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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER III. 'éVEILLONS LE PLAISIR, SON AURORE EST LA NUIT.'
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CHAPTER III. 'éVEILLONS LE PLAISIR, SON AURORE EST LA NUIT.'
The supper at the 'Waterfowl' was a success. Every one, except perhaps Clissold, was in the humour to be pleased with everything, and even Clissold could not find it in his heart to make himself vehemently disagreeable amidst mirth so harmless, gaiety so childishly simple. To an actor, supper after the play is just the one crowning delight of life—that glimpse of paradise upon earth which we all get in some shape or other. A supper at a comfortable hostelry like the 'Waterfowl,' where the landlord knew how to do things in good style for a customer who could pay the piper, was certainly not to be despised. In this northern district there was a liberal plenty, a bounteous wealth of provision hardly known elsewhere. Tea at Eborsham meant dinner and breakfast rolled into one. Supper at Eborsham50 meant aldermanic barn-door fowls, and a mighty home-cured ham, weighing five-and-twenty pounds, or so—lobsters nestling among crisp green lettuces—pigeon pie—cheese-cakes—tarts—and, lest these lighter trifles should fail to satisfy appetite, a lordly cold sirloin by way of corps de reserve, to come in at a critical juncture, like Blucher at Waterloo.

Mr. Dempson made himself the life of the party. The small melancholy man who had bewailed the decline of the drama, vanished altogether at sight of that plenteously-furnished table, and in his place appeared a jester of the first water. So James Penwyn thought at any rate, as he laughed—with youth's gay silver-clear laughter—at the low comedian's jokes. Even Miss Villeroy was sprightly, though she had a worn look about the eyes, as if she had aged herself prematurely with the woes of Mrs. Haller, and other heroines of tragedy. Justina sat next to James Penwyn, and was supremely happy, though only an hour ago she had shed tears of girlish shame at the idea of coming to a supper party in her threadbare brown merino gown—last winter's gown—which she51 was obliged to wear in the warm glad spring for want of fitter raiment. No one thought of her shabby gown, however, when the pale young face brightened and flushed with unwonted pleasure, and the large thoughtful eyes took a new light, and darkened to a deeper grey.

James Penwyn did his uttermost to make her happy and at ease, and succeeded only too well. There is no impression so swift and so vivid as that which the first admirer makes upon a girl of seventeen. The tender words, the subdued tones, the smiles, the praises, have such a freshness. The adulation of a C?sar in after years would hardly seem so sweet as these first flatteries of commonplace youth to the girl on the threshold of womanhood.

Mr. Elgood saw what was going on, but was by no means alarmed by the aspect of affairs. He felt himself quite able to take care of Justina, even if Mr. Penwyn had been a hardened libertine instead of a kind-hearted youth fresh from the university. He had no desire to stifle admiration which might mean very little, but which would most likely result in liberal patronage for his own benefit, and a trifling52 present or two for Justina, a ring, or a bracelet, or a box of gloves.

'I don't want to stand in Justina's light,' mused Mr. Elgood, as he leaned back in his chair and sipped his last glass of champagne, when the pleasures of the table had given way to an agreeable sense of repletion.

'What did that gipsy woman mean by the line of life, and the planets?' asked Justina. She had lost all sense of shyness by this time, and she and James were talking to each other in lowered voices, as much alone as if the rest of the party had been pictures on the wall. Maurice marked them as he sat a little way apart from the others, smoking his black-muzzled pipe.

'Pshaw, only the professional jargon. What does she know of the planets?'

'But she stared at your hand in such a curious way, and looked so awful that she frightened me. Do tell me what she meant.'

James laughed, and laid his left hand in Justina's, palm upwards. 'Look there,' he said; 'you see that line, a curved channel that goes from below the first53 finger to the base of the thumb—that is to say, it should go to the base of the thumb, but in my hand it doesn't. See where the line disappears, midway, just by that seam left by my pocket-knife. You can see no line beyond that scar, ergo the line never travelled further than that point.'

Justina closely scrutinized the strong unwrinkled palm.

'What does that mean?' she asked; 'I don't understand even now.'

'It means a short life and a merry one.'

The rare bloom faded from Justina's cheek.

'You don't believe in that?' she said, anxiously.

'No more than I believe in gipsies, or spirit-rappers, or the cave of Trophonius,' answered James, gaily. 'What a silly child you are to look so scared!'

Justina gave a little sigh, and then tried to smile. Even this first dawn of a girlish fancy, airy as a butterfly's passion for a rose, brought new anxieties along with it. The gipsy's cant was an evil omen that disturbed her like a shapeless fear. Women resemble those medi?val roysterers of whom the old chronicler wrote. They take their pleasure sadly.

54

The moon was at the full. There she sailed, a silver targe, above the distant hill-tops. James looked up at her, looked into that profound world above, which draws the fancies of youth with irresistible power. The room opened on the garden by two long windows, and the one nearest to Mr. Penwyn's end of the table stood open.

'Let us get away from the smoke,' he said, vexed to see Clissold's eye upon him, fixed and gloomy. The room was tolerably full of tobacco-smoke by this time, and Mr. Elgood was urging Mr. Dempson to favour the company with his famous song, 'The Ship's Carpenteer.'

'Come into the garden, Maud,' said James, gaily, flinging a look of defiance at his monitor.

Justina blushed, hesitated, and obeyed him. They went out into the moonlit night together, and strolled side by side across the rustic garden, a slope of grass on which the most ancient of apple-trees, and pear-trees, big enough to have been mistaken for small elms, cast their crooked shadows. It was more orchard than garden, a homely, useful place altogether. Potherbs grew among the rose-bushes on55 the border by the boundary hedge, and on one side of the inn there was a patch of ground that grew cabbages and broad-beans; but all the rest was grass and apple-trees.

At the end of that grassy slope ran the river, silver-shining under the moon. Eborsham, seen across the level landscape, looked a glorified city in that calm and mellow light. The boy and girl walked silently down to the river's brim and looked at the distant hills and woods, scattered cottages with lowly thatched roofs and antique chimney-stacks, here and there the white walls of a mansion silvered by the moon, and, dominating all in sublime and gloomy grandeur, the mighty towers of the cathedral, God's temple, rising, like fortalice and sanctuary, above all human habitations, as of old the Acropolis.

Justina gazed and was silent. It was one of those rare moments of exaltation which poets tell us are worth a lifetime of sluggish feeling. The girl felt as if she had never lived till now.

'Pretty, isn't it?' remarked James, very much in the tone of Brummel, who after watching a56 splendid sunset was pleased to observe, 'How well he does it!'

'It is too beautiful,' said Justina.

'Why too beautiful?'

'I don't know. It hurts me somehow, like actual pain!'

'You are like Byron's Lara,—
"But a night like this,
A night of beauty, mocked such breast as his."

I hope it is not a case of bad conscience with you, as it was with him?'

'No, it is not my conscience. The worst I have ever done has been to grumble at the profession; and though father says it is wicked, the thought of my wickedness has never troubled me. But to me there's something awful in the beauty of night and stillness, a solemnity that chills me. I feel as if there were some trouble hanging over me, some great sorrow. Don't you?'

'Not the least in the world. I think moonlight awfully jolly. Would you much mind my lighting a cigar? You'll hardly feel the effects of the smoke out here.'

57

'I never feel it anywhere,' answered Justina, frankly. 'Father hardly ever leaves off smoking.'

There was a weeping willow at the edge of the garden, a willow whose lower branches dipped into the river, and just beside the willow a bench where these two seated themselves, in the full glory of the moon. A much better place than the dusky summerhouse, which might peradventure be a harbour for frogs, snails, or spiders. They sat by the river's brim, and talked—talked as easily as if they had a thousand ideas in common, these two, who had never met until to-day, and whose lives lay so far apart.

They had youth and hope in common, and that bond was enough to unite them.

James asked Justina a good many questions about stage life, and was surprised to find the illusions of his boyhood vanish before stern truth.

'I thought it was such a jolly life, and the easiest in the world,' he said. 'I've often fancied I should like to be an actor. I think I could do it pretty well. I can imitate Buckstone, and Charles Mathews.'

'Pray don't think of it,' exclaimed Justina. 'You'd be tired to death in a year.'

58

'I dare say I should. I'm not much of a fellow for sticking to anything. I got "ploughed" a year ago at Oxford, and now I've been trying to read with Clissold walking through England and Wales, and putting up at all the quietest places we can find. Clissold is a first-rate coach, and it won't be his fault if I don't get my degree next time. How do you like him?'

'I don't know. I haven't thought about him, answered the girl, simply. This younger and fairer stranger had made her oblivious of Maurice Clissold, with his tall, strong frame, dark, penetrating eyes, and broad brow. Too manly a man altogether to be admired by a girl of seventeen.

'He is as good a fellow as ever breathed; a little bitter, perhaps; but most wholesome things are bitter,' said James. 'He has his crotchets. One is that I am to be a model master of Penwyn by and by, go into Parliament, marry an heiress, set up as a fine old English gentleman, in fact. Rather a wearisome métier, I should think. The worst of it is, he keeps it continually before my mind's eye, is always reminding me of how much I owe to59 Penwyn Manor and my race, and won't let me get much enjoyment out of youth's brief holiday. He's a good fellow, but I might love him better if I didn't respect him so much. He was a great favourite of my poor mother's. A romantic story, by the way. She was engaged to Maurice's father some years before she married mine. He was a captain in the East India Company's service, and fell fighting the niggers at Goojerat. Years afterwards, when my father was dead and gone, Clissold and I met at Eton. My mother burst into tears when she heard my schoolfellow's name, and asked me to bring him to see her. Of course I obeyed, and from that time to the day of her death my mother had a second son in Maurice. I think she loved him as well as she loved me.'

'And you were never jealous?'

'No, I was too fond of both of them for that. And then my dear mother was all love, all tenderness. I could afford to share her affection with my adopted brother. And now tell me something about your own life.'

'There is so little to tell,' answered the girl,60 drearily. 'Ever since I can remember we have lived the same kind of life—sometimes in one town, sometimes in another. When father could afford the money he used to send me to a day school, so I've been a little educated somehow, only I dare say I'm very ignorant, because my education used to stop sometimes, and by the time it began again I had forgotten a good deal.'

'Poor child,' murmured James, compassionately. 'Is your mother still living?'

'She died seven years ago. She had had so much trouble, it wore her out at last.' And Justina paid her dead mother the tribute of a hidden tear.

'I say, Jim, do you know that it is half-past two o'clock, and that Mr. Elgood is waiting for his daughter?' asked the voice of common sense in the tones of Maurice Clissold.

The two children started up from the bench by the willow, scared by the sudden question. There stood Mr. Clissold, tall and straight, and severe-looking.

'I heard the cathedral clock a few minutes ago, and I am quite aware of the time. If Mr. Elgood61 wants his daughter he can come for her himself,' replied James.

Mr. Penwyn was resolved to make a stand against his mentor, and he felt that now was the time for action.

Mr. Elgood and Mr. Dempson came strolling out into the garden, cigars in their mouths. Penwyn's choicest brand had been largely sacrificed at the altar of hospitality.

'Judy, have you forgotten the time?' asked the heavy father, with accents that had a legato sound—one syllable gliding gently into another,—a tone that was all sweetness and affection, though indistinct.

'Yes, father,' answered the girl, innocently. 'It's so beautiful out here.'

'Beautiful,' echoed the father, thickly. '"Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with—what's its names—of bright gold." Come, Jessica—Judy—put on your bonnet and shawl. Mrs. Dempson has been fast asleep for the last half-hour. "But look! The morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill," which reminds me that we have nearly a mile to walk before we get home.'

62

'I'll go with you,' said James. 'I want to arrange about to-morrow. We must make up a jolly party for the races. I'll get a roomy carriage that will hold all of us.'

'I haven't seen a race in anything like comfort for the last fifteen years,' responded Mr. Elgood.

'We'll make a day of it. Clissold and I will come to the theatre in the evening.'

'Make your own engagements if you please, James, and allow me to make mine,' said Mr. Clissold. 'I shall not go to the races to-morrow—or if I do, it will be by myself, and on foot; and I shall not go to the theatre in the evening.'

'Please yourself,' answered James, offended.

They were all ready by this time. Mrs. Dempson had been awakened, and shaken out of the delusion that she had fallen asleep on the sofa in her own lodgings, and somewhat harshly reminded that she had a mile or so to walk before she could obtain complete repose. Mr. Dempson had finished his cigar, and accepted another as solace during the homeward walk. Justina had put on her shabby little bonnet and mantle. Every one was ready.

63

The players took their leave of Maurice Clissold, who was but coldly civil. James Penwyn went out with them, and gave his arm to Justina, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. These two walked on in front, the other three straggling after them—walked arm in arm along the lonely footpath. The low murmur of the river sounded near—the stream showed silvery now and again between a break in the screen of alders.

They talked as they had talked in the garden—about each other—their thoughts—and fancies—hopes—dreams—imaginings.

Oh youth! oh glamour! Strange world in which for the first bright years we live as in a dream! Sweet dawn of life, when nothing in this world seems so real as the hopes that are never to know fruition!


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