Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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Produced by David Widger





THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S

By Charles James Lever


With Illustrations By W. Cubitt Cooke.

BOSTON:

LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.

1904.


TO BARON EMILE ERLANGER

My dear Erlanger, - Through the many anxieties which beset me while I was
writing this story, your name was continually recurring, and always
with some act of kindness, or some proof of affection. Let me, then, in
simple gratitude dedicate to you a volume of which, in a measure, you
stand sponsor, and say to the world at large what I have so often said
to my own,

How sincerely and heartily I am

Your friend,

CHARLES LEVER. Trieste, February 20th, 1869.






THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.



CHAPTER I. THE TRIAL

Some years ago there was a trial in Dublin, which, partly because the
parties in the cause were in a well-to-do condition of life, and partly
because the case in some measure involved the interests of the two
conflicting Churches, excited considerable sensation and much comment.

The contention was the right to the guardianship of a boy whose father
and mother had ceased to live together. On their separation they had
come to a sort of amicable arrangement that the child - then seven years
old - should live alternate years with each; and though the mother's
friends warmly urged her not to consent to a plan so full of danger
to her child, and so certain to result in the worst effects on his
character, the poor woman, whose rank in life was far inferior to her
husband's, yielded, partly from habit of deference to his wishes, and
more still because she believed, in refusing these terms, she might have
found herself reduced to accept even worse ones. The marriage had
been unfortunate in every way. Sir Roger Norcott had accompanied his
regiment, the - th Dragoons, to Ireland, where some violent disturbances
in the south had called for an increase of military force. When the
riots had been suppressed, the troops, broken up into small detachments,
were quartered through the counties, as opportunity and convenience
served; Norcott s troop - for he was a captain - being stationed in
that very miserable and poverty-stricken town called Macroom. Here the
dashing soldier, who for years had been a Guardsman, mixing in all the
gayeties of a London life, passed days and weeks of dreary despondency.
His two subs, who happened to be sons of men in trade, he treated with a
cold and distant politeness, but never entered into their projects, nor
accepted their companionship; and though they messed together each day,
no other intimacy passed between them than the courtesies of the table.

It chanced that while thus hipped, and out of sorts, sick of the place
and the service that had condemned him to it, he made acquaintance with
a watchmaker, when paying for some slight service, and subsequently with
his daughter, a very pretty, modest-looking, gentle girl of eighteen.
The utter vacuity of his life, the tiresome hours of barrack-room
solitude, the want of some one to talk to him, but, still more, of some
one to listen, - for he liked to talk, and talked almost well, - led him
to pass more than half his days and all his evenings at their house. Nor
was the fact that his visits had become a sort of town scandal without
its charm for a man who actually pined for a sensation, even though
painful; and there was, too, an impertinence that, while declining the
society of the supposed upper classes of the neighborhood, he found
congenial companionship with these humble people, had a marvellous
attraction for a man who had no small share of resentfulness in his
nature, and was seldom so near being happy as when flouting some
prejudice or outraging some popular opinion.

It had been his passion through life to be ever doing or saying
something that no one could have anticipated. For the pleasure of
astonishing the world, no sacrifice was too costly; and whether he rode,
or shot, or played, or yachted, his first thought was notoriety. An
ample fortune lent considerable aid to this tendency; but every year's
extravagance was now telling on his resources, and he was forced to draw
on his ingenuity where before he needed but to draw on his banker.

There was nothing that his friends thought less likely than that he
would marry, except that, if he should, his wife would not be a woman
of family: to bowl over both of these beliefs together, he married the
watchmaker's daughter, and Mary Owen became a baronet's bride.

Perhaps - I 'm not very sure of even that - her marriage gave her one
entire day of unbroken happiness, - I do not believe it gave her a week,
and I know it did not a month. Whether it was that his friends were less
shocked than he had hoped for, or that the shock wore out sooner, he
was frantic at the failure of his grand coup, and immediately set about
revenging on his unhappy wife all the disappointment she had caused him.
After a series of cruelties - some of which savored of madness - but which
she bore without complaint, or even murmur, he bethought him that her
religious belief offered a groundwork for torment which he had hitherto
neglected. He accordingly determined to make his profession to the
Church of Rome, and to call on her to follow. This she stoutly refused;
and he declared that they should separate. The menace had no longer a
terror for her. She accepted whatever terms he was pleased to dictate;
she only stipulated as to the child, and for him but to the extent we
have already seen. The first year after the separation the boy passed
with his father; the second he spent with his mother. At the end of the
third year, when her turn again came round, Sir Roger refused to part
with him; and when reminded of his promise, coarsely replied that
his boy, above all things, must be "a gentleman," and that he was now
arrived at an age when association with low and vulgar people would
attach a tone to his mind and a fashion to his thoughts that all the
education in the world would not eradicate; and that rather than yield
to such a desecration, he would litigate the matter to the last shilling
of his estate. Such was the cause before the Barons of the Exchequer:
the mother pleading that her child should be restored to her; the father
opposing the demand that the mother's habits and associates were not
in accordance with the prospects of one who should inherit title and
fortune; and, last of all, that the boy was devotedly attached to him,
and bore scarcely a trace of affection for his mother.

So painful were the disclosures that came out during the trial, so
subversive of every feeling that pertains to the sanctity of the family,
and so certain to work injuriously on the character of the child whose
interests were at stake, that the Judge, made more than one attempt to
arrest the proceedings and refer the case to arbitration, but Sir Roger
would not agree to this. He was once more in his element, he was before
the world, - the newspapers were full of him, and, better than all, in
attack and reprobation. He had demanded to be put on the table as
a witness, and they who saw, it is said, never forgot the insolent
defiance of public opinion that he on that day displayed; how boldly he
paraded opinions in opposition to every sense of right and justice, and
how openly he avowed his principle of education to be - to strip off from
youth every delusion as to the existence of truth and honor in life, and
to teach a child, from his earliest years, that trickery and falsehood
were the daily weapons of mankind, and that he who would not consent to
be the dupe of his fellow-men must be their despot and their persecutor.
If he had the satisfaction of outraging the feelings of all in court,
and insulting every sense of propriety and decorum, he paid heavily for
the brief triumph. The judge delivered a most stern denunciation of
his doctrines, and declared that no case had ever come before the court
where so little hesitation existed as to the judgment to be pronounced.
The sentence was that, up to the age of twelve, the child was to be
confided to the mother's charge; after which period the court would, on
application, deliberate and determine on the future guardianship.

"Will you leave me, Digby?" asked the father; and his lips trembled,
and his cheek blanched as he uttered the words. The boy sprang into his
arms, and kissed him wildly and passionately; and the two clung to each
other in close embrace, and their mingled sobs echoed through the now
silent court. "You see, my Lord, you see - " cried the father; but the
boy's struggles were choking him, and, with his own emotions, would not
suffer him to continue. His sufferings were now real, and a murmur ran
through the court that showed how public feeling was trembling in the
balance. The bustle of a new cause that was coming on soon closed the
scene. The child was handed over to an officer of the court, while the
mother's friends concerted together, and all was over.

Over as regarded the first act of a life-long drama; and ere the curtain
rises, it only remains to say that the cause which that day decided was
mine, and that I, who write this, was the boy "Digby Norcott."




CHAPTER II. WITH MY MOTHER

My mother lived in a little cottage at a place called the Green Lanes,
about three miles from Dublin. The name was happily given, for on every
side there were narrow roads overshadowed by leafy trees, which met
above and gave only glimpses of sky and cloud through their feathery
foliage. The close hedgerows of white or pink thorn limited the view on
either side, and imparted a something of gloom to a spot whose silence
was rarely broken, for it was not a rich man's neighborhood. They who
frequented it were persons of small fortune, retired subalterns in the
army, or clerks in public offices, and such like petty respectabilities
who preferred to herd together, and make no contrasts of their humble
means with larger, greater incomes.

Amongst the sensations I shall never forget - and which, while I write,
are as fresh as the moment I first felt them - were my feelings when the
car stopped opposite a low wicket, and Mr. McBride, the attorney, helped
me down and said, "This is your home, Digby; your mother lives here."
The next moment a pale but very handsome young woman came rushing down
the little path and clasped me in her arms. She had dropped on her knees
to bring her face to mine, and she kissed me madly and wildly, so that
my cap fell off. "See how my frill is all rumpled," said I, unused as
I was to such disconcerting warmth, and caring far more for my smart
appearance than for demonstrations of affection. "Oh, darling, never
mind it," sobbed she. "You shall have another and a nicer. I will make
it myself, for my own boy, - for you are mine, Digby. You are mine,
dearest, ain't you?"

"I am papa's boy," said I, doggedly.

"But you will love mamma too, Digby, won't you? - poor mamma, that has no
one to love her, or care for her if you do not; and who will so love
you in return, and do everything for you, - everything to make you
happy, - happy and good, Digby."

"Then let us go back to Earls Court. It's far prettier than this, and
there are great lions over the gateway, and wide steps up to the door. I
don't like this. It looks so dark and dreary, - it makes me cry." And to
prove it, I burst out into a full torrent of weeping, and my mother hung
over me and sobbed too; and long after the car had driven away, we
sat there on the grass weeping bitterly together, though there was no
concert in our sorrow, nor any soul to our grief.

That whole afternoon was passed in attempts to comfort and caress me by
my mother, and in petulant demands on my part for this or that luxury I
had left behind me. I wanted my nice bed with the pink curtains, and my
little tool-case. I wanted my little punt, my pony, my fishing-rod.
I wanted the obsequious servants, who ran at my bidding, and whose
respectful manner was a homage I loved to exact. Not one of these was
forthcoming, and how could I believe her who soothingly told me that her
love would replace them, and that her heart's affection would soon be
dearer to roe than all my toys and all the glittering presents that
littered my room? "But I want my pony," I cried; "I want my little dog
Fan, and I want to sit beside papa, and see him drive four horses, and
he lets me whip them too, and _you_ won't." And so I cried hysterically
again, and in these fretful paroxysms I passed my evening.

The first week of my life there was to me - it still is to me - like a
dream, - a sad, monotonous dream. Repulsed in every form, my mother still
persisted in trying to amuse or interest me, and I either sat in moody
silence, refusing all attention, or went off into passionate grief,
sobbing as if my heart would break. "Let him cry his fill," said old
Biddy the maid, - "let him cry his fill, and it will do him good." And I
could have killed her on the spot as she said it.

If Biddy Cassidy really opined that a hearty fit of crying would have
been a good alterative for me, she ought not to have expressed the
opinion in my presence, for there was that much of my father in me that
quickly suggested resistance, and I at once resolved that, no matter
what it might cost me, or by what other means I might find a vent for
my grief, I 'd cry no more. All my poor mother's caresses, all her
tenderness, and all her watchful care never acted on my character with
half the force or one-tenth of the rapidity that did this old hag's
attempt to thwart and oppose me. Her system was, by a continual
comparison between my present life and my past, to show how much better
off I was now than in my former high estate, and by a travesty of all I
had been used to, to pretend that anything like complaint from me would
be sheer ingratitude. "Here's the pony, darlin', waitin' for you to ride
him," she would say, as she would lay an old walking-stick beside my
door; and though the blood would rush to my head at the insult, and
something very nigh choking rise to my throat, I would master my passion
and make no reply. This demeanor was set down to sulkiness, and Biddy
warmly entreated my mother to suppress the temper it indicated, and, as
she mildly suggested, "cut it out of me when I was young" - a counsel, I
must own, she did not follow.

Too straitened in her means to keep a governess for me, and unwilling
to send me to a school, my mother became my teacher herself; and, not
having had any but the very commonest education, she was obliged to
acquire in advance what she desired to impart. Many a night would she
pore over the Latin Grammar, that she might be even one stage before me
in the morning. Over and over did she get up the bit of geography that
was to test my knowledge the next day; and in this way, while leading
_me_ on, she acquired, almost without being aware of it, a considerable
amount of information. Her faculties were above the common, and her zeal
could not be surpassed; so that, while I was stumbling and blundering
over "Swaine's Sentences," she had read all Sallust's "Catiline," and
most of the "Odes" of Horace; and long before I had mastered my German
declensions, she was reading "Grimm's Stories" and Auerbach's "Village
Sketches." Year after year went over quietly, uneventfully. I had long
ceased to remember my former life of splendor, or, if it recurred to
me, it came with no more of reality than the events of a dream. One day,
indeed, - I shall never forget it, - the past revealed itself before me
with the vivid distinctness of a picture, and, I shame to say, rendered
me unhappy and discontented for several days after. I was returning one
afternoon from a favorite haunt, where I used to spend hours, - the old
churchyard of Killester, a long-unused cemetery, with a ruined church
beside it, - when four spanking chestnuts came to the foot of the little
rise on which the ruin stood, and the servants, jumping down, undid the
bearing-reins, to breathe the cattle up the ascent. It was my father was
on the box; and as he skilfully brushed the flies from his horses with
his whip, gently soothing the hot-mettled creatures with his voice, I
bethought me of the proud time when I sat beside him, and when he talked
to me of the different tempers of each horse in the team, instilling
into me that interest and that love for them, as thinking sentient
creatures, which gives the horse a distinct character to all who have
learned thus to think of him from childhood. He never looked at me as he
passed. How should he recognize the little boy in the gray linen blouse
he was wont to see in black velvet with silver buttons? Perhaps I was
not sorry he did not know me. Perhaps I felt it easier to fight my own
shame alone than if it had been confessed and witnessed. At all events,
the sight sent me home sad and depressed, no longer able to take
pleasure in my usual pursuits, and turning from my toys and books with
actual aversion.

Remembering how all mention of my father used to affect my mother long
ago, seeing how painfully his mere name acted upon her, I forbore to
speak of this incident, and buried it in my heart, to think and ruminate
over when alone.

Time went on and on till I wanted but a few months of twelve, and my
lessons were all but dropped, as my mother's mornings were passed
either in letter-writing or in interviews with her lawyer. It was on
the conclusion of one of these councils that Mr. McBride led me into the
garden, and, seating me beside him on a bench, said, "I have something
to say to you, Digby; and I don't know that I 'd venture to say it, if
I had not seen that you are a thoughtful boy, and an affectionate son of
the best mother that ever lived. You are old enough, besides, to have a
right to know something about yourself and your future prospects, and it
is for that I have come out to-day." And with this brief preface he told
me the whole story of my father's and mother's marriage and separation;
and how it came to pass that I had been taken from one to live with the
other; and how the time was now drawing nigh - it wanted but two months
and ten days - when I should be once more under my father's guidance,
and totally removed from the influence of that mother who loved me so
dearly.

"We might fight the matter in the courts, it is true," said he. "There
are circumstances which might weigh with a judge whether he 'd remove
you from a position of safety and advantage to one of danger and
difficulty; but it would be the fight of a weak purse against a strong
one, not to say that it would also be the struggle of a poor mother's
heart against the law of the land; and I have at last persuaded her
it would be wiser and safer not to embitter the relations with your
father, - to submit to the inevitable; and not improbably you may be
permitted to see her from time to time, and, at all events, to write to
her." It took a long time for him to go through what I have so briefly
set down here; for there were many pros and cons, and he omitted none of
them; and while he studiously abstained from applying to my father any
expression of censure or reprobation, he could not conceal from me that
he regarded him as a very cold-hearted, unfeeling man, from whom little
kindness could be expected, and to whom entreaty or petition would be
lost time. I will not dwell on the impression this revelation produced
on me, nor will I linger on the time that followed on it, - the very
saddest of my life. Our lessons were stopped, - all the occupations that
once filled the day ceased, - a mournful silence fell upon us, as though
there was a death in the house; and there was, indeed, the death of that
peaceful existence in which we had glided along for years, and we sat
grieving over a time that was to return no more. My mother tried to
employ herself in setting my clothes in order, getting my books decently
bound, and enabling me in every way to make a respectable appearance in
that new life I was about to enter on; but her grief usually overcame
her in these attempts, and she would hang in tears over the little trunk
that recalled every memory she was so soon to regard as the last traces
of her child. Biddy, who had long, for years back, ceased to torment or
annoy me, came back with an arrear of bitterness to her mockeries and
sneers. "I was going to be a lord, and I'd not know the mother that
nursed me if I saw her in the street! Fine clothes and fine treatment
was more to me than love and affection; signs on it, I was turning my
back on my own mother, and going to live with the blackguard" - she
did n't mince the word - "that left her to starve." These neatly turned
compliments met me at every moment, and by good fortune served to arm
me with a sort of indignant courage that carried me well through all my
perils.

To spare my poor mother the pain of parting, Mr. McBride - I cannot say
how judiciously - contrived that I should be taken out for a drive
and put on board the packet bound for Holyhead, under the charge of a
courier, whom my father had sent to fetch me, to Brussels, where he was
then living. Of how I left Ireland, and journeyed on afterwards, I know
nothing; it was all confusion and turmoil. The frequent changes from
place to place, the noise, the new people, the intense haste that seemed
to pervade all that went on, addled me to that degree that I had few
collected thoughts at the time, and no memory of them afterwards.

From certain droppings of the courier, however, and his heartily
expressed joy as Brussels came in sight, I gathered that I had been
a very troublesome charge, and refractory to the very limit of actual
rebellion.




CHAPTER III. WITH MY FATHER.

At the time I speak of, my father dwelt in a villa near Brussels,
which had been built by or for Madame Malibran. It was a strange though
somewhat incongruous edifice, and more resembled a public building than
a private gentleman's residence. It stood in a vast garden, or rather
park, where fruit and forest trees abounded, and patches of flowers
came suddenly into view in most unexpected places. There were carriage
drives, too, so ingeniously managed that the visitor could be led to
believe the space ten times greater than it was in reality. The whole
inside and out savored strongly of the theatre, and every device of good
or bad taste - the latter largely predominating - had its inspiration in
the stage.

As we drove under the arched entrance gate, over which a crowned
leopard - the Norcott crest - was proudly rampant, I felt a strange throb
at my heart that proved the old leaven was still alive within me, and
that the feeling of being the son of a man of rank and fortune had a
strong root in my heart.

From the deep reverence of the gorgeous porter, who wore an embroidered
leather belt over his shoulder, to the trim propriety and order of
the noiseless avenue, all bespoke an amount of state and grandeur that
appealed very powerfully to me, and I can still recall how the
bronze lamps that served to light the approach struck me as something
wonderfully fine, as the morning's sun glanced on their crested tops.

The carriage drew up at the foot of a large flight of marble steps,
which led to a terrace covered by a long veranda.

Under, the shade of this two gentlemen sat at breakfast, both unknown
to me. "Whom have we here?" cried the elder, a fat, middle-aged man of
coarse features and stern expression, - "whom have we here?"

The younger - conspicuous by a dressing-gown and cap that glittered with
gold embroidery - looked lazily over the top of his newspaper, and said,
"That boy of Norcott's, I take it; he was to arrive to-day."

This was the first time I heard an expression that my ears were soon to
be well familiar to, and I cannot tell how bitterly the words insulted
me. "Who were they," I asked myself, "who, under my father's roof, could
dare so to call me! and why was I not styled Sir Roger Norcott's son,
and not thus disparagingly, 'that boy of Norcott's'?"

I walked slowly up the steps among these men as defiantly as though
there was a declared enmity between us, and was proceeding straight
towards the door, when the elder called out, "Holloa, youngster, come
here and report yourself! You 've just come, have n't you?"

"I have just come," said I, slowly; "but when I report myself it shall
be to my father, Sir Roger Norcott."

"You got that, Hotham, and I must say you deserved it too," said the
younger in a low tone, which my quick hearing, however, caught.

"Will you have some breakfast with us?" said the elder, with a faint
laugh, as though he enjoyed the encounter.



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