The Poor Gentleman
Near the end of July, 1842, an open calèche might have been seen rolling along one of the three highways that lead from the frontiers of Holland toward Antwerp. Although the vehicle had evidently been cleaned with the utmost care, every thing about it betokened decay. Its joints were open, discolored, and weather-beaten, and it swung from side to side on its springs like a rickety skeleton. Its patched leathers shone in the sunshine with the oil that had been used to freshen them, but the borrowed lustre could not hide the cracks and repairs with which they were defaced. The door-handles and other parts of the vehicle that were made of copper had been carefully polished, and the vestiges of silver-plating, still visible in the creases of the ornaments, denoted a former richness which had been almost entirely worn out by time and use.
The calèche was drawn by a stout, heavy horse, whose short and lumbering gait intimated very clearly that he was oftener employed in the plough and cart than in carrying his owner toward the capital.
A peasant-boy of seventeen or eighteen was perched on the driver's seat. He was in livery; a tarnished gold band adorned his hat, and brass buttons glistened on his coat; but the hat fell over his ears, and the coat was so large that the driver seemed lost in it as in a bag. The garments had been worn by many of the lackey's predecessors on the box, and, in a long series of years, had doubtless passed from coachman to coachman till they descended to their present possessor.
The only person in the vehicle was a man about fifty years old. He was unquestionably the master of both servant and cabriolet, for his look and deportment commanded respect and consideration. With head depressed and moody air, he sat motionless and dreamy in his seat till he heard the approach of other vehicles, when, suddenly lifting his eyes, he would salute the strangers graciously and then instantly relapse into his former attitude. A moment's glance at this person was sufficient to excite an interest in him. His face, though hard and wrinkled, was so regular and noble in its contour, his look so mild and yet so earnest and penetrating, his broad brow so clear and lofty, that the most careless observer could not doubt that he was endowed with the best qualities of human nature. Besides this, there were unquestionable indications that he had been a sufferer. If a simple glance at his features did not impress one with a conviction of this fact, it was confirmed by the fringe of silvery hair that straggled over his temples, and the sombre, melancholy fire that glimmered in his eyes like the last rays of expiring hope.
His dress was in perfect keeping with his physiognomy. It was of that neat and simple style which always characterizes a man of the world who is governed by refined and elegant tastes. His linen was spotlessly white, his cloth extremely fine, and his well-brushed hat shone smartly in the sunshine. Occasionally, as some one passed on the road, he might be seen to draw forth a handsome gold snuff-box and inhale a pinch with so graceful an air that an observer would be convinced he belonged to the highest classes of society. A malicious eye, it is true, might have discovered by close inspection that the brush had been too familiar with his coat and worn it threadbare, that his silk hat had been doctored to preserve its lustre and smoothness, and that his gloves were elaborately darned. If an inquisitive critic could have pried into the bottom of the vehicle, he would have detected a large crack in the side of the left boot, beneath which a gray stocking had been carefully masked with ink. Still, all these signs of poverty were so artfully concealed, and his dress worn with so careless an air of opulence and ease, that every body might have supposed the traveller did not put on better clothes only because he had a whim for bad ones.
The calèche had rolled along rapidly for about two hours, when the driver suddenly drew up at a small inn on the dike outside of the city of Antwerp. The landlady and groom instantly sallied forth, and by their profound salutations and civility exhibited their marked respect for a well-known stranger.
"It's a fine day, Monsieur Vlierbeck, isn't it?" said the dame; "yet it's a trifle warm, however. Don't you think it would be well for the high-grounds if we had a sprinkle more of rain, Monsieur Vlierbeck? Shall we give the horse some hay, Monsieur Vlierbeck? But stay: I see, now, your coachman has brought his hay with him. Will you take anything, Monsieur Vlierbeck?"
While the hostess was pouring forth this torrent of questions, Monsieur De Vlierbeck got out of the vehicle, and, entering the house, addressed the most flattering compliments to the dame about her good looks, inquired as to the health of each of her children, and finished by apprizing her that he was obliged to be in town instantly. Thereupon, shaking her cordially by the hand, yet with a condescending air that marked and preserved the distance between them, he gave his orders to his lackey, and, with a farewell bow, walked toward the bridge leading into the city.
At a solitary spot on the outer rampart Monsieur De Vlierbeck stopped, looked round as if to see if any one was observing him, dusted his garments, brushed his hat with a handkerchief, and then passed on through the Porte Rouge into the city of Antwerp.
As he entered a town where he was likely to find himself constantly an object of notice, he assumed a lofty carriage and self-satisfied air, which might have deceived any one into the belief that he was the happiest man on earth. And yet—alas, poor gentleman!—he was a prey to the profoundest agony! He was, perhaps, about to suffer humiliation,—a humiliation that would cut him to the very heart! But there was a being in the world whom he loved better than his life or honor,—his only child, his daughter! For her—how frequently had he already sacrificed his pride, how frequently had he suffered the pangs of martyrdom! Still, so great a slave was he to this passionate love that every new endurance, every new trial, raised him in his own estimation and exalted his pain into something that ennobled and sanctified his very nature!
His heart beat violently as he entered deeper and deeper into the heart of the city and approached the house he was about to visit. Soon after he stopped at a door, and, as he pulled the bell, his hand trembled violently in spite of extraordinary self-control; but as soon as a servant answered the summons he became master of himself again.
"Is the notary in?" inquired the old gentleman. The servant replied affirmatively, and, showing the visitor into a small room, went to apprize his master.
As soon as Monsieur De Vlierbeck was alone, he put his right foot over the left to hide the rent in his boot, drew forth the gold snuff-box, and made ready to take a pinch.
The notary came in. He was a spare, business-looking man, and was preparing to salute his guest graciously, but no sooner did he perceive who it was than his face grew dark and assumed that reserved air with which a cautious man arms himself when he expects a request which he is predetermined to refuse. Instead, therefore, of lavishing on Monsieur De Vlierbeck the compliments with which he habitually welcomed his visitors, the notary confined himself to a few cold words of recognition and then sat down silently in front of him.
Wounded and humbled by this ungracious reception, poor De Vlierbeck was seized with a chill and became slightly pale; still, he managed to rally his nerves, as he remarked, affably,—"Pray excuse me, sir; but, pressed by imperious necessity, I have come once more to appeal to your kindness for a small service."
"What is it you wish of me?" answered the notary, tartly.
"I wish you to find another loan of a thousand francs for me,—or even less,—secured by a mortgage on my property. I do not want all the money at once, but I have especial need of two hundred francs, which I must ask the favor of you to lend me to-day. I trust you will not deny me this trifling loan, which will extricate me from the deepest embarrassment."
"A thousand francs, on mortgage?" growled the notary; "and who, pray, will guarantee the interest? Your property is already mortgaged for more than it is worth."
"Oh! you are mistaken, sir," exclaimed Monsieur De Vlierbeck, anxiously.
"Not the least in the world! By order of the persons who have already accommodated you with money, I caused your property to be appraised at the very highest rates; and the consequence is that your creditors will not get back their loans unless it shall sell for an extraordinary price. Permit me to say, sir, that you have acted very foolishly: had I been in your place, I would not have sacrificed all my fortune, and my wife's too, to save a worthless fellow, even though he had been my brother!"
De Vlierbeck frowned, as a painful recollection shot through his mind, but said nothing, though his hand grasped the golden snuff-box as if he would have crushed it.
"By that imprudent act," continued the notary, "you have plunged yourself and your child into absolute want; for you can no longer disguise it. For ten years—and God knows at what cost—you have been able to keep the secret of your ruin; but the inevitable hour is approaching, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, when you will be forced to surrender every thing!"
De Vlierbeck riveted a look of doubt and agony on the notary as the latter continued:—
"I must tell you frankly the condition of your affairs. Monsieur de Hoogebaen died during his journey in Germany; his heirs found your bond for four thousand francs, and have directed me not to renew it. If Monsieur Hoogebaen was your friend his heirs certainly are not. During ten years you have failed to cancel this debt, and have paid two thousand francs interest; so that, for your own sake, it is time the transaction should be closed. Four months are still left, Monsieur Vlierbeck, before the expiration of—"
"Only four months!" interrupted the poor gentleman, in a distressed tone; "only four months, and then—oh, God!"
"Then your property will be sold according to law," said the notary, dryly, finishing the sentence. "I can well understand, sir, that this is a painful prospect; but, as it is a decree of fate that no one can control, you have nothing to do but prepare to receive the blow. Let me offer to sell your estate as if you 'were leaving the country.' By that means you will escape the mortification of a forced sale."
For several moments Monsieur De Vlierbeck remained silent, his face buried in his hands, as if crushed by the notary's advice and callousness. At length he replied, calmly but humbly,—
"Your counsel is, perhaps, wise and generous; yet I will not follow it. You know that all my sacrifices, my painful life, my constant agony, have been patiently endured for the sake of my only child. You alone know that all I do has but, one purpose,—a purpose which I hold sacred. I have reason to believe that God is about granting the earnest prayer I have daily offered for ten years. My daughter is beloved by a rich gentleman, whose character I think I may confide in, and his family appears to sympathize in all his views. Four months! it is but a short time, alas! yet, ought I, by anticipating the legal period of a sale, to destroy all my fond hopes? Ought I instantly to welcome misery for myself and my child when I see the chance of sure relief from all we have suffered?"
"Then you want to deceive these people, whoever they may be? Do you not suppose that by such a course of conduct you may make your daughter still more wretched?"
At the word "deceive" the poor gentleman winced as if stung by an adder, while a nervous thrill ran through his limbs and suffused his face with a blush of shame.
"Deceive!" echoed he, bitterly; "oh, no! but I dare not, by a rash avowal of my want, stifle the love that is growing up mutually. Whenever it becomes necessary to be decided, I will make a loyal disclosure of my condition. If the declaration ruin my hopes I will follow your advice. I will sell all I have; I will quit the country and seek in some foreign land to maintain myself and my beloved child by teaching." He stopped for a moment, as if swallowing his grief, and then continued, in a lower tone, half speaking to himself, "And, yet, did I not promise my dear wife on her death-bed—did I not promise it on the holy cross—that our child should not undergo such a fate? Ten years of suffering—ten abject years—have not sufficed to realize my promise; and now, at last, a feeble ray of hope struggles into my sombre future—" He grasped the notary's hand, looked wildly but earnestly into his eyes, and added, in suppliant tones, "Oh, my friend, help me! help me in this last and trying effort; do not prolong my torture; grant my prayer, and as long as I live I will bless my benefactor, the savior of my child!"
The notary withdrew his hand as he answered, with some embarrassment, "Yet, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, I cannot comprehend what all this has to do with the loan of a thousand francs!"
De Vlierbeck thrust his rejected hand into his pocket as he replied, "Yes, sir, it is ridiculous, is it not, to fall so low and to see one's happiness or misery depend on things about which other persons may laugh? And yet, alas! so it is! The young gentleman of whom I spoke to you is to dine with us to-morrow in company with his uncle,—the uncle invited himself,—and we have absolutely nothing to give them! Besides this, my child needs some trifles to appear decently before the guests, and it is probable that the civility will be returned by an invitation from them. Our isolation cannot long conceal our want. Sacrifices of all kinds have already been made to prevent our being overwhelmed with mortification." As he uttered these last words he drew forth his hand from his pocket with about two francs in small change, which he held exposed on his palm before the notary. "And now, behold," continued he, with a bitter smile,—"behold every cent I have in the world; and to-morrow rich people are to dine at my house! If my poverty is betrayed by any thing, farewell to my child's prospects! For God's sake, my good friend, be generous, and help me!"
"A thousand francs!" muttered the notary, shaking his head; "I can't deceive my clients, sir. What pledge can you give to secure the loan? You possess nothing which is not already mortgaged beyond its value."
"A thousand! five hundred! two hundred!" cried De Vlierbeck. "Lend me, at least, something to relieve me from this cruel difficulty!"
"I have no disposable funds," replied the notary, coldly. "In a fortnight perhaps I may have some; but even then I could promise nothing positively."
"Then, for the sake of friendship, I beseech you, lend me some money yourself!"
"I could never expect that you would return what I might lend," said the notary, contemptuously; "and so it is an alms you ask of me?"
Poor De Vlierbeck trembled on his chair and became pale as ashes; his eyes flashed wildly and his brow knotted with frowns. Yet he quickly curbed the unwonted agitation, bowed his head, and sighed, resignedly, "ALMS! Alas! so be it! let me drink the very dregs of this bitter cup: it is for my child!"
The notary went to a drawer and took from it some five-franc-pieces, which he offered to his visitor. It is difficult to say whether the poor gentleman was wounded by the actual receipt of charity, or whether the sum was too small to be useful; but, without touching the money, he glanced angrily at the silver and fell back in his chair, covering his face with his hands.
Just at this moment a servant entered, announcing another visitor; and, as soon as the lackey left the apartment, Monsieur De Vlierbeck sprang from his chair, dashing away the tears that had gathered in his eyes. The notary pointed to the money, which he laid on the corner of the table; but the mortified guest turned away his head with a gesture of repugnant refusal.
"Pardon my boldness, sir," said he, "but I have now only one favor to ask of you"
"And it is—?"
"That you will keep my secret for my daughter's sake."
'Oh, as to that, make yourself easy. You know me well enough to be aware of my discretion. Do you decline this trifling aid?"
"Thanks! thanks!" cried the gentleman, pushing away the notary's hand; and, trembling as if seized by a sudden chill, he rushed from the room and the house without waiting for the servant to open the door.
Utterly overcome by the terrible blow to his hopes, beside himself with mortification, with his head hanging on his bosom and his eyes bent staringly on the ground, the poor fellow ran about the streets for a considerable length of time without knowing what he was about or whither he was going. At length the stern conviction of want and duty partially aroused him from his feverish dream, and he walked on rapidly in the direction of the gate of Borgenhout, till he found himself entirely alone among the fortifications.
He had no sooner reached this solitary quarter than a terrible conflict seemed to begin within him; his lips quivered and muttered incoherently, while his face exhibited a thousand different expressions of suffering, shame, and hope. After a while he drew forth from his pocket the golden snuff-box, looked long and sadly on the armorial engravings that adorned it, and then fell into a reverie, from which he suddenly aroused himself as if about taking a solemn resolution. With his eyes intently fixed on the box, he began to obliterate the arms with his knife, as he murmured, in a voice of tremulous emotion,—
"Remembrancer of my dear and excellent mother, protecting talisman that has so long concealed my misery and which I invoked as a sacred shield whenever poverty was on the eve of betraying me, last fragment of my ancestry, I must bid thee farewell; and—alas! alas!—my own hand must profane and destroy thee! God grant that the last service thou wilt ever render me may save us from overwhelming humiliation!"
A tear trickled down his wan cheek as his voice became still; but he went on with his task of obliteration till every trace of the crest and shield disappeared from the emblazoned lid. After this he returned to the heart of the town and passed through a number of small and lonely streets, glancing eagerly, but askance, at the signs as he passed onward in his agitation.
An hour had certainly elapsed in this bootless wandering, when he entered a narrow lane in the quarter of Saint André and uttered a sudden cry of joy as he caught a glimpse of the object for which he was in search. His eye lighted on a sign which bore the simple but ominous inscription—"SWORN PAWNBROKER." He passed by the door and walked rapidly to the end of the lane; then, turning hastily, he retraced his steps, hastening or lingering as he noticed any one passing in his neighborhood, till at length he crept along the wall to the door, and, seeing the thoroughfare almost empty, rushed into the house and disappeared.
After a considerable time De Vlierbeck came forth from the money-lender's and quickly gained another street. There was a slight expression of satisfaction in his eyes; but the bright blush that suffused his haggard cheeks gave token of the new humiliation through which the sufferer had passed. Walking rapidly from street to street, he soon reached a pastry-cook's, where he filled a basket with a stuffed turkey, a pie, preserves, and various other smaller equipments for the table, and, paying for his purchases, told the cook that he would send his servant for the packages. Farther on he bought a couple of silver spoons and a pair of ear-rings from a jeweller, and then proceeded on his way, probably to make additional acquisitions for the proposed entertainment.