Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

. (page 5 of 17)
Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 5 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

till I fell asleep.

( 65 )



From that day forth I received no tidings of my mother.
Whether my own letters reached her or not, I could not tell ;
and though I entreated Madame Cleremont, who was now my
confidant in everything, to aid me in learning where my mother
was, she declared that the task was heyond her ; and at last, as
time went over, my anxieties became blunted and my affections
dulled. The life I was leading grew to have such a hold
upon me, and was so full of its own varied interests, that —
with shame I say it — I actually forgot the very existence of
her to whom I owed any trace of good, or honest, or truthful,
that was in me.

The house in which I was living was a finishing school
for every sort of dissipation, and all who frequented it were
people who only lived for pleasure. Play of the highest kind
went on unceasingly, and large sums were bandied about from
hand to hand as carelessly as if all were men of fortune and
indifferent to heavj^ losses.

A splendid mode of living, sumptuous dinners, a great
retinue, and perfect liberty to the guests, drew around us that
class who, kno-^ing well that they have no other occupation



than self-indulgence, throw an air of languid elegance over vice,
which your vulgar sinner, who has only intervals of wickedness,
knows nothing of ; and this, he it said passingly, is, of all sections
of society, the most seductive and dangerous to the young : for
there are no outrages to taste amongst these people, they violate
no decencies, they shock no principles. If they smash the tahles
of the law, it is in kid-gloves, and with a delicious odour of Ess
bouquet about them. The Cleremonts lived at the Villa.
Cleremont managed the household, and gave the orders for
everything. Madame received the company, and did the honours ;
my father lounging about like an unoccupied guest, and actually
amused, as it seemed, by his own unimportance. Hotham had
gone to sea ; but Eccles remained, in name, as my tutor ; but
we rarely met, save at meal times, and his manner to me was
almost slavish in subserviency, and with a habit of flattery that,
even young as I was, revolted me.

" Isn't that your charge, Eccles ? " I once heard an old
gentleman ask him ; and he replied, " Yes, my lord ; but Madame
Cleremont has succeeded me. It is she is finishing him."

And they both laughed heartily at the joke. There was,
however, this much of truth in the speech, that I lived almost
entirely in her society. We sang together ; she called me
Cherubino, and taught me all the pages' songs in Mozart or
Rossini ; and we rode out together, or read or walked in
company. Nor was her influence over me such as might
effeminate me. On the contrary, it was ever her aim to give me
manly tastes and ambitions. She laid great stress on my being a
perfect swordsman and a pistol-shot, over and over telling me
that a conscious skill in arms gives a man immense coolness in


every question of difference with other men ; and she would add,
" Don't fall into that John Bull blunder of believing that
duelling is gone out because they dislike the practice in
England. The world is happily larger than the British Islands."

Little sneers like this at England, sarcasms on English
prudery, English reserve, or English distrustfulness, were
constantly dropping from her, and I grew up to believe that,
while genuine sentiment and unselfish devotion lived on one
side of the Channel, a decorous hypocrisy had its home on the

Now she would contrast the women of Balzac's novels with
the colder nonentities of English fiction ; and now, she would
dwell on traits of fascination in the sex which our writers either
did not know of or were afraid to touch on. " It is entirely the
fault of your Englishwomen," she would say, " that the men
invariably fall victims to foreign seductions. Circe always sings
with a bronchitis in the North ; " and though I but dimly saw
what she pointed at then, I lived to perceive her meaning more

As for my father, I saw little of him, but in that little he
was always kind and good-natured with me. He would quiz me
about my lessons, as though I were the tutor, and Eccles the
pupil ; and ask me how he got on with his Aristophanes or his
Homer ? He talked to me freely about the people who came to
the house, and treated me almost as an equal. All this time he
behaved to madame with a reserve that was perfectly chilling,
so that it was the rarest thing in the world for the three of us to
be together.

" I don't think you like papa," said I once to her, in


an effusion of confidence. "I am sure you don't like
him ! "

" And why do you think so ? " asked she, with the faintest
imaginable flush on her pale cheek.

While I was puzzling myself what to answer, she said, —

" Come now, Cherubino, what you really meant to say was,
I don't think papa likes you I "

Though I never could have made so rude a speech, its
truth and force struck me so palpably that I could not

" Well," cried she, with a little laugh, " he is very fond of
Monsieur Cleremont, and that ought always to be enough for
Madame Cleremont. Do you know, Cherubino, it's the rarest
thing in life for a husband and wife to be liked by the same
people ? There is in conjugal life some beautiful little ingredient
of discord that sets the two partners to the compact at opposite
poles, and gives them separate followings. I mustn't distract
you with the theory, I only want you to see why liking my
husband is sufficient reason for not caring for 7?ie."

Now, as I liked her exceedingly, and felt something very
near to hatred for Monsieur Cleremont, I accepted all she said as
incontestable truth. Still I grieved over the fact that papa was
not of my own mind, and did not see her and all her fascinations
as I did.

There is something indescribably touching in the gentle sad-
ness of certain buoyant bright natures. Like the low notes in
a treble voice, there is that that seems to vibrate in our hearts
at a most susceptible moment, and with the force of an unfore-
seen contrast ; and it was thus that, in her graver times, she


won over me an ascendancy, and inspired an interest which, had
I been other than a mere boy, had certainly been love.

Perhaps I should not have been even conscious, as I was, of
this sentiment, if it were not for the indignation I felt at
Cleremont's treatment of her. Over and over again my temper
was pushed to its last limit by his brutality and coarseness. His
tone was a perpetual sneer, and his wife seldom spoke before
him without his directing towards her a sarcasm or an imperti-
nence. This was especially remarkable if she uttered any
sentiment at all elevated, when his banter would be ushered in
with a burst of derisive laughter.

Nothing could be more perfect than the way she bore these
trials. There was no assumed martyrdom ; no covert appeal for
sympathy; no air of suffering asking for protection. No!
whether it came as ridicule or rebuke, she accepted it gently
and good-humouredly ; trying, when she could, to turn it off
with a laugh, or when too grave for that, bearing it with quiet

I often wondered why my father did not check these
persecutions, for they were such, and very cruel ones too ; but
he scarcely seemed to notice them, or if he did it would be by a
smile, far more like enjoyment of Cleremont's coarse wit than
reprehending or reproving it.

" I wonder how that woman stands it?" I once overheard
Hotham say to Eccles ; and the other replied, —

" I don't think she does stand it. I mistake her much if she
is as forgiving as she looks."

Why do I recall these things ? why do I dwell on incidents
and passages which had no actual bearing on my own destiny '?


Only because they serve to show the terrible school in which I
was brought up ; the mingled dissipation, splendour, indolence,
and passion in which my boyhood was passed. Surrounded by
men of reckless habits, and women but a mere shade better, life
presented itself to me as one series of costly pleasures, dashed
only with such disappointments as loss at play inflicted, or some
project of intrigue baffled or averted.

" If that boy of Norcott's isn't a scamp, he must be a most
unteachable young rascal," said an old colonel once to Eccles on
the croquet ground.

" He has had great opportunities," said Eccles, as he
sent off his ball, " and, so far as I see, neglected none of

"You were his tutor, I think?" said the other with
a laugh.

" Yes, till Madame Cleremont took my place."

" I'll not say it was the worst thing could have happened
him. I wish it had been a woman had spoiled me. Eh, Eccles,
possibly you may have some such misgivings yourself?"

" I was never corrupted," said the other, with a sententious
gravity whose hj^iocrisy was palpable.

I meditated many and many a time over these few words,
and they suggested to me the first attempt I ever made to know
something about myself and my own nature.

Those stories of .Balzac's, those wonderful pictures of pas-
sionate life, acquired an immense hold upon me, from the very
character of my own existence. That terrific game of temper
against temper, mind against mind, and heart against heart, of
which I read in these novels, I was daily witnessing in what


went on around me, and I amused myself by giving the names
of the characters in these fictions to the various persons of our

" It is a very naughty little world we live in at this house,
Digby," said madame to me one day ; " but you'd be surprised
to find what a very vulgar thing is the life of people in general,
and that if you w^ant the sensational, or even the pictorial in
existence, you'll have to pay for it in some compromise of

*' I know mamma wouldn't like to live here," said I, half

" Oh, mamma ! " cried she, with a laugh, and then suddenly
checking herself: "No, Digby, you are quite right. Mamma
would be shocked at our doings ; not that they are so very
wicked in themselves as that, to one of her quiet ways, they
would seem so."

" Mamma is very good. I never knew any one like her,"
stammered I out.

*' That's quite true, my dear boy. She is all that you say,
but one may be too good, just as he may be too generous, or too
confiding ; and it is well to remember that there are a number
of excellent things one would like to be if they could afi"ord
them ; but the truth is, Digby, the most costly of all things are

" Oh, do not say that !" cried I eagerly.

" Yes, dear, I must say it. Monsieur Cleremont and I have
always been very poor, and we never permitted ourselves these
luxuries, any more than we kept a great house, and a fine equi-
page, and so we economize in our morals, as in our means, doing


what rich folk might call little shabbinesses ; but on the whole
managing to live, and not unhappily either."

"And papa?"

" Papa has a fine estate, wants for nothing, and can give
himself every good quality he has a fancy for."

" By this theory then, it is only rich people are good ?"
' " Not exactly. I would rather state it thus — the rich are as
good as they like to be ; the poor are as good as they're able."

" What do you say then to Mr. Eccles : he's not rich, and
I'm sure he's good ? "

"Poor Mr. Eccles!" said she with a merry laughter, in
which a something scornful mingled, and she hurried away.

( 73 )



It was my father's pleasure to celebrate my sixteenth birthday
with great splendour. The whole house was to be thrown open ;
and not only the house, but the conservatory and the grounds
were to be illuminated. The festivities were to comprise a grand
dinner and a reception afterwards, which was to become a ball,
as if by an impromptu.

As the society of the Villa habitually was made up of a
certain number of intimates, relieved from time to time by such
strangers as were presented, and as my father never dined out,
or went into the fashionable world of the place, it was somewhat
of a bold step at once to invite a number of persons with whom
we had no more than bowing acquaintance, and to ask to his
table ministers, envoys, court officials, and grand chamberlains
for the first time. It was said, I know not how truthfully, that
Cleremont did his utmost to dissuade him from the project at
first, by disparaging the people for whom he was putting himself
to such cost, and finding this line of no avail, by openly saying
that what between the refusals of some, the excuses of others,
and the actual absence of many whose presence he was led to
expect, my father was storing up for himself an amount of dis-


appointment and outrage that would drive him half desperate.
It was not, of course, very easy to convey this to my father. It
could only he done hy a dropping word or a half-expressed
douht. And when the time came to make out the lists and issue
the invitations, no real step had heen taken to turn him from
his plan.

The same rumour which ascrihed to Cleremont the repute of
attempting to dissuade my father from his project, attributed to
Madame Cleremont a most eager and warm advocacy of the
intended fete. From the marked coldness and reserve, however,
which subsisted between my father and her, it was too difficult
to imagine in what way her influence could be exercised.

And for my own part, though I heard the list of the com-
pany canvassed every day at luncheon, and discussed at dinner,
I don't remember an occasion where madame ever uttered a word
of remark, or even a suggestion in the matter. Hotham, who
had come back on a short leave, was full of the scheme. With
all a sailor's love of movement and bustle, he mixed himself up
with every detail of it. He wrote to Paris and London for all
the delicacies of the " comestible " shops. He established
" estafettes " on every side to bring in fresh flowers and fruit ;
with his own hands he rigged out tents and marquees for the
regimental bands, which were to be stationed in different parts
of the grounds ; and all the devices of Bengal lights and fire-
works he took into his especial charge.

Indeed, Nixon told me that his functions did not stop here,
but that he had charged himself with the care of Madame Clere-
mont's toilette, for whom he had ordered the most splendid
ball-dress Paris could produce. "Naturally, Master Digby, it is


Sir Roger pays," added he ; " and perhaps one of these days he'll
be surprised to find that diamond loops and diamond bouquets
should figure in a milliner's bill. But as she is to receive the
company, of course it's all right."

" And why does Mr. Cleremont seem to dislike it all so
much ? " asked I.

" Chiefly, I believe, because she likes it." And then, as
though he had said more than he intended, he added, " Oh, it's
easy to see he likes to keep this house as much his own as he
can. He doesn't want Sir Roger to have other people about
him. He's almost the master here now; but if your father
begins to mix with the world, and have strangers here, Clere-
mont's reign would soon be over."

Though there was much in this speech to suggest thought
and speculation, nothing in it struck me so forcibly as the
impertinence of calling Mr. Cleremont, Cleremont, and it was
all I could do to suppress the rebuke that was on my lips.

" If your father comes through for a thousand pounds, sir,"
continued he, " I'll say he's lucky. If Sir Roger would leave it
to one person to give the orders, — I don't mean myself, — though
by right it is my business ; instead of that, there's the captain
sending for this, and Cleremont for the other, and you'll see
there will be enough for three entertainments when it's all over.
Could you just say a word to him, sir ? "

" Not for the world, Nixon. Papa is very kind to me, and
good-natured, but I'll not risk any liberty with him ; and what's
more, I'd be right sorry to call Mr. Cleremont, Cleremont before
him, as you have done twice within the last five minutes."

" Lord bless you. Master Digby ! I've known him these


fifteen years. I knew him when be came out, just a boy like, to
Lord Coltborpe's embassy. He and I is like pals."

" You have Imown me also as a boy, Nixon," said I, haughtily;
" and yet, I promise you, I'll not permit you to speak of me as
Norcott, when I am a man."

" No fear of that, sir, 3'ou may depend on't," said he, with
humility ; but there was a malicious twinkle in his eye, and a
firm compression of the lip, as he withdrew, that did not leave
my mind the whole day after. Indeed, I recognised that his
face had assumed the selfsame look of insolent familiarity it
wore when he spoke of Cleremont.

The evening of that day was passed filling up the cards of
invitation, — a process which amused me greatly, affording, as it
did, a sort of current critique on the persons whose names came
up for notice, and certainly, if I were to judge of their eligibility
only by what I heard of their characters, I might well feel
amazed why they were singled out for attentions. They were
marquises and counts, however, chevaliers of various orders,
grand cordons and " hautes charges," so that their trespasses or
their shortcomings had all been enacted in the world of good
society, and with each other as accomplices or victims. There
were a number of contingencies, too, attached to almost every
name. There must be high play for the Russian envoy, flirting
for the French minister's wife, iced drinks for the Americans,
and scandal and Ostend oysters for everybody. There was
scarcely a good word for any one, and yet the most eager anxiety
was expressed that they would all come. Immense precautions
had been taken to fix a day when there was nothing going on at
court or in the court circle. It was difficult to believe that


pleasure could be planned with such heartburning and bitterness.
There was scarcely a detail that did not come associated with
something that reflected on the morals or the manners of the
dear friends we were entreating to honour us ; and for the life of
me I did not know why such pains were taken to secure the
presence of people for whom none had a good wish nor a single
kindly thought.

My father took very little part in the discussion ; he sat there
with a sort of proud indifference, as though the matter had little
interest for him, and if a doubt were expressed as to the likeli-
hood of this or that person's accej^tance, he would superciliously
break in with, " He'll come, sir ; I'll answer for that. I have
never yet played to empty benches."

This vain and haughty speech dwelt in my mind for many a
day, and showed me how my father deemed that it was not his
splendid style of living, his exquisite dinners, and his choice
wines that drew guests around him, but his own especial qualities
as host and entertainer.

" But that it involves the bore of an audience, I'd ask the
King ; I could give him some Chateau d'Yquem very unlike his
own, and such as, I'll venture to say, he never tasted," said he,

" So you are going to bring out the purple seal ? " cried

" I might for royalty, sir ; but not for such people as I read
of in that list there."

" Why, here are two dukes with their duchesses, marquises
and counts by the score, half-a-dozen ministers plenipotentiary,
and a perfect cloud of chamberlains and court swells."


'' They'd cut a great figure, I've no doubt, Hotliam, on the
quarter-deck of the Thunder Bomb, where you eke oXit the defects
of a bad band with a salute from your big guns, and give your
guests the national anthem when they want champagne. Oh,
dear, there's no snob like a sailor ! "

" Well, if they're not good enough for you, why the devil do
you ask them ? " cried Hotham, sturdily.

" Sir, if I were to put- such a question to myself I might shut
up my house to-morrow ! " And with this very uncourteous
speech he arose and left the room.

We continued, however, to fill in the cards of invitation and
address the envelopes, but with little inclination to converse, and
none whatever to refer to what had passed.

" There," cried Cleremont, as he checked off the list. " That
makes very close on seven hundred. I take it I may order
supper for six hundred." Then turning half fiercely to me, he
added, " Do you know, youngster, that all this tomfoolery is got
up for yo2i ? It is by way of celebrating your birthday, we're
going to turn the house out of the windows ! "

" I suppose my father has that right, sir."

" Of course he has, just as he w^ould have the right to make
a ruin of the place to-morrow if he liked it ; but I don't fancy
his friends would be the better pleased with him for his amiable
eccentricity : your father pushes our regard for him very far

" I'll tell him to be more cautious, sir, in future," said I,
moving towards the door.

" Do so," said he. " Good-night."

I had scarcely taken my bedroom candle when I felt a hand


on my shoulder : I turned and saw Madame Cleremont standing
very pale and in great agitation at my side. " Oh, Digby," said
she, " don't make that man your enemy whatever you do ; he is
more than a match for you, poor child ! " She was about to say
more when we heard voices in the corridor, and she hurried away
and left me.




The eventful day arrived at last, and now, as I write, I can bring
up before me the whole of that morning, so full of exciting
sensations and of pleasurable surprises. I wandered about from
room to room, never sated with the splendours around me. Till
then I had not seen the gorgeous furniture uncovered, nor had I
the faintest idea of the beauty and richness of the silk hangings,
or the glittering elegance of those lustres of pure Venetian glass.
Perhaps nothing, however, astonished me so much as the array
of gold and silver plate in the dining-room. Our every-day
dinners had been laid out with what had seemed to me a most
costly elegance ; but what were they to this display of splendid
centre-pieces and massive cups and salvers large as shields ! Of
flowers, the richest and rarest, waggon-loads poured in ; and at
last I saw the horses taken out, and carts full of carnations and
geraniums left unloaded in the stable-yard. Ice, too, came in
the same profusion : those squarely cut blocks, bright as crystal,
and hollowed out to serve as wine-coolers, and take their place
amidst the costlier splendours of gold and silver.

It is rare to hear the servant class reprove profusion ; but
here I overheard many a comment on the reckless profligacy of


outlay which had provided for this occasion enough for a dozen
such. It was easy to see, they said, that Mr. Cleremont did not
pay, and this sneer sunk deep into my mind, increasing the
disUke I ah-eady felt for him.

Nor was it the house alone was thus splendidly prepared for
reception ; but kiosks and tents were scattered through the
grounds, in each of which, as if by magic, supper could be served
on the instant. Upwards of thirty additional servants were
engaged, all of whom were dressed in our state livery, white, with
silver epaulettes, and the Norcott crest embroidered on the arm.
These had been duly drilled by Mr. Cleremont, and were not, he
said, to be distinguished by the most critical eye from the rest of
the household.

Though there was movement everj^'here, and eveiywhere
activity, there was little or no confusion. Cleremont was an
adept in organization, and already his skill and cleverness had
spread discipline through the onass. He was a despot however,
would not permit the slightest interference with his functions,
nor accept a suggestion from any one. " Captain Hotham gives
no orders here," I heard him say; and when standing under my
window, and I am almost sure seeing me, he said, " Master
Digby has nothing to do with the arrangements any more than

I had determined that day to let nothing irritate or vex me ;
that I would give myself up to unmixed enjoyment and make
this birthday a memorable spot in life, to look back on with
undiluted delight. I could have been more certain to carry out
this resolve if I could only have seen and spoken with Madame

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 5 of 17)