Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 11 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 11 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


dialects, and can write ten or twelve. So much for languages. Then what
do you say to mastering - since that's the word they have for it - the
grain trade from Russia, rags from Transylvania, staves from Hungary,
fruit from the Levant, cotton from Egypt, minerals from Lower Austria,
and woollen fabrics from Bohemia? We do something in all of these,
besides a fair share in oak bark and hemp."

"Stop, for mercy's sake!" I cried out "It would take a lifetime to gain
a mere current knowledge of these."

"Then, there's the finance department," said he; "watching the rise and
fall of the exchanges, buying and selling gold. Herr Ulrich, in that
office with the blue door, could tell you it's not to be picked up of
an afternoon. Perhaps you might as well begin with him; his is not a bad
school to take the fine edge off you."

"I shall do whatever you advise me."

"I'll speak to Herr Ulrich, then," said he; and he left me, to return
almost immediately, and conduct me within the precincts of the blue
door.

Herr Ulrich was a tall, thin, ascetic-looking man, with his hair brushed
rigidly back from the narrowest head I ever saw. His whole idea of life
was the office, which he arrived at by daybreak, and never left, except
to visit the Bourse, till late at night. He disliked, of all things, new
faces about him; and it was a piece of malice on the cashier's part to
bring me before him.

"I believed I had explained to Herr Ignaz already," said he to the
cashier, "that I am not a schoolmaster."

"Well, well," broke in the other, in a muffled voice, "try the lad. He
may not be so incompetent. They tell me he has had some education."

Herr Ulrich raised his spectacles, and surveyed me from head to foot for
some seconds. "You have been in the yard?" said he, in question.

"Yes, sir."

"And is counting oaken staves the first step to learning foreign
exchanges, think you?"

"I should say not, sir."

"I know whose scheme this is, well enough," muttered he. "I see it all.
That will do. You may leave us to talk together alone," said he to the
cashier. "Sit down there, lad; there 's your own famous newspaper, the
'Times.' Make me a _précis_ of the money article as it touches Austrian
securities and Austrian enterprises; contrast the report there given
with what that French paper contains; and don't leave till it be
finished." He returned to his high stool as he spoke, and resumed his
work. On the table before me lay a mass of newspapers in different
languages; and I sat down to examine them with the very vaguest notion
of what was expected of me.

Determined to do something, - whatever that something might be, - I
opened the "Times" to find out the money article; but, little versed in
journalism, I turned from page to page without discovering it. At last
I thought I should find it by carefully scanning the columns; and so
I began at the top and read the various headings, which happened to be
those of the trials then going on. There was a cause of salvage on the
part of the owners of the "Lively Jane;" there was a disputed ownership
of certain dock warrants for indigo, a breach of promise case, and
a suit for damages for injuries incurred on the rail. None of these,
certainly, were financial articles. At the head of the next column I
read: "Court of Probate and Divorce, - Mr. Spanks moved that the decree
_nisi_, in the suit of Cleremont v. Cleremont, be made absolute. Motion
allowed. The damages in this suit against Sir Roger Norcott have been
fixed at eight thousand five hundred pounds."

From these lines I could not turn my eyes. They revealed nothing, it
is true, but what I knew well must happen; but there is that in a
confirmation of a fact brought suddenly before us, that always awakens
deep reflection: and now I brought up before my mind my poor mother,
deserted and forsaken, and my father, ruined in character, and perhaps
in fortune.

I had made repeated attempts to find out my mother's address, but all
my letters had failed to reach her. Could there be any chance of
discovering her through this suit? Was it possible that she might have
intervened in any way in it? And, last of all, would this lawyer,
whose name appeared in the proceedings, take compassion on my unhappy
condition, and aid me to discover where my mother was? I meditated
long over all this, and I ended by convincing myself that there are few
people in the world who are not well pleased to do a kind thing which
costs little in the doing; and so I resolved I would write to Mr.
Spanks, and address him at the court he practised in. I could not help
feeling that it was at a mere straw I was grasping; but nothing more
tangible lay within my «reach. I wrote thus: -

"Sir, - I am the son and only child of Sir Roger and Lady Norcott; and
seeing that you have lately conducted a suit against my father, I ask
you, as a great favor, to let me know where my mother is now living,
that I may write to her. I know that I am taking a great liberty in
obtruding this request upon you; but I am very friendless, and very
little versed in worldly knowledge. Will you let both these deficiencies
plead for me? and let me sign myself

"Your grateful servant,

"Digby Norcott.

"You can address me at the house of Hodnig and Oppovich, Fiume, Austria,
where I am living as a clerk, and under the name of Digby Owen, - Owen
being the name of my mother's family."

I was not very well pleased with the composition of this letter; but it
had one recommendation, which I chiefly sought for, - it was short, and
for this reason I hoped it might be favorably received. I read it over
and over, each time seeing some new fault, or some omission to correct;
and then I would turn again to the newspaper, and ponder over the few
words that meant so much and yet revealed so little. How my mother's
position would be affected - if at all - by this decision I could not
tell. Indeed, it was the mere accident of hearing divorce discussed
at my father's table that enabled me to know what the terms of the law
implied. And thus I turned from my letter to the newspaper, and back
again from the newspaper to my letter, so engrossed by the theme that
I forgot where I was, and utterly forgot all about that difficult task
Herr Ulrich had set me. Intense thought and weariness of mind, aided
by the unbroken stillness of the place, made me heavy and drowsy. From
poring over the paper, I gradually bent down till my head rested on it,
and I fell sound asleep.

I must have passed hours thus, for it was already evening when I awoke.
Herr Ulrich was about to leave the office, and had his hat on, as he
aroused me.

"It is supper-time, youngster," said he, laying his hand on my shoulder.
"Yes, you may well wonder where you are. What are you looking for?"

"I thought, sir, I had written a letter Just before I fell asleep. I was
writing here." And I turned over the papers and shook them, tossing them
wildly about, to discover the letter, but in vain. It was not there.
Could it have been that I had merely composed it in my mind, and never
have committed it to paper? But that could scarcely be, seeing how fresh
in my memory were all the doubts and hesitations that had beset me.

"I am sure I wrote a letter here," said I, trying to recall each
circumstance to my mind.

"When you have finished dreaming, lad, I will lock the door," said he,
waiting to see me pass out.

"Forgive me one moment, sir, only one," cried I, wildly, scattering
the papers over the table. "It is of consequence to me - what I have
written."

"That is, if you have written anything," said he, dryly.

The grave tone of this doubt determined the conflict in my mind.

"I suppose you are right," said I; "it was a dream." And I arose and
followed him out.

As I reached the foot of the stairs, I came suddenly on Herr Ignaz and
his daughter. It was a common thing for her to come and accompany him
home at the end of the day's work; and as latterly he had become much
broken and very feeble, she scarcely missed a day in this attention.
"Oh, here he is!" I heard her say as I came up. What he replied I could
not catch, but it was with some earnestness he rejoined, -

"Herr von Owen, my father wishes to say that they have mistaken his
instructions regarding you in the office. He never expected you could at
once possess yourself of all the details of a varied business; he meant
that you should go about and see what branch you would like to attach
yourself to, and to do this he will give you ample time. Take a week;
take two; a month, if you like." And she made a little gesture of
friendly adieu with her hand, and passed on.




CHAPTER XXII. UNWISHED-FOR PROMOTION

The morning after this brief intimation I attached myself to that
department of the house whose business was to receive and reply to
telegraphic messages. I took that group of countries whose languages I
knew, and addressed myself to my task in right earnest. An occupation
whose chief feature is emergency will always possess a certain interest,
but beyond this there was not anything attractive in my present pursuit.
A peremptory message to sell this or buy that, to push on vigorously
with a certain enterprise or to suspend all action in another, would
perhaps form the staple of a day's work. When disasters occurred, too,
it was their monetary feature alone was recorded. The fire that consumed
a warehouse was told with reference to the amount insured; the shipwreck
was related by incidents that bore on the lost cargo, and the damage
incurred. Still it was less monotonous than the work of the office,
and I had a certain pride in converting the messages - sometimes
partly, sometimes totally unintelligible - into language that could be
understood, that imparted a fair share of ambition to my labor.

My duty was to present myself, with my book in which I had entered the
despatches, each evening, at supper-time, at Herr Ignaz's house. He
would be at table with his daughter when I arrived, and the interview
would pass somewhat in this wise: Herr Oppovich would take the book from
my hands without a word or even a look at me, and the Fraulein, with a
gentle bend of the head, but without the faintest show of more intimate
greeting, would acknowledge mc. She would continue to eat as I stood
there, as unmindful of me as though I were a servant. Having scanned the
book over, he would hand it across to his daughter, and then would ensue
a few words in whisper, after which the Fräulein would write opposite
each message some word of reply or of comment such as, "Already provided
for," "Further details wanted," "Too late," or such like, but never
more than a few words, and these she would write freely, and only
consulting herself. The old man - whose memory failed him more and more
every day, and whose general debility grew rapidly - did no more than
glance at the answers and nod an acceptance of them. In giving the book
back to me, she rarely looked up, but if she did so, and if her eyes
met mine, their expression was cold and almost defiant; and thus, with a
slight bend of the head, I would be dismissed.

Nor was this reception the less chilling that, before I had well closed
the door, they would be in full conversation again, showing that my
presence it was which had inspired the constraint and reserve. These,
it might be thought, were not very proud nor blissful moments to me, and
yet they formed the happiest incident of my day, and I actually longed
for the hour, as might a lover to meet his mistress. To gaze at will
upon her pale and beautiful face, to watch the sunlight as it played
upon her golden hair, which she wore - in some fashion, perhaps, peculiar
to her race - in heavy masses of curls, that fell over her back and
shoulders; her hand, too, a model of symmetry, and with the fingers
rose-tipped, like the goddesses of Homer, affected me as a spell; and
I have stood there unconsciously staring at it till warned by a second
admonition to retire.

[Illustration: 009]

Perhaps the solitude in which I lived helped to make me dwell more
thoughtfully on this daily-recurring interview; for I went nowhere, I
associated with no one, I dined alone, and my one brisk walk for health
and exercise I took by myself. When evening came, and the other clerks
frequented the theatre, I went home to read, or as often to sit and
think.

"Sara tells me," said the old man one day, when some rare chance had
brought him to my office, - "Sara tells me that you are suffering from
over-confinement. She thinks you look pale and worn, and that this
constant work is telling on you."

"Far from it, sir. I am both well and happy; and if I needed to be made
happier, this thoughtful kindness would make me so."

"Yes; she is very kind, and very thoughtful too; but, as well as these,
she is despotic," said he, with a faint laugh; "and so she has decided
that you are to exchange with M. Marsac, who will be here by Saturday,
and who will put you up to all the details of his walk. He buys our
timber for us in Hungary and Transylvania; and he, too, will enjoy a
little rest from constant travel."

"I don't speak Hungarian, sir," began I, eager to offer an opposition to
the plan.

"Sara says you are a quick learner, and will soon acquire it, - at least,
enough for traffic."

"It is a business, too, that I suspect requires much insight into the
people and their ways."

"You can't learn them younger, lad; and as all those we deal with are
old clients of the house, you will not be much exposed to rogueries."

"But if I make mistakes, sir? If I involve you in difficulty and in
loss?"

"You 'll repay it by zeal, lad, and by devotion, as we have seen you do
here."

He waved his hand in adieu, and left me to my own thoughts. Very sad
thoughts they were, as they told me of separation from her that gave the
whole charm to my life. Sara's manner to me had been so markedly cold
and distant for some time past, so unlike what it had been at first,
that I could not help feeling that, by ordering me away, some evidence
of displeasure was to be detected. The old man I at once exculpated, for
every day showed him less and less alive to the business of "the House;"
though, from habit, he persisted in coming down every morning to the
office, and believed himself the guide and director of all that went on
there.

I puzzled myself long to think what I could have done to forfeit her
favor. I had never in the slightest degree passed that boundary of
deference that I was told she liked to exact from all in the service
of the house. I had neglected no duty, nor, having no intimates or
associates, had I given opportunity to report of me that I had said this
or that of my employers. I scrutinized every act of my daily life, and
suggested every possible and impossible cause for this coldness; but
without approaching a reason at all probable. While I thus doubted and
disputed with myself, the evening despatches arrived, and among them
a letter addressed to myself. It bore the post-mark of the town alone,
with this superscription, "Digby Owen, Esq., at Messrs. Oppovich's,
Fiume." I tore it open and read, -

"The address you wish for is, 'Lady Norcott, Sunday's Well, Cork,
Ireland.'"

The writing looked an English hand, and the language was English. There
was no date, nor any signature. Could it have been, then, that I had
folded and sealed and sent on my letter - that letter I believed I had
never written - without knowing it, and that the lawyer had sent me this
reply, which, though long delayed, might have been postponed till he
had obtained the tidings it conveyed? At all events, I had got my
dear mother's address, - at least I hoped so. This point I resolved to
ascertain at once, and sat down to write to her. It was a very flurried
note I composed, though I did my very best to be collected. I told her
how and where I was, and by what accident of fortune I had come here;
that I had reasonable hopes of advancement, and even now had a salary
which was larger than I needed. I was afraid to say much of what I
wished to tell her, till I was sure my letter would reach her; and I
entreated her to write to me by return of post, were it but a line. I
need not say how many loves I sent her, nor what longings to be again
beside her, to hold her hand, and hear her voice, and call her by that
dearest of all the names affection cherishes. "I am going from this in
a few days into Hungary," added I; "but address me here, and it shall be
sent after me.

When I had finished my letter, I again turned my thoughts to this
strange communication, so abrupt and so short. How came it to Fiume,
too? Was it enclosed in some other letter, and to whom? If posted in
Fiume, why not written there? Ay; but by whom? Who could know that I had
wished for my mother's address? It was a secret buried in my own heart.

I suddenly determined I would ask the Fraulein Sara to aid me in
unravelling this mystery, which, of course, I could do without
disclosing the contents of the note. I hurried off to the house, and
asked if she would permit me to speak to her.

"Yes. The Fräulein was going out; but if my business was brief, she
would see me."

She was in bonnet and shawl as I entered, and stood with one hand on a
table, looking very calm but somewhat haughty.

"I beg your pardon, M. Owen," said she, "if I say that I can only give
you a few minutes, and will not ask you even to sit down. If it be a
matter of the office - "

"No, Mademoiselle; it is not a matter of the office - -"

"Then, if it relate to your change of occupation - "

"No, Mademoiselle, not even to that. It is a purely personal question. I
have got a letter, with a Fiume postmark on it, but without the writer's
name; and I am curious to know if you could aid me to discover him.
Would you look at the hand and see if it be known to you?"

"Pray excuse me, M. Owen. I am the stupidest of all people in reading
riddles or solving difficulties. All the help I can give you is to say
how I treat anonymous letters myself. If they be simply insults, I burn
them. If they relate what appear to be matters of fact, I wait and watch
for them."

Offended by the whole tone of her manner, I bowed, and moved towards the
door.

"Have you seen M. Marsac? I hear he has arrived."

"No, Mademoiselle; not yet."

"When you have conferred and consulted with him, your instructions are
all prepared; and I suppose you are ready to start?"

"I shall be, Mademoiselle, when called upon."

"I will say good-bye, then," said she, advancing one step towards me,
evidently intending to offer me her hand; but I replied by a low, very
low bow, and retired.

I thought I should choke as I went down the stairs. My throat seemed to
swell, and then to close up; and when I gained the shelter of the thick
trees, I threw myself down on my face in the grass, and sobbed as if
my heart was breaking. How I vowed and swore that I would tear every
recollection of her from my mind, and never think more of her, and how
her image ever came back clearer and brighter and more beautiful before
me after each oath!




CHAPTER XXIII. THE MAN WHO TRAVELLED FOR OUR HOUSE

As I sat brooding over my fire that same evening, my door was suddenly
opened, and a large burly man, looming even larger from an immense fur
pelisse that he wore, entered. His first care was to divest himself of a
tall Astracan cap, from which he flung off some snow-flakes, and then
to throw off his pelisse, stamping the snow from his great boots, which
reached half-way up the thigh.

"You see," cried he, at last, with a jovial air, - "you see I come, like
a good comrade, and make myself at home at once."

"I certainly see so much," said I, dryly; "but whom have I the honor to
receive?"

"You have the honor to receive Gustave Maurice de Marsac, young man,
a gentleman of Dauphiné, who now masquerades in the character of first
traveller for the respectable house of Hodnig and Oppovich."

"I am proud to make your acquaintance, M. de Marsac," said I, offering
my band.

"What age are you?" cried he, staring fixedly at me. "You can't be
twenty?"

"No, I am not twenty."

"And they purpose to send you down to replace _me!_" cried he; and he
threw himself back in his chair, and shook with laughter.

"I see all the presumption; but I can only say it was none of my doing."

"No, no; don't say presumption," said he, in a half-coaxing tone. "But
I may say it, without vanity, it is not every man's gift to be able to
succeed Gustave de Marsac. May I ask for a cigar? Thanks. A real Cuban,
I verily believe. I finished my tobacco two posts from this, and have
been smoking all the samples - pepper and hemp-seed amongst them - since
then."

"May I offer you something to eat?"

"You may, if you accompany it with something to drink. Would you believe
it, Oppovich and his daughter were at supper when I arrived to report
myself; and neither of them as much as said, Chevalier - I mean Mon. de
Marsac - won't you do us the honor to join us? No. Old Ignaz went on with
his meal, - cold veal and a potato salad, I think it was; and the fair
Sara examined my posting-book to see I had made no delay on the road;
but neither offered me even the courtesy of a glass of wine."

"I don't suspect it was from any want of hospitality," I began.

"An utter want of everything, _mon cher_. Want of decency; want of
delicacy; want of due deference to a man of birth and blood. I see you
are sending your servant out. Now, I beg, don't make a stranger - don't
make what we call a 'Prince Russe' of me. A little quiet supper, and
something to wash it down; good fellowship will do the rest. May I give
your man the orders?"

"You will confer a great favor on me," said I.

He took my servant apart, and whispered a few minutes with him at the
window. "Try Kleptomitz first," said he aloud, as the man was leaving;
"and mind you say M. Marsac sent you. Smart 'bursche' you've got there.
If you don't take him with you, hand him over to me."

"I will do so," said I; "and am happy to have secured him a good
master."

"You'll not know him when you pass through Fiume again. I believe
there's not my equal in Europe to drill a servant. Give me a Chinese,
an Esquimau; give me a Hottentot, and in six months you shall see him
announce a visitor, deliver a letter, wait at table, or serve coffee,
with the quiet dignity and the impassive steadiness of the most
accomplished lackey. The three servants of Fiume were made by me, and
their fortunes also. One has now the chief restaurant at Rome, in the
Piazza di Spagna; the other is manager of the 'Iron Crown Hotel,' at
Zurich; he wished to have it called the 'Arms of Marsac,' but I forbade
him. I said, 'No, Pierre, no. The De Marsacs are now travelling incog.'
Like the Tavannes and the Rohans, we have to wait and bide our time.
Louis Napoleon is not immortal. Do you think he is?"

"I have no reason to think so."

"Well, well, you are too young to take interest in politics; not but
that _I_ did at fourteen: I conspired at fourteen! I will show you a
stiletto Mazzini gave me on my birthday; and the motto on the blade was,
'Au service du. Roi.' Ah! you are surprised at what I tell you. I hear
you say to yourself, 'How the devil did he come to this place? what led
him to Fiume?' A long story that; a story poor old Dumas would give
one of his eyes for. There's more adventure, more scrapes by villany,
dangers and deathblows generally, in the last twenty-two years of my
life - I am now thirty-six - than in all the Monte Cristos that ever were
written. I will take the liberty to put another log on your fire. What
do you say if we lay the cloth? It will expedite matters a little."

"With all my heart. Here are all my household goods," said I, opening a
little press in the wall.

"And not to be despised, by any means. Show me what a man drinks out of,
and I'll tell you what he drinks. When a man has got thin glasses like
these, - _à la Mousseline_, as we say, - his tipple is Bordeaux."

"I confess the weakness," said I, laughing.

"It is my own infirmity too," said he, sighing. "My theory is, plurality
of wines is as much a mistake as plurality of wives. Coquette, if you
will, with fifty, but give your affections to one. If I am anything,
I am moral. What can keep your fellow so long? I gave him but two
commissions."

"Perhaps the shops were closed at this hour."

"If they were, sir," said he, pompously, "at the word 'Marsac' they
would open. Ha! what do I see here? - a piano? Am I at liberty to open
it?" And without waiting for a reply, he sat down, and ran his hands


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 11 of 17)