The Poor Gentleman
Leonora secretly cherished in her heart the hope of a happy future; but she did not hesitate to inform her father of Gustave's visit. De Vlierbeck heard her listlessly, and gave no other reply but a bitter smile.
From that day Grinselhof became sadder and more solitary than ever. The old gentleman might generally be seen seated in an arm-chair, resting his forehead on his hand, while his eyes were fixed on the ground or on vacancy. The fatal day on which the bond fell due was perhaps always present to his mind; nor could he banish the thought of that frightful misery into which it would plunge his child and himself. Lenora carefully concealed her own sufferings in order not to increase her father's grief; and, although she fully sympathized with him, no effort was omitted on her part to cheer the old man by apparent contentment. She did and said every thing that her tender heart could invent to arouse the sufferer from his reveries; but all her efforts were in vain: her father thanked her with a smile and caress; but the smile was sad, the caress constrained and feeble.
If Lenora sometimes asked him, with tears, what was the cause of his depression, he adroitly managed to avoid all explanations. For days together he wandered about the loneliest paths of the garden, apparently anxious to escape the presence even of his daughter. If she caught a glimpse of him at a distance, a fierce look of irritation was perceptible on his face, while his arms were thrown about in rapid and convulsive gesticulations. If she approached him with marks of love and devotion, he scarcely replied to her affectionate words, but left the garden to bury himself in the solitude of the house.
An entire month—a month of bitter sadness and unexpressed suffering on both sides—passed in this way; and Lenora observed with increased anxiety the rapid emaciation and pallor of her father, and the suddenness with which his once-lively eye lost every spark of its wonted vivacity. It was about this time that a slight change in the old gentleman's conduct convinced her that a secret—and perhaps a terrible one—weighed on his heart. Every day or two he went to Antwerp in the calèche, without informing her or any one else of the object of his visit. He came back to Grinselhof late at night, seated himself at the supper-table silent and resigned, and, persuading Lenora to go to bed, soon went off to his own chamber. But his daughter was well aware that he did not retire to rest; for during long hours of wakefulness she heard the floor creak as he paced his apartment with restless steps.
Lenora was brave by nature, and her singular and solitary education had given her a latent force of character that was almost masculine. By degrees the resolution to make her father reveal his secret grew in her mind. And, although a feeling of instinctive respect made her hesitate, a restless devotion to the author of her being gradually overcame all scruples and emboldened her for the enterprise.
One day Monsieur De Vlierbeck set off very early for town. The morning wore away heavily; and, toward the afternoon, Lenora wandered wearily about the desolate house, with no companion but her sad reflections. At length she entered the apartment where her father usually studied or wrote, and, after a good deal of hesitation, in which her face and gestures displayed the anxiety of her purpose, opened the table-drawer, and saw in it, unrolled, a written document. The paleness of death overspread her countenance as she perused the paper and instantly closed the drawer. After this she left the apartment hastily, and, returning to her chamber, sat down with hands clasped on her knees and eyes fixed on the floor in a stare of wild surprise.
"Sell Grinselhof!" exclaimed she. "Sell Grinselhof! Why? Monsieur Denecker insulted my father because we were not rich enough for him. What is this secret? and what does it all mean? If it should be true that we are beggars! Oh, God! does a ray of light penetrate my mind? is this the solution of the enigma and the cause of my father's depression?"
For a long time she remained motionless in her chair, absorbed in reverie; but gradually her face brightened, her lips moved, and her eyes glistened with resolution. As she was endeavoring to fight bravely against misfortune, she suddenly heard the wheels of her father's calèche returning to Grinselhof. She ran down instantly to meet him; and as he drew up at the door she perceived the poor sufferer buried in a corner of the vehicle, apparently deprived of all consciousness; and, when he descended from the vehicle and she saw his expression distinctly, the deadly pallor that covered his haggard cheeks almost made her sink to the earth with anxiety. Indeed, she had neither heart nor strength to utter a word to him; but, standing aside in silence, she allowed the old man to enter the house and bury himself as usual in his chamber.
For some minutes she stood on the door-sill, undecided as to what she should do; but by degrees her brow and cheeks began to redden, and the light of resolution shone in her moistened eyes.
"Ought the feeling of respect to restrain me longer?" said she to herself; "shall I let my father die without an effort? No! no! I must know all! I must tear the worm from his heart; I must save him by my love!"
Without a moment's further delay, she ran rapidly through three or four chambers, and came to the apartment where her father was seated with his elbows resting on the table and his head buried in his hands. Throwing herself on her knees at his feet, and with hands raised to him in supplication,—
"Have mercy on me, father!" exclaimed she; "have mercy on me, I beseech you on my knees; tell me what it is that distresses you! I must know why it is that my father buries himself in this solitude and seems to fly even from his child!"
"Lenora! thou last and only treasure that remainest to me on earth," replied De Vlierbeck, in a broken voice, with despair in his wild gaze,—"thou hast suffered, dreadfully, my child, hast thou not? Rest thy poor head in my bosom. A terrible blow, my child, is about to fall on us!"
Lenora did not seem to pay any attention to these remarks, but, disengaging herself from her father's embrace, replied, in firm and decided tones,—
"I have not come here, father, for consolation, but with the unalterable determination to learn the cause of your suffering. I will not go away without knowing what misfortune it is that has so long deprived me of your love. No matter how much I may venerate you and respect your silence, the sense of duty is greater even than veneration. I must—I will—know the secret of your grief!"
"Thou deprived of thy father's love?" exclaimed De Vlierbeck, reproachfully and with surprise;—love for thee, my adored child, is precisely the secret of my grief. For ten years I have drained the bitter cup and prayed the Almighty to make you happy; but, alas! my prayers have always been unheard!"
"Shall I be unhappy, then?" asked Lenora, without betraying the least emotion.
"Unhappy, because of the misery that awaits us," replied her father. "The blow that is about to fall on our house destroys all that we possess. We must leave Grinselhof."
The last words, which plainly confirmed her fears, seemed for a moment to appall the girl; but she repressed her feelings, and answered him, with increased courage,—
"You are not dying this slow death because ill-fortune has overtaken you, my father; I know the unconquerable force of your character too well for that. No! your heart is weak and yielding because I have to partake your poverty! Bless you, bless you, for your affection! But, tell me, father, if I were offered all the wealth of the world on condition that I would consent to see you suffer for a single day, what think you I would answer?"
Dumb with surprise, the poor man looked proudly at his daughter, and a gentle pressure of her hand was his sole reply.
"Ah!" continued she, "I would refuse all the treasures of earth and meet poverty without a sigh. And you, father,—if they offered you all the gold of America for your Lenora, what would you do?"
"How can you ask, child?" exclaimed her father; "do we sell our hearts' blood for gold?"
"And so," continued the girl, "our Maker has left us that which is dearest to us both in this world; why then should we mourn when we ought to be grateful for his compassionate care? Take heart once more, dear father; no matter what may be our future lot,—should we even be forced to take refuge in a hovel,—nothing can harm us as long as we are not separated!"
Smiles, astonishment, admiration, and love, by turns flitted over the wan features of the poor old man, who seemed altogether unnerved and disconcerted by the painful dénouement. At length, after some moments of unbroken silence, he clasped his hands, and, gazing intensely into her eyes through his starting tears—
"Lenora, Lenora! my child!" he exclaimed, "thou art not of earth—thou art an angel! The unselfish grandeur of thy soul unmans me completely!"
She saw she had conquered. The light of courage was rekindled again in her father's eye, and his lofty brow was lifted once more under the sentiment of dignity and self-devotion that struggled for life in his suffering heart. Lenora looked at him with a heavenly smile, and exclaimed, rapturously,
"Up! up! father; come to my arms; away with grief! United in each other's love, fate itself is powerless in our presence!"
Father and daughter sprang into each other's arms, and for a long while remained speechless, wrapped in a tender embrace; then, seating themselves with their hands interlocked, they were silent and absorbed, as if the world and its misery were altogether forgotten.
"A new life—a new and refreshing current of blood—seems to have been suddenly poured into my veins," said Monsieur De Vlierbeck. "Alas, Lenora, what a sinner I have been! how wrong I was not to divulge all! But you must pardon me, beloved child; you must pardon me. It was the fear of afflicting you—the hope of finding some means of rescue, of escape—that sealed my lips. I did not know you, my daughter; I did not know the inestimable treasure that God in his mercy had lavished on me! But now you shall know all; I will no longer hide the secret of my conduct and my grief. The fatal hour has come; the blow I desired to ward off is about to fall and cannot be turned aside! Are you prepared, dear child, to hear your father's story?"
Lenora, who was delighted to behold the calm and radiant smile that illuminated the face of her heart-broken parent, answered him instantly, in caressing tones,—
"Pour all your woes into my heart, dear father, and conceal nothing. The part I have to perform must be based on complete knowledge of every thing; and you will feel how much your confidence relieves your burdened soul."
"Take, then, your share of suffering, daughter," replied De Vlierbeck, "and help me to bear my cross! I will disguise nothing. What I am about to disclose is indeed lamentable; yet do not tremble and give way at the recital, for, if any thing should move you, it must be the story of a father's torture. You will learn now, my child, why Monsieur Denecker has had the hardihood to behave toward us as he has done."
He dropped her hand, but, without averting his eager gaze from her anxious eyes, continued:—
"You were very young, Lenora, but gentle and loving as at present, and your blessed mother found all her happiness centered in your care and comfort. We dwelt on the lands of our forefathers; nothing disturbed the even tenor of our simple lives; and, by proper economy, our moderate income sufficed to support us in a manner becoming our rank and name.
"I had a younger brother, who was endowed with an excellent heart, but generous to a fault and somewhat imprudent. He lived in town, and married a lady of noble family who was no richer than himself. She was showy in her tastes and habits, and, I fear, induced him to increase his revenue by adventurous means. There can be no doubt that he speculated largely in the public funds. But probably you do not understand what this means, my child. It is a species of gambling, by which a man may in a moment gain millions; and yet it is a game that may, with equal rapidity, plunge him into the depths of misery and reduce him as if by magic to the condition of a beggar.
"At first, my brother was remarkably successful, and established himself in town in a style of living that was the envy of our wealthiest citizens. He came to see us frequently, bringing you, who were his godchild, a thousand beautiful presents, and lavished his affection with testimonials of kindness which were proportioned to his fortune. I spoke to him often about the dangerous character of his adventures, and endeavored to convince him that it was unbecoming a gentleman to risk his property upon the hazards of an hour; but, as continued success emboldened him more and more, the passion for gambling made him deaf to all my appeals, all my advice.
"At last the evil hour came! The luck which had so long favored him became inconstant; he lost a considerable portion of his gains, and saw his fortune diminishing with every venture. Still, courage did not fail him; but, on the contrary, he seemed to fight madly against fate, with the idle hope of forcing fortune to turn once more in his favor. But, alas, it was a fatal delusion!
"One night—I tremble as I recall it—I was in my chamber and nearly ready to retire; you were already in bed, and your mother was saying her prayers on her knees beside your little couch. A tremendous storm raged without: hail beat in torrents against the windows, and the wind howled in the chimneys and swayed the trees as if it was about to blow down the house. The violence of the tempest began to make me somewhat anxious, when suddenly the door-bell was pulled and the sound of horses heard at the gate. In a moment the summons was answered by one of our servants,—for we kept two then,—and a female rushed into the room, throwing herself in tears at my feet. It was my brother's wife!
"Trembling with fright, I of course hastened to raise her; but she clung to my knees, begging my assistance, imploring me, by every passionate appeal she could think of, to save her husband's life, and convincing me by her sobs and distraction that some frightful calamity was impending over my brother!
"Your mother joined me eagerly in my efforts to calm the sufferer, and by degrees we managed to extract the cause of her singular conduct and unseasonable visit. My brother—alas!—had lost all he possessed, and even more! His wife's story was heart-rending; but its conclusion filled us with more anxiety for her husband than his losses; for, overcome by the certainty of a dishonored name, haunted by the reflection that law and justice would soon overtake him, my poor brother had made an attempt upon his life! The hand of God had providentially guided his wife to the apartment, where she surprised him at the fatal moment and snatched the deadly instrument from his grasp! He was then locked up in a room; dumb, overcome, bowed down to the earth, and guarded by two faithful friends. If any one on earth could save him, it was surely his brother!
"Such was the wild appeal of my wretched sister-in-law, who, heedless of the stormy night, had thrown herself into a coach and fled to me, through the tempest, as her only hope for their salvation. There she was at my feet, bathed in tears, sobbing, screaming, beseeching me to accompany her to town. Could I—did I—hesitate? Your tender mother, who saw at once the frightful condition of the family, and sympathized as woman's heart alone can do with human misery, eagerly implored me not to lose a moment. 'Save him, save him!' exclaimed she; 'spare nothing: I will consent to every thing you may think proper to do or sacrifice!'
"We flew back to town through the storm and darkness. You grow pale, Lenora, at the very thought of it, for it was indeed frightful, and you can never know the impression it made on me: these whitened hairs—whitened before their time—are the records of that terrible night! But let me continue.
"It is needless to describe the wild despair in which I found my brother, or to tell you how long I had to wrestle with his spirit in order to force a ray of hope into his soul. There was but one means by which we could save his honor and life; but—oh God!—at what a sacrifice! I was obliged to pledge all my property as security for his debts. Nothing could be spared; our ancestral manor-lands, your mother's marriage-portion, your moderate dowry,—all were ventured with the certainty that the greater part would unquestionably be lost! On these hard conditions my brother's honor might be saved; and, if that could be rescued, he was willing to renounce the determination to escape shame by death. I must in justice say that it was not he who demanded the sacrifice from me: on the contrary, he did not suppose that I could or would make it; but I was satisfied in my mind that if I did not settle his affairs, at all hazards, he would execute his criminal project against his life. And yet—and yet, my child—I hesitated!"
"Father!" exclaimed Lenora, "you did not refuse!"
A happy smile beamed on his face as he met the questioning glance of his daughter and answered, firmly,—
"I loved my brother, Lenora; but I loved you, my only child, much more. The sacrifice demanded of me by his creditors insured misery for your mother and for you!"
"Oh, God! oh, God!" sobbed Lenora.
"On one side my heart was distracted by this dreadful thought, while on the other I was assailed by the despair that was present in the bankrupt's chamber; but generosity conquered in the awful trial, and at daylight I sought out the principal creditors and signed the documents that saved a brother's life and honor but gave up my wife and child to want."
"Thank God!" gasped Lenora, as if she had been relieved from a horrible nightmare. "Bless you, bless you, father, for your noble, generous conduct!"
She rose from her seat, and, passing her arms around his neck, gave him a glowing kiss with as much solemnity as if she had been anxious to endue this mark of love with all the fervor and sacredness of a benediction.
"Ah! but canst thou bless me, my child," said he, with eyes foil of gratitude, "for an act that should implore thy pardon?"
"My pardon, father!" exclaimed Lenora, with surprise on all her features. "Oh, had you done otherwise, what would I not have suffered in doubting the goodness of my parent's heart! Now, now, I love you more than ever! Pardon you, father? Is it a crime to save a brother's life when it is in your keeping?"
"Alas, Lenora, the world does not reason thus, and never forgives us for the guilt of poverty. Reduced to that, we suffer humiliations which any one may observe in the lives of multitudes of our nobles. Yes; society regards poverty as a crime, and it treats us like outcasts. Our equals avoid us in order not to be confounded in our misery; while peasants and tradesmen laugh at our misfortune as if it was a sort of agreeable revenge. Happy, happy they to whom heaven has given an angel to pour comfort and consolation into their hearts in hours of want and dejection! But listen, my child!
"My brother was saved, and I concealed most carefully the assistance I had been to him; he left the country and went with his wife to America, where, ever since, he has worked hard and gained hardly enough to support a miserable existence. His wife died during the voyage. And, as to ourselves, we no longer possess any thing; for Grinselhof and our other lands were mortgaged for more than they were worth. Besides this, I was forced to borrow from a gentleman of my acquaintance four thousand francs upon my bond.
"When your mother heard of the sacrifices to which I was forced to submit, she made no reproaches; at first she fully approved my conduct. But very soon we became necessarily subjected to privations under which your mother's strength declined, till, without a sigh or complaint, she began to fade away slowly from earth. It was a dreadful situation; for, to conceal our ruin and save our ancestral name from contempt, we were forced to part with the last ounce of our silver to pay the interest on our debts. Gradually our horses and servants disappeared; the paths that led to our neighbors soon became grass-grown; and we declined all social invitations, so as to avoid the necessity of returning the compliment. A rumor about us began to spread through the village and among the noble families that had formerly been on terms of intimacy with us; and scandal declared that avarice had driven us to a life of meanness and isolation! We joyously accepted the imputation, and even the coldness with which our holiday friends accompanied it; it was a veil with which society thought proper to cover us, and beneath its folds our poverty was safe from scrutiny.
"But I am approaching scenes, my child, the recollection of which almost unnerves me. My story has reached the most painful moment of my life, and I beseech you to hear me calmly.
"Your poor mother wasted away to a skeleton; her sunken-eyes were hardly visible in their deep sockets; a livid pallor suffused her cheeks. As I saw her fading,—fading,—the wife whom I had loved more than life,—as I gazed on those death-struck features and saw the fatal evidences each day clearer and clearer,—I became nearly mad with despair and grief."
Lenora shuddered with emotion as her breast heaved convulsively under the sobs she strove to repress. Her father stopped a moment, almost overcome by the recital; but, rallying his courage quickly, he forced himself to go on with his sad recollections:—
"Poor mother! she did nothing but weep! Every time she looked at her child—her dear little Lenora—tears filled her eyes. Thy name was always on her lips, as if she were forever addressing a prayer for thee to God in heaven! At last the dreadful hour arrived when she heard the Almighty's voice summoning her above. The clergyman performed the services for the dying; and you, my child, had been taken from her arms and sent out of the house. It was midnight, and I was alone with her whose icy lips had already imprinted on mine their last sad kiss. My heart bled. Oh, God! how wretched—how wretched—were those parting hours! My beloved wife lay there before me as if already a corpse, while the tears yet trickled down her hollow cheeks and she strove to utter your name with her expiring breath. Kneeling beside her, I implored God's mercy for her passing hour, and kissed away the sweat of agony that stood upon her brow. Suddenly I thought I perceived an effort to speak, and, bending my ear to her lips, she called me by name, and said, 'It is over, my love, it is over; farewell! It has not pleased the Almighty to assuage my dying hour, and I go with the conviction that my child will suffer want and wretchedness on earth!'
"I know not what my love inspired me to say in that solemn moment; but I called God to witness that you should escape suffering, and that your life should be happy! A heavenly smile illuminated her eyes, and she believed my promise. With an effort, she lifted her thin hands once more round my neck and drew my lips to hers. But soon those wasted arms fell heavily on the bed;—my Margaret was gone;—thy mother was no more!"
De Vlierbeck's head fell on his breast. Lenora's bosom heaved convulsively as she took his hand without uttering a word; and, for a long time, nothing was heard in that sad confessional but the sobs of the maiden and the sighs of her heart-broken father.
"What I have yet to say," continued the poor gentleman, "is not so painful as what I have already told you: it concerns only myself. Perhaps it would be better if I said nothing about it; but I need a friend who possesses all my confidence and can sympathize with me thoroughly in all I have undergone for the last ten years.
"Listen, then, Lenora. Your mother was no more; she was gone;—she who was my last staff in life! I remained at Grinselhof alone with you, my child, and with my promise,—a promise made to God and to the dead! What should I do to fulfil it? Quit my hereditary estate? wander away seeking my fortune in foreign lands, and work for our mutual support? That would not do, for it would have devoted you at once to the chances of a wretched uncertainty. I could not think of such a course with any degree of satisfaction; nor was it till after long and anxious reflection that a ray of hope seemed to promise us both a happy future.
"I resolved to disguise our poverty more carefully than ever, and to devote my time to the most elaborate cultivation of your mind. God made you beautiful in face and person, Lenora; but your father was anxious to initiate you into the mysteries of science and art, and, while he endowed you with a knowledge of the world, to make you virtuous, pious, and modest. I desired to make you an accomplished woman, and I hoped that the nobility of your blood, the charms of your beauty, the treasures of your heart and intellect, would compensate in society for the portion that was denied you. Thus was it, my child, that I thought in time, you would make a suitable alliance which would restore you to the position you hold by birth. For ten years, Lenora, this has been my occupation and my hope. What I had forgotten or never learned, I studied at night to teach you next morning; I labored hard that I might not only instruct you wisely but that you might acquire easily; and, at the same time, I strove by every honest means to conceal from you every thing that could give a hint or cause a suspicion by which your life might be shadowed. Oh, Lenora,—shall I confess it?—I have suffered hunger and undergone the most cruel privations; I have passed half my nights mending my clothes, working in the garden, studying and practising in the dark, so as to hide our poverty from you and the world. But all that was nothing; in the silence of night I was not forced to blush before any one. By day I had to encounter all kinds of insults, and, with a bleeding heart, swallow affront and humiliation."
Lenora looked at her father with eyes moistened by compassion. De Vlierbeck pressed her hand, and continued:—
"Be not sad, Lenora; if the Lord's hand inflicted deep wounds with every blow, he bestowed a balm which cured them. One little smile of thy gentle face was sufficient to make me pour forth an ejaculation to Heaven: you, you at least were happy, and in your happiness I saw the fulfilment of my promise!
"At length I thought that God himself had thrown in our path one who would save you from threatening danger. A mutual inclination arose between Gustave and you, and a marriage seemed the natural consequence. Under these circumstances I apprized Monsieur Denecker, during his last visit, of the deplorable condition of my affairs; but no sooner did I make the disclosure than he peremptorily refused his consent to the union. As if this terrible blow, which withered all my hopes, had not been sufficient to overwhelm me, I learned, almost at the same time, that the friend who loaned me four thousand francs, with the right to renew my obligation to him every year, had died in Germany, and that his heirs demanded the payment of the debt! I ran all over town, rapped at every friendly door, ransacked heaven and earth in my despair, to escape this last ignominy; but all my efforts were fruitless. To-morrow, perhaps, a placard will be stuck on the door of Grinselhof, announcing the sale not only of our estate but also of our furniture and of every trifling object that memory and association have rendered dear to us. Honor requires that we shall surrender, to public sale, every thing of the least value to pay our debts. If fate were kind enough to allow us to satisfy every creditor it would be a great consolation, my child, in our misery. Does not this fatal history break your heart?"
"Is that all which makes you despond, father? Have you no other grief? Does your heart conceal no other secret from me?" asked Lenora.
"None, my child. You know every thing."
"I can very well understand," replied Lenora, gravely, "that others would consider a blow like this as a frightful misfortune; but how can it affect us? You even appear calm. Why, father, do you, like me, appear indifferent to the inexorable decree of fate?"
"Because you have inspired me with courage and confidence, Lenora; because your love is restored to me fully after a long constraint; because you let me hope that you will not be unhappy. I know what you want to say, noble child, whom God has given me as a shield against every ill! Well, I will encounter ruin without bowing my head, and submit with resignation to the hand of God! Alas!" continued he, sadly, "who can tell what sufferings are yet in store for us? We may be forced to wander about the world,—to seek an asylum far from those we know and love,—to earn our daily bread by the labor of our hands! Oh, Lenora, you know not how bitter is the bread of misery,—of poverty!"
The maiden shuddered as she saw the cloud falling once more like a curtain over her father's face. She grasped his hand tenderly, and, fixing her gaze intently on his, said, in beseeching tones,—
"Oh, father! let not the happy smile that just now lighted your features depart from them again! Believe me, we shall still be happy. Fancy yourself in the position that awaits us: and what do you see in it so frightful? I have skill to do all that woman can do; and then your instructions have made me able to instruct others in the arts and sciences you have taught me. I shall be strong and active enough for both of us, and God will bless my labor. Behold us, father, peacefully at home, with tranquil hearts and always together in our neat apartment: we will love one another, set misfortune at defiance, and live together in the heaven that our common sacrifice has made! Oh, it seems to me, father, that the true happiness of our lives is only beginning! How can you still give yourself up to despair when pleasure is in store for us,—a pleasure such as few upon earth are permitted to enjoy?"
Monsieur De Vlierbeck looked at his daughter with rapture. Those enthusiastic but gentle tones had so touched his heart, that noble courage had inspired him with so much admiration, that tears of joy filled his eyes. With one hand he drew Lenora to his bosom, and, placing the other on her forehead, he looked to heaven with religious fervor. A silent prayer, a blessing on his child, an outpouring of thankfulness, arose from his heart, like the sacred flame from an altar, toward the throne of Him who had bestowed that angelic child!