Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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" Take him with you, Harasch ; let him copy into the waste-
book. We shall see in a few days what he's fit for."

At a sign from the youth, I followed him out, and soon
found myself in the outer room, where a considerable number of
the younger clerks were waiting to acknowledge me.

Nothing could well be less like the manners and habits I was
used to than the coarse familiarity and easy impertinence of these
young fellows. They questioned me about my birth, my educa-
tion, my means, what circumstance had driven me to my present
step, and why none of my friends had done anything to save me
from it. Not content with a number of very searching inquiries,
they began to assure me that Herr Ignaz would not put up with


my incapacity for a week. " He'll send you into the yard," cried
one ; and the sentence was chorussed at once. " Ja ! ja ! he'll
he sent into the yard." And though I was dying to know what
that might mean, my pride restrained my curiosity, and I would
not condescend to ask.

" Won't he be fine in the yard ! " I heard one whisper
to another, and they both began laughing at the conceit ; and
I now sat down on a bench and lost myself in thought.

" Come ; we are going to dinner, Englander," said Harasch
to me at last ; and I arose and followed him.

( 133 )



I WAS soon to learn what being " sent into the yard " meant.
Within a week that destiny was mine. Being so sent was the
phrase for being charged to count the staves as they arrived in
waggon-loads from Hungary, oaken staves being the chief
"industry" of Fiume, and the principal source of Herr
Oppovich's fortune.

My companion, and, indeed, my instructor in this intellectual
employment, was a strange-looking, dwarfish creature, who,
whatever the season, wore a suit of dark yellow leather, the
jerkin being fastened round the waist by a broad belt with a
heavy brass buckle. He had been in the yard three -and-forty
years, and though his assistants had been uniformly promoted to
the office, he had met no advancement in life, but was still in
the same walk and the same grade in which he had started.

Hans Sponer was, however, a philosopher, and went on his
road uncomplainingly. He said that the open air and the
freedom were better than the closeness and confinement within-
doors, and if his pay was smaller, his healthier appetite made
him able to relish plainer food ; and this mode of reconciling
things, — striking the balance between good and ill, — went


through all he said or did, and his favourite phrase, " Es ist
fast eiiierley," or "It comes to about the same," comprised his
whole system of worldly knowledge.

If at first I felt the occupation assigned to me as an insult
and a degradation, Hanserl's companionship soon reconciled me
to submit to it with patience. It was not merely that he
displayed an invariable good-humour and pleasantry, but there
was a forbearance about him, and a delicacy in his dealing with
me, actually gentlemanlike. Thus he never questioned me as
to my former condition, nor asked by what accident I had fallen
to my present lot ; and while showing in many ways that he
saw I was unused to hardship, he rather treated my inexperience
as a mere fortuitous circumstance than as a thing to comment or
dwell on. Hanserl, besides this, taught me how to live on my
humble pay of a florin and ten kreutzers — about two shillings —
daily. I had a small room that led out into the yard, and could
consequently devote my modest salary to my maintenance. The
straitened economy of Hans himself had enabled him to lay by
about eight hundred florins, and he strongly advised me to
arrange my mode of life on a plan that would admit of such a
prudent saving.

Less for this purpose than to give my friend a strong proof
of the full confidence I reposed in his judgment and his honour,
I confided to his care all my earnings, and only begged he would
provide for me as for himself; and thus Hans and I became
inseparable. We took our cofiee together at daybreak, our little
soup and boiled beef at noon, and our potato-salad, with perhaps
a sardine or such like, at night for supper ; the " Viertel-wein "
— the fourth of a bottle — being equitably divided between us to


cheer our hearts and cement good-fellowship on certainly as acrid
a liquor as ever served two such excellent ends.

None of the clerks would condescend to know us. Herr
Fripper, the cashier, would nod to us in the street, but the
younger men never recognized us at all, save in some
expansive moment of freedom by a wink cr a jerk of the head.
We were in a most subordinate condition, and they made us
feel it.

From Hans I learned that Herr Oppovich was a widower
with two children, a son and a daughter. The former was
an irreclaimable scamp and vagabond, whose debts had been
paid over and over again, and who had been turned out of the
army with disgrace, and was now wandering about Europe,
living on his father's friends, and trading for small loans on his
family name. This was Adolph Oppovich. The girl — Sara she
was called — was, in Hanserl's judgment, not much more to be
liked than her brother. She was proud and insolent to a degree
that would have been remarkable in a princess of a reigning
house. From the clerks she exacted a homage that was
positively absurd. It was not alone that they should always
stand uncovered as she passed, but that if any had occasion to
address her he should prelude what he had to say by kissing her
hand, an act of vassalage that in Austria is limited to persons
of the humblest kind.

" She regards me as a wild beast, and I am therefore spared
this piece of servitude," said Hans; and he laughed his noiseless
uncouth laugh as he thought of his immunity.

" Is she handsome ? " asked I.

" How can she be handsome when she is so overbearing?"


said he. " Is not beauty gentleness, mildness, softness ? How
can it agree with eyes that flash disdain, and a mouth that
seems to curl with insolence ? The old proverb says, ' Schonheit
ist Sanftheit ; ' and that's why Our Lady is always so lovely."

Hanserl was a devout Catholic ; and not impossibly this
sentiment made his judgment of the young Jewess all the more
severe. Of Herr Oppovich himself he would say little. Perhaps
he deemed it was not loyal to discuss him whose bread he ate ;
perhaps he had not sufficient experience of me to trust me with
his opinion : at all events he went no further than an admission
that he was wise and keen in business ; one who made few
mistakes himself, nor forgave them easily in another.

*' Never do more than he tells you to do, younker," said
Hans to me one day; " and he'll trust you, if you do that well."
And this was not the least valuable hint he give me.

Hans had a great deal of small worldly wisdom, the fruit
rather of a long experience than of any remarkable gift of obser-
vation. As he said himself, it took him four years to learn the
business of the yard ; and as I acquired the knowledge in about
a week, he regarded me as a perfect genius.

We soon became fast and firm friends. The way in which
I had surrendered myself to his guidance, — giving him up
the management of my money, and actually submitting to his
authority as though I were his son, — had won upon the old man
immensely ; while I, on my side, — friendless and companionless,
save with himself, — drew close to the only one who seemed to
take an interest in me. At first, — I must own it, — as we
wended our way, at noon, towards the little eating-house where
we dined, and I saw the friends with whom Hans exchanged


greetings, and felt the class and condition he belonged to reflected
in the coarse looks and coarser waj'S of his associates, I was
ashamed to think to what I had fallen. I had, indeed, no respect,
nor any liking for the young fellows of the counting-house. They
were intensely, offensively vulgar ; but they had the outward
semblance, the dress, and the gait of their betters, and they were
privileged by appearance to stroll into a cafe and sit down, from
which I and my companion would speedily have been ejected.
I confess I envied them that mere right of admission into the
well-dressed world, and sorrowed over my own exclusion as
though it had been inflicted on me as a punishment.

This jealous feeling met no encouragement from Hans. The
old man had no rancour of any kind in his nature. He had no
sense of discontent with his condition, nor any desire to change
it. Counting staves seemed to him a very fitting way to occupy
existence ; and he knew of many occupations that were less
pleasant and less wholesome. Eags, for instance, for the paper-
mill, or hides, in both of which Herr Ignaz dealt, Hans would
have seriously disliked ; but staves were cleanly and smelt fresh
and sweetly of the oak-wood they came from ; and there was
something noble in their destiny, — to form casks and hogsheads
for the rich wines of France and Spain, — which he was fond of
recalling: and so would he say, "Without you and me, boy, or
those like us, they'd have no vats nor barrels for the red grape-

While he thus talked to me, trying to invest our humble
calling with what might elevate it in my eyes, I struggled often
with myself whether I should not tell him the story of my life, —
in what rank I had lived, to what hopes of fortune I had been


reared. Would this knowledge have raised me in the old man's
esteem, or would it have estranged him from me ? that was the
question. How should I come through the ordeal of his judg-
ment ? higher or lower ? A mere chance decided for me what
all my pondering could not resolve. Hans came home one night
with a little book in his hand, a present for me. It was a French
grammar', and, as he told me, the key to all knowledge.

" The French are the great people of the world," said he,
" and till you know their tongue, you can have no real insight
into learning." There was a " 3'ounker " once under him in the
yard, who, just because he could read and write French, was
now a cashier, with six hundred florins salary. " When you have
worked hard for three months we'll look out for a master, Owen."

" But I know it already, Hanserl," said I, proudly. " I speak
it even better than I speak German, and Italian too ! Ay, stare
at me, but it's true. I had masters for these, and for Greek
and Latin ; and I was taught to draw, and to sing, and to play
the piano, and I learned how to ride and to dance."

" Just like a born gentleman," broke in Hans.

" I was, and I am, a born gentleman ; don't shake your
head, or wring your hands, Hanserl. I'm not going mad !
These are not ravings ! I'll soon convince you what I say is
true." And I hurried to my room, and opening my trunk, took
out my watch, and some trinkets, some studs of value, and
a costly chain my father gave me. " These are all mine ! I
used to wear them once, as commonly as I now wear these
bone buttons. There were more servants in my father's house
than there are clerks in Herr Oppovich's counting-house. Let
me tell you who I was, and how I came to be what I am."


I told him my whole story, the old man listening with an
eagerness quite intense, hut never more deeply interested than
when I told of the splendours and magnificence of my father's
house. He never wearied hearing of costly entertainments and
great banquets, where troops of servants waited, and every wish
of the guests was at once ministered to.

" And all this," cried he, at last, " all this, day after day,
night after night, and not once a year only, as we see it here, on
the Fraulein Sara's birthday ! " And now the poor old man, as
if to compensate himself for listening so long, broke out into a
description of the festivities by which Herr Oppovich celebrated
his daughter's birthday : an occasion on which he invited all in
his employment to pass the day at his villa, on the side of the
bay, and when, by Hanserl's account, a most unbounded hos-
pitality held sway. " There are no portions, no measured
quantities, but each is free to eat and drink as he likes," cried
Hans, who, with this praise, described a banquet of millennial
magnificence. " But you will see for yourself," added he ; " for
even the ' yard ' is invited."

I cautioned him strictly not to divulge what I had told him
of myself; nor was it necessary after all, for he well knew how
Herr Ignaz resented the thought of any one in his service having
other pretensions than such as grew out of his own favour
towards them.

" You'd be sent away to-morrow, younker," said he, " if he
but knew what you were. There's an old proverb shows how
they think of people of quality : —

' Die Juden nicht dulden
Den Herrschaft mit Kchulden.'


The Jews cannot abide the great folk, with their indebtedness ;
and to deem these inseparable is a creed.

" On the 31st of August falls the Friiulein's birthday, lad,
and you shall tell me the next morning if your father gave a
grander fete than that."

( 141 )



The 31st of August dawned at last, and with the promise of a
lovely autumnal day. It was the one holiday of the year at
Herr Oppovich's ; for Sunday was only externally observed in
deference to the feelings of the Christian world, and clerks sat
at their desks inside, and within the barred shutters the whole
work of life went on as though a week-day. As for us in the
yard, it was our day of most rigorous discipline ; for Ignaz him-
self was wont to come down on a tour of inspection, and his
quick glances were sure to detect at once the slightest irregularity
or neglect. He seldom noticed me on these occasions. A word
addressed to Hanserl as to how the "younker " was doing, would
be all the recognition vouchsafed me, or at most, a short nod of
the head would convey that he had seen me. Hanserl's reports
were, however, always favourable ; and I had so far good reason
to believe that my master was content with me.

From Hans, who had talked of nothing but this fete for three
or four weeks, I had learned that a beautiful villa which Herr
Ignaz owned on the west side of the bay was always opened. It
was considered much too gi-and a place to live in, being of
princely proportions and splendidly furnished ; indeed, it had


come into Herr Oppovich's possession on a mortgage, and the
thought of using it as a residence never occurred to him. To
have kept the grounds alone in order would have cost a moderate
fortune ; and as there was no natural supply of water on the
spot, a steam-pump was kept in constant use to direct streams
in different directions. This, which its former owner freely-
paid for, was an outlay that Herr Oppovich regarded as most
wasteful, and reduced at once to the very narrowest limits con-
sistent with the life of the plants and shrubs around. The
ornamental fountains were, of course, left unfed ; jets-d'eaux
ceased to play ; and the various tanks in which water-nymphs
of white marble disported, were dried up ; ivy and the wild vine
draping the statues, and hiding the sculptured urns in leafy

Of the rare plants and flowers, hundreds of course died ;
indeed, none but those of hardy nature could survive this stinted
aliment. Greenhouses and conservatories, too, fell into disrepair
and neglect ; but such was the marvellous wealth of vegetation
that, fast as walls would crumble and architraves give way,
foliage and blossom would spread over the ruin, and the rare
plants within, mingling with the stronger vegetation without,
would form a tangled mass of leafy beauty of surpassing love-
liness; and thus the rarest orchids were seen stretching their
delicate tendrils over forest-trees, and the cactus and the mimosa
mingled with common field-flowers. If I linger amongst these
things, it is because they contrasted so strikingly to me with the
trim propriety and fastidious neatness of the Malibran Villa,
where no leaf littered a walk, nor a single tarnished blossom
was suff'ered to remain on its stalk. Yet was the Abazzia Villa


a thousand times more beautiful. In the one, the uppermost
thought was the endless care and skill of the gardeners, and the
wealth that had provided them. The clink of gold seemed to
rise from the crushed gravel as you walked ; the fountains
glittered with gold ; the conservatories exhaled it. Here, how-
ever, it seemed as though Nature, rich in her own unbounded
resources, was showing how little she needed of man or his
appliances. It was the very exuberance of growth on every
side ; and all this backed by a bold mountain lofty as an
Alp, and washed by a sea in front, and that sea the blue

I had often heard of the thrift and parsimony of Herr
Oppovich's household. Even in the humble eating-house I
frequented, sneers at its economies were frequent. No trace
of such a saving spirit displayed itself on this occasion. Not
merely were guests largely and freely invited, but carriages were
stationed at appointed spots to convey them to the villa, and a
number of boats awaited at the mole for those who preferred
to go by water. This latter mode of conveyance was adopted
by the clerks and officials of the house, as savouring less of
pretension ; and so was it that just as the morning was ripening
into warmth, I found myself one of a large company in a wide
eight-oared boat, calmly skimming along towards Abazzia. By
some accident I got separated from Hanserl ; and when I waved
my hand to him to join me, he delayed to return my salutation,
for, as he said afterwards, I was " gar schon " — quite fine — and
he did not recognize me.

It was true I had dressed myself in the velvet jacket and vest
I had worn on the night of our own fete, and wore my velvet


cap, without, however, the heron feather, any more than I put
on any of my trinkets, or even my watch.

This studied simplicity on my part was not rewarded as I
hoped for ; since scarcely were we under way than my dress and
*' get-up " became the subject of an animated debate among my
companions, who discussed me with a freedom and a candour
that showed they regarded me simply as a sort of lay figure for
the display of so much drapery.

"That's how they dress in the yard," cried one; "and we
who have three times the pay, can scarcely afford broadcloth.
Will any one explain that to me ? "

" There must be rare perquisites down there," chimed in
another; "for they say that the old dwarf Hanserl has laid by
two thousand gulden."

" They tell me five thousand," said another.

" Two or twenty-two would make no difference. No fellow
on his pay could honestly do more than keep life in his body,
not to speak of wearing velvet like the younker there."

A short digression now intervened, one of the party having
suggested that in England velvet was the cheapest wear known,
that all the labourers on canals and railroads wore it from
economy, and that, in fact, it was the badge of a very humble
condition. The assertion encountered some disbelief, and it
was ultimately suggested to refer the matter to me for decision,
this being the first evidence they had given of their recognition
of me as a sentient being.

"What would he know? "broke in an elderly clerk; "he
must have come away from England a mere child, seeing how
he speaks German now."


"Or if he did know, is it likely he'd tell?" observed

" At all events let us ask him what it costs. I say, Knabe,
come here and let us see your fine clothes ; we are all proud of
having so grand a colleague."

" You might show your pride, then, more suitably than by
insulting him," said I, with perfect calm.

Had I discharged a loaded pistol in the midst of them, the
dismay and astonishment could not have been gi*eater. That
anyone "aus dem Hof " — "out of the yard " — should presume
to think he had feelings that could be outraged seemed a degree
of arrogance beyond belief, and my word "insult " was repeated
from mouth to mouth with amazement.

" Come here, Knabe," said the cashier, in a voice of blended
gentleness and command — "come here, and let us talk to

I arose and made my way from the bow to the stern of the
boat. Short as the distance was, it gave me time to bethink me
that I must repress all anger or irritation if I desired to keep
my secret : so that when I reached my place, my mind was
made up.

" Silk-velvet, as I live ! " said one who passed his hand
along my sleeve as I went.

" No one wishes to offend you, youngster," said the cashier
to me, as he placed me beside him; " nor when we talk freely to
each other, as is our wont, are any of us offended."

" But you forget, sir," said I, " that I have no share in these
freedoms, and that were I to attempt them, j-ou'd resent the
liberty pretty soon."



** The Knabe is right," " He says what's true," "He speaks
sensibly," were muttered all around.

" You have been well educated, I suspect ? " said the cashier,
in a gentle voice ; and now the thought that by a word, a mere
word, I might compromise myself beyond recall flashed across
me, and I answered, " I have learned some things."

" One of which was caution," broke in another; and a roar of
laughter welcomed his joke.

Many a severer sarcasm would not have cut so deeply into
me. The imputation of a reserve based on cunning was too
much for my temper, and in a moment I forgot all prudence,
and hotly said, " If I am such an object of interest to you,
gentlemen, that you must know even the details of my education,
the only way I see to satisfy this curiosity of yours is to say that,
if you will question me as to what I know and what I do not, I
will do my best to answer you."

" That's a challenge," cried one ; " he thinks we are too
illiterate to examine him."

" We see that you speak German fluently," said the cashier ;
" do you know French ? "

I nodded assent.

" And Italian and English ? "

" Yes ; English is my native language."

" What about Greek and Latin, boy ? "

" Very little Greek ; some half-dozen Latin authors."

"Any Hebrew?" chimed in one, with a smile of half

" Not a syllable."

" That's a pity, for you could have chatted with Herr Ignaz
in it."


" Or the Frilulein," muttered another. " She knows no
Hebrew," "She does ; she reads it well," "Nothing of the
kind," were quickly spoken from many quarters, and a very hot
discussion ensued, in which the Fraulein Sara's accomplishments
and acquirements took the place of mine in public interest.

While the debate went on with no small warmth on either
side — for it involved a personal question that stimulated each of
the combatants, namely, the amount of intimacy they enjoyed in
the family and household of their master : a point on which they
seemed to feel the most acute sensibility — while this, therefore,
continued, the cashier patted me good-humouredly on the arm,
and asked me how I liked Fiume ; if I had made any pleasant
acquaintances ; and how I usually passed my evenings ? And
while thus chatting pleasantly, we glided into the little bay of
the villa, and landed.

As boat after boat came alongside the jetty, numbers rushed
down to meet and welcome their friends. All seemed half wild
with delight ; and the adventures they had had on the road, the
loveliness of the villa, and the courtesy they had been met with,
resounded on every side. All had friends, eager to talk or to
listen — all but myself. I alone had no companionshijD ; for in
the crowd and confusion I could not find Hauserl, and to ask
after him was but to risk the danger of an impertinence.

I sat myself down on a rustic bench at last, thinking that if
I remained fixed in one spot I might have the best chance to
discover him. And now I could mark the strange company,
which of every age, and almost of every condition, appeared to
be present. If the marked features of the Hebrew abounded,
there were types of the race that I had never seen before : fair-


haired and olive-eyed, with a certain softness of expression,
united with great decision about the mouth and chin. The red
Jew, too, was there : the fierce-eyed, dark-browed, hollow-cheeked
fellow, of piercing acuteness in expression, and an almost reck-

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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 9 of 17)