The Poor Gentleman
At daybreak next morning everybody was busy at Grinselhof. John's wife and her serving-maid scoured the corridor and staircase; the farmer cleaned his stable; his son weeded the grass from the garden-walks. Very early in the day Lenora set matters in order in the dining-room and arranged with artistic taste all the pretty things she could find on the mantel-piece and tables. There was a degree of life and activity about Grinselhof that had not been seen in that solitude for many a year, and everybody went to work with alacrity, as if anxious to dispel the gloom that hung so long over the lonely dwelling. In the midst of the industrious crowd Monsieur De Vlierbeck might be seen moving about with words of encouragement and expressions of satisfaction; nor did he manifest the slightest symptom of the anxiety that was secretly gnawing his heart. A pleasant smile flattered his humble dependants, as he gave them to understand that their labors would be greatly honored by the approval of his expected guests.
The farmer and his spouse had never seen De Vlierbeck so pleasant and so gay; and, as they sincerely loved their master, they were as much delighted by his joy as if they had been preparing for a village fair in which they were to take part. They never dreamed of pay for their generous toil, but derived their most grateful recompense from the pleasure they imparted to the hermit and his child.
As soon as the principal preparations were completed, De Vlierbeck called his daughter and gave the necessary instructions for the dinner. Lenora was to confine herself to drilling the farmer's wife in serving the dishes with which she was not familiar. The old cooking-apparatus was lighted; wood kindled and crackled in the chimney; coals glistened in the grate; and high above the roof-tree, clouds of smoke betokened the good cheer that was to adorn the tables. Baskets of game were opened; stuffed poultry, savory pasties, and choice viands, were brought forth; dishes of green peas, beans, and other vegetables, appeared; and the women were speedily in a turmoil of stringing, shelling, cutting, washing, and stewing.
Lenora herself did not shun her part in these humble duties, and amused her companions by the pleasant chat with which she whiled away the hours. The rustics, who had rarely enjoyed an opportunity of seeing her so closely or of enjoying a familiar conversation with the beauty, were of course delighted with her gay and affable manners; nor could they avoid expressing their pleasure when a few notes of a popular song happened to drop from Lenora's lips.
The servant-maid instantly rose, and whispered, loud enough to be heard by Lenora,—
"Oh, pray, do beg mademoiselle to sing a verse or two of that song! I heard it at a distance the other day; and it was so beautiful that, fool as I am, I blubbered like a baby for half an hour behind the rose-bushes. And yet I think it was rather her sweet voice than the words that made me cry."
"Oh, yes! do sing it for us; it would give us so much pleasure! Your voice is like a nightingale's; and I remember too, that my poor mother—alas! she is long ago in heaven—used to sing me to sleep with that blessed song. Pray, sing it for us, mademoiselle.
"It's very long,"' said Lenora, smiling.
"But if you only sing averse or two; it is a holiday with us, you know, mademoiselle!"
"Well," returned Lenora, musingly, "if it will make you happy why should I refuse? Listen:—"Beside a deep and rapid stream
A lonely maiden sat;
With sighs her snowy bosom heaved,
And tears bedewed the ground!
"A noble walked along the bank
And saw her bitter grief;
And, as her tears overflowed his heart,
It melted for the maid!"
'Speak, maiden, speak!' the wanderer cried!
'Why moan you here alone?'—
'Ah, sir, an orphan-child am I,
Whom God alone can save!
'Ah! seest thou not yon grassy mound
There sleeps my mother dear.
Behold yon rock, above the flood;
There fell my father down!
'The whirling torrent bore him on;
He struggled long in vain;
My brother leaped to help his sire,
And both together sank!
'And now I fly our silent hut,
Where desolation dwells,
To mourn upon this dreary bank,
And watch the wave and grave!'
'No longer grieve,' the stranger said,
'Thy heart shall ache no more;
A father and a brother too
To thee, poor lonely girl, I'll be!'
"He took her hand; he led her off;
In garments rich he clad the maid;
Before the altar promised love,
And blessed her life in happy home!" (see note)
NOTE: This simple and popular ballad, known in the Campine as The Orphan, is sung by all classes to an air which is full of touching melody.
As Lenora was about beginning the last verse of her song De Vlierbeck appeared on the sill of the kitchen door, and the peasants instantly rose in alarm at the freedom with which they were sitting in the presence of their young mistress, listening to her songs; but the poor gentleman at once understood the meaning of her action, and with a gesture of approval signaled them to be quiet. As the last words died on his ear,—"I'm glad to see you amusing yourselves," said he; "but, now that the song is ended, I want your services in another quarter, my good woman."
Followed by Bess, the farmer's wife, he ascended to the dining-room, where the table-cloth was already laid and every thing in order for the reception of the dishes. Bessy's son was already there in livery, with a napkin over his arm; and De Vlierbeck immediately began to assign them their several tasks during the service of dinner, and to repeat and drill them in their tasks till he was perfectly satisfied with their performances.
The hour for dinner was at length near at hand. Every thing was ready in the kitchen, and all were at their posts. Lenora, in full dress and with a palpitating heart, lingered in her chamber; while her father, with a book which he appeared to be reading, sat beneath the catalpa in the garden.
It was about two o'clock when a splendid equipage, drawn by a pair of superb English horses, entered the demesne of Grinselhof and drew up in front of the portal. De Vlierbeck welcomed his guests courteously, and Monsieur Denecker gave orders to the coachman to return precisely at five o'clock, as matters of importance required his presence in Antwerp before nightfall.
Denecker was a large, stout person, dressed rather extravagantly, but in a style of studied carelessness which he evidently regarded as stylish. The expression of his face, it must be owned, was rather vulgar, and exhibited a compound of cunning and good-nature tempered by indifference. But Gustave, his nephew, belonged to an entirely different class of persons. His tall figure was graceful and easy, his countenance frank and manly, and his whole demeanor denoted refined manners and high cultivation. Blue eyes and blonde hair imparted a poetic air to his head; but an energetic glance and lofty brow took from it every expression of sentimental weakness.
No sooner had De Vlierbeck presented his guests to Lenora, in the saloon, than Denecker broke forth in exclamations of undisguised admiration—
"How charming, how beautiful she is! and yet so hidden in this Grinselhof of yours, Monsieur de Vlierbeck! What a shame, sir! what a shame!"
In the mean time Gustave and Lenora had moved off to a short distance from the old gentlemen, and were busy in a chat of their own, inaudible to the rest but evidently interesting to themselves, for they were observed not only to blush but tremble. Denecker, in fact, could not help observing the young people's emotion; and, as De Vlierbeck passed down the saloon with him, remarked that the young beauty was evidently turning his nephew's head. "He talks of her constantly," said he, "and I don't know what may come of it; but I give you fair warning, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, if you are unwilling to see something more than compliments between these children you had better take time by the forelock. It will soon be too late to reason with them; for my nephew, with all his calm gentleness, is not the man to retreat before difficulties."
De Vlierbeck was secretly delighted by the merchant's counsels, but was too wise to display anxiety.
"You are joking, Monsieur Denecker," said he: "I can't think there is a particle of danger. They are both young, and there is nothing surprising in mutual attraction under such circumstances. There can hardly be any thing serious in their intercourse. But, come," added he, aloud; "I perceive that dinner is served; and so let us adjourn to the table!" Gustave led in the blushing girl, and the elders followed admiringly in their rear, while the merchant shook his finger coquettishly at his gallant nephew. De Vlierbeck placed Monsieur Denecker opposite him at table, and made Gustave the vis-à-vis of Lenora.
Bess brought in the dishes, while her son waited on the guests. The viands were prepared with considerable skill, and Denecker took frequent occasion to express his satisfaction with their exquisite flavor. In truth, he was rather surprised at the sumptuousness of the repast; for he had been prepared to expect lenten fare in a household which was renowned throughout the neighborhood for its austere economy.
In a short time the conversation became general; and Lenora astonished Monsieur Denecker by the extent of her information and the admirable style in which she expressed herself and did the honors of the table. But, notwithstanding her ease and freedom while conversing with the uncle, an observer could not help detecting that she was shy, if not absolutely embarrassed, when obliged to reply to some casual remark of the nephew. Nor was Gustave more at ease than the maiden. In fact, they were both happy at heart because fate had thrown them together; but they would have been quite willing to enjoy that delicious silence which in love is often more eloquent than in language.
In the mean while De Vlierbeck rattled away, with the ease of a man of the world, on all subjects that might interest his guests; yet he listened, with equal good manners, to Denecker's conversation, and now and then adroitly threw in such hints as allowed him to speak learnedly upon commercial matters. The merchant was gratified by his deferential civility, and was drawn toward his entertainer by a stronger bond than that of mere social politeness.
Indeed, all went on swimmingly, and all were pleased with themselves. De Vlierbeck was especially gratified to find that Bess and her boy performed their tasks so well, and that the spoons and plates were so quickly washed and brought back that it was impossible to notice the deficiency of their number. One thing alone began to worry him. He saw with pain that while Denecker was busy with his food and chat he was equally busy with the wine, and that glass after glass disappeared with more rapidity than was agreeable to his supply. Besides this, Gustave, who was probably anxious for some excuse to have a word with Lenora upon any pretext, constantly asked permission to fill her glass; so that, very soon after the soup and meat had been disposed of, the first bottle was entirely emptied.
Civility required that it should be immediately replaced; and, as De Vlierbeck observed that the more Monsieur Denecker talked the more he drank, he thought he might try whether less conversation would not moderate the merchant's thirst. But, alas! he was disappointed; for at that moment Denecker introduced the topic of wine, and, lauding the generous juice of the grape, expressed surprise at the extraordinary sobriety of his host. With this he redoubled his attack on the bottle, and was in some degree, though less vigorously, seconded by Gustave. De Vlierbeck's agony became more and more intense as he saw the rosy fluid sink and sink in the second bottle, until at length the last drop was drained into the merchant's glass.
"Yes," said Denecker, "your wine is both old and good; but I have always found, in tasting liquors, that if we don't change them we lose their flavor. I take it for granted that you have a first-rate cellar, if I may judge by your first samples; so I propose that we now try a bottle of your Château-margaux; and, if we have time, we can finish with a bottle of hochheimer. I never drink champagne: it is a bad liquor for wine-drinkers."
As the last words fell from Denecker, poor De Vlierbeck grew deadly pale, as his frightened spirit went rummaging through the cracks and crannies of his brain for some inspiration or expedient which might extricate him from his deep perplexity.
"Château-margaux?" inquired he, with a calm smile. "Certainly, sir, if you wish it." And then, turning to the lackey,—"John," said he, "bring a bottle of Château-margaux: you will find it in the third cellar on the left-hand side."
But the rustic stared at his master with gaping mouth, as if he had been addressed in one of the dead languages. Seeing the predicament, and mastering it rapidly,—
"Excuse me," said De Vlierbeck, rising; "he would not find it, I fear. I will be back in a moment."
Rushing into the kitchen, he seized the third and last bottle and descended to the cellar, where he stopped to draw breath and compose himself.
"Château-margaux! hochheimer! champagne!" exclaimed poor De Vlierbeck, "and not another drop of wine in my house but what is in this last bottle of claret! What shall I do? what can I do?" continued he, as he held the cobwebbed bottle in one hand and stroked his chin with the other. "But no matter: there's no time for reflection: the die is cast, and may God help me in my need!"
He ascended the stair, entered the dining-room with the corkscrew in the last cork, and found that during his absence Lenora had ordered fresh glasses on the table.
"This wine," said De Vlierbeck, holding the bottle knowingly to the light, "is at least twenty years old, Monsieur Denecker, and I sincerely hope it will please your palate." So saying, he filled the glasses of uncle and nephew, and gazed anxiously in their faces for the verdict.
Denecker tasted the wine, drop by drop, like an epicure, and, shaking his head disappointedly,—
"There's a mistake, doubtless," said he; "for it's the identical wine we had before."
De Vlierbeck feigned surprise admirably, tasted the wine in turn, and replied,—
"I believe you are right, and that I have made a mistake; yet, as the bottle is opened and not bad, suppose we drink it before I make another descent to the cellar' There's abundance of time."
"I've no objection," answered the merchant, "provided you help us, so as to get through it the quicker." And so the column in the third and last bottle diminished more rapidly than its predecessors, till two or three glasses alone remained at the bottom to crown the festival.
Poor De Vlierbeck could no longer conceal his agitation. He tried to keep his eyes off the fatal bottle; but a sort of fascination drew him back to it, and each time with increased anxiety. That dreadful word 'Château-margaux' rang in his ears. His face blushed and grew pale, and a cold, clammy sweat stood in big beads on his forehead. Yet he felt that he had not entirely exhausted his resources, and resolved to fight the battle of humiliation to the end. He wiped his brow and cheeks, coughed, and turned aside as if about to sneeze. By dint of these manoeuvres he continued to conceal his nervousness till Denecker grasped the bottle to pour out its last drop. As he clasped the neck, a chill seized the hysterical frame of the poor gentleman, a deadly paleness overspread his features, and his head fell with a groan against the tall back of the chair. Was it in truth a fainting-fit, or did the sufferer take advantage of his emotion to play a part and escape the embarrassment of his situation?
In a moment the whole party were on their feet, while Lenora screamed and ran to her father.
"It's nothing," said De Vlierbeck, striving, after a minute or two, to rally himself. "I am faint; the confined air of this room overcame me. Let me walk a while in the garden and I will soon be better."
As he said this he staggered to his feet, and, supported by Lenora and Gustave, moved toward the garden, followed by Denecker with an expression of the deepest concern. A short rest in the open air beneath the shade of a noble chestnut-tree quickly restored a faint color to De Vlierbeck's cheek and enabled him to tranquillize their anxiety about his sudden attack.
"I will rest here a while out of doors," said he, "for fear the fit might return; and perhaps a slow walk in the garden might hasten my recovery."
"It will do both of us good," answered Denecker; "and, besides, as I have to quit you at five o'clock, I don't want to leave Grinselhof without seeing its garden. Let us take a turn through your walks, and afterward we shall have time enough to finish another bottle."
As he said this he passed Lenora's arm within his own, and, casting a coquettish glance at Gustave, began their promenade. By degrees De Vlierbeck rallied sufficiently to take part in the chat; and gardening, agriculture, sporting, and a hundred different country topics, were fully discussed. Lenora recovered her spirits and charmed their commercial guest by the mingled charms of her intellectual cleverness and innocent gayety. Wild as a deer, she dared him to run a race with her, and danced along the paths by his side full of mirth and sportiveness. In truth, Denecker was altogether captivated by the ingenuous girl, and, as he looked on her radiant face, could not help thinking that the future had some happy days in store for his gallant nephew. After a while Lenora strayed off in advance with Gustave, while the two elders lingered lazily along the path. Gustave was charmed with the flowers, the plants, the gold-fish, which Lenora pointed out to him; nor was he at all desirous to shorten their delicious flirtation by returning to the table. This chimed precisely with the anxiety of De Vlierbeck, who employed every stratagem he could conceive to keep his guest in the open air. He told stories, repeated jokes, appealed to Denecker's commercial knowledge, and even quizzed him a little when he found their conversation beginning to flag. In fact, he was rejoicing that five o'clock, and, of course, the carriage, were rapidly approaching, when Denecker suddenly recalled his nephew from a distant quarter of the garden where he was strolling with Lenora.
"Come, Gustave; come," said he; "if you wish to drink a parting glass with us let us get in, for the coach will be here in a moment."
De Vlierbeck instantly became pale as a sheet, and, trembling from head to foot, stared silently at Denecker, who could no longer restrain his surprise at these exhibitions.
"Are you ill, sir?" said he.
"My stomach is a singular one, Monsieur Denecker, and I suffer spasms if you even mention wine! It is a strange malady; but—Oh, I hear your coach, Monsieur Denecker; and there it is, drawing up, I see, at the gateway."
Of course Denecker spoke no more of wine; but, as he could not help noticing the alacrity with which De Vlierbeck hailed the prospect of his departure, he would have been deeply mortified, if not offended, had not the previous hospitality of his host satisfied him of their welcome. He thought, perhaps, that he ought to attribute his entertainer's conduct to some singular nervous disease which he masked under an antipathy for wine; and accordingly he took leave with a warm and friendly farewell.
"I have passed a delightful afternoon with you, Monsieur De Vlierbeck," said he. "We have found ourselves, I am sure, extremely happy in your and your daughter's charming society. It is a pleasure added to my life to have made your acquaintance; and I hope that further intimacy may assure me your friendship. In the mean while, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind reception."
As he finished the sentence, Lenora and Gustave joined them.
"My nephew," continued Denecker, "will confess, as I have done, that he has spent few happier hours than those that are just gone. I hope, Monsieur de Vlierbeck, that you and your charming daughter will return our visit and dine with us. Yet I shall have to ask your pardon for postponing the pleasure it will afford us till I return from Frankfort, where I am summoned, the day after to-morrow, on urgent business. It is probable I may be detained away a couple of months; but if my nephew should be allowed to visit you in my absence let me hope he will be welcome."
De Vlierbeck reiterated his professions of delight at the new acquaintance; Lenora was silent; and Denecker moved off toward the coach.
"But the parting glass, uncle!" exclaimed Gustave. "Let us go in for a moment and drink it."
"No, no," said Denecker, interrupting him tartly. "I believe we would never get hence at all if we listened to you. It is time to be off, and I can delay no longer. Adieu!"
Gustave and Lenora exchanged a long and anxious look, full of regret at separation and of hope for speedy reunion. In a moment the uncle and nephew were in the vehicle and the spirited horses in motion; but, as long as the group was in sight at the gate, a couple of white-gloved hands might have been seen waving farewells from the coach-window.