The Poor Gentleman
Suppose that we too take a trip in fancy to Nancy, in France, in search of poor De Vlierbeck and his daughter. Let us wind through an immense number of narrow streets in the quarter known as the Old Town and at last halt at the door of an humble cobbler. This is the place. Pass through the shop, mount the staircase; another story yet; open that door, and here we are.
Every thing indicates poverty; but order and neatness preside over the room. The curtains of the little bed are white as snow, the stove is polished with black-lead till it shines, and the floor is sanded in Flemish style. Mignonette and violets bloom in a box on the window-sill, and a bird chirps in its cage above them. A young woman sits in front of the window; but she is so intent on the linen she is sewing that no other sound is heard in the silent room but that made by the motion of her hands as they guide the needle. She is dressed in the plainest garments; yet they are cut and put on so gracefully that one may declare at a glance she is a lady.
Poor Lenora! And this was what fate had in store for thee! To hide thy noble birth under the humble roof of a mechanic; to seek a refuge from insult and contempt far from thy childhood's home; to work without relaxation; to fight against privation and want, and to sink at last into shame and poverty, heart-broken by despair! Misery, doubtless, has cast a yellow tinge upon thy cheeks and stolen its radiance from thy glance. But no! thank God, it is not so! Thy heroic blood has strengthened thee against fate, and thy beauty is even more ravishing than of old! If a cloistered life has chastened thy roses, their tender bloom has only become more touching. Thy brow has grown loftier and purer; thine eyes still glisten beneath their sweeping lashes; and that well-remembered smile still hovers around thy coral lips!
Suddenly Lenora stopped working. Her hands rested on the work in her lap, her head bent forward, her eyes were riveted dreamily on the ground, and her soul, wandering perhaps to other lands, seemed to abandon itself on the current of a happy reverie. After a while she placed the linen she had been sewing on a chair and got up slowly. Leaning languidly on the window-frame, she gathered a few violets, played with them a while, and then looked abroad at the sky over the roof-tops, as if longing to breathe once more the fresh air and enjoy the spring. Soon her eyes fixed themselves compassionately on the bird that hopped about its cage and ever and anon struck its bill against the wires as if striving to get out.
"Why dost thou want to leave us, dear little bird?" said she, softly. "Why dost thou wish to be gone, dear comforter of our sadness? Sing gayly to-day; father is well again, and life is once more a pleasure. What is it makes thee flutter about so wildly and pant in thy cage? Ah! is it not hard, dear little one, to be captive when we know there are joy and freedom in the open air?—when we are born in the fields and woods?—when we know that there alone are independence and liberty. Like thee, poor bird, I am a child of nature; I too have been torn from my birthplace; I too bemoan the solitudes where my childhood was passed! But has a friend or lover been snatched from thee—as from me—forever? Dost thou grieve for something more than space and freedom? Yet why do I ask? Thy love-season has come round again, has it not? and love is the greatest blessing of thy little life! I understand thee, poor bird! I will no longer be thy fate! Fly away, and God help you! Begone, and enjoy the two greatest blessings of life! Ah, how thou singest as thy wings bear thee away,—away to the sky and woods! Farewell! farewell!" As she uttered these last words Lenora opened the cage-door and released the bird, which darted away like an arrow. After this she resumed her work and sewed on with the same zeal as before, till aroused by the sound of footsteps on the staircase.
"It is father! God grant he may have been lucky to-day!"
Monsieur De Vlierbeck entered the room with a roll of paper in his hand, and, throwing himself languidly into a chair, seemed altogether worn out with fatigue. He had become very thin; his eyes were sunk in their sockets, his cheeks were pale, and his whole expression was changed and broken. It was very evident that sickness or depression, or perhaps both, had made fearful ravages on his body as well as spirits.
The poor old gentleman was wretchedly clad. It was evident that he had striven as formerly to conceal his indigence, for there was not a stain or grain of dust on his garments; but the stuff was threadbare and patched, and all his garments were too large for his shrunken limbs.
Lenora looked at him a moment anxiously. "You do not feel ill, father, do you?"
"No, Lenora," replied he; "but I am very wretched."
Lenora said nothing, but embraced him tenderly and then knelt down with his hand in hers.
"Father," said she, "it is hardly a week since you were ill in bed: we prayed to God for your restoration, and he listened to our prayers; you are cured, dear father, and yet you give way anew at the first disappointment. You have not been successful to-day, father? I see it in your face. Well, what of it? Why should it interfere with our happiness? We have long learned how to fight against fate. Let us be strong and look misery in the face with heads up: courage is wealth; and so, father dear, forget your disappointment. Look at me. Am I sad? do I allow myself to be downcast and despairing? I suffered and wept enough when you were ill; but, now that you are well again, come what may, your Lenora will always thank God for his goodness!"
The poor old man smiled feebly at the courageous excitement of his daughter.
"Poor child!" said he; "I understand very well how you strive to appear strong in order to keep me up. May heaven repay your love, dear angel whom God has given me! your word and smile control me so completely that I may say a part of your soul passes with them into mine. I came home just now quite heart-broken and half crazy with despair; but you, my child, have restored me to myself again."
"That's right, father," said she, rising from her knees and sitting down on a chair close beside him; "come, father, tell me now all your adventures to-day, and afterward I will tell you something that will make you laugh."
"Alas, my child! I went to Monsieur Roncevaux's academy to resume my English lessons; but during my sickness an Englishman was put in my place: we have lost our best bit of bread."
"Well, how is it about Mademoiselle Pauline's German lesson?"
"Mademoiselle Pauline has gone to Strasburg and will not come back again. You see, Lenora, that we are losing every thing at once; so, have I not cause to be anxious and downcast? This news seems to overcome you, my child, strong as you are!"
In truth, Lenora was somewhat appalled by the dejecting words; but her father's remark restored her self-possession, and she replied, with a forced smile,—
"I was thinking, father, of the pain these dismissals gave you, and they really annoyed me Yet there are some things that ought to make me happy to-day. Yes, father, I have some good news for you!"
"Indeed? You astonish me!"
Lenora pointed to the chair.
"Do you see that linen?" said she. "I have a dozen fine shirts to make out of it; and when they are done there are as many more waiting for me. They pay me good wages, and I think, from what they say, that in time there will be something better in store for me. But as yet that is only a hope,—only a hope."
De Vlierbeck seemed particularly struck by the last remark of his daughter, as he looked at her anxiously.
"Well! well! what is it that makes you so happy and hopeful?" said he.
Lenora took up her sewing again and went busily to work.
"You wouldn't guess it in a week, father! Do you know who gave me this work? It is the rich lady who lives in the house with a court-yard, at the corner of our street. She sent for me this morning, and I went to her while you were abroad. You are surprised, father; are you not?"
"I am, indeed, Lenora. You are speaking of Madame De Royan, for whom you were employed to embroider those handsome collars. How does she come to know you?"
"I really don't know. Perhaps the person who gave me her collars to embroider told her who worked them: she must have spoken to her about your illness and our poverty, for Madame De Royan knows more of us than you imagine.'
"Heavens! She does not know—"
"No! she knows nothing about our name or from whence we came."
"Go on, Lenora; you excite my curiosity. I see you want to teaze me to-day!"
"Well, father, if you are tired I will cut my story short. Madame De Royan received me with great kindness, complimented me on my embroidery, asked me some questions about our misfortunes, and consoled and encouraged me generously. 'Go, my child!' said she, as she gave me the linen; 'work with a good will and be prudent: I will protect you. I have a great deal of sewing to do,—enough for two months at least. But that would not be enough; I mean to recommend you to all my friends, and I mean to see that you are paid for your work in such a way that your father and yourself shall be above want.' I took her hand and kissed it, for I was touched by the delicacy with which she give me work and not alms! Madame De Royan understood me, and, laying her hand kindly on my shoulder, 'Keep up your spirits, Lenora,' said she; 'the time will come when you must take apprentices to help you, and so by degrees you will become mistress of a shop.' Yes, father, that's what she said; I know her words by heart."
With this she sprang to her father, embraced him, and added, with considerable emotion,—
"What say you to it, father? Is it not good news? Who knows what may come to pass? Apprentices,—a shop,—a store,—a servant: you will keep the books and buy our goods, I will sit in the room and superintend the workwomen! How sweet it is to be happy and to know that we owe all to the work of our hands! Then, father, your promise will indeed be fulfilled, and then you may pass your old days happily."
There was a look of such extreme serenity in Monsieur De Vlierbeck's face, an expression of such vivid happiness was reflected from his wrinkled cheeks, that it was evident he had allowed his daughter's story to bewitch him into entire forgetfulness. But he soon found it out, and shook his head mournfully at the enchantress:—
"Oh! Lenora, Lenora, you witch! how easily have you managed to seduce me! I followed your words like a child, and I really believed in the happiness you promised. But let us be serious. The shoemaker spoke to me again about the rent, and asked me to pay it. We still owe him twenty francs, do we not?"
"Yes, twenty francs for rent, and about twelve francs to the grocer: that's all. When the shirts are done we will give my wages on account to the shoemaker, and I know he will be satisfied. The grocer is willing to give us longer credit. I received two francs and a half for my last work. You see very well, father, that we are still quite rich, and before a month is over will be out of debt entirely."
Poor De Vlierbeck seemed quite consoled; and a gleam of fortitude shone in his black eyes as he approached the table, unrolling the paper he had brought with him on his return.
"I have something to do too, Lenora. Professor Delsaux gave me some pieces of music to copy for his pupils, which will give me four francs in a couple of days. And now be quiet a while, my dear child; my nerves are so shattered that if we talk I shall make mistakes and spoil the paper."
"I may sing, father; may I not?"
"Oh, yes; that won't annoy me: your song will please my ear without distracting my attention."
The old gentleman went on writing, while Lenora, with a rich and joyous voice, repeated all her songs and poured forth her heart in melody. She sewed meanwhile diligently, and, from time to time, glanced at her father to see whether the cloud had fallen again over his face and spirit.
They had been a considerable time engaged with their several occupations, when the parish clock struck; and, putting down her work hastily, Lenora took a basket from behind the stove and prepared to go out. Her father looked up with surprise as he said,—
"What! already, Lenora?"
"It has just struck half-past eleven, father."
Without making any other remark, De Vlierbeck bent his head again over the music-paper and continued his task.
Lenora soon returned from her walk with her basket full of potatoes and something else tied up in a paper, which she hid beneath a napkin. Then, pouring some water in a pot which she placed beside her chair, she began to sing, and threw in the potatoes as she peeled them. After this she kindled a fire in the stove and set the pot of potatoes to boil. After the fire burned well she put a skillet, with a little butter and a good deal of vinegar, over the coals.
Up to this moment her father had not looked up nor intermitted his work; he saw her getting dinner ready every day, and it was seldom that any variety of food appeared on their table. But, hardly had the potatoes begun to boil, when an agreeable perfume was diffused through the chamber. De Vlierbeck glanced up from his writing, a little reproachfully, as he exclaimed,—
"What! meat on Friday, my child? you know very well we must be economical."
"Don't be angry, father," answered Lenora; "the doctor ordered it."
"You are trying to deceive me, are you not?"
"No, no; the doctor said you required meat at least three times a week, if we could get it; it will do you more good than any thing else in restoring your strength."
"And yet we are in debt, Lenora!"
"Come, come, father, let our debts alone, everybody will be paid and satisfied. Don't trouble yourself about them any more: I'll answer for them all. And now be so good as to take your papers off of the table, so that I can lay the cloth."
De Vlierbeck got up and did as he was asked. Lenora covered the deal-boards with a snowy napkin and placed on it two plates and a dish of potatoes. It was indeed an humble table, at which all was extremely common; yet every thing was so neat, fresh, and savory, that a rich man might have sat down to it with appetite. They took their places and asked a blessing on the meal; but, before the prayer was finished, Lenora started suddenly and interrupted her father. With eyes staring toward the door and head leaned forward, she listened eagerly, motioning her father with her hand to be silent.
There was a sound of footsteps and voices on the staircase, and, as they approached, Lenora thought she recognised the tones. She bounded to the door with a sharp cry, and, closing it, leaned against the boards to prevent any one from entering.
"For God's sake, child, what are you afraid of?" cried her father.
"GUSTAVE! GUSTAVE!" whispered Lenora, with pale and quivering lips. "He is there! he is there! I hear him. Take away that table quickly. Of all the world he is the last who should see our misery!"
De Vlierbeck's face grew dark, his head became erect and fierce, and his eyes flashed with their ancient fire. Advancing silently to his daughter, he drew her from the door. Lenora fled to a corner of the room, and covered her face, which was red with mortification.
Suddenly the door opened, and a young man rushed into the chamber with an exclamation of joy as he advanced, open-armed, toward the trembling girl, whom he would have pressed to his breast had not the hand and look of her father arrested his steps.
For a moment he stood like one stupefied, glancing from the wretched board to the miserable dress of the old man and his daughter. The sight affected the intruder, for he covered his eyes as he exclaimed, in subdued and despairing tones, "Oh, God! has it come to this?"
But he did not allow himself to remain long under the influence either of his feelings or of her father, and, advancing anew to Lenora, seized and pressed both her hands ardently.
"Oh! look at me, Lenora! Let me see if thy heart has preserved the memory of our love!"
Lenora's eyes met his at once and with affection. It was a look that completely revealed her pure and constant soul.
"Oh, happiness!" cried Gustave, enthusiastically; "thou art still my dear and tender Lenora! Thank God, no power on earth can ever separate me again from my betrothed! Receive, receive the kiss of our union!"
He stretched his arms toward her. Lenora, trembling with agony and happiness, stood downcast and blushing, as if awaiting the solemn kiss; but, before Gustave could accomplish the act, De Vlierbeck was by his side, and, grasping his hand, held him motionless.
"Monsieur Denecker," said her father, severely, "have the goodness to moderate your transports. We are certainly glad to see you once more; but neither you nor I can forget what we are. Respect our poverty!"
"What do you say?" cried Gustave. "What you are! You are my friend,—my father. Lenora is my betrothed! Oh heaven! why look at me so reproachfully?"
He seized the hand of Lenora again, and, drawing her toward her father, rapidly continued:—
"Listen! My uncle died in Italy and left me heir of all his property. He commanded me on his death-bed to marry Lenora. I have searched heaven and earth to find you. I have suffered for many months all the torture that a nature like mine can endure; and at length I have discovered you! I have come, sir, to ask the reward of my suffering. I lay my fortune, heart, and life at your feet; and, in exchange, I implore the happiness of leading Lenora to the altar. Grant me that favor, O my father! Grinselhof awaits you. I bought it for you. Every thing is there again. The portraits of your ancestors are in their places on the wall, and every thing that was dear to you is restored. Come! let me watch your old days, your declining years, with the veneration of a son! let me make you happy again;—oh, how happy!"
The old man's expression did not change, yet a tear moistened his eye.
"Ah!" continued Gustave, "nothing on earth can again separate me from her,—not even a father's power; for I feel that God himself has given her to me! Yet pardon me, father, for my rashness, and bestow your benediction!"
De Vlierbeck seemed to have utterly forgotten the young man and his transports; for he stood with clasped hands and eyes raised to heaven, as if addressing his Maker in fervent prayer. At length his words began to be heard distinctly:—
"Oh, Margaret! Margaret! rejoice on the bosom of God. My promise is fulfilled;—thy child will be happy!"
Gustave and Lenora stood before him hand in hand; and, as he threw his arms around the young man,—
"May Heaven bless you for your love!" continued he. "Make my child happy. She is your wife!"
"Gustave, Gustave,—my husband!" exclaimed Lenora, as they threw themselves into each other's arms, and the first kiss of love—the first consecrated kiss—was exchanged on the breast of that happy father, who wept over and blessed his children.
And now, gentle reader, I must inform you that I have had my own reasons for concealing the situation and even the true name of the château of DE VLIERBECK. None of you will, therefore, ever know where Gustave and Lenora dwell. I know Monsieur and Madame Denecker intimately, and have taken many a walk around Grinselhof with two charming little children and their venerable grandfather. I have often beheld the beautiful picture of peace, love, and domestic happiness that is seen in that old house beneath the grim ancestral portraits or in the fresh air under the trees. I will not say who told me the story of this family. Let it suffice that I know all the persons who have played a part in it, and that I have often chatted with Farmer John and Dame Bess while they poured forth their gossip about "The Poor Gentleman" and his trials.