Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 10 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 10 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

heard - what, of course, was not meant for my ears - an explanation
given by one of the company of my singular appearance. He had lived in
England, and said that the English of every condition had a passion for
appearing to belong to some rank above their own; that to accomplish
this there was no sacrifice they would not make, for these assumptions
imposed upon those who made them fully as much as on the public they
were made for. "You 'll see," added he, "that the youth there, so long
as he figures in that fine dress, will act up to it, so far as he
knows how. He talked with a degree of assurance and fluency that gained
conviction, and I saw that his hearers went along with him, and there
soon began - very cautiously and very guardedly, indeed - a sort of
examination of me and my pretensions, for which, fortunately for me, I
was so far prepared.

"And do all English boys of your rank in life speak and read four
languages?" asked Herr Ignaz, after listening some time to my answers.

"You are assuming to know his rank, papa," whispered Sara, who watched
me closely during the whole interrogatory.

"Let him answer my question," rejoined the old man, roughly.

"Perhaps not all," said I, half amused at the puzzle I was becoming to

"Then how came it your fortune to know them, - that is, if you _do_ know

Slipping out of his question, I replied, "Nothing can be easier than
to test that point. There are gentlemen here whose acquirements go far
beyond mine."

"Your German is very good," said Sara. "Let me hear you speak French."

"It is too much honor for me," said I, bowing, "to address you at all."

"Is your Italian as neat in accent as that?" asked a lady near.

"I believe I am best in Italian, - of course, after English, - for I
always talked it with my music-master, as well as with my teacher."

"Music-master!" cried Herr Ignaz; "what phoenix have we here?"

"I don't think we are quite fair to this boy," said a stern-featured,
middle-aged man. "He has shown us that there is no imposition in his
pretensions, and we have no right to question him further. If Herr Ignaz
thinks you too highly gifted for his service, young man, come over to
Carl Bettmeyer's counting-house to-morrow at noon."

"I thank you, sir," said I, "and am very grateful; but if Herr Oppovich
will bear with me, I will not leave him."

Sara's eyes met mine as I spoke, and I cannot tell what a flood of
rapture her look sent into my heart.

"The boy will do well enough," muttered Herr Ignaz. "Let us have a
ramble through the grounds, and see how the skittle-players go on."

And thus passed off the little incident of my appearance: an incident
of no moment to any but myself, as I was soon to feel; for the company,
descending the steps, strayed away in broken twos or threes through the
grounds, as caprice or will inclined them.

If I were going to chronicle the fête itself, I might, perhaps, say
there was a striking contrast between the picturesque beauty of the
spot, and the pastime of those who occupied it The scene recalled
nothing so much as a village fair. All the simple out-of-door amusements
of popular taste were there. There were conjurors and saltimbanques and
fortune-tellers, lottery-booths and ninepin alleys and restaurants, only
differing from their prototypes in that there was nothing to pay. If a
considerable number of the guests were well pleased with the pleasures
provided for them, there were others no less amused as spectators of
these enjoyments, and the result was an amount of mirth and good humor
almost unbounded. There were representatives of almost every class
and condition, from the prosperous merchant or rich banker down to the
humblest clerk, or even the porter of the warehouse; and yet a certain
tone of equality pervaded all, and I observed that they mixed with each
other on terms of friendliness and familiarity that never recalled
any difference of condition; and this feature alone was an ample
counterpoise to any vulgarity observable in their manners. If there was
any "snobbery," it was of a species quite unlike what we have at home,
and I could not detect it.

While I strolled about, amusing myself with the strange sights and
scenes around me, I suddenly came upon a sort of merry-go-round, where
the performers, seated on small hobby-horses, tilted with a lance at a
ring as they spun round, their successes or failures being hailed with
cheers or with laughter from the spectators. To my intense astonishment,
I might almost say shame, Hanserl was there! Mounted on a fiery little
gray, with bloodshot eyes and a flowing tail, the old fellow seemed to
have caught the spirit of his steed, for he stood up in his stirrups,
and leaned forward with an eagerness that showed how he enjoyed the
sport. Why was it that the spectacle so shocked me? Why was it that I
shrunk back into the crowd, fearful that he might recognize me? Was it
not well if the poor fellow could throw off, even for a passing moment,
the weary drudgery of his daily life, and play the fool just for
distraction' sake? All this I could have believed and accepted a short
time before, and yet now a strange revulsion of feeling had come over
me and I went away, well pleased that Hans had not seen nor claimed me.
"These vulgar games don't amuse you," said a voice at my side; and I
turned and saw the merchant who, at the breakfast-table, invited me to
his counting-house.

"Not that," said I; "but they seem strange and odd at a private
entertainment I was scarce prepared to see them here."

"I suspect that is not exactly the reason," said he, laughing. "I know
something of your English tone of exclusiveness, and how each class of
your people has its appropriate pleasures. You scorn to be amused in low

"You seem to forget my own condition, sir."

"Come, come," said he, with a knowing look, "I am not so easily imposed
upon, as I told you awhile back. I know England. Your ways and notions
are all known to me. It is not in the place you occupy here young lads
are found who speak three or four languages, and have hands that show as
few signs of labor as yours. Mind," said he, quickly, "I don't want to
know your secret."

"If I had a secret, it is scarcely likely I 'd tell it to a stranger,"
said I, haughtily.

"Just so; you 'd know your man before you trusted him. Well, I 'm more
generous, and I 'm going to trust you, whom I never saw till half an
hour ago."

"Trust _me!_"

"Trust you," repeated he, slowly. "And first of all, what age would you
give that young lady whose birthday we are celebrating?"

"Seventeen - eighteen - perhaps nineteen."

"I thought you'd say so; she looks nineteen. Well, I can tell you her
age to an hour. She is fifteen to-day."


"Not a day older, and yet she is the most finished coquette in Europe.
Having given Fiume to understand that there is not a man here whose
pretensions she would listen to, her whole aim and object is to surround
herself with admirers, - I might say worshippers. Young fellows are fools
enough to believe they have a chance of winning her favor, while each
sees how contemptuously she treats the other. They do not perceive it is
the number of adorers she cares for."

"But what is all this to me?"

"Simply that you 'll be enlisted in that corps to-morrow," said he, with
a malicious laugh; "and I thought I 'd do you a good turn to warn you as
to what is in store for you."

"Me? _I_ enlisted! Why, just bethink you, sir, who and what I am: the
very lowest creature in her father's employment."

"What does that signify? There's a mystery about you. You are not - at
least you were not - what you seem now. You have as good looks and better
manners than the people usually about her. She can amuse herself with
you, and so far harmlessly that she can dismiss you when she's tired of
you, and if she can only persuade you to believe yourself in love
with her, and can store up a reasonable share of misery for you in
consequence, you 'll make her nearer being happy than she has felt this
many a day."

"I don't understand all this," said I, doubtingly.

"Well, you will one of these days; that is, unless you have the good
sense to take my warning in good part, and avoid her altogether."

"It will be quite enough for me to bear in mind who she is, and what _I_
am!" said I, calmly.

"You think so? Well, I don't agree with you. At all events, keep what I
have said to yourself, even if you don't mean to profit by it" And with
this he left me.

That strange education of mine, in which M. de Balzac figured as a chief
instructor, made me reflect on what I had heard in a spirit little
like that of an ordinary lad of sixteen years of age. Those wonderful
stories, in which passion and emotion represent action, and where the
great game of life is played out at a fireside or in a window recess,
and where feeling and sentiment war and fight and win or lose, - these
same tales supplied me with wherewithal to understand this man's
warnings, and at the same time to suspect his motives; and from that
moment my life became invested with new interests and new anxieties, and
to my own heart I felt myself a hero of romance.

As I sauntered on, revolving very pleasant thoughts to myself, I came
upon a party who were picnicking under a tree. Some of them graciously
made a place for me, and I sat down and ate my dinner with them. They
were very humble people, all of them, but courteous and civil to my
quality of stranger in a remarkable degree. Nor was I less struck by
the delicate forbearance they showed towards the host; for, while the
servant pressed them to drink Bordeaux and champagne, they merely took
the little wines of the country, perfectly content with simple fare and
the courtesy that offered them better.

When one of them asked me if I had ever seen a fête of such magnificence
in my own country, my mind went back to that costly entertainment of our
villa, and Pauline came up before me, with her long dark eyelashes, and
those lustrous eyes beaming with expression, and flashing with a light
that dazzled while it charmed. Coquetry has no such votaries as the
young. Its artifices, its studied graces, its thousand rogueries, to
them seem all that is most natural and most "naïve;" and thus every toss
of her dark curls, every little mock resentment of her beautiful mouth,
every bend and motion of her supple figure, rose to my mind, till I
pictured her image before me, and thought I saw her.

"What a hunt I have had after you, Herr Englander!" said a servant, who
came up to me all flushed and heated. "I have been over the whole park
in search of you."

"In search of _me?_ Surely you mistake."

"No; it is no mistake. I see no one here in a velvet jacket but
yourself; and Herr Ignaz told me to find you and tell you that there
is a place kept for you at his table, and they are at dinner now in the
large tent before the terrace."

I took leave of my friends, who rose respectfully to make their adieux
to the honored guest of the host, and I followed the servant to the
house. I was not without my misgivings that the scene of the morning,
with its unpleasant cross-examination of me, might be repeated, and I
even canvassed myself how far I ought to submit to such liberties; but
the event was not to put my dignity to the test I was received on terms
of perfect equality with those about me; and though the dinner had made
some progress before I arrived, it was with much difficulty I could
avoid being served with soup and all the earlier delicacies of the

I will not dwell on the day that to recall seems more to me like a page
out of a fairy tale than a little incident of daily life. I was, indeed,
to all intents, the enchanted prince of a story, who went about with the
lovely princess on his arm, for I danced the mazurka with the Fraulein
Sara, and was her partner several times during the evening, and finished
the fête with her in the cotillon; she declaring, in that calm quiet
voice that did not seek to be unheard around, that I alone could dance
the waltz à deux temps, and that I slid gently, and did not spring like
a Fiumano, or bound like a French bagman, - a praise that brought on
me some very menacing looks from certain commis-voyageurs near me, and
which I, confident in my "skill of fence," as insolently returned.

"You are not to return to the Hof, Herr von Owen, tomorrow," said she,
as we parted. "You are to wait on papa at his office at eleven o'clock."
And there was a staid dignity in her words that spoke command; but in
styling me "von" there was a whole world of recognition, and I kissed
her hand as I said good-night with all the deference of her slave, and
all the devotion of one who already felt her power and delighted in it.


Let me open this chapter with an apology, and I mean it not only to
extend to errors of the past, but to whatever similar blunders I may
commit hereafter. What I desire to ask pardon for is this: I find in
this attempt of mine to jot down a portion of my life, that I have laid
a most disproportionate stress on some passages the most insignificant
and unimportant. Thus, in my last chapter I have dwelt unreasonably on
the narrative of one day's pleasure, while it may be that a month,
or several months, shall pass over with scarcely mention. For this
fault - and I do not attempt to deny it is a fault - I have but one
excuse. It is this: my desire has been to place before my reader the
events, small as they might be, that influenced my life and decided
my destiny. Had I not gone to this fêtey for instance, - had I taken my
holiday in some quiet ramble into the hills alone, or had I passed
it, as I have passed scores of happy hours, in the solitude of my own
room, - how different might have been my fate!

We all of us know how small and apparently insignificant are the events
by which the course of our lives is shapen. A look we catch at parting,
a word spoken that might have passed unheard, a pressure of the hand
that might or might not have been felt, and straightway all our sailing
orders are revoked, and instead of north we go south. Bearing this in
mind, my reader will perhaps forgive me, and at least bethink him that
these things are not done by me through inadvertence, but of intention
and with forethought.

"So we are about to part," said Hanserl to me, as I awoke and found my
old companion at my bedside. "You 're the twenty-fifth that has left
me," said he, mournfully. "But look to it, Knabe, change is not always

"It was none of _my_ doing, Hanserl; none of _my_ seeking."

"If you had worn the gray jacket you wear on Sundays, there would have
been none of this, lad! I have seen double as many years in the yard as
you have been in the world, and none have ever seen me at the master's
table or waltzing with the master's daughter."

I could not help smiling, in spite of myself, at the thought of such a

"Nor is there need to laugh because I speak of dancing," said he,
quickly. "They could tell you up in Kleptowitz there are worse
performers than Hans Spouer; and if he is not an Englishman, he is an
honest Austrian!"

This he said with a sort of defiance, and as if he expected a reply.

"I have told you already, Hans," said I, soothingly, "that it was none
of my seeking if I am to be transferred from the yard. I was very happy
there, - very happy to be with you. We were good comrades in the past, as
I hope we may be good friends in the future."

"That can scarcely be," said he, sorrowfully. "I can have no friend in
the man I must say 'sir' to. It's Herr Ignaz's order," went he on, "he
sent for me this morning, and said, 'Hanserl, when you address Herr
von Owen,' - aye, he said Herr _von_ Owen, - 'never forget he is your
superior; and though he once worked with you here in the yard, that was
his caprice, and he will do so no more."

"But, Hans, my dear old friend."

"Ja, ja," said he, waving his hand. "Jetzt ist aus! It is all over now.
Here's your reckoning," and he laid a slip of paper on the bed: "Twelve
gulden for the dinners, three-fifty for wine and beer, two gulden for
the wash. There were four kreutzers for the girl with the guitar;
you bade me give her ten, but four was plenty, - that makes
seventeen-six-and-sixty: and you've twenty-three gulden and thirty-four
kreutzers in that packet, and so Lebwohl."

And, with a short wave of his hand, he turned away; and as he left
the room, I saw that the other hand had been drawn over his eyes, for
Hanserl was crying; but I buried my face in the clothes, and sobbed

My orders were to present myself at Herr Ignaz's private office by
noon. Careful not to presume on what seemed at least a happy turn in
my destiny, I dressed in my everyday clothes, studious only that they
should be clean and well-brushed.

"I had forgotten you altogether, boy," said Herr Ignaz, as I entered the
office, and he went on closing his desk and his iron safe before leaving
for dinner. "What was it I had to say to you? Can you help me to it,

"I'm afraid not, sir; I only know that you told me to be here at this

"Let me see," said he, thoughtfully. "There was no complaint against

"None, sir, that I know of."

"Nor have you any to make against old Hanserl?"

"Far from it, sir. I have met only kindness from him."

"Wait, wait, wait," said he. "I believe I am coming to it. It was Sara's
doing. Yes, I have it now. Sara said you should not be in the yard;
that you had been well brought up and cared for. A young girl's fancy,
perhaps. Your hands were white. But there is more bad than good in this.
Men should be in the station they 're fit for; neither above nor below
it. And you did well in the yard; ay, and you liked it?"

"I certainly was very happy there, sir."

"And that's all one strives for," said he, with a faint sigh; "to be at
rest, - to be at rest: and why would you change, boy?"

"I am not seeking a change, sir. I am here because you bade me."

"That's true. Come in and eat your soup with us, and we 'll see what the
girl says, for I have forgotten all about it."

He opened a small door which led by a narrow stair into a back street,
and, shuffling along, with his hat drawn over his eyes, made for the
little garden over the wooden bridge, and to his door. This he unlocked,
and then bidding me follow, he ascended the stairs.

The room into which we entered was furnished in the most plain and
simple fashion. A small table, with a coarse cloth and some common ware,
stood ready for dinner, and a large loaf on a wooden platter, occupied
the middle. There were but two places prepared; but the old man speedily
arranged a third place, muttering to himself the while, but what I could
not catch.

As he was thus engaged, the Fraulein entered. She was dressed in a sort
of brown serge, which, though of the humblest tissue, showed her figure
to great advantage, for it fitted to perfection, and designed the
graceful lines' of her shoulders, and her taper waist to great
advantage. She saluted me with the faintest possible smile, and said:
"You are come to dine with us?"

"If there be enough to give him to eat," said the old man, gruffly. "I
have brought him here, however, with other thoughts. There was something
said last night, - what was it, girl? - something about this lad, - do you
remember it?"

"Here is the soup, father," said she, calmly. "We'll bethink us of these
things by and by." There was a strange air of half-command in what she
said, the tone of one who asserted a certain supremacy, as I was soon
to see she did in the household. "Sit here, Herr von Owen," said she,
pointing to my place, and her words were uttered like an order.

In perfect silence the meal went on; a woman-servant entering to replace
the soup by a dish of boiled meat, but not otherwise waiting on us,
for Sara rose and removed our plates and served us with fresh ones, - an
office I would gladly have taken from her, and indeed essayed to do, but
at a gesture, and a look that there was no mistaking, I sat down again,
and, unmindful of my presence, they soon began to talk of business
matters, in which, to my astonishment, the young girl seemed thoroughly
versed. Cargoes of grain for Athens consigned to one house, were now to
be transferred to some other. There were large orders from France
for staves, to meet which some one should be promptly despatched into
Hungary. Hemp, too, was wanted for England. There was a troublesome
litigation with an Insurance Company at Marseilles, which was evidently
going against the House of Oppovich. So unlike was all this the tone of
dinner conversation I was used to that I listened in wonderment how they
could devote the hour of social enjoyment and relaxation to details so
perplexing and so vulgar.

"There is that affair of the leakage, too," cried Herr Ignaz, setting
down his glass before drinking; "I had nigh forgotten it."

"I answered the letter this morning," said the girl, gravely. "It is
better it should be settled at once, while the exchanges are in our

"And pay - pay the whole amount," cried he, angrily.

"Pay it all," replied she, calmly. "We must not let them call us
litigious, father. You have _friends_ here," and she laid emphasis on
the word, "that would not be grieved to see you get the name."

"Twenty-seven thousand gulden!" exclaimed he, with a quivering lip. "And
how am I to save money for your dowry, girl, with losses like these?"

"You forget, sir, we are not alone," said she, proudly. "This young
Englishman can scarcely feel interested in these details." She arose
as she spoke, and placed a few dishes of fruit on the table, and then
served us with coffee; the whole done so unobtrusively and in such quiet
fashion as to make her services appear a routine that could not call for

"The 'Dalmat' will not take our freight," said he, suddenly. "There is
some combination against us there."

"I will look to it," said she, coldly. "Will you try these figs, Herr
von Owen? Fiume, they say, rivals Smyrna in purple figs."

"I will have no more to do with figs or olives either," cried out Herr
Ignaz. "The English beat you down to the lowest price, and then refuse
your cargo for one damaged crate. I have had no luck with England."

Unconsciously, I know it was, his eyes turned fully on me as he spoke,
and there was a defiance in his look that seemed like a personal

"He does not mean it for you," said the Fräulein, gently in my ear, and
her voice gained a softness I did not know it possessed.

Perhaps the old man's thoughts had taken a very gloomy turn, for he
leaned his head on his hand, and seemed sunk in revery. The Fräulein
rose quietly, and, beckoning me to follow her, moved noiselessly into an
adjoining room. This chamber, furnished a little more tastefully, had a
piano, and some books and prints lay about on the tables.

"My father likes to be left alone at times," said she, gravely; "and
when you know us better, you will learn to see what these times are."
She took up some needlework she had been engaged on, and sat down on a
sofa. I did not well know whether to take my leave or keep her company;
and while I hesitated she appeared to read my difficulty, and said, "You
are free, Herr von Owen, if you have any engagement."

"I have none," said I; then remembering that the speech might mean to
dismiss me, I added hastily, "but it is time to go."

"Good-bye, then," said she, making me a slight bow; and I went.


On the following day the cashier sent for me to say it was Herr
Oppovich's wish that I should be attached to some department in the
office, till I had fully mastered its details, and then be transferred
to another, and so on, till I had gradually acquainted myself with the
whole business of the house. "It's an old caprice of Herr Ignaz's," said
he, "which repeated failures have not yet discouraged him with. You 're
the fifth he has tried to make a supervisor of, and you'll follow the

"Is it so very difficult to learn?" asked I, modestly.

"Perhaps to one of your acquirements it might not," said he, with quiet
irony, "but, for a slight example: here, in this office, we correspond
with five countries in their own languages; yonder, in that room, they
talk modern Greek and Albanian and Servian; there's the Hungarian group,
next that bow window, and that takes in the Lower Danube; and in what we
call the Expeditions department there are; fellows who speak seventeen

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 10 of 17)