Charles James Lever.

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country, I could not have the faintest pretension ; and it was just
possible that my countryman -might bring this fact before me.

He might do worse — he might question me as to who and
what I was ; nor was I very sure how my tact or my temper
might carry me through such an ordeal.

Would it not be wiser and better for me to avoid this peril ?
Should I not spare myself much mortification and much needless
pain ? Thus thinking, I resolved to wait on the Countess at
once, and explain frankly why I felt obliged to decline the
gracious courtesy she had extended to me, and refuse an honour
so full of pleasure and of pride.

She was not alone as I entered — the Countess Palti was with



230 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

her — and I scarcely knew how to approach my theme in presence
of a third person. With a bold effort, however, I told what I
had come for ; not very collectedly, indeed, nor perhaps very
intelligibly, but in such a way as to convey that I had not
courage to face what might look at least like a false position, and
was almost sure to entail all the unpleasant relations of such.
**In fact, madam," said I, " I am nobody ; and in my country
men of rank never associate with nobodies, even by an accident.
My lord would not forgive you for throwing him into such
acquaintanceship, and I should never forgive myself for having
caused you the unpleasantness. I don't imagine I have made my
meaning very clear."

" You have certainly made me very uncomfortable," broke in
Countess Hunyadi, thoughtfully. "I thought that we Hun-
garians had rather strict notions on these subjects, but these of
your country leave them miles behind."

" And are less reasonable besides," said the Palfi, " since
your nobility is being continually recruited from so rich a
bourgoisie."

" At all events," cried the Countess, suddenly, "we are here
at Schloss Hunyadi, and I am its mistress. I invite you to
dine with me ; it remains for you to decide how you treat my
invitation."

"Put in that way, madam, I accept with deference," and I
bowed deeply and moved towards the door. The ladies acknow-
ledged my salute in silence, and I fancied with coldness, and I
retired.

I was evidently mistaken in attributing coldness to their
manner ; the ladies received me when I appeared at dinner with



THE SALON. 231

a marked cordiality. I sat next Madame Palfi, Avho talked to
me like an old friend ; told me who the various people at table
were ; and gave me great pleasure hy saying that I was sure to
become a favourite with Count Hunyadi, who delighted in gaiety,
and cherished all those that promoted it. Seeing what interest
I took in the ways of Hungarian life, she explained many of the
customs I saw around me, which, deriving from a great antiquity,
were doubtless soon destined to give way before the advance of a
higher civilization. I asked what she knew of the English
guests. It was nothing, or next to nothing — Count Hunyadi
had made their acquaintance at Baden that summer, and invited
them to pass their Christmas with him. Countess Palfi had her-
self arrived since they came, and not seen them, for " my lord,"
as he was generally called, had left at once to join the shooting
party; and my lady had not appeared since the day after her
arrival. " I only know that she is a great beauty, and of most
charming manners. The men all rave of her, so that we are
half jealous already. We were expecting to see her at dinner
to-day, but we hear that she is less well than yesterday."

" Do you know their name ?"

" No ; I believe I heard it — but I am not familiar with
English names, and it has escaped me : but I will present you
by-and-by to Count George Szechenyi, who was at Baden when
the Hunyadi met them, — he'll tell you more of them."

I assured her that my curiosity was most amply satisfied
already. It was a class in which I could not expect to find an
acquaintance, far less a friend.

" There is something almost forced in this humility of
yours," cried she. " Arc we to find out some fine morning



232 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

that you are a prince in disguise?" She laughed so merrily
at her own conceit that Madame Hunyadi asked the cause of her
mirth.

" I will tell you later on," said she. We soon afterwards
rose to go into the drawing-room, and I saw as they laughed
together that she had told her what she said.

" Do you know," said the Countess Hunyadi, approaching
me, " I am half of Madame Palfi's mind, and I shall never rest
till you reveal your secret to us ? "

I said something laughingly about my incognito being the
best coat in my wardrobe, and the matter dropped. That night
I sang several times, alone, and in duet, with the Palfi, and was
overwhelmed with flatteries of my " fresh tenor voice," and my
"admirable method." It was something so new and strange to
me to find myself the centre of polite attentions, and of those
Avarm praises which consummate good breeding knows how to
bestow without outraging taste, that I found it hard to repress
the wild delight that possessed me.

If I had piqued their curiosity to find out who or what I was,
I had also stimulated my own ambition to astonish them.

" He says he will ride out with me to-morrow, and doesn't
care if I give him a lively mount," said one, spealdng of me."

" And you mean to gratify him, George ? " asked another.

" He shall have the roan that hoisted you out of the saddle
with his hind quarters."

" Come, come, gentlemen, I'll not have my protege injured
to gratify your jealousies," said Madame Hunyadi ; " he shall
be my escort."

" If he rides as he plays billiards, you need not be much



THE SALON. 233

alarmed about him. The fellow can do what he likes at the
cannon game."

" I'd give fifty Naps to know his history," cried another.

I was playing chess as he said this, and turning my head
quietly around I said, " The secret is not worth half the money,
sir ; and if it really interests you, you shall have it for the
asking."

He muttered out a mass of apologies and confused excuses,
to all the embarrassment of which I left him most pitilessly, and
the incident ended. I saw, however, enough to perceive that if
I had won the suffrages of the ladies, the men of the party had
conceived an undisguised dislike of me, and openly resented the
favour shown me.

"What can you do "wdth the foils, young gentleman?"
whispered Szechenyi to me, as he came near.

" Pretty much as I did with you at billiards, a while ago,"
said I, insolently ; for my blood was up, and I burned to fix a
quarrel somewhere.

" Shall we try ?" asked he drily.

" If you say without the buttons, I agree."

" Of course I mean that."

I nodded, and he went on :

" Come down to the riding-school by the first light to-morrow
then, and I'll have all in readiness."

I gave another nod of assent, and moved away. I had
enough on my hands now, for, besides other engagements, I
had promised the Countess Palfi to arrange a little piece for
private theatricals, and have it ready by the time of Count
Hunyadi's return. So far from feeling oppressed or over-



234 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

whelmed by the multipHcity of these cares, they stimulated me
to a degree of excitement almost maddening. Failure some-
where seemed inevitable, and, for the life of me, I could not
choose where it should be. As my spirits rose, I threw off all
the reserve I had worn before, and talked away with an anima-
tion and boldness I felt uncontrollable. I made " calembourgs,"
and dashed off impromptu verses at the piano, and when,
culminating in some impertinence by a witty picture of the
persons around me, I had convulsed the whole room with
laughter, I sprang up, and saying good-night, disappeared.

The roars of their laughter followed me down the corridor,
nor did they cease to ring in my ears till I had closed my door.



( 235 )



CHAPTEK XXIX.

AN UNLOOKED-FOR MEETING.

I COULD more easily record my sensations in the paroxysm of
a fever than recall how I passed that night. I am aware that I
wrote a long letter to my mother, and a longer to Sara, both to
be despatched in case ill befell me in my encounter. What I
said to either, or how I said it, I know not.

No more can I explain why I put all my papers together in
such fashion that they could be thrown into the fire at once,
without leaving any, the slightest, clue to trace me by. That
secret, which I had affected to hold so cheaply, did in reality
possess some strange fascination for me, and I desired to be a
puzzle and an enigma even after I was gone.

It wanted one short hour of dawn when I had finished ; but
I was still too much excited to sleep. I knew how unfavourably
I should come to the encounter before me with jarred nerves
and the weariness of a night's watching ; but it was too late now
to help that ; too late, besides, to speculate on what men would
say of such a causeless duel, brought on, as I could not conceal
from myself, by my hot temper. By the time I had taken my
cold bath my nerves became more braced, and I scarcely felt a
trace of fatigue or exhaustion. The grey morning was just



236 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

breaking as I stole quietly downstairs and issued forth into the
courtyard. A heavy fall of snow had occurred in the night,
and an unbroken expanse of billowy whiteness spread out before
me, save where, from a corner of the court, some foot-tracks led
towards the riding-school. I saw, therefore, that I was not the
first at the tryst, and I hastened on in all speed.

Six or eight young men, closely muffled in furs, stood at the
door as I came up, and gravely uncovered to me. They made
way for me to pass in without speaking, and while stamping the
snow from my boots, I said something about the cold of
the morning, they muttered what might mean assent or the
reverse, in a low half-sulky tone, that certainly little invited to
further remark.

For a few seconds they talked together in whispers, and then
a tall ill-favoured fellow, with a deep scar from the cheek-bone
to the upper lip, came abruptly up to me.

" Look here, young fellow," said he. " I am to act as your
second, and though, of course, I'd like to know that the man I
handled was a gentleman, I do not ask you to tell anj-thing
about yourself that you prefer to keep back. I would only say
that, if ugly consequences come of this stupid business, the
blame must fall upon you. Your temper provoked it, is that
not true?"

I nodded assent, and he went on.

" So far, all right. The next point is this. We are all
on honour that, whatever happens, not a word or a syllable shall
ever escape us. Do you agree to this ? "

" I agree," said I, calmly.

" Give me your hand on it."



AN UNLOOKED-FOR MEETING. 237

I gave him my hand, and as he held it in his own he said, —
" On the faith of a gentleman, I will never reveal to my last day
what shall pass here this morning."

I repeated the words after him, and we moved on into the

school.

* » » » •

* * * ^ *

* * * * *

I had drawn my sofa in front of the fire, and stretching
myself on it, fell into a deep dreamless sleep, A night's wake-
fulness, and the excitement I had gone through, had so far
worked upon me that I did not hear the opening of my door,
nor the tread of a heavy man as he came forward and seated
himself hy the fire. It was only the cold touch of his fingers on
the wrist as he felt my pulse that at last aroused me.

" Don't start — don't flurry yourself," said he, calmly, to me.
" I am the doctor. I have been to see the other, and I pro-
mised to look in on you."

*' How is he ? Is it serious ? "

" It 'udll be a slow affair. It was an ugly thrust — all the
dorsal muscles pierced ; but no internal mischief done."

** He will certainly recover then ? "

" There is no reason why he should not. But where is this
scratch of yours ? Let me see it."

" It is a nothing, doctor, — a mere nothing. Pray take no
trouble about it."

" But I must. I have pledged myself to examine your
wound ; and I must keep my word."

" Surely these gentlemen are scarcely so very anxious about



238 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

me," said I, in some pique. " Not one of them vouclisafecl to
see me safe home, though I had lost some blood, and felt very
faint."

" I did not say it was these gentlemen sent me here," said
he, drily.

" Then who else knew anything about this business ?"

"If you must know, then," said he, "it is the English
Countess who is staying here, and whom I have been attending
for the last week. How she came to hear of this affair I cannot
tell you, for I know it is a secret to the rest of the house ; but
she made me promise to come and see you, and if there was
nothing in your wound to forbid it, to bring you over to her
dressing-room and present you to her. And now let me look at
the injury."

I took off my coat, and, baring my arm, displayed a very
ugly thrust, which, entering above the wrist, came out between
the two bones of the arm.

" Now I call this the worse of the two," said he, examining
it. " Does it give you much pain ? "

" Some uneasiness ; nothing more. When may I see the
Countess ? " asked I ; for an intense curiosity to meet her had
now possessed me.

" If you like, you may go at once : nofthat I can accompany
you, for I am off for a distant visit ; but her rooms are at the
end of this corridor, and you enter by the conservatory. Mean-
while, I must bandage this arm in somewhat better fashion than
you have done."

While he was engaged in dressing my wound he rambled on
about the reckless habits that made such rencontres possible.



AN UNLOOKED-FOR MEETING. 239

" We are in the middle of the seventeenth century here, with all
its barharisms," said he. " These young fellows were vexed at
seeing the notice you attracted ; and that was to their thinking
cause enough to send you off with a damaged lung, or a maimed
limb. It's all well, however, as long as Graf Hunyadi does not
hear of it. But if he should, he'll turn them out, every man of
them, for this treatment of an Englishman."

" Then we must take care, sir, that he does not hear of it,"
said I, half fiercely, and as though addressing my speech espe-
cially to himself.

" Not from me, certainly," said he. " My doctor's instincts
always save me from such indiscretions,"

*' Is our Countess young, doctor ? " asked I, half jocularly.

" Young and pretty, though one might say too, she has been
younger and prettier. If you dine below stairs to-day, drink no
wine, and get back to your sofa as soon as you can after dinner."
With this caution he left me.

A heavy packet of letters had arrived from Fiume, containing,
I surmised, some instructions for which I had written ; but
seeing that the address was in the cashier's handwriting, I felt
no impatience to break the seal.

I dressed myself with unusual care, though the pain of my
arm made the process a very slow one ; and at last set out to
pay my visit. I passed along the corridor, through the con-
servatory, and found myself at a door, at which I knocked twice.
At last, I turned the handle and entered a small but handsomely
furnished drawing-room, about which books and newspapers lay
scattered ; and a small embroidery-frame near the fire showed
where she, who was engaged with that task, had lately been



240 ■ THAT BOY OF NOECOTT'S.

seated. As I bent down in some curiosity to examine a really
clever copy of an altar-piece of Albert Durer, a door gently
opened, and I heard the rustle of a silk dress. I had not got
time to look round when, with a cry, she rushed towards me,
and clasped me in her arms. It was Madame Cleremont !

" My own dear, dear Digby ! " she cried, as she kissed me
over face and forehead, smoothing back my hair to look at me,
and then falling again on my neck. " I knew it could be no
other when I heard of you, darling ; and when they told me of
your singing, I could have sworn it was yourself."

I tried to disengage myself from her embrace, and sum-
moned what I could of sternness to repel her caresses. She
dropped at my feet, and, clasping my hand, implored me, in
accents broken with passion, to forgive her. To see her who
had once been all that a mother could have been to me in
tenderness and care, who watched the long hours of the night
beside my sick bed ; to see her there before me, abject, self-
accused, and yet entreating forgiveness, was more than I could
bear. My nerves, besides, had been already too tensely strung ;
and I burst into a passion of tears that totally overcame me.
She sat with her arm round me, and wept.

With a wild hysterical rapidity she poured forth a sort of
excuse of her own conduct. She recalled all that I had seen her
suffer of insult and shame ; the daily outrages passed upon her ;
the slights which no woman can or ought to pardon. She spoke
of her friendlessness, her misery ; but, more than all, her con-
suming desire to be avenged on the man who had degraded her.
" Your father, I knew, was the man to do me this justice," she
cried ; "he did not love me, nor did I love him ; but we both



AN UNLOCKED FOR MEETING. 241

hated this wretch, and it seemed little to me what hecame of me,
if I could but compass his ruin,"

I scarcely followed her. I bethought me of my poor mother,
for whom none had a thought, neither of the wrongs done
her, nor of the sufferings to which she was so remorselessly
consigned.

" You do not listen to me. You do not hear me," cried she,
passionately ; " and yet who has been your friend as I have ?
Who has implored your father to be just towards you as I have
done ? Who has hazarded her whole future in maintaining
your rights, — who but I?" In a wild rhapsody of mingled
passion and appeal she went on to sbow how Sir Roger insisted
on presenting her everywhere as his wife. Even at courts she
had been so presented, though all the terrible consequences of
exposure were sure to ring over the whole of Europe. The
personal danger of the step was a temptation too strong to resist;
and the altercation and vindication that must follow were ecstasy
to him. He was pitting himself against the world, and he would
back himself on the issue.

" And here, where we are now," cried I, " what is to happen
if to-morrow some stranger should arrive from England, who
knows your story, and feels he owes it to his host to pro-
claim it ? "

"Is it not too clear what is to happen ? " shrieked she ;
" blood, more blood, — theirs or his, or both ! Just as he struck
a young prince at Baden with a glove across the face, because he
stared at me too rudely, and shot him afterwards ; his dearest
tie to me is the peril that attaches to me. Do you not know
him, Digby ? Do you not know the insolent disdain with which

16



242 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT-S.

he refuses to be bound by what other men submit to ; and that
when he has said, ' I am ready to stake my Hfe on it,' he believes
he has proved his conviction to be a just one ? "

Of my father's means, or what remained to him of fortune,
she knew nothing. They had often been reduced to almost
want, and at other times money would flow freely in, to be wasted
and lavished with that careless munificence that no experiences
of privation could ever teach prudence. We now turned to
speculate on what would happen when he came back from this
shooting-party ; how he would recognize me.

" I see," cried I : " you suspect he will disown me ? "

" Not that, dear Digby," said she, in some confusion ; " but
he may require — that is — he may wish you to conform to some
plan, some procedure of his own."

" If this should involve the smallest infraction of what is due
to my mother, I'll refuse," said I, firmly, " and reject as openly
as he dares to make it."

*' And are you ready to face what may follow ? "

" If you mean as regards myself, I am quite ready. My
father threw me oflf years ago, and I am better able to fight the
battle of life now than I was then. I ask nothing of him — not
even his name. If you speak of other consequences — of what
may ensue when his hosts shall learn the fraud he has practised

on them " It was only as the fatal word fell from me that

I felt how cruelly I had spoken, and I stopped and took her
hand in mine, saying, " Do not be angry with me, dear friend,
that I have spoken a bitter word ; bear with me for her sake,
who has none to befriend her but myself."

She made me no answer, but looked out cold and stern into



AN UNLOOKED-FOR MEETING. 2i;>

vacancy, her pale features motionless, not a line or a lineament
betraying what was passing within her.

" Why remain here then to provoke a catastrophe ? " cried
she suddenly. " If you have come for pleasure, you see enough
to be aware there is little more awaiting you."

" I have not come for pleasure. I am here to confer with
Count Hunyadi on a matter of business."

" And will some paltry success in a little peddling contract
for the Count's wine, or his olives, or his Indian corn, compen-
sate you for the ruin you may bring on your father ? Will it
recompense you if his blood be shed ? "

There was a tone of defiant sarcasm in the way she spoke
these words that showed me, if I would not yield to her persua-
sions, she would not hesitate to employ other means of coercion.
Perhaps she mistook the astonishment my face expressed for
terror ; for she went on : "It would be well that you thought
twice over it ere you make your breach with your father irrepar-
able. Remember it is not a question of a passing sentimentality,
or a sympathy, it is the whole story of your life is at issue. If
you be anything, or anybody, or a nameless creature, without
belongings or kindred."

I sat for some minutes in deep thought. I was not sure
whether I understood her words, and that she meant to say it
lay entirely with my father to own or disown me, as he pleased.
She seemed delighted at my embarrassment, and her voice rung
out with its own clear triumphant cadence, as she said, " You
begin at last to see how near the precipice you have been
straying."

" One moment, madam," cried I. "If my mother be Lady



244 THAT BOY OF NORCOTT'S.

Norcott, Sir Roger cannot disown me ; not to say that already,
in an open court, he has maintained his right over me and
declared me his son."

" You are opening a question I will not touch, Digby," said
she gravely — " your mother's marriage. I will only say that the
ablest lawyers your father has consulted, pronounce it more than
questionable."

" And my father has then entertained the project of an
attempt to break it."

"This is not fair," cried she, eagerly; "you lead me on
from one admission to another till I find myself revealing con-
fidences to one who at any moment may avow himself my
enemy."

I raised my eyes to her face, and she met my glance with a
look cold, stern, and impassive, as though she would say,
" Choose your path now, and accept me as friend or foe." All
the winning softness of her manner, all those engaging coquetries
of look and gesture, of which none was more mistress, were gone,
and another and a very different nature had replaced them.

This then was one of those women all tenderness, and
softness, and fascination, but who behind this mask have the
fierce nature of the tigress. Could she be the same I had seen
so submissive under all the insolence of her brutal husband,
bearing his scoffs, and his sarcasms, without a word of reply ?
Was it that these cruelties had at last evoked this stern spirit,
and that another temperament had been generated out of a nature
broken down and demoralized by ill treatment ?

" Shall I tell you what I think you ought to do ? " asked she
calmly. I nodded assent. " Sit down there, then," continued



AN UNLOOKED-FOR MEETING. 245

she ; " and write these few lines to your father, and let him have
them hefore he returns here."

" First of all, I cannot write just now, — I have had a slight
accident to my right arm."

" I know," said she, smiling dubiously. " You hurt it in
the riding-school ; hut it's a mere nothing, is it not ? "

I made a gesture of assent, not altogether pleased the while
at the little sympathy she vouchsafed me, and the insignificance
she ascribed to my wound.

" Shall I write for you, then ; you can sign it afterwards ? "

" Let me first know what you would have me say."

"Dear father. — You always addressed him that way?"

"Yes."

" Dear father, I have been here some days, awaiting Count
Hunyadi's return to transact some matters of business with him,
and have by a mere accident learned that you are amongst his
guests. As I do not know how, to what extent, or in what


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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 15 of 17)