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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter34)

2006-08-28 16:12

  Chapter XXXIV. Of the Luck of Captain Slingsby, of the Guards

  "You don't mind if we——drive about a bit, do you, Beverley?"

  "Not in the least."

  "I——er——I generally go the longest way round when I have to call on——"

  "On Gaunt?"

  "Yes."

  Now as they went, Barnabas noticed that a change had come over his companion, his voice had lost much of its jovial ring, his eye its sparkle, while his ruddy cheeks were paler than their wont; moreover he was very silent, and sat with bent head and with his square shoulders slouched dejectedly. Therefore Barnabas must needs cast about for some means of rousing him from this depression.

  "You drive a very handsome turnout," said he at last.

  "It is neat, isn't it?" nodded Slingsby, his eye brightening.

  "Very!" said Barnabas, "and the horses——"

  "Horses!" cried the Captain, almost himself again, "ha, b'gad——there's action for you——and blood too! I was a year matching 'em. Cost me eight hundred guineas——and cheap at the money——but——"

  "Well?"

  "After all, Beverley, they——aren't mine, you see."

  "Not yours?"

  "No. They're——his!"

  "You mean——Gaunt's?"

  The Captain nodded gloomily.

  "Yes," said he, "my horses are his, my curricle's his, my clothes are his——everything's his. So am I, b'gad! Oh, you needn't look so infernal incredulous——fact, I assure you. And, when you come to think of it——it's all cursed humorous, isn't it?" and here the Captain contrived to laugh, though it rang very hollow, to be sure.

  "You owe——a great deal then?" said Barnabas.

  "Owe?" said the Captain, turning to look at him, "I'm in up to my neck, and getting deeper. Owe! B'gad, Beverley——I believe you!" But now, at sight of gravefaced Barnabas, he laughed again, and this time it sounded less ghoul-like. "Debt is a habit," he continued sententiously, "that grows on one most damnably, and creditors are the most annoying people in the world——so confoundedly unreasonable! Of course I pay 'em——now and then——deserving cases, y' know. Fellow called on me t' other day,——seemed to know his face. 'Who are you?' says I. 'I'm the man who makes your whips, sir,' says he. 'And devilish good whips too!' says I, 'how much do I owe you?' 'Fifteen pounds, sir,' says he, 'I wouldn't bother you only'——well, it seemed his wife was sick——fellow actually blubbered! So of course I rang for my rascal Danby, Danby's my valet, y' know. 'Have you any money, Danby?' says I. 'No sir,' says he; queer thing, but Danby never has, although I pay him regularly——devilish improvident fellow, Danby! So I went out and unearthed Jerningham——and paid the fellow on the spot——only right, y' know."

  "But why not pay your debts with your own money?" Barnabas inquired.

  "For the very good reason that it all went,——ages ago!"

  "Why, then," said Barnabas, "earn more."

  "Eh?" said the Captain, staring, "earn it? My dear Beverley, I never earned anything in my life, except my beggarly pay, and that isn't enough even for my cravats."

  "Well, why not begin?"

  "Begin? To earn money? How?"

  "You might work," suggested Barnabas.

  "Work?" repeated the Captain, starting, "eh, what? Oh, I see, you're joking, of course,——deuced quaint, b'gad!"

  "No, I'm very serious," said Barnabas thoughtfully.

  "Are you though! But what the deuce kind of work d'you suppose I'm fit for?"

  "All men can work!" said Barnabas, more thoughtfully than before.

  "Well,——I can ride, and shoot, and drive a coach with any one."

  "Anything more?"

  "No,——not that I can think of."

  "Have you never tried to work, then,——hard work, I mean?"

  "Oh Lord, no! Besides, I've always been too busy, y'know. I've never had to work. Y' see, as luck would have it, I was born a gentleman, Beverley."

  "Yes," nodded Barnabas, more thoughtful than ever, "but——what is a gentleman?"

  "A gentleman? Why——let me think!" said the Captain, manoeuvring his horses skilfully as they swung into the Strand.

  And when he had thought as far as the Savoy he spoke:

  "A gentleman," said he, "is a fellow who goes to a university, but doesn't have to learn anything; who goes out into the world, but doesn't have to——work at anything; and who has never been blackballed at any of the clubs. I've done a good many things in my time, but I've never had to work."

  "That is a great pity!" sighed Barnabas.

  "Oh! is it, b'gad! And why?"

  "Because hard work ennobles a man," said Barnabas.

  "Always heard it was a deuce of a bore!" murmured the Captain.

  "Exertion," Barnabas continued, growing a little didactic perhaps, "exertion is——life. By idleness come degeneration and death."

  "Sounds cursed unpleasant, b'gad!" said the Captain.

  "The work a man does lives on after him," Barnabas continued, "it is his monument when he is no more, far better than your high-sounding epitaphs and stately tombs, yes, even though it be only the furrow he has ploughed, or the earth his spade has turned."

  "But,——my dear fellow, you surely wouldn't suggest that I should take up——digging?"

  "You might do worse," said Barnabas, "but——"

  "Ha!" said the Captain, "well now, supposing I was a——deuced good digger,——a regular rasper, b'gad! I don't know what a digger earns, but let's be moderate and say five or six pounds a week. Well, what the deuce good d'you suppose that would be to me? Why, I still owe Gaunt, as far as I can figure it up, about eighty thousand pounds, which is a deuced lot more than it sounds. I should have been rotting in the Fleet, or the Marshalsea, years ago if it hadn't been for my uncle's gout, b'gad!"

  "His gout?"

  "Precisely! Every twinge he has——up goes my credit. I'm his only heir, y'know, and he's seventy-one. At present he's as sound as a bell, ——actually rode to hounds last week, b'gad! Consequently my credit's——nowhere. Jolly old boy, though——deuced fond of him——ha! there's Haynes! Over yonder! Fellow driving the phaeton with the black-a-moor in the rumble."

  "You mean the man in the bright green coat?"

  "Yes. Call him 'Pea-green Haynes'——one of your second-rate, ultra dandies. Twig his vasty whiskers, will you! Takes his fellow hours to curl 'em. And then his cravat, b'gad!"

  "How does he turn his head?" inquired Barnabas.

  "Never does,——can't! I lost a devilish lot to him at hazard a few years ago——crippled me, y' know. But talking of my uncle——devilish fond of him——always was."

  "But mark you, Beverley, a man has no right——no business to go on living after he's seventy, at least, it shows deuced bad taste, I think——so thoughtless, y'know. Hallo! why there's Ball Hughes——driving the chocolate-colored coach, and got up like a regular jarvey. Devilish rich, y'know——call him 'The Golden Ball'——deuce of a fellow! Pitch and toss, or whist at five pound points, damme! Won small fortune from Petersham at battledore and shuttlecock,——played all night too."

  "And have you lost to him also?"

  "Of course?"

  "Do you ever win?"

  "Oh, well——now and then, y'know, though I'm generally unlucky. Must have been under——Aldeboran, is it?——anyhow, some cursed star or other. Been dogged by ill-luck from my cradle, b'gad! On the turf, in the clubs and bells, even in the Peninsular!"

  "So you fought in the Peninsular?"

  "Oh, yes."

  "And did you gamble there too?"

  "Naturally——whenever I could."

  "And did you lose?"

  "Generally. Everything's been against me, y'know——even my size."

  "How so?"

  "Well, there was a fellow in the Eighty-eighth, name of Crichton. I'd lost to him pretty heavily while we were before Ciudad Rodrigo. The night before the storming——we both happened to have volunteered, y'know——'Crichton,' says I, 'I'll go you double or quits I'm into the town to-morrow before you are.' 'Done!' says he. Well, we advanced to the attack about dawn, about four hundred of us. The breach was wide enough to drive a battery through, but the enemy had thrown up a breast-work and fortified it during the night. But up we went at the 'double,' Crichton and I in front, you may be sure. As soon as the Frenchies opened fire, I began to run,——so did Crichton, but being longer in the leg, I was at the breach first, and began to scramble over the debris. Crichton was a little fellow, y' know, but game all through, and active as a cat, and b'gad, presently above the roar and din, I could hear him panting close behind me. Up we went, nearer and nearer, with our fellows about a hundred yards in our rear, clambering after us and cheering as they came. I was close upon the confounded breastwork when I took a musket-ball through my leg, and over I went like a shot rabbit, b'gad! Just then Crichton panted up. 'Hurt?' says he. 'Only my leg,' says I, 'go on, and good luck to you.' 'Devilish rough on you, Sling!' says he, and on he went. But he'd only gone about a couple of yards when he threw up his arms and pitched over on his face. 'Poor Crichton's done for!' says I to myself, and made shift to crawl over to him. But b'gad! he saw me coming, and began to crawl too. So there we were, on our hands and knees, crawling up towards the Frenchies as hard as we could go. My leg was deuced——uncomfortable, y' know, but I put on a spurt, and managed to draw level with him. 'Hallo, Sling!' says he, 'here's where you win, for I'm done!' and over he goes again. 'So am I, for that matter,' says I——which was only the truth, Beverley. So b'gad, there we lay, side by side, till up came our fellows, yelling like fiends, past us and over us, and charged the breastwork with the bayonet,——and carried it too! Presently, up came two stragglers,——a corporal of the Eighty-eighth and a sergeant of 'Ours.' 'Hi, Corporal,' yells Crichton, 'ten pounds if you can get me over the breastwork——quick's the word!' 'Sergeant,' says I, 'twenty pounds if you get me over first.' Well, down went the Corporal's musket and the Sergeant's pike, and on to their backs we scrambled——a deuced painful business for both of us, I give you my word, Beverley. So we began our race again——mounted this time. But it was devilish bad going, and though the Sergeant did his best, I came in a very bad second. You see, I'm no light weight, and Crichton was."

  "You lost, then?"

  "Oh, of course, even my size is against me, you see." Hereupon, once more, and very suddenly, the Captain relapsed into his gloomy mood, nor could Barnabas dispel it; his efforts were rewarded only by monosyllables until, swinging round into a short and rather narrow street, he brought his horses to a walk.

  "Here we are, Beverley!"

  "Where?" Barnabas inquired.

  "Kirby Street,——his street. And there's the house,——his house," and Captain Slingsby pointed his whip at a high, flat-fronted house. It was a repellent-looking place with an iron railing before it, and beyond this railing a deep and narrow area, where a flight of damp steps led down to a gloomy door. The street was seemingly a quiet one, and, at this hour, deserted save for themselves and a solitary man who stood with his back to them upon the opposite side of the way, apparently lost in profound thought. A very tall man he was, and very upright, despite the long white hair that showed beneath his hat, which, like his clothes, was old and shabby, and Barnabas noticed that his feet were bare. This man Captain Slingsby incontinent hailed in his characteristic fashion.

  "Hi,——you over there!" he called. "Hallo!" The man never stirred. "Oho! b'gad, are you deaf? Just come over here and hold my horses for me, will you?" The man raised his head suddenly and turned. So quickly did he turn that the countless gleaming buttons that he wore upon his coat rang a jingling chime. Now, looking upon this strange figure, Barnabas started up, and springing from the curricle, crossed the street and looked upon the man with a smile.

  "Have you forgotten me?" said Barnabas. The man smiled in turn, and sweeping off the weather-beaten hat, saluted him with an old-time bow of elaborate grace.

  "Sir." he answered in his deep, rich voice, "Billy Button never forgets——faces. You are Barnaby Bright——Barnabas, 't is all the same. Sir, Billy Button salutes you."

  "Why, then," said Barnabas, rather diffidently, seeing the other's grave dignity, "will you oblige me by——by holding my friend's horses? They are rather high-spirited and nervous."

  "Nervous, sir? Ah, then they need me. Billy Button shall sing to them, horses love music, and, like trees, are excellent listeners." Forthwith Billy Button crossed the street with his long, stately stride, and taking the leader's bridle, fell to soothing the horses with soft words, and to patting them with gentle, knowing hands.

  "B'gad!" exclaimed the Captain, staring, "that fellow has been used to horses——once upon a time. Poor devil!" As he spoke he glanced from Billy Button's naked feet and threadbare clothes to his own glossy Hessians and immaculate garments, and Barnabas saw him wince as he turned towards the door of Jasper Gaunt's house. Now when Barnabas would have followed, Billy Button caught him suddenly by the sleeve.

  "You are not going——there?" he whispered, frowning and nodding towards the house.

  "Yes."

  "Don't!" he whispered, "don't! An evil place, a place of, sin and shadows, of sorrow, and tears, and black despair. Ah, an evil place! No place for Barnaby Bright."

  "I must," said Barnabas.

  "So say they all. Youth goes in, and leaves his youth behind; men go in, and leave all strength and hope behind; age goes in, and creeps out——to a grave. Hear me, Barnaby Bright. There is one within there already marked for destruction. Death follows at his heel, for evil begetteth evil, and the sword, the sword. He is already doomed. Listen,——blood! I've seen it upon the door yonder,——a bloody hand! I know, for They have told me——They——the Wise Ones. And so I come here, sometimes by day, sometimes by night, and I watch——I watch. But this is no place for you,——'t is the grave of youth, don't go——don't go!"

  "I must," repeated Barnabas, "for another's sake."

  "Then must the blighting shadow fall upon you, too,——ah, yes, I know. Oh, Barnaby,——Barnaby Bright!"

  Here, roused by the Captain's voice, rather hoarser than usual, Barnabas turned and saw that the door of the house was open, and that Captain Slingsby stood waiting for him with a slender, youthful-seeming person who smiled; a pale-faced, youngish man, with colorless hair, and eyes so very pale as to be almost imperceptible in the pallor of his face. Now, even as the door closed, Barnabas could hear Billy Button singing softly to the horses.

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