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首页 » 经典英文小说 » Susan Proudleigh » CHAPTER II A PASSAGE-AT-ARMS
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It was about eight o’clock; and, save for a few lights gleaming faintly here and there in the yards and the little houses, the lane was in darkness. It was quiet, too; only three or four persons were to be seen moving about, and the innumerable dogs would not begin to bark until nearly everybody had gone to bed. A stranger standing at one of the numerous crossings that intersected the lane, and looking up or down the narrow way, might imagine he was peering into some gloomy tunnel were it not for the brilliancy of the stars overhead. The cross-streets were very much brighter and livelier, and that one towards which Susan and her sister directed their steps was particularly bright.

A Chinaman’s shop at the lane corner opened upon this street. To the right of this, and also opening on the street, was another shop presided over by an elderly woman. It was small, but contained a comparatively large quantity of things which found ready sale in the neighbourhood; such as pints of porter, little heaps of ripe bananas, loaves of bread, coarse straw hats, charcoal, pieces of sugar-cane, tin whistles, reels of thread and peppermint cakes. On the opposite side of the crossing were other shops, and on either hand, east and west, as far as the eye could reach, were still more shops standing between fairly large two-storeyed dwelling-houses of brick and wood. On the piazzas women squatted selling native sweetmeats and fruit. To the west, in the middle distance, two or three taverns blazed with light; away to the east was a great crowd of people singing, and in the midst of this crowd jets of flame streamed upwards from the unprotected wicks of huge oil-lamps. These lamps gave off thick columns of black smoke which slowly drifted over the heads of the sable, white-clothed revivalists who passionately preached on the always approaching end of the world, and called upon their hearers to repent them of their sins.

People were continually passing up and down. They passed singly or in groups, the latter discussing loudly their private affairs, careless as to who might hear: even love-making couples ignored the proximity of other human beings, and laughed and chatted as though there was no one within a mile of them. Many of these pedestrians were barefooted, but most of them wore shoes or slippers of some sort. A few were in rags, but the majority were fairly well dressed, for this was a populous thoroughfare, and the people took some pride in their appearance. A number of children hung about, playing with one another or gazing idly at the passing show; a fine grey dust lay thick upon the ground; gas-lamps placed at wide distances apart burned dimly, so that large spaces of the street were in shadow. Cabs conveying passengers home or on visits drove by frequently, and every now and then the electric cars flew by, stirring up a cloud of dust which almost blinded one, and which for a moment shrouded the street with a moving, impalpable veil. There was life here, there was movement, and while the revivalists prayed and preached in the distance, the candy sellers near by plaintively invited the young to come and purchase their wares, the proprietors of little ice-cream carts declaimed vociferously that they sold the best cream ever manufactured, and the vendors of pea-nuts screamed out that baked pea-nuts were strengthening, enlivening, and comforting. This was the life of the street.

At the right-hand corner of the lane, where the Chinaman’s shop stood, was a gas-lamp, and the gossiping groups about the spot indicated that it was a favourite rendezvous of the people of the vicinity. Susan never condescended to linger for a moment there; that would have been beneath her dignity. But Maria, her rival, sometimes paused at the corner when going for a walk, to talk for a while with a possible admirer or with a friend if she should happen to meet one. To-night Maria was standing under the gas-lamp conversing gaily with two girls. Evidently she was in a happy frame of mind.

“Yes,” she was saying, in answer to a question put to her by one of the girls, “I am goin’ to tell her so. She is proud an’ she is forward; but she will soon sing a different tune. I wonder what she would say now if she did know dat her lover write me two letters last week, an’ say that him love me! I don’t answer him yet, but him say him coming to see me to-morrow night. You watch! If I want to teck Tom from her, I have only to lift me little finger. An’ I am not too sure I won’t do it.”

She laughed as she spoke of her prospective victory over Susan; but her friends, though they hated Susan, were not particularly delighted with the news they heard. They were agreed that Susan ought to be humbled, but that was no reason why Maria should be exalted. It was, therefore, not altogether in a cheerful tone of voice that the elder one asked Maria:

“Y’u think Tom going to come to you?”

“Him almost come to me already,” replied Maria, with pride. “Look what him send for me last night!”

She thrust her hand into her pocket as she spoke. As she was taking out Tom’s present, Susan and her sister emerged into the light.

Both Susan and Maria caught sight of each other at the same moment. And each realized in a flash that the other knew the true position of affairs. The glare of hate from Susan’s eyes was answered by a contemptuous stare and a peal of derisive laughter from Maria. Susan’s sister and Maria’s friends at once understood that a desperate struggle had begun between the two.

Maria’s ringing jeer was more than any ordinary woman could tolerate. Susan tried to answer it with a laugh as contemptuous, but failed, her wrath choking her. Then she put all pretence aside, and swiftly moving up to Maria she thrust her face into the face of the other girl. “See here, ma’am,” she hissed, “I want to ask you one thing: is it me you laughing at?”

“But stop!” exclaimed Maria, backing away a little, and defiantly placing her arms akimbo. “Stop! You ever see my trial! Then I can’t laugh without your permission, eh?” Saying which she laughed again as contemptuously as before, and swung round with a flounce so as to bring one of her elbows into unpleasant proximity to Susan’s waist.

“I don’t say you can’t laugh, an’ I don’t care if y’u choose to laugh till you drop,” cried Susan bitterly; “but I want to tell you that y’u can’t laugh at me!”

“So you’re better than everybody else?” sneered Maria. “Y’u think you are so pretty, eh? Well! there is a miss for you! She can’t even behave herself in de public street, though she always walk an’ shake her head as if she was a princess, an’ though she call herself ‘young lady.’ But perhaps she think she lose something good, an’ can’t recover from the loss as yet!” And again that maddening peal of laughter rang out.

Susan did not answer Maria directly. She eyed that young woman swiftly, and noticed that her dress was old and her shoes poor and dusty. This gave her the advantage she needed in dealing with a girl who was all contempt while she herself was all temper. She turned to her sister and to Maria’s friends, and pointed to Maria with scorn.

“Look at her!” she cried. “Look how she stand! Her face is like a cocoa-nut trash, and she don’t even have a decent frock to put on!”

Maria might have passed over the reference to her face; she knew it was only spiteful abuse. But the allusion to the scantiness of her wardrobe was absolutely unforgivable. If not exactly true, it yet approached perilously near the truth, and so it cut her to the quick. No sooner were the words uttered than Maria’s forefinger was wagging in Susan’s face, and:

“Say that again, an’ I box you!” she screamed.

“Box me?” hissed Susan. “Box me? My good woman, this would be the last day of you’ life. Take you’ hand out of me face at once—take it out, I say—take it out!”—and without waiting to see whether Maria would remove the offending member, she seized it and pushed Maria violently away.

In a moment the two were locked in one another’s arms. There was a sound of heavy blows, two simultaneous shrieks of “Murder!” and a hasty movement of about forty persons towards the scene of the combat.

Catherine now thought it time to interfere. She threw herself upon the combatants, making a desperate but vain attempt to separate them. Maria’s friends protested loudly that Susan was ill-treating Maria, though, as the latter was at least as strong as Susan, it was difficult to see where the ill-treatment came in. A dignified-looking man standing on the piazza loudly remonstrated with the crowd for allowing “those two females to fight,” but made not the slightest effort himself to put a stop to the struggle. The little boys and girls in the vicinity cheered loudly. The one thing lacking was a policeman. Noticing this, the dignified-looking man audibly expressed his opinion on the inefficiency of the force.

“Let me go, I say, let me go!” gasped Susan, her head being somewhere under Maria’s right arm.

“You wants to kill me!” stammered Maria, whose sides Susan was squeezing with all the strength she possessed—“murder, murder!”

But neither one would let the other go. Neither one was much hurt as yet. The struggle continued about a minute longer, when some one in the crowd shouted, “Policeman coming!”

Then indeed both Susan and Maria came to their senses. They separated, and vainly tried to put on an appearance of composure. It was time, for yonder, moving leisurely through the crowd, now composed of over a hundred persons, was the policeman who had been spied by one of the spectators. The girls made no effort to run, for that would surely have provoked the policeman to an unusual display of energy, and, justly angered at having been compelled to exert himself, he might have arrested them both on the charge of obstructing him in the execution of his duty. They waited where they stood, their eyes still flashing, their bosoms heaving, and their bodies trembling with rage.

But angry as she was, Susan had already begun to feel ashamed of fighting in the street. She had always had a horror of street scenes; people of her class did not participate in them; before this event she would not have thought it possible that she could ever be mixed up in such an affair as this. Oh, the humiliation of being handled by a constable! She heartily wished she were a thousand miles from the spot.

In the meantime the policeman, having arrived at the outskirts of the crowd, began busily to work his way through to the centre. True to its traditions, the crowd was hostile to him and friendly to the culprits; so some of the women managed to put themselves in his way, then angrily asked him what he was pushing them for.

“What is all dis?” was his first question as he came up to the spot where Susan and Maria stood. “What is de meaning of this?” He looked fixedly at the gas-lamp as if believing that that object could give him the most lucid explanation of the circumstances.

Nobody answered.

“What is all dis, I say?” he again demanded in a more peremptory tone of voice.

“These two gals was fighting, sah,” explained a small boy, in the hope of seeing somebody arrested.

“Mind your own business, buoy!” was all the reward the policeman gave him for his pains, and then the arm of the law, feeling that something was expected of him, proceeded to deliver a speech.

“The truth of de matter is dis,” he observed, looking round with an air of grave authority: “You common folkses are too ignorant. You are ignorant to extreme. You ever see white ladies fight in de street? Answer me that!”

No one venturing to answer, he continued:

“White people don’t fight in de street, because them is ladies and gentleman. But I can’t understand the people of my own colour; they have no respect for themself!”

He spoke more in sorrow than in anger; almost as though he were bitterly lamenting the deficiencies of the working classes. But Susan, though in trouble, would not even then allow herself to be classed with the policeman and others in the category of “common folkses.” “I am not common,” she answered defiantly; “I am not your set!”

“Silence, miss!” thundered the policeman, scandalized. “I am the law! Do you know dat?”

“I never see a black law yet,” cheekily replied Susan, who thought that, if she had to be arrested, there would be at least some satisfaction in humiliating the policeman.

“If y’u say another impertinence word I will arrest you!” was the policeman’s threat. “Now de whole of you walk right off! Right off, I say, or I teck you all to jail!” He included the crowd with one comprehensive sweep of his arm, perceiving that his edifying attempt to awaken in his audience a sense of respectability had not been favourably received.

There was no disputing his authority, especially as he had begun to get angry. Susan knew, too, that she had mortally offended him by claiming to belong to a better class than his: which remark had also lost her the sympathy of the greater part of the crowd. So she was the first to take advantage of his command, and Maria followed her example by disappearing as quickly as she could. In another minute or two the normal activity of the street had been resumed, and the policeman had again started upon his beat, hoping that he would no more be disturbed that night. But both Susan and Maria knew that the fight would have a sequel. For war had now openly been declared between them.


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