Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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would say, "that the men invariably fall victims to foreign seductions.
Circe always sings with a bronchitis in the North;" and though I but
dimly saw what she pointed at then, I lived to perceive her meaning more
fully.

As for my father, I saw little of him, but in that little he was always
kind and good-natured with me. He would quiz me about my lessons, as
though I were the tutor, and Ecoles the pupil; and ask me how he got
on with his Aristophanes or his Homer? He talked to me freely about the
people who came to the house, and treated me almost as an equal.
All this time he behaved to Madame with a reserve that was perfectly
chilling, so that it was the rarest thing in the world for the three of
us to be together.

"I don't think you like papa," said I once to her, in an effusion of
confidence. "I am sure you don't like him!"

"And why do you think so?" asked she, with the faintest imaginable flush
on her pale cheek.

While I was puzzling myself what to answer, she said, -

"Come now, Cherubino, what you really meant to say was, I don't think
papa likes _you!_"

Though I never could have made so rude a speech, its truth and force
struck me so palpably that I could not answer.

"Well," cried she, with a little laugh, "he is very fond of Monsieur
Cleremont, and that ought always to be enough for Madame Cleremont. Do
you know, Cherubino, it's the rarest thing in life for a husband and
wife to be liked by the same people? There is in conjugal life some
beautiful little ingredient of discord that sets the two partners to the
compact at opposite poles, and gives them separate followings. I must
n't distract you with the theory, I only want you to see why liking my
husband is sufficient reason for not caring for me."

Now, as I liked her exceedingly, and felt something very near to hatred
for Monsieur Cleremont, I accepted all she said as incontestable truth.
Still I grieved over the fact that papa was not of my own mind, and did
not see her and all her fascinations as I did.

There is something indescribably touching in the gentle sadness of
certain buoyant bright natures. Like the low notes in a treble voice,
there is that that seems to vibrate in our hearts at a most susceptible
moment, and with the force of an unforeseen contrast; and it was thus
that, in her graver times, she won over me an ascendancy, and inspired
an interest which, had I been other than a mere boy, had certainly been
love.

Perhaps I should not have been even conscious, as I was of this
sentiment, if it were not for the indignation I felt at Cleremont's
treatment of her. Over and over again my temper was pushed to its last
limit by his brutality and coarseness. His tone was a perpetual sneer,
and his wife seldom spoke before him without his directing towards her
a sarcasm or an impertinence. This was especially remarkable if she
uttered any sentiment at all elevated, when his banter would be ushered
in with a burst of derisive laughter.

Nothing could be more perfect than the way she bore these trials. There
was no assumed martyrdom, no covert appeal for sympathy, no air of
suffering asking for protection. No! whether it came as ridicule or
rebuke, she accepted it gently and good-humoredly; trying, when she
could, to turn it off with a laugh, or when too grave for that, bearing
it with quiet forbearance.

I often wondered why my father did not check these persecutions, for
they were such, and very cruel ones too; but he scarcely seemed to
notice them, or if he did, it would be by a smile, far more like
enjoyment of Cleremont's coarse wit than reprehending or reproving it.

"I wonder how that woman stands it?" I once overheard Hotham say to
Eccles; and the other replied, -

"I don't think she _does_ stand it. I mistake her much if she is as
forgiving as she looks."

Why do I recall these things? Why do I dwell on incidents and passages
which had no actual bearing on my own destiny? Only because they serve
to show the terrible school in which I was brought up; the mingled
dissipation, splendor, indolence, and passion in which my boyhood was
passed. Surrounded by men of reckless habits, and women but a mere shade
better, life presented itself to me as one series of costly pleasures,
dashed only with such disappointments as loss at play inflicted, or some
project of intrigue baffled or averted.

"If that boy of Norcott's isn't a scamp, he must be a most unteachable
young rascal," said an old colonel once to Eccles on the croquet ground.

"He has had great opportunities," said Eccles, as he sent off his ball,
"and, so far as I see, neglected none of them."

"You were his tutor, I think?" said the other, with a laugh.

"Yes, till Madame Cleremont took my place."

"I 'll not say it was the worst thing could have happened him. I wish
it had been a woman had spoiled _me_. Eh, Eccles, possibly you may have
some such misgivings yourself?"

"I was never corrupted," said the other, with a sententious gravity
whose hypocrisy was palpable.

I meditated many and many a time over these few words, and they
suggested to me the first attempt I ever made to know something about
myself and my own nature.

Those stories of Balzac's, those wonderful pictures of passionate life,
acquired an immense hold upon me, from the very character of my own
existence. That terrific game of temper against temper, mind against
mind, and heart against heart, of which I read in these novels, I was
daily witnessing in what went on around me, and I amused myself by
giving the names of the characters in these fictions to the various
persons of our society.

"It is a very naughty little world we live in at this house, Digby,"
said Madame to me one day; "but you'd be surprised to find what a very
vulgar thing is the life of people in general, and that if you want the
sensational, or even the pictorial in existence, you 'll have to pay for
it in some compromise of principle."

"I know mamma wouldn't like to live here," said I, half sullenly.

"Oh, mamma!" cried she, with a laugh, and then suddenly checking
herself: "No, Digby, you are quite right. Mamma would be shocked at our
doings; not that they are so very wicked in themselves as that, to one
of her quiet ways, they would seem so."

"Mamma is very good. I never knew any one like her," stammered I out.

"That's quite true, my dear boy. She is all that you say, but one may
be too good, just as he may be too generous or too confiding; and it is
well to remember that there are a number of excellent things one would
like to be if they could afford them; but the truth is, Digby, the most
costly of all things are virtues."

"Oh, do not say that!" cried I, eagerly.

"Yes, dear, I must say it. Monsieur Cleremont and I have always been
very poor, and we never permitted ourselves these luxuries, any more
than we kept a great house and a fine equipage, and so we economize
in our morals, as in our means, doing what rich folk might call little
shabbinesses; but, on the whole, managing to live, and not unhappily
either."

"And papa?"

"Papa has a fine estate, wants for nothing, and can give himself every
good quality he has a fancy for."

"By this theory, then, it is only rich people are good?"

"Not exactly. I would rather state it thus, - the rich are as good as
they like to be; the poor are as good as they 're able."

"What do you say, then, to Mr. Eccles: he 's not rich, And I 'm sure
he's good?"

"Poor Mr. Eccles!" said she, with a merry laughter, in which a something
scornful mingled, and she hurried away.




CHAPTER X. PLANNING PLEASURE.

It was my father's pleasure to celebrate my sixteenth birthday with
great splendor. The whole house was to be thrown open; and not only the
house, but the conservatory and the grounds were to be illuminated. The
festivities were to comprise a grand dinner and a reception afterwards,
which was to become a ball, as if by an impromptu.

As the society of the Villa habitually was made up of a certain number
of intimates, relieved, from time to time, by such strangers as
were presented, and as my father never dined out, or went into the
fashionable world of the place, it was somewhat of a bold step at once
to invite a number of persons with whom we had no more than bowing
acquaintance, and to ask to his table ministers, envoys, court
officials, and grand chamberlains for the first time. It was said, I
know not how truthfully, that Cleremont did his utmost to dissuade him
from the project at first, by disparaging the people for whom he was
putting himself to such cost, and, finding this line of no avail, by
openly saying that what between the refusals of some, the excuses of
others, and the actual absence of many whose presence he was led to
expect, my father was storing up for himself an amount of disappointment
and outrage that would drive him half desperate. It was not, of course,
very easy to convey this to my father. It could only be done by a
dropping word or a half-expressed doubt. And when the time came to make
out the lists and issue the invitations, no real step had been taken to
turn him from his plan.

The same rumor which ascribed to Cleremont the repute of attempting to
dissuade my father from his project, attributed to Madame Cleremont a
most eager and warm advocacy of the intended _fête_. From the marked
coldness and reserve, however, which subsisted between my father and
her, it was too difficult to imagine in what way her influence could be
exercised.

And for my own part, though I heard the list of the company canvassed
every day at luncheon, and discussed at dinner, I don't remember
an occasion where Madame ever uttered a word of remark, or even a
suggestion in the matter. Hotham, who had come back on a short leave,
was full of the scheme. With all a sailor's love of movement and bustle,
he mixed himself up with every detail of it. He wrote to Paris and
London for all the delicacies of the "comestible" shops. He established
"estafettes" on every side to bring in fresh flowers and fruit; with
his own hands he rigged out tents and marquees for the regimental bands,
which were to be stationed in different parts of the grounds; and all
the devices of Bengal lights and fireworks he took into his especial
charge.

Indeed, Nixon told me that his functions did not stop here, but that he
had charged himself with the care of Madame Cleremont's toilette, for
whom he had ordered the most splendid ball-dress Paris could produce.
"Naturally, Master Digby, it is Sir Roger pays," added he; "and perhaps
one of these days he'll be surprised to find that diamond loops and
diamond bouquets should figure in a milliner's bill. But as she is to
receive the company, of course it's all right."

"And why does Mr. Cleremont seem to dislike it all so much?" asked I.

"Chiefly, I believe, because _she_ likes it." And then, as though he had
said more than he intended, he added: "Oh, it's easy to see he likes to
keep this house as much his own as he can. He does n't want Sir Roger
to have other people about him. He's almost the master here now; but
if your father begins to mix with the world, and have strangers here,
Cleremont's reign would soon be over."

Though there was much in this speech to suggest thought and speculation,
nothing in it struck me so forcibly as the impertinence of calling Mr.
Cleremont Cleremont, and it was all I could do to suppress the rebuke
that was on my lips.

"If your father comes through for a thousand pounds, sir," continued he,
"I 'll say he's lucky. If Sir Roger would leave it to one person to give
the orders, - I don't mean myself, - though by right it is my business;
instead of that, there's the Captain sending for this, and Cleremont for
the other, and you 'll see there will be enough for three entertainments
when it's all over. Could you just say a word to him, sir?"

"Not for the world, Nixon. Papa is very kind to me and good-natured,
but I 'll not risk any liberty with him; and what's more, I 'd be right
sorry to call Mr. Cleremont Cleremont before him, as you have done twice
within the last five minutes."

"Lord bless you, Master Digby! I 've known him these fifteen years. I
knew him when he came out, just a boy like, to Lord Colthorpe's embassy.
He and I is like pals."

"You have known _me_ also as a boy, Nixon," said I, haughtily; "and yet,
I promise you, I 'll not permit you to speak of me as Norcott, when I am
a man."

"No fear of that, sir, you may depend on 't," said he, with humility;
but there was a malicious twinkle in his eye, and a firm compression of
the lip as he withdrew, that did not leave my mind the whole day after.
Indeed, I recognized that his face had assumed the selfsame look of
insolent familiarity it wore when he spoke of Cleremont.

The evening of that day was passed filling up the cards of
invitation, - a process which amused me greatly, affording, as it did, a
sort of current critique on the persons whose names came up for notice,
and certainly, if I were to judge of their eligibility only by what
I heard of their characters, I might well feel amazed why they were
singled out for attentions. They were marquises and counts, however,
chevaliers of various orders, grand cordons and "hautes charges," so
that their trespasses or their shortcomings had all been enacted in the
world of good society, and with each other as accomplices or victims.
There were a number of contingencies, too, attached to almost every
name. There must be high play for the Russian envoy, flirting for the
French minister's wife, iced drinks for the Americans, and scandal and
Ostend oysters for everybody. There was scarcely a good word for any
one, and yet the most eager anxiety was expressed that they would all
come. Immense precautions had been taken to fix a day when there was
nothing going on at court or in the court circle. It was difficult
to believe that pleasure could be planned with such heart-burning and
bitterness. There was scarcely a detail that did not come associated
with something that reflected on the morals or the manners of the dear
friends we were entreating to honor us; and for the life of me I did not
know why such pains were taken to secure the presence of people for whom
none had a good wish nor a single kindly thought.

My father took very little part in the discussion; he sat there with a
sort of proud indifference, as though the matter had little interest for
him, and if a doubt were expressed as to the likelihood of this or that
person's acceptance, he would superciliously break in with, "He 'll
come, sir: I 'll answer for that. I have never yet played to empty
benches."

This vain and haughty speech dwelt in my mind for many a day, and showed
me how my father deemed that it was not his splendid style of living,
his exquisite dinners, and his choice wines that drew guests around him,
but his own especial qualities as host and entertainer.

"But that it involves the bore of an audience, I'd ask the king; I could
give him some Château d'Yquem very unlike his own, and such as, I'll
venture to say, he never tasted," said he, affectedly.

"So you are going to bring out the purple seal?" cried Cleremont.

"I might for royalty, sir; but not for such people as I read of in that
list there."

"Why, here are two Dukes with their Duchesses, Marquises and Counts by
the score, half-a-dozen ministers plenipotentiary, and a perfect cloud
of chamberlains and court swells."

"They 'd cut a great figure, I 've no doubt, Hotham, on the quarter-deck
of the 'Thunder Bomb,' where you eke out the defects of a bad band with
a salute from your big guns, and give your guests the national anthem
when they want champagne. Oh dear, there's no snob like a sailor!"

"Well, if they 're not good enough for you, why the devil do you ask
them?" cried Hotham, sturdily.

"Sir, if I were to put such a question to myself, I might shut up my
house to-morrow!" And with this very uncourteous speech he arose and
left the room.

We continued, however, to fill in the cards of invitation and address
the envelopes, but with little inclination to converse, and none
whatever to refer to what had passed.

"There," cried Cleremont, as he checked off the list. "That makes very
close on seven hundred. I take it I may order supper for six hundred."
Then turning half fiercely to me, he added: "Do you know, youngster,
that all this tomfoolery is got up for _you?_ It is by way of
celebrating your birthday we're going to turn the house out of the
windows!"

"I suppose my father has that right, sir."

"Of course he has, just as he would have the right to make a ruin of the
place to-morrow if he liked it; but I don't fancy his friends would be
the better pleased with him for his amiable eccentricity: your father
pushes our regard for him very far sometimes."

"I 'll tell him to be more cautious, sir, in future," said I, moving
towards the door.

"Do so," said he. "Good-night."

I had scarcely taken my bedroom candle when I felt a hand on my
shoulder: I turned and saw Madame Cleremont standing very pale and in
great agitation at my side. "Oh, Digby," said she, "don't make that man
your enemy whatever you do; he is more than a match for you, poor
child!" She was about to say more when we heard voices in the corridor,
and she hurried away and left me.




CHAPTER XI. A BIRTHDAY DINNER

The eventful day arrived at last, and now, as I write, I can bring up
before me the whole of that morning, so full of exciting sensations
and of pleasurable surprises. I wandered about from room to room,
never sated with the splendors around me. Till then I had not seen the
gorgeous furniture uncovered, nor had I the faintest idea of the beauty
and richness of the silk hangings, or the glittering elegance of those
lustres of pure Venetian glass. Perhaps nothing, however, astonished me
so much as the array of gold and silver plate in the dining-room. Our
every-day dinners had been laid out with what had seemed to me a
most costly elegance; but what were they to this display of splendid
centrepieces and massive cups and salvers large as shields! Of flowers,
the richest and rarest, wagon-loads poured in; and at last I saw the
horses taken out, and carts full of carnations and geraniums left
unloaded in the stable-yard. Ice, too, came in the same profusion: those
squarely cut blocks, bright as crystal, and hollowed out to serve as
wine-coolers, and take their place amidst the costlier splendors of gold
and silver.

It is rare to hear the servant class reprove profusion; but here I
overheard many a comment on the reckless profligacy of outlay which had
provided for this occasion enough for a dozen such. It was easy to see,
they said, that Mr. Clere-mont did not pay; and this sneer sunk deep
into my mind, increasing the dislike I already felt for him.

Nor was it the house alone was thus splendidly prepared for reception;
but kiosks and tents were scattered through the grounds, in each of
which, as if by magic, supper could be served on the instant. Upwards of
thirty additional servants were engaged, all of whom were dressed in
our state livery, white, with silver epaulettes, and the Norcott crest
embroidered on the arm. These had been duly drilled by Mr. Cleremont,
and were not, he said, to be distinguished by the most critical eye from
the rest of the household.

Though there was movement everywhere, and everywhere activity, there
was little or no confusion. Cleremont was an adept in organization, and
already his skill and cleverness had spread discipline through the mass.
He was a despot, however, would not permit the slightest interference
with his functions, nor accept a suggestion from any one. "Captain
Hotham gives no orders here," I heard him say; and when standing under
my window, and I am almost sure seeing me, he said, "Master Digby has
nothing to do with, the arrangements any more than yourself."

I had determined that day to let nothing irritate or vex me; that I
would give myself up to unmixed enjoyment, and make this birthday a
memorable spot in life, to look back on with undiluted delight. I could
have been more-certain to carry out this resolve if I could only have
seen and spoken with Madame Cleremont; but she did not leave her room
the whole day. A distinguished hairdresser had arrived with a mysterious
box early in the morning, and after passing two hours engaged with her,
had returned for more toilet requirements. In fact, from the coming and
going of maids and dressmakers, it was evident that the preparations
of beauty were fully equal to those that were being made by cooks and
confectioners.

My father, too, was invisible; his breakfast was served in his own room;
and when Cleremont wished to communicate with him, he had to do so in
writing: and these little notes passed unceasingly between them till
late in the afternoon.

"What's up now?" I heard Hotham say, as Cleremont tore up a note in
pieces and flung the fragments from him with impatience.

"Just like him. I knew exactly how it would be," cried the other. "He
sent a card of invitation to the Duc de Bredar without first making a
visit; and here comes the Duc's chasseur to say that his Excellency has
not the honor of knowing the gentleman who has been so gracious as to
ask him to dinner."

"Norcott will have him out for the impertinence," said Hotham.

"And what will that do? Will the shooting him or the being shot make
this dinner go off as we meant it, eh? Is that for me, Nixon? Give it
here." He took a note as he spoke, and tore it open. 'La Marquise de
Carnac is engaged,' not a word more. The world is certainly progressing
in politeness. Three cards came back this day with the words 'Sent by
mistake' written on them. Norcott does not know it yet, nor shall he
till to-morrow."

"Is it true that the old Countess de Joievillars begged to know who was
to receive the ladies invited?"

"Yes, it is true; and I told her a piece of her own early history in
return, to assure her that no accident of choice should be any bar to
the hope of seeing her."

"What was the story?"

"I'd tell it if that boy of Norcott's was not listening there at that
window."

"Yes, sir," cried I; "I have heard every word, and mean to repeat it to
my father when I see him." "Tell him at the same time, then, that his
grand dinner of twenty-eight has now come down to seventeen, and I 'm
not fully sure of three of these."

I went down into the dining-room, and saw that places had been laid for
twenty-eight, and as yet no alteration had been made in the table, so
that it at once occurred to me this speech of Cleremont's was a mere
impertinence, - one of those insolent sallies he was so fond of. Nixon,
too, had placed the name of each guest on his napkin, and he, at least,
had not heard of any apologies.

Given in my honor, as this dinner was, I felt a most intense interest in
its success. I was standing, as it were, on the threshold of life, and
regarded the mode in which I should be received as an augury of good or
evil. My father's supremacy at home, the despotism he wielded, and the
respect and deference he exacted, led me to infer that he exercised the
same influence on the world at large; and that, as I had often heard,
the only complaint against him in society was his exclusiveness. I
canvassed these thoughts with myself for hours, as I sat alone in my
room waiting till it was time to dress.

At last eight o'clock struck, and I went down into the drawing-room.
Hotham was there, in a window recess, conversing in whispers with an
Italian count, - one of our intimates, but of whom I knew nothing. They
took no notice of me, so that I took up a paper and began to read.
Cleremont came in soon after with a bundle of notes in his hand. "Has
your father come down?" asked he, hastily; and then, without waiting for
my reply, he turned and left the room. Madame next appeared. I have no
words for my admiration of her, as, splendidly dressed and glittering
with diamonds, she swept proudly in. That her beauty could have been
so heightened by mere toilette seemed incredible, and as she read my
wonderment in my face she smiled, and said: -

"Yes, Digby, I am looking my very best to _fête_ your birthday."

I would have liked to have told her how lovely she appeared to me, but I
could only blush and gaze wonder-ingly on her.

"Button this glove, dear," said she, handing to me her wrist all
weighted and jingling with costly bracelets; and while, with trembling
fingers, I was trying to obey her, my father entered and came towards
us. He made her a low but very distant bow, tapped me familiarly on the


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 5 of 17)