Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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studious only that they should be clean and well brushed.

" I had forgotten you altogether, boy," said Herr Ignaz as I
entered the office, and he went on closing his desk and his iron
safe before leaving for dinner. " What was it I had to say to
you ? Can you help me to it, lad ? "

" I'm afraid not, sir ; I only know that you told me to be
here at this hour."

" Let me see," said he, thoughtfully. " There was no
complaint against you ? "


" None, sir, that I know of."

" Nor have you any to make against old Hanserl ? "

" Far from it, sir. I have met only kindness from him."

" Wait, wait, wait," said he. " I believe I am coming to it.
It was Sara's doing. Yes, I have it now. Sara said you should
not be in the yard ; that you had been well brought up and
cared for. A young girl's fancy, perhaps. Your hands were
white. But there is more bad than good in this. Men should
be in the station they're fit for ; neither above nor below it.
And 3'ou did well in the yard ; ay, and you liked it ? "

" I certainly was very happy there, sir."

" And that's all one strives for," said he, with a faint sigh ;
" to be at rest, — to be at rest : and why would you change,

" I am not seeking a change, sir. I am here because you
bade me."

*' That's true. Come in and eat your soup with us, and
we'll see what the girl says, for I have forgotten all about it."

He opened a small door which led by a narrow stair into a
back street, and shuffling along, with his hat drawn over his
eyes, made for the little garden over the wooden bridge, and to
his door. This he unlocked, and then bidding me follow, he
ascended the stairs.

The room into which we entered was furnished in the most
plain and simple fashion. A small table, with a coarse cloth
and some common ware, stood ready for dinner, and a large loaf
on a wooden platter occupied the middle. There were but two
places prepared ; but the old man speedily arranged a third place,
muttering to himself the while, but what I could not catch.


As he was thus engaged the Friiulein entered. She was
dressed in a sort of brown serge, which, though of the humblest
tissue, showed her figure to great advantage, for it fitted to
perfection, and designed the graceful lines of her shoulders, and
her taper waist to great advantage. She saluted me with the
faintest possible smile, and said: — "You are come to dine
with us?"

" If there be enough to give him to eat," said the old man,
gruffly. " I have brought him here, however, with other
thoughts. There was something said last night — what was it,
girl ? — something about this lad, — do you remember it ? "

" Here is the soup, father," said she, calmly. " We'll
bethink us of these things by-and-by." There was a strange air
of half command in what she said, the tone of one who asserted
a certain supremacy, as I was soon to see she did in the house-
hold. " Sit here, Herr von Owen," said she, pointing to my
place, and her words were uttered like an order.

In perfect silence the meal went on ; a woman- servant enter-
ing to replace the soup by a dish of boiled meat, but not other-
wise waiting on us, for Sara rose and removed our plates and
served us with fresh ones ; an office I would gladly have taken
from her, and indeed essayed to do, but at a gesture, and a look
that there was no mistaking, I sat down again, and unmindful
of my presence, they soon began to talk of business matters, in
which, to my astonishment, the youDg girl seemed thoroughly
versed. Cargoes of grain for Athens consigned to one house
were now to be transferred to some other. There were large
orders from France for staves, to meet which some one should
be promptly despatched into Hungary. Hemp, too, was wanted


for England. There was a troublesome litigation with an In-
surance Company at Marseilles, which was evidently going
against the House of Opj^ovich. So unlike was all this the tone
of dinner conversation I was used to, that I listened in wonder-
ment how they could devote the hour of social enjoyment and
relaxation to details so perplexing and so vulgar.

" There is that affair of the leakage, too," cried Herr Ignaz,
setting down his glass before drinking ; "I had nigh for-
gotten it."

" I answered the letter this morning," said the girl, gravely.
''It is better it should be settled at once, while the exchanges
are in our favour."

" And pay — pay the whole amount ! " cried he, angrily.

" Pay it all," replied she, calmly. " We must not let them
call us litigious, father. You have friends here," and she laid
emphasis on the word, " that would not be grieved to see you
get the name."

*' Twenty-seven thousand gulden ! " exclaimed he, with a
quivering lip. " And how am I to save money for your dowry,
girl, with losses like these ?"

" You forget, sir, we are not alone," said she, proudly.
" This young Englishman can scarcely feel interested in these
details." She arose as she spoke, and j)laced a few dishes of
fruit on the table, and then served us with coffee ; the whole
done so unobtrusively, and in such quiet fashion as to make her
services appear a routine that could not call for remark.

" The Dalmat will not take our freight," said he, suddenly.
" There is some combination against us there."

" I will look to it," said she, coldly. " Will you try these


figs, Hen* von Owen ? Fiume, tbey say, rivals Smyrna in
purple figs."

" I will have no more to do with figs or olives either," cried
out Herr Ignaz. " The English beat you down to the lowest
price, and then refuse your cargo for one damaged crete. I have
had no luck with England."

Unconsciously, I know it was, his eyes turned fully on me as
he spoke, and there was a defiance in his look that seemed like
a personal challenge.

" He does not mean it for you," said the Fraulein gently
in my ear, and her voice gained a softness I did not know it

Perhaps the old man's thoughts had taken a very gloomy
turn, for he leaned his head on his hand, and seemed sunk in
reverie. The Fraulein rose quietly, and beckoning me to follow
her, moved noiselessly into an adjoining room. This chamber,
furnished a little more tastefully, had a piano, and some books
and prints lay about on the tables.

" My father likes to be left alone at times," said she, gravely,
" and when you know us better, you will learn to see what these
times are." She took up some needlework she had been engaged
on, and sat down on a sofa. I did not well know whether to
take my leave or keep her company, and while I hesitated she
appeared to read my difficulty, and said, — ' ' You are free, Herr
von Owen, if you have any engagement."

" I have none," said I ; then remembering that the speech
might mean to dismiss me, I added hastily, " but it is time to go."

" Good-by, then," said she, making me a slight bow ; and
I went.




On the following day the cashier sent for me to say it was Herr
Oppovich's wish that I should be attached to some department
in the office, till I had fully mastered its details, and then he
transferred to another, and so on till I had gi-adually acquainted
myself with the whole business of the house. " It's an old
caprice of Herr Ignaz's," said he, " which repeated failures have
not yet discouraged him with. You're the fifth he has tried to
make a supervisor of, and you'll follow the rest."

" Is it so very difficult to learn ?" asked I, modestly.

" Perhaps to one of your acquirements it might not," said he,
with quiet irony, " but for a slight example : here, in this office,
we correspond with five countries in their own languages ;
yonder, in that room, they talk modern Greek, and Albanian,
and Servian ; there's the Hungarian group, next that bow-
window, and that takes in the Lower Danube ; and in what
we call the Expeditions department, there are fellows who speak
seventeen dialects, and can vncite ten or twelve. So much for
languages. Then what do you say to mastering — since that's
the word they have for it — the grain trade from Ptussia, rags
from Transylvania, staves from Hungary, fruit from the Levant,


cotton from Egypt, minerals from lower Austria, and woollen
fabrics from Bohemia ? We do something in all of these, besides
a fair share in oak bark and hemp."

" Stop, for mercy's sake ! " I cried out. "It would take a
lifetime to gain a mere current knowledge of these."

" Then, there's the finance department," said he; "watching
the rise and fall of the exchanges, buying and selling gold. Hen
Ulrich, in that office with the blue door, could tell you it's not
to be picked up of an afternoon. Perhaps you might as well
begin with him ; his is not a bad school to take the fine edge
off you."

" I shall do whatever you advise me."

" I'll speak to Herr Ulrich, then," said he ; and he left me,
to return almost immediately, and conduct me within the pre-
cincts of the blue door.

Herr Ulrich was a tall, thin, ascetic-looking man, with his
hair brushed rigidly back from the narrowest head I ever saw.
His whole idea of life was the office, which he arrived at by day-
break, and never left, except to visit the bourse, till late at night.
He disliked, of all things, new fiices about him : and it was a
piece of malice on the cashier's part to bring me before him.

" I believed I had explained to Herr Ignaz already," said he,
to the cashier, " that I am not a schoolmaster."

" Well, well," broke in the other, in a muffied voice, " try
the lad. He may not be so incompetent. They tell me he has
had some education."

Herr Ulrich raised his spectacles, and surveyed me from head
to foot for some seconds. " You have been in the yard ? " said
he, in question.


" Yes, sir."

" And is counting oaken staves the first step to learning
foreign exchanges, think you ?"

" I should say not, sir."

" I know whose scheme this is well enough," muttered he.
" I see it all. That will do. You may leave us to talk together
alone," said he to the cashier. " Sit down there, lad; there's
your own famous newspaper, Tlie Times. Make me a iwecis of
the money article as it touches Austrian securities and Austrian
enterprises ; contrast the report there given with what that
French paper contains ; and don't leave till it he finished."
He returned to his high stool as he spoke, and resumed his
work. On the table before me lay a mass of newspapers in
diflierent languages, and I sat down to examine them with the
very vaguest notion of what was expected of me.

Determined to do something — whatever that something
might be — I opened The Times to find out the money-article ;
but little versed in journalism, I turned from page to page with-
out discovering it. At last I thought I should find it by carefully
scanning the columns ; and so I began at the top and read the
various headings, which happened to be those of the trials then
going on. There was a cause of salvage on the part of the
owners of the Lively Jane ; there was a disputed ownership of
certain dock warrants for indigo, a breach of promise case, and a
suit for damages for injuries incurred on the rail. None of
these, certainly, were financial articles. At the head of the next
column I read : " Court of Probate and Divorce — Mr. Spanks
moved that the decree nisi, in the suit of Cleremont v. Clere-
mout, be made absolute. Motion allowed. The damages in


this suit against Sir Roger Norcott have been fixed at eight
thousand five hundred pounds."

From these hues I could not turn my eyes. They revealed
nothing, it is true, but what I knew well must happen ; but
there is that in a confirmation of a fact brought suddenly
before us, that always awakens deep reflection : and now
I brought up before my mind, my poor mother, deserted and
forsaken, and my father, ruined in character, and, perhaps,
in fortune.

I had made repeated attempts to find out my mother's
address, but all my letters had failed to reach her. Could there
be any chance of discovering her through this suit ? Was it
possible that she might have intervened in any way in it ? And,
last of all, would this lawyer, whose name appeared in the
proceedings, take compassion on my unhappy condition, and aid
me to discover where my mother was ? I meditated long over
all this, and I ended by convincing myself that there are few
people in the world who are not well pleased to do a kind thing
which costs little in the doing ; and so I resolved I would write
to Mr. Spanks, and address him at the court he practised in. I
could not help feeling that it was at a mere straw I was
grasping ; but nothing more tangible lay within my reach. I
wrote thus : —

" Sir, — I am the son and only child of Sir Roger and Lady
Norcott ; and seeing that you have lately conducted a suit
against my father, I ask you, as a great favour, to let me know
where my mother is now living, that I may write to her. I know
that I am taking a gi-eat liberty in obtruding this request upon


you ; but I am very friendless, and very little versed in worldly
knowledge. Will you let both these deficiencies plead for me ?
and let me sign myself,

" Your grateful servant,


** You can address me at the house of Hodnig and Oppovich,
Fiume, Austria, where I am living as a clerk, and under the
name of Digby Owen, — Owen being the name of my mother's

I was not very well pleased with the composition of this
letter ; but it had one recommendation, which I chiefly sought
for, it was short, and for this reason I hoped it might be
favourably received. I read it over and over, each time seeing
some new fault, or some omission to correct ; and then I would
turn again to the newspaper, and ponder over the few words that
meant so much and yet revealed so little. How my mother's
position would be affected — if at all — by this decision I could
not tell. Indeed, it was the mere accident of hearing divorce
discussed at my father's table that enabled me to know what the
terms of the law implied. And thus I turned from my letter to
the newspaper, and back again from the newspaper to my letter,
so engrossed by the theme that I forgot where I was, and utterly
forgot all about that difficult task Herr Ulrich had set me.
Intense thought and weariness of mind, aided by the unbroken
stillness of the place, made me heavy and drowsy. From poring
over the paper, I gi-adually bent down till my head rested on it,
and I fell sound asleep.

I must have passed hours thus, for it was already evening


wlien I awoke. Herr Ulrich was about to leave the office, and
had his hat on, as he aroused me.

" It is supper time, youngster," said he, laying his hand on
my shoulder. " Yes, you may well wonder where you are.
What are you looking for ? "

" I thought, sir, I had written a letter just before I fell
asleep. I was writing here." And I turned over the papers
and shook them, tossing them wildly about, to discover the
letter, but in vain. It was not there. Could it have been that
I had merely composed it in my mind, and never have com-
mitted it to paper ? but that could scarcely be, seeing how fresh
in my memory were all the doubts and hesitations that had
beset me.

"I am sure I wrote a letter here," said I, trying to recall
each circumstance to my mind.

" When you have finished dreaming, lad, I will lock the
door," said he, waiting to see me pass out.

"Forgive me; one moment, sir, only one," cried I, wildly
scattering the papers over the table. "It is of consequence to
me — what I have written."

" That is if you have written anything," said he, drily.

The grave tone of this doubt determined the conflict in my

" I suppose you are right," said I, "it was a dream." And
I arose and followed him out.

As I reached the foot of the stairs I came suddenly on Herr
Ignaz and his daughter. It was a common thing for her to
come and accompany him home at the end of the day's work ;
and as latterly he had become much broken and very feeble, she


scarcely missed a day in this attention. " Oh, here he is," I
heard her say as I came up. What he replied I could not catch,
but it was with some earnestness she rejoined, —

" Herr von Owen, my father wishes to say that they have
mistaken his instructions regarding you in the office. He never
expected you could at once possess yourself of all the details of
a varied business ; he meant that you should go about and see
what branch you would like to attach yourself to, and to do this
he will give you ample time. Take a week ; take two ; a month,
if you like." And she made a little gesture of friendly adieu
Avith her hand, and passed on.

( 175 )



The morning after this brief intimation I attached myself to
that department of the house whose business was to receive and
reply to telegraphic messages. I took that group of countries
whose languages I knew, and addressed myself to my task in
right earnest. An occupation whose chief feature is emergency
will always possess a certain interest, but beyond this there was
not anything attractive in my present pursuit. A peremptory
message to sell this, or buy that, to push on vigorously with a
certain enterprise, or to suspend all action in another, would
perhaps form the staple of a day's work. "When disasters
occurred, too, it was their monetary feature alone was recorded.
The fire that consumed a warehouse was told with reference to
the amount insured; the shipwreck was related by incidents
that bore on the lost cargo, and the damage incurred. Still it
was less monotonous than the work of the office, and I had a
certain pride in converting the messages — sometimes partly,
sometimes totally unintelligible — into language that could be
understood, that imparted a fair share of ambition to my labour.
My duty was to present myself, with my book in which I had
entered the despatches, each evening, at supper-time, at Herr


Ignaz's house. He would be at table with his daughter when I
arrived, and the interview would pass somewhat in this wise :
Herr Oppovich would take the book from my hands without a
word or even a look at me, and the Friiulein, with a gentle
bend of the head, but without the faintest show of more intimate
greeting, would acknowledge me. She would continue to eat as
I stood there, as unmindful of me as though I were a servant.
Having scanned the book over, he would hand it across to his
daughter, and then would ensue a few words in whisper, after
which the Fraulein would write oj^posite each message some
word of reply or of comment such as, " Already provided for,"
" Further details wanted," " Too late," or such like, but never
more than a few words, and these she would write freely, and
only consulting herself. The old man — whose memory failed
him more and more every day, and whose general debility grew
rapidly — did no more than glance at the answers and nod an
acceptance of them. In giving the book back to me she rarely
looked up, but if she did so, and if her eyes met mine, their
expression was cold and almost defiant ; and thus, with a slight
bend of the head, I would be dismissed.

Nor was this reception the less chilling that, before I had well
closed the door, they would be in full conversation again, showing
that my presence it was which had inspired the constraint and
reserve. These, it might be thought, were not very proud nor
blissful moments to me, and yet they formed the happiest
incident of my day, and I actually longed for the hour, as might
a lover to meet his mistress. To gaze at will upon her pale and
beautiful face, to watch the sunHght as it played upon her golden
hair, which she wore— in some fashion, perhaps, peculiar to her


race — iu heavy masses of curls, tliat fell over her back and
shoulders ; her hand, too, a model of symmetry, and with
the fingers rose-tipped, like the goddesses of Homer, affected me
as a spell ; and I have stood there unconsciously staring at it till
warned by a second admonition to retire.

Perhaps the solitude in which I lived helped to make me
dwell more thoughtfully on this daily-recurring interview ; for I
went nowhere, I associated with no one, I dined alone, and my
one brisk walk for health and exercise I took by myself. When
evening came, and the other clerks frequented the theatre, I went
home to read, or as often to sit and think.

" Sara tells me," said the old man one day, when some rare
chance had brought him to my office, " Sara tells me that you are
suffering from over-confinement. She thinks you look pale and
worn, and that this constant work is telling on you."

" Far from it, sir. I am both well and happy ; and if
I needed to be made happier, this thoughtful kindness would
make me so."

" Yes ; she is very kind, and very thoughtful, too ; but, as
well as these, she is despotic," said he, with a faint laugh ; " and
so she has decided that you are to exchange with M. Marsac, who
will be here by Saturday, and who will put you up to all
the details of his walk. He buys our timber for us in Hungary
and Transylvania ; and he, too, will enjoy a little rest from
constant travel."

" I don't speak Hungarian, sir," began I, eager to offer an
opposition to the plan.

" Sara says you are a quick learner, and will soon acquire it
— at least, enough for traffic."



"It is a business, too, that I suspect requires much insight
into the people and their ways."

"You can't learn them younger, lad; and as all those
we deal with are old clients of the house, you will not be much
exposed to rogueries."

"But if I make mistakes, sir ? If I involve you in difficulty
and in loss ? "

" You'll repay it by zeal, lad, and by devotion, as we have
seen you do here."

He waved his hand in adieu, and left me to my own thoughts.
Very sad thoughts they were, as they told me of separation from
her that gave the whole charm to my life. Sara's manner to me
had been so markedly cold and distant for some time past, so
unlike what it had been at first, that I could not help feeling that,
by ordering me away, some evidence of displeasure was to be
detected. The old man I at once exculpated, for every day
showed him less and less alive to the business of " the House ; "
though, from habit, he persisted in coming down eYerj morning
to the office, and believed himself the guide^ and director of all
that went on there.

I puzzled myself long to think what I could have done
to forfeit her favour. I had never in the slighest degree passed
that boundary of deference that I was told she liked to exact from
all in the service of the house. I had neglected no duty, nor,
having no intimates or associates, had I given opportunity to
report of me that I had said this or that of my employers. I
scrutinised every act of my daily life, and suggested every possible
and impossible cause for this coldness ; but without approaching
a reason at all probable. "While I thus doubted and disputed


with myself, the evening despatches arrived, and among them a
letter addressed to myself. It bore the post-mark of the town
alone, with this superscription, "Digby Owen, Esq., at Messrs.
Oppovich's, Fiume." I tore it open, and read, —

" The address you wish for is, ' Lady Norcott, Sunday's
Well, Cork, Ireland.' "

The writing looked an English hand, and the language was

English. There was no date, nor any signature. Could it have

been, then, that I had folded, and sealed, and sent on my letter

— that letter I believed I had never written — without knowing it,

and that the lawyer had sent me this reply, which, though long

delayed, might have been postponed till he had obtained the

tidings it conveyed ? At all events, I had got my dear mother's

address — at least, I hoped so. This point I resolved to ascertain

at once, and sat down to write to her. It was a very flurried

note I composed, though I did my very best to be collected. I

told her how and where I was, and by what accident of fortune

I had come here ; that I had reasonable hopes of advancement,

and, even now, had a salary which was larger than I needed. I

was afraid to say much of what I wished to tell her, till I was

sure my letter would reach her ; and I entreated her to write to

me by return of post, were it but a line. I need not say how

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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 11 of 17)