The Poor Gentleman
On the afternoon of the following day Monsieur De Vlierbeck was seated in his parlor, his head resting on his hand. He seemed plunged in profound thought, for his eyes were fixed on vacancy and his face exhibited by turns contentment and hope, inquietude and anxiety.
Occasionally Lenora came into the apartment, and, seeming unusually restless, wandered about from spot to spot, arranging and rearranging the little fancy articles upon the tables, looking out of the window into the garden, and at last running down-stairs suddenly as if she were pursued. No one who saw her could doubt that she was nervously anxious about something; yet her expression was one of joy and hope. Had she been able to penetrate her father's mind and behold the various emotions that excited it, she would not perhaps have been so gay and blithesome; but poor De Vlierbeck restrained himself with his habitual care in her presence, and smiled at her impatience as if he too were confident of approaching happiness.
At length, tired of running about, Lenora seated herself by her father and fixed her clear and questioning gaze on his face.
"Don't be so excited, my good child," said he. "We shall know nothing to-day; but we may, perhaps, to-morrow. Moderate your joy, my daughter; if it please Heaven to decide against your hope in this matter your grief will be more easily conquered."
"Oh, no, father!" stammered Lenora; "God will grant my prayer; I feel it in my heart. Don't be astonished, father, that I am full of joy, for I think I see Gustave speaking to his uncle. I hear what he says, and Monsieur Denecker's replies; I see him embrace Gustave and give his consent! Who can doubt, father, that I ought to hope, when I know that Monsieur Denecker loved me and was always kind?"
"Would you be very happy, Lenora," asked De Vlierbeck, with a smile, "if Gustave were betrothed to you?"
"Never to leave him!" cried Lenora,—"to love him,—to be the happiness of his life, his consolation, his joy,—to enliven the solitude of Grinselhof by our love!—ah! that, father, would be delight indeed; for then there would be two of us to contribute to the pleasures of your life! Gustave would have more skill than I to chase away the grief that sometimes clouds your brow; you could walk, talk, or hunt with him; he would venerate and love you as a son and watch you with the tenderest care; his only thought on earth would be to make you happy, because he knows that your happiness is mine; and I—I, father, will recompense him for his devotion by the gratitude of my heart, and love. Oh, yes, dear father! we shall live together in a paradise of contentment!"
"Ingenuous girl!" exclaimed De Vlierbeck, with a sigh; "may the Lord hear your prayer! But the world, my child, is governed by laws and customs of which you are altogether ignorant. A wife must follow her husband wherever he goes. If Gustave shall select another residence you must follow him and console yourself gradually at the separation from your father. Under other circumstances, parting might be painful; but solitude will not sadden me if I know you are happy, my child."
The startled maiden looked at her father with surprise as he uttered these words; and, as he finished, her head fell heavily on her breast and tears streamed silently from her eyes. Monsieur De Vlierbeck took her hand tenderly as he said, in faltering words,—
"I feared, Lenora, that I would make you sad; but you must become accustomed to the idea of our separation."
Lenora raised her head quickly as she replied, in a firm and resolute manner, "What! could Gustave ever dream of our separation? To leave you at Grinselhof passing your days in seclusion while I and my husband were in the world in the midst of festivity? I should not have an instant's rest, wherever I might be; conscience would cry aloud in my heart, 'Ungrateful and insensible child, thy father is abandoned to suffering and solitude!' Yes, I love Gustave; he is dearer to me than life itself, and I receive his hand as a blessing from God; but if he should say to me, 'Abandon your father!'—if he left me no choice except you or him,—I would close my eyes and reject him! I should be sad; I should suffer; perhaps even I should die; but, father dear, I would die in your arms!"
She bent down her head for a moment as if oppressed by a dreadful thought; but, raising her large eyes, liquid with tears, she fixed them on her father, as she added,—
"You doubt Gustave's affection for you; you imagine him capable of filling your life with sorrow,—of separating me from you! Oh, father, you do not know him; you do not know how much he respects and loves you; you do not comprehend the warmth of his generous and loving heart!"
De Vlierbeck bent over his child and impressed a kiss on her forehead, as he was about to utter some words of consolation, when suddenly Lenora sprang from his arms and pointed eagerly to the window, as if listening to approaching sounds.
The noise of wheels and the clatter of horses on the road soon gave Monsieur De Vlierbeck to understand why his daughter had been so startled. His face assumed a more animated expression, and, descending hurriedly, he reached the door as Monsieur Denecker alighted from his coach.
The merchant seemed in exceedingly good humor; he grasped De Vlierbeck's hand, expressing his delight at seeing him once more. "How goes it with you, my old friend? It seems that rogue, my nephew, has taken advantage of my absence." And, although De Vlierbeck ushered him into the saloon with all the formality imaginable, Denecker slapped him familiarly on the shoulder, and continued,—
"Well! well! we were good friends from the beginning; and now I understand we are to be regular gossips:—at least I hope so. That scamp hasn't bad taste, I must confess. He would have to make a long search before he found a handsomer or more amiable woman than Lenora. Look you, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, we must have a wedding frolic that people will talk of twenty years hence!"
By this time they had got into the saloon and taken their seats; but De Vlierbeck, nervous as he was, had considerable doubt as to the tone of Denecker's remarks, and whether he was jesting or serious.
"It seems," continued Denecker, assuming a graver tone, "that Gustave is madly impatient for this union, and begs me to hasten it. I have taken compassion on the young fellow and left all the business of our house topsy-turvy to-day to arrange matters with you. He tells me you have given your consent. That was kind of you, sir. I thought a great deal of this affair during my journey, for I had observed that Cupid's arrows had gone clean through and through the boy; yet I had fears about your consent. Inequality of blood, old-fashioned ideas, might perhaps interfere."
"And so Gustave told you that I consented to his marriage with Lenora?" said the old gentleman, paying no attention to Monsieur Denecker's remarks.
"Did he deceive me, sir?" said Denecker, with surprise.
"No; but did he communicate something else to you, which ought to strike you as of equal importance?"
Denecker threw back his head with a laugh, as he replied,—
"What nonsense you made him believe! But, between us two, that passes for nothing. He tells me that Grinselhof don't belong to you and that you are poor! I hope, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, you have too good an opinion of my sense to imagine I have the least faith in such a story?"
A shudder passed over the poor gentleman's frame. Denecker's good-humored familiarity had made him believe that he knew and credited all, and nevertheless responded to his nephew's hopes; but the last words he heard taught him that he must again go over the sad recital of his misfortunes.
"Monsieur Denecker," said he, "do not entertain the least doubt, I beg you, in regard to what I am about to say. I am willing instantly to consent that my daughter shall become your nephew's wife; but I solemnly declare that I am poor,—frightfully poor!"
"Come, come!" cried the merchant; "we knew long, long ago that you were mightily fond of your money; but when you marry your only child you must open your heart and your purse, my dear sir, and portion her according to your means. They say—pardon me for repeating it—that you are a miser; but what a shame it would be to let your only daughter leave your house unprovided for!"
Poor De Vlierbeck writhed on his chair as Denecker poured forth his incredulous jokes. "For God's sake, sir," cried he, "spare me these bitter remarks. I declare, on the word of a gentleman, that I possess nothing in the world!"
"Well!" cried the merchant, taking no heed of his remarks, and with a mocking smile, "come; let us cipher the matter out on the table. You suppose, perhaps, that I have come here to ask some great sacrifice of you: but no, De Vlierbeck, thank God, I have no occasion to be so close in my calculations. Yet a marriage is a thing to which there are always two parties, and it is just that each should bring something into the common stock."
"Oh, God! oh, God!" muttered the poor gentleman, as he clenched his hands convulsively.
"I propose to give my nephew one hundred thousand francs," continued Denecker; "and if he wants to continue in business my credit will be worth as much more to him. I have no wish that Lenora's portion shall equal his. Your high birth, and especially your character, will make up what is wanting in her fortune; but what say you to the half,—fifty thousand francs? You will consent to that, or I am much mistaken. What say you? Is it a bargain?"
Pale and trembling, De Vlierbeck sat riveted to his chair; but at last, in a low, melancholy voice,—
"Monsieur Denecker," said he, "this conversation kills me. I beg you to stop this infliction. I repeat that I possess nothing; and, since you force me to speak before you apprize me of your own intentions, know that Grinselhof and its dependencies are mortgaged beyond their value! It is useless to inform you of the origin of these debts. Let it suffice to repeat that I tell the truth; and I beg you, without going further, now that you are informed of the state of my affairs, to declare frankly what are your designs as to your nephew's marriage."
Although this declaration was made with that feverish energy which ought to have satisfied Denecker of its truth, it nevertheless failed to convince him. A degree of surprise displayed itself on the merchant's face; but he continued his observations in the same incredulous tone:—
"Pardon me, De Vlierbeck, but it is impossible to believe you. I did not think you were so hard in a bargain. Yet be it so: every man has his weakness; one is too miserly, another too prodigal. Now, for my part, I confess that I am extremely anxious to spare Gustave the anxiety of delay. Give your daughter twenty-five thousand francs, with the understanding that the amount of her portion is to remain a secret; for I don't want to be laughed at. Twenty-five thousand francs!—you cannot say it is too much;—in fact, it is a trifle that will hardly pay for their furniture. Be reasonable, my good sir, and let us shake hands on it!"
De Vlierbeck said nothing; but, rising abruptly from the table, opened a closet with a trembling hand, and, taking from it a package of papers, threw them on the table.
"There!" said he; "read; convince yourself."
Denecker took up the papers and began to examine them. As he went on, the expression of his face gradually changed, and at times he raised his head and looked upward, as if in deep thought. After he had been engaged for some time in this disagreeable task, De Vlierbeck recommenced the conversation in a tone of cutting irony:—
"Ah! you would not believe me, sir. Well, let your determination be founded on those papers alone. It is right you should know every thing; for I have determined never again to be tortured. Besides the evidences of debt which are before you, I owe a bill of exchange for four thousand francs, which I cannot pay! You see now, Monsieur Denecker, that I am worse than poor, for I have debts!"
"Alas! it is but too true," said the stupefied merchant; "you have indeed nothing! I see by these documents that my notary is also yours; and, although I spoke to him of your fortune, he left me unadvised, or, I should rather say, in error."
De Vlierbeck breathed more freely, for he felt as if a rock had fallen from his breast. His face resumed its ordinary calmness; and, seating himself, he continued:—
"Now, sir, if you have no longer any reason to doubt my poverty, let me ask what are your intentions."
"My intentions?" replied the merchant; "my intentions are that we shall remain as good friends as we were before; but, as to the marriage, that of course falls to the ground. We will speak no more about it. What were your calculations, Monsieur De Vlierbeck? I think I am just beginning to see a little clearly into this matter! You imagined, I suppose, that you would make a good business out of it and sell your merchandise as high as possible!"
"Sir," exclaimed De Vlierbeck, bounding from his chair in rage, "speak respectfully of my daughter! Poor or rich, do not dare to forget who she is!"
"Don't get angry! don't get angry! Monsieur De Vlierbeck. I have no desire to insult you. Far from it. Had your enterprise succeeded I would probably have admired you; but finesse against finesse always makes a bad game! Permit me to ask, since you are so touchy on the point of honor, if you have acted a very honorable part in courting my nephew and allowing his passion to absorb him?"
De Vlierbeck bowed his head to conceal the blush that suffused his aged cheeks; nor did he awake from his painful stupor till the merchant recalled him by the single word,—
"Ah!" stammered De Vlierbeck, "have mercy on me! Love for my child, probably, led me astray. God endowed her with all the gifts that can adorn a woman. I hoped that her beauty, the purity of her soul, the nobility of her blood, were treasures quite as precious as gold!"
"That is to say, for a gentleman, perhaps; but not for so common a person as a merchant," interrupted Monsieur Denecker, with a sneer.
"Don't reproach me with having courted your nephew," continued De Vlierbeck. "That is a word that wounds me deeply; for it is unjust. Their attachment was reciprocal and in every way unstudied. I thanked God daily in my prayers that he had cast in our path a savior for my child:—yes, a savior, I say; for Gustave is an honorable youth, who would have made her happy not so much by money as by his noble and generous character. Is it then so great a crime for a father who has unfortunately become poor to hope that his child should escape want?"
"Certainly not," replied the merchant; "but every thing is in success; and in that respect, Monsieur De Vlierbeck, your enterprise has been unfortunate. I am a man who examines his goods twice before he buys, and it is difficult to pass apples on me for lemons!"
This heartless, trafficking slang tortured the unfortunate bankrupt to such a degree that he arose from his seat in a passion and began to pace the apartment.
"You have no consideration for my misfortunes, sir," said he. "You pretend that I designed deceiving you; but was it you who discovered my poverty? Are you not free to act as you please, after the disclosures that I have voluntarily given you? And let me remark, sir, that if I listen humbly to your reproaches—if I even acknowledge my fault—the sense of manhood is not dead in my soul. You talk of 'merchandise' and 'goods,' as if you came here to buy something! You allude to my Lenora, do you? All your wealth, sir, could not purchase her! and, if love is not powerful enough in your eyes to obliterate the pecuniary inequality between us, know that I am a De Vlierbeck, and that name, even in poverty, weighs more than all your money!"
During this explosion his face kindled with indignation and his eyes shot forth their fiery rays upon the merchant, who, alarmed by the loud words and animated gestures of De Vlierbeck, regarded him with an air of stupefaction from the other side of the apartment.
"Good God, sir," said he at last, "there is no need of so much violence and loud talk! Each of us remains where he is; each keeps what he has, and the affair is at an end. I have but one request to make of you, and it is that you will never again receive my nephew,—or else—"
"Or else?" interrupted De Vlierbeck, passionately; "do you dare to threaten me?" But, restraining himself almost instantly, he continued, with comparative calmness, "Enough! Shall I call Monsieur Denecker's carriage?"
"If you please," replied the merchant. "We cannot do business together, it seems; but that is no reason why we should become enemies."
"Well! well! we will stop short of that, sir. But this conversation annoys me; it must end!" And, so saying, he led Monsieur Denecker to the door and bade him farewell abruptly. Be Vlierbeck returned to the parlor, fell into his chair and covered his brow with both hands, as a heavy groan burst from his breast, which heaved with almost hysterical emotion. For a long time he remained silent and motionless; but soon his hands fell heavily on his knees, a deathly paleness overspread his face, and the room whirled around the heart-broken man.
Suddenly he heard footsteps in the chamber above, and, rousing himself by a strong effort, "Oh, God! my poor child!" cried he; "my poor Lenora! She comes! my punishment is not yet complete! I must break the heart of my own child; I must tear from it all its hopes, blot out its dream, behold it withered up with grief! Oh that I could escape this dreadful disclosure! Alas! What to say to her? how to explain it?"
A bitter smile contracted his lips as he continued, with bitter irony:—"Ah! hide thy suffering, old man; rally thy strength; take courage! If thy heart is torn and bleeding,—if despair devours thy soul,—oh, smile, still smile! Yes! your life has been a continual farce! Yet, miserable abortion that thou art, what canst thou do but submit, yield without a fight, and bow thy neck to the yoke like a powerless slave? Begone, rebellious feeling! Be silent, and behold thy child!"
Lenora opened the door and ran to her father, her questioning eyes fixed on his with a look of hope. All of poor De Vlierbeck's efforts to disguise his suffering were unsuccessful, and Lenora soon read in his face that he was a prey to some overwhelming sorrow. As he still obstinately kept silence, she began to tremble, and asked, with feverish impatience,—
"Well, father,—well,—have you nothing to say to me?"
"Alas! my child," said he, sighing, "we are not happy. God tries us with heavy blows. Let us bow before the will of the Almighty."
"What do you mean? what is there to fear?" said Lenora, beside herself. "Speak, father! Has he refused his consent?"
"He has refused it, Lenora!"
"Oh, no! no!" cried the maiden; "it is impossible!"
"Refused it, because he possesses millions and we—nothing!"
"It is true, then? Gustave is hopelessly lost to me!—lost to me forever!
"Hopelessly!" echoed the father.
A sharp cry escaped Lenora as she tottered to the table and fell on it, weeping bitterly.
De Vlierbeck arose and stood above his sobbing daughter, and, joining his uplifted hands, exclaimed, in suppliant tones,—
"Oh, pity me, pity me, Lenora! In that fatal interview I have suffered all the torments that could rack the heart of a parent; I have drunk the dregs of shame; I have emptied the cup of humiliation; but all, all are nothing in comparison with thy grief! Calm yourself, child of my love; let me see the sweet face I so love to look on; let me regain my lost strength in thy holy resignation! Lenora! my head swims; I shall die of despair!"
As he uttered these words he sank heavily into a chair, overpowered by emotion. The sound of his fall seemed instantly to recall Lenora to herself, and, dashing the tears from her eyes, she leaned her head on his shoulder to listen and assure herself that he had not fainted.
"Never to see him more! to renounce his love forever! to lose the happiness I dreamed of! Alas! alas!"
"Lenora! Lenora!" exclaimed her father, entreatingly!
"Oh, beloved father," sobbed the poor girl, "to lose Gustave forever! The dreadful thought overwhelms me! While I am near you I will bless God for his kindness; but my tears overpower me; oh! let me weep, let me weep, I beseech you!"
De Vlierbeck pressed his daughter more closely to his heart, and respected her affliction in silence.
The stillness of death reigned throughout the apartment, while they remained locked in each other's arms until the very excess of grief relaxed their embrace and opened their hearts to mutual consolation.