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中英:月亮和六便士(46)

2006-08-22 21:42

    Chapter XLVI

    HAD not been in Tahiti long before I met Captain Nichols. He came in one morning when I was having breakfast on the terrace of the hotel and introduced himself. He had heard that I was interested in Charles Strickland, and announced that he was come to have a talk about him. They are as fond of gossip in Tahiti as in an English village, and one or two enquiries I had made for pictures by Strickland had been quickly spread. I asked the stranger if he had breakfasted.

    "Yes; I have my coffee early, " he answered, "but I don't mind having a drop of whisky. "

    I called the Chinese boy.

    "You don't think it's too early?" said the Captain.

    "You and your liver must decide that between you, " I replied.

    "I'm practically a teetotaller, " he said, as he poured himself out a good half-tumbler of Canadian Club.

    When he smiled he showed broken and discoloured teeth. He was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with gray hair cut short and a stubbly gray moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. But at the moment he was all heartiness and good-fellowship. He was dressed in a bedraggled suit of khaki, and his hands would have been all the better for a wash.

    "I knew Strickland well, " he said, as he leaned back in his chair and lit the cigar I had offered him. "It's through me he came out to the islands. "

    "Where did you meet him?" I asked.

    "In Marseilles. "

    "What were you doing there?"

    He gave me an ingratiating smile.

    "Well, I guess I was on the beach. "

    My friend's appearance suggested that he was now in the same predicament, and I prepared myself to cultivate an agreeable acquaintance. The society of beach-combers always repays the small pains you need be at to enjoy it. They are easy of approach and affable in conversation. They seldom put on airs, and the offer of a drink is a sure way to their hearts. You need no laborious steps to enter upon familiarity with them, and you can earn not only their confidence, but their gratitude, by turning an attentive ear to their discourse. They look upon conversation as the great pleasure of life, thereby proving the excellence of their civilisation, and for the most part they are entertaining talkers. The extent of their experience is pleasantly balanced by the fertility of their imagination. It cannot be said that they are without guile, but they have a tolerant respect for the law, when the law is supported by strength. It is hazardous to play poker with them, but their ingenuity adds a peculiar excitement to the best game in the world. I came to know Captain Nichols very well before I left Tahiti, and I am the richer for his acquaintance. I do not consider that the cigars and whisky he consumed at my expense (he always refused cocktails, since he was practically a teetotaller), and the few dollars, borrowed with a civil air of conferring a favour upon me, that passed from my pocket to his, were in any way equivalent to the entertainment he afforded me. I remained his debtor. I should be sorry if my conscience, insisting on a rigid attention to the matter in hand, forced me to dismiss him in a couple of lines.

    I do not know why Captain Nichols first left England. It was a matter upon which he was reticent, and with persons of his kind a direct question is never very discreet. He hinted at undeserved misfortune, and there is no doubt that he looked upon himself as the victim of injustice. My fancy played with the various forms of fraud and violence, and I agreed with him sympathetically when he remarked that the authorities in the old country were so damned technical. But it was nice to see that any unpleasantness he had endured in his native land had not impaired his ardent patriotism. He frequently declared that England was the finest country in the world, sir, and he felt a lively superiority over Americans, Colonials, Dagos, Dutchmen, and Kanakas.

    But I do not think he was a happy man. He suffered from dyspepsia, and he might often be seen sucking a tablet of pepsin; in the morning his appetite was poor; but this affliction alone would hardly have impaired his spirits. He had a greater cause of discontent with life than this. Eight years before he had rashly married a wife. There are men whom a merciful Providence has undoubtedly ordained to a single life, but who from wilfulness or through circumstances they could not cope with have flown in the face of its decrees. There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. Of such was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She was a woman of twenty-eight, I should think, though of a type whose age is always doubtful; for she cannot have looked different when she was twenty, and at forty would look no older. She gave me an impression of extraordinary tightness. Her plain face with its narrow lips was tight, her skin was stretched tightly over her bones, her smile was tight, her hair was tight, her clothes were tight, and the white drill she wore had all the effect of black bombazine. I could not imagine why Captain Nichols had married her, and having married her why he had not deserted her. Perhaps he had, often, and his melancholy arose from the fact that he could never succeed. However far he went and in howsoever secret a place he hid himself, I felt sure that Mrs. Nichols, inexorable as fate and remorseless as conscience, would presently rejoin him. He could as little escape her as the cause can escape the effect.

    The rogue, like the artist and perhaps the gentleman, belongs to no class. He is not embarrassed by the sans gene of the hobo, nor put out of countenance by the etiquette of the prince. But Mrs. Nichols belonged to the well-defined class, of late become vocal, which is known as the lower-middle. Her father, in fact, was a policeman. I am certain that he was an efficient one. I do not know what her hold was on the Captain, but I do not think it was love. I never heard her speak, but it may be that in private she had a copious conversation. At any rate, Captain Nichols was frightened to death of her. Sometimes, sitting with me on the terrace of the hotel, he would become conscious that she was walking in the road outside. She did not call him; she gave no sign that she was aware of his existence; she merely walked up and down composedly. Then a strange uneasiness would seize the Captain; he would look at his watch and sigh.

    "Well, I must be off, " he said.

    Neither wit nor whisky could detain him then. Yet he was a man who had faced undaunted hurricane and typhoon, and would not have hesitated to fight a dozen unarmed niggers with nothing but a revolver to help him. Sometimes Mrs. Nichols would send her daughter, a pale-faced, sullen child of seven, to the hotel.

    "Mother wants you, " she said, in a whining tone.

    "Very well, my dear, " said Captain Nichols.

    He rose to his feet at once, and accompanied his daughter along the road. I suppose it was a very pretty example of the triumph of spirit over matter, and so my digression has at least the advantage of a moral.

    我在塔希提没有待几天便见到了尼柯尔斯船长。一天早晨,我正在旅馆的露台上吃早饭,他走进来,作了自我介绍。他听说我对查理斯。斯特里克兰德感兴趣,便毛遂自荐,来找我谈谈思特里克兰德的事。塔希提的居民同英国乡下人一样,很喜欢聊天,我随便向一两个人打听了一下思特里克兰德的画儿,这消息很快就传到每个人的耳朵里去了。我问这位陌生的来客是否吃过早点。

    “吃过了,我一起床就喝过咖啡了,”他回答说,“但是喝一口威士忌我并不反对。”

    我把旅馆的中国侍者喊过来。

    “你是不是认为现在喝酒太早了点?”船长说。

    “这该由你同你自己的肝脏做出决定,”我回答说。

    “我其实是个戒酒主义者,”他一边给自己斟了大半杯加拿大克拉伯牌威士忌,一边说。

    尼柯尔斯船长笑的时候露出一口很不整齐的发黑的牙齿,他生得瘦小枯干,身材不到中等,花白的头发剪得很短,嘴上是乱扎扎的白胡子碴。尼柯尔斯船长已经有好几天没有刮脸了。他的脸上皱纹很深,因为长年暴露在阳光下,晒得黎黑。他生着一双小蓝眼睛,目光游移不定;随着我的手势,他的眼睛很快地转来转去,叫人一望而知是个社会上的老油子。但是这时候他对我却是一片热诚和真情实意。他身上穿的一套卡其衣裤邋里邋遢,两只手也早该好好洗一洗了。

    “我同思特里克兰德很熟,”他说,他身体往椅子背上一靠,点上我递给他的雪茄烟。“他到这个地方来还是通过我的关系。”

    “你最早是在什么地方遇到他的?”我问。

    “马赛。”

    “你在马赛做什么?”

    他象要讨好我似地赔了个笑脸。

    “呃,我当时没在船上,境遇很糟。”

    从我这位朋友的仪表来看,今天他的境遇一点也不比那时好;我决定同他交个朋友。同这些在南海群岛的流浪汉相处,尽管得付出一点小代价,但总不会叫你吃亏的。这些人很容易接近,谈起话来很殷勤。他们很少摆架子,只要一杯水酒,就一定能把他们的心打动。要想同他们混熟,用不着走一段艰辛的路途,只要对他们的闲扯洗耳恭听,他们就不但对你非常信任,而且还会对你满怀感激。他们把谈话看做是生活的最大乐趣,用以证明自己出色的修养。这些人大多数谈话都很有风趣。他们的阅历很广,又善于运用丰富的想象力。不能说这些人没有某种程度的欺诈,但是他们对法律还是非常容忍,尽量遵守,只要法律有强大靠山的时候。同他们玩牌是件危险的勾当,但是他们那种头脑敏捷会使这一最有趣的游戏平添了极大的刺激。在我离开塔希提之前,已经同尼柯尔斯船长混得很熟了,我同他的这段交情只有使我的经验更加丰富。尽管我招待了他许多雪茄和威士忌(他从来不喝鸡尾酒,因为他实际上是个戒酒主义者),尽管他带着一副施恩于人的温文有礼的神气向我借钱,好几块银币从我的口袋转到了他的口袋里去,我还是觉得他让我享受到的乐趣大大超过了我付出的代价。自始至终他都是我的债主。如果我听从作者的良心,不肯走离本题,只用几行简单的文字就把尼柯尔斯打发掉,我会感到对不起他的。

    我不知道尼柯尔斯船长最初为什么要离开英国。这是一个他讳莫如深的话题;对于象他这样的人直接问这类事也是很不谨慎的。从他的话语里听得出来,他曾经受了不白之冤。毫无疑问,他把自己看作是执法不公的牺牲品。我的想象却总爱把他同某种诈骗或暴行联系起来。当他谈到英国当局执法过于机械时,我非常同情地表示同意。令人高兴的是,即使他在家乡有过什么不愉快的遭遇,他的爱国热情却并未因此受到任何损伤。他常对我说,英国是全世界最了不起的国家,他觉得自己比哪国人都优越得多,不管什么美国人、殖民地人、达哥人、荷兰人,或是卡纳加人,全不在他眼里。

    然而我认为他生活得并不幸福。他长期患消化不良症,嘴里经常含着一片胃蛋白酶药片。每天上午他的胃口都不很好,但是如果只是这一病痛还不致于使他的精神受到伤害。他的生活还有一桩更大的不幸:八年以前他轻率地同一个女人结了婚。有一些男人,慈悲的天意注定叫他们终生作个单身汉,但是他们有的人由于任性,有的人由于拗不过环境,却违背了上帝的意旨。再没有谁比这种结了婚的单身汉更叫人可怜了。尼柯尔斯船长就是这样一个人。我看见过他的老婆;我想,她的年龄不过二十七八岁,但是她是那种永远让人摸不清究竟多大岁数的女人,这种人二十岁的时候不比现在样子年轻,到了四十岁也不会显得更老。她给我的印象是皮紧肉瘦,一张并不标致的面孔紧绷绷的,嘴唇只是薄薄的一条线,全身皮肤都紧包着骨头。她轻易不露笑容,头发紧贴在头上,衣服瘦瘦的,白斜纹料子看去活象是黑色的邦巴辛毛葛。我想象不出,为什么尼柯尔斯船长要同她结婚,既然结了婚为什么又不把她甩掉。也许他已经不止一次这样做过,他的悲哀就来源于哪次都没有成功。不论他跑多么远,不论他藏身多么隐秘,尼柯尔斯太太就象命运一样无可逃避,象良心一样毫无怜悯,马上就会来到他身边。他逃不脱她,就象有因必有果一样。

    社会油子和艺术家或者绅士相同,是不属于哪一个阶级的;无业游民的粗野无礼既不会使他感到难堪,王公贵人的繁文缛节也不会叫他感到拘束。但是尼柯尔斯太太却出身于一个最近名声渐着的阶层,就是人们称之为中下层(这个名称叫得好!)的社会阶层。她的父亲是个警察,而且我敢说还非常精明能干。我不知道她为什么要抓住船长不放,我不相信是因为爱情。我从来没听她开口讲过话,也许同她丈夫单独在一起的时候她的话很多。不管怎么说,尼柯尔斯船长怕她怕得要死。有时候他同我坐在旅馆的露台上会突然意识到自己的老婆正在外面马路上走动,她从来不叫他,她好象根本不知道他在这里,只是安详自若地在街头踱来踱去。这时候船长就浑身不安起来;他看了看表,长叹一口气。

    “唉,我该走了。”他说。

    在这种时候,说笑话也好,喝威士忌也好,再也没有什么能把他留住了。要知道,尼柯尔斯船长本是个经十二级风暴也面不改色的人,只要有一把手枪,就是一打黑人上来,他也有胆量对付。有时尼柯尔斯太太也派他们的女儿,一个面色苍白、总是耷拉着脸的七岁孩子,到旅馆来。

    “妈妈找你。”她带着哭音地说。

    “好,好,亲爱的孩子。”尼柯尔斯船长说。

    他马上站起身来,陪同女儿走回家去。我想这是精神战胜物质的一个极好的例证,所以我这段文章虽然写得走了题,却还是具有一些教训意义的。

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