Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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expect from Roger Norcott.'"

"May I keep this paper, sir?" asked I, in a humble tone.

"I see no reason against it. Yes," muttered he. "As to the moneys,
Eccles have drawn eighty pound; there is forty remain to you."

I sat down and covered my face with my hands. It was a habit with me
when I wanted to apply myself fully to thought; but Herr Heinfetter
suspected that I had given way to grief, and began to cheer me up. I at
once undeceived him, and said, "No, I was not crying, sir; I was only
thinking what I had best do. If you allow me, I will go up to my room,
and think it over by myself. I shall be calmer, even if I hit on nothing
profitable."

I passed twelve hours alone, occasionally dropping off to sleep out of
sheer weariness, for my brain worked hard, travelling over a wide space,
and taking in every contingency and every accident I could think of. I
might go back and seek out my mother; but to what end, if I should only
become a dependant on her? No; far better that I should try and obtain
some means of earning a livelihood, ever so humble, abroad, than spread
the disgrace of my family at home. Perhaps Herr Heinfetter might accept
my services in some shape; I could be anything but a servant.

When I told him I wished to earn my bread, he looked doubtingly at me
in silence, shaking his head, and muttering, "Nein, niemals, nein," in
every cadence of despair.

"Could you not try me, sir?" pleaded I, earnestly; but his head moved
sadly in refusal.

"I will think of it," he said at last, and he left me.

He was as good as his word; he thought of it for two whole days, and
then said that he had a correspondent on the shore of the Adriatic, in
a little-visited town, where no news of my father's history was like to
reach, and that he would write to him to take me into his counting-house
in some capacity: a clerk, or possibly a messenger, till I should prove
myself worthy of being advanced to the desk. It would be hard work,
however, he said; Herr Oppovich was a Slavic, and they were people who
gave themselves few indulgences, and their dependants still fewer.

He went on to tell me that the house of Hodnig and Oppovich had been a
wealthy firm formerly, but that Hodnig had over-speculated, and died
of a broken heart; that now, after years of patient toil and thrift,
Oppovich had restored the credit of the house, and was in good repute in
the world of trade. Some time back he had written to Heinfetter to send
him a young fellow who knew languages and was willing to work.

"That's all," he said; "shall I venture to tell him that I recommend you
for these?"

"Let me have a trial," said I, gravely.

"I will write your letter to-night, then, and you shall set out
to-morrow for Vienna; thence you'll take the rail to Trieste, and by sea
you 'll reach Fiume, where Herr Oppovich lives."

I thanked him heartily, and went to my room.

On the morning that followed began my new life. I was no longer to
be the pampered and spoiled child of fortune, surrounded with every
appliance of luxury, and waited on by obsequious servants. I was now to
travel modestly, to fare humbly, and to ponder over the smallest outlay,
lest it should limit me in some other quarter of greater need. But of
all the changes in my condition, none struck me so painfully at first
as the loss of consideration from strangers that immediately followed
my fallen state. People who had no concern with my well-to-do condition,
who could take no possible interest in my prosperity, had been courteous
to me hitherto, simply because I was prosperous, and were now become
something almost the reverse for no other reason, that I could see, than
that I was poor.

Where before I had met willingness to make my acquaintance, and an
almost cordial acceptance, I was now to find distance and reserve. Above
all, I discovered that there was a general distrust of the poor man, as
though he were one more especially exposed to rash influences, and more
likely to yield to them.

I got some sharp lessons in these things the first few days of my
journey, but I dropped down at last into the third-class train, and
found myself at ease. My fellow-travellers were not very polished
or very cultivated, but in one respect their good breeding had the
superiority over that of finer folk. They never questioned my right to
be saving, nor seemed to think the worse of me for being poor.

Herr Heinfetter had counselled me to stay a few days at Vienna, and
provide myself with clothes more suitable to my new condition than those
I was wearing.

"If old Ignaz Oppovich saw a silk-lined coat, he 'd soon send you about
your business," said he; "and as to that fine watch-chain and its gay
trinkets, you have only to appear with it once to get your dismissal."

It was not easy, with my little experience of life, to see how these
things should enter into an estimate of me, or why Herr Ignaz should
concern him with other attributes of mine than such as touched my
clerkship; but as I was entering on a world where all was new, where
not only the people, but their prejudices and their likings, were all
strange to me, I resolved to approach them in an honest spirit, and with
a desire to conform to them as well as I was able.

Lest the name Norcott appearing in the newspapers in my father's case
should connect me with his story, Hein-fetter advised me to call myself
after my mother's family, which sounded, besides, less highly born; and
I had my passport made out in the name of Digby Owen.

"Mind, lad," said the banker, as he parted with me, "give yourself no
airs with Ignaz Oppovich; do not turn up your nose at his homely fare,
or handle his coarse napkin as if it hurt your skin, as I have seen you
do here. From his door to destitution there is only a step, and bethink
yourself twice before you take it. I have done all I mean to do by you,
more than I shall ever be paid for. And now, goodbye."

This sort of language grated very harshly on my ears at first; but I had
resolved to bear my lot courageously, and conform, where I could, to the
tone of those I had come down to.

I thanked him, then, respectfully and calmly, for his hospitality to me,
and went my way.




CHAPTER XVI. FIUME

"I saw a young fellow, so like that boy of Norcott's in a third-class
carriage," I overheard a traveller say to his companion, as we stopped
to sup at Gratz.

"He 'll have scarcely come to that, I fancy," said the other, "though
Norcott must have run through nearly everything by this time."

It was about the last time I was to hear myself called in this fashion.
They who were to know me thenceforward were to know me by another name,
and in a rank that had no traditions; and I own I accepted this humble
fortune with a more contented spirit and with less chagrin than it cost
me to hear myself spoken of in this half-contemptuous fashion.

I was now very plainly, simply dressed. I made no display of studs or
watch-chain; I even gave up the ring I used to wear, and took care that
my gloves - in which I once was almost puppyish - should be the commonest
and the cheapest.

If there was something that at moments fell very heavily on my heart
in the utter destitution of my lot, there was, on the other hand, what
nerved my heart and stimulated me in the thought that there was some
heroism in what I was doing. I was, so to say, about to seek my fortune;
and what to a young mind could be more full of interest and anticipation
than such a thought? To be entirely self-dependent; to be thrown into
situations of difficulty, with nothing but one's own resources to rely
on; to be obliged to trust to one's head for counsel, and one's heart
for courage; to see oneself, as it were, alone against the world, - is
intensely exciting.

In the days of romance there were personal perils to confront, and
appalling dangers to be surmounted; but now it was a game of life, to be
played, not merely with a stout heart and a ready hand, but with a cool
head and a steady eye. Young as I was, I had seen a great deal. In that
strange comedy of which my father's guests were the performers,
there was great insight into character to be gained, and a marvellous
knowledge of that skill by which they who live by their wits cultivate
these same wits to live.

If I was not totally corrupted by the habits and ways of that life, I
owe it wholly to those teachings of my dear mother which, through all
the turmoil and confusion of this ill-regulated existence, still held
a place in my heart, and led me again and again to ask myself how _she_
would think of this, or what judgment she would pass on that; and
even in this remnant of a conscience there was some safety. I tried to
persuade myself that it was well for me that all this was now over, and
that an honest existence was now about to open to me, - an existence in
which my good mother's lessons would avail me more, stimulate me to
the right and save me from the wrong, and give to the humblest cares of
daily labor a halo that had never shone on my life of splendor.

It was late at night when I reached Trieste, and I left it at daybreak.
The small steamer in which I had taken my passage followed the coast
line, calling at even the most insignificant little towns and villages,
and winding its track through that myriad of islands which lie scattered
along this strange shore. The quiet, old-world look of these quaint
towns, the simple articles they dealt in, the strange dress, and the
stranger sounds of the language of these people, all told me into what
a new life I had just set foot, and how essential it was to leave all my
former habits behind me as I entered here.

The sun had just gone below the sea, as we rounded the great promontory
of the north and entered the bay of Fiume. Scarcely had we passed in
than the channel seemed to close behind us, and we were moving along
over what looked like a magnificent lake bounded on every side by lofty
mountains, - for the islands of the bay are so placed that they conceal
the openings to the Adriatic. If the base of the great mountains was
steeped in a blue, deep and mellow as the sea itself, their summits
glowed in the carbuncle tints of the setting sun, and over these again
long lines of cloud, golden and azure streaks marked the sky, almost on
fire, as it were, with the last parting salute of the glorious orb that
was setting. It was not merely that I had never seen, but I could not
have imagined such beauty of landscape, and as we swept quietly along
nearer the shore, and I could mark the villas shrouded in the deep woods
of chestnut and oak, and saw the olive and the cactus, with the orange
and the oleander, bending their leafy branches over the blue water,
I thought to myself, would not a life there be nearer Paradise than
anything wealth and fortune could buy elsewhere?

"There, yonder," said the captain, pointing to the ornamented chimneys
of a house surrounded by a deep oak-wood, and the terrace of which
overhung the sea, "that's the villa of old Ignaz Oppovich. They say
the Emperor tempted him with half a million of florins to sell it, but,
miser as he was and is, the old fellow refused it."

"Is that Oppovich of the firm of Hodnig and Oppovich?" asked I.

"Yes; the house is all Oppovich's now, and half Fiume too, I believe."

"There are worse fellows than old Ignaz," said another, gravely. "I
wonder what would become of the hospital, or the poor-house, or the
asylum for the orphans here, but for him."

"He 's a Jew," said another, spitting out with contempt.

"A Jew that could teach many a Christian the virtues of his own faith,"
cried the former. "A Jew that never refused an alms to the poor, no
matter of what belief, and that never spoke ill of his neighbor."

"I never heard as much good of him before, and I have been a member of
the town council with him these thirty years."

The other touched his hat respectfully in recognition of the speaker's
rank, and said no more.

I took my little portmanteau in my hand as we landed, and made for a
small hotel which faced the sea. I had determined not to present myself
to the Herr Oppovich till morning, and to take that evening to see the
town and its-neighborhood.

As I strolled about, gazing with a stranger's curiosity at all that was
new and odd to me in this quiet spot, I felt coming over me that
deep depression which almost invariably falls upon him who, alone and
friendless, makes first acquaintance with the scene wherein he is to
live. How hard it is for him to believe that the objects he sees can
ever become of interest to him; how impossible it seems that he will
live to look on this as home; that he will walk that narrow street as
a familiar spot; giving back the kindly greetings that he gets, and
feeling that strange, mysterious sense of brotherhood that grows out of
daily intercourse with the same people!

I was curious to see where the Herr Oppovich lived, and found the place
after some search. The public garden of the town, a prettily planted
spot, lies between two mountain streams, flanked by tall mountains, and
is rather shunned by the inhabitants from its suspicion of damp. Through
this deserted spot - for I saw not one being as I went - I passed on to
a dark copse at the extreme end, and beyond which a small wooden bridge
led over to a garden wildly overgrown with evergreens and shrubs, and so
neglected that it was not easy at first to select the right path amongst
the many that led through the tangled brushwood. Following one of
these, I came out on a little lawn in front of a long low house of two
stories. The roof was high-pitched, and the windows narrow and defended
by strong iron shutters, which lay open on the outside wall, displaying
many a bolt and bar, indicative of strength and resistance. No smoke
issued from a chimney, not a sound broke the stillness, nor was there a
trace of any living thing around, - desolation like it I had never seen.
At last, a mean, half-starved dog crept coweringly across the lawn, and,
drawing nigh the door, stood and whined plaintively. After a brief pause
the door opened, the animal stole in; the door then closed with a bang,
and all was still as before. I turned back towards the town with a heavy
heart; a gloomy dread of those I was to be associated with on the morrow
was over me, and I went to the inn and locked myself into my room, and
fell upon my bed with a sense of desolation that found vent at last in a
torrent of tears.

As I look back on the night that followed, it seems to me one of the
saddest passages of my life. If I fell asleep, it was to dream of the
past, with all its exciting pleasures and delights, and then, awaking
suddenly, I found myself in this wretched, poverty-stricken room,
where every object spoke of misery, and recalled me to the thought of a
condition as ignoble and as lowly.

I remember well how I longed for day-dawn, that I might get up and
wander along the shore, and taste the fresh breeze, and hear the plash
of the sea, and seek in that greater, wider, and more beautiful world
of nature a peace that my own despairing thoughts would not suffer me
to enjoy. And, at the first gleam of light, I did steal down, and issue
forth, to walk for hours along the bay in a sort of enchantment from
the beauty of the scene, that filled me at last with a sense of almost
happiness. I thought of Pauline, too, and wondered would _she_ partake
of the delight this lovely spot imparted to _me?_ Would _she_ see these
leafy woods, that bold mountain, that crystal sea, with its glittering
sands many a fathom deep, as I saw them? And if so, what a stimulus to
labor and grow rich was in the thought.

In pleasant reveries, that dashed the future with much that had
delighted me in the past, the hours rolled on till it was time to
present myself at Herr Oppovich's. Armed with my letter of introduction,
I soon found myself at the door of a large warehouse, over which his
name stood in big letters. A narrow wooden stair ascended steeply from
the entrance to a long low room, in which fully twenty clerks were
busily engaged at their desks. At the end of this, in a smaller room,
I was told Herr Ignaz - for he was always so called - held his private
office.

Before I was well conscious of it, I was standing in this room before a
short, thick-set old man, with heavy eyebrows and beard, and whose long
coat of coarse cloth reached to his feet.

He sat and examined me as he read the note, pausing at times in the
reading as if to compare me with the indications before him.

"Digby Owen, - is that the name?" asked he.

"Yes, sir."

"Native of Ireland, and never before employed in commercial pursuits?"

I nodded to this interrogatory.

"Ikam not in love with Ireland, nor do I feel a great liking
for ignorance, Herr Owen," said he, slowly; and there was a deep
impressiveness in his tone, though the words came with the thick
accentuation of the Jew. "My old friend and correspondent should have
remembered these prejudices of mine. Herr Jacob Heinfetter should not
have sent you here."

I knew not what reply to make to this, and was silent

"He should not have sent you here;" and he repeated the words with
increased solemnity. "What do you want me to do with you?" said he,
sharply, after a brief pause.

"Anything that will serve to let me earn my bread," said I, calmly.

"But I can get scores like you, young man, for the wages we give
servants here; and would you be content with that?"

"I must take what you are pleased to give me."

He rang a little bell beside him, and cried out, "Send Harasch here."
And, at the word, a short, beetle-browed, ill-favored young fellow
appeared at the door, pen in hand.

"Bring me your ledger," said the old man. "Look here now," said he to
me, as he turned over the beautifully clean and neatly kept volume:
"this is the work of one who earns six hundred florins a year. You began
with four, Harasch?"

"Three hundred, Herr Ignaz," said the lad, bowing.

"Can you live and wear such clothes as these," said the old man,
touching my tweed coat, "for three hundred florins a year, - paper
florins, mind, which in your money would make about twenty-five pounds?"

"I will do my best with it," said I, determined he should not deter me
by mere words.

"Take him with you, Harasch; let him copy into the waste-book. We shall
see in a few days what he's fit for."

At a sign from the youth I followed him out, and soon found myself in
the outer room, where a considerable number of the younger clerks were
waiting to acknowledge me.

Nothing could well be less like the manners and habits I was used
to than the coarse familiarity and easy impertinence of these young
fellows. They questioned me about my birth, my education, my means,
what circumstance had driven me to my present step, and why none of my
friends had done anything to save me from it Not content with a number
of very searching inquiries, they began to assure me that Herr Ignaz
would not put up with my incapacity for a week. "He 'll send you into
the yard," cried one; and the sentence was chorused at once. "Ja! ja!
he'll be sent into the yard." And though I was dying to know what that
might mean, my pride restrained my curiosity, and I would not condescend
to ask.

"Won't he be fine in the yard!" I heard one whisper to another, and they
both began laughing at the conceit; and I now sat down on a bench and
lost myself in thought.

"Come; we are going to dinner, Englander," said Harasch to me at last;
and I arose and followed him.




CHAPTER XVII. HANSERL OF THE YARD

I was soon to learn what being "sent into the yard" meant. Within a week
that destiny was mine. Being so sent was the phrase for being charged
to count the staves as they arrived in wagon-loads from Hungary, - oaken
staves being the chief "industry" of Fiume, and the principal source of
Herr Oppovich's fortune.

My companion, and, indeed, my instructor in this intellectual
employment, was a strange-looking, dwarfish creature, who, whatever the
season, wore a suit of dark yellow leather, the jerkin being fastened
round the waist by a broad belt with a heavy brass buckle. He had been
in the yard three-and-forty years, and though his assistants had been
uniformly promoted to the office, he had met no advancement in life, but
was still in the same walk and the same grade in which he had started.

Hans Sponer was, however, a philosopher, and went on his road
uncomplainingly. He said that the open air and the freedom were better
than the closeness and confinement within-doors, and if his pay was
smaller, his healthier appetite made him able to relish plainer food;
and this mode of reconciling things - striking the balance between good
and ill - went through all he said or did, and his favorite phrase, "Es
ist fast einerley," or "It comes to about the same," comprised his whole
system of worldly knowledge.

If at first I felt the occupation assigned to me as an insult and a
degradation, Hanserl's companionship soon reconciled me to submit to
it with patience. It was not merely that he displayed an invariable
good-humor and pleasantry, but there was a forbearance about him, and a
delicacy in his dealing with me, actually gentlemanlike. Thus, he never
questioned me as to my former condition, nor asked by what accident I
had fallen to my present lot; and, while showing in many ways that he
saw I was unused to hardship, he rather treated my inexperience as a
mere fortuitous circumstance than as a thing to comment or dwell on.
Han-serl, besides this, taught me how to live on my humble pay of a
florin and ten kreutzers - about two shillings - daily. I had a small
room that led out into the yard, and could consequently devote my modest
salary to my maintenance. The straitened economy of Hans himself had
enabled him to lay by about eight hundred florins, and he strongly
advised me to arrange my mode of life on a plan that would admit of such
a prudent saving.

Less for this purpose than to give my friend a strong proof of the full
confidence I reposed in his judgment and his honor, I confided to his
care all my earnings, and only begged he would provide for me as for
himself; and thus Hans and I became inseparable. We took our coffee
together at daybreak, our little soup and boiled beef at noon, and our
potato-salad, with perhaps a sardine or such like, at night for supper;
the "Viertelwein" - the fourth of a bottle - being equitably divided
between us to cheer our hearts and cement good-fellowship on certainly
as acrid a liquor as ever served two such excellent ends.

None of the clerks would condescend to know us. Herr Fripper, the
cashier, would nod to us in the street, but the younger men never
recognized us at all, save in some expansive moment of freedom by a wink
or a jerk of the head. We were in a most subordinate condition, and they
made us feel it.

From Hans I learned that Herr Oppovich was a widower with two children,
a son and a daughter. The former was an irreclaimable scamp and
vagabond, whose debts had been paid over and over again, and who had
been turned out of the army with disgrace, and was now wandering about
Europe, living on his father's friends, and trading for small loans
on his family name. This was Adolph Oppovich. The girl - Sara she was
called - was, in Hanserl's judgment, not much more to be liked than her
brother. She was proud and insolent to a degree that would have been
remarkable in a princess of a reigning house. From the clerks she
exacted a homage that was positively absurd. It was not alone that
they should always stand uncovered as she passed, but that if any had
occasion to address her he should prelude what he had to say by kissing
her hand, an act of vassalage that in Austria is limited to persons of
the humblest kind.

"She regards me as a wild beast, and I am therefore spared this piece of
servitude," said Hans; and he laughed his noiseless uncouth laugh as he
thought of his immunity.

"Is she handsome?" asked I.

"How can she be handsome when she is so overbearing?" said he. "Is not
beauty gentleness, mildness, softness? How can it agree with eyes that
flash disdain, and a mouth that seems to curl with insolence? The old
proverb says, 'Sch√ґnheit ist Sanftheit;' and that's why Our Lady is
always so lovely."

Hanserl was a devout Catholic; and not impossibly this sentiment made
his judgment of the young Jewess all the more severe. Of Herr Oppovich
himself he would say little. Perhaps he deemed it was not loyal to
discuss him whose bread he ate; perhaps he had not sufficient experience
of me to trust me with his opinion; at all events, he went no further


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 8 of 17)