Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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shoulder, and then moved across to an arm-chair and sat down.

Cleremont now came in, and, drawing a chair beside my father's, leaned
over and said something in a whisper. Not seeming to attend to what he
was saying, my father snatched, rather than took, the bundle of letters
he held in his hand, ran his eyes eagerly over some of them, and then,
crushing the mass in his grasp, he threw it into the fire.

"It is forty minutes past eight," said he, calmly, but with a deadly
pallor in his face. "Can any one tell me if that clock be right?"

"It is eight or ten minutes slow," said Hotham.

"Whom do we wait for, Cleremont?" asked my father again.

"Steinmetz was _de service_ with the King, but would come if he got
free; and there's Rochegude, the French Secretary, was to replace his
chief. I 'm not quite sure about the Walronds, but Craydon told me
positively to expect _him_."

"Do me the favor to ring the bell and order dinner," said my father; and
he spoke with measured calm.

"Won't you wait a few minutes?" whispered Cleremont. "The Duke de
Frialmont, I'm sure, will be here."

"No, sir; we live in a society that understands and observes
punctuality. No breach of it is accidental. Dinner, Nixon!" added he as
the servant appeared.

The folding-doors were thrown wide almost at once, and dinner announced.
My father gave his arm to Madame Cleremont, who actually tottered as she
walked beside him, and as she sat down seemed on the verge of fainting.
Just as we took our places, three young men, somewhat overdressed,
entered hurriedly, and were proceeding to make their apologies for being
late; but my father, with a chilling distance, assured them they were in
excellent time, and motioned them to be seated.

Of the table laid for twenty-eight guests, nine places were occupied;
and these, by some mischance, were scattered here and there with wide
intervals. Madame Cleremont sat on my father's right, and three empty
places flanked his left hand.

I sat opposite my father, with two vacant seats on either side of
me; Hotham nearest to me, and one of the strangers beside him. They
conversed in a very low tone, but short snatches and half sentences
reached me; and I heard the stranger say, "It was too bold a step; women
are sure to resent such attempts." Madame Cleremont's name, too, came up
three or four times; and the stranger said, "It's my first dinner here,
and the Bredars will not forgive me for coming."

"Well, there's none of them has such a cook as Norcott," said Hotham.

"I quite agree with you; but I 'd put up with a worse dinner for better
company."

I looked round at this to show I had heard the remark, and from that
time they conversed in a whisper.

My father never uttered a word during the dinner. I do not know if he
ate, but he helped himself and affected to eat. As for Madame, how she
sat out those long two hours, weak and fainting as she was, I cannot
tell. I saw her once try to lift her glass to her lips, but her hand
trembled so, she set it down untasted, and lay back in her chair, like
one dying out of exhaustion.

A few words and a faint attempt to laugh once or twice broke the dead
silence of the entertainment, which proceeded, however, in all its
stately detail, course after course, till the dessert was handed round,
and Tokay, in small gilt glasses, was served; then my father rose
slowly, and, drawing himself up to his full height, looked haughtily
around him. "May I ask my illustrious friends," said he, "who have this
day so graciously honored me with their presence, to drink the health
of my son, whose birthday we celebrate. There is no happier augury on
entering life than to possess the friendship and good-will of those who
stand foremost in the world's honor. It is his great privilege to be
surrounded this day by beauty and by distinction. The great in the arts
of peace and war, and that loveliness which surpasses in its fascination
all other rewards, are around me, and I call upon these to drink to the
health of Digby Norcott."

All rose and drank; Hotham lifted his glass high in air and tried a
cheer, but none joined him; his voice died away, and he sat down; and
for several minutes an unbroken silence prevailed.

My father at last leaned over towards Madame, and I. heard the word
"coffee." She arose and took his arm, and we all followed them to the
drawing-room.

"I 'm right glad it's over," said Hotham, as he poured his brandy over
his coffee. "I've sat out a court-martial that wasn't slower than that
dinner."

"But what's the meaning of it all?" asked another. "Why and how came all
these apologies?"

"You 'd better ask Cleremont, or rather his wife," muttered Hotham, and
moved away.

"You ought to get into the open air; that's the best thing for you,"
I heard Cleremont say to his wife; but there was such a thorough
indifference in the tone, it sounded less like a kindness than a
sarcasm. She, however, drew a shawl around her, and moved down the
steps into the garden. My father soon after retired to his own room, and
Cleremont laughingly said, "There are no women here, and we may have
a cigar;" and he threw his case across the table. The whole party were
soon immersed in smoke.

I saw that my presence imposed some restraint on the conversation, and
soon sought my room with a much sadder spirit and a heavier heart than I
had left it two hours before.




CHAPTER XII. THE BALL

Musing and thinking and fretting together, I had fallen asleep on my
sofa, and was awakened by Mr. Nixon lighting my candles, and asking me,
in a very mild voice, if I felt unwell.

"No, nothing of the kind."

"Won't you go down, sir, then? It's past eleven now, and there 's a good
many people below."

"Who have come?" asked I, eagerly.

"Well, sir," said he, with a certain degree of hesitation, "they 're
not much to talk about There's eight or nine young gentlemen of the
embassies - attachés like - and there's fifteen or twenty officers of
the Guides, and there's some more that look like travellers out of the
hotels; they ain't in evening-dress."

"Are there no ladies?"

"Yes; I suppose we must call them ladies, sir. There's Madame Rigault
and her two daughters."

"The pastrycook?"

"Yes, sir; and there are the Demoiselles Janson, of the cigar-shop,
and stunningly dressed they are too! Amber satin with black lace, and
Spanish veils on their heads. And there's that little Swedish girl - I
believe she's a Swede - that sells the iced drinks."

"But what do you mean? These people have not been invited. How have they
come here?"

"Well, sir, I must n't tell you a lie; but I hope you 'll not betray
me if I speak in confidence to you. Here's how it all has happened.
The swells all refused: they agreed together that they 'd not come to
dinner, nor come in the evening. Mr. Cleremont knows why; but it ain't
for me to say it."

"But _I_ don't know, and I desire to know!" cried I, haughtily.

"Well, indeed, sir, it's more than I can tell you. There 'a people here
not a bit correcter than herself that won't meet her."

"Meet whom?"

"Madame, sir, - Madame Cleremont."

"Don't dare to say another word," cried I, passionately. "If you utter a
syllable of disrespect to that name, I 'll fling you out of the window."

"Don't be afraid, Master Digby, I know my station, and I never forget
it, sir. I was only telling you what you asked me, not a word more.
The swells sent back your father's cards, and there's more than three
hundred of them returned."

"And where's papa now?'*

"In bed, sir. He told his valet he was n't to be disturbed, except the
house took fire."

"Is Madame Cleremont below?"

"No, sir; she's very ill. The doctor has been with her, and he's coming
again to-night."

"And are these people - this rabble that you talk of - received as my
papa's guests?"

"Only in a sort of a way, sir," said he, smiling. "You see that when
Mr. Cleremont perceived that there was nothing but excuses and apologies
pouring in, he told me to close the house, and that we 'd let all the
bourgeois people into the grounds, and give them a jolly supper and
plenty of champagne; and he sent word to a many of the young officers
to come up and have a lark; and certainly, as the supper was there, they
might as well eat it. The only puzzle is now, won't there be too many,
for he sent round to all Sir Roger's tradespeople, - all at least
that has good-looking daughters, - and they're pourin' in by tens and
fifteens, and right well dressed and well got up too."

"And what will papa say to all this to-morrow?"

"Don't you know, sir, that Sir Roger seldom looks back," said he, with
a cunning look; "he'll not be disturbed to-night, for the house is shut
up, and the bands are playing, one at the lake, the other at the end of
the long walk, and the suppers will be served here and there, where they
can cheer and drink toasts without annoying any one."

"It's a downright infamy!" cried I.

"It ain't the correct thing, sure enough, sir, there's none of us could
say that, but it will be rare fun; and, as Captain Hotham said, 'the
women are a precious sight better looking than the countesses.'"

"Where is Mr. Eccles?"

"I saw him waltzing, sir, or maybe it was the polka, with Madame
Robineau just as I was coming up to you."

"I'll go down and tell Mr. Cleremont to dismiss his friends," cried
I, boiling over with anger. "Papa meant this _fête_ to celebrate my
birthday. I 'll not accept such rabble congratulations. If Mr. Cleremont
must have an orgie, let him seek for another place to give it in."

"Don't go, master, don't, I entreat you," cried he, imploringly. "You
'll only make a row, sir, and bring down Sir Roger, and then who's to
say what will happen? He 'll have a dozen duels on his hands in half as
many minutes. The officers won't stand being called to account, and Sir
Roger is not the man to be sweet-tempered with them."

"And am I to see my father's name insulted, and his house dishonored by
such a canaille crew as this?"

"Just come down and see them, Master Digby; prettier, nicer girls you
never saw in your life, and pretty behaved, too. Ask Mr. Eccles if he
ever mixed with a nicer company. There, now, sir, slip on your velvet
jacket, - it looks nicer than that tail-coat, - and come down. They 'll be
all proud and glad to see you, and won't she hold her head high that you
ask to take a turn of a waltz with you!"

"And how should I face my father to-morrow?" said I, blushing deeply.

"Might I tell you a secret, Master Digby?" said he, leaning over the
table, and speaking almost in my ear.

"Go on," said I, dryly.

"I know well, sir, you 'll never throw me over, and what I 'm going to
tell you is worth gold to you."

"Go on," cried I, for he had ceased to speak.

"Here it is, then," said he, with an effort "The greatest sorrow your
father has, Master Digby, is that he thinks you have no spirit in
you, - that you 're a mollyoot. As he said one day to Mr. Cleremont, 'You
must teach him everything, he has no "go" in himself; there 's nothing
in his nature but what somebody else put into it.'"

"He never said that!"

"I pledge you my oath he did."

"Well, if he did, he meant it very differently from what you do."

"There's no two meanings to it. There's a cheer!" cried he, running over
to the window and flinging it wide. "I wonder who's come now? Oh, it's
the fireworks are beginning."

"I 'll go down," said I; but out of what process of reasoning came that
resolve I am unable to tell.

"Maybe they won't be glad to see you!" cried he, as he helped me on with
my jacket and arranged the heron's feathers in my velvet cap. I was
half faltering in my resolution, when I bethought me of that charge of
feebleness of character Nixon had reported to me, and I determined, come
what might, I would show that I had a will and could follow it. In less
than five minutes after, I was standing under the trees in the garden,
shaking hands with scores of people I never saw before, and receiving
the very politest of compliments and good wishes from very pretty lips,
aided by very expressive eyes.

"Here's Mademoiselle Pauline Delorme refuses to dance with me," cried
Eccles, "since she has seen the head of the house. Digby, let me present
you." And with this he led me up to a very beautiful girl, who, though
only the daughter of a celebrated restaurateur of Brussels, might
have been a princess, so far as look and breeding and elegance were
concerned.

"This is to be the correct thing," cried Cleremont "We open with a
quadrille; take your partners, gentlemen, and to your places."

Nothing could be more perfectly proper and decorous than this dance.
It is possible, perhaps, that we exceeded a little on the score of
reverential observances: we bowed and courtesied at every imaginable
opportunity, and with an air of homage that smacked of a court; and if
we did raise our eyes to each other, as we recovered from the obeisance,
it was with a look of the softest and most subdued deference. I really
began to think that the only hoydenish people I had ever seen
were ladies and gentlemen. As for Eccles, he wore an air of almost
reverential gravity, and Hotham was sternly composed. At last, however,
we came to the finish, and Cleremont, clapping his hands thrice, called
out "_grand rond_," and, taking his partner's arm within his own, led
off at a galop; the music striking up one of Strauss's wildest, quickest
strains. Away he went down an alley, and we all after him, stamping and
laughing like mad. The sudden revulsion from the quiet of the moment
before was electric; no longer arm-in-arm, but with arms close clasped
around the waist, away we went over the smooth turf with a wild delight
to which the music imparted a thrilling ecstasy. Now through the dense
shade we broke into a blaze of light, where a great buffet stood;
and round this we all swarmed at once, and glasses were filled with
champagne, and vivas shouted again and again, and I heard that my health
was toasted, and a very sweet voice - the lips were on my ear - whispered
I know not what, but it sounded very like wishing me joy and love, while
others were deafening me about long life and happiness.

I do not remember - I do not want to remember - all the nonsense I talked,
and with a volubility quite new to me; my brain felt on fire with a sort
of wild ecstasy, and as homage and deference met me at every step, my
every wish acceded to, and each fancy that struck me hailed at once as
bright inspiration, no wonder was it if I lost myself in a perfect ocean
of bliss. I told Pauline she should be the queen of the _fête_, and
ordered a splendid wreath of flowers to be brought, which I placed upon
her brow, and saluted her with her title, amidst the cheering shouts of
willing toasters. Except to make a tour of a waltz or a polka with some
one I knew, I would not permit her to dance with any but myself; and
she, I must say, most graciously submitted to the tyranny, and seemed to
delight in the extravagant expressions of my admiration for her.

[Illustration: 526]

If I was madly jealous of her, I felt the most overwhelming delight in
the praises bestowed upon her beauty and her gracefulness. Perhaps the
consciousness that I was a mere boy, and that thus a freedom might be
used towards me that would have been reprehensible with one older,
led her to treat me with a degree of intimacy that was positively
captivating; and before our third waltz was over, I was calling her
Pauline, and she calling me Digby, like old friends.

"Isn't that boy of Norcott's going it to-night?" I heard a man say as I
swung past in a polka, and I turned fiercely to catch the speaker's eye,
and show him I meant to call him to book.

"Eccles, your pupil is a credit to you!" cried another.

"I'm a Dutchman if that fellow does n't rival his father."

"He 'll be far and away beyond him," muttered another; "for he has none
of Norcott's crotchets, - he's a scamp 'ur et simple.'"

"Where are you breaking away from me, Digby?" said Pauline, as I tried
to shake myself free of her.

"I want to follow those men. I have a word to say to them."

"You shall do no such thing, dearest," muttered she. "You have just told
me I am to be your little wife, and I 'm not going to see my husband
rushing into a stupid quarrel."

"And you are mine, then," cried I, "and you will wear this ring as a
betrothal? Come, let me take off your glove."

"That will do, Digby; that's quite enough for courtesy and a little too
much for deference," whispered Eccles in my ear; for I was kissing her
hand about a hundred times over, and she laughing at my raptures as an
excellent joke. "I think you 'd better lead the way to supper."

Secretly resolving that I would soon make very short work of Mr.
Eccles and his admonitions, I gave him a haughty glance and moved on.
I remember very little more than that I walked to the head of the table
and placed Pauline on my right I know I made some absurd speech
in return for their drinking my health, and spoke of us and what
_we_ - Pauline and myself - felt, and with what pleasure we should see
our friends often around us, and a deal of that tawdry trash that conies
into a brain addled with noise and heated with wine. I was frequently
interrupted; uproarious cheers at one moment would break forth, but
still louder laughter would ring out and convulse the whole assembly.
Even addled and confused as I was, I could see that some were my
partisans and friends, who approved of all I said, and wished me to give
a free course to my feelings; and there were others - two or three - who
tried to stop me; and one actually said aloud, "If that boy of
Nor-cott's is not suppressed, we shall have no supper."

Recalled to my dignity as a host by this impertinence, I believe I put
some restraint on my eloquence, and I now addressed myself to do the
honors of the table. Alas, my attentions seldom strayed beyond my lovely
neighbor, and I firmly believed that none could remark the rapture with
which I gazed on her, or as much as suspected that I had never quitted
the grasp of her hand from the moment we sat down.

"I suspect you 'd better let Mademoiselle dance the cotillon with the
Count Vauglas," whispered Eccles in my ear.

"And why, sir?" rejoined I, half fiercely.

"I think you might guess," said he, with a smile; "at least, you could
if you were to get up."

"And would she - would Pauline - I mean, would Mademoiselle
Delorme - approve of this arrangement?"

"No, Monsieur Digby, not if it did not come from you. We shall sit in
the shade yonder for half an hour or so, and then, when you are rested,
we 'll join the cotillon."

"Get that boy off to bed, Eccles," said Cleremont, who did not scruple
to utter the words aloud.

I started up to make an indignant rejoinder; some fierce insult was on
my lips; but passion and excitement and wine mastered me, and I sank
back on my seat overcome and senseless.




CHAPTER XIII. A NEXT MORNING

I could not awake on the day after the _fête_, I was conscious that
Nixon was making a considerable noise, - that he shut and opened doors
and windows, splashed the water into my bath, and threw down my
boots with an unwonted energy; but through all this consciousness of
disturbance I slept on, and was determined to sleep, let him make what
uproar he pleased.

"It 's nigh two o'clock, sir!" whispered he in my ear, and I replied by
a snort.

"I 'm very sorry to be troublesome, sir; but the master is very
impatient: he was getting angry when I went in last time."

These words served to dispel my drowsiness at once, and the mere thought
of my father's displeasure acted on me like a strong stimulant.

"Does papa want me?" cried I, sitting up in bed; "did you say papa
wanted me?"

"Yes, sir," said a deep voice; and my father entered the room, dressed
for the street, and with his hat on.

"You may leave us," said he to Nixon; and as the man withdrew, my father
took a chair and sat down close to my bedside.

"I have sent three messages to you this morning," said he, gravely, "and
am forced at last to come myself."

I was beginning my apologies, when he stopped me, and said, "That will
do; I have no wish to be told why you overslept yourself; indeed, I have
already heard more on that score than I care for."

He paused, and though perhaps he expected me to say something, I was too
much terrified to speak.

"I perceive." said he, "you understand me; you apprehend that I know of
your doings of last night, and that any attempt at excuse is hopeless.
I have not come here to reproach you for your misconduct; I reproach
myself for a mistaken estimate of you; I ought to have known - and if you
had been a horse I would have known - that your crossbreeding would tell
on you. The bad drop was sure to betray itself. I will not dwell on
this, nor have I time. Your conduct last night makes my continued
residence here impossible. I cannot continue in a city where my
tradespeople have become my guests, and where the honors of my house
have been extended to my tailor and my butcher. I shall leave this,
therefore, as soon as I can conclude my arrangements to sell this place:
you must quit it at once. Eccles will be ready to start with you this
evening for the Rhine, and then for the interior of Germany, - I suspect
Weimar will do. He will be paymaster, and you will conform to his wishes
strictly as regards expense. Whether you study or not, whether you
employ your time profitably and creditably, or whether you pass it in
indolence, is a matter that completely regards yourself. As for me,
my conscience is acquitted when I provide you with the means of
acquirement, and I no more engage you to benefit by these advantages
than I do to see you eat the food that is placed before you. The compact
that unites us enjoins distinct duties from each. You need not write
to me till I desire you to do so; and when I think it proper we should
meet, I will tell you."

If, while he spoke these harsh words to me, the slightest touch of
feeling - had one trace of even sorrow crossed his face, my whole heart
would have melted at once, and I would have thrown myself at his feet
for forgiveness. There was, however, a something so pitiless in his
tone, and a look so full of scorn in his steadfast eye, that every
sentiment of pride within me - that same pride I inherited from
himself - stimulated me to answer him, and I said boldly: "If the people
I saw here last night were not as well born as your habitual guests,
sir, I 'll venture to say there was nothing in their manner or
deportment to be ashamed of."

"I am told that Mademoiselle Pauline Delorme was charming," said he; and
the sarcasm of his glance covered me with shame and confusion. He had no
need to say more: I could not utter a word.

"This is a topic I will not discuss with you, sir," said he, after a
pause. "I intended you to be a gentleman, and to live with gentlemen.
_Your_ tastes incline differently, and I make no opposition to them. As
I have told you already, I was willing to launch you into life; I 'll
not engage to be your pilot. Any interest I take or could take in you
must be the result of your own qualities. These have not impressed me
strongly up to this; and were I to judge by what I have seen, I should
send you back to those you came from."

"Do so, then, if it will only give me back the nature I brought away
with me!" cried I, passionately; and my throat swelled till I felt
almost choked with emotion.

"That nature," said he, with a sneer on the word, "was costumed, if I
remember right, in a linen blouse and a pair of patched shoes; and I
believe they have been preserved along with some other family relics."

I bethought me at once of the tower and its humble furniture, and a
sense of terror overcame me, that I was in presence of one who could
cherish hate with such persistence.

"The fumes of your last night's debauch are some excuse for your bad
manners, sir," said he, rising. "I leave you to sleep them off; only
remember that the train starts at eight this evening, and it is my
desire you do not miss it."

With this he left me. I arose at once and began to dress. It was a slow
proceeding, for I would often stop, and sit down to think what course
would best befit me to take at this moment. At one instant it seemed to
me I ought to follow him, and declare that the splendid slavery in
which I lived had no charm for me, - that the faintest glimmering of
self-respect and independence was more my ambition than all the luxuries
that surrounded me; and when I had resolved I would do this, a sudden


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 6 of 17)