Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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"Well, Eccles," cried Hotham, as the tutor lounged lazily tip, "what do
you say to the mount they 're going to put your pupil on?"

"I wish they 'd wait a bit I shall not be ready for orders till next
spring, and I 'd rather they 'd not break his neck before February or
March."

"Has Norcott promised you the presentation, Bob?"

"No. He can't make up his mind whether he 'll give it to me or to a
Plymouth Brother, or to that fellow that was taken up at Salford for
blasphemy, and who happens to be in full orders."

"With all his enmity to the Established Church, I think he might be
satisfied with you," said Cleremont.

"Very neat, and very polite too," said Eccles; "but that this is the
Palace of Truth, I might feel nettled."

"Is it, by Jove?" cried Hotham. "Then it must be in the summer months,
when the house is shut up. Who has got a strong cigar? These Cubans of
Norcott's have no flavor. It must be close on luncheon-time."

"I can't join you, for I 've to go into town, and get my young bear
trimmed, and his nails cut. 'Make him presentable,' Norcott said, and
I 've had easier tasks to do."

So saying, Eccles moved off in one direction, while Hotham and Cleremont
strolled away in another; and I was left to my own reflections, which
were not few.




CHAPTER V. A FIRST DINNER-PARTY

I was made "presentable" in due time, and on the fifth day after my
arrival made my appearance at the dinner-table. "Sit there, sir,"
said my father, "opposite me." And I was not sorry to perceive that an
enormous vase with flowers effectually screened me from his sight.
The post of honor thus accorded me was a sufficient intimation to my
father's guests how he intended me to be treated by them; and as they
were without an exception all hangers-on and dependants, - men who dined
badly or not at all when uninvited to his table, - they were marvellously
quick in understanding that I was to be accepted as his heir, and, after
himself, the person of most consideration there.

Besides the three individuals I have already mentioned, our party
included two foreigners, - Baron Steinmetz, an aide-de-camp of the King,
and an Italian duke, San Giovanni. The Duke sat on my father's right,
the Baron on mine. The conversation during dinner was in French, which I
followed imperfectly, and was considerably relieved on discovering that
the German spoke French with difficulty, and blundered over his genders
as hopelessly as I should have done had I attempted to talk. "Ach Gott,"
muttered he to himself in German, "when people were seeking for a common
language, why did n't they take one that all humanity could pronounce?"

"So meine ich auch, Herr Baron," cried I; "I quite agree with you."

He turned towards me with a look of-positive affection, on seeing I knew
German, and we both began to talk together at once with freedom.

"What's the boy saying?" cried my father, as he caught the sounds of
some glib speech of mine. "Don't let him bore you with his bad French,
Steinmetz."

"He is charming me with his admirable German," said the Baron. "I can't
tell when I have met a more agreeable companion."

This was, of course, a double flattery, for my German was very bad, and
my knowledge on any subject no better; but the fact did not diminish the
delight the praise afforded me.

"Do you know German, Digby?" asked my father.

"A little, - a very little, sir."

"The fellow would say he knew Sanscrit if you asked him," whispered
Hotham to Eccles; but my sharp ears overheard him.

"Come, that's better than I looked for," said my father. "What do you
say, Eccles? Is there stuff there?"

"Plenty, Sir Roger; enough and to spare. I count on Digby to do me great
credit yet."

"What career do you mean your son to follow?" asked the Italian, while
he nodded to me over his wine-glass in most civil recognition.

"I'll not make a sailor of him, like that sea-wolf yonder; nor a
diplomatist, like my silent friend in the corner. Neither shall he be a
soldier till British armies begin to do something better than hunt out
illicit stills and protect process-servers."

"A politician, perhaps?"

"Certainly not, sir. There 's no credit in belonging to a Parliament
brought down to the meridian of soap-boilers and bankrupt bill-brokers."

"There's the Church, Sir Roger," chimed in Eccles.

"There's the Pope's Church, with some good prizes in the wheel; but your
branch, Master Bob, is a small concern, and it is trembling, besides.
No. I 'll make him none of these. It is in our vulgar passion for
money-getting we throw our boys into this or that career in life, and
we narrow to the stupid formula of some profession abilities that were
meant for mankind. I mean Digby to deal with the world; and to fit him
for the task, he shall learn as much of human nature as I can afford to
teach him."

"Ah, there's great truth in that, very great truth; very wise and very
original too," were the comments that ran round the board.

Excited by this theme, and elated by his success, my father went on: -

"If you want a boy to ride, you don't limit him to the quiet hackney
that neither pulls nor shies, neither bolts nor plunges; and so, if you
wish your son to know his fellow-men, you don't keep him in a charmed
circle of deans and archdeacons, but you throw him fearlessly into
contact with old debauchees like Hotham, or abandoned scamps of the
style of Cleremont," - and here he had to wait till the laughter subsided
to add, "and, last of all, you take care to provide him with a finishing
tutor like Eccles."

"I knew your turn was coming, Bob," whispered Hotham; but still all
laughed heartily, well satisfied to stand ridicule themselves if others
were only pilloried with them.

When dinner was over, we sat about a quarter of an hour, not more, and
then adjourned to coffee in a small room that seemed half boudoir, half
conservatory. As I loitered about, having no one to speak to, I found
myself at last in a little shrubbery, through which a sort of labyrinth
meandered. It was a taste of the day revived from olden times, and
amazed me much by its novelty. While I was puzzling myself to find out
the path that led out of the entanglement, I heard a voice I knew at
once to be Hotham's, saying, -

"Look at that boy of Norcott's: he's not satisfied with the imbroglio
within doors, but he must go out to mystify himself with another."

"I don't much fancy that young gentleman," said Cleremont.

"And I only half. Bob Eccles says we have all made a precious mistake in
advising Norcott to bring him back."

"Yet it was our only chance to prevent it. Had we opposed the plan,
he was sure to have determined on it. There's nothing for it but your
notion, Hotham; let him send the brat to sea with you."

"Yes, I think that would do it." And now they had walked out of earshot,
and I heard no more.

If I was not much reassured by these droppings, I was far more moved by
the way in which I came to hear them. Over and over had my dear mother
cautioned me against listening to what was not meant for me; and
here, simply because I found myself the topic, I could not resist the
temptation to learn how men would speak of me. I remembered well the
illustration by which my mother warned me as to the utter uselessness of
the sort of knowledge thus gained. She told me of a theft some visitor
had made at Abbotsford, - the object stolen being a signet-ring Lord
Byron had given to Sir Walter. The man who stole this could never
display the treasure without avowing himself a thief. He had, therefore,
taken what from the very moment of the fraud became valueless. He might
gaze on it in secret with such pleasure as his self-accusings would
permit. He might hug himself with the thought of possession; but how
could that give pleasure, or how drown the everlasting shame the mere
sight of the object must revive? So would it be, my mother said, with
him who unlawfully possessed himself of certain intelligence which he
could not employ without being convicted of the way he gained it The
lesson thus illustrated had not ceased to be remembered by me; and
though I tried all my casuistry to prove that I listened without
intention, almost without being aware of it, I was shocked and grieved
to find how soon I was forgetting the precepts she had labored so hard
to impress upon me.

She had also said, "By the same rule which would compel you to restore
to its owner what you had become possessed of wrongfully, you are bound
to let him you have accidentally overheard know to what extent you are
aware of his thoughts."

"This much, at least, I can do," said I: "I can tell these gentlemen
that I heard a part of their conversation."

I walked about for nigh an hour revolving these things in my head, and
at last returned to the house. As I entered the drawing-room, I was
struck by the silence. My father, Cleremont, and the two foreigners were
playing whist at one end of the room, Hotham and Eccles were seated at
chess at another. Not a word was uttered save some brief demand of
the game, or a murmured "check," by the chess-players. Taking my place
noiselessly beside these latter, I watched the board eagerly, to try and
acquire the moves.

"Do you understand the game?" whispered Hotham.

"No, sir," said I, in the same cautious tone.

"I 'll show you the moves, when this party is over." And I muttered my
thanks for the courtesy.

"This is intolerable!" cried out my father. "That confounded whispering
is far more distracting than any noise. I have lost all count of my
game. I say, Eccles, why is not that boy in bed?"

"I thought you said he might sup, Sir Roger."

"If I did, it was because I thought he knew how to conduct himself. Take
him away at once."

And Eccles rose, and with more kindness than I had expected from him,
said, "Come, Digby, I 'll go too, for we have both to be early risers
to-morrow."

Thus ended my first day in public, and I have no need to say what a
strange conflict filled my head that night as I dropped off to sleep.



CHAPTER VI. HOW THE DAYS WENT OYER

If I give one day of my life, I give, with very nearly exactness, the
unbroken course of my existence. I rose very early - hours ere the rest
of the household was stirring - to work at my lessons, which Mr. Eccles
apportioned for me with a liberality that showed he had the highest
opinion of my abilities, or - as I discovered later on to be the truth - a
profound indifference about them. Thus, a hundred lines of Virgil,
thirty of Xenophon, three propositions of Euclid, with a sufficient
amount of history, geography, and logic, would be an ordinary day's
work. It is fair I should own that when the time of examination came, I
found him usually imbibing seltzer and curacoa, with a wet towel round
his head; or, in his robuster moments, practising the dumbbells to
develop his muscles. So that the interrogatories-were generally in this
wise: -

"How goes it, Digby? What of the Homer, eh?"

"'It 's Xenophon, sir."

"'To be sure it is. I was forgetting, as a man might who had my
headache. And, by the way, Digby, why will your father give Burgundy
at supper instead of Bordeaux? Some one must surely have told him
accidentally it was a deadly poison, for he adheres to it with desperate
fidelity."

"I believe I know my Greek, sir," would I say, modestly, to recall him
to the theme.

"Of course you do; you'd cut a sorry figure here this morning if
you did not know it. No, sir; I 'm not the man to enjoy your father's
confidence, and take his money, and betray my trust His words to me
were, 'Make him a gentleman, Eccles. I could find scores of fellows to
cram him with Greek particles and double equations, but I want the man
who can turn out the perfect article, - the gentleman.' Come now, what
relations subsisted between Cyrus and Xenophon?"

"Xenophon coached him, sir."

"So he did. Just strike a light for me. My head is splitting for want of
a cigar. You may have a cigarette too. I don't object Virgil we'll keep
till to-morrow. Virgil was a muff, after all. Virgil was a decentish
sort of Martin Tupper, Digby. He had no wit, no repartee, no smartness;
he prosed about ploughs and shepherds, like a maudlin old squire; or he
told a very shady sort of anecdote about Dido, which I always doubted
should be put into the hands of youth. Horace is free, too, a thought
too free; but he could n't help it. Horace lived the same kind of life
we do here, a species of roast-partridge and pretty woman sort of life;
but then he was the gentleman always. If old Flaccus had lived now,
he'd have been pretty much like Bob Eccles, and putting in his divinity
lectures perhaps. By the way, I hope your father won't go and give
away that small rectory in Kent. 'We who live to preach, must preach
to live.' That is n't exactly the line, but it will do. Pulvis et umbra
sumus, Digby; and take what care we may of ourselves, we must go back,
as the judges say, to the place from whence we came. There, now, you 've
had classical criticism, sound morality, worldly wisdom, and the rest
of it; and, with your permission, we'll pack up the books, and stand
prorogued till - let me see - Saturday next."

Of course I moved no amendment, and went my way rejoicing.

From that hour I was free to follow my own inclinations, which usually
took a horsey turn; and as the stable offered several mounts, I very
often rode six hours a day. Hotham was always to be found in the
pistol-gallery about four of an afternoon, and I usually joined him
there, and speedily became more than his match.

"Well, youngster," he would say, when beaten and irritable, "I can beat
your head off at billiards, anyhow."

But I was not long in robbing him of even this boast, and in less than
three months I could defy the best player in the house. The fact was,
I had in a remarkable degree that small talent for games of every kind
which is a speciality with certain persons. I could not only learn a
game quickly, but almost always attain considerable skill in it.

"So, sir," said my father to me one day at dinner, - and nothing was more
rare than for him to address a word to me, and I was startled as he did
so, - "so, sir, you are going to turn out an Admirable Crichton on my
hands, it seems. I hear of nothing but your billiard-playing, your
horsemanship, and your cricketing, while Mr. Eccles tells me that your
progress with him is equally remarkable."

He stopped and seemed to expect me to make some rejoinder; but I could
not utter a word, and felt overwhelmed at the observation and notice his
speech had drawn upon me.

"It's better I should tell you at once," resumed my father, "that I
dislike prodigies. I dislike because I distrust them. The fellow who
knows at fourteen what he might reasonably have known at thirty is not
unlikely to stop short at fifteen and grow no more. I don't wish to be
personal, but I have heard it said Cleremont was a very clever boy."

The impertinence of this speech, and the laughter it at once excited,
served to turn attention away from me; but, through the buzz and murmur
around, I overheard Cleremont say to Hotham, "I shall pull him up short
one of these days, and you 'll see an end of all this."

"Now," continued my father, "if Eccles had told me that the boy was a
skilful hand at sherry-cobbler, or a rare judge of a Cuban cigar, I
'd have reposed more faith in the assurance than when he spoke of his
classics."

"He ain't bad at a gin-sling with bitters, that I must say," said
Eccles, whose self-control or good-humor, or mayhap some less worthy
trait, always carried him successfully over a difficulty.

"So, sir," said my father, turning again on me, "the range of your
accomplishments is complete. You might be a tapster or a jockey. When
the nobility of France came to ruin in the Revolution, the best blood of
the kingdom became barbers and dancing-masters: so that when some fine
morning that gay gentleman yonder will discover that he is a beggar,
he 'll have no difficulty in finding a calling to suit his tastes, and
square with his abilities. What's Hotham grumbling about? Will any one
interpret him for me?"

"Hotham is saying that this claret is corked," said the sea-captain,
with a hoarse loud voice.

"Bottled at home!" said my father, "and, like your own education,
Hotham, spoiled for a beggarly economy."

"I 'm glad you 've got it," muttered Cleremont, whose eyes glistened
with malignant spite. "I have had enough of this; I 'm for coffee," and
he arose as he spoke.

"Has Cleremont left us?" asked my father.

"Yes; that last bottle has finished him. I told you before, Nixon knows
nothing about wine. I saw that hogshead lying bung up for eight weeks
before it was drawn off for bottling."

"Why didn't you speak to him about it, then?"

"And be told that I'm not his master, eh? You don't seem to know,
Norcott, that you 've got a houseful of the most insolent servants in
Christendom. Cleremont's wife wanted the chestnuts yesterday in the
phaeton, and George refused her: she might take the cobs, or nothing."

"Quite true," chimed in Eccles; "and the fellow said, 'I 'm a-taking
the young horses out in the break, and if the missis wants to see the
chestnuts, she'd better come with _me_.'**

"And as to a late breakfast now, it's quite impossible; they delay and
delay till they run you into luncheon," growled Hotham.

"They serve me my chocolate pretty regularly," said my father,
negligently, and he arose and strolled out of the room. As he went, he
slipped his arm within mine, and said, in a half-whisper, "I suppose it
will come to this, - I shall have to change my friends or my household.
Which would you advise?"

"I 'd say the friends, sir."

"So should I, but that they would not easily find another place. There,
go and see is the billiard-room lighted. I want to see you play a game
with Cleremont."

Cleremont was evidently sulking under the sarcasm passed on him, and
took up his cue to play with a bad grace.

"Who will have five francs on the party?" said my father. "I 'm going to
back the boy."

"Make it pounds, Norcott," said Hotham.

"I'll give you six to five, in tens," said Cleremont to my father. "Will
you take it?"

I was growing white and red by turns all this time. I was terrified at
the thought that money was to be staked on my play, and frightened by
the mere presence of my father at the table.

"The youngster is too nervous to play. Don't let him, Norcott," said
Hotham, with a kindness I had not given him credit for.

"Give me the cue, Digby; I 'll take your place," said my father; and
Cleremont and Hotham both drew nigh, and talked to him in a low tone.

"Eight and the stroke then be it," said my father, "and the bet in
fifties." The others nodded, and Cleremont began the game.

I could not have believed I could have suffered the amount of intense
anxiety that game cost me. Had my life been on the issue, I do not think
I could have gone through greater alternations of hope and fear than now
succeeded in my heart Cleremont started with eight points odds, and made
thirty-two off the balls before my father began to play. He now took his
place, and by the first stroke displayed a perfect mastery of the game.
There was a sort of languid grace, an indolent elegance about all he
did, that when the stroke required vigor or power made me tremble for
the result; but somehow he imparted the exact amount of force needed,
and the balls moved about here and there as though obedient to some
subtle instinct of which the cue gave a mere sign. He scored forty-two
points in a few minutes, and then drawing himself up, said, "There 's an
eight-stroke now on the table. I 'll give any one three hundred Naps to
two that I do it."

None spoke. "Or I 'll tell you what I 'll do. I 'll take fifty from each
of you and draw the game!" Another as complete silence ensued. "Or here
's a third proposition, Give me fifty between you, and I 'll hand over
the cue to the boy; he shall finish the game."

"Oh, no, sir! I beg you - I entreat - " I began; but already, "Done," had
been loudly uttered by both together, and the bet was ratified.

"Don't be nervous, boy," said my father, handing me his cue. "You see
what's on the balls. You cannon and hold the white, and land the red in
the middle pocket. If you can't do the brilliant thing, and finish the
game with an eight stroke, do the safe one, - the cannon or the hazard.
But, above all, don't lose your stroke, sir. Mind that, for I've a pot
of money on the game."

"I don't think you ought to counsel him, Norcott," said Cleremont. "If
he's a player, he's fit to devise his own game."

"Oh, hang it, no," broke in Hotham; "Norcott has a perfect right to tell
him what's on the table."

"If you object seriously, sir," said my father proudly, "the party is at
an end."

"I put it to yourself," began Cleremont.

"You shall not appeal to me against myself, sir. You either withdraw
your objection, or you maintain it."

"Of course he withdraws it," said Hotham, whose eyes never wandered from
my father's face.

Cleremont nodded a half-unwilling assent.

"You will do me the courtesy to speak, perhaps," said my father; and
every word came from him with a tremulous roll.

"Yes, yes, I agree. There was really nothing in my remark," said
Cleremont, whose self-control seemed taxed to its last limit.

"There, go on, boy, and finish this stupid affair," said my father, and
he turned to the chimney to light his cigar.

I leaned over the table, and a mist seemed to rise before me. I saw
volumes of cloud rolling swiftly across, and meteors, or billiard-balls,
I knew not which, shooting through them. I played and missed; I did
not even strike a ball. A wild roar of laughter, a cry of joy, and a
confused blending of several voices in various tones followed, and
I stood there like one stunned into immobility. Meanwhile Cleremont
finished the game, and, clapping me gayly on the shoulder, cried, "I 'm
more grateful to you than your father is, my lad. That shaking hands of
yours has made a difference of two hundred Naps to me." I turned towards
the fire; my father had left the room.




CHAPTER VII. A PRIVATE AUDIENCE

I had but reached my room when Eccles followed me to say my father
wished to see me at once.

"Come, come, Digby," said Eccles, good-naturedly, "don't be frightened.
Even if he should be angry with you, his passion passes soon over;
and, if uncontradicted, he is never disposed to bear a grudge long. Go
immediately, however, and don't keep him waiting."

I cannot tell with what a sense of abasement I entered my father's
dressing-room; for, after all, it was the abject condition of my own
mind that weighed me down.

"So, sir," said he, as I closed the door, "this is something I was not
prepared for. You might be forty things, but I certainly did not suspect
that a son of mine should be a coward."

Had my father ransacked his whole vocabulary for a term of insult, he
could pot have found one to pain me like this.

"I am not a coward, sir," said I, reddening till I felt my face in a
perfect glow.

"What!" cried he, passionately; "are you going to give me a proof of
courage by daring to outrage _me?_ Is it by sending back my words in my
teeth you assume to be brave?"

"I ask pardon, sir," said I, humbly, "if I have replied rudely; but you
called me by a name that made me forget myself. I hope you will forgive
me."

"Sit down, there, sir; no, there." And he pointed to a more distant
chair. "There are various sorts and shades of cowardice, and I would
not have you tarnished with any one of them. The creature whose first
thought, and indeed only one, in an emergency is his personal safety,
and who, till that condition is secured, abstains from all action, is
below contempt; him I will not even consider. But next to him - of
course with a long interval - comes the fellow who is so afraid of a
responsibility that the very thought of it unmans him. How did the fact
of my wager come to influence you at all, sir? Why should you have had
any thought but for the game you were playing, and how it behoved you
to play it? How came I and these gentlemen to stand between you and your
real object, if it were not that a craven dread of consequences had
got the ascendancy in your mind? If men were to be beset by these
calculations, if every fellow carried about him an armor of sophistry
like this, he 'd have no hand free to wield a weapon, and the world
would see neither men who storm a breach nor board an enemy. Till a man
can so isolate and concentrate his faculties on what he has to do that


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 3 of 17)