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THREE MEN ON THE BUMMEL (chapter5)

2006-09-08 21:12

    CHAPTER V

    A necessary digression——Introduced by story containing moral——One of the charms of this book——The Journal that did not command success——Its boast: "Instruction combined with Amusement"—— Problem: say what should be considered instructive and what amusing——A popular game-Expert opinion on English law——Another of the charms of this book——A hackneyed tune——Yet a third charm of this book——The sort of wood it was where the maiden lived—— Description of the Black Forest.

    A story is told of a Scotchman who, loving a lassie, desired her for his wife. But he possessed the prudence of his race. He had noticed in his circle many an otherwise promising union result in disappointment and dismay, purely in consequence of the false estimate formed by bride or bridegroom concerning the imagined perfectability of the other. He determined that in his own case no collapsed ideal should be possible. Therefore, it was that his proposal took the following form:

    "I'm but a puir lad, Jennie; I hae nae siller to offer ye, and nae land."

    "Ah, but ye hae yoursel', Davie!"

    "An' I'm wishfu' it wa' onything else, lassie. I'm nae but a puir ill-seasoned loon, Jennie."

    "Na, na; there's mony a lad mair ill-looking than yoursel', Davie."

    "I hae na seen him, lass, and I'm just a-thinkin' I shouldna' care to."

    "Better a plain man, Davie, that ye can depend a' than ane that would

    be a speirin' at the lassies, a-bringin' trouble into the hame wi' his flouting ways."

    "Dinna ye reckon on that, Jennie; it's nae the bonniest Bubbly Jock that mak's the most feathers to fly in the kailyard. I was ever a lad to run after the petticoats, as is weel kent; an' it's a weary handfu' I'll be to ye, I'm thinkin'."

    "Ah, but ye hae a kind heart, Davie! an' ye love me weel. I'm sure on't."

    "I like ye weel enoo', Jennie, though I canna say how long the feeling may bide wi' me; an' I'm kind enoo' when I hae my ain way, an' naethin' happens to put me oot. But I hae the deevil's ain temper, as my mither call tell ye, an' like my puir fayther, I'm a- thinkin', I'll grow nae better as I grow mair auld."

    "Ay, but ye're sair hard upon yersel', Davie. Ye're an honest lad. I ken ye better than ye ken yersel', an' ye'll mak a guid hame for me."

    "Maybe, Jennie! But I hae my doots. It's a sair thing for wife an' bairns when the guid man canna keep awa' frae the glass; an' when the scent of the whusky comes to me it's just as though I hae'd the throat o' a Loch Tay salmon; it just gaes doon an' doon, an' there's nae filling o' me."

    "Ay, but ye're a guid man when ye're sober, Davie."

    "Maybe I'll be that, Jennie, if I'm nae disturbed."

    "An' ye'll bide wi' me, Davie, an' work for me?"

    "I see nae reason why I shouldna bide wi' yet Jennie; but dinna ye clack aboot work to me, for I just canna bear the thoct o't."

    "Anyhow, ye'll do your best, Davie? As the minister says, nae man can do mair than that."

    "An' it's a puir best that mine'll be, Jennie, and I'm nae sae sure ye'll hae ower muckle even o' that. We're a' weak, sinfu' creatures, Jennie, an' ye'd hae some deefficulty to find a man weaker or mair sinfu' than mysel'."

    "Weel, weel, ye hae a truthfu' tongue, Davie. Mony a lad will mak fine promises to a puir lassie, only to break 'em an' her heart wi' 'em. Ye speak me fair, Davie, and I'm thinkin' I'll just tak ye, an' see what comes o't."

    Concerning what did come of it, the story is silent, but one feels that under no circumstances had the lady any right to complain of her bargain. Whether she ever did or did not——for women do not invariably order their tongues according to logic, nor men either for the matter of that——Davie, himself, must have had the satisfaction of reflecting that all reproaches were undeserved.

    I wish to be equally frank with the reader of this book. I wish here conscientiously to let forth its shortcomings. I wish no one to read this book under a misapprehension.

    There will be no useful information in this book.

    Anyone who should think that with the aid of this book he would be able to make a tour through Germany and the Black Forest would probably lose himself before he got to the Nore. That, at all events, would be the best thing that could happen to him. The farther away from home he got, the greater only would be his difficulties.

    I do not regard the conveyance of useful information as my forte. This belief was not inborn with me; it has been driven home upon me by experience.

    In my early journalistic days, I served upon a paper, the forerunner of many very popular periodicals of the present day. Our boast was that we combined instruction with amusement; as to what should be regarded as affording amusement and what instruction, the reader judged for himself. We gave advice to people about to marry——long, earnest advice that would, had they followed it, have made our circle of readers the envy of the whole married world. We told our subscribers how to make fortunes by keeping rabbits, giving facts and figures. The thing that must have surprised them was that we ourselves did not give up journalism and start rabbit-farming. Often and often have I proved conclusively from authoritative sources how a man starting a rabbit farm with twelve selected rabbits and a little judgment must, at the end of three years, be in receipt of an income of two thousand a year, rising rapidly; he simply could not help himself. He might not want the money. He might not know what to do with it when he had it. But there it was for him. I have never met a rabbit farmer myself worth two thousand a year, though I have known many start with the twelve necessary, assorted rabbits. Something has always gone wrong somewhere; maybe the continued atmosphere of a rabbit farm saps the judgment.

    We told our readers how many bald-headed men there were in Iceland, and for all we knew our figures may have been correct; how many red herrings placed tail to mouth it would take to reach from London to Rome, which must have been useful to anyone desirous of laying down a line of red herrings from London to Rome, enabling him to order in the right quantity at the beginning; how many words the average woman spoke in a day; and other such like items of information calculated to make them wise and great beyond the readers of other journals. We told them how to cure fits in cats. Personally I do not believe, and I did not believe then, that you can cure fits in cats. If I had a cat subject to fits I should advertise it for sale, or even give it away. But our duty was to supply information when asked for. Some fool wrote, clamouring to know; and I spent the best part of a morning seeking knowledge on the subject. I found what I wanted at length at the end of an old cookery book. What it was doing there I have never been able to understand. It had nothing to do with the proper subject of the book whatever; there was no suggestion that you could make anything savoury out of a cat, even when you had cured it of its fits. The authoress had just thrown in this paragraph out of pure generosity. I can only say that I wish she had left it out; it was the cause of a deal of angry correspondence and of the loss of four subscribers to the paper, if not more. The man said the result of following our advice had been two pounds worth of damage to his kitchen crockery, to say nothing of a broken window and probable blood poisoning to himself; added to which the cat's fits were worse than before. And yet it was a simple enough recipe. You held the cat between your legs, gently, so as not to hurt it, and with a pair of scissors made a sharp, clean cut in its tail. You did not cut off any part of the tail; you were to be careful not to do that; you only made an incision.

    As we explained to the man, the garden or the coal cellar would have been the proper place for the operation; no one but an idiot would have attempted to perform it in a kitchen, and without help.

    We gave them hints on etiquette. We told them how to address peers and bishops; also how to eat soup. We instructed shy young men how to acquire easy grace in drawing-rooms. We taught dancing to both sexes by the aid of diagrams. We solved their religious doubts for them, and supplied them with a code of morals that would have done credit to a stained-glass window.

    The paper was not a financial success, it was some years before its time, and the consequence was that our staff was limited. My own apartment, I remember, included "Advice to Mothers"——I wrote that with the assistance of my landlady, who, having divorced one husband and buried four children, was, I considered, a reliable authority on all domestic matters; "Hints on Furnishing and Household Decorations——with Designs" a column of "Literary Counsel to Beginners"——I sincerely hope my guidance was of better service to them than it has ever proved to myself; and our weekly article, "Straight Talks to Young Men," signed "Uncle Henry." A kindly, genial old fellow was "Uncle Henry," with wide and varied experience, and a sympathetic attitude towards the rising generation. He had been through trouble himself in his far back youth, and knew most things. Even to this day I read of "Uncle Henry's" advice, and, though I say it who should not, it still seems to me good, sound advice. I often think that had I followed "Uncle Henry's" counsel closer I would have been wiser, made fewer mistakes, felt better satisfied with myself than is now the case.

    A quiet, weary little woman, who lived in a bed-sitting room off the Tottenham Court Road, and who had a husband in a lunatic asylum, did our "Cooking Column," "Hints on Education"——we were full of hints,——and a page and a half of "Fashionable Intelligence," written in the pertly personal style which even yet has not altogether disappeared, so I am informed, from modern journalism: "I must tell you about the DIVINE frock I wore at 'Glorious Goodwood' last week. Prince C.——but there, I really must not repeat all the things the silly fellow says; he is TOO foolish- -and the DEAR Countess, I fancy, was just the WEEISH bit jealous"—— and so on.

    Poor little woman! I see her now in the shabby grey alpaca, with the inkstains on it. Perhaps a day at "Glorious Goodwood," or anywhere else in the fresh air, might have put some colour into her cheeks.

    Our proprietor——one of the most unashamedly ignorant men I ever met-I remember his gravely informing a correspondent once that Ben Jonson had written Rabelais to pay for his mother's funeral, and only laughing good-naturedly when his mistakes were pointed out to him——wrote with the aid of a cheap encyclopedia the pages devoted to "General Information," and did them on the whole remarkably well; while our office boy, with an excellent pair of scissors for his assistant, was responsible for our supply of "Wit and Humour."

    It was hard work, and the pay was poor, what sustained us was the consciousness that we were instructing and improving our fellow men and women. Of all games in the world, the one most universally and eternally popular is the game of school. You collect six children, and put them on a doorstep, while you walk up and down with the book and cane. We play it when babies, we play it when boys and girls, we play it when men and women, we play it as, lean and slippered, we totter towards the grave. It never palls upon, it never wearies us. Only one thing mars it: the tendency of one and all of the other six children to clamour for their turn with the book and the cane. The reason, I am sure, that journalism is so popular a calling, in spite of its many drawbacks, is this: each journalist feels he is the boy walking up and down with the cane. The Government, the Classes, and the Masses, Society, Art, and Literature, are the other children sitting on the doorstep. He instructs and improves them.

    But I digress. It was to excuse my present permanent disinclination to be the vehicle of useful information that I recalled these matters. Let us now return.

    Somebody, signing himself "Balloonist," had written to ask concerning the manufacture of hydrogen gas. It is an easy thing to manufacture——at least, so I gathered after reading up the subject at the British Museum; yet I did warn "Balloonist," whoever he might be, to take all necessary precaution against accident. What more could I have done? Ten days afterwards a florid-faced lady called at the office, leading by the hand what, she explained, was her son, aged twelve. The boy's face was unimpressive to a degree positively remarkable. His mother pushed him forward and took off his hat, and then I perceived the reason for this. He had no eyebrows whatever, and of his hair nothing remained but a scrubby dust, giving to his head the appearance of a hard-boiled egg, skinned and sprinkled with black pepper.

    "That was a handsome lad this time last week, with naturally curly hair," remarked the lady. She spoke with a rising inflection, suggestive of the beginning of things.

    "What has happened to him?" asked our chief.

    "This is what's happened to him," retorted the lady. She drew from her muff a copy of our last week's issue, with my article on hydrogen gas scored in pencil, and flung it before his eyes. Our chief took it and read it through.

    "He was 'Balloonist'?" queried the chief.

    "He was 'Balloonist,'" admitted the lady, "the poor innocent child, and now look at him!"

    "Maybe it'll grow again," suggested our chief.

    "Maybe it will," retorted the lady, her key continuing to rise, "and maybe it won't. What I want to know is what you are going to do for him."

    Our chief suggested a hair wash. I thought at first she was going to fly at him; but for the moment she confined herself to words. It appears she was not thinking of a hair wash, but of compensation. She also made observations on the general character of our paper, its utility, its claim to public support, the sense and wisdom of its contributors.

    "I really don't see that it is our fault," urged the chief——he was a mild-mannered man; "he asked for information, and he got it." "Don't you try to be funny about it," said the lady (he had not meant to be funny, I am sure; levity was not his failing) "or you'll get something that YOU haven't asked for. Why, for two pins," said the lady, with a suddenness that sent us both flying like scuttled chickens behind our respective chairs, "I'd come round and make your head like it!" I take it, she meant like the boy's. She also added observations upon our chief's personal appearance, that were distinctly in bad taste. She was not a nice woman by any means.

    Myself, I am of opinion that had she brought the action she threatened, she would have had no case; but our chief was a man who had had experience of the law, and his principle was always to avoid it. I have heard him say:

    "If a man stopped me in the street and demanded of me my watch, I should refuse to give it to him. If he threatened to take it by force, I feel I should, though not a fighting man, do my best to protect it. If, on the other hand, he should assert his intention of trying to obtain it by means of an action in any court of law, I should take it out of my pocket and hand it to him, and think I had got off cheaply."

    He squared the matter with the florid-faced lady for a five-pound note, which must have represented a month's profits on the paper; and she departed, taking her damaged offspring with her. After she was gone, our chief spoke kindly to me. He said:

    "Don't think I am blaming you in the least; it is not your fault, it is Fate. Keep to moral advice and criticism——there you are distinctly good; but don't try your hand any more on 'Useful Information.' As I have said, it is not your fault. Your information is correct enough——there is nothing to be said against that; it simply is that you are not lucky with it."

    I would that I had followed his advice always; I would have saved myself and other people much disaster. I see no reason why it should be, but so it is. If I instruct a man as to the best route between London and Rome, he loses his luggage in Switzerland, or is nearly shipwrecked off Dover. If I counsel him in the purchase of a camera, he gets run in by the German police for photographing fortresses. I once took a deal of trouble to explain to a man how to marry his deceased wife's sister at Stockholm. I found out for him the time the boat left Hull and the best hotels to stop at. There was not a single mistake from beginning to end in the information with which I supplied him; no hitch occurred anywhere; yet now he never speaks to me.

    Therefore it is that I have come to restrain my passion for the giving of information; therefore it is that nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages.

    There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals.

    I once asked an intelligent foreigner what he thought of London.

    He said: "It is a very big town."

    I said: "What struck you most about it?"

    He replied: "The people."

    I said: "Compared with other towns——Paris, Rome, Berlin,——what did you think of it?"

    He shrugged his shoulders. "It is bigger," he said; "what more can one say?" One anthill is very much like another. So many avenues, wide or narrow, where the little creatures swarm in strange confusion; these bustling by, important; these halting to pow-wow with one another. These struggling with big burdens; those but basking in the sun. So many granaries stored with food; so many cells where the little things sleep, and eat, and love; the corner where lie their little white bones. This hive is larger, the next smaller. This nest lies on the sand, and another under the stones. This was built but yesterday, while that was fashioned ages ago, some say even before the swallows came; who knows?

    Nor will there be found herein folk-lore or story.

    Every valley where lie homesteads has its song. I will tell you the plot; you can turn it into verse and set it to music of your own.

    There lived a lass, and there came a lad, who loved and rode away.

    It is a monotonous song, written in many languages; for the young man seems to have been a mighty traveller. Here in sentimental Germany they remember him well. So also the dwellers of the Blue Alsatian Mountains remember his coming among them; while, if my memory serves me truly, he likewise visited the Banks of Allan Water. A veritable Wandering Jew is he; for still the foolish girls listen, so they say, to the dying away of his hoof-beats.

    In this land of many ruins, that long while ago were voice-filled homes, linger many legends; and here again, giving you the essentials, I leave you to cook the dish for yourself. Take a human heart or two, assorted; a bundle of human passions——there are not many of them, half a dozen at the most; season with a mixture of good and evil; flavour the whole with the sauce of death, and serve up where and when you will. "The Saint's Cell," "The Haunted Keep," "The Dungeon Grave," "The Lover's Leap"-call it what you will, the stew's the same.

    Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness on my part; it is self-control. Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read. When Gibbon had to trust to travellers' tales for a description of the Hellespont, and the Rhine was chiefly familiar to English students through the medium of Caesar's Commentaries, it behoved every globe-trotter, for whatever distance, to describe to the best of his ability the things that he had seen. Dr. Johnson, familiar with little else than the view down Fleet Street, could read the description of a Yorkshire moor with pleasure and with profit. To a cockney who had never seen higher ground than the Hog's Back in Surrey, an account of Snowdon must have appeared exciting. But we, or rather the steam-engine and the camera for us, have changed all that. The man who plays tennis every year at the foot of the Matterhorn, and billiards on the summit of the Rigi, does not thank you for an elaborate and painstaking description of the Grampian Hills. To the average man, who has seen a dozen oil paintings, a hundred photographs, a thousand pictures in the illustrated journals, and a couple of panoramas of Niagara, the word-painting of a waterfall is tedious.

    An American friend of mine, a cultured gentleman, who loved poetry well enough for its own sake, told me that he had obtained a more correct and more satisfying idea of the Lake district from an eighteenpenny book of photographic views than from all the works of Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth put together. I also remember his saying concerning this subject of scenery in literature, that he would thank an author as much for writing an eloquent description of what he had just had for dinner. But this was in reference to another argument; namely, the proper province of each art. My friend maintained that just as canvas and colour were the wrong mediums for story telling, so word-painting was, at its best, but a clumsy method of conveying impressions that could much better be received through the eye.

    As regards the question, there also lingers in my memory very distinctly a hot school afternoon. The class was for English literature, and the proceedings commenced with the reading of a certain lengthy, but otherwise unobjectionable, poem. The author's name, I am ashamed to say, I have forgotten, together with the title of the poem. The reading finished, we closed our books, and the Professor, a kindly, white-haired old gentleman, suggested our giving in our own words an account of what we had just read.

    "Tell me," said the Professor, encouragingly, "what it is all about."

    "Please, sir," said the first boy——he spoke with bowed head and evident reluctance, as though the subject were one which, left to himself, he would never have mentioned,——"it is about a maiden."

    "Yes," agreed the Professor; "but I want you to tell me in your own words. We do not speak of a maiden, you know; we say a girl. Yes, it is about a girl. Go on."

    "A girl," repeated the top boy, the substitution apparently increasing his embarrassment, "who lived in a wood."

    "What sort of a wood?" asked the Professor.

    The first boy examined his inkpot carefully, and then looked at the ceiling.

    "Come," urged the Professor, growing impatient, "you have been reading about this wood for the last ten minutes. Surely you can tell me something concerning it."

    "The gnarly trees, their twisted branches"——recommenced the top boy.

    "No, no," interrupted the Professor; "I do not want you to repeat the poem. I want you to tell me in your own words what sort of a wood it was where the girl lived."

    The Professor tapped his foot impatiently; the top boy made a dash for it.

    "Please, sir, it was the usual sort of a wood."

    "Tell him what sort of a wood," said he, pointing to the second lad.

    The second boy said it was a "green wood." This annoyed the Professor still more; he called the second boy a blockhead, though really I cannot see why, and passed on to the third, who, for the last minute, had been sitting apparently on hot plates, with his right arm waving up and down like a distracted semaphore signal. He would have had to say it the next second, whether the Professor had asked him or not; he was red in the face, holding his knowledge in.

    "A dark and gloomy wood," shouted the third boy, with much relief to his feelings.

    "A dark and gloomy wood," repeated the Professor, with evident approval. "And why was it dark and gloomy?"

    The third boy was still equal to the occasion.

    "Because the sun could not get inside it." The Professor felt he had discovered the poet of the class.

    "Because the sun could not get into it, or, better, because the sunbeams could not penetrate. And why could not the sunbeams penetrate there?"

    "Please, sir, because the leaves were too thick."

    "Very well," said the Professor. "The girl lived in a dark and gloomy wood, through the leafy canopy of which the sunbeams were unable to pierce. Now, what grew in this wood?" He pointed to the fourth boy.

    "Please, sir, trees, sir."

    "And what else?"

    "Toadstools, sir." This after a pause.

    The Professor was not quite sure about the toadstools, but on referring to the text he found that the boy was right; toadstools had been mentioned.

    "Quite right," admitted the Professor, "toadstools grew there. And what else? What do you find underneath trees in a wood?"

    "Please, sir, earth, sir."

    "No; no; what grows in a wood besides trees?"

    "Oh, please, sir, bushes, sir."

    "Bushes; very good. Now we are getting on. In this wood there were trees and bushes. And what else?"

    He pointed to a small boy near the bottom, who having decided that the wood was too far off to be of any annoyance to him, individually, was occupying his leisure playing noughts and crosses against himself. Vexed and bewildered, but feeling it necessary to add something to the inventory, he hazarded blackberries. This was a mistake; the poet had not mentioned blackberries.

    "Of course, Klobstock would think of something to eat," commented the Professor, who prided himself on his ready wit. This raised a laugh against Klobstock, and pleased the Professor.

    "You," continued he, pointing to a boy in the middle; "what else was there in this wood besides trees and bushes?"

    "Please, sir, there was a torrent there."

    "Quite right; and what did the torrent do?"

    "Please, sir, it gurgled."

    "No; no. Streams gurgle, torrents——?" "Roar, sir."

    "It roared. And what made it roar?"

    This was a poser. One boy——he was not our prize intellect, I admit-suggested the girl. To help us the Professor put his question in another form:

    "When did it roar?"

    Our third boy, again coming to the rescue, explained that it roared when it fell down among the rocks. I think some of us had a vague idea that it must have been a cowardly torrent to make such a noise about a little thing like this; a pluckier torrent, we felt, would have got up and gone on, saying nothing about it. A torrent that roared every time it fell upon a rock we deemed a poor spirited torrent; but the Professor seemed quite content with it.

    "And what lived in this wood beside the girl?" was the next question.

    "Please, sir, birds, sir."

    "Yes, birds lived in this wood. What else?"

    Birds seemed to have exhausted our ideas.

    "Come," said the Professor, "what are those animals with tails, that run up trees?"

    We thought for a while, then one of us suggested cats.

    This was an error; the poet had said nothing about cats; squirrels was what the Professor was trying to get.

    I do not recall much more about this wood in detail. I only recollect that the sky was introduced into it. In places where there occurred an opening among the trees you could by looking up see the sky above you; very often there were clouds in this sky, and occasionally, if I remember rightly, the girl got wet.

    I have dwelt upon this incident, because it seems to me suggestive of the whole question of scenery in literature. I could not at the time, I cannot now, understand why the top boy's summary was not sufficient. With all due deference to the poet, whoever he may have been, one cannot but acknowledge that his wood was, and could not be otherwise than, "the usual sort of a wood."

    I could describe the Black Forest to you at great length. I could translate to you Hebel, the poet of the Black Forest. I could write pages concerning its rocky gorges and its smiling valleys, its pine-clad slopes, its rock-crowned summits, its foaming rivulets (where the tidy German has not condemned them to flow respectably through wooden troughs or drainpipes), its white villages, its lonely farmsteads.

    But I am haunted by the suspicion you might skip all this. Were you sufficiently conscientious——or weak-minded enough——not to do so, I should, all said and done, succeed in conveying to you only an impression much better summed up in the simple words of the unpretentious guide book:

    "A picturesque, mountainous district, bounded on the south and the west by the plain of the Rhine, towards which its spurs descend precipitately. Its geological formation consists chiefly of variegated sandstone and granite; its lower heights being covered with extensive pine forests. It is well watered with numerous streams, while its populous valleys are fertile and well cultivated. The inns are good; but the local wines should be partaken of by the stranger with discretion."

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