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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER VII. 'LET THE WORLD SLIP; WE SHALL NE'ER BE YOUNGER.'
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CHAPTER VII. 'LET THE WORLD SLIP; WE SHALL NE'ER BE YOUNGER.'
They left the town behind them and rattled along the wide high road for half a mile or so, before they turned off to the race-ground. Perhaps the Eborsham course is one of the prettiest in England. An oval basin of richest greensward set among low wooded hills. A waterpool shining here and there in the valley, where the placid kine browse in pensive solitude, save during the race week, when the placid kine are wisely withdrawn from the dangerous neighbourhood of tramps and gipsies, and the wild excitement of the turf.

The grand stand—a permanent building of white freestone—looked very grand to Justina's eyes, as the family ark blundered and jingled into a place exactly opposite: one of the best places on that106 privileged piece of ground, for which James paid three shining sovereigns. Temporary stands of woodwork bordered the course, crowded with warm humanity. Justina wondered where so many people came from, and how it was so few of them came to the theatre, and sighed to think that the drama has never taken a grip upon the public mind as a thoroughly national amusement. See how the people congregated to-day, tier above tier on yonder fragile stages, pressed together with scarce breathing-room; and yet there would be room to spare in the little theatre to-night, Justina feared, despite immense attractions and an unparalleled combination of talent, as advertised in the playbills.

But after this one sigh for the neglected drama, Justina abandoned herself to the delight of the hour, and was supremely content. James told her all about the horses; how that one had done great things at Newmarket, how the other was winner of the Chester Cup. He showed her the colours, explained everything, and the race assumed a new interest. Mr. Dempson left the carriage to stretch his legs a bit, he said, and see who was on the107 course; but in reality because he was of a roving disposition and soon tired of repose. Mr. Elgood devoted himself exclusively to Mrs. Dempson, 'Villeroy,' as he called her, being more accustomed to her professional alias than the name she rendered illustrious in domestic life. So James and Justina were left to themselves, and behaved very much as if they had been plighted lovers ever so long, quite unconsciously upon Justina's part, for she knew little of real lovers and their ways.

Presently there was a sudden stir, a dispersement of pedestrians from the racecourse, as a policeman or two galloped up and down, and the clerk of the course, in his scarlet coat and buckskins, cantered briskly over the grass; then a dog driven past with hootings and ignominy, then more ringing of bells, the preliminary canter, and then the race.

A few minutes of breathless attention, a thundering rush past all the carriages and the eager a-tiptoe spectators, and white jacket with red spots had pulled off the first stakes.

'Did you see it?' asked James, turning to the girl's bright face, glowing with excitement.

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'Oh! it was beautiful. I don't wonder at people coming to races now. I feel as if I had never been quite alive before. Just that one moment when the horses were tearing past. It was wonderful.'

'A very fair race,' said James, with a patronizing air, 'but there were some wretched screws among them. You'll see a better set by and by, for the cup. Iphianassa, the Oak's winner, is first favourite. The bookmen call her Free-and-Easy, for short. And now we'll have a bottle of cham.'

'Not a bad move,' said Mr. Elgood, approvingly. 'That kind of thing makes a fellow dryish.'

He made himself very useful in helping to open the baskets; there were two hampers, one for wine and the other for comestibles, the 'Waterfowl' having done things handsomely. Mr. Elgood took one of the golden-necked bottles out of the rush case, found the glasses, the nippers, and opened the bottle as neatly as a waiter. He had the lion's share of the wine for his trouble.

James and Justina had only one glass between them. They could very easily have had two, but109 they liked this mutual goblet, and sipped the bright wine gaily, Justina taking about as much as Titania might have consumed from a chalice made of a harebell.

The champagne bottle was hardly open when a gipsy appeared at the carriage door, as if attracted by the popping of the cork, an elderly gipsy, with an orange silk handkerchief tied across her black hair, amongst which a few silver threads were visible. She was the identical gipsy woman who had stopped James Penwyn and his companions, yesterday afternoon, by the river.

'Give the poor old gipsy woman a little drop of wine, kind gentleman,' she asked, insinuatingly.

Justina drew back shuddering, drew nearer her companion, till her slight form pressed against his shoulder, and he could feel that she trembled.

'Why, what's the matter, you timid bird?' he whispered tenderly, drawing his arm round her by an instinctive movement. They were standing up in the carriage as they had stood to see the race, Mrs. Dempson with her face towards the box, whence110 Mr. Elgood was pointing out features of interest on the course.

'It's the same woman,' exclaimed Justina, in a half-whisper.

'What woman, my pet?'

It had come to this already, and Justina at this particular moment was too absorbed to remonstrate.

'The woman who told you about the mark on your hand.'

'Is it really? I didn't notice,' answered James, smiling at her concern. The gipsy had gone to the next carriage, whose occupants were in the act of discussing a bottle of sherry and a packet of appetising sandwiches. Thin and daintily trimmed sandwiches, made to provoke rather than appease appetite.

'Upon my word I didn't notice,' repeated James. 'All gipsies are alike to my eye, the same tawny skins, the same shiny black hair. But why should you be frightened at her, pretty one? She prophesied no evil about me.'

'No, but she looked at you so curiously; and111 then a line across the line of life—that must mean something dreadful.'

'My dearest, do you think any reasonable being believes in lines of life or any such bosh? Gipsies must have some kind of jargon, or they would get no dupes. But I think you and I are too wise to believe in their nonsense. We'll give the harridan a tumbler of fiz, and I'll warrant she'll prophesy smooth things. Hi! mistress, this way.'

The gipsy, having paid unfruitful homage to the carriage of sandwich consumers, came quickly at James Penwyn's bidding.

'Let me drink your health, pretty gentleman, she pleaded, 'and the health of the young lady that loves you best, and I know of one that loves you well, and a beautiful young lady, and is well beloved by you. You've courted a many, young gentleman, in your time, the old gipsy knows, for you've a wicked eye and a wanton 'art, but the most fickle must fix at last, and may you never rove no more, for you've fixed upon one as can be constant to you. Thank you, sir, and here's health and happiness to you and the young lady, and a short112 courtship and a long fambly; and give the poor gipsy a mossel of somethink to eat, like a dear young lady,' appealing to the blushing Justina, 'for fear the wine should turn acid upon my inside.'

The picnic basket had to be opened in order to meet this judicious demand, and this being done, the Sibyl was gratified with a handsome wedge of veal pie. This partly despatched and partly pocketed, she made the familiar request for a piece of silver to cross the young lady's palm, which charm being performed she could tell things that would please her. James complied, and Justina surrendered her hand, most unwillingly, to the gipsy's brown claw.

The Sibyl told the usual story—happy wooing, prosperous wedded life—all things were to go smoothly for the blue-eyed lady and the blue-eyed gentleman.

'But beware of a dark man,' said the witch, who felt it necessary to introduce some shadow in her picture, 'beware of a dark-complexioned man. I won't say as he's spades; better call him clubs, perhaps. Be on your guard against a club man, my113 sweet young lady and gentleman, for he bears a jealous heart towards you both, and he stands to do you harm, if he has the power.'

'That will do,' said James, 'we've had enough for our money, thank you, old lady; you can move on to the next carriage.'

'Don't be offended with the poor gipsy, your honour. She's truth-spoken and plain-spoken, and she sees deeper into things than some folks would give her credit for.'

And thus, after an affectionate farewell, the prophetess pursued her way. Other prophetesses followed in her wake, all begging for food and wine, and James lavished more champagne in this direction than Mr. Elgood approved, but even his good nature wore out at last, and he grew tired of these copper-skinned mendicants, some with babies in arms, for whom they begged a little drop of champagne or the claw of a lobster.

The races went on. The great race was at hand. 'Now, then, Justina, we must have something on,' said James. 'You don't mind me calling you Justina, do you?'

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'I don't mind,' the girl answered simply, 'if father doesn't.'

'Well, you see, I can't ask him now, but I will by and by. We can let the question stand over, and I may call you Justina meanwhile, mayn't I, Justina?' he asked softly.

'If you like,' she answered almost in a whisper. They stood so near together that there was no need for either of them to speak loud, even amidst the noise of the racecourse.

'Look here, now, Justina. I'll bet you a dozen gloves, even money, that Free-and-Easy doesn't win. That's giving you a great advantage, for they are laying three to two on the favourite.'

'I don't think I can bet,' said Justina, embarrassed. 'If I were to lose I could not pay you.'

'Ladies never pay debts. Come, if Iphianassa wins you shall have a dozen pairs of the prettiest gloves I can buy, straw-coloured, pink, pearl-grey—which is your favourite colour?'

'I like any kind of gloves,' answered the girl, remembering two wretched pairs which had been to115 the cleaner's so often that their insides were all over numbers, like a multiplication table.

Now came the start, breathlessness, attention strained almost to agony, a hoarse clamour yonder in and about the ring, one big man, wearing a white hat with a black hat-band, offering frantically to bet ten to one against anything, bar one; then a shout as of universal victory, for Free-and-Easy has shot suddenly to the front, after having been tenderly nursed during the first half-mile or so; and now she comes along gallantly, with a great lead, and her backers tremble, and now cold dews break out upon the foreheads of those eager backers, for another horse, almost an unknown animal, creeps up to Iphianassa, gallops shoulder to shoulder with the Oaks winner, passes her, and wins by a neck, while a suppressed groan from the many losers mingles with the hurrahs of that miserable outside public which never stakes more than half a sovereign, and is ready to cheer any horse. Only among the bookmen is there real rejoicing, for they have been betting against the favourite.

'You've lost your gloves, Justina. Never mind,116 we'll have another venture on the next race. It's a selling stake; and we can go and see the auction afterwards—such fun. And now for the basket.—Make yourself useful, Elgood.—Mrs. Dempson, you must be famishing.'

Mrs. Dempson, upon being pressed, owned to feeling a little faint. A lady of Mrs. Dempson's calibre never confesses to being hungry; with her want of food only produces a genteel faintness.

The basket was emptied—lobster, chicken, pie, set out upon a tablecloth, laid on the front seat of the carriage. Then the scrambling meal began—the ladies seated with plates in their laps, the gentlemen standing. Again James and Justina shared the same glass of champagne, while Mr. Elgood obligingly held on by the bottle, and filled his own glass by instalments, so that it was never empty, and never full. Mr. Dempson was moderate, but jovial; Mrs. Dempson protested vehemently every time her glass was replenished, but contrived to drink the wine, out of politeness.

James was the gayest of Amphitryons. He kept117 on declaring that he had never enjoyed himself so much—never had such a jolly day.

'I am sorry your friend is not with us,' remarked Mr. Elgood, with his mouth full of lobster. 'He has lost a treat.'

'His loss is our gain,' observed Mr. Dempson. 'There'd have been less champagne for the rest of us if he'd been here.'

'My friend is an ass,' said James, carelessly. His errant fancy, so easily caught, was quite enchained by this time. He had been growing fonder of Justina all day, and, with the growth of his boyish passion, his anger against Maurice increased. He had almost made up his mind to do the very thing which Clissold had stigmatised as madness. He had almost made up his mind to marry the actor's daughter. He was in love with her, and how else should his love end? He came of too good a stock, had too good a heart, to contemplate a dishonourable ending. It only remained for him to discover if he really loved her—if this fancy that had but dawned upon him yesterday were indeed the beginning of his fate, or that considerable part of a man's destiny118 which is involved in his marriage. He had been very little in the society of women since his mother's death. His brief, harmless flirtations had been chiefly with damsels of the barmaid class; and, after these meretricious charmers, Justina, with her wild-rose tinted cheeks and innocent blue eyes, seemed youth and purity personified.

Justina looked shyly up at her admirer, happier than words could have told. Little had she ever tasted of pleasure's maddening cup before to-day. The flavour of the wine was not stranger to her lips than the flavour of joy to her soul. For her, girlhood had meant hard work and deprivation. Since she had been young enough to play hop-scotch on the door-step with a neighbour's children, and think it happiness, she had hardly known what it was to be glad. To-day life brimmed over with enchantment—a carriage, a picnic, races, all the glad, gay world smiling at her. She looked at James with a grateful smile when he asked her if she was enjoying herself.

'How can I help enjoying myself?' she said. 'I never had such a day in my life. It will all be over to-night, and to-morrow the world will look119 just as it does when one awakens from a wonderful dream. I have had dreams just like to-day,' she added, simply.

'Might we not lengthen the dream, find some enjoyment for to-morrow?' asked James. 'We might even come to the races again, if you like.'

'We couldn't come. There will be a long rehearsal to-morrow. We play the new burlesque to-morrow night. And I thought you were going away to-morrow. Your friend said so.'

'My friend would have been wiser had he spoken for himself, and not for me. I shall stay till the races are over; longer perhaps. How long do you stay?'

'Till next Saturday week, unless the business should get too bad.'

'Then I think I shall stay till next Saturday week. I can read a Greek play at Eborsham as well as anywhere else, and I don't see why I should be hurried from place to place to please Clissold,' added the young man, rebelliously.

There had been no hurrying from place to place hitherto. They had done a good deal of Wales,120 and the English lakes, by easy stages, stopping at quiet inns, and reading hard in the intervals of their pedestrianism, and James had been completely happy with the bosom friend of his youth. It was only since yesterday that the bosom friend had been transformed into a tyrant. Clissold had warned and reproved before to-day; he had spoken with the voice of wisdom when James seemed going a little too far in some village flirtation; and James had listened meekly enough. But this time James Penwyn's soul rejected counsel. He was angry with his friend for not thinking it the most natural thing in the world that he, Squire Penwyn, of Penwyn, should fall head over ears in love with a country actor's daughter.

'I may come behind the scenes to-night, mayn't I, Justina?' asked James by and by, when the last race was over, and he and Justina had seen the winner disposed of to the highest bidder, and the patriarchal tub was rolling swiftly, oh, too swiftly, back to the town; back to common life, and the old dull world.

'You must ask father, or Mr. Dempson,'121 Justina answered meekly. 'Sometimes they make a fuss about any one coming into the green-room, but I don't suppose they would about you. It would be very ungrateful if they did.'

James asked the question of Mr. Elgood, and was answered heartily. He was to consider the Eborsham green-room an adjunct to his hotel, and the Eborsham Theatre as open to him as his club, without question of payment at the doors.

'Your name shall be left with the money-taker, the heavy father said, somewhat thickly.

Mr. Dempson laughed.

'Our friend is a trifle screwed,' he said, 'but I dare say he'll get through Sir Oliver pretty well.'

The play was the 'School for Scandal,' a genteel entertainment in honour of the patrons of the races.

The roomy travelling carriage was blundering through one of the narrower streets near the cathedral, when James Penwyn stood up suddenly and looked behind him.

'What's the matter?' asked Mr. Dempson.

'Nothing. I thought I saw a fellow I know122 that's all. He's just gone into that public-house—the quiet-looking little place at the corner. I fancied I saw him on the course, but I don't see how it could be the man,' added James, dubiously. 'What should bring him down here? It isn't in his line?'



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