Charles James Lever.

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"No, I thank you, sir," said I, stiffly, and passed on into the house.

"Master Digby," said a smart little man in black, who for a moment or
two puzzled me whether he was a guest or a servant, "may I show you to
your room, sir? Sir Roger is not up; he seldom rings for his bath before
one o'clock; but he said he would have it earlier to-day."

"And what is your name, pray?"

"Nixon, sir. Mr. Nixon, Sir Roger is pleased to call me for distinction'
sake; the lower servants require it."

"Tell me then, Mr. Nixon, who are the two gentlemen I saw at breakfast
outside?"

"The stoutish gentleman, sir, is Captain Hotham, of the Royal Navy;
the other, with the Turkish pipe, is Mr. Cleremont, Secretary to the
Legation here. Great friends of Sir Roger's, sir. Dine here three or
four times a week, and have their rooms always kept for them."

The appearance of my room, into which Nixon now ushered me, went far
to restore me to a condition of satisfaction. It was the most perfect
little bedroom it is possible to imagine, and Nixon never wearied in
doing the honors of displaying it.

"Here's your library, sir. You've only to slide this mirror into the
wall; and here are all your books. This press is your armory. Sir Roger
gave the order himself for that breech-loader at Liège. This small
closet has your bath, - always ready, as you see, sir, - hot and cold; and
that knob yonder commands the shower-bath. It smells fresh of paint here
just now, sir, for it was only finished on Saturday; and the men are
coming to-day to fix a small iron staircase from your balcony down to
the garden. Sir Roger said he was sure you would like it."

I was silent for a moment, - a moment of exquisite revery, - and then I
asked if there were always people visitors at the Villa.

"I may say, sir, indeed, next to always. We haven't dined alone since
March last."

"How many usually come to dinner?"

"Five or seven, sir; always an odd number. Seldom more than seven, and
never above eleven, except a state dinner to some great swell going
through."

"No ladies, of course?"

"Pardon me, sir. The Countess Vander Neeve dined here yesterday; Madam
Van Straaten, and Mrs. Cleremont - Excuse me, sir, there's Sir Roger's
bell. I must go and tell him you've arrived."

When Nixon left me, I sat for full twenty minutes, like one walking out
of a trance, and asking myself how much was real, and how much fiction,
of all around me?

My eyes wandered over the room, and from the beautiful little Gothic
clock on the mantelpiece to the gilded pineapple from which my
bed-curtains descended, - everything seemed of matchless beauty to me.
Could I ever weary of admiring them? Would they seem to me every morning
as I awoke as tasteful and as elegant as now they appeared to me? Oh,
if dear mamma could but see them! If she but knew with what honor I
was received, would not the thought go far to assuage the grief our
separation cost her? And, last of all, came the thought, if she herself
were here to live with me, to read with me, to be my companion as she
used to be, - could life offer anything to compare with such happiness?
And why should not this be? If papa really should love me, why might I
not lead him to see to whom I owed all that made me worthy of his love?

"Breakfast is served, sir, in the small breakfast-room," said a servant,
respectfully.

"You must show me where that is," said I, rising to follow him.

And now we walked along a spacious corridor, and descended a splendid
stair of white marble, with gilded banisters, and across an octagon
hall, with a pyramid of flowering plants in the centre, and into a large
gallery with armor on the walls, that I wished greatly to linger over
and examine, and then into a billiard-room, and at last into the small
breakfast-parlor, where a little table was laid out, and another servant
stood in readiness to serve me.

"Mr. Eccles, sir, will be down in a moment, if you 'll be pleased to
wait for him," said the man.

"And who is Mr. Eccles?" asked I.

"The gentleman as is to be your tutor, sir, I believe," replied he,
timidly; "and he said perhaps you 'd make the tea, sir."

"All right," said I, opening the caddy, and proceeding to make myself at
home at once. "What is here?"

"Devilled kidneys, sir; and this is fried mackerel. Mr. Eccles takes
oysters; but he won't have them opened till he's down. Here he is, sir."

The door was now flung open, and a good-looking young man, with a glass
stuck in one eye, entered, and with a cheery but somewhat affected
voice, called out, -

"Glad to see you, Digby, my boy; hope I have not starved you out waiting
for me?"

"I'm very hungry, sir, but not quite starved out," said I, half amazed
at the style of man selected to be my guide, and whose age at most could
not be above three or four and twenty.

"You haven't seen your father yet, of course, nor won't these two hours.
Yes, Gilbert, let us have the oysters. I always begin with oysters and
a glass of sauterne; and, let me tell you, your father's sauterne is
excellent Not that I counsel _you_, however, to start with wine at
breakfast. I have n't told you that I 'm to be your tutor," said he,
filling his glass; "and here's to our future fellowship."

I smiled and sipped my tea to acknowledge the toast, and he went on, -

"You mustn't be afraid that I 'll lean too heavily on you, Digby, - at
least, at first. My system is, never make education a punishment.
There's nothing that a gentleman - mind, I say a gentleman - ought to
know that he cannot acquire as easily and as pleasantly as he does
field-sports. If a man has to live by his wits, he must drudge; there's
no help for it. And - But here come the oysters. Ain't they magnificent?
Let me give you one piece of instruction while the occasion serves; let
no one ever persuade you that Colchester oysters equal the Ostend. They
have neither the plumpness nor the juiciness, and still less have they
that fresh odor of the sea that gives such zest to appetite. One of
these days I shall ask you what Horace says of oysters, and where. You
never heard of Horace, eh?"

"Yes, sir; I was reading the 'Odes' when I came away."

"And with whom, pray?"

"With mamma, sir."

"And do you mean to say mamma knew Latin?"

"Yes, sir; she learned it to teach me. She worked far harder than I did,
and I could never come up with her."

"Ah, yes, I see; but all that sort of learning - that irregular study - is
a thing to be grubbed up. If I were to be frank with you, Digby, I 'd
say I 'd rather have you in total ignorance than with that smattering of
knowledge a mamma's teaching is sure to imply. What had you read before
Horace?"

"'Caesar's Commentaries,' sir, an 'Æneid' of Virgil, two plays of
Terence - "

"Any Greek? - anything of Euripedes or Aristophanes, eh?" asked he,
mockingly.

"No, sir; we were to begin the New Testament after the holidays; for I
had just gone over the grammar twice."

"With mamma, of course?"

"Yes, sir."

He helped himself to a cutlet, and as he poured the Harvey's sauce over
it, it was plain to see that he was not thinking of what was before him,
but employed in another and different direction. After a considerable
pause he turned his eyes full upon me, and with a tone of far more
serious import than he had yet used, said, "We 're not very long
acquainted, Digby; but I have a trick of reading people through their
faces, and I feel I can trust you." He waited for some remark from
me, but I made none, and he went on: "With an ordinary boy of your
age, - indeed, I might go farther, and say with any other boy - I 'd not
venture on the confidence I am now about to make; but a certain instinct
tells me I run no danger in trusting _you_."

"Is it a secret, sir?"

"Well, in one sense it _is_ a secret; but why do you ask?"

"Because mamma told me to avoid secrets; to have none of my own, and
know as little as I could of other people's."

"An excellent rule in general, but there are cases where it will not
apply: this is one of them, for here the secret touches your own family.
You are aware that papa and mamma do not live together? Don't flush up,
Digby; I 'm not going to say one word that could hurt you. It is for
your benefit - I might say for your absolute safety - that I speak now.
Your father has one of the noblest natures a man ever possessed; he is
a prince in generosity, and the very soul of honor, and, except pride,
I don't believe he has a fault. This same pride, however, leads him to
fancy he can never do wrong; indeed, he does not admit that he ever made
a mistake in his life, and, consequently, he does not readily forgive
those to whom he imputes any disasters that befall him. Your mother's
family are included in this condemned list, - I can't exactly say why;
and for the same reason, or no reason, your mother herself. You must,
therefore, take especial care that you never speak of one of these
people."

"And mamma?"

"_Her_ name least of all. There may come a time - indeed, it is sure to
come - when this difficulty can be got over; but any imprudence now - the
smallest mistake - would destroy this chance. Of course it's very hard on
you, my poor fellow, to be debarred from the very theme you 'd like best
to dwell on; but when you know the danger - not merely danger, but the
positive certainty of mischief - a chance word might bring about, I read
you very ill, or you 'll profit by my warning."

I bent my head to mean assent, but I could not speak.

"Papa will question you whether you have been to school, and what books
you are reading, and your answer will be, 'Never at school; had all my
lessons at home.' Not a word more, mind that, Digby. Say it now after
me, that I may see if you can be exact to a syllable."

I repeated the words correctly, and he patted me affectionately on the
shoulder, and said, -

"You and I are sure to get on well together. When I meet with a boy,
who, besides being intelligent, is a born gentleman, I never hesitate
about treating him as my equal, save in that knowledge of life I 'm
quite ready to share with him. I don't want to be a Pope with my pupil,
and say, 'You are not to do this, or think that,' and give no reason
why. You 'll always find me ready to discuss with you, and talk over
anything that puzzles you. I was not treated in that fashion myself, and
I know well what the repressive system has cost me. You follow me, don't
you, in what I say?"

"Yes, sir; I think I understand it all."

Whether I looked as if my words had more meaning than they expressed,
or that some sort of misgiving was working within him that he had been
hasty in his confidence, I know not; but he arose suddenly, and said, "I
must go and get a cigarette." And with that he left me.




CHAPTER IV. THE VILLA MALIBRAN

For some hours I wandered over the house, admiring the pictures and
the bronzes and the statuettes, and the hundreds of odd knick-knacks of
taste or curiosity that filled the _salons_. The treasures of art were
all new to me, and I thought I could never weary of gazing on some grand
landscape by Both, or one of those little interiors of Dutch life by
Ostade or Mieris. It seemed to me the very summit of luxury, that all
these glorious objects should be there, awaiting as it were the eye of
him who owned them, patient slaves of his pleasure, to be rewarded
by, perhaps, a hurried glance as he passed. The tempered light, the
noiseless footsteps, as one trod the triple-piled carpet, the odor of
rich flowers everywhere, imparted a dreaminess to the sense of enjoyment
that, after long, long years, I can recall and almost revive by an
effort of memory.

I met no one as I loitered through the rooms, for I was in a part of the
house only opened on great occasions or for large receptions; and so
I strayed on, lost in wonderment at the extent and splendor of a scene
which, to my untutored senses, seemed of an actually royal magnificence.
Having reached what I believed to be the limit of the suite of rooms,
I was about to retrace my steps, when I saw that a small octagon tower
opened from an angle of the room, though no apparent doorway led into
it. This puzzle interested me at once, and I set about to resolve it,
if I might. I opened one of the windows to inspect the tower on
the outside, and saw that no stairs led up to it, nor any apparent
communication existed with the rest of the house. I bethought me of the
sliding mirror which in my own room concealed the bookcase, and set to
work to see if some similar contrivance had not been employed here; but
I searched in vain. Defeated and disappointed, I was turning away when,
passing my hand along the margin of a massive picture-frame, I touched
a small button; and as I did so, with a faint sound like a wail, the
picture moved slowly, like an opening door, and disclosed the interior
of the tower. I entered at once, my curiosity now raised to a point of
intensity to know what had been so carefully and cunningly guarded from
public view. What a blank disappointment was mine! The little room,
about nine or ten feet in diameter, contained but a few straw-bottomed
chairs, and a painted table on which a tea-service of common blue-ware
stood. A Dutch clock was on a bracket at one side of the window, and a
stuffed bird - a grouse, I believe - occupied another. A straight-backed
old sofa, covered with a vulgar chintz, stood against the wall; an open
book, with a broken fan in the leaves, to mark the place, lay on the
sofa. The book was "Paul and Virginia". A common sheet almanac was nailed
against the wall, but over the printed columns of the months a piece of
white paper was pasted, on which, in large letters, was written "June
11, 18 - . Dies infausta."

I started. I had read that date once before in my mother's prayer-book,
and had learned it was her marriage-day. As a ray of sunlight displays
in an instant every object within its beam, I at once saw the meaning of
every detail around me. These were the humble accessories of that modest
home from which my dear mother was taken; these were the grim reminders
of the time my father desired to perpetuate as an undying sorrow. I
trembled to think what a nature I should soon be confronted with, and
how terrible must be the temper of a man whose resentments asked
for such aliment to maintain them! I stole away abashed at my own
intrusiveness, and feeling that I was rightfully punished by the misery
that overwhelmed me. How differently now did all the splendor appear to
me as I retraced my steps! how defiantly I gazed on that magnificence
which seemed to insult the poverty I had just quitted! What a contrast
to the nurtured spitefulness of his conduct was my poor mother's careful
preservation of a picture representing my father in his uniform. A badly
painted thing it was; but with enough of likeness to recall him. And
as such, in defiance of neglect and ill-usage and insult, she preserved
it, - a memorial, not of happier days, but of a time when she dreamed
of happiness to come. While I was thus thinking, seeking in my mind
comparisons between them, which certainly redounded but little to his
credit, Nixon came up to me, saying, "Oh, Master Digby, we 've been
looking for you in every direction. Sir Roger has asked over and over
why you have not been to see him; and I 'm afraid you 'll find him
displeased at your delay."

"I 'm ready now," said I, drily, and followed him.

My father was in his study, lying on a sofa, and cutting the leaves of
a new book as I entered; and he did not interrupt the operation to offer
me his hand.

"So, sir," said he, calmly and coldly, "you have taken your time to
present yourself to me? Apparently you preferred making acquaintance
with the house and the grounds."

"I am very sorry, sir," I began; "but I did not know you had risen.
Nixon told me about one or two - "

"Indeed! I was not aware that you and Mr. Nixon had been discussing my
habits. Come nearer; nearer still. What sort of dress is this? Is it a
smock-frock you have on?"

"No, sir. It's a blouse to keep my jacket clean. I have got but one."

"And these shoes; are they of your own making?"

"No, sir. I could n't make even as good as these."

"You are a very poor-looking object, I must say. What was Antoine about
that he did n't, at least, make you look like a gentleman, eh? Can you
answer me that?"

"No, sir, I cannot"

"Nor I, either," said he, sighing. "Have you been equally neglected
inside as out? Have you learned to read?"

"Yes, sir."

"And to write?"

"Yes, sir."

"Write my name, then, there, on that piece of paper, and let me see it."

I drew nigh, and wrote in a fall, bold hand, Roger Norcott.

"Why not Sir Roger Norcott, boy? Why not give me my name and title too?"

"You said your name, sir, and I thought - "

"No matter what you thought. This literalism comes of home breeding,"
muttered he to himself; "they are made truthful at the price of being
vulgar. What do you know besides reading and writing?"

"A little Latin, sir, and some French, and some German, and three books
of Euclid, and the Greek grammar - "

"There, there, that's more than enough. It will tax your tutor's
ingenuity to stub up all this rubbish, and prepare the soil for
real acquirement. I was hoping I should see you a savage: a fresh,
strong-natured impulsive savage! What I 'm to do with you, with your
little peddling knowledge of a score of things, I can't imagine. I 'd
swear you can neither ride, row, nor fence, never handled a cricket-ball
or a single-stick?"

"Quite true, sir; but I 'd like to do every one of them."

"Of course you have been taught music?"

"Yes, sir; the piano, and a little singing."

"That completes it," cried he, flinging his book from him. "They 've
been preparing you for a travelling circus, while I wanted to make you
a gentleman. Mind me now, sir, and don't expect that I ever repeat my
orders to any one. What I say once I mean to be observed. Let your past
life be entirely forgotten by you, - a thing that had no reality; begin
from this day - from this very room - a new existence, which is to have
neither link nor tie to what has gone before it. The persons you will
see here, their ways, their manners, their tone, will be examples for
your imitation; copy them, not servilely nor indiscriminately, but as
you will find how their traits will blend with your own nature. Never
tell an untruth, never accept an insult without redress, be slow about
forming friendships, and where you hate, hate thoroughly. That's enough
for the present. Ask Mr. Eccles to have the kindness to take you to his
tailor and order some clothes. You must dine alone till you are suitably
dressed. After that you shall come to my table. One thing more and you
may go: don't ever approach me with tales or complaints of any one;
right yourself where you can, and where you cannot, bear your grievance
silently. You can change nothing, alter nothing, here; you are a guest,
but a guest over whom I exercise full control. If you please me, it will
be well for you; if not, you understand - it will cost me little to tell
you so. Go. Go now." He motioned me to leave him, and I went. Straight
to my room I went, and sat down at once to write it all to mother. My
heart swelled with indignation at the way I had been received, and a
hundred times over did I say to myself that there was no poverty, no
hardship I would not face rather than buy a life of splendor on such
ignominious terms. Oh, if I could but get back again to the little home
I had quitted, how I would bless the hour that restored me to peace
of mind and self-respect! As I wrote, my indignation warmed with every
line. I found that my passion was actually mastering my reason. Better
to finish this, later on, - when I shall be cooler, thought I; and I
walked to my window and opened it. There were voices of people speaking
in the paddock below, and I leaned over the balcony and saw the two men
I had seen at breakfast, seated on rustic chairs, watching a young horse
being broken to the saddle. The well-worn ring in the grass showed that
this spot was reserved for such purposes, nor was I displeased to know
that such a source of interest lay so near to me.

"Isn't he one of your Mexicans, George?" asked Captain Hotham.

"No, sir, he's a Hungarian-bred 'un. Master calls him a Jucker, whatever
that is."

"Plenty of action, anyhow."

"A little too much, sir; that's his fault. He's a-comin' now, and it's
all they can do to keep him going over the park paling. Take this
one back," said he to the groom, who was ringing a heavy-shouldered,
ungainly colt in the ring.

"You 'll not gain much credit by that animal, George," said Cleremont,
as he lighted a cigar.

"He ain't a beauty, sir; he 's low before, and he's cow-hocked behind;
but Sir Roger says he's the best blood in Norfolk. Take care, take care,
sir! the skittish devil never knows where he 'll send his hind-legs.
Steady, Tom, don't check him: why, he's sweating as if he had been round
the two-mile course."

The animal that called for this criticism was a dark chestnut, but so
bathed in sweat as to appear almost black. He was one of those cross
breeds between the Arab and the western blood, that gain all the beauty
of head and crest and straightly formed croup, and yet have length of
body and depth of rib denied to the pure Arab. To my thinking he was the
most perfect creature I had ever seen, and as he bounded and plunged,
there was a supple grace and pliancy about him indescribably beautiful.

George now unloosened the long reins which were attached to the heavy
surcingle, and after walking the animal two or three times round the
circle, suffered him to go free. As if astonished at his liberty, the
young creature stood still for a minute or two, and sniffed the air, and
then gave one wild bound and headlong plunge, as though he were going
straight into the earth; after which he looked timidly about him, and
then walked slowly along in the track worn by the others.

"He's far quieter than the last time I saw him," said Hotham.

"He's gettin' more sense every day, sir," replied George; "he don't
scratch his head with his hind-leg now, sir, and he don't throw hisself
down neither."

"He has n't given up biting, I see," said Cleremont.

"No, sir; and they tell me them breed never does; but it's only play,
sir."

"I'll give you six months before you can call him fit to ride, George."

"My name ain't Spunner, sir, if the young gent as come yesterday don't
back him in six weeks' time."

"And is it for the boy Norcott intends him?" asked Cleremont of Hotham.

"So he told me yesterday; and though I warned him that he hadn't another
boy if that fellow should come to grief, he only said, 'If he's got _my_
blood in him, he 'll keep his saddle; and if he has n't, he had better
make room for another.'"

"Ain't he a-going beautiful now?" cried George, as the animal swung
slowly along at a gentle trot, every step of which was as measured as
clockwork.

"You 'll have to teach the youngster also, George," said Hotham. "I 'm
sure he never backed a horse in his life."

"Nay, sir, he rode very pretty indeed when he was six years old. I
didn't put him on a Shelty, or one of the hard-mouthed 'uns, but a nice
little lively French mare, that reared up the moment he bore hard on her
bit; so that he learned to sit on his beast without holdin' on by the
bridle."

"He's a loutish boy," said Cleremont to the Captain. "I 'll wager what
you like they'll not make a horseman of him."

"Ecoles says he's a confounded pedant," said the other; "that he wanted
to cap Horace with him at breakfast."

"Poor Bob! that was n't exactly his line; but he 'd hold his own in
Balzac or Fred Soulié."

"Oh, now I see what Norcott was driving at when he said, 'I wanted
the stuff to make a gentleman, and they 've sent me the germ of a
school-usher.' I said, 'Send him to sea with me. I shall be afloat in
March, and I 'll take him.'"

"Well, what answer did he make you?"

"It was n't a civil one," said the other, gruffly. "He said, 'You
misapprehend me, Hotham. A sea-captain is only a boatswain in
epaulettes. I mean the boy to be a gentleman.'"

"And you bore that?"

"Yes. Just as well as you bore his telling you at dinner on Sunday last
that a Legation secretary was a cross between an old lady and a clerk in
the Customs."

"A man who scatters impertinences broadcast is only known for the merits
of his cook or his cellar."

"Both of which are excellent."

"Shall I send him in, sir?" asked George, as he patted the young horse
and caressed him.



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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 2 of 17)