(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Tom Burke was only a schoolboy when his father died, and the family physician and a rascally estate lawyer conspired to cheat him out of his inheritance as a younger son. Eton, private tutors, fine clothes, and the best horses and dogs had been provided for his older brother George; an obscure Dublin school and hand-me-downs had been considered good enough for fourteen-year-old Tom. As he sat in the shadows by his dying father’s bedside on a dark winter day, he overheard the doctor and the lawyer discuss an arrangement to have him articled to Anthony Basset, the lawyer, in return for the five hundred pounds left to Tom under his grandfather’s will.

The day after the funeral, hoping to escape his dreary prospects as a lawyer’s clerk, Tom took to the roads with Darby M’Keown, called by the peasants Darby the Blast, a piper belonging to one of the patriotic secret societies that had survived the disastrous rising of 1798. Several times he was almost overtaken by Basset’s agents or captured by British soldiers who were everywhere tracking down rebels in those troubled times. By chance, he was thrown into the company of Charles de Meudon, a young French officer who had volunteered to aid the cause of Irish independence. The Frenchman taught Tom languages and military science, capturing his boyish imagination with accounts of Napoleon’s victories at Marengo, Lodi, and Arcola. The sickly young officer knew that he would never live to return to his own country, and he made Tom promise that he would go to France to study at the Ecole Polytechnique and to be like a brother to his friend’s sister, Marie de Meudon. Charles died at the country retreat where he and Tom had gone together. Before his death, he gave the boy some French money to pay for his journey overseas.

Captured by the British at the time of de Meudon’s death, Tom was being taken to Dublin under guard when Darby the Blast appeared and provoked a scuffle with the militia. During the fight, Tom escaped. His only hope was to find the quarters of Captain Bubbleton, a bombastic English officer who had been kind to him some time before, and so he continued on his way to Dublin. While searching for the captain there, he was caught in a mob rioting before Parliament House. Struck over the head by a musket, he fell unconscious.

When he awoke, Tom found himself in Captain Bubbleton’s quarters, where the officer had carried the boy after finding him senseless in the street. Tom tried to tell the captain the true story of his experiences, but his rescuer, who always changed circumstances to suit his fantastic imagination, brushed the explanations aside. To Captain Bubbleton, Tom was a hero who had been wounded while fighting the Irish rebels, and the officers’ mess, delighted with the boy’s spirit, called him Tom Burke of Ours. Lord Castlereagh himself, the captain added, was concerned for Tom’s quick recovery.

Tom’s cuts and bruises soon healed under the nursing of the captain and his sister, Miss Anna Maria. One day, the captain reported that an officer was coming from the Castle to see the convalescent. To Tom’s dismay, the officer was one who was able to recognize him immediately as an associate of rebels. Lodged in jail, the boy was released when Basset appeared at the hearing and claimed his runaway apprentice. Nevertheless, Captain Bubbleton remained Tom’s good friend. At his intercession, the lawyer was persuaded to accept four hundred pounds of Tom’s inheritance money in exchange for the boy’s indenture papers.

Tom did become Tom Burke of Ours for a short time, although he was still determined to go to France at the first opportunity. The officers of the mess welcomed Captain Bubbleton’s charge in friendly fashion. One exception, however, was Captain Montague Crofts, who made little effort to conceal his dislike.

One evening, Darby the Blast disguised himself as an old woman and came to the barracks to give Tom a packet containing Charles de Meudon’s letter of credit and two checks on his banker, papers Tom had dropped while fleeing from the British soldiers. Tom and Darby were interrupted when a group of officers entered and called for a deck of cards to settle a wager between Bubbleton and Crofts. Hearing Bubbleton wagering heavily and knowing that his friend had not that much money on his person, Tom slipped the captain what he thought was a twenty-pound note. Instead, he gave him one of Charles de Meudon’s notes for two thousand livres. After the other officers had gone on duty, Crofts threatened to denounce the boy as a traitor and a spy for the French. When Tom stood up against his accuser, the enraged captain drew his sword and tried to run the boy through. Tom was wounded, but before Crofts could strike a second blow, Darby the Blast ran into the room and struck the officer to the floor, where he lay as if dead.

Aided by the disguised piper, Tom managed to walk by the sentry and reach a house by the river. There his wound was dressed. Before daybreak, he was aboard a smuggler’s vessel bound for France.

All went as Charles de Meudon had planned. Enrolled in the Polytechnique, Tom soon distinguished himself at the French military school. One day, the famous General d’Auvergne arrived to review the cadets, and Tom led a desperate charge in a mimic battle staged for the occasion. Knocked unconscious, he revived to find a young woman holding a cup of water to his lips. Half-dazed, he had the impression that he had met her somewhere before. At that moment, the group about him parted. He saw a short man with a pale, commanding face looking down at him, and he heard Napoleon saying that he should be given his brevet at once. Advanced in rank, Tom moved into new quarters. His roommate was Lieutenant Tascher, the nephew of Madame Bonaparte, from Guadaloupe.

Although he grumbled frequently because his kinsman gave him no preferment, Tascher was generously pleased when Tom received a commission in the Eighth Hussars, a billet the young Creole had also desired. The next day, Tom was invited to attend Madame Bonaparte’s reception at the Tuileries, and he went to a fashionable tailor to be fitted for a new uniform. The shop was filled with elegant young dandies who eyed Tom’s old cadet uniform with contempt. Taking exception to one lounger’s remarks, Tom called him insolent. The young man presented himself as the Marquis de Beauvais, willing to meet Tom with rapiers in the Bois de Boulogne the next morning.

Tom attended the reception in his old uniform, and he was graciously received by Madame Bonaparte. A gentleman pointed out the young ladies of the court. One was the girl whom he had found bending over him...

(The entire section is 2744 words.)