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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER VIII. HAVE THE HIGH GODS ANYTHING LEFT TO GIVE?
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CHAPTER VIII. HAVE THE HIGH GODS ANYTHING LEFT TO GIVE?
Mr. Penwyn set down his guests at the chandler's door, and drove home to the 'Waterfowl' in solitary state, the chariot in which he sat seeming a great deal too big for one medium-sized young man.

His ample meal on the course made dinner an impossibility, so he ordered a cup of coffee to be taken to him in the garden, and went out to smoke a cigar, on his favourite bench by the willow. The 'Waterfowl' was too far off the beaten tracks for any of the race people to come there, so James had the garden all to himself, even this evening.

The sun was setting beyond the bend of the river, just where the shining water seemed to lose itself in a rushy basin. The ruddy light shone on the windows of the town till they looked like fiery124 eyes gleaming through the grey evening mist; while, above the level landscape and the low, irregular town, rose the dusky bulk of the cathedral, dwarfing the distant hills, and standing darkly out against that changeful sky.

James Penwyn was in a meditative mood, and contemplated the landscape dreamily as he smoked an excellent cigar with Epicurean slowness, letting pleasure last as long as it would. Not that his soul was interpenetrated by the subtle beauties of the scene. He only thought that it was rather jolly, that solemn stillness after the riot of the racecourse—that lonely landscape after the movement of the crowd.

Only last night had Justina and he stood side by side in the moonlight—only last night had their hands met for the first time, and yet she seemed a part of his life, indispensable to his happiness.

'Is it love?' he asked himself, 'first love? I didn't think it was in me to be such a spoon.'

He was at the age when that idea of 'spooniness' is to the last degree humiliating. He had prided himself upon his manliness—thought that he125 had exhausted the well-spring of sentiment in those passing flirtations, the transitory loves of an undergraduate. He had talked big about marrying by and by for money and position—to add new lustre to the house of Penwyn—to carry some heiress's arms on his shield, upon an escutcheon of pretence.

Was it really love?—love for a foolish girl of seventeen, with sky-blue eyes, and a look of adoration when she raised them, ever so fearfully, to his face? Justina had a pensiveness that charmed him more than other women's gaiety, and till now sprightliness had been his highest quality in woman—a girl who would light his cigar for him, and take three or four puffs, daintily, before she handed him the weed—a girl who was quick at retort, and could 'chaff' him. This girl essayed not repartee—this girl was fresh, and simple as Wordsworth's ideal woman. And he loved her. For the first time in his glad young life his heart throbbed with the love that is so near akin to pain.

'I'll marry her,' he said to himself. 'She shall be mistress of Penwyn Manor.'

The sun went down and left the landscape126 gloomy. James Penwyn rose from the bench with a faint shiver.

'These early summer evenings are chilly,' he thought, as he walked back to the house. He felt lonely somehow, in spite of his fair new hope. It was so strange to him not to have Clissold at his side—to reprove, or warn. But, at worst, the voice was a friendly one. The silence of this garden; the dusky gloom on yonder river; the solemn gloom of the cathedral, chilled him.

The great clock boomed eight, and reminded him that the play had begun half an hour. It would be a relief to find himself in the lighted playhouse among those rollicking actors.

He went down to the theatre, and made his way straight to the green-room. There was a good house—a great house, Mr. Elgood told James—and the commonwealth's shares were already above par. Everybody was in high spirits, and most people's breath was slightly flavoured with beer.

'We have been turning away money at the gallery door,' said Mr. Dempson, who was dressed for Moses, 'I should think to the tune of seventeen127 shillings. This is the right sort of thing, sir. It reminds me of my poor old governor's time; when the drama was respected in the land, and all the gentry within a twenty-mile radius used to come to his benefit.'

Justina was the Maria of the piece, dressed in an ancient white satin—or rather an ancient satin which had once been white, but which, by long service and frequent cleaning, had mellowed to a pleasing canary colour. She had some airy puffings of muslin about her, and wore a black sash in memory of her departed parents, and her plenteous brown hair fell over her neck and shoulders in innocent ringlets.

Justina had never looked prettier than she looked to-night. She even had a round of applause when she made her curtsey to Sir Peter. The actors told her that she was growing a deuced fine girl, after all, and that one of these days she would learn how to act. Was it the new joy in her soul that embellished and exalted her?

James thought her lovely, as he stood at the wing and talked to her. Miss Villeroy, who was128 esteemed a beauty by her friends, seemed, to this uninitiated youth, a painted sepulchre; for she had whitened her complexion to match her powdered wig, and accentuated her eyebrows and eyelids with Indian ink, and picked out her lips with a rose pink saucer, and encarnadined her cheek-bones; by which artistic efforts she had attained that kind of beauty to which distance lends enchantment, but which, seen too near, is apt to repel. Miss Villeroy had the house with her, however. She had the audience altogether with her as Lady Teazle, and, being a virtuous matron, cared not to court James Penwyn's admiration. Indeed, she was very glad to see that the foolish young man was taken with poor Judy, Mrs. Dempson told her husband; for poor dear Judy wasn't everybody's money, and about the worst actress the footlights ever shone upon.

Mr. Elgood being in high spirits, and feeling himself flush of money—his share in to-night's receipts could hardly be less than fifteen shillings—was moved to an act of hospitality.

'I'll tell you what I'll do, Mr. Penwyn,' he said, 'the treating shan't be all on your side, though129 you're a rich young swell and we are poor beggars of actors. Come home with us to-night, after the last piece, and I'll give you a lobster. Judy knows how to make a salad, and if you can drink bitter you shall have enough to swim in.'

Mr. Penwyn expressed his ability to drink bitter beer, which he infinitely preferred to champagne. But what would he not have drunk for the pleasure of being in Justina's society?

'It's a poor place to ask you to come to,' said Mr. Elgood. 'Dempson and I go shares in the sitting-room, and we don't keep it altogether as tidy as we might, the womenkind say, but I'll take care the lobster's a good one, for I'll go out and pick it myself. I don't play in the last piece, luckily.'

The afterpiece was 'A Roland for an Oliver,' in which Justina enacted a walking lady who had very little to do. So there was plenty of time for James to talk to her as she stood at the wing, where they were quite alone, and had nobody to overhear them except a passing scene-shifter now and then.

This seemed to James Penwyn the happiest night130 he had ever spent in his life, though he was inhaling dust and escaped gas all the time. It seemed a night that flew by on golden wings. He thought he must have been dreaming when the curtain fell, and the lights went out, and people told him it was midnight.

He waited amidst darkness and chaos while Justina ran away to change her stage dress for the garments of common life. She was not long absent, and they went out together, arm-in-arm. It was only a little way from the theatre to the actor's lodgings, so James persuaded her to walk round by the cathedral, just to see how it looked in the moonlight.

'Your father said half-past twelve for supper, you know,' he pleaded, 'and it's only just the quarter.'

The big bell chimed at the instant, in confirmation of this statement, and Justina, who could not for her life have said no, assented hesitatingly.

The cathedral had a colossal grandeur seen from so near, every finial and waterspout clearly defined131 in the moonlight. Justina looked up at it with reverent eyes.

'Isn't it grand!' she whispered. 'One could fancy that God inhabits it. If I were an ignorant creature from some savage land, and nobody told me it was a church, I think I should know that it was God's house.'

'Should you?' said James, lightly. 'I think I should as soon take it for a corn exchange or a wild beast show.'

'Oh!'

'You see I have no instinctive sense of the fitness of things. You would just suit Clissold. He has all those queer fancies. I've seen him stand and talk to himself like a lunatic sometimes, among the lakes and mountains; what you call the artistic faculty, I suppose.'

They walked round the cathedral-square arm-in-arm, Justina charmed to silence by the solemn splendour of the scene. All was quiet at this end of the city. Up at the subscription rooms there might be riot and confusion; but here, in this ancient square, among these old gabled houses,132 almost coeval with the cathedral, silence reigned supreme.

'Justina,' James began presently, 'you told me yesterday that you didn't care about being an actress.'

'I told you that I hated it,' answered the girl, candidly. 'I suppose I should like it better if I were a favourite, like Villeroy.'

I prefer your acting to Miss Villeroy's ever so much. You do it rather too quietly, perhaps, but that's better than yelling as she does.'

'I'm glad you like me best,' said Justina, softly. 'But then you're not the British public. Yes, I hate theatres. I should like to live in a little cottage, deep, deep, deep down in the country, where there were woods and fields, and a shining blue river. I could keep chickens, and live upon the money I got by the new-laid eggs.'

'Don't you think it would be better to have a nice large house, with gardens and orchards, and a park, in a wild, hilly country beside the Atlantic Ocean?'

'What should I do with a big house, and how133 should I earn money to pay for it?' she asked, laughing.

'Suppose some one else were to find the money, some one who has plenty, and only wants the girl he loves to share it with him? Justina, you and I met yesterday for the first time, but you are the only girl I ever loved, and I love you with all my heart. It may seem sudden, but it's as true as that I live and speak to you to-night.'

'Sudden!' echoed Justina. 'It seems like a dream; but you mustn't speak of it any more. I won't believe a word you say. I won't listen to a word. It can't be true. Let's go home immediately. Hark! there's the half-hour. Take me home, please, Mr. Penwyn.'

'Not till you have answered me one question.'

'No, no!'

'Yes, Justina. I must be answered. I have made up my mind, and I want to know yours. Do you think you care for me, just a little?'

'I won't answer. It is all more foolish than a dream.'

'It is the sweetest dream that ever was dreamed134 by me. Obstinate lips! Cannot I make them speak? No? Then the eyes shall tell me what I want to know. Look up, Justina. Just one little look—and then we'll go home.'

'The heavy lids were lifted, slowly, shyly, and the young lover looked into the depths of those dark eyes. A girl's first, purest love, that love which is so near religion, shone there like a star.

James Penwyn needed no other answer.

'You shall never act again unless you like, darling,' he said. 'I'll speak to your father to-night, and we'll be married as soon as the business can be done. When you leave Eborsham it shall be as mistress of Penwyn Manor. There is not a soul belonging to me who has the faintest right to question what I do. And it is my duty to marry young. The Penwyn race has been sorely dwindling of late. If I were to die unmarried, my estate would go to my cousin, a fellow I don't care two straws about.'

Perhaps this was said more to himself than to Justina. She understood nothing about estates and heirships, she to whom property was an unknown quantity. She only knew that life seemed changed135 to a delicious dream. The hard, work-a-day world, which had not been too kind to her, had melted away, and left her in paradise. Her hand trembled beneath the touch of her lover as he clasped it close upon his arm.

They walked slowly through the silent shadowy street, so narrow that the moonlight hardly reached it, and went in by the shop door, which had been left ajar, in a friendly way, for their reception.

'What a time you've been, Judy!' cried Mr. Elgood, standing before the table, stirring a bowl of green stuff, with various cruets at his elbow. 'I've had to make the salad myself.—Sit down and make yourself at home, Penwyn.—Dempson, draw the cork of that bitter. The right thing now-a-days is to pour it into a jug. When I was a young man we couldn't have too much froth.'

Mrs. Dempson had smartened her usual toilet with a bow or two, and a black lace veil, which she wore gracefully festooned about her head, to conceal the curl-papers in which she had indued her tresses for to-morrow's evening's performance. She would136 be too tired to curl her hair by the time they got rid of this foolish young man.

The supper was even gayer than the luncheon on the racecourse. There was a large dish of cold corned beef, ready sliced, from the cook's shop; a cucumber, a couple of lobsters, and a bowl of salad, crisp and oily, upon which Mr. Elgood prided himself.

'There are not many things that this child can do,' he remarked, 'but he flatters himself he can dress a salad.'

The ale, being infinitely better of its kind than the champagne provided by the 'Waterfowl,' proved more exhilarating. James Penwyn's spirits rose to their highest point. He invited everybody to Penwyn Manor; promised Miss Villeroy a season's hunting; Mr. Dempson any amount of sport. They would all go down to Cornwall together, and have a jolly time of it. Not a word did he say about his intended marriage—even though elated by beer, he felt a restraining delicacy which kept him silent on this one subject.

Justina was the quietest of the party. She sat137 by her father's side, looking her prettiest, with eyes that joy had glorified, and a delicate bloom upon her cheeks. She neither ate nor drank, but listened to her lover's careless rattle, and felt more and more that life was like a dream. How handsome he was; how good; how brave; how brilliant! Her simplicity accepted the young man's undergraduate jocosity for wit of the purest water. She laughed her gay young laugh at his jokes.

'If you could laugh like that on the stage, Judy, you'd make as good a comedy actress as Mrs. Jordan,' said her father.

'As if any one could laugh naturally to a cue,' cried Justina.

They sat late, almost as late as they had sat on the previous night, and when James rose at last to take his leave—urged thereto by the unquiet slumbers of Villeroy, who had fallen asleep in an uncomfortable position on the rickety old sofa, and whose snores were too loud to be agreeable—Mr. Elgood had arrived at that condition of mind in which life wears its rosiest hue. He was anxious to see his guest home, but this favour James declined.

138

'Its an—comm'ly bad ro',' urged the heavy father. 'Y'd berrer let me see y' 'ome—cut thro' ro'; 'which James interpreted to mean 'a cut-throat road.' 'Don' like y' t' go 'lone.'

Justina watched her father with a troubled look. It was hard that he should show himself thus degraded just now, when, but for this, life would be all sweetness. James smiled at her reassuringly, undisturbed by the thought that such a man might be an undesirable father-in-law.

He pushed his entertainer back into his seat.

'Talk about seeing me home,' he said, laughing, 'why, it isn't half an hour's walk. Good night, Mr. Dempson. I'm afraid I've kept your wife up too late, after her exertions in Lady Teazle.—Will you open the door for me, Justina?'

Justina went down the narrow crooked staircase with him—one of those staircases of the good old times, better suited to a belfry tower than a dwelling-house. They went into the dark little shop together, and just at the door, amidst odours of Irish butter and Dutch cheese, Scotch herrings and Spanish onions, James took his betrothed in his arms and139 kissed her, fondly, proudly, as if he had won a princess for his helpmeet.

'Remember, darling, you are to be my wife. If I had a hundred relations to bully me they wouldn't make me change my mind. But I've no one to call me to account, and you are the girl of my choice. I haven't been able to speak to your father to-night, but I'll talk to him to-morrow morning, and settle everything. Good night, and God bless you, my own dear love!'

One more kiss, and he was gone. She stood on the door-step watching him as he walked up the narrow street. The moon was gone, and only a few stars shone dimly between the drifting clouds. The night-wind came coldly up from the water side yonder and made her shiver. A man crossed the street and walked briskly past her, going in the same direction as James Penwyn. She noticed, absently enough, that he wore a heavy overcoat and muffler, for defence against that chill night air, no doubt, but more clothing than people generally wear in the early days of June.




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