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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER VIII ‘WHEN TIME SHALL SERVE, BE THOU NOT SLACK.’
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CHAPTER VIII ‘WHEN TIME SHALL SERVE, BE THOU NOT SLACK.’
Nothing could be more inviting than the aspect of Maurice Clissold’s rooms at eight o’clock on the following evening, when their proprietor stood on his hearth, waiting the arrival of his expected guest. The weather was by no means warm, and the glass and silver on the friendly-looking circular table sparkled in the glow of a brightly burning fire. The spotless damask, the dainty arrangement of the table, with its old Chelsea ware dessert dishes, filled with amber-tinted Jersey pears, and dusky-hued filberts, agreeably suggestive of good old port, indicated a careful landlady and well-trained servants. The dumb-waiter, with its reserve of glasses and cruets, guaranteed that luxurious ease which is not dependent on external service.

Mr. Elgood, arriving on the scene as the clocks of Bloomsbury struck the hour, surveyed these preparations with an eye that glistened with content—nay, almost brightened to rapture—as it wandered from the table to the fender, where, in a shadowy corner, reposed the expected bottle of port, cobweb-wreathed, chalk-marked.

The savoury odour of fried fish, mingled with the appetising fumes of roasting meat, had greeted the visitor’s nostrils as he ascended the stairs. Even his nice judgment had failed to divine whether the joint were beef or mutton, but he opined mutton. No one but a barbarian would load his table with sirloin for a tête-à-tête dinner when Providence had created the Welsh hills, doubtless with a view to the necessities of the dinner-table.

‘Glad to see you so punctual,’ said Maurice, cheerily.

‘My dear Mr. Clissold, to be unpunctual is to insult one’s host and injure one’s self. What can atone for the ruin of an excellent dinner? You may remember what Dean Swift said to his cook when she had roasted the joint to rags, and was fain to confess she could not undo the evil: “Beware wench, how you commit a fault which cannot be remedied.” A dinner spoiled is an irremediable loss.’

The soup had been put upon the table while Mr. Elgood thus philosophized, so the two gentlemen sat down without further delay, and the comedian gazed blandly upon the amber sherry and the garnet-hued claret, while Maurice invoked a blessing on the feast, and then the business of dinner began in good earnest.

The joint was mutton, and Welsh, whereby Mr. Elgood’s soul was at ease, and he gave himself up to the enjoyment of the table with unaffected singleness of purpose. A brace of partridges and a Parmesan fondu followed the haunch; and when these had been despatched the comedian flung himself back in his chair, with a sigh of repletion.

‘Well, my dear Mr. Clissold,’ he said, ‘you are a very accomplished gentleman in many ways; but this I will say, that I never met the man yet who was your match in giving a snug little dinner. Brilsby Savory, or whatever his name was, couldn’t have beat you.’

‘I am glad you have enjoyed your dinner, Mr. Elgood. I am of opinion that a good dinner is the best prelude to a serious conversation; and I want to have a little quiet and confidential talk with you this evening upon a very serious matter.’

‘Behold me at your service,—your slave to command,’ answered Matthew, whose enthusiasm was not easily to be damped. ‘I bare my bosom to your view,’ he added, with a dramatic gesture, indicative of throwing open his waistcoat.

They were alone by this time. The servant had carried away the dinner-things, and only the decanters and fruit dishes remained on the table.

‘You speak boldly, Mr. Elgood,’ said Maurice, with sudden gravity, ‘yet, perhaps, if I were to ask you some questions about your past life you would draw back a little.’

‘My past life, although full of vicissitude, has been honest,’ answered the comedian. ‘I fear no man’s scrutiny.’

‘Good. Then you will not be angry if I question you rather closely upon one period of your chequered career. It is in the interest of your—of Justina that I do so.’

‘Proceed, sir,’ said Matthew, a troubled look overclouding the countenance which had just now beamed with serenity.

‘Did you ever hear the name of Eden?’

Mr. Elgood started, more violently than he had done on a previous occasion at the mention of Borcel End. The silver dessert knife with which he was pealing a Jersey pear dropped from between his fingers.

‘I see you do know that name,’ said Maurice, passing from interrogation to affirmation. ‘You bore it once at Borcel End, the old farm house on the Cornish moors, where you took shelter in bitter winter weather, just nineteen years ago last February.’

The glow which the good things of this life had kindled in Mr. Elgood’s visage faded slowly out, and left him very pale.

‘How did you know that?’ he gasped.

‘I had it from the lips of a dying woman—Mrs. Trevanard.’

‘What! is Mrs. Trevanard dead?’

‘Yes; she died a fortnight ago.’

‘And she told you——?’

‘All. The birth of the child she entrusted to your care. The old family Bible she gave you, from which you took the name of Justina.’

The shrewd guess, stated as a fact, passed uncontradicted. Maurice’s speculative assertion had hit the truth.

‘The supposed daughter who has borne your name all these years, the girl who has worked for you, who now maintains you, who has been faithful, obedient, and devoted to you, has not one drop of your blood in her veins. She is Muriel Trevanard’s child.’

‘You choose to make a statement,’ said Matthew Elgood, who had somewhat recovered his self-possession by this time, ‘which I do not feel myself called upon either to deny or admit. I am willing to acknowledge that in a time of severe misfortune I took shelter upon Mrs. Trevanard’s premises; that I called myself by a name that was not my own, rather than expose my destitution to the world’s contumely. But whatever passed between Mrs. Trevanard and myself at that period is sacred. I swore to keep the secret confided to me to my dying day, and it will descend with me to the tomb of my ancestors,’ added Mr. Elgood, grandly, as if, for the moment at least, he really believed that he had a family vault at his disposal.

‘You may consider yourself absolved of your oath,’ said Maurice. ‘Mrs. Trevanard confided in me during the last days of her life, and I pledged myself to see her grandchild righted.’

‘Mrs. Trevanard must have changed very much at the last if she expressed any interest in the fate of her grandchild,’ returned Matthew, forgetting that he had refused to make any admission. ‘When she gave the child to me and my wife, she resigned all concern in its future: it was to fare as we fared, to sink or swim with us.’

‘In that wretched hour she thought the child nameless and fatherless. I did my best to persuade her that she had been too hasty in her conclusion. It shall be my business to prove Justina’s legitimacy.’

‘That is to say, you mean to take my daughter away from me,’ exclaimed the comedian, wrathfully. ‘Little did I know what a snake in the grass I had been cherishing, warming the adder in my bosom, sheltering the scorpion on my domestic hearth. This is what your kettle-drums, and snug little dinners, and port and filberts, are to end in. You would rob a poor old man of the staff and comfort of his declining years: six pounds a week, and a certainty of a rise to ten if the next part she plays is a success.’

‘You are hasty, Mr. Elgood, and unjust. Believe me, if it were a question of my own happiness, I would leave the dear girl you have brought up, Justina Elgood, till I had the Archbishop of Canterbury’s permission to give her my own name. But, having promised to perform a certain duty, I should be a scoundrel if I left it undone. What if I tell you that I have reason to believe Justina entitled to a large estate, an estate of six or seven thousand a year?’

Mr. Elgood sank back in his chair aghast. He had drunk a good many glasses of wine in the course of that comfortable little dinner, and there was some slight haziness in his brain. Six thousand a year, six pounds a week. Six pounds a week, six thousand a year—over a hundred pounds a week. There was a wide margin for spending in the difference between the lesser and greater sum. But of the six pounds a week, while Justina supposed herself his daughter, he was certain. Would she share her annual six thousand as freely when she knew that he had no claim upon her filial piety?

He pondered the question for a few moments, and then answered it in the affirmative. Generous, good, loving, she had ever been. If good fortune befell her she would not grudge the old man his share of the sunshine. He had not been a bad father to her, he told himself, take him for all in all—not over-patient, or considerate, perhaps, in those early days, before he had discovered any dramatic talent in her; a little prone to think of his own comfort before hers; but upon the whole, as fathers go, not a bad kind of parent. And he felt very sure she would stand by him. Yes, he felt sure of Justina. But he must be on his guard against this scheming fellow, Clissold, who had contrived to get hold of a secret that had been kept for nineteen years, and doubtless meant to work it for his own advantage. It would be Matthew Elgood’s duty to countermarch him here.

‘So, Mr. Clissold,’ he began, after about five minutes’ reverie, ‘you are a pretty deep fellow, you are, in spite of your easy, open-handed, open-hearted, free-spoken ways. You think you can establish my Justina’s claim to a fine fortune, do you? And I suppose, when the claim is established, and the girl I have brought up from babyhood, and toiled for and struggled for many a long year, comes into her six thousand per annum, you’ll expect to get her for your wife, with the six or seven thousand at her back. Rather a good stroke of business for you!’

‘I expect nothing,’ answered Maurice, gravely. ‘I love Justina with all my heart, as truly as ever an honest man loved a fair and noble woman; but I have refrained from any expression of my heart’s desire, lest I should bind her by a promise while her position is thus uncertain. Let her win the station to which I believe she is entitled; and if, when it is won, she cares to reward my honest affection, I will take her and be proud of her; but not one whit prouder than I should be to take her for my wife to-morrow, knowing her to be your daughter.’

‘Spoken like a man and a gentleman,’ exclaimed the comedian. ‘Come, Mr. Clissold, I couldn’t think badly of you if I tried. I’ll trust you; and it shall be no fault of mine if Justina is not yours, rich or poor. She’s worthy of you, and you’re worthy of her, and I believe she has a sneaking kindness for you.’

Maurice smiled, happy in a conviction which needed no support from Matthew Elgood’s opinion. That little look of Justina’s yesterday—that tender look of greeting—had been worth volumes of protestation. He knew himself beloved.

‘And now tell me what your ideas are; and how Mrs. Trevanard—the strangest woman, and the closest that I ever met—came to confide in you; and how it has entered into your mind that our Justina has any legal right to either name or fortune.’

‘I’ll tell you,’ said Maurice, and forthwith proceeded to relate all that he had learned at Borcel, a great deal of which was new to Matthew Elgood, who had been told nothing about the parentage of the child committed to his care. It was essential to Justina’s interests that her adopted father should know all, since he was the only witness who could prove her identity with the child born at Borcel End.

‘It seems tolerably clear that this George Penwyn must have been the father,’ said Mr. Elgood. ‘But who is to prove a marriage?’

‘If a marriage took place, the proof must exist somewhere, and it must be for one of us to find it,’ answered Maurice. ‘The first person to apply to is Miss Barlow, Muriel’s schoolmistress, supposing her to be still living. The only period of Muriel’s absence from the farm after she left school was the time she spent with Miss Barlow—three weeks—so that if any marriage took place it must have happened during that visit. I have searched the registers of both churches at Seacomb without result. But it is not likely that George Penwyn would contract a secret marriage within a few miles of his father’s house. Whatever occurred in those three weeks Miss Barlow must have been in some measure familiar with. My first business therefore must be to find her. When last heard of she was established as a teacher of music in the neighbourhood of London. A directory ought to help us to her address, if she is still living within the postal radius.’

‘True,’ said Matthew, glancing at the shelves which lined the room from floor to ceiling. ‘I suppose among all these books you have the Post Office Directory?’

‘No, strange to say, it is a branch of literature I am deficient in. I must wait till to-morrow to look for Miss Barlow’s address.’

‘How did it occur to you that my daughter Justina and that castaway child were one and the same?’

‘Well, I hardly know how the idea first took possession of me. It was a kind of instinct. The circumstances that led me to think it seemed insignificant enough when spoken of, but to my mind they assumed exaggerated importance; perhaps it was your look of surprise when I mentioned Borcel End that first awakened my suspicions, not of the actual truth, but of some mysterious connection between yourself and the Trevanards.’

‘I certainly was astonished when you spoke of that out-of-the-way farm house.’

‘Then the name Justina, which I heard of as a family name at Borcel End, that set me thinking; the fact that your daughter was said to have been born at Seacomb, within a few miles of that remote farmhouse; the fact that her age tallied with the age of Muriel’s child. Never mind how I came by the conviction, since I happily, or unhappily, stumbled on the truth. But tell me how you fared when you left Borcel End that bleak spring morning?’

‘Well, it wasn’t the most comfortable kind of departure, certainly—four miles on foot on a cold March morning, and an infant to carry into the bargain. But my poor wife and I had gone through too much to be particular about trifles, and we were both of us sustained by the thought of a snug little fortune in my breast pocket; for you may suppose that to us two hundred pounds odd seemed the capital of a future Rothschild. Mrs. Trevanard had given us some substantial clothing into the bargain, and my poor Nell wore a good cloth cloak, under which the baby was kept warm and snug. She was stronger, too, my poor girl, for the month’s rest and plentiful food that we had enjoyed at Borcel—indeed, though our lodging there was but a deserted hayloft, I don’t think either of us was ever happier than when Nell sat at her needlework and I lay luxuriously reposing on a truss of hay, while I read an old magazine aloud to her. We were shut out from the world, but we had peace and rest and plenty; and I think we were pretty much like the birds of the air as to thought of the morrow in those days. But now that I had Mrs. Trevanard’s savings in my breast pocket I began to take a serious view of life, and throughout that walk to Seacomb I was scheming and contriving, till at last, just as we came in sight of the town, I cried out in a burst of enthusiasm, “Yes, Nell, I’ve hit it.” “Hit what?” asked my wife. “Hit upon the surest way to make our fortunes, my girl,” I answered, all of a glow with the thought. “We’ll take a theatre.” “Lor’, Mat,” said my wife with a gasp, “and I can play the leading business!” Managers had been putting other women over her head in the Juliets and Rosalinds, and she felt it, poor soul. “But Matthew,” she went on, growing suddenly serious, “we haven’t seen much good come of taking theatres. Look at Seacomb, for instance.” “Seacomb isn’t a case in point,” I answered, quite put out by her narrow way of looking at things. “A psalm-singing place like that was never likely to support the drama. When I take a theatre it will be in a very different town from Seacomb.” “But,” remonstrated poor Nell, “don’t you think it would be breaking faith with Mrs. Trevanard? She gave us the money to set us up in some nice little business. We were to start with part of the capital and keep the rest in reserve against a rainy day.” “Well, isn’t theatrical management a business?” I retorted, “and the only business that I am fit for. Do you suppose that I can blossom into a full-blown grocer, or break out all at once into a skilful butcher, because Mrs. Trevanard wishes it? Why, I shouldn’t know one end of an ox from the other when his head was off. And as for Mrs. Trevanard,” I went on, “you ought to have sense enough to know that she cares precious little what becomes of us now we’ve taken this unfortunate child off her hands.” “I don’t believe that, Matthew,” answered my wife, “she’s a Christian, and she wouldn’t like us to starve on the child’s account.” “Who’s going to starve?” I cried, savagely, for I felt it was in me to make money as a manager. There never was an actor yet that hadn’t the same fancy, and many a man has brought ruin upon himself and his family by the delusion.’

‘You had your own way, of course?’ said Maurice.

‘I had, sir. First and foremost my poor little wife never obstinately opposed me in anything; and secondly, her foolish heart was longing for the leading business, and to be a manageress, and cast all the pieces, and put herself in for the best parts. So we went straight to the Seacomb station, where we found we should have to wait upwards of an hour for a train, and I thought I could not make better use of my time than by buying an Era, and finding out what theatres were to let. There were about half a dozen advertisements of this class, and one of them struck me as the exact thing. “The Theatre Royal, Slowberry, Somersetshire, to let for the summer season. Rent moderate. Can be worked with a small company. Scenery in good condition. Market town; population twelve thousand.” I made a calculation on the spot, demonstrating that ten per cent. of those twelve thousand inhabitants—allowing a wide margin for infants, the aged, and infirm—were bound to come to the theatre nightly. Now a nightly audience of twelve hundred was safe to pay. I found that we could get straight to Slowberry by the Great Western, and accordingly took tickets for that station, third class, for prudence was to be the order of the day. Well, Mr. Clissold, I need not trouble you with details. We went to Slowberry, and established ourselves in humble and inexpensive lodgings, apartments which I felt were hardly worthy of my managerial position, but prudence prevailed. I became lessee of the Slowberry theatre, which I am fain to admit was in architectural pretensions even below the Temple of the Drama at Seacomb. I engaged my company, cheap and useful. My old man combined the heavy business and second low comedy; my first chambermaid—second I need hardly say there was none—danced or sang between the pieces, and acted in male attire when we ran short of gentlemen. My wife and I played all the best parts. Nothing could have been organized upon more rigid principles of economy, yet the financial result was ruin. For a considerable part of the season I only paid half salaries, for the concluding portion we became a commonwealth. Yet Mrs. Trevanard’s savings dribbled away, and, when my poor wife and I left Slowberry, with Justina—then a fine child of seven months old,—we had not twenty pounds left out of a capital which had appeared to my mind to be almost inexhaustible.’

‘The child was christened at Slowberry, I suppose?’

‘Yes, we lost no time in having the baptismal rite performed, lest she should go off with croup, or red-gum, or vaccination, or any of the perils which beset the infant traveller on life’s thorny road. The Bible which Mrs. Trevanard had given to my wife contained in the fly-leaf the name of Justina Trevanard, doubtless its original possessor. That name caught my wife’s fancy. It struck me, also, as euphonious and aristocratic, a name that would look well in the bills by and by, when our daughter was old enough to make her first juvenile efforts in the profession, as the child in “Pizarro,” or little William in “The Stranger.” We were fond of her already, and soon grew to forget that there was no tie of kindred between us. My wife indeed passionately adored this nameless orphan, and was never tired of weaving romantic fancies about her future, how she would turn out to be the daughter of a nobleman, and we should see her by and by with a coronet on her head, and owe comfort and wealth to her affection when we grew old. It would be a curious thing if one of poor Nell’s romantic dreams were to be realized. How proud that loving heart would have been! but it lies under the grass and daisies in a Berkshire churchyard, and neither joy nor sorrow can touch it any more.’

Mr. Elgood checked a rising sigh, and helped himself to another glass of port.

‘You fared ill, I fear, after your managerial experiment,’ said Maurice.

‘Our life from that point was a series of struggles. If the efforts of the honest man battling with adversity form a spectacle which the gods delight in—a fact which I vaguely remember having seen stated somewhere—my career must have afforded considerable entertainment in Olympus. We had our brief intervals of sunshine, but cloud prevailed; and in the course of years my poor wife sank beneath the burden, and Justina and I were left to jog on together, just as you saw us in the town of Eborsham two years ago. So far as a struggler can do his duty to his daughter, I believe I did mine to Justina. I gave her what little education I could afford, and luckily she was bright enough to make the most of that little. There never was such a girl for picking up knowledge. Clever people always seemed to take to her, and she to them, though for a long time we thought her stupid on the stage. Her talent for the profession came out all at once. Heaven knows, she has been a good girl to me, through good and evil fortune, and I love her as well as if she were twenty times my daughter. It would be a hard thing if any change of circumstances were to part us.’

‘Have no fear of that,’ said Maurice. ‘Justina is too true a woman to be changed by changing fortune. I do not hesitate to leave my fate in her hands. You, who have an older claim upon her love, have even less cause for fear.’

The little black marble clock on the mantelpiece chimed the half-hour after ten—time to repair to the theatre. Mr. Flittergilt’s piece ended at a quarter before eleven, and at a few minutes past the hour Justina appeared at the stage door, ready to be escorted home.

Maurice and Mr. Elgood went together to the dark little side street in which the stage door of the Royal Albert was situated, dingy and repellent of aspect after the manner of stage doors.

It was a starlight autumn night, and that walk back to Bloomsbury with Justina’s little hand resting on his own arm was very pleasant to Maurice Clissold. They chose the quietest streets, without reference to distance, and the walk lasted about a quarter of an hour longer than it need have done had they gratified Mr. Elgood’s predilection for certain short cuts, by Wych Street and Drury Lane. But throughout that homeward walk not one whispered word of Maurice’s betrayed the lover, and when he and Justina parted at the door of her lodgings, the girl thought wonderingly of that summer night in Eborsham, more than two years ago, when James Penwyn told her of his love in the shadow of the old minster.

‘Shall I ever have a second lover as generous and devoted?’ she mused. ‘That was only boy and girl love, I suppose, yet it seemed truer and brighter than anything that will ever come my way again.’

She had been thinking of Maurice not a little of late, and had decided that he did not care for her in the least.



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