The Poor Gentleman
Monsieur De Vlierbeck had not been gone a week, when a letter addressed to him from Italy reached the village post-office. The carrier inquired of Farmer John where the old proprietor of Grinselhof had fixed his residence; but neither from him, the notary, nor any one else in the neighborhood, could he discover the bankrupt's retreat. The same fate awaited three or four other letters which followed the first from Italy; and, indeed, nobody bothered himself any more about the wanderers except the peasant, who every market-day pestered the country-folks from every quarter with questions about his old master. But no one had seen or heard of him.
Four months passed slowly by, when one morning a handsome post-chaise stopped at the door of our old acquaintance the notary and dropped a young gentleman in travelling-costume.
"Where's your master?" said he impatiently to the servant, who excused the notary under the plea of his present engagement with other visitors, but invited the stranger to await his leisure in the parlor.
The youth was evidently disconcerted by the delay; for he paced the apartment with rapid strides and seemed altogether absorbed by some anxiety or disappointment which made him extremely restless. The notary's visitors seemed to be either very tedious clients or engaged in very important business; for more than half an hour elapsed before that functionary made his appearance. He came into the room ceremoniously, prepared to measure his words and reception by his visitor's rank; but no sooner did he perceive who it was than his calculating features relaxed into a professional smile, and he advanced rapidly toward Gustave with outstretched hands.
"How are you, how are you, my dear sir?" said he. "I have been expecting you for several days, and I am really happy to see you at last. I am greatly flattered by the confidence you are disposed to place in me, and am ready, whenever you please, to devote myself to your affairs. By-the-way, I suppose there is a will?"
A shadow passed over Gustave's brow and his face became serious as he took a portfolio from his overcoat and drew forth a package of papers.
"I am pained, sir, at your loss," said the notary. "Your excellent uncle was my friend, and I deplore his death more than that of any one else. It pleased God that he should die far away from his home. But such, alas! is man's fate. We must console ourselves by the reflection that we are all mortal. Your uncle was very fond of you, and I suppose you have not been forgotten in his last moments?"
"You may see for yourself," said Gustave, as he placed the package on the table.
The notary ran his eyes over the papers, and, as he perused them, his face exhibited by turns surprise and satisfaction.
"Permit me," said he, "to congratulate you, Monsieur Gustave; these documents are all in order and unassailable. Heir of all his fortune! Do you know, sir, that you are more than a millionaire?"
"We will speak of that another time," said Gustave, interrupting him rather sharply. "I called on you to-day to ask a favor."
"You have but to name it, sir."
"You were the notary of Monsieur De Vlierbeck?"
"I heard from my uncle that Monsieur De Vlierbeck had become very poor. I have reasons for desiring that his misfortunes may not be prolonged."
"Sir," said the notary, "I presume that you intend to do him an act of kindness; and, in truth, it could not be bestowed on a worthier man, for I know the cause of his ruin and sufferings. He was a victim of generosity and honor. He may have carried these virtues to imprudence and even to madness; but he deserved a better fate."
"And now, sir," said Gustave, "I want you to let me know, with the least amount of details possible, what I can do to assist De Vlierbeck without wounding his pride. I know the condition of his affairs; for my uncle told me all about them. Among other debts there was a bond for four thousand francs, which belongs to the heirs of Hoogebaen: I want that bond immediately, even if I have to pay four times as much as it is worth."
The notary stared at Gustave without replying.
"You seem disconcerted by my demand," said Gustave, somewhat anxiously.
"Not exactly," returned the notary; "but I do not altogether understand your emotion, although I fear the news I must impart will affect you painfully. If my anticipations are correct I have cause to be sorry for you, sir!"
"Explain yourself," cried Gustave, alarmed; "explain yourself, sir! Has death been at Grinselhof? Is my last hope destroyed?"
"No, no," replied the notary, quickly; "don't tremble so; they both live, but they have been stricken by a great misfortune."
"Well? well?" exclaimed Gustave, with questioning eagerness, rising from his chair.
"Be calm, be calm, sir," said the notary, soothingly; "sit down and listen; it is not so terrible as you may perhaps think, since fortune enables you to soften their misery."
"Oh, God be thanked!" cried Gustave. "But let me beg you to hasten your disclosures, for your slowness racks me!"
"Know, then," continued the notary, "that during your absence the bond in question fell due. For many months De Vlierbeck made unavailing efforts to find money to honor it at maturity; but all his property was mortgaged, and no one would assist him. In order to escape the mortification of a forced sale, De Vlierbeck offered every thing at public auction, even down to his furniture and clothes! The sale produced about enough to pay his debts, and everybody was satisfied by the honorable conduct of De Vlierbeck, who plunged himself into absolute beggary to save his name."
"And so he lives in the château of his family only as a tenant?"
"No; he has left it."
"And where does he reside, then? I want to see him instantly."
"I do not know."
"How?—you do not know?"
"Nobody knows where he dwells: he left the province without informing any one of his designs."
"Alas!" cried Gustave, with profound emotion, "and is it so? Shall I be forced to live longer without them?—without knowing what has become of them? Can you give me no hint or clue to their residence? Does nobody, nobody know where they are?"
"Nobody," replied the notary. "The evening after their sale De Vlierbeck left Grinselhof on foot and crossed the moor by some unknown road: I made efforts to discover his retreat, but always without success."
As this sad news was imparted to Gustave he grew deadly pale, trembled violently, and covered his forehead with his clasped hands, as if striving to conceal the big tears that ran from his eyes. What the notary first told him of De Vlierbeck's misfortunes had wounded his sensibility, though he was less struck by that recital, because he had already become partially aware of the poor gentleman's embarrassment; but the certainty that he could not immediately discover his beloved Lenora and snatch her from want overwhelmed him with the bitterest anguish.
The notary fixed his eyes on the young man, shrugged his shoulders, and regarded him with an expression of pity.
"You are young, sir," said he, "and, like most men at your time of life, exaggerate both pain and pleasure. Your despair is unfounded; for it is easy in our time to discover people whom we want to find. With a little money and diligence we may be sure, in a few days, to discover Monsieur De Vlierbeck's retreat, even if he has gone abroad to a foreign country. If you are willing to charge me with the pursuit I will spare neither time nor trouble to bring you satisfactory news."
Gustave stared hopefully at the notary as he grasped his hand and replied, with a smile of gratitude,—
"Oh, render me that inestimable service, sir! Spare no money; ransack heaven and earth if it is necessary; but, in God's name, let me know, and let me know soon, where De Vlierbeck and his daughter are hidden. It is impossible for me to describe the sufferings of my heart or the ardor of my desire to find them. Let me assure you that the first good news you bring will be more grateful to my soul than if you had restored me to life."
"Fear nothing, sir," answered the notary. "My clerks shall write letters of inquiry this very night in every direction. To-morrow morning early I will be off to Brussels and secure assistance from the public offices. If you authorize me to spare no expense the secret will disclose itself."
"And I," said Gustave,—"I will put the numerous correspondents of our house under contribution, and nothing shall be omitted to detect their refuge, even if I have to travel over Europe."
"Be of good cheer, then, Monsieur Gustave," said the notary; "for I doubt not we shall soon attain our end. And, now that you are assured of my best services, I will be gratified if you allow me to speak to you a moment quietly and seriously. I have no right to ask what are your intentions, and still less the right to suppose that those intentions can be any thing else than proper in every respect. May I inquire if it is your design to marry Mademoiselle Lenora?"
"That is my irrevocable determination," replied the young man.
"Irrevocable?" said the notary. "Be it so! The confidence which your venerable uncle was always pleased to repose in me, and my position as notary of the family, impose on me the duty of setting before you coolly what you are about to do. You are a millionaire; you have a name which in commerce alone represents an immense capital. Monsieur De Vlierbeck is penniless; his ruin is generally known; and the world, justly or unjustly, looks askance at a ruined man. With your fortune, with your youth and person, you may obtain the hand of an heiress and double your income!"
Gustave listened to the first words of this calculating essay with evident impatience; but he soon turned away his eyes and began to fold up the papers and put them in his portfolio. As the notary finished, he answered, quickly,—
"Well, well, I suppose you have done your duty, and I thank you; but we have had enough of that. Tell me who owns Grinselhof now?"
The man of business appeared considerably disconcerted by the contemptuous interruption of his visitor; yet he strove to conceal his mortification by a sorry smile, as he replied,—
"I see, sir, that you have taken a firm stand and will do as you please. Grinselhof was bought in by the mortgagees, for the price offered was below its value."
"Who lives there?"
"It is uninhabited. No one goes to the country in winter."
"Can it be bought from its present proprietor?"
"Certainly. I am authorized to offer it to any one for the amount of the mortgages."
"Then Grinselhof belongs to me! Be kind enough to inform the owners of it at once!"
"Very well, sir. Consider Grinselhof as your property from this moment. If you wish to visit it you will find the keys at the tenant's house."
Gustave took his hat and made ready to go, and, as he did so, pressed the notary's hand with evident cordiality:—
"I am tired and need repose, for I feel somewhat overcome by the sad news you have given me. May God help you in your efforts to fulfil your promises! My gratitude will surpass all you can imagine. Farewell till to-morrow!"