The Poor Gentleman
Spring, gentle spring, had thrown aside the funeral garb of winter, and earth awoke again to vigorous life. Grinselhof reappeared in all the splendor of its wild, natural scenery; its majestic oaks displayed their verdant domes, its roses bloomed as sweetly as of old, elder-blossoms filled the air with delicious odor, butterflies fluttered through the garden, and every thicket was vocal with the song of birds.
Nothing seemed changed at Grinselhof: its roads, its paths, were still deserted, and sad was the silence that reigned in its shadows. Yet immediately around the house there was more life and movement than formerly. At the coach-house two grooms were busy washing and polishing a new and fashionable coach; while the neigh of horses resounded from the stable. A trim waiting-maid stood on the door-sill laughing and joking with the lackeys, and a respectable old butler looked knowingly on the group.
Suddenly the clear silvery ring of a bell was heard from the parlor, and the waiting-maid ran in, exclaiming, "Good Heavens! there's Monsieur ringing for his breakfast, and it is not ready yet!"
A few moments afterward she was seen mounting the staircase with a rich silver salver covered with breakfast-things; and, entering the parlor, she placed them silently on a table before a young gentleman who seemed entirely absorbed by his own thoughts, and then instantly left the room without a word.
The young man began his meal with a careless, indifferent air, as if he either had no appetite or did not know what he was about. The furniture of the apartment in which he sat presented odd and striking contrasts to an observer. While some of the articles were remarkable for the richness and elegance of their modern style, there were chairs, tables, and cabinets whose sombre hue and elaborate carving denoted an antiquity of several centuries. On the walls were numerous pictures, dimmed by smoke and time, encased in frames that had lost half their ornaments and gilding. These were portraits of warriors, statesmen, priests, and prelates. In the dim corners of the canvas armorial bearings of the house of De Vlierbeck might be seen, and many of the articles of furniture were embellished with the same blazonry.
We were told a while ago that a public sale at Grinselhof had dispersed among a crowd of competitors every thing that belonged to Monsieur De Vlierbeck. How has it come to pass that these portraits have returned to their old nails on walls which they seemed to have abandoned forever?
The listless youth rose from the table, walked slowly about the room, stopped, looked mournfully at the portraits, recommenced his walk, and approached an antique casket placed on a bracket in the corner. He opened it with apparent indifference and took out some simple jewelry,—a pair of ear-rings and a coral necklace. He gazed long at these objects as he held them in his hand; a few tears fell on them, a deep sigh escaped from his bosom, and he then replaced the jewels in their casket.
Quitting the room, he descended to the court. Waiters and servant-maids saluted as he passed: he acknowledged their civility by a silent nod and went forth to the most secluded parts of the garden. Stopping at the foot of a wild chestnut-tree, he threw himself on the ground, where he sat long in moody reverie until aroused by the ringing voice of Bess, who approached him with a book in her hand:—
"Here, sir, is a book which Mademoiselle Lenora used to read. My goodman went yesterday to market, where he found the farmer who bought it at the sale. After market was over John accompanied the peasant home, and would not leave him till he had bought the book back again. I suppose it is an excellent book, as Mademoiselle used to love it so; and neither gold nor silver could ever get it from me if it wasn't for you, sir. Husband says it is called LUCIFER'!"
While she was running on, Gustave seized the book eagerly and ran over its pages without paying attention to what she said. "Thank you, thank you for your kind attention, mother Bess!" said he. "You can't think how happy I am whenever I find any thing that belonged to your mistress. Be assured that I will never forget your goodness." After offering this expression of his thanks to the farmer's wife he opened the book again and began to read without heeding her further. But the good woman did not go away, and soon interrupted him with a question:—
"May I ask, sir, if you have any news yet of our young lady?"
Gustave shook his head. "Not the least scrap of news, mother Bess. My search has been fruitless."
"That is unlucky, sir. God knows where she may be and what she is suffering. She told me before she went away that she meant to work for her father; but one must have learned to work very early in life to earn a living by one's hands. My heart almost breaks when I think of it. Perhaps that good, sweet young lady is reduced to work for other people and labors like a slave to get a mouthful of bread! I have been a servant, sir, and I know what it is to work from morning until night for others. And she,—she who is so beautiful, so clever, so kind! Oh, sir, it is terrible! I can't help crying like a child, thinking of her miserable life!"
Gustave was overcome by the simple eloquence of the poor woman, and remained silent.
"And then to think," continued Bess, "she might now be so happy! that she might again become mistress of Grinselhof, where she was born and grew up! that her father might pass his old days in quietness, and that they are now wandering about the world poor, sick, abandoned outcasts! Oh, sir, it is sad to know that our benefactors are unhappy, and to be able to do nothing for them but pray to God and hope for his mercy!"
The simple-minded woman, without meaning it, had touched some tender strings in Gustave's heart; and, as she saw the silent tears coursing their way down his cheeks, she said, entreatingly,—
"Oh, pardon me, sir, for having grieved you so by my talk! but my heart is full, and my feelings force their way without knowing it. If I have done wrong, I am sure you are too kind to be angry with me for loving our young lady so much and bemoaning her misfortune. Have you no orders for me to-day, sir?"
She was about to go, as Gustave raised his downcast eyes and, restraining his tears, exclaimed,—
"I—angry with you, mother Bess?—and angry, too, because you show affection for our poor Lenora? Oh, no, no! On the contrary, I bless you for it with all my heart! The tears you betrayed from my heart have done me good; for I am very unhappy. Life is a burden; and if God, in his mercy, would take me away from earth, I would gladly die. All hope of seeing her again in this world is gone. Perhaps she is awaiting me in the next!"
"Oh, sir! sir! how you talk!" cried the peasant-woman, in alarm. "No! no! that cannot be!"
"You grieve, my good woman, and shed tears for her," continued Gustave, without heeding the interruption; "but don't you see how my soul must be consumed with despair? Alas! for months and months I have implored God for the happiness of seeing her once more! I overcame all obstacles to our marriage, and I became almost mad with joy and impatience as I flew like lightning to the home where I left her; and then my only recompense, my only consolation, was to find her gone and the house of her fathers a wilderness!—to know, alas! that she is poor, and, perhaps, languishing in want!—to know that my noble-hearted and beloved Lenora sinks under the weight of misfortune, and yet to be able to do nothing to relieve her!—to be condemned to count in powerless despair her days of affliction, and not even to be sure that suffering has not killed her!"
A profound silence followed this complaining outburst, and the peasant-woman, with her head bent to the earth, sympathized with him truly, till, after a few moments, she attempted to console the sufferer in her simple way:—
"Oh, sir, I understand only too well how much you endure! And yet why despair? Who knows but we may receive some news of our dear young lady when we least expect it? God is good; he will hear our prayers; and our joy for her return will make us forget all our grief!"
"Oh that your prophecy might be realized, my good woman! But seven months have already gone since they departed. During three of them a hundred persons have been employed in seeking the wanderers. They have been sought for in every direction, and not the slightest intelligence has been obtained; not a trace, not the least sign that they are even alive! My reason tells me not to despair; but my heart magnifies my ills and cries aloud that I have lost her!—lost her forever!"
He was about quitting the garden, when a noise attracted his attention as he pointed toward the road leading to the château.
"Listen! Don't you hear something?" cried he.
"It is the gallop of a horse," answered Bess, without comprehending why the noise so much startled her master.
"Poor fool!" said the young man to himself; "why am I so startled by the passing of a horseman?"
"But see! see! he is coming into the avenue!" cried Bess, with increasing interest. "Oh, God! I am sure it is a messenger with news! Heaven grant it may be good!"
As she said this the rider passed through the gate at full gallop, and, drawing rein at the door they had just reached, took a letter from his pocket and handed it to the master of Grinselhof:—
"I come," said he, "from your notary, who ordered me to deliver you this letter without a moment's delay."
Gustave broke the seal with a trembling hand, while Bess, smiling with hope, followed all her master's movements with staring eyes.
As he read the first lines the anxious youth grew pale; but as he went on a tremor ran through all his limbs, till with a hysterical laugh and clasped hands he exclaimed,—
"Thanks! thanks! Oh, God! she is restored to me!"
"Oh, sir, sir," cried Bess, "is it good news?"
"Yes! yes! rejoice with me! Lenora lives! I know where she is!" answered Gustave, half mad with delight, running into the house and calling all the servants. "Quick! quick! Have out the travelling-carriage and the English horses! My trunk! my cloak! Quick! fly!"
He carried forth with his own hands a number of things that were necessary for the journey. His fleetest horses were attached to the vehicle; and, although they strained their bits and pawed the ground as if impatient for the road, the postillion lashed them fiercely as they dashed through the gateway.
In a moment, and almost as if by magic, the coach was on the road to Antwerp and hidden from the staring crowd by a cloud of dust.