Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 14 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 14 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

festivity went on as before.

I was soon given to understand that, not only I might dispose of my time
how I pleased, but that every appliance to do so agreeably was at my
disposal, and that I might ride or drive or shoot or sledge, just as I
fancied. And though I was cautious to show that my personal pretension
were of the very humblest, this fact seemed no barrier whatever to my
enjoyment of all these courteous civilities.

"We 're always glad when any one will ride the _juckers_," said a Jäger
to me; "they are ruined for want of exercise, and if you like three
mounts a day, you shall have them."

It was a rare piece of good luck for me that I could both ride and
shoot. No two accomplishments could have stood me in such request as
these, and I rose immensely in the esteem of those amongst whom I sat
at table when they saw that I could sit a back-jumper and shoot a
wood-pigeon on the wing.

While I thus won such humble suffrages, there was a higher applause that
my heart craved and longed for. As the company - some five-and-twenty or
thirty persons - who dined at the upper table withdrew after dinner, they
passed into the drawing-rooms, and we saw them no more. Of the music and
dancing, in which they passed the evening, we knew nothing; and we in
our own way had our revels, which certainly amply contented those who
had no pretensions to higher company; but this was precisely what I
could not, do what I might, divest myself of. Like one of the characters
of my old favorite Balzac, I yearned to be once more in the _salon_, and
amongst _ces épaules blanches_, where the whole game of life is finer,
where the parries are neater, and the thrusts more deadly.

An accident gave me what all my ingenuity could not have effected. A
groom of the chambers came suddenly, one evening, into the hall where we
all sat, to ask if any one there could play the new _csardas_ called
the "Stephan." It was all the rage at Pesth; but no copy of it had yet
reached the far East. I had learned this while at Pesth, and had the
music with me; and of course, offered my services at once. Scarcely
permitted a moment to make some slight change of dress, I found myself
in a handsome _salon_ with a numerous company. In my first confusion I
could mark little beyond the fact that most of the persons were in the
national costume, the ladies wearing the laced bodies, covered with
precious stones, and the men in velvet coats, with massive turquoise
buttons, the whole effect being something like that of a splendid scene
in a theatre.

"We are going to avail ourselves of your talent at the piano, sir," said
the Countess Hunyadi, approaching me with a courteous smile. "But let me
first offer you some tea."

Not knowing if fortune might ever repeat her present favor, I resolved
to profit by the opportunity to the utmost; and while cautiously
repressing all display, contrived to show that I was master of some
three or four languages, and a person of education, generally.

"We are puzzled about your nationality, sir," said the Countess to me.
"If not too great a liberty, may I ask your country?"

When I said England, the effect produced was almost magical. A little
murmur of something I might even call applause ran through the room; for
I had mentioned the land of all Europe dearest to the Hungarian heart,
and I heard, "An Englishman! an Englishman!" repeated from mouth to
mouth, in accents of kindest meaning.

"Why had I not presented myself before? Why had I not sent my name to
the Countess? Why not have made it known that I was here?" and so on,
were asked eagerly of me, as though my mere nationality had invested me
with some special claim to attention and regard.

I had to own that my visit was a purely business one; that I had come to
see and confer with the Count, and had not the very slightest pretension
to expect the courtesies I was then receiving.

My performance at the piano crowned my success. I played the _csardas_
with such spirit as an impassioned dancer alone can give to the measure
he delights in, and two enthusiastic encores rewarded my triumph.
"Adolf, you must play now, for I know the Englishman is dying to have a
dance," said the gay young Countess Palfi; "and I am quite ready to be
his partner." And the next moment we were whirling along in all the mad
mazes of the _csardas_.

There is that amount of display in the dancing of the _csardas_ that not
merely invites criticism, but actually compels an outspoken admiration
whenever anything like excellence accompanies the performance. My
partner was celebrated for the grace and beauty of her dancing, and for
those innumerable interpolations which, fancy or caprice suggesting,
she could throw into the measure. To meet and respond to these by
appropriate gesture, to catch the spirit of each mood, and be ready for
each change, was the task now assigned me; and I need not say with what
passionate ardor I threw myself into it. At one moment she would advance
in proud defiance; and as I fell back in timid homage, she would turn
and fly off in the wild transport of a waltz movement Then it was mine
to pursue and overtake her; and, clasping her, whirl away, till suddenly
with a bound she would free herself, again to dramatize some passing
emotion, some mood of deep dejection, or of mad and exuberant delight It
was clear that she was bent on trying the resources of my ingenuity to
the very last limit; and the loud plaudits that greeted my successes
had evidently put her pride on the mettle. I saw this, and saw, as
I thought, that the contest had begun to pique; so, taking the next
opportunity she gave me to touch her hand, I dropped on one knee, and,
kissing her fingers, declared myself vanquished.

A deafening cheer greeted this finale, and accompanied us as I led my
partner to her seat.

It is a fortunate thing for young natures that there is no amount of
praise, no quantity of flattery, ever palls upon them. Their moral
digestion is as great as their physical; and even gluttony does not seem
to hurt them. Of all the flattering speeches made me on my performance,
none were more cordially uttered than by my beautiful partner, who
declared that if I had but the Hungarian costume, - where the clink of
the spur and the jingle of the hussar equipment blend with the time, - my
_csardas_ was perfection.

Over and over again were regrets uttered that the Empress, who had seen
the dance at Pesth done by timid and un impassioned dancers, and
who had, in consequence, carried away but a faint idea of its real
captivation, could have witnessed our performance; and some even began
to plot how such a representation could be prepared for her Majesty's
next visit to Hungary. While they thus talked, supper was announced;
and as the company were marshalling themselves into the order to move
forward, I took the opportunity to slip away unnoticed to my room, well
remembering that my presence there was the result of accident, and that
nothing but a generous courtesy could regard me as a guest.

I had not been many minutes in my room when I heard a footstep in the
corridor. I turned the key in my lock, and put out my light.

"Herr Engländer! Herr Engländer!" cried a servant's voice, as a sharp
knocking shook the door. I made no reply, and he retreated.

It was clear to me that an invitation had been sent after me; and this
thought filled the measure of my self-gratulation, and I drew nigh my
fire, to sit and weave the pleasant-est fancies that had crossed my mind
for many a long day.

I waited for some time, sitting by the firelight, and then relit my
lamp. I had a long letter to write to Mademoiselle Sara; for up to then
I had said nothing of my arrival, nor given any account of the Schloss

Had my task been simply to record my life and my impressions of those
around me at Hunyadi, nothing could well have been much easier. My
few days there had been actually crammed with those small and pleasant
incidents which tell well in gossiping correspondence. It was all, too,
so strange, so novel, so picturesque, that, to make an effective tableau
of such a life, was merely to draw on memory.

There was a barbaric grandeur, on the whole, in the vast building;
its crowds of followers, its hordes of retainers who came and went,
apparently at no bidding but their own; in the ceaseless tide of
travellers who, hospited for the night, went their way on the morrow, no
more impressed by the hospitality, to all seeming, than by a thing
they had their own valid right to. Details there were of neglect and
savagery, that even an humble household might have been ashamed of,
but these were lost - submerged, as it were - in that ocean of boundless
extravagance and cost, and speedily lost sight of.

It was now my task to tell Sara all this, colored by the light - a warm
light, too - of my own enjoyment of it. I pictured the place as I saw
it on the night I came, and told how I could not imagine for a while
in what wild' region I found myself; I narrated the way in which I
was assigned my place in this strange world, with Ober-jagers and
Unter-jagers for my friends, who mounted me and often accompanied me
in my rides; how I had seen the vast territories from hill-tops and
eminences which pertained to the great Count, boundless plains that in
summer would have been waving with yellow corn, and far-stretching woods
of oak or pine lost in the long distance; and, last of all, coming down
to the very moment I was writing, I related the incident by which I
had been promoted to the society of the castle, and how I had passed my
first evening.

My pen ran rapidly along as I told of the splendors and magnificence
of the scene, and of a company whose brilliant costume filled up the
measure of the enchantment. "They pass and repass before me, in all
their gorgeous bravery, as I write; the air vibrates with the music,
and unconsciously my foot keeps time with the measure of that _csardas_,
that spins and whirls before me till my brain reels with a mad

It was only when I read over what I had written, that I became aware of
the questionable taste of recording these things to one who, perhaps,
was to read them after a day of heavy toil or a sleepless night of
watching. What will she think of me, thought I, if it be thus I seem
to discharge the weighty trust confided to me? Was it to mingle in
such revelries I came here, or will she deem that these follies are the
fitting prelude to a grave and difficult negotiation? For a moment I had
half determined to throw my letter in the fire, and limit myself simply
to saying that I had arrived, and was awaiting the Count's return! but
my pride, or rather my vanity, carried the day; I could not repress
the delight I felt to be in a society I clung to by so many interesting
ties, and to show that here I was in my true element, - here breathing
the air that was native to me.

"I am not to be supposed to forget," I wrote, "that it was not for these
pleasures you sent me here, for I bear well in mind why I have come,
and what I have to do. Count Hunyadi is, however, absent, and will not
return before the end of the week, by which time I fully hope that I
shall have assured such a position here as will mainly contribute to my
ability to serve you. I pray you, therefore, to read this letter by the
light of the assurance I now give, and though I may seem to lend myself
too easily to pleasure, to believe that no seductions of amusement, no
flatteries of my self-love, shall turn me from the devotion I owe you,
and from the fidelity to which I pledge my life." With this I closed my
letter and addressed it.


The morning after my _csardas_ success, a valet in discreet black
brought me a message from the Countess that she expected to see me at
her table at dinner, and from him I learned the names and rank of the
persons I had met the night before. They were all of that high noblesse
which in Hungary assumes a sort of family prestige, and by frequent
intermarriage really possesses many of the close familiar interests
of the family. Austrians, or indeed Germans from any part, are rarely
received in these intimate gatherings, and I learned with some surprise
that the only strangers were an English "lord" and his countess - so the
man styled them - who were then amongst the guests. "The Lord" was with
the Count on the shooting excursion; my Lady being confined to her room
by a heavy cold she had caught out sledging.

Shall I be misunderstood if I own that I was very sorry to hear that an
Englishman and a man of title was amongst the company? Whatever favor
foreigners might extend to any small accomplishments I could lay claim
to, I well knew would not compensate in my countryman's eyes for my want
of station. In my father's house I had often had occasion to remark
that while Englishmen freely admitted the advances of a foreigner, and
accepted his acquaintance with a courteous readiness, with each other
they maintained a cold and studied reserve; as though no difference of
place or circumstance was to obliterate that insular code which defines
class, and limits each man to the exact rank he belongs to.

When they shall see, therefore, thought I, how my titled countryman
will treat me, - the distance at which he will hold me, and the measured
firmness with which he will repel, not my familiarities, for I should
not dare them, but simply the ease of my manner, - these foreigners will
be driven to regard me as some ignoble upstart who has no pretension
whatever to be amongst them. I was very unwilling to encounter this
humiliation. It was true I was not sailing under false colors. I had
assumed no pretensions from which I was now to retreat. I had nothing
to disown or disavow; but still I was about to be the willing guest of
a society, to a place in which in my own country I could not have the
faintest pretension; and it was just possible that my countryman might
bring this fact before me.

He might do worse, - he might question me as to who and what I was; nor
was I very sure how my tact or my temper might carry me through such an

Would it not be wiser and better for me to avoid this peril? Should
I not spare myself much mortification and much needless pain? Thus
thinking, I resolved to wait on the Countess at once, and explain
frankly why I felt obliged to decline the gracious courtesy she had
extended to me, and refuse an honor so full of pleasure and of pride.

She was not alone as I entered, - the Countess Palfi was with her, - and
I scarcely knew how to approach my theme in presence of a third person.
With a bold effort, however, I told what I had come for; not very
collectedly, indeed, nor perhaps very intelligibly, but in such a way as
to convey that I had not courage to face what might look at least like
a false position, and was almost sure to entail all the unpleasant
relations of such. "In fact, Madam," said I, "I am nobody; and in my
country men of rank never associate with nobodies, even by an
accident. My Lord would not forgive you for throwing him into such
acquaintanceship, and I should never forgive myself for having caused
you the unpleasantness. I don't imagine I have made my meaning very

"You have certainly made me very uncomfortable," broke in Countess
Hunyadi, thoughtfully. "I thought that we Hungarians had rather strict
notions on these subjects, but these of your country leave them miles

"And are less reasonable, besides," said the Palfi, "since your nobility
is being continually recruited from so rich a bourgeoisie."

"At all events," cried the Countess, suddenly, "we are here at Schloss
Hunyadi, and I am its mistress. I invite you to dine with me; it remains
for you to decide how you treat my invitation."

"Put in that way, Madam, I accept with deference;" and I bowed deeply
and moved towards the door. The ladies acknowledged my salute in
silence, and I fancied with coldness, and I retired.

I was evidently mistaken in attributing coldness to their manner; the
ladies received me when I appeared at dinner with a marked cordiality, I
sat next Madame Palfi, who talked to me like an old friend, told me who
the various people at table were, and gave me great pleasure by saying
that I was sure to become a favorite with Count Hunyadi, who delighted
in gayety, and cherished all those that promoted it. Seeing what
interest I took in the ways of Hungarian life, she explained many of the
customs I saw around me, which, deriving from a great antiquity, were
doubtless soon destined to give way before the advance of a higher
civilization. I asked what she knew of the English guests. It was
nothing, or next to nothing, - Count Hunyadi had made their acquaintance
at Baden that summer, and invited them to pass their Christmas with him.
Countess Palfi had herself arrived since they came, and had not seen
them; for "my Lord," as he was generally called, had left at once to
join the shooting-party, and my Lady had not appeared since the day
after her arrival. "I only know that she is a great beauty, and of most
charming manners. The men all rave of her, so that we are half jealous
already. We were expecting to see her at dinner to-day, but we hear that
she is less well than yesterday."

"Do you know their name?"

"No; I believe I heard it, - but I am not familiar with English names,
and it has escaped me; but I will present you by and by to Count Greorge
Szechenyi, who was at Baden when the Hunyadi met them, - he'll tell you
more of them."

I assured her that my curiosity was most amply satisfied already. It was
a class, in which I could not expect to find an acquaintance, far less a

"There is something almost forced in this humility of yours," cried
she. "Are we to find out some fine morning that you are a prince in
disguise?" She laughed so merrily at her own conceit that Madame Hunyadi
asked the cause of her mirth.

"I will tell you later on," said she. We soon afterwards rose to go into
the drawing-room, and I saw as they laughed together that she had told
her what she said.

"Do you know," said the Countess Hunyadi, approaching me, "I am half of
Madame Palfi's mind, and I shall never rest till you reveal your secret
to us?"

I said something laughingly about my _incognito_ being the best coat in
my wardrobe, and the matter dropped. That night I sang several times,
alone, and in duet with the Palfi, and was overwhelmed with flatteries
of my "fresh tenor voice" and my "admirable method." It was something
so new and strange to me to find myself the centre of polite attentions,
and of those warm praises which consummate good breeding knows how to
bestow without outraging taste, that I found it hard to repress the wild
delight that possessed me.

If I had piqued their curiosity to find out who or what I was, I had
also stimulated my own ambition to astonish them.

"He says he will ride out with me to-morrow, and does n't care if I give
him a lively mount," said one, speaking of me.

"And you mean to gratify him, George?" asked another.

"He shall have the roan that hoisted you out of the saddle with his hind

"Come, come, gentlemen, I'll not have my _protégé_ injured to gratify
your jealousies," said Madame Hunyadi; "he shall be my escort."

"If he rides as he plays billiards, you need not be much alarmed about
him. The fellow can do what he likes at the cannon game."

"I 'd give fifty Naps to know his history," cried another.

I was playing chess as he said this, and, turning my head quietly
around, I said, "The secret is not worth half the money, sir; and if it
really interests you, you shall have it for the asking."

He muttered out a mass of apologies and confused excuses, to all the
embarrassment of which I left him most pitilessly, and the incident
ended. I saw, however, enough to perceive that if I had won the
suffrages of the ladies, the men of the party had conceived an
undisguised dislike of me, and openly resented the favor shown me.

"What can you do with the foils, young gentleman?" whispered Szechenyi
to me, as he came near.

"Pretty much as I did with you at billiards awhile ago," said I,
insolently; for my blood was up, and I burned to fix a quarrel

"Shall we try?" asked he, dryly.

"If you say without the buttons, I agree."

"Of course, I mean that."

I nodded, and he went on, -

"Come down to the riding-school by the first light tomorrow then, and I
'll have all in readiness."

I gave another nod of assent, and moved away. I had enough on my hands
now; for, besides other engagements, I had promised the Countess Palfi
to arrange a little piece for private theatricals, and have it ready
by the time of Count Hunyadi's return. So far from feeling oppressed or
overwhelmed by the multiplicity of these cares, they stimulated me to
a degree of excitement almost maddening. Failure somewhere seemed
inevitable, and, for the life of me, I could not choose where it should
be. As my spirits rose, I threw off all the reserve I had worn before,
and talked away with an animation and boldness I felt uncontrollable.
I made _calembourgs_, and dashed off impromptu verses at the piano; and
when, culminating in some impertinence by a witty picture of the persons
around me I had convulsed the whole room with laughter, I sprang up,
and, saying good-night, disappeared.

The roars of their laughter followed me down the corridor, nor did they
cease to ring in my ears till I had closed my door.


I could more easily record my sensations in the paroxysm of a fever than
recall how I passed that night. I am aware that I wrote a long letter
to my mother, and a longer to Sara, both to be despatched in case ill
befell me in my encounter. What I said to either, or how I said it, I
know not.

No more can I explain why I put all my papers together in such fashion
that they could be thrown into the fire at once, without leaving any,
the slightest, clew to trace me by. That secret, which I had affected to
hold so cheaply, did in reality possess some strange fascination for me,
and I desired to be a puzzle and an enigma even after I was gone.

It wanted one short hour of dawn when I had finished; but I was still
too much excited to sleep. I knew how unfavorably I should come to the
encounter before me with jarred nerves and the weariness of a night's
watching; but it was too late now to help that; too late, besides, to
speculate on what men would say of such a causeless duel, brought on,
as I could not conceal from myself, by my hot temper. By the time I had
taken my cold bath my nerves became more braced, and I scarcely felt a
trace of fatigue or exhaustion. The gray morning was just breaking as
I stole quietly downstairs and issued forth into the courtyard. A heavy
fall of snow had occurred in the night, and an unbroken expanse of
billowy whiteness spread ont before me, save where, from a corner of the
court, some foot-tracks led towards the riding-school. I saw, therefore,
that I was not the first at the tryst, and I hastened on in all speed.

Six or eight young men, closely muffled in furs, stood at the door as
I came up, and gravely uncovered to me. They made way for me to pass
in without speaking; and while, stamping the snow from my boots, I said
something about the cold of the morning, they muttered what might mean
assent or the reverse in a low half-sulky tone, that certainly little
invited to further remark.

For a few seconds they talked together in whispers, and then a tall
ill-favored fellow, with a deep scar from the cheek-bone to the upper
lip, came abruptly up to me.

"Look here, young fellow," said he. "I am to act as your second; and
though, of course, I 'd like to know that the man I handled was a
gentleman, I do not ask you to tell anything about yourself that you
prefer to keep back. I would only say that, if ugly consequences come of
this stupid business, the blame must fall upon you. Your temper provoked
it, is that not true?"

I nodded assent, and he went on.

"So far, all right. The next point is this. We are all on honor that,
whatever happens, not a word or a syllable shall ever escape us. Do you
agree to this?"

"I agree," said I, calmly.

"Give me your hand on it."

I gave him my hand; and as he held it in his own, he said, "On the faith
of a gentleman, I will never reveal to my last day what shall pass here
this morning."

I repeated the words after him, and we moved on into the school.


I had drawn my sofa in front of the fire, and, stretching myself on

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 14 of 17)