Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 4 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 4 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


all extraneous conditions cease to affect him, he will never be well
served by his own powers; and he who is but half served is only half
brave. There are times when the unreasoners are worth all the men of
logic, remember that. And now go and sleep over it."

He motioned me to withdraw, but I could not bear to go till he had
withdrawn the slur he had cast on me in the word coward. He looked at me
steadfastly, but not harshly, for a moment or two, and then said, -

"You are not to think that it is out of regret for a lost sum of money I
have read you this lecture. As to the wager itself, I am as well pleased
that it ended as it did. These gentlemen are not rich, either of them. I
can afford the loss. What I cannot afford is the way I lost it."

"But will you not say, sir, that I am no coward?" said I, faltering.

"I will withdraw the word," said he, slowly, "the very first time I
shall see you deal with a difficulty without a thought for what it may
cost you. There; good-night; leave me now. I mean to have a ride with
you in the morning."

And he nodded twice, and smiled, and dismissed me.

There was nothing, certainly, very flattering to me in this reception.
It cost me dearly while it lasted, and yet - I cannot explain why - I came
away with a feeling of affection for my father, and a desire to stand
well in his esteem, such as I had not experienced till that moment. It
was his utter indifference up to this that had chilled and repelled me.
Any show of interest, anything that might evidence that he cared what I
was or what I might become, was so much better than this apathy that I
welcomed the change with delight. Accustomed to the tender solicitude of
a loving mother, no niggard of her praise, and more given to sympathize
than blame, the stern reserve of my father's manner had been a terrible
reverse, and over and over had I asked myself why he took me from where
I was loved and cherished, to live this life of ceremonious observance
and cold deference.

To know that he felt even such interest in me as this, was to restore me
to self-esteem at once. He would not have his son a coward, he said;
and as I felt in my heart that I was not a coward, as I knew I was ready
then and there to confront any peril he could propose to me, all that
the speech left in my memory was a sense of self-satisfaction.

In each of the letters I had received from my mother she impressed on me
how important it was that I should win my father's affection, and now a
hope flashed across me that I might do this. I sat down to tell her all
that had passed between us; but somehow, in recounting the incident of
the billiard-room, I wandered away into a description of the house, its
splendors and luxury, and of the life of costly pleasure that we were
living. "You will ask, dearest mamma," I wrote, "how and when I find
time to study amidst all these dissipations? and I grieve to own that I
do very little. Mr. Eccles says he is satisfied with me; but I fear it
is more because I obtrude little on his notice than that I am making any
progress. We are still in the same scene of the Adrian that I began
with you; and as to the Greek, we leave it over for Saturdays, and the
Saturdays get skipped. I have become a good shot with the rifle; and
George says I have the finest, lightest hand he knows on a horse, and
that he 'll make me yet a regular steeple-chase horseman. I have a
passion for riding, and sometimes get four mounts on a day. Indeed, papa
takes no interest in the stable, and I give all the orders, and can have
a team harnessed for me - which I do - when I am tired with the saddle.
They have not quite given up calling me 'that boy of Norcott's;' only
now, when they do so, it is to say how well he rides, and what a taste
he shows for driving and shooting.

"Don't be afraid that I am neglecting my music. I play every day, and
take singing lessons with an Italian: they call him the Count Guastalla;
but I believe he is the tenor of the opera here, and only teaches me out
of compliment to papa. He dines here nearly every day, and plays piquet
with papa all the evening.

"There is a very beautiful lady comes here, - Madame Cleremont. She is
the wife of the Secretary to the Legation. She is French, and has
such pleasing ways, and is so gay, and so good-natured, and so fond of
gratifying me in every way, that I delight in being with her; and we
ride out together constantly, and I am now teaching her to drive the
ponies, and she enjoys it just as I used myself. I don't think papa
likes her, for he seldom speaks to her, and never takes her in to dinner
if there is another lady in the room; and I suspect she feels this,
for she is often very sad. I dislike Mr. Cleremont; he is always saying
snappish things, and is never happy, no matter how merry we are. But
papa seems to like him best of all the people here. Old Captain Hotham
and I are great friends, though he's always saying, 'You ought to be at
sea, youngster. This sort of life will only make a blackleg of you.'
But I can't make out why, because I am very happy and have so much to
interest and amuse me, I must become a scamp. Mdme. Cleremont says, too,
it is not true; that papa is bringing me up exactly as he ought, that I
will enter life as a gentleman, and not be passing the best years of
my existence in learning the habits of the well-bred world. They fight
bitterly over this every day; but she always gets the victory, and then
kisses me, and says, 'Mon cher petit Digby, I 'll not have you spoiled,
to please any vulgar prejudice of a tiresome old sea-captain,' This she
whispers, for she would not offend him for anything. Dear mamma, how you
would love her if you knew her! I believe I 'm to go to Rugby to school;
but I hope not, for how I shall live like a schoolboy after all this
happiness I don't know; and Mdme. Cleremont says she will never permit
it; but she has no influence over papa, and how could she prevent it?
Captain Hotham is always saying, 'If Norcott does not send that boy
to Harrow or Rugby, or some of these places, he 'll graduate in the
Marshalsea - that's a prison - before he's twenty.' I am so glad when a
day passes without my being brought up for the subject of a discussion,
which papa always ends with, 'After all I was neither an Etonian nor
Rugbeian, and I suspect I can hold my own with most men; and if that boy
doesn't belie his breeding, perhaps he may do so too.'

"Nobody likes contradicting papa, especially when he says anything in a
certain tone of voice, and whenever he uses this, the conversation turns
away to something else.

"I forgot to say in my last, that your letters always come regularly.
They arrive with papa's, and he sends them up to me at once, by
his valet, Mons. Durand, who is always so nicely dressed, and has a
handsomer watch-chain than papa.

"Mdme. Cleremont said yesterday: 'I'm so sorry not to know your dear
mamma, Digby: but if I dared, I'd send her so many caresses, _de ma
part_.' I said nothing at the time, but I send them now, and am your
loving son,

"Digby Norcott."


This letter was much longer than it appears here. It filled several
sides of note-paper, and occupied me till daybreak. Indeed, I heard the
bell ringing for the workmen as I closed it, and shortly after a gentle
tap came to my door, and George Spunner, our head groom, entered.

"I saw you at the window, Master Digby," said he, "and I thought I'd
step up and tell you not to ride in spurs this morning. Sir Roger wants
to see you on May Blossom, and you know she's a hot 'un, sir, and don't
want the steel. Indeed, if she feels the boot, she's as much as a man
can do to sit."

"You 're a good fellow, George, to think of this," said I. "Do you know
where we 're going?"

"That's what I was going to tell you, sir. We are going to the Bois de
Cambre, and there's two of our men gone on with hurdles, to set them up
in the cross alleys of the wood, and we 're to come on 'em unawares, you
see."

"Then why don't you give me Father Tom or Hunger-ford?"

"The master would n't have either. He said, 'A child of five years old
could ride the Irish horse;' and as for Hungerford, he calls him a
circus horse."

"But who knows if Blossom will take a fence?"

"I'll warrant she'll go high enough; how she'll come down, and where,
is another matter. Only don't you go a-pullin' at her, ride her in the
snaffle, and as light as you can. Face her straight at what she's got to
go over, and let her choose her own pace."

"I declare I don't see how this is a fair trial of my riding, George. Do
you?"

"Well, it is, and it isn't," said he, scratching his head. "You might
have a very tidy hand and a nice seat, and not be able to ride the mare;
but then, sir, you see, if you have the judgment to manage her coolly,
and not rouse her temper too far, if you can bring her to a fence, and
make her take off at a proper distance, and fly it, never changing her
stride nor balk, why then he'll see you can ride."

"And if she rushes, or comes with her chest to a bank, or if - as I think
she will - she refuses her fence, rears, and falls back, what then?"

"Then I think the mornin's sport will be pretty nigh over," growled he;
as though I had suggested something personally offensive to him.

"What time do we go, George?"

"Sir Roger said seven, sir, but that will be eight or half-past. He's to
drive over to the wood, and the horses are to meet him there."

"All right. I'll take a short sleep and be sharp to time."

As he left the room, I tore open my letter, to add a few words. I
thought I'd say something that, if mischance befell me, might be a
comfort to my dear mother to read over and dwell on, but for the life of
me I did not know how to do it, without exciting alarm or awakening her
to the dread of some impending calamity. Were I to say, I 'm off for a
ride with papa, it meant nothing; and if I said, I 'm going to show
him how I can manage a very hot horse, it might keep her in an agony of
suspense till I wrote again.

So I merely added, "I intend to write to you very soon again, and hope
I may do so within the week." These few commonplace words had a great
meaning to my mind, however little they might convey to her I wrote
them to; and as I read them over, I stored them with details supplied by
imagination, - details so full of incident and catastrophe that they made
a perfect story. After this I lay down and slept heavily.




CHAPTER VIII. A DARK-ROOM PICTURE.

Mr next letter to my mother was very short, and ran thus: -

"Dearest Mamma, - Don't be shocked at my bad writing, for I had a fall on
Tuesday last, and hurt my arm a little; nothing broken, but bruised
and sore to move, so that I lie on my bed and read novels. Madame never
leaves me, but sits here to put ice on my shoulder and play chess with
me. She reads out Balzac for me, and I don't know when I had such a
jolly life. It was a rather big hurdle, and the mare took it sideways,
and caught her hind leg, - at least they say so, - but we came down
together, and she rolled over me. Papa cried out well done, for I did
not lose my saddle, and he has given me a gold watch and a seal with the
Norcott crest. Every one is so kind; and Captain Hotham comes up after
dinner and tells me all the talk of the table, and we smoke and have our
coffee very nicely.

"Papa comes every night before supper, and is very good to me. He says
that Blossom is now my own, but I must teach her to come cooler to her
fences. I can't write more, for my pain comes back when I stir my arm.
You shall hear of me constantly, if I cannot write myself.

"Oh, dearest mamma, when papa is kind there is no one like him, - so
gentle, so thoughtful, so soft in manner, and so dignified all the
while. I wish you could see him as he stood here. A thousand loves from
your own boy,

"DIGBY."

Madame Cleremont wrote by the same post. I did not see her letter; but
when mamma's answer came I knew it must have been a serious version of
my accident, and told how, besides a dislocated shoulder, I had got
a broken collar-bone, and two ribs fractured. With all this, however,
there was no danger to life; for the doctor said everything had gone
luckily, and no internal parts were wounded.

Poor mamma had added a postscript that puzzled Madame greatly, and she
came and showed it to me, and asked what I thought she could do about
it. It was an entreaty that she might be permitted to come and see me.
There was a touching humility in the request that almost choked me with
emotion as I read it. "I could come and go unknown and unnoticed," wrote
she. "None of Sir Roger's household have ever seen me, and my visit
might pass for the devotion of some old follower of the family, and
I will promise not to repeat it." She urged her plea in the most
beseeching terms, and said that she would submit to any conditions if
her prayer were only complied with.

"I really do not know what to do here," said Madame to me. "Without
your father's concurrence this cannot be done; and who is to ask him for
permission?"

"Shall I?"

"No, no, no," cried she, rapidly. "Such a step on your part would be
ruin; a certain refusal, and ruin to yourself."

"Could Mr. Eccles do it?"

"He has no influence whatever."

"Has Captain Hotham?"

"Less, if less be possible."

"Mr. Cleremont, then?"

"Ah, yes, he might, and with a better chance of success; but - " She
stopped, and though I waited patiently, she did not finish her sentence.

"But what?" asked I at last.

"Gaston hates doing a hazardous thing," said she; and I remarked that
her expression changed, and her face assumed a hard, stern look as she
spoke. "His theory is, do nothing without three to one in your favor. He
says you 'll always gets these odds, if you only wait."

"But you don't believe that," cried I, eagerly.

"Sometimes - very seldom, that is, I do not whenever I can help it."
There was a long pause now, in which neither of us spoke. At last she
said, "I can't aid your mother in this project. She must give it up.
There is no saying how your father would resent it."

"And how will you tell her that?" faltered I out.

"I can't tell. I'll try and show her the mischief it might bring upon
you; and that now, standing high, as you do, in your father's favor, she
would never forgive herself, if she were the cause of a change towards
you. This consideration will have more weight with her than any that
could touch herself personally."

"But it shall not," cried I, passionately. "Nothing in _my_ fortune
shall stand between my mother and her love for me."

She bent down and looked at me with an intensity in her stare that I
cannot describe; it was as if, by actual steadfastness, she was able to
fix me, and read me in my inmost heart.

"From which of your parents, Digby," said she, slowly, "do you derive
this nature?"

"I do not know; papa always says I am very like him."

"And do you believe that papa is capable of great self-sacrifice? I
mean, would he let his affections lead him against his interests?"

"That he would! He has told me over and over the head is as often wrong
as right, - the heart only errs about once in five times." She fell on
my neck and kissed me as I said this, with a sort of rapturous delight.
"Your heart will be always right, dear boy," said she; once more she
bent down and kissed me, and then hurried away.

This scene must have worked more powerfully on my nerves than I felt,
or was aware of, while it was passing; at all events, it brought back my
fever, and before night I was in wild delirium. Of the seven long weeks
that followed, with all their alternations, I know nothing. My first
consciousness was to know myself, as very weak and propped by pillows,
in a half-darkened room, in which an old nurse-tender sat and mingled
her heavy snorings with the ticking of the clock on the chimney. Thus
drowsily pondering, with a debilitated brain, I used to fancy that I had
passed away into another form of existence, in which no sights or sounds
should come but these dreary breathings, and that remorseless ticking
that seemed to be spelling out "eternity."

Sometimes one, sometimes two or three persons would enter the room,
approach the bed, and talk together in whispers, and I would languidly
lift up my eyes and look at them, and though I thought they were not
altogether unknown to me, the attempt at recognition would have been
an effort so full of pain that I would, rather than make it, fall back
again into apathy. The first moment of perfect consciousness - when I
could easily follow all that I heard, and remember it afterwards - was
one evening, when a faint but delicious air came in through the open
window, and the rich fragrance of the garden filled the room. Captain
Hotham and the doctor were seated on the balcony smoking and chatting.

"You 're sure the tobacco won't be bad for him?" asked Hotham.

"Nothing will be bad or good now," was the answer. "Effusion has set
in."

"Which means, that it's all over, eh?"

"About one in a thousand, perhaps, rub through. My own experience
records no instance of recovery."

"And you certainly did not take such a gloomy view of his case at first.
You told me that there were no vital parts touched?"

"Neither were there; the ribs had suffered no displacement, and as for
a broken clavicle, I 've known a fellow get up and finish his race after
it This boy was doing famously. I don't know that I ever saw a case
going on better, when some of them here - it's not easy to say whom - sent
off for his mother to come and see him. Of course, without Norcott's
knowledge. It was a rash thing to do, and not well done either; for when
the woman arrived, there was no preparation made, either with the boy or
herself, for their meeting; and the result was that when she crossed the
threshold and saw him she fainted away. The youngster tried to get to
her and fainted too; a great hubbub and noise followed; and Norcott
himself appeared. The scene that ensued must have been, from what I
heard, terrific. He either ordered the woman out of the house, or he
dragged her away, - it's not easy to say which; but it is quite clear
that he went absolutely mad with passion: some say that he told them
to pack off the boy along with her, but, of course, this was sheer
impossibility; the boy was insensible, and has been so ever since."

"I was at Namur that day, but they told me when I came back that
Cleremont's wife had behaved so well; that she had the courage to face
Norcott; and though I don't believe she did much by her bravery, she
drove him off the field to his own room, and when his wife did leave the
house for the railroad, it was in one of Norcott's carriages, and Madame
herself accompanied her."

"Is she his wife? that's the question."

"There's not a doubt of it. Blenkworth of the Grays was at the wedding.

"If I were to be examined before a commission of lunacy to-morrow," said
the doctor, solemnly, "I 'd call that man insane."

"And you'd shut him up?"

"I'd shut him up!"

"Then I 'm precious glad you are not called on to give an opinion, for
you 'd shut up the best house in this quarter of Europe."

"And what security have you any moment that he won't make a clean sweep
of it, and turn you all into the streets?"

"Yes; that's on the cards any day."

"He must have got through almost everything he had; besides, I never
heard his property called six thousand a year, and I 'll swear twelve
wouldn't pay his way here."

"What does he care! His father and he agreed to cut off the entail; and
seeing the sort of marriage he made, he 'll not fret much at leaving the
boy a beggar."

"But he likes him; if there's anything in the world he cares for, it's
that boy!"

The other must have made some gesture of doubt or dissent, for the
doctor quickly added, "No, no, I 'm right about that. It was only
yesterday morning he said to me with a shake in the voice there's
no mistaking, 'If you can come and tell me, doctor, that he's out of
danger, I 'll give you a thousand pounds.'"

"Egad, I think I 'd have done it, even though I might have made a
blunder."

"Ye 're no a doctor, sir, that's plain;" and in the emotion of the
moment he spoke the words with a strong Scotch accent.

There was a silence of some minutes, and Hotham said, "That little
Frenchwoman and I have no love lost between us, but I 'm glad she cut up
so well."

"They 're strange natures, there 's no denying it They 'll do less from
duty and more from impulse than any people in the world, and they 're
never thoroughly proud of themselves except when they 're all wrong."

"That's a neat character for Frenchwomen," said Hotham, laughing.

"I think Norcott will be looking out for his whist by this time," said
the other; and they both arose, and passing noiselessly through the
room, moved away.

I had enough left me to think over, and I did think over it till I fell
asleep.




CHAPTER IX. MADAME CLEREMONT

From that day forth I received no tidings of my mother. Whether my own
letters reached her or not, I could not tell; and though I entreated
Madame Cleremont, who was now my confidante in everything, to aid me in
learning where my mother was, she declared that the task was beyond
her; and at last, as time went over, my anxieties became blunted and my
affections dulled. The life I was leading grew to have such a hold upon
me, and was so full of its own varied interests, that - with shame I say
it - I actually forgot the very existence of her to whom I owed any trace
of good or honest or truthful that was in me.

The house in which I was living was a finishing school for every sort
of dissipation, and all who frequented it were people who only lived for
pleasure. Play of the highest kind went on unceasingly, and large sums
were bandied about from hand to hand as carelessly as if all were men of
fortune and indifferent to heavy losses.

A splendid mode of living, sumptuous dinners, a great retinue, and
perfect liberty to the guests, drew around us that class who, knowing
well that they have no other occupation than self-indulgence, throw an
air of languid elegance over vice, which your vulgar sinner, who has
only intervals of wickedness, knows nothing of; and this, be it said
passingly, is, of all sections of society, the most seductive and
dangerous to the young: for there are no outrages to taste amongst these
people, they violate no decencies, they shock no principles. If they
smash the tables of the law, it is in kid-gloves, and with a delicious
odor of Ess bouquet about them. The Cleremonts lived at the Villa.
Cleremont managed the household, and gave the orders for everything.
Madame received the company, and did the honors; my father lounging
about like an unoccupied guest, and actually amused, as it seemed, by
his own unimportance. Hotham had gone to sea; but Eccles remained, in
name, as my tutor; but we rarely met, save at meal-times, and his manner
to me was almost slavish in subserviency, and with a habit of flattery
that, even young as I was, revolted me.

"Isn't that your charge, Eccles?" I once heard an old gentleman ask him;
and he replied, "Yes, my Lord; but Madame Cleremont has succeeded me. It
is _she_ is finishing him."

And they both laughed heartily at the joke. There was, however, this
much of truth in the speech, that I lived almost entirely in her
society. We sang together; she called me Cherubino, and taught me all
the page's songs in Mozart or Rossini; and we rode out together, or
read or walked in company. Nor was her influence over me such as might
effeminate me. On the contrary, it was ever her aim to give me manly
tastes and ambitions. She laid great stress on my being a perfect
swordsman and a pistol-shot, over and over telling me that a conscious
skill in arms gives a man immense coolness in every question of
difference with other men; and she would add, "Don't fall into that John
Bull blunder of believing that duelling is gone out because they dislike
the practice in England. The world is happily larger than the British
Islands."

Little sneers like this at England, sarcasms on English prudery, English
reserve, or English distrustfulness, were constantly dropping from her,
and I grew up to believe that while genuine sentiment and unselfish
devotion lived on one side of the Channel, a decorous hypocrisy had its
home on the other.

Now she would contrast the women 'of Balzac's novels with the colder
nonentities of English fiction; and now she would dwell on traits of
fascination in the sex which our writers either did not know of or were
afraid to touch on. "It is entirely the fault of your Englishwomen," she


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 4 of 17)