Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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once, write to me, to the care of Hodnig and Oppovich, and add, 'to be
forwarded.'"

I enclosed a little photograph of the town, as seen from the bay, and
though ill done and out of drawing, it still conveyed some notion of the
pretty spot with its mountain framework.

I had it in my head to write another letter, and, indeed, made about
a dozen attempts to begin it. It was to Pauline. Nothing but very
boyishness could have ever conceived such a project, but I thought - it
was very simple of me! - I thought I owed it to her, and to my
own loyalty, to declare that my heart had wandered from its first
allegiance, and fixed its devotion on another. I believed - I was young
enough to believe it - that I had won her affections, and I felt it
would be dishonorable in me to deceive her as to my own. I suppose I was
essaying a task that would have puzzled a more consummate tactician than
myself, for certainly nothing could be more palpable than my failures;
and though I tried, with all the ingenuity I possessed, to show that in
my altered fortunes I could no longer presume to retain any hold on her
affections, somehow it would creep out that my heart had opened to a
sentiment far deeper and more enthralling than that love which began in
a polka and ended at the railway.

I must own I am now grateful to my stupidity and ineptness, which saved
me from committing this great blunder, though at the time I mourned over
my incapacity, and bewailed the dulness that destroyed every attempt
I made to express myself gracefully. I abandoned the task at length in
despair, and set to work to pack up for my journey. I was to start at
daybreak for Agram, where some business would detain me a couple of
days. Thence I was to proceed to a small frontier town in Hungary,
called Ostovich, on the Drave, where we owned a forest of oak scrub, and
which I was empowered to sell, if an advantageous offer could be had.
If such should not be forthcoming, my instructions were to see what
water-power existed in the neighborhood to work saw-mills, and to report
fully on the price of labor, and the means of conveyance to the coast.
If I mention these details, even passingly, it is but to show the sort
of work that was intrusted to me, and how naturally my pride was touched
at feeling how great and important were the interests confided to my
judgment. In my own» esteem, at least, I was somebody. This sentiment,
felt in the freshness of youth, is never equalled by anything one
experiences of triumph in after life, for none of our later successes
come upon hearts joyous in the day-spring of existence, hopeful of all
things, and, above all, hearts that have not been jarred by envy and
made discordant by ungenerous rivalry.

There was an especial charm, too, in the thought that my life was no
every-day common-place existence, but a strange series of ups and downs,
changes and vicissitudes, calling for continual watchfulness, and no
small amount of energy; in a word, I was a hero to myself, and it is
wonderful what a degree of interest can be imparted to life simply by
that delusion. My business at Agram was soon despatched. No news of the
precarious condition of our "house" had reached this place, and I was
treated with all the consideration due to the confidential agent of
a great firm. I passed an evening in the society of the town, and was
closely questioned whether Carl Bettmeyer had got over his passion
for the Fraulein Sara; or was she showing any disposition to look
more favorably on his addresses. What fortune Oppovich could give his
daughter, and what sort of marriage he aspired to for her, were all
discussed. There was one point, however, all were agreed upon, that
nothing could be done without the consent of the "Baron," as they
distinctively called the great financier of Paris, whose sway, it
appeared, extended not only to questions of trade and; money, but to
every relation of domestic life.

"They say," cried one, "that the Baron likes Bettmeyer, and has thrown
some good things in his way of late."

"He gave him a share in that new dock contract at Pola."

"And he means to give him the directorship of the Viecovar line, if it
ever be made."

"He 'll give him Sara Oppovich for a wife," said a third, "and that's a
better speculation than them all. Two millions of florins at least."

"She's the richest heiress in Croatia."

"And does n't she know it!" exclaimed another. "The last time I was up
at Fiume, old Ignaz apologized for not presenting me to her, by saying,
'Yesterday was her reception day; if you are here next Wednesday, I 'll
introduce you.'"

"I thought it was only the nobles had the custom of reception days?"

"Wealth is nobility nowadays; and if Ignaz Oppovich was not a Jew, he
might have the best blood of Austria for a son-in-law."

The discussion soon waxed warm as to whether Jews did or did not aspire
to marriage with Christians of rank, the majority opining to believe
that they placed title and station above even riches, and that no
people had such an intense appreciation of the value of condition as the
Hebrew.

"That Frenchman who was here the other day, Marsac, told me that the
man who could get the Stephen Cross for old Oppovich, and the title of
Chevalier, would be sure of his daughter's hand in marriage."

"And does old Ignaz really care for such a thing?"

"No, but the girl does; she's the haughtiest and the vainest damsel in
the province."

It may be believed that I found it very hard to listen to such words as
these in silence, but it was of the last importance that I should not
make what is called an _éclat_, or bring the name of Oppovich needlessly
forward for town talk and discussion; I therefore repressed my
indignation and appeared to take little interest in the conversation.

"You've seen the Fräulein, of course?" asked one of me.

"To be sure he has, and has been permitted to kneel and kiss her hand on
her birthday," broke in another.

And while some declared that this was mere exaggeration and gossip,
others averred that they had been present and witnessed this act of
homage themselves.

"What has this young gentleman seen of this hand-kissing?" said a lady
of the party, turning to me.

"That it was always an honor conferred even more than a homage rendered,
Madam," said I, stepping forward and kissing her hand; and a pleasant
laughter greeted this mode of concluding the controversy.

"I have got a wager about you," said a young man to me, "and you alone
can decide it. Are you or are you not from Upper Austria?"

"And are you a Jew?" cried another.

"If you'll promise to ask me no more questions, I'll answer both of
these, - I am neither Jew nor Austrian."

It was not, however, so easy to escape my questioners; but as their
curiosity seemed curbed by no reserves of delicacy, I was left free
to defend myself as best I might, and that I had not totally failed, I
gathered from hearing an old fellow whisper to another, -

"You 'll get nothing out of him: if he 's not a Jew by birth, he has
lived long enough with them to keep his mind to himself."

Having finished all I had to do at Agram, I started for Ostovitz. I
could find no purchaser for our wood; indeed every one had timber to
sell, and forests were offered me on all sides. It was just at that
period in Austria when the nation was first waking to thoughts
of industrial enterprise, and schemes of money-getting were rife
everywhere; but such was the ignorance of the people, so little versed
were they in affairs, that they imagined wealth was to pour down upon
them for the wishing, and that Fortune asked of her votaries neither
industry nor thrift.

Perhaps I should not have been led into these reflections here if it
were not that I had embodied them, or something very like them, in a
despatch I sent off to Sara, - a despatch on which I had expended all my
care to make it a masterpiece of fine writing and acute observation. I
remember how I expatiated on the disabilities of race, and how I dwelt
upon the vices of those lethargic temperaments of Eastern origin which
seemed so wanting in all that energy and persistence which form the life
of commerce.

This laborious essay took me an entire day to write; but when I had
posted it at night, I felt I had done a very grand thing, not only as an
intellectual effort, but as a proof to the Fräulein how well I knew how
to restrict myself within the limits of my duties; for not a sentence,
not a syllable, had escaped me throughout to recall thoughts of anything
but business. I had asked for certain instructions about Hungary, and on
the third day came the following, in Sara's hand: -

"Herr Digby, - There is no mention in your esteemed letter of the 4th
November of Kraus's acceptance, nor have you explained to what part of
Heydager's contract Hauser now objects. Freights are still rising here,
and it would be imprudent to engage in any operations that involve
exportation. Gold is also rising, and the Bank discount goes daily
higher. I am obliged to you for your interesting remarks on ethnology,
though I am low-minded enough to own, I could have read with more
pleasure whether the floods in the Drave have interfered with the rafts,
and also whether these late rains have damaged the newly sown crops.

"If you choose to see Pesth and Buda, you will have time, for Count
Hunyadi will not be at his chateau till nigh Christmas; but it is
important you should see him immediately on his arrival, for his
intendant writes to say that the Graf has invited a large party of
friends to pass the festival with him, and will not attend to any
business matters while they remain. Promptitude will be therefore
needful. I have nothing to add to your instructions already given.
Although I have not been able to consult my father, whose weakness is
daily greater, I may say that you are empowered to make a compromise, if
such should seem advisable, and your drafts shall be duly honored, if,
time pressing, you are not in a position to acquaint us with details.

"The weather here is fine now. I passed yesterday at Abazzia, and the
place was looking well. I believe the Archduke will purchase it, and,
though sorry on some accounts, I shall be glad on the whole.

"For Hodnig and Oppovich,

"Sara Oppovich.

"Of course, if Count Hunyadi will not transact business on his arrival,
you will have to await his convenience. Perhaps the interval could be
profitably passed in Transylvania, where, it is said, the oak-bark is
both cheap and good. See to this, if opportunity serves. Bieli's book
and maps are worth consulting."

If I read this epistle once, I read it fifty times, but I will not
pretend to say with what strange emotions. All the dry reference to
business I could bear well enough, but the little passing sneer at what
she called my ethnology piqued me painfully. Why should she have taken
such pains to tell me that nothing that did not lend itself to gain
could have any interest for her? or was it to say that these topics
alone were what should be discussed between us? Was it to recall me to
my station, to make me remember in what relation I stood to her, she
wrote thus? These were not the nature I had read of in Balzac! the
creatures all passion and soul and sentiment, - women whose atmosphere
was positive enchantment, and whose least glance or word or gesture
would inflame the heart to very madness; and yet was it net in Sara to
become all this? Were those deep lustrous eyes, that looked away into
space longingly, dreamfully, dazingly, - were they meant to pore over
wearisome columns of dry arithmetic, or not rather to give back in
recognition what they had got in rapture, and to look as they were
looked into?

Was it, as a Jewess, that my speculations about race had offended her?
Had I expressed myself carelessly or ill? I had often been struck by a
smile she would give, - not scornful, nor slighting, but something that
seemed to say, "These thoughts are not _our_ thoughts, nor are these
ways our ways!" but in her silent fashion she would make no remark, but
be satisfied to shadow forth some half dissent by a mere trembling of
the lip.

She had passed a day at Abazzia - of course, alone - wandering about that
delicious spot, and doubtless recalling memories for any one of which I
had given my life's blood. And would she not bestow a word - one word - on
these? Why not say she as much as remembered me; that it was there we
first met! Sure, so much might have been said, or at least hinted at, in
all harmlessness! I had done nothing, written nothing, to bring rebuke
upon me. I had taken no liberty; I had tried to make the dry detail of a
business letter less wearisome by a little digression, not wholly out of
_apropos_; that was all.

Was then the Hebrew heart bent sorely on gain? And yet what grand things
did the love of these women inspire in olden times, and what splendid
natures were theirs! How true and devoted, how self-sacrificing! Sara's
beautiful face, in all its calm loveliness, rose before me as I thought
these things, and I felt that I loved her more than ever.




CHAPTER XXVI. IN HUNGARY

It still wanted several weeks of Christmas, and so I hastened off to
Pesth and tried to acquire some little knowledge of Hungarian, and some
acquaintance with the habits and ways of Hungarian life. I am not sure
that I made much progress in anything but the _csardas_ - the national
dance, - in which I soon became a proficient. Its stately solemnity
suddenly changing for a lively movement; its warlike gestures and
attitudes; its haughty tramp and defiant tone; and, last of all, its
whirlwind impetuosity and passion, - all emblems of the people who
practise it, - possessed a strange fascination for me; and I never missed
a night of those public balls where it was danced.

Towards the middle of December, however, I bethought me of my mission,
and set out for Gross Wardein, which lay a long distance off, near the
Transylvanian frontier. I had provided myself with one of the wicker
carriages of the country, and travelled post, usually having three
horses harnessed abreast; or, where there was much uphill, a team of
five.

I mention this, for I own that the exhilaration of speeding along at the
stretching gallop of these splendid _juckers_, tossing their wild names
madly, and ringing out their myriads of bells, was an ecstasy of delight
almost maddening. Over and over, as the excited driver would urge his
beasts to greater speed by a wild shrill cry, have I yelled out in
concert with him, carried away by an intense excitement I could not
master.

On the second day of the journey we left the region of roads, and
usually directed our course by some church spire or tower in the
distance, or followed the bank of a river, when not too devious. This
headlong swoop across fields and prairies, dashing madly on in what
seemed utter recklessness, was glorious fun; and when we came to cross
the small bridges which span the streams, without rail or parapet at
either side, and where the deviation of a few inches would have sent us
headlong into the torrent beneath, I felt a degree of blended terror and
delight such as one experiences in the mad excitement of a fox-hunt.

On the third morning I discovered, on awaking, that a heavy fall of snow
had occurred during the night, and we were forced to take off our wheels
and place the carriage on sledge-slides. This alone was wanting to make
the enjoyment perfect, and our pace from this hour became positively
steeple-chasing. Lying back in my ample fur mantle, and my hands
enclosed in a fur muff, I accepted the salutations of the villagers
as we swept along, or blandly raised my hand to my cap as some wearied
guard would hurriedly turn out to present arms to a supposed "magnate;"
for we were long out of the beat of usual travel, and rarely any but
some high official of the State was seen to come "extra post," as it is
called, through these wild regions.

Up to Izarous the country had been a plain, slightly, but very slightly,
undulating. Here, however, we got amongst the mountains, and the charm
of scenery was now added to the delight of the pace. On the fifth day
I learned, and not without sincere regret, that we were within seven
German miles - something over thirty of ours - from Gross Wardein, from
which the Hunyadi Schloss only lay about fifty miles.

Up to this I had been, to myself at least, a _grand seigneur_ travelling
for his pleasure, careless of cost, and denying himself nothing;
splendid generosity, transmitted from each postilion to his successor,
secured me the utmost speed his beasts could master, and the impetuous
dash with which we spun into the arched doorways of the inns, routed the
whole household, and not unfrequently summoned the guests themselves to
witness the illustrious arrival. A few hours more and the grand
illusion would dissolve! No more the wild stretching gallop, cutting the
snowdrift; no more the clear bells, ringing through the frosty air; no
more the eager landlord bustling to the carriage-side with his flagon of
heated wine; no more that burning delight imparted by speed, a sense of
power that actually intoxicates. Not one of these! A few hours more and
I should be Herr Owen, travelling for the house of Hodnig and Oppovich,
banished to the company of bagmen, and reduced to a status where
whatever life has of picturesque or graceful is made matter for vulgar
sarcasm and ridicule. I know well, ye gentlemen who hold a station fixed
and unassailable will scarcely sympathize with me in all this; but
the castle-builders of this world - and, happily, they are a large
class - will lend me all their pity, well aware that so long as
imagination honors the drafts upon her, the poor man is never bankrupt,
and that it is only as illusions dissolve he sees his insolvency.

I reached Gross Wardein to dinner, and passed the night there, essaying,
but with no remarkable success, to learn something of Count Hunyadi,
his habits, age, temper, and general demeanor. As my informants were
his countrymen, I could only gather that his qualities were such as
Hungarians held in esteem. He was proud, brave, costly in his mode of
life, splendidly hospitable, and a thorough spoilsman. As to what he
might prove in matters of business, if he would even stoop to entertain
such at all, none could say; the very thought seemed to provoke a laugh.

"I once attempted a deal with him," said an old farmerlike man at the
fireside. "I wanted to buy a team of _juchera_ he drove into the yard
here, and was rash enough to offer five hundred florins for what he
asked eight. He did not even vouchsafe me an answer, and almost drove
over me the next day as I stood at the side of the gate there."

"That was like Tassilo," said a Hungarian, with flashing eyes.

"He served you right," cried another. "None but a German would have
offered him such a rudeness."

"Not but he's too ready with his heavy whip," muttered an old
soldier-like fellow. "He might chance to strike where no words would
efface the welt."

Stories of Hunyadi's extravagance and eccentricity now poured in on all
sides. How he had sold an estate to pay the cost of an imperial visit
that lasted a week; how he had driven a team of four across the Danube
on the second day of the frost, when a heavy man could have smashed the
ice by a stamp of his foot; how he had killed a boar in single combat,
though it cost him three fingers of his left hand, and an awful flesh
wound in the side; and numberless other feats of daring and recklessness
were recorded by admiring narrators, who finished by a loud _Elyen_ to
his health.

I am not sure that I went away to my bed feeling much encouraged at the
success of my mission, or very hopeful of what I should do with this
magnate of Hungary.

By daybreak I was again on the road. The journey led through a wild
mountain pass, and was eminently interesting and picturesque; but I was
no longer so open to enjoyment as before, and serious thoughts of my
mission now oppressed me, and I grew more nervous and afraid of failure.
If this haughty Graf were the man they represented him, it was just
as likely he would refuse to listen to me at all; nor was the fact a
cheering one that my client was a Jew, since nowhere is the race less
held in honor than in Hungary.

As day began to decline, we issued forth upon a vast plain into which
a mountain spur projected like a bold promontory beside the sea. At the
very extremity of this, a large mass, which might be rock, seemed
to stand out against the sky. "There, - yonder," said the postilion,
pointing towards it with his whip; "that is Schloss Hunyadi. There's
three hours' good gallop yet before us."

A cold snowdrift borne on a wind that at times brought us to a
standstill, or even drove us to seek shelter by the wayside, now set in,
and I was fain to roll myself in my furs and lie snugly down on the hay
in the _wagen_, where I soon fell asleep; and though we had a change of
horses, and I must have managed somehow to settle with the postilion and
hand him his _trink-geld_, I was conscious of nothing till awakened by
the clanking sound of a great bell, when I started up and saw we had
driven into a spacious courtyard in which, at an immense fire, a
number of people were seated, while others bustled about, harnessing or
unharnessing horses. "Here we are, Herr Graf!" cried my postilion,
who called me Count in recognition of the handsome way in which I had
treated his predecessor. "This is Schloss Hunyadi."




CHAPTER XXVII. SCHLOSS HUNYADI

When I had made known my rank and quality, I was assigned a room - a very
comfortable one - in one wing of the castle, and no more notice taken
of me than if I had been a guest at an inn. The house was filled with
visitors; but the master, with some six or seven others, was away in
Transylvania boar-shooting. As it was supposed he would not return
for eight or ten days, I had abundant time to look about me, and learn
something of the place and the people.

Schloss Hunyadi dated from the fifteenth century, although now a single
square tower was all that remained of the early building. Successive
additions had been made in every imaginable taste and style, till
the whole presented an enormous incongruous mass, in which fortress,
farmhouse, convent, and palace struggled for the mastery, size alone
giving an air of dignity to what numberless faults would have condemned
as an outrage on all architecture.

If there was deformity and ugliness without, there was, however,
ample comfort and space within. Above two hundred persons could
be accommodated beneath the roof, and half as many more had been
occasionally stowed away in the out-buildings. I made many attempts, but
all unsuccessfully, to find out what number of servants the household
consisted of. Several wore livery, and many - especially such as waited
on guests humble as myself - were dressed in blouse, with the crest of
the house embroidered on the breast; while a little army of retainers
in Jager costume, or in the picturesque dress of the peasantry, lounged
about the courtyard, lending a hand to unharness or harness a team,
to fetch a bucket of water, or "strap down" a beast, as some weary
traveller would ride in, splashed and wayworn.

If there seemed no order or discipline anywhere, there was little
confusion, and no ill humor whatever. All seemed ready to oblige;
and the work of life, so far as I could see from my window, went on
cheerfully and joyfully, if not very regularly or well.

If there was none of the trim propriety, or that neatness that rises to
elegance, which I had seen in my father's household, there was a lavish
profusion here, a boundless abundance, that, contrasted with our mode
of life, made us seem almost mean and penurious. Guests came and went
unceasingly, and, to all seeming, not known to any one. An unbounded
hospitality awaited all comers, and of the party who supped and caroused
to-night, none remained on the morrow, nor, perhaps, even a name was
remembered.

It took me some days to learn this, and to know that there was nothing
singular or strange in the position I occupied, living where none knew
why or whence I came, or even so much as cared to inquire my name or
country.

In the great hall, where we dined all together, - the distinguished
guests at one end of the table, the lesser notabilities lower down, and
the menials last of all, - there was ever a place reserved for sudden
arrivals; and it was rare that the meal went over without some such. A
hearty welcome and a cordial greeting were soon over, and the work of


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 13 of 17)