Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 15 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 15 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


it, fell into a deep dreamless sleep. A night's wakefulness, and the
excitement I had gone through, had so far worked upon me that I did not
hear the opening of my door, nor the tread of a heavy man as he came
forward and seated himself by the fire. It was only the cold touch of
hi¬ї fingers on the wrist as he felt my pulse that at last aroused me.

"Don't start, don't flurry yourself," said he, calmly, to me. "I am the
doctor. I have been to see the other, and I promised to look in on you."

"How is he? Is it serious?"

"It will be a slow affair. It was an ugly thrust, - all the dorsal
muscles pierced, but no internal mischief done."

"He will certainly recover then?"

"There is no reason why he should not. But where is this scratch of
yours? Let me see it."

"It is a nothing, doctor, - a mere nothing. Pray take no trouble about
it."

"But I must I have pledged myself to examine your wound; and I must keep
my word."

"Surely these gentlemen are scarcely so very anxious about me," said I,
in some pique. "Not one of them vouchsafed to see me safe home, though I
had lost some blood, and felt very faint!"

"I did not say it was these gentlemen sent me here," said he, dryly.

"Then who else knew anything about this business?"

"If you must know, then," said he, "it is the English Countess who is
staying here, and whom I have been attending for the last week. How she
came to hear of this affair I cannot tell you, for I know it is a secret
to the rest of the house; but she made me promise to come and see you,
and if there was nothing in your wound to forbid it, to bring you over
to her dressing-room, and present you to her. And now let me look at the
injury."

I took off my coat, and, baring my arm, displayed a very ugly thrust,
which, entering above the wrist, came out between the two bones of the
arm.

"Now I call this the worst of the two," said he, examining it "Does it
give you much pain?"

"Some uneasiness; nothing more. When may I see the Countess?" asked I;
for an intense curiosity to meet her had now possessed me.

"If you like, you may go at once; not that I can accompany you, for I am
off for a distant visit; but her rooms are at the end of this corridor,
and you enter by the conservatory. Meanwhile I must bandage this arm in
somewhat better fashion than you have done."

While he was engaged in dressing my wound, he rambled on about the
reckless habits that made such _rencontres_ possible. "We are in the
middle of the seventeenth century here, with all its barbarisms," said
he. "These young fellows were vexed at seeing the notice you attracted;
and that was to their thinking cause enough to send you off with a
damaged lung or a maimed limb. It's all well, however, as long as Graf
Hunyadi does not hear of it. But if he should, he'll turn them out,
every man of them, for this treatment of an Englishman."

"Then we must take care, sir, that he does not hear of it," said I, half
fiercely, and as though addressing my speech especially to himself.

"Not from me, certainly," said he. "My doctor's instincts always save me
from such indiscretions."

"Is our Countess young, doctor?" asked I, half jocularly.

"Young and pretty, though one might say, too, she has been younger and
prettier. If you dine below stairs today, drink no wine, and get back
to your sofa as soon as you can after dinner." With this caution he left
me.

A heavy packet of letters had arrived from Fiume, containing, I
surmised, some instructions for which I had written; but seeing that the
address was in the cashier's handwriting, I felt no impatience to break
the seal.

I dressed myself with unusual care, though the pain of my arm made the
process a very slow one; and at last set out to pay my visit. I passed
along the corridor, through the conservatory, and found myself at a
door, at which I knocked twice. At last I turned the handle, and entered
a small but handsomely furnished drawing-room, about which books and
newspapers lay scattered; and a small embroidery-frame near the fire
showed where she, who was engaged with that task, had lately been
seated. As I bent down in some curiosity to examine a really clever copy
of an altar-piece of Albert Durer, a door gently opened, and I heard the
rustle of a silk dress. I had not got time to look round when, with a
cry, she rushed towards me, and clasped me in her arms. It was Madame
Cleremont!

"My own dear, dear Digby!" she cried, as she kissed me over face and
forehead, smoothing back my hair to look at me, and then falling again
on my neck. "I knew it could be no other when I heard of you, darling;
and when they told me of your singing, I could have sworn it was
yourself."

I tried to disengage myself from her embrace, and summoned what I
could of sternness to repel her caresses. She dropped at my feet, and,
clasping my hands, implored me, in accents broken with passion, to
forgive her. To see her who had once been all that a mother could have
been to me in tenderness and care, who watched the long hours of
the night beside my sick-bed, - to see her there before me, abject,
self-accused, and yet entreating forgiveness, was more than I could
bear. My nerves, besides, had been already too tensely strung; and I
burst into a passion of tears that totally overcame me. She sat with her
arm round me, and wept.

With a wild hysterical rapidity she poured forth a sort of excuse of her
own conduct. She recalled all that I had seen her suffer of insult and
shame; the daily outrages passed upon her; the slights which no woman
can or ought to pardon. She spoke of her friendlessness, her misery;
but, more than all, her consuming desire to be avenged on the man
who had degraded her. "Your father, I knew, was the man to do me this
justice," she cried; "he did not love me, nor did I love him; but we
both hated this wretch, and it seemed little to me what became of me, if
I could but compass his ruin."

I scarcely followed her. I bethought me of my poor mother, for whom none
had a thought, neither of the wrongs done her, nor of the sufferings to
which she was so remorselessly consigned.

"You do not listen to me. You do not hear me," cried she, passionately;
"and yet who has been your friend as I have? Who has implored your
father to be just towards you as I have done? Who has hazarded her whole
future in maintaining your rights, - who but I?" In a wild rhapsody of
mingled passion and appeal she went on to show how Sir Roger insisted on
presenting her everywhere as his wife.

Even at courts she had been so presented, though all the terrible
consequences of exposure were sure to ring over the whole of Europe. The
personal danger of the step was-a temptation too strong to resist; and
the altercation and vindication that must follow were ecstasy to him. He
was-pitting himself against the world, and he would back himself on the
issue.

"And, here, where we are now," cried I, "what is to happen if to-morrow
some stranger should arrive from England who knows your story, and feels
he owes it to his host to proclaim it?"

"Is it not too clear what is to happen?" shrieked she; "blood, more
blood, - theirs or his, or both! Just as he struck a young prince at
Baden with a glove across the face, because he stared at me too rudely,
and shot him afterwards; his dearest tie to me is the peril that
attaches to me. Do you not know him, Digby? Do you not know the insolent
disdain with which he refuses to be bound by what other men submit
to; and that when he has said, 'I am ready to stake my life on it,' he
believes he has proved his conviction to be a just one?"

Of my father's means, or what remained to him of fortune, she knew
nothing. They had often been reduced to almost want, and at other times
money would flow freely in, to be wasted and lavished with that careless
munificence that no experiences of privation could ever teach prudence.
We now turned to speculate on what would happen when he came back from
this shooting-party; how he would recognize me.

"I see," cried I: "you suspect he will disown me?"

"Not that, dear Digby," said she, in some confusion, "but he may
require - that is, he may wish you to conform to some plan, some
procedure of his own."

"If this should involve the smallest infraction of what is due to my
mother, I 'll refuse," said I, firmly, "and reject as openly as he dares
to make it."

"And are you ready to face what may follow?"

"If you mean as regards myself, I am quite ready. My father threw me off
years ago, and I am better able to fight the battle of life now than
I was then. I ask nothing of him, - not even his name. If you speak of
other consequences, - of what may ensue when his hosts shall learn the
fraud he has practised on them - " It was only as the fatal word fell from
me that I felt how cruelly I had spoken, and I stopped and took her
hand in mine, saying, "Do not be angry with me, dear friend, that I
have spoken a bitter word; bear with me for _her_ sake, who has none to
befriend her but myself."

She made me no answer, but looked out cold and stern into vacancy, her
pale features motionless, not a line or lineament betraying what was
passing within her.

"Why remain here then to provoke a catastrophe?" cried she, suddenly.
"If you have come for pleasure, you see enough to be aware there is
little more awaiting you."

"I have not come for pleasure. I am here to confer with Count Hunyadi on
a matter of business."

"And will some paltry success in a little peddling contract for the
Count's wine or his olives or his Indian corn compensate you for the
ruin you may bring on your father? Will it recompense you if his blood
be shed?"

There was a tone of defiant sarcasm in the way she spoke these words
that showed me, if I would not yield to her persuasions, she would not
hesitate to employ other means of coercion. Perhaps she mistook the
astonishment my face expressed for terror; for she went on: "It would be
well that you thought twice over it ere you make your breach with
your father irreparable. Remember, it is not a question of a passing
sentimentality or a sympathy, it is the whole story of your life is at
issue, - if you be anything, or anybody, or a nameless creature, without
belongings or kindred."

I sat for some minutes in deep thought. I was not sure whether I
understood her words, and that she meant to say it lay entirely with my
father to own or disown me, as he pleased. She seemed delighted at my
embarrassment, and her voice rung out with its own clear triumphant
cadence, as she said, "You begin at last to see how near the precipice
you have been straying."

"One moment, Madam," cried I. "If my mother be Lady Norcott, Sir Roger
cannot disown me; not to say that already, in an open court, he has
maintained his right over me and declared me his son."

"You are opening a question I will not touch, Digby," said she,
gravely, - "your mother's marriage. I will only say that the ablest
lawyers your father has consulted pronounce it more than questionable."

"And my father has then entertained the project of an attempt to break
it."

"This is not fair," cried she, eagerly; "you lead me on from one
admission to another, till I find myself revealing confidences to one
who at any moment may avow himself my enemy."

I raised my eyes to her face, and she met my glance with a look cold,
stern, and impassive, as though she would say, "Choose your path now,
and accept me as friend or foe." All the winning softness of her manner,
all those engaging coquetries of look and gesture, of which none was
more mistress, were gone, and another and a very different nature had
replaced them.

This, then, was one of those women all tenderness and softness and
fascination, but who behind this mask have the fierce nature of the
tigress. Could she be the same I had seen so submissive under all the
insolence of her brutal husband, bearing his scoffs and his sarcasms
without a word of reply? Was it that these cruelties had at last evoked
this stern spirit, and that another temperament had been generated out
of a nature broken down and demoralised by ill treatment?

"Shall I tell you what I think you ought to do?" asked she, calmly. I
nodded assent. "Sit down there, then," continued she, "and write these
few lines to your father, and let him have them before he returns here."

"First of all, I cannot write just now; I have had a slight accident to
my right arm."

"I know," said she, smiling dubiously. "You hurt it in the
riding-school; but it's a mere nothing, is it not?"

I made a gesture of assent, not altogether pleased the while at the
little sympathy she vouchsafed me, and the insignificance she ascribed
to my wound.

"Shall I write for you, then? you can sign it afterwards.''

"Let me first know what you would have me say."

"Dear father - You always addressed him that way?"

"Yes."

"Dear father, - I have been here some days, awaiting Count Hunyadi's
return to transact some matters of business with him, and have by a mere
accident learned that you are amongst his guests. As I do not know how,
to what extent, or in what capacity it may be your pleasure to recognize
me, or whether it might not chime better with your convenience to ignore
me altogether, I write now to submit myself entirely to your will and
guidance, being in this, as in all things, your dutiful and obedient
son."

The words came from her pen as rapidly as her fingers could move across
the paper; and as she finished, she pushed it towards me, saying, -

"There - put 'Digby Norcott' there, and it is all done!"

"This is a matter to think over," said I, gravely. "I may be
compromising other interests than my own by signing this."

"Those Jews of yours have imbued you well with their cautious spirit, I
see," said she, scoffingly.

"They have taught me no lessons I am ashamed of, Madam," said I,
reddening with anger.

"I declare I don't know you as the Digby of long ago! I fancied I did,
when I heard those ladies coming upstairs each night, so charmed with
all your graceful gifts, and so eloquent over all your fascinations; and
now, as you stand there, word-splitting and phrase-weighing, canvassing
what it might cost you to do this or where it would lead you to say
that, I ask myself, Is this the boy of whom his father said, 'Above all
things he shall be a gentleman'?"

"To one element of that character, Madam, I will try and preserve my
claim, - no provocation shall drive me to utter a rudeness to a lady."

"This is less breeding than calculation, young gentleman. I read such
natures as yours as easily as a printed book."

"I ask nothing better, Madam; my only fear would be that you should
mistake me, and imagine that any deference to my father's views would
make me forget my mother's rights."

"So then," cried she, with a mocking laugh, "you have got your courage
up so far, - you dare me! Be advised, however, and do not court such
an unequal contest. I have but to choose in which of a score of ways I
could crush you, - do you mark me? crush you! You will not always be as
lucky as you were this morning in the riding-school."

"Great heaven!" cried I, "was this, then, of _your_ devising?"

"You begin to have a glimpse of whom you have to deal with? Go back to
your room and reflect on that knowledge, and if it end in persuading you
to quit this place at once, and never return to it, it will be a wise
resolve."

I was too much occupied with the terrible fact that she had already
conspired against my life to heed her words of counsel, and I stood
there stunned and confused.

In the look of scorn and hate she threw on me, she seemed to exult over
my forlorn and bewildered condition.

"I scarcely think there is any need to prolong this interview," said
she, at last, with an easy smile; "each of us is by this time aware of
the kindly sentiments of the other; is it not so?"

"I am going, Madam," I stammered out; "good-bye."

She made a slight movement, as I thought, towards me; but it was in
reality the prelude to a deep courtesy, while in her sweetest of accents
she whispered, "_Au revoir_, Monsieur Digby, _au revoir_." I bowed
deeply and withdrew.




CHAPTER XXX. HASTY TIDINGS

Of all the revulsions of feeling that can befall the heart, I know of
none to compare in poignant agony with the sudden consciousness that you
are hated where once you were loved; that where once you had turned for
consolation or sympathy you have now nothing to expect but coldness
and distrust; that the treasure of affection on which you have counted
against the day of adversity had proved bankrupt, and nothing remained
of all its bright hopes and promises but bitter regrets and sorrowful
repinings.

It was in the very last depth of this spirit I now locked myself in my
room to determine what I should do, by what course I should shape my
future. I saw the stake for which Madame Cleremont was playing. She had
resolved that my mother's marriage should be broken, and she herself
declared Lady Norcott. That my father might be brought to accede to such
a plan was by no means improbable. Its extravagance and its enormity
would have been great inducements, had he no other interest in the
matter.

I began to canvass with myself how persons poor and friendless could
possibly meet the legal battle which this question should originate, and
how my mother, in her destitution and poverty, could contend against the
force of the wealth that would be opposed to her. It had only been by
the united efforts of her relatives and friends, all eager to support
her in such a cause, that she had been enabled to face the expenses of
the suit my father had brought on the question of my guardianship. How
could she again sustain a like charge? Was it likely that her present
condition would enable her to fee leaders on circuit and bar magnates,
to pay the costs of witnesses, and all the endless outgoings of the law?

So long as I lived, I well knew my poor mother would compromise none of
the rights that pertained to me; but if I could be got rid of, - and the
event of the morning shot through my mind, - some arrangement with her
might not be impossible, - at least, it was open to them to think so; and
I could well imagine that they would build on such a foundation. It was
not easy to imagine a woman like \ Madame Cleremont, a person of the
most attractive manners, beautiful, gifted, and graceful, capable of a
great crime; but she herself had shown me more than once in fiction the
portraiture of an individual who, while shrinking with horror from the
coarse contact of guilt, would willingly set the springs in motion which
ultimately conduce to the most appalling disasters. I remember even her
saying to me one day, "It is in watching the terrible explosions their
schemes have ignited, that cowards learn to taste what they fancy to be
the ecstasy of courage."

While I thought what a sorry adversary I should prove against such a
woman, with all the wiles of her nature, and all the seductions by which
she could display them, my eyes fell upon the packet from Fiume, which
still lay with its seal unbroken. I broke it open half carelessly. It
contained an envelope marked "Letters," and the following note: -

"Herr Owen, - With this you are informed that the house of Hodnig
and Oppovich has failed, dockets of bankruptcy having been yesterday
declared against that firm; the usual assignees will be duly appointed
by the court to liquidate, on such terms as the estate permits. Present
liabilities are currently stated as below eight millions of florins.
Actual property will not meet half that sum.

"Further negotiations regarding the Hunyadi contract on your part are
consequently unnecessary, seeing that the most favorable conditions you
could obtain would in no wise avert or even lessen the blow that has
fallen on the house.

"I am directed to enclose you by bill the sum of two hundred and
eighteen florins twenty-seven kreutzers, which at the current exchange
will pay your salary to the end of the present quarter, and also to
state that, having duly acknowledged the receipt of this sum to me
by letter, you are to consider yourself free of all engagement to the
house. I am also instructed to say that your zeal and probity will be
duly attested when any reference is addressed to the managers of this
estate.

"I am, with accustomed esteem and respect,

"Your devoted servant,

"Jacob Ulrich.

"P. S. Herr Ignaz is, happily for him, in a condition that renders him
unconscious of his calamity. The family has retired for the present
to the small cottage near the gate of the Abazzia Villa, called 'Die
Hutte,' but desires complete privacy, and declines all condolences. - J.
U.

"2nd P. S. The enclosed letters have arrived here during your absence."


So intensely imbued was my mind with suspicion and distrust, that it was
not till after long and careful examination I satisfied myself that this
letter was genuine, and that its contents might be taken as true. The
packet it enclosed would, however, have resolved all doubt; they were
three letters from my dear mother. Frequent reference was made to other
letters which had never reached me, and in which it was clear the mode
in which she had learned my address was explained. She also spoke of
Sara as of one she knew by correspondence, and gave me to understand
how she was following every little humble incident of my daily life with
loving interest and affection. She enjoined me by all means to devote
myself heartily and wholly to those who had befriended me so generously,
and to merit the esteem of that good girl, who, caring nothing for
herself, gave her heart and soul to the service of her father.

"I have told you so much," said she, "of myself in former letters"
(these I never saw) "that I shall not weary you with more. You know why
I gave up the school, and through what reasonings I consented to call
myself Lady Norcott, though in such poverty as mine the assumption of a
title only provoked ridicule. Mr. McBride, however, persuaded me that a
voluntary surrender of my position might be made terrible use of against
me, should - what I cannot believe - the attempt ever be made to question
the legality of my marriage with your father.

"It has been so constantly repeated, however, that Sir Roger means to
marry this lady, - some say they are already married, - that I have had
careful abstracts made of the registry, and every detail duly certified
which can establish your legitimacy, - not that I can bring myself to
believe your father would ever raise that question. Strangely enough, my
allowance, left unpaid for several years, was lately resumed, and Foster
and Wall received orders to acknowledge my drafts on them, for what,
I concluded, were meant to cover all the arrears due. As I had already
tided over these years of trial and pressure, I refused all save the sum
due for the current year, and begged to learn Sir Roger's address that
I might write to him. To this they replied 'that they had no information
to give me on the subject; that their instructions, as regarded payments
to me, came to them from the house of Rodiger, in Frankfort, and in the
manner and terms already communicated to me,' - all showing me that the
whole was a matter of business, into which no sentiment was to enter, or
be deemed capable of entering."

It was about this period my mother came to learn my address, and she
avowed that all other thoughts and cares were speedily lost in the
whirlpool of joy these tidings swept around her. Her eagerness to see
me grew intense, but was tempered by the fear lest her selfish anxiety
might prejudice me in that esteem I had already won from my employers,
of whom, strangely enough, she spoke freely and familiarly, as though
she had known them.

The whole tone of these letters - and I read them over and over - calmed
and reassured me. Full of personal details, they were never selfish in
its unpleasant sense. They often spoke of poverty, but rather as a thing
to be baffled by good-humored contrivance or rendered endurable by
habit than as matter for complaint and bewailment. Little dashes of
light-heartedness would now and then break the dark sombreness of
the picture, and show how her spirit was yet alive to life and its
enjoyments. Above all, there was no croaking, no foreboding. She had
lived through some years of trial and sorrow, and if the future had
others as gloomy in store, it was time enough when they came to meet
their exigencies.

What a blessing was it to me to get these at such a time! I no longer
felt myself alone and isolated in the world. There was, I now knew, a


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 15 of 17)