The Poor Gentleman
In our wild and thorny region of the North a brave and toilsome peasantry have long been engaged in victorious conflict with the barren sleep to which nature seemed to have condemned the soil. They have stirred up the sterile depths and watered them with their sweat; they have summoned science and industry to their aid, drained marshes, diverted the streamlets that descended toward the Meuse from the highlands and put them in circulation through innumerable arteries to fatten and enrich the land. What a glorious fight it was of man against matter! What a magnificent triumph it has been to convert the unthrifty Campine (see note) into a fruitful and luxurious region! Indeed, our descendants will hardly believe their own eyes when in future times they shall behold grass-covered plains, flowery meadows, and fields waving with grain, where the lingering patriarchs of our day may point out the sites of burning sand-pits and barren moors!
NOTE: The Flemings have given the name of Campine to the vast uncultivated spaces extending in the north of Belgium from the vicinity of Antwerp to Venloo. The improvement of the Campine, undertaken on a large scale within some years, has already produced the happiest results.
North of the city of Antwerp, toward the frontiers of Holland, there are but few traces of this gradual improvement. It is only along highroads that the traveller begins to observe the effect of liberal agriculture on the sandy soil, while, farther on toward the heart of the region, every thing is still bare and uncultivated. As far as the eye can penetrate, nothing is to be seen in that quarter but arid plains thinly covered with stunted vegetation, while the horizon is bounded by that blue and cloudy line which always marks the limit of a desert. Yet, as we journey over these vast spaces, it is impossible not to observe, from time to time, that a clear and slender rivulet meanders here and there over the moor, and that its verdant banks are studded with vigorous plants and thrifty trees; while in many places the hardy sons of toil who took advantage of the neighboring water, have opened their lonely farms, built comfortable houses, and frequently gathered themselves together in neat and thrifty villages.
In one of these spots, where meadow-land and pasturage have made agriculture profitable, and by the side of an unfrequented road, there is a farm of considerable size and value. The massive trees which spread their thick shade on every side attest that the spot has been occupied and cultivated for several generations. Besides, the ditches which surround it, and the stone bridge that leads to the principal gate, justify the belief that the estate has some right to be considered a lordly demesne. In the neighborhood it is known as GRINSELHOF. The entire front of the property is covered by the homestead of the farmer, comprising his stables and granges; so that, in fact, every thing in their rear is concealed by these edifices as well as by dense thickets and hedges which are growing in all the wild luxuriance of nature. Indeed, the dwelling of the proprietor was a mystery even to the farmer who worked the soil; for its surrounding copses were an impenetrable veil to his eyes, beyond which neither he nor his family were ever allowed to pass without special permission.
Within this lonely and sacred precinct, buried in foliage, was a large house, called THE CHÂTEAU, inhabited by a gentleman and his daughter, who, without a single servant, companion, or attendant, led the lonely lives of hermits. The neighbors said that it was avarice or ill-humor that induced a person possessed of so beautiful an estate to bury himself in such a solitude. The farmer who worked on the property carefully avoided all explanations as to the conduct or purpose of the proprietor, and sedulously respected the mysterious habits and fancies of his master. His business prospered; for the soil was fertile and the rent low. Indeed, he was grateful to his landlord, and, every Sunday, lent him a horse, which carried him and his daughter, in their weather-beaten calèche, to the village church. On great occasions the farmer's son performed the duty of lackey for the proprietor.
It is an afternoon of one of the last days of July. The sun has nearly finished his daily course, and is declining rapidly toward the horizon; still, his rays, though less ardent than at noontide, are hot enough to make the air close and stifling. At Grinselhof the last beams of the setting luminary play gayly over the foliage, gilding the tree-tops with sparkling light, while, on the eastern side of the dense foliage, the long, broad shadows begin to fall athwart the sward, and prepare the groves for the gentle and refreshing breeze that springs up at twilight.
Sadness and gloom hang over the sombre château and its grounds; a deathlike silence weighs like a gravestone on the desolate scene; the birds are songless; the wind is still; not a leaf stirs; and light alone seems to be living in that dreary solitude. No one could observe the entire absence of noise, motion, and vitality, without being impressed with the idea that nature had been suddenly plunged in a deep and magic sleep.
Suddenly the foliage at the end of a thicket in the distance is seen to stir, while a cloud of twittering birds, frightened from the herbage, flies rapidly across the little path, which is immediately occupied by a young female dressed entirely in white, who dashes from between the branches with a silken net in pursuit of a butterfly. The beautiful apparition, with loose and streaming hair, seemed rather to fly than run, as her light and rapid steps, full of eagerness and animation, scarcely touched the earth while darting after the gaudy insect. How graceful she is, as, halting for an instant beneath the coquettish moth, she looks up to behold its gold-and-purple wings dancing round her head, mocking and playing with its gay pursuer! She thinks she has caught it; but, alas! the edge of her net only touched the butterfly's wings, and away it dashes, over hedge and copse, far, far beyond her reach! How beautiful she is, as, in that golden light, warmed with exercise and excitement, her eyes glistening, her lips parted, her graceful arms stretched upward, she stands gazing, half pleased, half disappointed, after the departing insect, till it is lost in the evening sky! Wind and sunshine have slightly tanned her delicate cheeks, but their roses are only heightened into the glow of perfect health. Beneath her high and polished brow, coal-black eyes shine through long and silken fringes, while a chiselled mouth discloses rows of faultless pearls between lips which shame the coral! Her stately head is framed in masses of long, curling hair; and, as the locks are floated over her ivory shoulders by rapid motion, the proud and arching lines of her swan-like neck are fully displayed in all their splendor. Her form is lithe and supple, and its graceful contour is modestly marked by a snowy dress. As she lifts her head and gazes at the sky, a poet might easily fancy her to be some fanciful "being of the air," and convert her into the fairy queen of the solitary realm!
For a long while this beautiful woman wandered about the paths of the lonely garden, seemingly absorbed in reveries of various kinds. At times she was gay, at times sad. At length she approached a bed of violets, which, from the training of the plants, had evidently, been carefully tended, and, observing that they languished under the intense heat of the past day, began to grieve over them.
"Alas! my dear little flowers, why did I neglect to water you yesterday? You are very thirsty, are you not, my charming pets?"
For a moment or two she was quiet, still gazing at the violets, and then continued, in the same dreamy tone:—
"But then, alas! since yesterday my mind has been so disturbed, so happy, so—" Her eyes fell, and a blush crimsoned her cheeks, as she murmured, softly, "GUSTAVE!"
Motionless as a statue, and absorbed in her enchanting dream, she forgot the poor little violets, and, probably, the whole world.
"His image ever, ever before me! his voice ever ringing in my ears! Why try to escape their fascination? Oh, God! what is this that is passing within me? My heart trembles; sometimes my blood bounds wildly through my veins, and then again it creeps and freezes; and yet how happy I am! what inexpressible joy fills my very soul!"
She was silent; then, seeming suddenly to rouse herself, she raised her head and threw back the thick curls, as if anxious to disembarrass her mind of a haunting thought.
"Wait, my dear flowers," said she, smiling, to the violets; "wait a moment: I will comfort and refresh you."
With this she disappeared in the grove, and, in a short time, brought from it a few twigs and leaves, which she arranged in a little trellis over the flower-beds, so as to shadow the violets completely from the sun. After this she took a small watering-pot and ran across the grass to a basin or tank in the middle of the garden, around which a number of weeping-willows drooped their branches into the water. On her arrival its surface was perfectly smooth; but hardly had her image been reflected in the tank when it appeared to swarm with living creatures. Hundreds of gold-fishes, of all colors, swam toward her with their mouths gaping from the water, as if the poor little animals were trying to speak to her. Holding on by the trunk of the nearest willow, she bent gracefully over the pond and tried to fill her watering-pot without touching the gold-fish.
"Come, come; let me alone just now," said she, as she carefully avoided them; "I haven't time to play with you; I will bring you your dinner after a while."
But the fish fluttered around the watering-pot until she withdrew it from the tank; and, even after her departure, continued to crowd toward the bank she had touched with her foot.
The young lady watered her flowers and replaced the pot gently on the ground; then, retiring slowly to the solitary house, she returned after a while at the same slow pace, and, throwing some crumbs to the fish, began to saunter slowly about the garden-paths, inattentive to every thing but her own absorbing thoughts. At length she reached a spot where a gigantic catalpa-tree overarched the garden and bent its branches almost to the earth. A table and a couple of chairs stood beneath the fresh and fragrant shade, and a book, inkstand, and embroidery-frame, gave token that the retreat had not long been abandoned by the lady herself. She seated herself in one of the chairs, took up the book, then the embroidery, let them fall one after another, and finally leaned her beautiful head on her hand, like one who is weary in spirit and anxious for rest.
For a while her large dreamy eyes were vaguely fixed, as if gazing into space; at intervals a smile played around her mouth, and her lips moved as if talking with a friend. Occasionally her drooping eyelids closed entirely; but the lashes quickly reopened, only to fall more heavily than before, till at last a profound sleep or intense reverie seemed to get possession of her mind and body.
But did she sleep? There is no doubt that her spirit watched and was happy; for a pleasant expression constantly played over her features, and, if sometimes it became serious, the joyous look quickly returned with all its radiance. She had long been plunged by this happy dream into complete forgetfulness of real life, when a noise of wheels and the neigh of a horse was heard at the gateway, disturbing the silence of Grinselhof. Still the maiden was not aroused.
The old calèche returned from the city, drew up near the stable, and the farmer and his wife ran out to salute their master and put up the horse. While they were thus engaged, Monsieur De Vlierbeck got out of the vehicle and spoke to them kindly, but in a voice so full of sadness that both looked at him with astonishment. In fact, the gravity of this singular person never abandoned him even in his most affable moods; but at that moment his physiognomy indicated a degree of intense depression which was by no means habitual. He seemed altogether worn out with fatigue, and his eyes, which were commonly so vivacious, drooped, dull and languishing, beneath their heavy lids.
The horse was quickly put in the stable, and the young lackey, who had already divested himself of his livery, took several baskets and packets from the vehicle, carried them into the farm-house, and placed them on the table of the antechamber.
"And now, Master John," said De Vlierbeck, approaching the farmer, "I shall have need of you. There will be company to-morrow at Grinselhof. Monsieur Denecker and his nephew dine here."
The farmer, perfectly stupefied by the announcement and scarcely able to believe his own ears, looked at his master with staring eyes and gaping mouth, and, after a moment's hesitation, stammered forth,—
"That large, rich gentleman, sir, who sits near you every Sunday at high mass?"
"The same, John. Is there any thing surprising in it?"
"And young Monsieur Gustave, who spoke to mademoiselle in the churchyard when church was over?"
"Oh, sir, they are such rich people! They have bought all the land around Echelpoel. They have at least ten horses in the stable at their château, without counting those they have in town. Their carriage is silver from top to bottom."
"I know it; and it is exactly on that account that I desire to receive them in a becoming manner. You must be ready; your wife and your son also. I shall call you to-morrow morning very early. You will willingly lend a hand to help me, won't you?"
"Certainly, certainly, sir; a word from you is enough. I am always happy to be able to serve you in any way."
"Thank you for your kindness, John. We understand one another, my worthy fellow; and so farewell till to-morrow."
Monsieur De Vlierbeck entered the farm-house, gave some orders to the young man in relation to the things he had taken from the vehicle, and, passing through the screening grove, walked on to Grinselhof.
As soon as he was out of the farmer's sight his physiognomy assumed a more serene expression, and there was a smile on his lips as he cast his eyes around in search of some one in the solitude of the garden At a turn of the path his eye fell suddenly on the sleeping girl. How beautiful she was in her calm repose! The golden twilight covered her with its bright reflection, and threw a rosy tint on every thing about her. Thick curls strayed in beautiful disorder over her cheeks, and snowy flowers, shaken from the catalpa's branches by the evening breeze, had fallen around her in profusion. She still dreamed, and the happy smile yet rested on her features. De Vlierbeck gazed earnestly at his sleeping child, and raised his eyes to heaven as he said, tremulously,—"Thanks, Almighty Father! she is happy! Let my martyrdom be prolonged; but may all my sufferings render thee compassionate for her!"
After this short and ardent ejaculation he threw himself into a chair, leaned his arm carefully on the table, and, resting his hand on it, remained still as a statue. For a long time he watched his sleeping child, while his face seemed to reflect each emotion that flitted across the delicate features of the maiden. Suddenly a modest blush overspread her brow, and her lips began to articulate. The old gentleman watched her narrowly, and, although she had not spoken in connected sentences, he caught one of those stray words which often betoken what is passing in a dreamer's mind.
"'GUSTAVE!' She dreams of Gustave. May God be propitious to us! Ah, yes, my child," exclaimed her father, "open thy heart to hope! Dream, dream; for who knows what is in store for us? Yet, no!—let us not destroy these happy moments by cold reality! Sleep, sleep! let thy soul enjoy the heavenly enchantment of love which it is awakening!"
Monsieur De Vlierbeck continued for a while his quiet observation of the sleeper, and then, rising, passed behind her chair and imprinted a long kiss on her forehead.
Still half-dreaming, the sleeper slowly opened her eyes; and, the moment she perceived who had awakened her, she sprang into her father's arms with a bound, and, hanging round his neck, overwhelmed him with questions and kisses.
Vlierbeck gently disengaged himself from his daughter's embrace, as he remarked, in a tone of raillery,—
"It seems altogether unnecessary, Lenora, to inquire what new beauties you have discovered in Vondel's 'Lucifer.' You have not had time, I take it for granted, to begin the comparison between this masterpiece of our native tongue and Milton's 'Paradise Lost'?"
"Ah! father," murmured Lenora, "my mind is indeed strangely troubled. I do not know what is the matter with me; I cannot even read with attention."
"Come, Lenora, my child, don't be sad. Sit down: I have something of importance to tell you. You do not know why I went to town to-day, do you? It was because we are to have company to dinner to-morrow!"
Lenora gazed at her father with an earnest and questioning look.
"It is Monsieur Denecker," continued he:—"the wealthy merchant, you know, who sits near me at church and lives at the château of Echelpoel."
"Oh, yes! I remember him, father; he always speaks to me so kindly, and never fails to help me from the carriage when we go to church."
"But your eyes ask, I see, Lenora, whether he is coming alone. Another person will accompany him, my girl!"
"Gustave!" exclaimed the maiden, involuntarily and blushing.
"Exactly! Gustave will be here," replied Monsieur De Vlierbeck. "Don't tremble on that account, Lenora; and don't become frightened because your innocent heart may find itself opening to the dawn of new sensations. Between us, my child, there can be no secret that my love will not discover."
His daughter's eyes looked inquiringly into his own, as if asking an explanation of the enigma. But all of a sudden, as if a ray had darted unexpectedly into her soul, she threw her arms around the old man's neck and hid her face in his bosom.
"Oh, father! beloved father," murmured she, "your kindness is unbounded!"
For some moments the old gentleman did not put aside the affectionate caresses of his child; but by degrees his expression became gloomy; tears started into his eyes, and he said, in broken tones,—
"Lenora, whatever may happen to us in life, thou wilt always love thy father thus, wilt thou not?"
"Always, always, father!'
"Lenora, my child," continued he, with a sigh, "thy tender affection is my only recompense and happiness here below: never deprive my soul of its consolation!"
The sad tone in which these words were uttered touched the maiden's heart so deeply that she took her father's hands, without saying a syllable, and wept in silence with her head in his bosom.
For a long time they remained thus motionless, absorbed by a feeling which was neither joy nor sorrow but seemed to acquire its power and mastery by the mingling of these opposite sentiments.
Monsieur De Vlierbeck's expression was the first to change. His features became severe as he bent his head downward reproachfully. In truth, the strange words that started the tears into his daughter's eyes had excited the reflection in his own mind that another person was, perhaps, about to share his Lenora's love and probably to separate him from her forever. He was ready for every sacrifice, were it even infinitely greater, provided it contributed to the happiness of his child; yet the very idea of separation caused his heart to bleed at every pore. By degrees he stifled this selfish anxiety, and, striving to control himself, raised his daughter with a kiss.
"Come, Lenora," said he, "be gay again! Isn't it a happy thing that our hearts can sometimes get into the shade after they have been too much in the sunshine? Let us go into the house. We have many arrangements to make in order to receive our guests becomingly."
Lenora obeyed her father in silence, and followed him slowly, while the tears still dropped from her beautiful eyes.
Some hours afterward Monsieur De Vlierbeck might have been seen seated in the principal saloon of Grinselhof, near a little lamp, with his elbows on the table. The apartment was dark and dreary, for the feeble rushlight illuminated but a single spot and cast the distant and lofty ceiling into vague obscurity. The flickering flame threw long and sombre shadows over the wall, while a line of old portraits in the panels seemed to fix their stern and immovable eyes on the table. Amid the gloom nothing came out with distinctness but the calm and noble face of the poor old gentleman, who sat there, absorbed in his reflections, fixed as a statue.
At length, rising from his chair and cautiously walking on tiptoe to the end of the room, he stopped and listened at the closed door. "She sleeps," said he, in a low voice; and, raising his eyes to heaven, added, with a sigh, "may God protect her rest!" Then, returning to the table, he took the lamp, and, opening a large safe which was imbedded in the wall, he went down on his knees and drew forth some napkins and a table-cloth, which he unfolded carefully to see whether they were torn or stained. As he refolded the articles one after the other, a smile betokened that he was pleased with his examination. Rising from this task, he went back to the table, from the drawer of which he took a piece of buckskin and whiting. Mashing the latter with a knife-handle, he began to rub and polish several silver forks and spoons which were in a basket. The salt-cellars and other small articles of table-service, which were mostly of the same metal, were all subjected to a similar process, and soon glittered brightly in the feeble lamplight.
While he was engaged in this strange work, the soul of the poor old man was busy with a thousand conflicting thoughts and recollections. He was constantly muttering to himself; and many a tear escaped from his lids as he dreamed over the past and repeated the names of the loved and lost!
"Poor brother!" ejaculated he; "but one man alone in the world knows what I have done for thee, and yet that man accuses me of bad faith and ingratitude! And thou, poor brother, art wandering in the icy solitudes of America, a prey perhaps to sickness and suffering, while for months no kindly look is fixed upon thee in that wilderness where thou earnest thy miserable wages! Son of a noble race! thou hast become a slave to the stranger, and thy toil serves to amass the fortunes which others are to enjoy! My love for thee has made me suffer martyrdom; but, as God is my judge, my affection has remained entire,—untouched! May thy soul, O brother, feel this aspiration of mine even in the isolation where thou art suffering; and may the consciousness of my love be a balm for thy misery!"
The poor gentleman was absorbed for some time in painful meditation; but after a while his dream seemed over, and he betook himself again to work. He placed all the silver utensils side by side on the table, and, after carefully counting and examining them, resumed his soliloquy:—
"Six forks! eight spoons! We shall be four at table: it will be necessary to be careful; else it will easily be seen something is wanting. I think, however, it will do. I must give very precise instructions to John's wife, for she is a clever woman, and knows what she is about!"
As be uttered the last words he replaced the silver in the basket and locked it in the safe; after which he took the lamp, and, leaving the saloon on tiptoe, descended through a little door into a large vaulted cellar. Here he hunted about for a considerable time amid stacks of empty bottles, and at last succeeded in finding what he was in search of; but his face became extremely pale as he drew three bottles from the sand.
"Good heavens! only three bottles!" exclaimed he; "three bottles of table-wine! and Monsieur Denecker is such a connoisseur of vintages! What shall I do if they ask for more when these three bottles are empty? I have it! I do not drink, and Lenora drinks very little; so there will be two bottles for Monsieur Denecker and one for his nephew! But, even at the worst, what is the use of anxiety? Let luck settle it!"
With this De Vlierbeck went into the corners of the cellar, where he gathered from the walls a quantity of cobwebs, which he wound artistically around the bottles and covered with dust and sand.
On reaching the saloon he went to work with paste and paper to mend some rents in the tapestry on the wall; and then, after passing nearly half an hour in brushing his clothes and disguising their threadbare spots with water and ink, he came back to the table and made preparations for a task which was still more singular than any he had hitherto been engaged in. Taking from the drawer a silk thread, an awl, and a bit of wax, he put his boot on his knees and began to mend the rents in the leather with the skill of a cobbler! It will readily be supposed that this odd occupation stirred a variety of emotions in the heart of the poor gentleman; violent twitches and spasms passed over his face; his cheeks became red, then deadly pale; till at last, yielding to a passionate impulse, he cut the silk, threw it on the table, and, with his hands stretched toward the portraits, cried out, with struggling passion,—
"Yes! behold me,—behold me,—ye whose noble blood runs in my veins! You, brave captain, who, fighting at the side of Egmont, at St. Quentin, gave your life for your country,—you, statesman and ambassador, who, after the battle of Pavia, rendered such eminent services to the Emperor Charles,—you, benefactor of your race, who endowed so many hospitals and churches,—you, proud bishop, who, as priest and scholar, defended so bravely your faith and your God,—behold me, all of you, not only from that senseless canvas, but from the bosom of God where you are at rest! He whom you have seen at the wretched task of mending his boots, and who devotes his life to the concealment of his poverty,—he is your descendant, your son! If the gaze of his fellow-men tortures him, before you at least he is not ashamed of debasing toil! glorious ancestry! you have fought the foes of your native land with sword and pen; but I,—I have to contend with unmerited shame and mockery, without a hope of ultimate triumph or glory; my weary soul sinks under its burden, and the world has nothing in store for me but scorn and contempt! And, yet, have I ever stained your noble escutcheon? All that I have done is generous and honest in the sight of God;—nay, the very fountain-head of my wo is love and compassion! Yes, yes!—fix your glittering eyes on me; contemplate me in the abyss of poverty where I am fallen! From the bottom of that pit I lift my brow boldly toward you, and your silent glance does not force me to grovel in the earth with shame! Here, in the presence of your noble images, I am alone with my soul, with my conscience;—hero, no mortification can touch the being who, as gentleman, Christian, brother, and father, has sacrificed himself to duty!"
His voice ceased; and for a few moments he stood still in the midnight silence, looking at the antique portraits as the last echoes died away in the lofty apartment, with his arms stretched toward the pictures as if invoking the beings they represented.
"Poor, senseless creature," continued he, after a while, clasping his hands and lifting them anew to heaven, "thy soul seeks deliverance in dreams! Yes; it is, perhaps, a dream, an illusion! Yet, thanks, thanks to the Almighty that allows even a dream to fortify me with courage and endurance! Enough: reality once more stares me in the face; and yet I defy the mocking spectre which points to ruin and misery!"
"And then to-morrow,—to-morrow!" continued he; "wilt thou not tremble beneath the glance of those who seek the secret of thy life? Yes; study well thy part; have ready thy mask; go on bravely with thy cowardly farce! And now begone; thy nightly task is done;—beg, beg from sleep the oblivion of what thou art and of thy threatening future! Sleep! I tremble at the very thought of it! Father in heaven, have mercy on us!"