Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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than an admission that he was wise and keen in business, - one who made
few mistakes himself, nor forgave them easily in another.

"Never do more than he tells you to do, younker," said Hans to me one
day; "and he 'll trust you, if you do that well." And this was not the
least valuable hint he gave me.

Hans had a great deal of small worldly wisdom, the fruit rather of a
long experience than of any remarkable gift of observation. As he said
himself, it took him four years to learn the business of the yard; and
as I acquired the knowledge in about a week, he regarded me as a perfect
genius.

We soon became fast and firm friends. The way in which I had surrendered
myself to his guidance - giving him up the management of my money, and
actually submitting to his authority as though I were his son - had
won upon the old man immensely; while I, on my side, - friendless and
companionless, save with himself, - drew close to the only one who seemed
to take an interest in me. At first, - I must own it, - as we wended our
way at noon towards the little eating-house where we dined, and I saw
the friends with whom Hans exchanged greetings, and felt the class and
condition he belonged to reflected in the coarse looks and coarser ways
of his associates, I was ashamed to think to what I had fallen. I
had, indeed, no respect nor any liking for the young fellows of the
counting-house. They were intensely, offensively vulgar; but they had
the outward semblance, the dress, and the gait of their betters, and
they were privileged by appearance to stroll into a _café_ and sit
down, from which I and my companion would speedily have been ejected. I
confess I envied them that mere right of admission into the well-dressed
world, and sorrowed over my own exclusion as though it had been
inflicted on me as a punishment.

This jealous feeling met no encouragement from Hans. The old man had no
rancour of any kind in his nature. He had no sense of discontent with
his condition, nor any desire to change it. Counting staves seemed
to him a very fitting way to occupy existence; and he knew of many
occupations that were less pleasant and less wholesome. Rags, for
instance, for the paper-mill, or hides, in both of which Herr Ignaz
dealt, Hans would have seriously disliked; but staves were cleanly, and
smelt fresh and sweetly of the oak-wood they came from; and there was
something noble in their destiny - to form casks and hogsheads for the
rich wines of France and Spain - which he was fond of recalling; and so
would he say, "Without you and me, boy, or those like us, they 'd have
no vats nor barrels for the red grape-juice."

While he thus talked to me, trying to invest our humble calling with
what might elevate it in my eyes, I struggled often with myself whether
I should not tell him the story of my life, - in what rank I had lived,
to what hopes of fortune I had been reared. Would this knowledge have
raised me in the old man's esteem, or would it have estranged him from
me? that was the question. How should I come through the ordeal of his
judgment, - higher or lower? A mere chance decided for me what all my
pondering could not resolve. Hans came home one night with a little book
in his hand, a present for me. It was a French grammar, and, as he told
me, the key to all knowledge.

"The French are the great people of the world," said he, "and till you
know their tongue, you can have no real insight into learning." There
was a "younker," once under him in the yard, who, just because he could
read and write French, was now a cashier, with six hundred florins'
salary. "When you have worked hard for three months, we 'll look out for
a master, Owen."

"But I know it already, Hanserl," said I, proudly. "I speak it even
better than I speak German, and Italian too! Ay, stare at me, but it's
true. I had masters for these, and for Greek and Latin; and I was taught
to draw, and to sing, and to play the piano, and I learned how to ride
and to dance."

"Just like a born gentleman," broke in Hans.

"I was, and I am, a born gentleman; don't shake your head, or wring your
hands, Hanserl. I 'm not going mad! These are not ravings! I 'll soon
convince you what I say is true." And I hurried to my room, and, opening
my trunk, took out my watch and some trinkets, some studs of value, and
a costly chain my father gave me. "These are all mine! I used to wear
them once, as commonly as I now wear these bone buttons. There were more
servants in my father's house than there are clerks in Herr Oppovich's
counting-house. Let me tell you who I was, and how I came to be what I
am."

I told him my whole story, the old man listening with an eagerness
quite intense, but never more deeply interested than when I told of
the splendors and magnificence of my father's house. He never wearied
hearing of costly entertainments and great banqueta, where troops of
servants waited, and every wish of the guests was at once ministered to.

"And all this," cried he, at last, "all this, day after day, night after
night, and not once a year only, as we see it here, on the Fraulein
Sara's birthday!" And now the poor old man, as if to compensate himself
for listening so long, broke out into a description of the festivities
by which Herr Oppovich celebrated his daughter's birthday; an occasion
on which he invited all in his employment to pass the day at his villa,
on the side of the bay, and when, by Hanserl's account, a most unbounded
hospitality held sway. "There are no portions, no measured quantities,
but each is free to eat and drink as he likes," cried Hans, who, with
this praise, described a banquet of millennial magnificence. "But you
will see for yourself," added he; "for even the 'yard' is invited."

I cautioned him strictly not to divulge what I had told him of myself;
nor was it necessary, after all, for he well knew how Herr Ignaz
resented the thought of any one in his service having other pretensions
than such as grew out of his own favor towards them.

"You'd be sent away to-morrow, younker," said he, "if he but knew what
you were. There's an old proverb shows how they think of people of
quality: -

'Die Joden nicht dulden
Ben Herrechaft mit Schulden.'

The Jews cannot abide the great folk, with their indebtedness; and to
deem these inseparable is a creed.

"On the 31st of August falls the Fraulein's birthday, lad, and you shall
tell me the next morning if your father gave a grander _fête_ than that!"




CHAPTER XVIII. THE SAIL ACROSS THE BAY

The 31st of August dawned at last, and with the promise of a lovely
autumnal day. It was the one holiday of the year at Herr Oppovich's: for
Sunday was only externally observed in deference to the feelings of the
Christian world, and clerks sat at their desks inside, and within the
barred shutters the whole work of life went on as though a week-day.
As for us in the yard, it was our day of most rigorous discipline; for
Iguaz himself was wont to come down on a tour of inspection, and his
quick glances were sure to detect at once the slightest irregularity or
neglect. He seldom noticed me on these occasions. A word addressed to
Hanserl as to how the "younker" was doing, would be all the recognition
vouchsafed me, or, at most, a short nod of the head would convey that
he had seen me. Hanserl's reports were, however, always favorable; and I
had so far good reason to believe that my master was content with me.

From Hans, who had talked of nothing but this fête for three or four
weeks, I had learned that a beautiful villa which Herr Ignaz owned on
the west side of the bay was always opened. It was considered much too
grand a place to live in, being of princely proportions and splendidly
furnished; indeed, it had come into Herr Oppovich's possession on a
mortgage, and the thought of using it as a residence never occurred to
him. To have kept the grounds alone in order would have cost a moderate
fortune; and as there was no natural supply of water on the spot, a
steam-pump was kept in constant use to direct streams in different
directions. This, which its former owner freely paid for, was an outlay
that Herr Oppovich regarded as most wasteful, and reduced at once to the
very narrowest limits consistent with the life of the plants and
shrubs around. The ornamental fountains were, of course, left unfed;
_jets-d'eau_ ceased to play; and the various tanks in which water-nymphs
of white marble disported, were dried up; ivy and the wild vine draping
the statues, and hiding the sculptured urns in leafy embrace.

Of the rare plants and flowers, hundreds, of course, died; indeed,
none but those of hardy nature could survive this stinted aliment.
Greenhouses and conservatories, too, fell into disrepair and neglect;
but such was the marvellous wealth of vegetation that, fast as walls
would crumble and architraves give way, foliage and blossom would spread
over the rain, and the rare plants within, mingling with the stronger
vegetation without, would form a tangled mass of leafy beauty of
surpassing loveliness; and thus the rarest orchids were seen stretching
their delicate tendrils over forest-trees, and the cactus and the mimosa
mingled with common field-flowers. If I linger amongst these things, it
is because they contrasted so strikingly to me with the trim propriety
and fastidious neatness of the Malibran Villa, where no leaf littered
a walk, nor a single tarnished blossom was suffered to remain on its
stalk. Yet was the Abazzia Villa a thousand times more beautiful. In
the one, the uppermost thought was the endless care and skill of the
gardeners, and the wealth that had provided them. The clink of gold
seemed to rise from the crushed gravel as you walked; the fountains
glittered with gold; the conservatories exhaled it. Here, however,
it seemed as though Nature, rich in her own unbounded resources, was
showing how little she needed of man or his appliances. It was the
very exuberance of growth on every side; and all this backed by a bold
mountain lofty as an Alp, and washed by a sea in front, and that sea the
blue Adriatic.

I had often heard of the thrift and parsimony of Herr Oppovich's
household. Even in the humble eating-house I frequented, sneers at its
economies were frequent. No trace of such a saving spirit displayed
itself on this occasion. Not merely were guests largely and freely
invited, but carriages were stationed at appointed spots to convey them
to the villa, and a number of boats awaited at the mole for those who
preferred to go by water. This latter mode of conveyance was adopted by
the clerks and officials of the house, as savoring less of pretension;
and so was it that just as the morning was ripening into warmth, I
found myself one of a large company in a wide eight-oared boat, calmly
skimming along towards Abazzia. By some accident I got separated from
Hanserl; and when I waved my hand to him to join me, he delayed
to return my salutation, for, as he said afterwards, I was _gar
schon_, - quite fine, - and he did not recognize me.

It was true I had dressed myself in the velvet jacket and vest I had
worn on the night of our own fête, and wore my velvet cap, without,
however, the heron feather, any more than I put on any of my trinkets,
or even my watch.

This studied simplicity on my part was not rewarded as I hoped for;
since, scarcely were we under way, than my dress and "get-up" became the
subject of an animated debate among my companions, who discussed me with
a freedom and a candor that showed they regarded me simply as a sort of
lay figure for the display of so much drapery.

"That's how they dress in the yard," cried one; "and we who have three
times the pay, can scarcely afford broadcloth. Will any one explain that
to me?"

"There must be rare perquisites down there," chimed in another; "for
they say that the old dwarf Hanserl has laid by two thousand gulden."

"They tell _me_ five thousand," said another.

"Two or twenty-two would make no difference. No fellow on his pay could
honestly do more than keep life in his body, not to speak of wearing
velvet like the younker there."

A short digression now intervened, one of the party having suggested
that in England velvet was the cheapest wear known, that all the
laborers on canals and railroads wore it from economy, and that,
in fact, it was the badge of a very humble condition. The assertion
encountered some disbelief, and it was ultimately suggested to refer the
matter to me for decision, this being the first evidence they had given
of their recognition of me as a sentient being.

"What would _he_ know?" broke in an elderly clerk; "he must have come
away from England a mere child, seeing how he speaks German now."

"Or if he did know, is it likely he'd tell?" observed another.

"At all events, let us ask him what it costs. I say, Knabe, come here
and let us see your fine clothes; we are all proud of having so grand a
colleague."

"You might show your pride, then, more suitably than by insulting him,"
said I, with perfect calm.

Had I discharged a loaded pistol in the midst of them, the dismay and
astonishment could not have been greater.

That any one "aus dem Hof" - "out of the yard" - should presume to think
he had feelings that could be outraged, seemed a degree of arrogance
beyond belief, and my word "insult" was repeated from mouth to mouth
with amazement.

"Come here, Knabe," said the cashier, in a voice of blended gentleness
and command, - "come here, and let us talk to you."

I arose and made my way from the bow to the stern of the boat. Short as
the distance was, it gave me time to bethink me that I must repress
all anger or irritation if I desired to keep my secret; so that when I
reached my place, my mind was made up.

"Silk-velvet as I live!" said one who passed his hand along my sleeve as
I went.

"No one wishes to offend you, youngster," said the cashier to me, as he
placed me beside him; "nor when we talk freely to each other, as is our
wont, are any of us offended."

"But you forget, sir," said I, "that I have no share in these freedoms,
and that were I to attempt them, you'd resent the liberty pretty soon."

"The Knabe is right," "He says what's true," "He speaks sensibly," were
muttered all around.

"You have been well educated, I suspect?" said the cashier, in a
gentle voice; and now the thought that by a word - a mere word - I might
compromise myself beyond recall flashed across me, and I answered, "I
have learned some things."

"One of which was caution," broke in another; and a roar of laughter
welcomed his joke.

Many a severer sarcasm would not have cut so deeply into me. The
imputation of a reserve based on cunning was too much for my temper,
and in a moment I forgot all prudence, And hotly said, "If I am such
an object of interest to you, gentlemen, that you must know even the
details of my education, the only way I see to satisfy this curiosity of
yours is to say that, if you will question me as to what I know And what
I do not, I will do my best to answer you."

"That's a challenge," cried one; "he thinks we are too illiterate to
examine him."

"We see that you speak German fluently," said the cashier; "do you know
French?"

I nodded assent

"And Italian and English?"

"Yes; English is my native language."

"What about Greek and Latin, boy?"

"Very little Greek; some half-dozen Latin authors."

"Any Hebrew?" chimed in one, with a smile of half mockery.

"Not a syllable."

"That's a pity, for you could have chatted with Herr Ignaz in it."

"Or the Fraulein," muttered another. "She knows no Hebrew," "She does;
she reads it well," "Nothing of the kind," were quickly spoken from many
quarters; and a very hot discussion ensued, in which the Fraulein
Sara's accomplishments and acquirements took the place of mine in public
interest.

While the debate went on with no small warmth on either side, - for it
involved a personal question that stimulated each of the combatants;
namely, the amount of intimacy they enjoyed in the family and household
of their master: a point on which they seemed to feel the most acute
sensibility, - while this, therefore, continued, the cashier patted me
good-humoredly on the arm, and asked me how I liked Fiume; if I had made
any pleasant acquaintances; and how I usually passed my evenings? And
while thus chatting pleasantly, we glided into the little bay of the
villa, and landed.

As boat after boat came alongside the jetty, numbers rushed down to meet
and welcome their friends. All seemed half wild with delight; and the
adventures they had had on the road, the loveliness of the villa, and
the courtesy they had been met with, resounded on every side. All had
friends, eager to talk or to listen, - all but myself. I alone had no
companionship; for in the crowd and confusion I could not find Hanserl,
and to ask after him was but to risk the danger of an impertinence.

I sat myself down on a rustic bench at last, thinking that if I remained
fixed in one spot I might have the best chance to discover him. And now
I could mark the strange company, which, of every age, and almost of
every condition, appeared to be present. If the marked features of the
Hebrew abounded, there were types of the race that I had never
seen before: fair-haired and olive-eyed, with a certain softness of
expression, united with great decision about the mouth and chin. The
red Jew, too, was there: the fierce-eyed, dark-browed, hollow-cheeked
fellow, of piercing acute-ness in expression, and an almost reckless
look of purpose about him. There was greed, craft, determination, at
times even violence, to be read in the faces; but never weakness, never
imbecility; and so striking was this that the Christian physiognomy
seemed actually vulgar when contrasted with those faces so full of
vigorous meaning and concentration.

Nothing could be less like my father's guests than these people. It was
not in dress and demeanor and general carriage that they differed, - in
their gestures as they met, in their briefest greetings, - but the whole
character of their habite, as expressed by their faces, seemed so unlike
that I could not imagine any clew to their several ranks, and how this
one was higher or greater than that. All the nationalities of Eastern
Europe were there, - Hungarian, Styrian, Dalmatian, and Albanian. Traders
all: this one bond of traffic and gain blending into a sort of family
races and creeds the most discordant, and types whose forefathers had
been warring with each other for centuries. Plenty of coarseness there
was, unculture and roughness everywhere; but, strangely enough, little
vulgarity and no weakness, no deficient energy anywhere. They were the
warriors of commerce; and they brought to the battle of trade resolution
and boldness and persistence and daring not a whit inferior to what
their ancestors had carried into personal conflict.




CHAPTER XIX. AT THE FÊTE

If, seated on my rustic bench under a spreading ilex, I was not joining
in the pleasures and amusements of those around me, I was tasting an
amount of enjoyment to the full as great It was my first holiday after
many months of monotonous labor. It was the first moment in which I felt
myself free to look about me without the irksome thought of a teasing
duty, - that everlasting song of score and tally, which Hans and I sang
duet fashion, and which at last seemed to enter into my very veins and
circulate with my blood.

The scene itself was of rare beauty. Seated as I was, the bay appeared a
vast lake, for the outlet that led seaward was backed by an island, and
thus the coast-line seemed unbroken throughout. Over this wide expanse
now hundreds of fishing-boats were moving in every direction, for the
wind was blowing fresh from the land, and permitted them to tack and
beat as they pleased. If thus in the crisply curling waves, the flitting
boats, and the fast-flying clouds above, there was motion and life,
there was, in the high peaked-mountain that frowned above me, and in the
dark rocks that lined the shore, a stern, impassive grandeur that became
all the more striking from contrast. The plashing water, the fishermen's
cries, the merry laughter of the revellers as they strayed through brake
and copse, seemed all but whispering sounds in that vast amphitheatre of
mountain, so solemn was the influence of those towering crags that rose
towards heaven.

"Have you been sitting there ever since?" asked the cashier, as he
passed me with a string of friends.

"Ever since."

"Not had any breakfast?"

"None."

"Nor paid your compliments to Herr Ignaz and the Fraulein?"

I shook my bead in dissent.

"Worst of all," said he, half rebukingly, and passed on. I now bethought
me how remiss I had been. It is true it was through a sense of my own
insignificant station that I had not presented myself to my host; but
I ought to have remembered that this excuse could have no force outside
the limits of my own heart; and so, as I despaired of finding Hanserl,
whose advice might have aided me, I set out at once to make my respects.

A long, straight avenue, flanked by tall lime-trees, led from the sea to
the house; and as I passed up this, crowded now like the chief promenade
of a city, I heard many comments as I went on my dress and appearance.
"What have we here?" said one. "Is this a prince or a mountebank?" "What
boy, with a much-braid-bedizened velvet coat is this?" muttered an old
German, as he pointed at me with his pipe-stick..

One pronounced me a fencing-master; but public reprobation found its
limit at last by calling me a Frenchman. Shall I own that I heard all
these with something much more akin to pride than to shame? The mere
fact that they recognized me as unlike one of themselves - that they saw
in me what was not "Fiumano " - was in itself a flattery; and as to the
depreciation, it was pure ignorance! I am afraid that I even showed how
defiantly I took this criticism, - showed it in my look, and showed it
in my gait; for as I ascended the steps to the terrace of the villa,
I heard more than one comment on my pretentious demeanor. Perhaps some
rumor of the approach of a distinguished guest had reached Herr Oppovich
where he sat, at a table with some of the magnates of Fiume, for be
hastily arose and came forward to meet me. Just as I gained the last
terrace, the old man stood bareheaded and bowing before me, a semicircle
of wondering guests at either side of him.

"Whom have I the distinguished honor to receive?" said Herr Ignaz, with
a profound show of deference.

"Don't you know me, sir? Owen, - Digby Owen."

"What! - how? - Eh - in heaven's name - sure it can't be! Why, I protest it
is," cried he, laying his hand on my shoulder, as if to test my reality.
"This passes all belief. Who ever saw the like! Come here, Knabe, come
here." And slipping his hand within my arm, he led me towards the table
he had just quitted. "Sara," cried he, "here is a guest you have not
noticed; a high and wellborn stranger, who claims all your attention.
Let him have the place of honor at your side. This, ladies and
gentlemen, is Herr Digby Owen, the stave-counter of my timber-yard!" And
he burst, with this, into a roar of laughter, that, long pent up by an
effort, now seemed to threaten him with a fit Nor was the company slow
in chorusing him; round after round shook the table, and it seemed as if
the joke could never be exhausted.

All this time I stood with my eyes fixed on the Fraulein, whose glance
was directed as steadfastly on me. It was a haughty look she bent on me,
but it became her well, and I forgave all the scorn it conveyed in the
pleasure her beauty gave me. My face, which at first was in a flame,
became suddenly cold, and a faintish sickness was creeping over me, so
that, to steady myself, I had to lay my hand on a chair. "Won't you sit
down?" said she, in a voice fully as much command as invitation. She
pointed to a chair a little distance from her own, and I obeyed.

The company appeared now somewhat ashamed of its rude display
of merriment, and seeing how quietly and calmly I bore
myself, - unresentingly too, - there seemed something like a reaction in
my favor. Foreigners, it must be said, are generally sorry when betrayed
into any exhibition of ill-breeding, and hastily seek to make amends for
it Perhaps Herr Oppovich himself was the least ready in this movement,
for he continued to look on me with a strange blending of displeasure
and amusement.

The business of breakfast was now resumed, and the servants passed round
with the dishes, helping me amongst the rest. While I was eating, I


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 9 of 17)