Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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still recall how the bronze lamps that served to light the
approach struck me as something wonderfully fine, as the
morning's sun glanced on their crested tops.

The carriage drew up at the foot of a large flight of marble
steps, which led to a terrace covered by a long veranda. Under
the shade of this two gentlemen sat at breakfast, both unknown
to me. " Whom have we here ? " cried the elder, a fat, middle-
aged man of coarse features and stern expression ; " whom have
we here ? " The younger — conspicuous by a dressing-gown and
cap that glittered with gold embroidery — looked lazily over the
top of his newspaper, and said, " That boy of Norcott's I take it ;
he was to arrive to-day."

This was the first time I heard an expression that my ears
were soon to be w^ell familiar to, and I cannot tell how bitterly
the words insulted me. "Who were they," I asked myself,
" who, under my father's roof, could dare so to call me ! and
why was I not styled Sir Eoger Norcott's son, and not thus dis-
paragingly * that boy of Norcott's ? ' "

I walked slowly up the steps among these men as defiantly
as though there was a declared enmity between us, and was pro-
ceeding straight tow^ards the door, when the elder called out,
"Holloa, youngster, come here and report yourself! You've
just come, haven't you ? "

"I have just come," said I slowly, "but when I report
myself it shall be to my father, Sir Eoger Norcott."

" You got that, Hotham, and I must say you deserved it
too," said the younger in a low tone, which my quick hearing
however caught.


" Will you have some breakfast with us ? " said the elder,
with a faint laugh, as though he enjoyed the encounter.

" No, I thank you, sir," said I stiffly, and passed on into the

" Master Digby," said a smart little man in black, who for a
moment or two puzzled me whether he was a guest or a servant,
" may I show you to your room, sir? Sir Roger is not up : he
seldom rings for his bath before one o'clock; but he said he
would have it earlier to-day."

" And what is your name, pray ? "

*' Nixon, sir. Mr. Nixon, Sir Roger is pleased to call me
for distinction sake — the lower servants require it."

" Tell me, then, Mr. Nixon, who are the two gentlemen I
saw at breakfast outside ? "

" The stoutish gentleman, sir, is Captain Hotham, of the
Royal Navy ; the other, with the Turkish pipe, is Mr. Clere-
mont, Secretary to the Legation here. Great friends of Sir
Roger's, sir. Dine here three or four times a week, and have
their rooms always kept for them."

The appearance of my room, into which Nixon now ushered
me, went far to restore me to a condition of satisfaction. It was
the most perfect little bedroom it is possible to imagine, and
Nixon never wearied in doing the honours of displaying it.

" Here's your library, sir. You've only to slide this mirror
into the wall ; and here are all your books. This press is your
armoury. Sir Roger gave the order himself for that breech-
loader at Liege. This small closet has your bath — always ready,
as you see, sir — hot and cold ; and that knob yonder commands
the shower-bath. It smells fresh of paint here just now, sir, for



it was only finished on Saturday; and the men are coming to-day
to fix a small iron staircase from your balcony down to the
garden. Sir Koger said he was sure you would like it."

I was silent for a moment, a moment of exquisite reverie,
and then I asked if there were always people visitors at the Villa ?

" I may say, sir, indeed, next to always. We haven't dined
alone since March last."

" How many usually come to dinner ? "

"Five or seven, sir; always an odd number. Seldom more
than seven, and never above eleven, except a state dinner to some
great swell going through."

" No ladies, of course ? "

" Pardon me, sir. The Countess Vander Neeve dined here
yesterday ; Madame Van Straaten, and Mrs. Cleremont — excuse
me, sir, there's Sir Soger's bell. I must go and tell him you've

When Nixon left me, I sat for full twenty minutes, like one
waking out of a trance, and asking myself, how much was real,
and how much fiction, of all around me ?

My eyes wandered over the room, and from the beautiful
little Gothic clock on the mantelpiece to the gilded pineapple
from which my bed-curtains descended — everj-thing seemed of
matchless beauty to me. Could I ever weary of admiring them ?
would they seem to me every morning as I awoke as tasteful and
as elegant as now^ they appeared to me ? Oh, if dear mamma
could but see them ! If she but knew with what honour I was
received, would not the thought go far to assuage the grief our
separation cost her ? And, last of all, came the thought, if she
herself w^ere here to live with me, to read with me, to be my


companion, as she used to be — could life offer anything to com-
pare with such happiness ? And why should not this he ? If
papa really should love me, why might I not lead him to see to
whom I owed all that made me worthy of his love ?

" Breakfast is served, sir, in the small breakfast-room," said
a servant, respectfully.

" You must show me where that is," said T, rising to follow

And now we walked along a spacious corridor, and descended
a splendid stair of white marble, with gilded banisters, and across
an octagon hall, with a pjTamid of flowering plants in the centre,
and into a large gallery with armour on the walls, that I wished
greatly to linger over and examine, and then into a billiard-room,
and at last into the small breakfast-parlour, where a little table
was laid out, and another servant stood in readiness to serve me.

" Mr. Eccles, sir, will be down in a moment, if you'll be
pleased to wait for him," said the man.

" And who is Mr. Eccles ? " asked I.

" The gentleman as is to be your tutor, sir, I believe,"
replied he, timidly; " and he said perhaps you'd make the tea,

" All right," said I, opening the caddy, and proceeding to
make myself at home at once. " What is here ? "

"Devilled kidneys, sir; and this is fried mackerel. Mr.
Eccles takes oysters ; but he won't have them opened till he's
down. Here he is, sir."

The door was now flung open, and a good-looking young
man, with a glass stuck in one e3e, entered, and with a cheery,
but somewhat affected voice, called out, —


" Glad to see you, Digby my boy ; hope I have not starved
you out waiting for me ? "

" I'm very hungry, sir, but not quite starved out," said I,
half amazed at the style of man selected to be my guide, and
whose age at most could not be above three or four and twenty.

" You haven't seen your father yet, of course, nor won't
these two hours. Yes, Gilbert, let us have the oysters. I
always begin with oysters and a glass of sauterne ; and, let me
tell 3"ou, your father's sauterne is excellent. Not that I counsel
you, however, to start with wine at breakfast. I haven't told
you that I'm to be your tutor," said he, filling his glass ; " and
here's to our future fellowship."

I smiled and sipped my tea to acknowledge the toast, and he
went on, —

" You mustn't be afraid that I'll lean too heavily on you,
Digby — at least at first. My system is, never make education a
punishment. There's nothing that a gentleman — mind, I say
a gentleman — ought to know that he cannot acquire as easily
and as pleasantly as he does field-sports. If a man has to live
by his wits, he must drudge ; there's no help for it. And — but
here come the oysters. Ain't they magnificent ? Let me give
vou one piece of instruction while the occasion serves : let no
one ever persuade you that Colchester oysters equal the Ostend.
They have neither the plumpness nor the juiciness, and still
less have they that fresh odour of the sea that gives such zest
to appetite. One of these days I shall ask you what Horace
says of oysters, and where. You never heard of Horace — eh ? "
" Yes, sir ; I was reading the Odes when I came away."
" And with whom, pray ? "


" With mamma, sir."

" And do you mean to say mamma knew Latin ? "

" Yes, sir ; she learned it to teach me. She worked far
harder than I did, and I could never come up with her."

" Ah, yes, I see ; but all that sort of learning — that irre-
gular study — is a thing to be grubbed up. If I were to be frank
with you, Digby, I'd say I'd rather have you in total ignorance
than with that smattering of knowledge a mamma's teaching is
sure to imply. What had you read before Horace ? "

" Ccesar's Commentaries, sir, an ^■Eneid of Virgil, two plays
of Terence "

" Any Greek ?— anything of Euripides or Aristophanes, eh?"
asked he, mockingly.

" No, sir ; we were to begin the New Testament after the
holidays ; for I had just gone over the grammar twice."

" With mamma, of course ? "

" Yes, sir."

He helped himself to a cutlet, and as he poured the Harvey's
sauce over it, it was plain to see that he was not thinking of
what was before him, but employed in another and different
direction. After a considerable pause he turned his eyes full
upon me, and with a tone of far more serious import than he
had yet used, said, "We're not very long acquainted, Digby;
but I have a trick of reading people through their faces, and I
feel I can trust you." He waited for some remark from me, but
I made none, and he went on : "With an ordinary boy of your
age — indeed, I might go farther and say with any other boy —
I'd not venture on the confidence I am now about to make ; but
a certain instinct tells me I run no danger in trusting you.'"


" Is it a secret, sir ? "

" Well, in one sense it is a secret ; but why do you
ask ? "

" Because mamma told me to avoid secrets ; to have none
of my own, and know as little as I could of other people's."

" An excellent rule in general, but there are cases where it
will not apply : this is one of them, for here the secret touches
your own family. You are aware that papa and mamma do not
live together ? Don't flush up, Digby ; I'm not going to say
one word that could hurt you. It is for your benefit — I might
say for your absolute safety — that I speak now. Your father
has one of the noblest natures a man ever possessed ; he is a
prince in generosity, and the very soul of honor, and, except
pride, I don't believe he has a fault. This same pride, how-
ever, leads him to fancy he can never do wrong ; indeed, he does
not admit that he ever made a mistake in his life, and, con-
sequently, he does not readily forgive those to whom he imputes
any disasters that befall him. Your mother's family are in-
cluded in this condemned list — I can't exactly say why ; and for
the same reason, or no reason, your mother herself. You must
therefore take especial care that you never speak of one of these

" And mamma ? "

" Her name least of all. There may come a time — indeed,
it is sure to come — when this difficulty can be got over ; but
any imprudence now — the smallest mistake — would destroy this
chance. Of course it's very hard on you, my poor fellow, to be
debarred from the very theme you'd like best to dwell on ; but
when you know the danger — not merely danger, but the positive


certainty of miscliief — a chance word might bring about, I read
you very ill, or you'll profit by my warning."

I bent my head to mean assent, but I could not speak.

" Papa will question you whether you have been to school,
and what books you are reading, and your answer will be, ' Never
at school ; had all my lessons at home.' Not a word more,
mind that, Digby. Say it now after me, that I may see if you
can be exact to a syllable."

I repeated the words correctly, and he patted me affection-
ately on the shoulder, and said, —

"You and I are sure to get on well together. When I
meet with a boy, who, besides being intelligent, is a born
gentleman, I never hesitate about treating him as my equal,
save in that knowledge of life I'm quite ready to share with
him. I don't want to be a Pope with my pupil, and say, ' You
are not to do this, or think that,' and give no reason why.
You'll always find me ready to discuss with you, and talk over,
anything that puzzles you. I was not treated in that fashion
myself, and I know well what the repressive system has cost me.
You follow me, don't you, in what I say ? "

" Yes, sir; I think I understand it all."

Whether I looked as if my words had more meaning than
they expressed, or that some sort of misgiving was working
within him that he had been hasty in his confidence, I know
not ; but he arose suddenly, and said, " I must go and get a
cigarette." And with that he left me.




For some hours I wandered over the house, admiring the
pictures, and the hronzes, and the statuettes, and the hundreds
of odd nick-nacks of taste or curiosity that filled the salons.
The treasures of art were all new to me, and I thought I could
never weary of gazing on some grand landscape by Both, or
one of those little interiors of Dutch life by Ostade or Mieris.
It seemed to me the very summit of luxury, that all these
glorious objects should be there, awaiting, as it were, the eye
of him who owned them, patient slaves of his pleasure, to be
rewarded by, perhaps, a hurried glance as he passed. The
tempered light, the noiseless footsteps, as one trod the triple-
piled carpet, the odour of rich flowers everj^where, imparted
a dreaminess to the sense of enjoyment, that, after long, long
years, I can recall and almost revive by an effort of memory.

I met no one as I loitered through the rooms, for I was in
a part of the house only opened on great occasions, or for large
receptions ; and so I strayed on, lost in wonderment at the
extent and splendour of a scene which, to my untutored senses,
seemed of an actually royal magnificence. Having reached
what I believed to be the limit of the suite of rooms, I was


about to retrace my steps, when I saw that a small octagon
tower opened from an angle of the room, though no apparent
doorway led into it. This puzzle interested me at once, and
I set about to resolve it, if I might. I opened one of the
windows to inspect the tower on the outside, and saw that no
stairs led up to it, nor any apparent communication existed with
the rest of the house. I bethought me of the sliding mirror
which in my own room concealed the book-case, and set to
work to see if some similar contrivance had not been employed
here ; but I searched in vain. Defeated and disappointed, I
was turning away, when, passing my hand along the margin
of a massive picture-frame, I touched a small button ; and as
I did so, with a faint sound like a wail, the picture moved
slowly, like an opening door, and disclosed the interior of the
tower. I entered at once, my curiosity now raised to a point
of intensity to know what had been so carefully and cunningly
guarded from public view. "What a blank disappointment was
mine ! The little room, about nine or ten feet in diameter,
contained but a few straw-bottomed chairs, and a painted table
on which a tea-service of common blue-ware stood. A Dutch
clock was on a bracket at one side of the window, and a stuffed
bird — a grouse, I believe — occupied another. A straight-backed
old sofa, • covered with a vulgar chintz, stood against the wall;
an open book, with a broken fan in the leaves, to mark the place,
lay on the sofa. The book was Paul and Virginia. A common
sheet almanac was nailed against the wall, but over the printed
columns of the months a piece of white paper was pasted, on
which, in large letters, was written, " June 11, 18 — . Dies
infausta." I started. I had read that date once before in my


mother's prayer-book, and bad learned it was ber marriage-day.
As a ray of sunbgbt displays in an instant every object within
its beam, I at once saw the meaning of every detail around me.
These were the humble accessories of that modest home from
which my dear mother was taken ; these were the grim reminders
of a time my father desired to perpetuate as an undying sorrow.
I trembled to think what a nature I should soon be confronted
with, and how terrible must be the temper of a man whose
resentments asked for such aliment to maintain them ! I stole
away abashed at my own intrusiveness, and feeling that I was
rightfully punished by the misery that overwhelmed me. How
differently now did all the splendour appear to me as I retraced
my steps ! how defiantly I gazed on that magnificence which
seemed to insult the poverty I had just quitted !

What a contrast to the nurtured spitefulness of his conduct
was my poor mother's careful preservation of a picture represent-
ing my father iu his uniform. A badly painted thing it was ;
but with enough of likeness to recall him. And as such, in
defiance of neglect, and ill-usage, and insult, she preserved it, —
a memorial, not of happier days, but of a time when she
dreamed of happiness to come. While I was thus thinking,
seeking in my mind comparisons between them, which certainly
redounded but little to his credit, Nixon came up to me, saying,
" Oh, Master Digby, we've been looking for you in every
direction. Sir Roger has asked over and over why you have
not been to see him ; and I'm afraid you'll find him displeased
at your delay."

" I'm ready now," said I, drily, and followed him.

My father was iu his study, lying on a sofa, and cutting the


leaves of a new book as I entered ; and he did not interrupt
the operation to offer me his hand."

" So, sir," said he, calmly and coldly, "you have taken your
time to present yourself to me ? Apparently you • preferred
making acquaintance with the house and the grounds."

"I am very sorry, sir," I began ; " but I did not know you
had risen. Nixon told me about one or two "

" Indeed ! I was not aware that you and Mr. Nixon had
been discussing my habits. Come nearer ; nearer still. What
sort of dress is this ? Is it a smock-frock you have on ? "

"No, sir. It's a blouse to keep my jacket clean. I have
got but one."

" And these shoes ; are they of your own making? "

"No, sir. I couldn't make even as good as these."

" You are a very poor-looking object, I must say. What
was Antoine about that he didn't at least make you look like a
gentleman, eh ? Can you answer me that ? "

" No, sir, I cannot."

" Nor I either," said he, sighing. "Have you been equally
neglected inside as out ? Have you learned to read ? "

" Yes, sir."

"And to write?"

" Yes sir."

" Write my name, then, there, on that piece of paper, and
let me see it."

I drew nigh, and wrote in a full, bold hand, Koger Norcott.

"Why not Sir Eoger Norcott, boy? Why not give me my
name and title too ? "

" You said your name, sir, and I thought "


"No matter what you thought. This Hteralism comes of
home breeding," muttered he to himself; they are made
truthful at the price of being vulgar. What do you know
besides reading and writing ? "

" A little Latin, sir, and some French, and some German,
and three books of Euclid, and the Greek grammar "

" There, there, that's more than enough. It will tax your
tutor's ingenuity to stub up all this rubbish, and prepare the
soil for real acquirement. I was hoping I should see you a
savage ; a fresh, strong-natured, impulsive savage ! What I'm
to do with you, with your little peddling knowledge of a score of
things, I can't imagine. I'd swear you can neither ride, row,
nor fence, never handled a cricket-ball or a single- stick ? "

" Quite true, sir ; but I'd like to do every one of them."

" Of course you have been taught music ? "

" Yes, sir ; the piano and a little singing."

" That completes it," cried he, flinging his book from him.
" They've been preparing you for a travelling circus, while I
wanted to make you a gentleman. Mind me now, sir, and don't
expect that I ever repeat my orders to any one. What I say
once I mean to be observed. Let your past life be entirely
forgotten by you — a thing that had no reality ; begin from this
day — from this very room — a new existence, which is to have
neither link nor tie to what has gone before it. The persons
you will see here, their ways, their manners, their tone, will be
examples for your imitation ; copy them, not servilely, nor
indiscriminately, but as you will find how their traits will blend
with your own nature. Never tell an untruth, never accept an
insult without redress, be slow about forming friendships, and


where you hate, hate thoroughly. That's enough for the present.
Ask Mr, Eccles to have the kindness to take you to his tailor
and order some clothes. You must dine alone till you are
suitahly dressed. After that you shall come to my tahle. One
thing more and you may go : don't ever approach me with tales
or complaints of any one; right yourself where you can, and
where you cannot, hear your grievance silently. You can change
nothing, alter nothing, here ; you are a guest, hut a guest over
whom I exercise full control. If you please me it will he well
for you ; if not, you understand — it will cost me little to tell you
so. Go. Go now." He motioned me to leave him, and I
went. Straight to my room I went, and sat down at once to
write it all to mother. My heart swelled with indignation at the
way I had been received, and a hundred times over did I say to
myself that there was no poverty, no hardship I would not face
rather than buy a life of splendour on such ignominious terms.
Oh, if I could but get back again to the little home I had
quitted, how I would bless the hour that restored me to peace
of mind and self-respect ! As I wrote, my indignation warmed
with every line. I found that my passion was actually mastering
my reason. Better to finish this, later on — when I shall be
cooler, thought I ; and I walked to my window and opened it.
There were voices of people spealdng in the paddock below, and
I leaned over the balcony, and saw the two men I had seen at
breakfast, seated on rustic chairs, watching a young horse being
broken to the saddle. The well-worn ring in the grass showed
that this spot was reserved for .such purposes, nor was I
displeased to know that such a source of interest lay so near
to me.


"Isn't he one of your Mexicans, George?" asked Captain

" No, sir, he's a Hungarian-bred 'un. Master calls him a
Jucker, whatever that is."

"Plenty of action, anyhow."

" A little too much, sir ; that's his fault. He's a-comin' now,
and it's all they can do to keep him going over the park paling.
Take this one back," said he to the groom, who was ringing a
heavy-shouldered, ungainly colt in the ring.

" You'll not gain much credit by that animal, George," said
Cleremont, as he lighted a cigar.

" He ain't a beauty, sir; he's low before, and he's cow-
hocked behind ; but Sir Eoger says he's the best blood in
Norfolk. Take care, take care, sir ! the skittish devil never
knows where he'll send his hind-legs. Steady, Tom, don't
check him : why, he's sweating as if he had been round the two-
mile course."

The animal that called for this criticism was a dark chestnut,
but so bathed in sweat as to appear almost black. He was one
of those cross breeds between the Arab and the western blood,
that gain all the beauty of head and crest and straightly-formed
croup, and yet have length of body and depth of rib, denied to
the pure Arab. To my thinking he was the most perfect
creature I had ever seen, and as he bounded and plunged,"
there was a supple grace and pliancy about him indescribably

George now unloosened the long reins which were attached
to the heavy surcingle, and after walking the animal two 'or three
times round the circle, suffered him to go free. As if astonished


at his liberty, the young creature stood still for a minute or two,
and sniffed the air, and then gave one wild hound and headlong
plunge, as though he were going straight into the earth ; after
which he looked timidly about him, and then walked slowly along
in the track worn by the others.

" He's far quieter than the last time I saw him," said

" He's gettin' more sense every day, sir," replied George ;
" he don't scratch his head with his hind-leg now, sir, and he
don't throw hisself down neither."

" He hasn't given up biting, I see," said Cleremont.

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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 2 of 17)