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首页 » 经典英文小说 » Children of Men » THE MESSAGE OF ARCTURUS
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David Adler sat at the open window gazing contemplatively at the sea of stars whose soft radiance filled the heavens. He was lonely. The stars were his friends. Particularly one bright star whose steadfastness, throughout his many night vigils, had arrested his attention. It seemed to twinkle less than the others, seemed more remote and purer. It was Arcturus.

To a lonely person, fretting under the peevish worries of life, the contemplation of the stars brings a feeling of contentment that is often akin to happiness. Beside this glorious panorama, with its background of infinity and eternity, its colossal force, its sublime grandeur, the ills of life seem trivial. And David, who had been lonely all his life, would sit for hours upon each bright night, building castles along the Milky Way and pouring out his soul to the stellar universe—particularly to Arcturus, who had never failed him. Upon this 246night there was a faint smile of amusement upon his face. He was thinking of the queer mission that Mandelkern, his employer, had asked him to undertake that day.

Mandelkern was old and crabbed and ugly, but very rich, and when that morning he had said to David, “I am thinking of marrying,” David felt an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh. Then, in his wheezy voice, Mandelkern had outlined his plan.

“The Shadchen has arranged it all. She is younger than I—oh, a great many years younger, David—and she does not know me. We have only seen each other once. Of course she is marrying me for my money, but I know that when once we are married she will love me. But the trouble is, David, that I cannot find out for myself, positively, whether she is the kind of girl I want to marry. You see, if I were to go and see her myself, she would be on her good behaviour all the time. They always are. And I would not know, until after we were married, whether she is amiable, dutiful, studious, modest—in short, whether she is just what a girl should be. And then it would be too late. So 247I want you, like the good David that you are, to see her—don’t you know?—and get acquainted with her—don’t you know?—and er—question her—er—study her—don’t you know?” David had promised to do what he could and they had shaken hands, and the firm, hearty pressure of his employer’s grasp had told him, more than words could convey, how terribly earnest he was in his curiosity.

By the light of the stars David now sat pondering over this droll situation and smiling. And as he gazed at his friend Arcturus it seemed to him, after all, a matter of the smallest moment whether Mandelkern married the right girl or not—or married at all—or whether anybody married—or lived—or died.

On the pretext of a trivial errand David set out to study the personality and character of his employer’s chosen bride. The moment his eyes fell upon her the pretext that he had selected fled from his mind. In sheer bewilderment he stood looking at her. And when her face lit up and she began to laugh merrily, David was ready to turn and run in his embarrassment. He beheld a mere girl. 248She could not have been more than eighteen or nineteen at the most, and, although her figure was mature, her face and bearing were girlish. And she was exquisitely pretty. At the very first impression it seemed to David that he perceived a cold gleam in her eye that betokened sordidness or meanness, but in a twinkling he perceived that he had been mistaken. A winsome sweetness rested upon her lovely features. It was probably the unconscious memory of Mandelkern that had given that momentary colour to his thoughts. And now, even before he had completed his admiring inventory of her physical charms, she stood laughing at him.

“You look so funny,” she said. “I cannot help laughing.”

Then David began to laugh, and in a moment they were friends. To his delight he found that she was clever, a shrewd observer, an entertaining companion. Many things that she said awakened no response in him. It was not until later that he discovered the reason; she had lived all her young years in the active world, in touch with the struggle, the stir of life; he had lived in dreamland with the stars.

249When Mandelkern asked David what impression the girl had made upon him, he found, to his amazement, that he was unable to give a satisfactory reply.

“She is charming, Mr. Mandelkern,” he said. His employer nodded assent, but added:

“I know that, but is she amiable?”

David pondered for a long time. Then he said:

“Of course, Mr. Mandelkern, I have had no more opportunity of judging what her qualities are than you have. I will have to see more of her. But I will go to see her several times, and probably in a week or two weeks I shall be able to give you a clear idea of her character.”

Mandelkern nodded approvingly.

“You are a good David,” he said. “I have confidence in your judgment.”

And the stars that night seemed brighter, particularly his friend Arcturus, who shone with wonderful splendour and filled David’s heart with deep content—and the pulsing joy of living.

When the revelation came to him David felt no shock, experienced no surprise. She had been so 250constantly in his thoughts, had drifted so quietly into his life, that, when suddenly he realised that she had become a part of his being, it seemed but the natural order of events. It could have been nothing else. He had been born into the world for this. Through all their many talks the name of Mandelkern had never been mentioned. In the beginning the thought of this sweet, girlish nature being doomed to mate itself with grey, blear-eyed Mandelkern had haunted him like a nightmare. But in the sunshine of her presence David quickly forgot both his employer and the scheming Shadchen, and when it dawned upon him that he loved her, that she was necessary to him, that it was in the harmonious plan of the universe that they should be united forever, the thought of Mandelkern came only as a reminder of the unpleasant duty of revealing the truth to him.

Not a word of love had he spoken. Upon a basis of close friendship there had sprung up between them a spirit of camaraderie in which sentiment played no part. Now, suddenly, David felt toward her a tenderness that he had never known before—a desire to protect her, to cherish her—he loved her.

251It dawned upon Mandelkern that David’s answers to his questions were becoming more and more vague and unsatisfactory. And one night the Shadchen, becoming alarmed at David’s frequent visits to the girl, urged Mandelkern to make haste.

“It makes me uneasy,” he said, “to see you sitting idle while a young man has so many opportunities of courting your promised bride.”

Mandelkern’s watery eyes narrowed to a slit and his teeth closed tightly together. Then he answered firmly:

“Have no fear. She will be mine. The lad is, young.” And after a moment he repeated, “The lad is young!”

Aye, David was young! His pulses throbbed with the vigour of youth, with the joy of hope, with the deep torrent of a heart’s first love. Glorious youth! Thou art the richest heritage of the children of men! Canst thou not tarry? Down the bright beam of Arcturus there came to David a light that illumined his soul. Sitting at his window with gaze upturned to the starry heavens, there came to him the soft, sweet realisation that 252the secret of the universe was love, that life’s cup of happiness was at his lips, that Arcturus had been but waiting all these millions upon millions of years to see the veil lifted from his eyes, and the bliss of love revealed. Golden youth! Canst thou not tarry?

They were walking along the street as night was falling. They were laughing and chatting gaily, discussing a droll legend of the Talmud that David had recited to her.

“It reminds me,” said David, “of a story about the Rabbi ben Zaccai, who——”

A sudden moan and faint cry made him pause and quickly turn. A woman whom they had just passed was staggering with her hands pressed to her breast. David sprang toward her, but before he could reach her side she had fallen to the sidewalk, and lay there motionless. In an instant he had raised her to her knees, and was chafing her wrists to restore her to consciousness. She recovered quickly, but as soon as David had helped her to her feet she began to cry weakly, and would have fallen again had he not supported her.

253“What is the matter?” he asked. “Are you ill?”

The woman’s sobs increased, and David repeated his question. Then, with the tears streaming down her face, she answered:

“I have eaten nothing for three days. I am starving. I cannot beg. I cannot die. Oh, I am so miserable!”

David assisted her to the steps of the tenement in which she lived, and summoned her neighbours. He gave them what little money he had in his pocket, urged them to make haste and bring the poor woman food and stimulants, and, promising to return the next day, rejoined his companion.

“My God!” he said, “wasn’t that terrible!”

“Yes. It was terrible!” she said. There was an expression in her voice that caused him to look at her, quickly, wonderingly. Her face had paled. Her lips were tightly pressed together. She was breathing rapidly. Her whole frame seemed agitated by some suppressed emotion. It was not pity. Her eyes were dry and gleaming. It was not shock or faintness. There was an expression of determination, 254of emphatic resolve in her features. David felt amazed.

“Look at me!” he said. “Look me full in the face!”

She gave a short, harsh laugh. In her eyes David saw that same gleam of sordid selfishness that he had observed when first he met her. But now it was clear, glittering, unmistakable.

“Of what are you thinking?” he asked, slowly. Her glance never wavered. David felt the beating of his heart grow slower.

“I don’t mind telling you,” she said. She hesitated for a moment, gave another short laugh, and then went on:

“I was thinking that that poor woman would not have starved if she had married Mandelkern. I was also thinking that I am going to marry Mandelkern. I was also thinking how terrible it would be if I did not marry Mandelkern, and would, some day, have starvation to fear—like that woman.”

Having unburdened her mind, she seemed relieved, and, in a moment became her old self. With a playful gesture she seized David’s arm and shook him.

255“Come, sleepyhead, wake up!” she cried gaily. “Don’t stand there staring at me as though I were a ghost. What were you saying about the Rabbi ben Zaccai?”

David Adler sat at the open window gazing at the swarming stars, whose radiance had begun to pale. The dawn of day was at hand. Even now a faint glow of light suffused the eastern sky. But David saw it not. His eyes were fastened upon Arcturus, whose brightness was yet undimmed, whose lustre transcended the brightness of the myriads of stars that crowded around. Travelling through the immeasurable realms of space, straight to his heart, streamed that bright ray, the messenger of Arcturus, cold, relentless—without hope.


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