal to," said Sir Rowland, remembering his late wounds. "And you have had a fall," he added, observing some marks on his clothes.
"Not from my horse," said L'Isle, shortly and somewhat bitterly. "But it is of no consequence," and he hastened to produce his notes and furnish Sir Rowland with the information expected from him.
Besides the unerased marks of a fall, L'Isle's clothes were travel-stained, and his face was pale, less, perhaps, from fatigue and loss of sleep, than from the violent excitement and revulsion of feelings he had lately undergone. But he soon withdrew Sir Rowland's attention from himself to his full and precise account of the state of the Andalusian reserve, and the garrison of Badajoz.
"I am glad to find that this body of Spanish troops are not, like too many Spanish armies, men of straw, an army on paper," said Sir Rowland. "The French are trying to occupy so extended a position here in Estremadura, that our Andalusian friends may do capital service in harassing their out-posts, and cutting off their convoys."
"If they can be kept out of the plains, and induced not to fight," said L'Isle, smiling. "But the Spaniard is always seeking to surround the enemy, and force him to battle."
"At all events," said Sir Rowland, "I can now give Lord Wellington a definite and reliable account of their condition;" and, making a sign to L'Isle to accompany him, he walked across the room and seated himself at the larger table. Here he held a somewhat prolonged conference with Lord Strathern, in which the other gentlemen were, at times, called upon to take part. When compelled to speak, L'Isle distinguished himself by giving admirable specimens of the lapidary style, not one spare word. Sir Rowland had many questions to ask and instructions to give; but, these over, he gave a less professional turn to the conversation, and then said: "I hope, my lord, you and these gentlemen will share my poor dinner to-day; but remember, I am not at home in Alcantara, and cannot feast you, as you do your friends at Elvas; neither can we sit long and drink deep, as I must return to-night to Coria."
"We will dine with you with pleasure," said Lord Strathern. "Pray, Bradshawe, who could have told Sir Rowland that we sit long and drink deep at Elvas?"
"Some thirsty fellow," said Bradshawe, "who had drained the last drop from his last bottle."
"Oh, my lord," said Sir Rowland, laughing, "I meant no insinuation. But I must finish my despatch," and he returned to his secretary.
While Lord Strathern and his companions awaited Sir Rowland's leisure, L'Isle sat moodily apart, turning an unsocial shoulder toward his lordship, giving him a glimpse of his back.
Lord Strathern smiled; he saw the earth stains, and saw, moreover, evident marks of anger and chagrin in L'Isle's demeanor. His curiosity was strongly excited, and he resolved to make the silent man find his tongue.
"Pray, L'Isle how came you to let your horse slip from under you, and measure your length in the road?"
"You are mistaken, my lord," said L'Isle, formally; "my horse did not throw me."
"You are so used to success that you will acknowledge no failure, not even a fall from your horse, or your hobby-horse. Perhaps you got tired, and took a nap by the roadside, which accounts for your getting here no sooner."
L'Isle was too angry to trust himself with an answer, but Major Conway, turning to Bradshawe, said gaily: "Colonel L'Isle is here soon enough for me; he is within the time, and I have won the fifty guineas."
L'Isle started. Here was a revelation! His last night's adventure was no secret. There were more parties to the plot than he had imagined.
"Sir!" said he, turning upon Conway, with a cold, hard manner. "Am I to understand that you have done me the honor to bet on my movements?"
"Here is gratitude for you," exclaimed Conway, pacifically appealing to his companions, and his voice attracted Sir Rowland's attention. "Here have I been showing for him the height of friendship, hazarding my best friends, my guineas, on his infallible fulfillment of duty; and my full faith in him is received as an outrage."
"I suppose, sir," said L'Isle, turning on Bradshawe, with freezing politeness, "it is you who have so obligingly afforded my volunteer backer so singular an opportunity of proving his friendship?"
"I cannot claim the credit of it," answered Bradshawe, with easy urbanity. "I am not even a stakeholder in the game; though, as a mere looker-on, I confess having watched it with keen and growing interest." And with a little wave of the hand he passed L'Isle gently over to Lord Strathern.
L'Isle looked from the imperturbable colonel to the pacific major, who professed to be so zealously his partisan, and back again to the former. Not seeing how he could fasten a quarrel on either, he turned somewhat reluctantly on Lord Strathern, who complacently awaited him.
"As for you, my lord, I might have felt surprise at your making me the subject of such a bet, but it is lost in astonishment at the means you took to win it!"
"And, after all to lose it," said Lord Strathern, in a mocking, dolorous tone. "Is it not provoking?"
"No scruple," continued L'Isle, "seems to have stood in your way, my lord, in the choice of either means or agent."
"On the contrary," said Lord Strathern, blandly, "I always scrupulously choose the best of both."
"You must have contrived this plot," L'Isle persisted, "though the chief actor be in Elvas. But I will say no more here."
"A few words more, I pray," said Lord Strathern, smiling. "I understood that you were to have been detained in Elvas. How the devil did you get away?"
L'Isle turned abruptly away, seeing that the more anger and mortification he showed, the more gratified Lord Strathern seemed to be. Rising from his seat, he walked up to Sir Rowland, who had been watching him with much curiosity, and said: "I suppose, sir, you have no further use for me here. If so, pray excuse my absence from your table to-day, as I have occasion to return at once to Elvas."
Sir Rowland bid his secretary go and send off the despatch at once; then looking fixedly at L'Isle, said: "I may need you here for a day or two."
L'Isle bit his lip till the blood came, while Sir Rowland, stepping over to Lord Strathern, asked in an undertone: "What is the matter with L'Isle, my lord? he seems strangely out of humor."
"The truth is, Sir Rowland," said his lordship, in a confidential tone, "somebody in Elvas has been quizzing L'Isle, and a man of his vanity cannot stand being quizzed."
"Quizzed!" said Sir Rowland. "Does quizzing make a man mad?"
L'Isle dared not trust himself longer in Lord Strathern's company; he wanted time to recover his self-command; so he again addressed Sir Rowland: "That I left Elvas so suddenly, and unprepared for a prolonged absence, matters little, Sir Rowland; but I have been so little with my regiment of late, that—"
"Let your major take care of it a few days longer," Sir Rowland answered, in a positive tone.
"You had better let L'Isle go, Sir Rowland," said Lord Strathern. "He is afraid to lose sight of his regiment, lest they become banditti."
L'Isle's flushed cheek and compressed lips, showed that he felt the taunt, while Sir Rowland exclaimed, in surprise: "Are they so unruly? Then you must look to them yourself, my lord, for I shall keep Colonel L'Isle a while with me. The truth is, L'Isle, I divine your urgent business at Elvas. Some one there has given you gross offence, and you seek revenge under the name of satisfaction. There is always sin and folly enough in these affairs; but here, within sight of the smoke of the enemy's camp, and now, when we are about to fall upon them, these personal feuds are criminal madness. I would put you under arrest, sooner than let you post off to Elvas on so bloodthirsty an errand."
Sir Rowland uttered this speech with an air worthy of his Puritan uncle, of Calvinistic memory; but, in spite of the respect due to the speaker, it was too much for the gravity of his hearers. Lord Strathern and his companions burst into a roar of laughter, and even L'Isle, amidst all his anger, felt tempted to join them.
"Gentlemen," said Sir Rowland, in grave astonishment, "I like a joke as well as any of you. Pray explain this, that I may share your enjoyment."
Bradshawe, with an effort, cut short his laughter, to say: "As a neutral party, Sir Rowland, I will be Colonel L'Isle's surety, that in whatever mood he may set out for Elvas, as soon as he finds himself in the presence of his enemy there, he will be gentle as a lamb."
"You deal in mysteries; who in Elvas is so safe from L'Isle's resentment?"
"Nobody but Lady Mabel Stewart."
"Lady Mabel Stewart!" exclaimed Sir Rowland, looking at Lord Strathern. "If a lady contrived this plot, I shall never unravel it; so you must do it for me."
"Perhaps the explanation," said Bradshawe, "would come more gracefully from my lord."
"If I knew the details of it," said Lord Strathern, interrupting his hearty laughter, for he seemed resolved, at all hazard, to recover his fifty guineas, in sport, out of L'Isle. "I can tell but the beginning; and then, Sir Rowland, you can squeeze the rest out of L'Isle himself."
"By all means," said Sir Rowland. "L'Isle, take a seat, and learn to stand fire. You must not dodge from a volley of laughter, that happens to be aimed at yourself."
L'Isle reluctantly sat down, while Lord Strathern said: "Have you ever discovered, Sir Rowland, that L'Isle is a monomaniac?"
"No! On what point?"
"Discipline! He is a little touched here," said my lord, laying his finger on his temple, "on the subject of discipline. He never eats heartily, nor sleeps quietly, but after detecting the breach of a dozen of the rules and regulations made for the government of his Majesty's troops. He fancies that they were made expressly to afford him the pleasure of detecting the breach of them."
"Is this disease prevalent in your brigade, my lord?" Sir Rowland inquired in a sarcastic tone.
"By no means; I have kept it down; for my method, looking to the spirit, not the letter of the law, discourages it greatly."
"I have seen something of your method, my lord," said Sir Rowland, smiling; "but cannot say that I have mastered its peculiar merits."
"That is very likely," said Lord Strathern, complacently. "As every art has its mysteries—so each man may have some peculiar gift in the application of his art; even though taught by the same master, no two men's handwriting are exactly alike; so each of us may have some inimitable peculiarity in his soldiership. It is certain that L'Isle, not understanding my more enlarged and liberal system, wished to force me into his own narrow notions, and when I would not yield to him, he intimated to me that I was training up banditti. I had to recommend to him the study of one of the articles of war, which he had overlooked. It treats of subordination, and of each man's minding his own business. Neither of us was very successful in keeping his temper; and, indeed, being a good deal ruffled, I afterward spoke pretty freely of L'Isle's conduct to these gentlemen, who dined with me. Mabel shared my feelings, and, with my consent, set a trap for him, hoping to teach him that he himself might be caught tripping. How he escaped in time to get here you must learn from himself."
"Come, L'Isle, we have heard the prologue," said Sir Rowland; "be not bashful, but give us the comedy."
What was L'Isle to do? It was evidently something more than curiosity that made Sir Rowland so earnest to sift this matter. He could hardly refuse all explanation to him—and he felt that it would never do to give an account of Lady Mabel's behavior, to himself, as he had construed it. Lord Strathern, too, did not exactly know what he was urging him to do. Suddenly recollecting Lady Mabel's note, L'Isle drew it from his pocket, and handed it to her father, for his private reading. To L'Isle's astonishment, Lord Strathern read it out with great gusto, and commented on it.
This was capital bait for the trap. "And pray, Mr. Interpreter, how did you and your principal get through the evening?"
"You see the dilemma, Sir Rowland," exclaimed Bradshawe, with glee. "Here was a conflict of duties. Colonel L'Isle had to obey two commanders at one time, which Scripture tells us is difficult, if not impossible."
"L'Isle seems to have achieved the impossible," said Sir Rowland; "for I know you are too gallant a man, L'Isle, to neglect a lady's order for mine."
Sir Rowland's manner, though not his words, were urgent for an explanation; and L'Isle being now fairly in for it, with an effort, gathered his wits together, and opened the narrative of his last night's adventure. He recounted Lady Mabel's successful efforts to amuse and occupy him into a forgetfulness of the flying hours; her artful delays before setting out; their slow but pleasant drive up hill to Elvas; the animated and well-sustained part she had played throughout the evening; her wit, her satire, and her singing, and his labors as interpreter, acknowledging many foolish things of his own, in his efforts to be witty and amusing according to contract. He described her well-feigned fear of returning home in the dark without an escort, the brilliantly lighted house and well-timed supper, at which, unconscious of the flight of time, he sat listening to her diverting talk, including her piquant sketch of Sir Rowland's glorious dinners and tactical lectures, and the value his officers set on each. Here his auditors had each an opportunity of laughing at each other, and being laughed at in turn.
L'Isle strove to make Lady Mabel appear witty, amusing, and adroit; he gave edge to her satire—keenness to her wit; but carefully rounded off all the more salient points of her acting. He said nothing of her singing "Constant my heart," at him. He did not hint at his taking her hand in the coach, or kissing it at the supper table; but dilated on her skillful libel on old Moodie's sobriety, and her well acted dread of the house-breaking banditti, from whom he could best protect her, as they are no other than his own men.
Though L'Isle did not get through his narrative with the best possible grace, he was doubly successful in it; at once greatly amusing his auditors, yet exhibiting Lady Mabel only as a witty girl, who had merely played the part allotted to her with mischievous pleasure and consummate tact. But he attained this at the cost of showing himself an easy dupe to her arts, and getting well laughed at for his pains. It cost L'Isle no small effort to do this. It was, in fact, a heroic, self-sacrificing act; for he was not used to being laughed at, and there is something highly amusing in compelling a man to tell a story which makes him more and more ridiculous at every turn. But while showing so much consideration for Lady Mabel, so far was he from beginning to forgive her ill-usage of him, that the constraint he had put upon himself only embittered his feelings toward her.
As to Lord Strathern, he was delighted with the account of ma belle's cunning manoeuvres and witty speeches, even to the point of laughing heartily at her satire on himself; and he reveled in L'Isle's ill-concealed mortification, exclaiming: "What a pity the plot failed by Mabel's unmasking too soon. That and your good horse enabled you to keep your appointment at the risk of your neck. Why, L'Isle, you might have become a ballad hero. Mabel would have put your adventure in verse, and set it to music, and you would have been sung by all our musical folks, from Major Lumley down to the smallest drummer-boy. You are a lucky fellow; but this time your luck has lost you fame."
"And how did you get away at last?" asked Sir Rowland, fully convinced that L'Isle had been a prisoner, under lock, bolt and bar.
The earth-stains on L'Isle's clothes might have testified that he had gotten a bad fall in jumping out of a lady's window, at two o'clock in the morning. But this is a scandalous world. L'Isle remembered Bradshawe, without looking at him, and evaded the question.
"I found old Moodie, lantern in hand, at the open gate, looking as if he had drank nothing but vinegar in a month, the picture of sour sobriety!"
Sir Rowland had striven in vain not to join in the laugh; but, in spite of himself, was much diverted at L'Isle's adventure. But he was provoked at the usage his favorite colonel had incurred, for the best of faults—too much zeal for the service; and he longed to discuss with Lord Strathern the propriety of setting traps for his own officers, when posting, with important intelligence, to their common commander. But there was a lady in the case, and Sir Rowland was afraid to broach the subject; Lord Strathern, too, though his subordinate was nearly old enough for his father—a man of high rank, and a known good soldier; so he put off the discussion to a more convenient season. As to L'Isle, Sir Rowland had been watching him closely, and saw something in his eye and bearing that betrayed too much exasperation for him to be trusted to return at once to Elvas. So, Sir Rowland invented, on the spot, a special duty for him, and bid him accompany him, that evening, to Coria.


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