Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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billiard-balls, I knew not which, shooting through them. I
played and missed ; I did not even strike a ball. A wild roai- of
laughter, a cry of joy, and a confused blending of several voices in
various tones followed, and I stood there like one stunned into
immobility. Meanwhile Cleremont finished the game, and,
clapping me gaily on the shoulder, cried, " I'm more grateful to
you than your father is, my lad. That shaking hand of yours
has made a difference of two hundred Naps to me." I turned
towards the fire, my father had left the room.




I HAD but reached my room when Eccles followed me to say my
father wished to see me at once.

" Come, come, Digby," said Eccles, good-naturedly, " don't
be frightened. Even if he should be angry with you, his passion
passes soon over ; and, if uncontradicted, he is never disposed
to bear a grudge long. Go immediately, however, and don't
keep him waiting."

I cannot tell with what a sense of abasement I entered my
father's dressing-room ; for, after all, it was the abject condition
of my own mind that weighed me down.

" So, sir," said he, as I closed the door, " this is something
I was not prepared for. You might be forty things, but I
certainly did not suspect that a son of mine should be a coward."

Had my father ransacked his whole vocabulary for a term of
insult, he could not have found one to pain me like this.

"I am not a coward, sir," said I, reddening till I felt my
face in a perfect glow.

"What! " cried he, passionately; "are you going to give
me a proof of courage by daring to outrage me ? Is it by
sending back my words in my teeth you assume to be brave ? "


"I ask pardon, sir," said I, humbly, "if I have replied
rudely; but you called me by a name that made me forget
myself. I hope you will forgive me."

" Sit down there, sir ; no, there." And he pointed to a
more distant chair. " There are various sorts and shades of
cowardice, and I would not have you tarnished with any one
of them. The creature whose first thought, and, indeed, only
one, in an emergency is his personal safety, and who, till that
condition is secured, abstains from all action, is below contempt ;
him I will not even consider. But next to him — of course with
a long interval — comes the fellow who is so afraid of a respon-
sibility that the very thought of it unmans him. How did the
fact of my wager come to influence you at all, sir ? Why should
you have had any thought but for the game you were playing,
and how it behoved you to play it ? How came I and these
gentlemen to stand between you and your real object, if it were
not that a craven dread of consequences had got the ascendancy
in your mind ? If men were to be beset by these calculations,
if every fellow carried about him an armour of sophistry like
this, he'd have no hand free to wield a weapon, and the world
would see neither men who storm a breach nor board an enemy.
Till a man can so isolate and concentrate his faculties on what
he has to do that all extraneous conditions cease to affect him,
he will never be well served by his own powers ; and he who
is but half served, is only half brave. There are times when
the unreasoners are worth all the men of logic, remember that.
And now go and sleep over it."

He motioned me to withdraw, but I could not bear to go till
he had withdrawn the slur he had cast on me in the word



coward. He looked at me steadfastly^ but not harshly, for a
moment or two, and then said, —

" You are not to think that it is out of regret for a lost sum
of money I have read you this lecture. As to the wager itself,
I am as well pleased that it ended as it did. These gentlemen
are not rich either of them. I can afford the loss. What
I cannot afford is the way I lost it."

"But will you not say, sir, that I am no coward?" said
I, falteringly.

" I will withdraw the word," said he, slowly, ''the very first
time I shall see you deal with a difficulty without a thought for
what it may cost you. There ; good-night ; leave me now.
I mean to have a ride with you in the morning." And he
nodded twice, and smiled, and dismissed me.

There was nothing, certainly, very flattering to me in this
reception. It cost me dearly while it lasted, and yet — I cannot
explain Avhy — I came away with a feeling of afiection for my
father, and a desire to stand well in his esteem, such as I had
not experienced till that moment. It was his utter indifference
up to this that had chilled and repelled me. Any show of
interest, anything that might evidence that he cared what I was,
or what I might become, was so much better than this apathy,
that I welcomed the change with delight. Accustomed to the
tender solicitude of a loving mother, no niggard of her praise,
and more given to sympathize than blame, the stern reserve
of my father's manner had been a terrible reverse, and over and
over had I asked myself why he took me from where I was
loved and cherished, to live this life of ceremonious observance
and cold deference.


To kuow that be felt even such interest in me as this was to
restore me to ^self-esteem at once. He would not have his son a
coward, he said ; and as I felt in my heart that I was not a
coward, as J knew I was ready then and there to confront any
peril he could propose to me, all that the speech left in my
memory was a sense of self-satisfaction.

In each of the letters I had received from my mother she
impressed on me how important it was that I should win my
father's affection, and now a hope flashed across me that I might
do this. I sat down to tell her all that had passed between us ;
but somehow in recounting the incident of the billiard-room I
wandered away into a description of the house, its splendours and
luxury, and of the life of costly pleasure that we were living.
" You will ask, dearest mamma," I wrote, " how and when I find
time to study amidst all these dissipations ? and I grieve to own
that I do very little. Mr. Eccles says he is satisfied with me ;
but I fear it is more because I obtrude little on his notice than
that I am making any progress. We are still in the same scene
of the Adrian that I began with you ; and as to the Greek, we
leave it over for Saturdays, and the Saturdays get skipped. I
have become a good shot with the rifle ; and George says I have
the finest, lightest hand he knows on a horse, and that he'll make
me yet a regular steeple-chase horseman. I have a passion for
riding, and sometimes get four mounts on a day. Indeed, papa
takes no interest in the stable, and I give all the orders, and can
have a team harnessed for me — which I do — when I am tired
with the saddle. They have not quite given up calling me that
' boy of Norcott's ; ' only now, when they do so, it is to say how
well he rides, and what a taste he shows for driving and shooting.


"Don't be afraid that I am neglecting my music. I play
every day, and take singing lessons with an Italian : they call
him the Count Guastalla ; but I believe he is the tenor of the
opera here, and only teaches me out of compliment to papa.
He dines here nearly every day, and plays piquet with papa all
the evening.

" There is a very beautiful lady comes here, Mdme. Cleremont.
She is the wife of the Secretary to the Legation. She is French,
and has such pleasing ways, and is so gay, and so good-natured,
and so fond of gratifying me in every way, that I delight in being
with her ; and we ride out together constantly, and I am now
teaching her to drive the ponies, and she enjoys it just as I used
mj^self. I don't think papa likes her, for he seldom speaks to
her, and never takes her in to dinner if there is another lady in
the room ; and I suspect she feels this, for she is often very sad.
I dislike Mr. Cleremont ; he is always saying snappish things,
and is never happy, no matter how merry we are. But papa
seems to like him best of all the people here. Old Captain
Hotham and I are great friends, though he's always saying, ' You
ought to be at sea, youngster. This sort of life will only make a
blackleg of you.' But I can't make out why, because I am very
happy and have so much to interest and amuse me, I must
become a scamp. Mdme. Cleremont says, too, it is not true ;
that papa is bringing me up exactly as he ought, that I will enter
life as a gentleman, and not be passing the best years of my
existence in learning the habits of the well-bred world. They
fight bitterly over this eveiy day ; but she always gets the
victory, and then kisses me, and says, ' Mon cher petit Digby,
I'll not have you spoiled, to please any vulgar prejudice of a


tiresome old sea-captain.' This she whispers, for she would
not offend him for an^'thing. Dear mamma, how you would love
her if you knew her ! I believe I'm to go to Rugby to school ;
but I hope not, for how I shall live like a schoolboy after all
this happiness I don't know ; and Mdme. Cleremont says she
will never permit it ; but she has no influence over papa, and
how could she prevent it ? Captain Hotham is always saying,
' If Norcott does not send that boy to Harrow or Piugby, or
some of these places, he'll graduate in the Marshalsea — that's
a prison — before he's twenty.' I am so glad when a da}- passes
without my being brought up for the subject of a discussion,
which papa always ends with, ' After all, I was neither an
Etonian nor Rugbeian, and I suspect I can hold my own
with most men ; and if that boy doesn't belie his breeding,
perhaps he may do so too.'

" Nobody likes contradicting papa, especially when he says
anything in a certain tone of voice, and whenever he uses this,
the conversation turns away to something else.

" I forgot to say, in my last, that your letters always come
regularly. They arrive with papa's, and he sends them up to
me at once, by his valet, Mons. Durand, who is always so
nicely dressed, and has a handsomer watch-chain than papa.

" Mdme. Cleremont said yesterday, ' I'm so sorry not to
know your dear mamma, Digby ; but, if I dared, I'd send
her so many caresses, de ma 'part.' I said nothing at the time,
but I send them now, and am your own loving son,

"Digby Norcott."

This letter was much longer than it appears here. It filled


several sides of note-paiDer, and occupied me till daybreak.
Indeed, I heard the bell ringing for the workmen as I closed it,
and shortly after a gentle tap came to my door, and George
Spunner, our head groom, entered.

" I saw you at the window. Master Digby," said he,
" and I thought I'd step up and tell you not to ride in
spurs this morning. Sir Eoger wants to see you on May
Blossom, and you know she's a hot 'un, sir, and don't want
the steel. Indeed if she feels the boot, she's as much as a man
can do to sit."

" You're a good fellow, George, to think of this," said I.
" Do you know where we're going ? "

" That's what I was going to tell you, sir. We are going
to the Bois de Cambre, and there's two of our men gone on with
hurdles, to set them up in the cross alleys of the wood, and
we're to come on 'em unawares, you see."

" Then why don't you give me Father Tom or Hunger-

" The master wouldn't have either. He said, ' A child of
five years old could ride the Irish horse ; ' and as for Hunger-
ford, he calls him a circus horse."

" But who knows if Blossom will take a fence ? "

" I'll warrant she'll go high enough ; how she'll come down,
and where, is another matter. Only don't you go a-pullin' at
her, ride her in the snaffle, and as light as you can. Face her
straight at what she's got to go over, and let her choose her
own pace."

" I declare I don't see how this is a fair trial of my riding,
George. Do you ?"


" Well, it is, and it isn't," said he, scratching his head.
" You might have a very tidy hand and a nice seat, and not he
ahle to ride the mare ; hut then, sir, you see, if you have the
judgment to manage her coolly, and not rouse her temper too
far, if you can hring her to a fence, and make her take off at a
proper distance, and fly it, never changing her stride nor haulk,
why then he'll see you can ride."

" And if she rushes, or comes with her chest to a hank, or if
— as I think she will — she refuses her fence, rears, and falls
hack, what then ? "

" Then I think the mornin's sport will be pretty nigh over,"
growled he ; as though I had suggested something personally
offensive to him.

" What time do we go, George ? "

" Sir Roger said seven, sir, but that will be eight or half-
past. He's to drive over to the wood, and the horses are to
meet him there."

" All right. I'll take a short sleep, and be sharp to

As he left the room I tore open my letter, to add a few
words. I thought I'd say something that, if mischance befell
me, might be a comfort to my dear mother to read over and
dwell on, but for the life of me I did not know how to do it,
without exciting alarm or awakening her to the dread of some
impending calamity. Were I to say, I'm off" for a ride with
papa, it meant nothing ; and if I said, I'm going to show him
how I can manage a very hot horse, it might keep her in an
agony of suspense till I wrote again.

So I merely added, " I intend to write to you very soon


again, and hope I may do so within the week." These few
commonplace words had a great meaning to my mind, however
little they might convey to her I wrote them to ; and as I read
them over, I stored them with details supplied by imagination —
details so full of incident and catastrophe that they made a
perfect story. After this I lay down, and slept heavily.

( 57 )



My next letter to my mother was very short, and ran thus : —
" Dearest Mamma,— Don't be shocked at my had writing, for I
had a fall on Tuesday last, and hurt my arm a little ; nothing
broken, but bruised, and sore to move, so that I lie on my bed,
and read novels. Madame never leaves me, but sits here to put
ice on my shoulder and play chess with me. She reads out
Balzac for me, and I don't know when I had such a jolly life.
It was a rather big hurdle, and the mare took it sideways, and
caught her hind leg, — at least they say so,— but we came down
together, and she rolled over me. Papa cried out well done, for
I did not lose my saddle, and he has given me a gold watch and
a seal with the Norcott crest. Every one is so kind ; and
Captain Hotham comes up after dinner and tells me all the talk
of the table, and we smoke and have our coffee very nicely.

" Papa comes every night before supper and is very good to
me. He says that Blossom is now my own, but I must teach
her to come cooler to her fences. I can't write more, for my
pain comes back when I stir my arm. You shall hear of me
constantly, if I cannot write myself.

" Oh, dearest mamma, when papa is kind there is no one


like him, — so gentle, so thoughtful, so soft in manner, and so
dignified all the while. I wish you could see him as he stood
here. A thousand loves from your own hoy, Dighy."

Madame Cleremont wrote by the same post. I did not see
her letter ; but when mamma's answer came I knew it must
have been a serious version of my accident, and told how,
besides a dislocated shoulder, I had got a broken collar-bone
and two ribs fractured. With all this, however, there was no
danger to life ; for the doctor said everything had gone luckily,
and no internal parts were wounded.

Poor mamma had added a postscript that puzzled madame
greatly, and she came and showed it to me, and asked what I
thought she could do about it. It was an entreaty that she
might be permitted to come and see me. There was a touching
humility in the request that almost choked me with emotion as
I read it. "I could come and go, unknown and unnoticed,"
wrote she. " None of Sir Eoger's household have ever seen me,
and my visit might pass for the devotion of some old follower of
the family, and I will promise not to repeat it." She urged her
plea in the most beseeching terms, and said that she would
submit to any conditions if her prayer were only complied

" I really do not know what to do here," said madame to
me. " Without your father's concurrence this cannot be done ;
and who is to ask him for permission ? "

"Shall I?"

"No, no, no," cried she, rapidly. "Such a step on your
part would be ruin ; a certain refusal, and ruin to yourself.

" Could Mr. Eccles do it ? "


"He has no influence whatever."

" Has Captain Hotham ? "

" Less, if less be possible."

"Mr. Cleremont, then?"

"Ah, yes, he might, and with a better chance of success;

but " she stopped, and though I waited patiently, she did

not finish her sentence.

" But what ? " asked I at last.

"Gaston hates doing a hazardous thing," said she; and
I remarked that her expression changed, and her face assumed
a hard, stern look as she spoke : " his theory is, do nothing
without three to one in your favour. He says you'll always get
these odds, if you only wait."

" But you don't believe that ? " cried I, eagerly.

" Sometimes — very seldom, that is, I do not whenever I can
help it." There was a long pause now, in which neither of us
spoke. At last she said, " I can't aid your mother in this
project. She must give it up. There is no sa}iug how your
father would resent it."

" And how will you tell her that ? " faltered I out.

"I can't tell. I'll try and show her the mischief it might
bring upon you ; and that now, standing high, as you do, in
your father's favour, she would never forgive herself if she were
the cause of a change towards you. This consideration will
have more weight with her than any that could touch herself

"But it shall not," cried I, passionately. "Nothing in my
fortune shall stand between my mother and her love for me."

She bent down and looked at me with an intensity in her


stare that I cannot describe ; it was as if, by actual steadfastness,
she was able to fix me, and read me in my inmost heart.

"From which of your parents, Digby," said she, slowly,
" do you derive this nature ? "

"I do not know ; papa always says I am very like

" And do you believe that papa is capable of great self-
sacrifice ? I mean, would he let his afi'ections lead him against
his interests ? "

" That he would ! He has told me over and over the head
is as often wrong as right, — the heart only errs about once in
five times." She fell on my neck and kissed me as I said this,
with a sort of rapturous delight. " Your heart will be always
right, dear boy," said she ; once more she bent down and kissed
me, and then hurried away.

This scene must have worked more powerfully on my nerves
than I felt, or was aware of, while it was passing ; at all events,
it brought back my fever, and before night I was in wild delirium.
Of the seven long weeks that followed, with all their alternations,
I know nothing. My first consciousness was to know myself,
as very weak and propped by pillows, in a half-darkened room,
in which an old nurse-tender sat and mingled her heavy snorings
with the ticking of the clock on the chimney. Thus drowsily
pondering, with a debilitated brain, I used to fancy that I
had passed away into another form of existence, in which no
sights or sounds should come but these dreary breathings, and
that remorseless ticking that seemed to be spelling out
" eternity."

Sometimes one, sometimes two or three persons, would


enter the room, approach the bed, and talk together m whispers,
and I would languidly lift up my eyes and look at them, and
though I thought they were not altogether unknown to me,
the attempt at recognition would have been an effort so full
of pain, that I would, rather than make it, fall back again into
apathy. The first moment of perfect consciousness, — when I
could easily follow all that I heard, and remember it afterwards
— was one evening, when a faint but delicious air came in
through the open window, and the rich fragrance of the garden
filled the room. Captain Hotham and the doctor were seated
on the balcony smoking and chatting.

"You're sure the tobacco won't be bad for him?" asked

" Nothing will be bad or good, now," was the answer.
"Effusion has set in."

" Which means, that it's all over — eh ? "
" About one in a thousand, perhaps, rub through. My own
experience records no instance of recoA^ery."

" And you certainly did not take such a gloomy view of his
case at first. You told me that there were no vital parts
touched ! "

" Neither were there ; the ribs had suffered no displacement,
and as for a broken clavicle, I've known a fellow get up and
finish his race after it. This boy was doing famously. I don't
know that I ever saw a case going on better, when some of them
here — it's not easy to say whom — sent off for his mother to
come and see him. Of course, without Norcott's knowledge.
It was a rash thing to do, and not well done either ; for when
the woman arrived, there was no preparation made, either with


the boy or herself, for their meeting ; and the result was, that
when she crossed the threshold and saw him, she fainted away.
The youngster tried to get to her and fainted too : a great
hubbub and noise followed ; and Norcott himself appeared.
The scene that ensued must have been, from what I heard,
terrific. He either ordered the woman out of the house, or
he dragged her away, — it's not easy to say which, — but it is
quite clear that he went absolutely mad with passion : some say
that he told them to pack oif the boy along with her, but of
course this w^as sheer impossibility ; the boy was insensible, and
has been so ever since."

" I was at Namur that day, but they told me when I came
back that Cleremont's wife had behaved so well ; that she had
the courage to face Norcott ; and though I don't believe she did
much by her bravery, she drove him off the field to his own
room, and when his wife did leave the house for the railroad,
it was in one of Norcott's carriages, and madame herself accom-
panied her."

" Is she his wife ? that's the question."

" There's not a doubt of it. Blenkworth of the Greys was at
the ^yeddiug."

" If I were to be examined before a commission of lunacy
to-morrow," said the doctor solemnly, " I'd call that man


" And you'd shut him up ? "

" I'd shut him up ! "

" Then I'm precious glad you are not called on to give
an opinion, for you'd shut up the best house in this quarter
of Europe."


" And what security have you any moment that he won't
make a clean sweep of it, and turn you all into the streets ? "

"Yes, that's on the cards any day."

" He must have got through almost everything he had ;
besides, I never heard his property called six thousand a year,
and I'll swear twelve wouldn't pay his way here."

" ^\Tiat does he care ! His father and he agreed to cut off
the entail ; and seeing the sort of marriage he made, he'll not
fret much at leaving the boy a beggar."

" But he likes him ; if there's anything in the world he cares
for, it's that boy ! "

The other must have made some gesture of doubt, or dissent,
for the doctor quickly added, " No, no, I'm right about that.
It was only yesterday morning he said to me, with a shake
in the voice there's no mistaking, ' If you can come and
tell me, doctor, that he's out of danger, I'll give you a thousand
pounds.' "

" Egad, I think I'd have done it, even though I might have
made a blunder."

" Ye're no a doctor, sir, that's plain; " and in the emotion
of the moment he spoke the words with a strong Scotch

There was a silence of some minutes, and Hotham said,
" That little Frenchwoman and I have no love lost between us,
but I'm glad she cut up so well."

" They're strange natures, there's no denying it. They'll do
less from duty and more from impulse than any people in the
world, and they're never thoroughly proud of themselves except
when they're all wrong."


" That's a neat character for Frenchwomen," said Hotham,

" I think Norcott will be looking out for his whist by this
time," said the other; and they both arose, and passing noise-
lessly through the room, moved away.

I had enough left me to think over, and I did think over it

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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 4 of 17)