The Poor Gentleman
A few days after the departure of his uncle, Gustave paid a visit to Grinselhof. He was received by Monsieur De Vlierbeck and his daughter with their usual kindness, passed the greater part of an afternoon with them, and went home at nightfall to the château of Echelpoel full of delightful recollections and hopes. Either from a fear of disturbing the reserved habits of the old gentleman, or from a sense of politeness, Gustave did not at first repeat his visits too frequently; but after a couple of weeks the extreme cordiality of Vlierbeck dispelled all his scruples. The ardent youth no longer resisted an impulse that drew him toward the bewitching girl, nor did he allow a single day to roll by without passing the afternoon at Grinselhof. The happy hours flew rapidly on the wings of love. He strolled with Lenora through the shady walks of the old garden, listened to her father's observations on science and art, drank in the delicious notes of his loved one's voice as it was breathed forth in song, or, seated beneath the flowery and spreading catalpa, dreamed the dream of happiness that was in store for him with her who was probably soon to become his betrothed.
If the noble and beautiful face of the maiden had won his eye and enlisted his feelings the moment he first beheld her in the village churchyard, now, that he had become familiar with her character, his love grew so ardently absorbing that the world seemed sad and dead if she were not present to shed the light of her joyous spirit upon every thing around him. Neither religion nor poetry could conjure up an angel more fascinating than his beloved. Indeed, though God had endowed her person with all those feminine graces that adorned the first woman in Paradise, he had also lavished on her a heart whose crystalline purity was never clouded, and whose generosity burst forth with every emotion like a limpid spring.
But in all his interviews, Gustave had never yet been alone with Lenora. When he visited her she never left the apartment where she commonly sat with her father, unless the old gentleman expressed a wish that they should unite in a walk through the garden; and, of course, he had never enjoyed an opportunity to breathe the love that was rising to his lips. Still, he felt that it was altogether useless to express by words what was passing in their hearts; for the kindness, the respect, the affection, that shone in everybody's eyes, betokened the feeling which united them in a mingled sentiment of attachment and hope.
Though Gustave entertained profound veneration for Lenora's father and really loved him as a son, there was something which at times came like a cloud betwixt himself and the old gentleman. What he heard outside of Grinselhof of De Vlierbeck's extraordinary avarice had been fully realized since he became intimate at the house. No one ever offered him a glass of wine or beer; he never received an invitation to dinner or supper; and he frequently observed the trouble that was taken by the master of the house to disguise his inhospitable economy.
Avarice is a passion which excites no other emotion than that of aversion or contempt, because it is natural to believe that when so degrading a vice takes possession of one's soul it destroys every spark of generosity and fills it with meanness. Accordingly, Gustave had a long and fearful conflict with himself in order to subdue this instinctive feeling and to convince his judgment that De Vlierbeck's conduct was only a caprice which did not detract from the native dignity of his character. And yet, had the young man known the truth, he would have seen that a pang was hidden beneath every smile that flitted over the old man's face, and that the nervous shudders which at times shook his frame were the results of a suppressed agony that almost destroyed him. As he gazed on the happy face of Lenora and steeped his soul in the intoxication of her love, he never dreamed that her father's life was a prolonged punishment; that, day and night, a terrible future opened its vista before him; and that each moment of his existence brought him nearer and nearer to a dreadful catastrophe. He had not heard the inexorable sentence of the notary:—"Four months more and your bond expires, when all you possess in this world will be sold by the officers of justice to satisfy your creditors!"
Two of those fatal months had already expired!
If Monsieur De Vlierbeck appeared to encourage the young man's love, it was not alone in consequence of his sympathy with his feelings. No: the dénouement of his painful trial was to be developed within a defined period; and, if it proved inauspicious, there was nothing but dishonor and moral death for himself and child! Destiny was about to decide forever whether he was to come out victorious from this ten years' conflict with poverty, or whether he was to fall into the abyss of public contempt! These were the feelings that induced him to conceal his true position more carefully than ever, and, while he watched over the lovers like a guardian spirit, made him do nothing to check the rapid progress of their passion.
As the time of his uncle's return approached, the two months seemed to Gustave to have flown by like a pleasant dream; and, although he felt sure that his relative would not oppose the union, he foresaw that he would not be allowed hereafter to spend so much of his time away from business. Indeed, the very idea that he might be obliged to pass considerable periods without seeing Lenora made him look for his uncle's return with any thing but delight.
One day he contrived to whisper his fears and anticipations to Lenora, and, for the first time since their acquaintance, saw tears gathering in her eyes. The girl's emotion touched his heart so sensibly that he ventured timidly to take her hand, and held it in his for a long time without uttering a word. De Vlierbeck, who had overheard the remark, tried to comfort him, but his words did not seem to produce the desired effect; and, after a short time, Gustave rose abruptly and took leave, though his usual time of departure had not yet arrived. Lenora read in his expression that some sudden revolution had occurred in her lover's mind, for his eyes glistened with extraordinary animation. She strove eagerly to retain him by her side; but he resisted her appeal pleasantly, and declared that nothing should unveil his secret till the following day, when he would return to Grinselhof. De Vlierbeck, however, was more familiar with the world than his daughter; and, imagining that lie had penetrated the mystery of Gustave's conduct, many a pleasant dream hovered that night around his pillow.
As the usual hour of Gustave's visit approached next day, De Vlierbeck's heart beat high with hope; and when the visitor appeared, clad with unusual neatness and care, the old gentleman welcomed him with more than ordinary warmth. After the compliments of the day had been paid to his ladylove, Gustave expressed a desire for a few moments' conversation with her father, who led him into an adjoining cabinet and seated himself by his side.
"What is it you wish of me, my young friend?" said he, kindly.
Gustave was silent for a moment, as if endeavoring to rally his ideas, and then spoke out in a manly way:—
"I am about, my dear sir, to speak to you in regard to a matter that concerns my happiness; and, no matter what may be your decision, I am sure, from your kindness upon all occasions, that you will pardon my boldness. I can hardly imagine that the feeling—the irresistible feeling—I have entertained for Lenora from the first moment I saw her, has escaped your penetrating eye. I ought probably to have asked your consent long ago, before she obtained so complete a dominion over my heart; but I have always secretly encouraged the belief that you read my soul and wore not displeased with my motives."
Gustave was silent, awaiting the hoped-for words of encouragement; but De Vlierbeck only looked at him with a gentle smile, and gave no other indication of his pleasure. A motion of the hand, as if he wished the lover to go on with his conversation, was the only sign he made in reply,
Gustave's resolution began to ebb at this discouraging by-play; but, summoning all his energy for another attack, he continued:—
"Yes, sir, I have loved Lenora from my first sight of her; but what was then a spark is now a flame. Don't think it is her loveliness alone that bewitched me. She might indeed enchant the most insensible of mankind; but I found a far more glorious treasure in the angelic heart of your daughter. Her virtue, the immaculate purity of her soul, her gentle and magnanimous sentiments,—in a word, the prodigal gifts of mind and body which God has lavished on her,—have increased my admiration to love, my love to absolute idolatry! How dare I conceal my emotion from you any longer? I cannot live without Lenora; the very thought of even a short temporary separation from her overwhelms me with despair. I long to be with her every day, every hour; I long to hear her voice and read my happiness in her eloquent eyes! I know not what may be your decision; but, believe me, if it shall be adverse to my hopes, I shall not long survive the blow. If your decree separate, me from my beloved Lenora, life will no longer have a charm for me!"
Gustave uttered his romantic rhapsody—the rhapsody of most lovers—with that genuine emotion which bespoke his sincerity, and touched the heart of De Vlierbeck so deeply that he grasped his hand and implored him to be calm.
"Don't tremble so, my young friend," said the old gentleman. "I know very well that you love Lenora, and that she is not insensible to your affection for her. But what have you to propose to me?"
Gustave replied, dejectedly,—"If I still doubt your approval, after all the marks of esteem you have given me, it is because I fear you do not consider me worthy the happiness I have sought. I have no ancestral tree whose roots are buried in the past; the good deeds of my forefathers do not shine in history; the blood that runs in my veins comes from a common stock."
"Do you think," said De Vlierbeck, interrupting him, "that I was ignorant of all this from the first day of our acquaintance? No Gustave; no matter what your lineage may be, your own heart is generous and noble; and, had it not been so, I would never have esteemed and treated you as my son."
"And so," exclaimed Gustave, catching at the last words with a burst of joyous impatience, "you don't refuse me Lenora's hand?—you will interpose no objection, provided my uncle gives his consent?"
"No," replied De Vlierbeck; "I shall not refuse it to you. On the contrary, it will give me unbounded happiness to intrust the fate of my only child to your keeping. And yet there is an obstacle of which you have no idea."
"An obstacle!" exclaimed Gustave, growing pale;—"an obstacle between Lenora and me?"
"Be silent a moment," said De Vlierbeck, "and listen to the explanation I shall give you. You think, Gustave, I suppose, that Grinselhof and all its dependencies belong to us? It is not so: we are penniless. We are poorer far than the peasant who rents our farming-land and lives yonder at the gate!"
Gustave looked doubtingly at De Vlierbeck, with so incredulous a smile that the poor gentleman blushed, and trembled like an aspen.
"I see you do not believe me," continued he; "I see it in your smile and look. Like the rest of them, you think me a miser, hiding my wealth and starving my child and myself to amass riches,—a wretch who sacrifices every thing for money,—a vagabond whom all ought to fear and despise!"
"Oh, pardon me, pardon me, sir!" interrupted Gustave, moved by the excitement of the old man "I think nothing of the kind! My veneration for you is unbounded!"
"Nay, don't be frightened at my words, young man," continued De Vlierbeck, in a calmer tone. "I make no accusations against you, Gustave. I only saw in your incredulous smile that I had succeeded in masking my poverty even from you, and in making you suppose that my economy was avarice. But it is needless for me to give you any further explanation just now. Let it suffice you to know that what I say is strictly, honestly true. I possess nothing,—nothing!"
"And now," added he, after a moment's silence on both sides, "let me give you a piece of advice. Go home to-day without seeing Lenora; examine your soul calmly, and see whether there are no secret emotions that may make you change your present views; let a night pass, and if, to-morrow, Lenora, poor as you now know her to be, is still dear to you,—if you still think you can be happy with her and can make her happy,—seek your uncle and ask his consent. Here is my hand: if the day shall ever come when I can offer it as a father's, it will be the happiest of my life!"
Although the revelation made by Monsieur De Vlierbeck was astonishing to Gustave, the solemn tone in which he announced it convinced the lover of its truth. He was silent for a moment; but soon a spark of enthusiasm began to glisten in his eye and light up his face, as he exclaimed,—
"How can you ask me if I shall continue to love Lenora now that I know her to be poor? It will be happiness enough for me to receive her as a wife, to be bound to her by the eternal bonds of love, to be forever within her reach, and to receive my happiness from her look and voice! What delight it will be for me to protect her and know that I have the privilege of working for her! Palace or hovel; riches or poverty, all are equally indifferent to me, provided her presence animates the spot! A night's reflection, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, cannot change my resolution. Grant me Lenora's hand, and I will thank you on my knees for the priceless gift!"
"And suppose I do," replied the old gentleman; "generosity and constancy are natural to the ardent character of youth:—but your uncle?"
"My uncle!" murmured Gustave, with evident grief; "that is true; I need his consent. All I possess or ever shall possess in the world depends on his affection for me. I am the orphan son of his brother. He adopted me as his child and has overwhelmed me with kindness. He has the right to decide my lot in life, and I must obey him."
"And do you think that he, a merchant, who probably places a very high value on money, because experience has taught him its value, will say, like you, 'Palace or hovel, poverty or wealth, it makes no difference'?"
"Alas! I know not, Monsieur De Vlierbeck," said Gustave, droopingly. "But my uncle is so good to me—so extraordinarily good—that I may rightly hope for his consent. He will return to-morrow. When I embrace him I will declare all my wishes. I will say my comfort, my happiness, my life, depend on his consent. I know that he loves Lenora sincerely; for, before his departure, he even seemed to encourage my pretensions to her hand. Your disclosures will undoubtedly surprise him; but my prayers will conquer: believe it!"
Monsieur De Vlierbeck rose, to put an end to the conversation.
"Well, ask your uncle's consent," said he; "and, if your hopes are realized, let him come here and consult about the marriage. Whatever may be the issue of this affair, Gustave, you at least have always behaved toward us with the delicacy of a generous youth. My esteem and friendship shall always be yours. Go now; quit Grinselhof this time without seeing Lenora, for you ought not to meet her until this affair is settled. I will tell her myself whatever I think proper for her to know."
Half pleased, half sad,—his heart divided between joy and anxiety,—Gustave bade farewell to Lenora's father and returned to Echelpoel.