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首页 » 经典英文小说 » All along the River » CHAPTER IX.
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Like most small country settlements, little fraternities of well-to-do people who think themselves the beginning and end of the world, Trelasco was slow to rise to any festivity in the way of party-giving. So it was about two months after Colonel Disney's return before the friendly calls and interchange of small civilities culminated in a dinner-party at Glenaveril. It seemed, indeed, only right and natural that the great house of the district, great by reason of Lord Lostwithiel's non-residence, should be the first to open its doors in a ceremonial manner to the colonel and his womankind. The invitation to his sister might be taken as an especial compliment, arms outstretched to receive one who was a stranger in the land.

"We want to know that nice, young sister of yours," Mr. Crowther said to Colonel Disney, in his patronizing way, as they all came out of church the Sunday before the dinner-party. "A remarkably fine girl."

The colonel did not thank him for this compliment, which was pronounced in a loud voice, amidst the little knot of acquaintances taking leave of each other on the dip of the[Pg 115] hill, where there was a sign-post on a patch of waste grass, and where road and lanes divided, one up the hill to Tywardreath, another to Fowey, and a narrow-wooded lane leading down to Glenaveril and the Angler's Nest. Short as the distance was, there were carriages waiting for the Crowthers, who never walked to church, however fine the weather. Mrs. Crowther came to the morning service resplendent in a brocade gown and a Parisian bonnet, on pain of being condemned as dowdy by her husband, who liked to put the stamp of his wealth upon every detail. His wife obeyed him with wifely meekness, but the daughters were not so easily ruled. Both were keen-witted enough to feel the vulgarity of Sunday morning splendour. So Belinda worshipped in the exaggerated simplicity of an unstarched jaconet muslin, a yellow Liberty sash, a flopping Gainsborough hat, and a necklace of Indian beads, an attire which attracted every eye, and was a source of wonder to the whole congregation, while Alicia's neat grey cashmere frock, and smart little toque to match, grey gloves, grey Prayer-book and sunshade, challenged criticism as a study in monochrome.

Mr. Crowther would have lingered for farther conversation before getting into the family landau, but Colonel Disney bade a rather abrupt good morning to the whole group, and hurried his wife and sister down the hill.

"I'm rather sorry we accepted the Glenaveril invitation," he said to Isola. "The man is such an unmitigated cad."

"Mrs. Crowther is very kind and good," replied his wife; "but I have never cared much about going to Glenaveril. I don't feel that I get on particularly well with the girls. They are both too fine for me. But I should be sorry to offend Mrs. Crowther."

"Yes, she seems a kindly creature. It was thoughtful of her sending you a ticket for the ball. A woman with daughters is seldom over-kind to outsiders."

"Oh, I believe Mrs. Crowther's heart is big enough to be kind to a whole parish."

"Well, on her account, perhaps it was best to accept the invitation."

[Pg 116]

"Don't be so grand about it, Martin," said Allegra. "You forget that I am pining to see what a dinner-party in a very rich house is like. I have seen nothing in London but literary and artistic dinners, third-rate literary and third-rate artistic, I'm afraid—but they were very nice, all the same. Glenaveril is a place that takes my breath away; and I am curious to see what a dinner-party can be like there."

"Then for your sake, Allegra, I'm glad we said yes. Only I couldn't stand that fellow patronizing you. Calling you a fine girl, forsooth!"

"Yes, it is an odious phrase, is it not? I'm afraid I shall have to live through it, because, like Rosalind, 'I am more than common tall.'"

She drew herself up to her full height, straight as a reed, but with fully developed bust and shoulders which showed to advantage in her pale tussore gown—silk that her brother had sent her from India. She looked the incarnation of girlish innocence and girlish happiness—a brow without a cloud, a step light as a fawn's—a fearless, joyous nature. Her more commonplace features and finer figure were in curious contrast with Isola's pensive beauty and too fragile form. Disney glanced from one to the other as he walked along the rustic lane between them; and, though he thought his wife the lovelier, he regretted that she was not more like his sister.

A man who is very fond of home and who has no professional cares and occupations is apt to degenerate into a molly-coddle. Martin Disney gave an indication of this weakness on the day before the dinner at Glenaveril.

"What are you two girls going to wear?" he asked. "At least, I don't think I need ask Isola that question. You'll wear your wedding-gown, of course, love?" he added, turning to his wife.

"No, Martin, I am going to wear my grey silk."

"Grey! A dowager's colour, a soured spinster's colour—a Quaker's no colour. I detest grey."

[Pg 117]

"Oh, but this is a very pretty gown—the palest shade of pearl colour—and I wear pink roses with it. It was made in Paris. I feel sure you will like me in it, Martin," Isola said hurriedly, as if even this small matter fluttered her nerves.

"Not as well as I like you in your wedding-gown. That was made in Paris, and it fitted you like a glove. I never saw such a pretty gown—so simple, yet so elegant."

"I have been married much too long to dress as a bride."

"You shall not seem as a bride—except to me. For my eyes only shall you shine in bridal loveliness. Bride or no bride, what can be prettier for a young woman than a white satin gown with a long train? You can wear some touch of colour to show you have not got yourself up as a bride. What do you say, Allegra? Give us your opinion. Of course you are an authority upon dress."

"Oh, the white satin, by all means. Isola looks ethereal in white. She ought hardly ever to wear anything else."

"You hear, Isa. Two to one against you."

"I'm sorry I can't be governed by your opinions in this instance. You forget that I last wore my gown at a ball. I danced a good deal—the floor was dirty—the gown was spoilt. I shall never wear it again. I hope that will satisfy you, Martin."

She spoke with a touch of temper, her cheeks flushed crimson, and her eyes filled with sudden tears as she looked deprecatingly at her husband. Martin Disney felt himself a brute.

"My dearest, I didn't mean to tease you," he said; "wear anything you like. You are sure to be the prettiest woman in the room. I am sorry the gown was spoilt; but it can't be helped. I'll buy you another white satin gown the first time you and I are in Plymouth together. And, pray, Miss Allegra, what bravery will you sport?"

"I have only a white lace frock that has seen some service," replied his sister, meekly. "I dare say I shall look like somebody's poor relation at such a place as Glenaveril."

[Pg 118]

"Oh, it's not to be a grand party, by any means. Mrs. Crowther told me she had asked the Baynhams and the Vicarage people to meet us, just in a friendly way."

The party was decidedly small, for on arriving with reasonable punctuality the Disneys found only one guest on the scene, in the person of Mr. Colfox, the curate, who was sitting by one of the little tables, showing a new puzzle of two pieces of interlinked iron to the two Misses Crowther. These young ladies were so interested in the trick of disentanglement that they scarcely noticed the entrance of their mother's guests, and only rose and came over to greet the party three minutes later, as an afterthought.

Mr. and Mrs. Crowther, however, were both upon the alert to receive their friends, the lady frankly cordial, the gentleman swelling with pompous friendliness, as if his manly breast were trying to emerge from the moderate restriction of a very open waistcoat. He protested that he was charmed to welcome Colonel Disney to Glenaveril, and he glanced round the splendid walls as who should say, "It is no light thing to invite people to such a house as this."

Vansittart Crowther was a man of short, squat figure, who tried to make up for the want of inches by extreme uprightness, and had cultivated this carriage until he seemed incapable of bending. He had a bald head, disguised by one dappled streak of grey and sandy hair, which was plastered into a curl on each side of his brow—curls faintly suggestive of a cat's ears. He had blunt features, a sensual lip, and dull, fishy eyes, large and protuberant, with an expression in perfect harmony with the heavy, sensual mouth.

Mr. and Mrs. Baynham were the next arrivals; the lady wearing the family amethysts and the well-known black velvet, under whose weighty splendour she arrived short of breath; the gentleman expansive of shirt front, and genial of aspect, jovial at the prospect of a good dinner and choice wines, and not hypercritical as to the company in which he ate the feast. He shook hands with his host and hostess,[Pg 119] and then went over to the Misses Crowther, who had not thought it necessary to suspend their absorbing occupation in order to welcome the village doctor's wife—a fact which Mrs. Baynham observed and inwardly resented.

Mr. Colfox deserted the young ladies, still puzzling over the two bits of iron, and went across the room to greet the Disneys. He was an intelligent young man, steeped to the lips in the opinions and the prejudices of university life—Oxford life, that is to say. He ranked as a literary man in Trelasco, on the strength of having had an article almost published in Blackwood. "The editor had accepted my paper," he told people modestly; "but on further consideration he found it was a little too long, and so, in point of fact, he sent it back to me in the most courteous manner. He couldn't have acted more kindly—but I was disappointed. It would have been such an opening, you see."

All Mr. Colfox's friends agreed that with such an opening the high road to literary fame and fortune would have been made smooth for his feet. They respected him even for this disappointment. To have been accepted by Blackwood made him almost a colleague of George Eliot.

He was a tall and rather lean young man, who wore an eye-glass, and seemed to live upon books. It was irritating to Vansittart Crowther, who prided himself on his cellar and his cook, to note how little impression food and drink made upon Francis Colfox.

"He takes my Chateau Yquem as if it were Devonshire cider," said the aggrieved parvenu, "and he hardly seems to know that this is the only house where he ever sees clear turtle. The man's people must have lived in a very poor way."

In spite of this contemptuous opinion, Mr. Crowther was always polite to Francis Colfox, and had even thought of him as a pis-aller for one of his daughters. There is hardly anything in this life which a self-made man respects so much as race, and Francis Colfox belonged to an old county family, had a cousin who was an earl, and another cousin who was[Pg 120] talked of as a probable bishop. He was, therefore, allowed to make himself very much at home at Glenaveril, and to speak his mind in a somewhat audacious way to the whole family.

Captain Pentreath, an army man of uncertain age, a bachelor, and one of a territorial family of many brothers, came next; and then appeared the vicar and his wife and one daughter, who made up the party. The vicar was deaf, but amiable, and beamed benevolently upon a world about whose spoken opinions he knew so little that he might naturally have taken it for a much better world than it is. The vicar's wife spent her existence in interpreting and explaining people's speech to the vicar, and had no time to spare for opinions of her own. The daughter was characterized by a gentle nullity, tempered by a somewhat enthusiastic and evangelical piety. The chief desire of her life was to keep the Church as it had been in the days of her childhood, nearly thirty years before.

It was the first time the Disneys had dined together at Glenaveril, so it seemed only proper that Mr. Crowther should give his arm to Isola, which he did with an air of conferring an honour. The colonel had been ordered to take the vicar's wife, and the doctor was given to Allegra; Captain Pentreath took Miss Trequite, the vicar's daughter; Mr. Colfox followed with Mrs. Baynham, and the daughters of the house went modestly to the dining-room after the vicar and Mrs. Crowther.

The dinner-table was as pretty as roses and Venetian glass could make it. There was no pompous display of ponderous plate, as there might have been thirty years ago on a parvenu's board. Everybody is enlightened nowadays. The great "culture" movement has been as widespread among the middle class as compulsory education among the proletariat, and everybody has "a taste." Scarcely were they seated, when Mr. Crowther informed Mrs. Disney that he hated a display of silver, but at the same time took care to let her know that the Venetian glass she admired was rather more[Pg 121] valuable than that precious metal. "And if it's broken, there's nothing left you for your outlay," he said; "but it's a fancy of my wife and girls. Those decanters are better than anything Salviati ever made for Royalty."

The table was oval, lighted by one large lamp, under an umbrella-shaped amber shade, a lamp which diffused a faint golden glow through the dusky room; and through this dreamy dimness the footmen moved like ghosts, while the table and the faces of the diners shone and sparkled in the brilliant light. It was as picturesque a dining-room and table as one need care to see; and if the Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses, which here and there relieved the sombre russet of the Cordovan leather hangings, were not the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Crowther's ancestors, they were not the less lovely or interesting as works of art.

Isola sat by her host's side, with a silent and somewhat embarrassed air, which her husband noted as he watched her from the other side of the table.

All the decorations were low, so that no pyramid of fruit or flowers intervened to prevent a man watching the face opposite to him. Disney saw that while Allegra, in her place between Mr. Baynham and Alicia Crowther, was full of talk and animation, Isola sat with downcast eyes, and replied with a troubled look to her host's remarks. There was something in that gentleman's manner which was particularly obnoxious to the colonel—a protecting air, a fatherly familiarity, which brought the bald, shining forehead almost in contact with Isola's shoulder, as the man bent to whisper and to titter in the very ear of his neighbour.

The colonel got through a little duty talk with Mrs. Trequite, whose attention was frequently distracted by the necessity of explaining Mrs. Crowther's polite murmurs to the vicar on the other side of the table; and this duty done he gave himself up to watching Isola and her host. Why did she blush so when the man talked to her? Was it the bold admiration of those fishy eyes which annoyed her, or the man's manner altogether; or was it anything that he[Pg 122] said? Disney strained his ears to hear their conversation, if that could be called conversation which was for the most part monologue.

The man was talking of the Hunt Ball of last winter. Disney heard such snatches of speech as "the prettiest woman in the room," "everybody said so," "Lostwithiel was evidently épris."

Mr. Crowther had a penchant for scraps of French, which decorated his speech as truffles adorn a boned turkey.

"Isn't it odd that he should be such a rover?" he asked, in a less confidential tone than before.

Isola looked up at him, as if hardly understanding the question.

"I mean Lostwithiel. With such a nice place as he has here, it seems a pity to be broiling himself in Peru. I never could understand the taste for orchids; and in his case—well, I hardly believe in it. He is the last man to emulate a Hooker or a Lawrence. Orchid-hunting must be an excuse for keeping away from England, I take it. Don't you think so, now, Mrs. Disney?"

"I really don't know."

"You don't know why he should want to keep away? No, no more does anybody else. Only we all wonder, don't you know. He talked to me of settling down in the county—looking after the estate a little. He even hinted that he might, in due course, cast about for a nice young wife—with a little money. And then all of a sudden off he sails in that rakish yacht of his, and roves from port to port like the Flying Dutchman in the Opera, till at last we hear of him on the coast of Peru. Curious, ain't it, Mrs. Disney?"

"Why curious?" asked Isola, coldly. "Was not Lord Lostwithiel always fond of yachting?"

"No doubt; but when a man talks of settling down in his native place—and then doesn't do it—there must be a reason, mustn't there?"

"I don't know. People act as often from caprice as from reason."

[Pg 123]

"Ah, that is a lady's idea. No man who is worthy the name ever acts from caprice," said Mr. Crowther, with his insinuating air, as if some hidden meaning were in the words, and then looking across the table and seeing the colonel's watchful face, he altered both tone and manner as he added, "Of course you know Lostwithiel, Colonel Disney?"

"I saw a good deal of Lord Lostwithiel when he was a small boy," answered the colonel, coldly. "His father was one of my early friends. But that is a long time ago."

"How old is he, do you say?"

"Debrett will answer that question better than I can. I have never reckoned the years that have gone by since I saw him in an Eton collar."

The men did not sit long over their wine. The doctor and his host talked agriculture, Mr. Crowther discussing all farming operations upon a large scale as became a man of territorial magnitude. The vicar prosed about an approaching lecture at the schoolroom, and utterly failed in hearing anything that was said in reply to his observations. Colonel Disney smoked a cigarette in silence, and with a moody brow.

Later, in the drawing-room, while the Crowther girls were playing a clamorous duet, by the last fashionable Sclavonic composer, Vansittart Crowther directed his conversation almost wholly to Mrs. Disney, as if she were the only person worthy of his attention. He was full of suggestions for future gaieties in which the Disneys were to share—picnics, boating parties.

"You must help us to wake up the neighbourhood, colonel," he said, addressing Disney, with easy friendliness.

"We are not very likely to be of much assistance to you in that line," Disney answered coldly. "We are quiet stay-at-home people, my wife and I, and take our pleasures on a very small scale."

Colonel Disney's carriage was announced at this moment. He gave his wife a look which plainly indicated his wish to depart, and she rose quickly from the low, deep chair in which she had been sitting, in some manner a captive, while[Pg 124] Mr. Crowther lolled across the broad, plush-cushioned arm to talk to her. Allegra was engrossed in a talk about William Morris's last poem with Mr. Colfox, who was delighted to converse with any one fresh from the far-away world of art and literature—delighted altogether with Allegra, whose whole being presented a piquant contrast to the Miss Crowthers. But the colonel's sister saw the movement towards departure, and hastened to her brother's side. Briefest adieux followed, and the first of the guests being gone, left behind them a feeling of uneasiness in those whose carriages had been ordered half an hour later. One premature departure will cast a blight upon your small dull party; whereas from a scene of real mirth the nine Muses and three Graces might all slip away unmissed and unobserved.


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