The Poor Gentleman
Four days after Denecker had refused his consent to the marriage, a hired carriage might have been Been drawing up carefully in a screen of wood that bordered a by-road about half a league from Grinselhof. A young man got out of it, and, giving directions to the coachman to await him at a neighboring inn, walked briskly across the moor toward the old château. As soon as Grinselhof began to loom up over the trees, he moved cautiously along behind the hedges and thickets, as if seeking to avoid observation; and then, stealing across the bridge, he opened the gate, passed through the dense copse that surrounded the house, and entered the garden.
The first object that greeted his sight was Lenora, seated at her table beneath the well-known catalpa, with her head resting on the board, evidently absorbed in sorrow. Her back was turned toward him as he approached; and, although he advanced with the utmost caution, the sound of his footsteps disturbed her in the intense silence of the spot, and she leaped to her feet, while the name of Gustave broke in surprised accents from her lips. She was evidently anxious to escape into the house; but her lover threw himself on his knees, and, grasping her hand, poured forth a passionate appeal:—
"Listen to me, Lenora! listen to me! If you fly and refuse me the consolation of telling you with my last farewell, all I have suffered and all I hope, I will either die here at your feet, or I will go hence forever, a broken-hearted wanderer over the face of the earth! Listen to me! listen to me! Listen to me, Lenora, my sister, my beloved, my betrothed! By our pure and holy love, I beseech you not to repulse me!"
Though Lenora trembled in every limb, her features assumed an expression of wounded pride, as she answered, with cold decision,—
"Your boldness surprises me, sir! You are indeed a daring man, to appear again at Grinselhof after your uncle's insulting conduct to my father! He is ill in bed; his soul is crushed by the outrage. Is this the reward of all my affection for you?"
"Oh, God! oh, God! Lenora, do I hear you accuse me? Alas! what have I done, and what could I prevent?"
"There is nothing, sir, any longer, in common between us," said the girl. "If we are not as rich as you, the blood that runs in our veins cannot suffer by comparison. Arise! begone! I will see you no more!"
"Mercy! pity!" exclaimed Gustave, lifting his clasped hands toward her; "mercy, Lenora, for I am innocent!"
The maiden dashed away the tears that began to start in her eyes, and, turning her back on him, was about to depart.
"Cruel, cruel!" exclaimed Gustave, in broken tones. "Can you leave me without a farewell?—without a word of consolation? Will you remain insensible to my grief and deaf to my prayers? 'Tis well; I will submit to my lot, for you have decided it! You, Lenora, my love, have sentenced me! I forgive you: be happy on earth without me, and farewell forever!"
As he uttered those words his strength seemed utterly to fail him, and, sinking into the chair which Lenora had quitted, his head and arms fell lifeless on the table.
The determined girl had made a few steps in her retreat to the house, when she suddenly halted on hearing the agonized tones of Gustave's farewell and the sudden sound of his fall on the table. As she glanced backward at the convulsed frame of her lover, a spasm that denoted the violent conflict between duty and affection passed over her beautiful face; and, as her heart appeared gradually to conquer in the fight, the tears began to pour in showers from her eyes. Step by step and slowly she retraced the path to the table, and leaning over the sufferer, took one of his hands tenderly in hers:—
"Are we not wretched, Gustave? Are we not wretched?"
At the touch of that gentle hand and the sound of that beloved voice, life seemed once more to stir in his veins, and, raising his eyes languidly to hers, he gazed mournfully into them as he half said, half sighed,—
"Lenora, dear Lenora, have you come back to me? Have you taken pity on my agony? You do not hate me, do you?" "Is a love like ours extinguished in a day?" returned Leonora, with a sigh.
"Oh, no, no!" cried Gustave aloud; "it is eternal! Is it not eternal, Lenora, and omnipotent against every ill as long as the hearts beat in our bosoms?"
Lenora bowed her head and cast down her eyes.
"Do not imagine, Gustave," said she, solemnly, "that our separation causes me less grief than it does you; and, if the assurance of my love can assuage the pangs of absence, let it strengthen and encourage you. My lonely heart will keep your image sacred in its holiest shrine; I will follow you in spirit wherever you go, and I will love you till death shall fill up the gulf that separates us. We shall meet again above, but never more on earth."
"You are mistaken, Lenora," cried Gustave, with a feeble expression of joy; "you are mistaken! There is still hope; my uncle is not inexorable, and his compassionate heart must yield to my despair."
"That may be," replied Lenora, in sad but resolute tones; "that may be, Gustave; but my father's honor is inflexible. Leave me, Gustave; I have already disobeyed my father's orders too long, and slighted my duty in remaining with a man who cannot become my husband. Go now; for, if we should be surprised by some one, my poor, wretched father would die of shame and anger."
"One moment more, beloved Lenora! Hear what I have to tell you. My uncle refused me your hand; I wept, I besought him, but nothing could change his determination. In despair I was transported beyond myself; I rebelled against my benefactor; and, treating him like an ungrateful wretch, I said a thousand things for which I begged his pardon on my knees when reason resumed her empire over my excited soul. My uncle is goodness itself to me: he pardoned my sin; but he imposed the condition that I should instantly undertake a journey with him to Italy, which he has long designed making. He idly hopes that travel may obliterate your image from my mind; but think not, Lenora, that I can ever forget you! A sudden thought flashed through my fancy, and I accepted his terms with a secret joy. For months and months I will be alone with my uncle; and, watching him ever with the love and gratitude I feel for all his kindness, I will gradually wear away his objections, and, conquering his heart, return, my love, to place the bridal wreath upon your brow, and claim you, before the altar of God, as the companion of my choice!"
For an instant a gentle smile overspread the maiden's face, and her clear, earnest gaze was full of rapture at the vision of future happiness; but the gleam disappeared almost as quickly as it arose, and she answered him, with bitter sadness,—
"Alas! my dear friend, it is cruel to destroy this last hope of your heart; and yet I must do it. Your uncle might consent; but my father—"
She faltered for an instant.
"Your father, Lenora? Your father would pardon all and receive me like a long-lost son."
"No, no; believe it not, Gustave; for his honor has been too deeply wounded. As a Christian he might pardon it; but as a gentleman he will never forget the outrage."
"Oh, Lenora, you are unjust to your father. If I return with my uncle's consent, and say to him, 'I will make your child happy; give her to me for my wife; I will surround her path with all the joys a husband has ever bestowed on woman;'—if I tell him this, think you he will deny me?"
Lenora cast down her eyes.
"You know his infinite goodness, Gustave," said she. "My happiness is his only thought on earth; he will thank God and bless you."
"Yes, yes; he will consent," continued Gustave, with ardor; "and all is not lost. A blessed ray lightens our future, and let it rekindle your hope, beloved of my heart! Yield not to grief; let me go forth on this dreary journey, but let me bear along with me the assurance that you await my return with trust in God. Remember me in your prayers; utter my name as you stray through these lonely paths which witnessed the dawn of our love and where for two months I drained the cup of perfect bliss. The knowledge that I am not forgotten by you will sustain my heart and enable me to endure the pangs of separation."
Lenora wept in silence. Her lover's eloquence had extinguished every spark of her pride; and the rebellious heart which so lately was ready to cast off its rosy fetters had no longer a place for any thing but love and sadness. Gustave saw that he had conquered.
"I go, Lenora," said he, "strong in your affection. I quit my country and my loved one with a confident hope. Whatever may happen to me, I will never be downcast. You will think of me daily, Lenora, will you not?"
"Alas! I have promised my father that I will forget you!" sobbed the maiden, as her hand trembled in his.
"Forget me!" exclaimed Gustave. "Can you force yourself to forget me?"
"No, Gustave; NO!" said she, firmly, fixing her large eyes on him with an intense and lingering gaze. "No: for the first time in my life I will disobey my father. I feel that I have net the strength to keep my idle word. I cannot forget you: till the last hour of my life I will love you; for it is my fate, and I cannot resist."
"Thanks, thanks, a thousand thanks, Lenora!" exclaimed Gustave, in a transport. "Thy tender love strengthens me against destiny. Beloved of my heart, rest here under the guardian eye of God. Thy image will follow me in my journey like a protecting angel; in joy and grief, by day and night, in health and sickness, thou, Lenora, wilt ever be present to me! This cruel separation wounds my heart beyond expression; but duty commands, and I must obey. Farewell, farewell!"
He wrung her hands convulsively, and was gone.
"Gustave!" sobbed the poor girl, as she sank on the chair and allowed the pent-up passion of her soul to burst forth in tears.