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בס"ד

The Friend of the Prefect

(Concluded from page 456.)

(From the French)

III.

One morning of the month of March, 1830, Paul de Vieuxmenil, seated in his office at the Prefecture, was listening carelessly to the correspondence which the secretary-general was reading to him, when he rose suddenly at the reading of a petition signed Jacob Samuel.

<<491>>
“What name do you say?”

“Jacob Samuel, Monsieur Prefect; he is, it appears, a pedlar who was travelling with some trifling wares which have been confiscated, because he had no foreign merchant license.”

“Quick! let this man be brought before me,” cried Paul, under the influence of extreme agitation.

He had scarcely time to calm himself and to assume a cold and severe countenance, when the foreign merchant was conducted to him.

Paul examined him with silent curiosity, then he addressed him in a quick tone, which betrayed in spite of himself an inward tremour.

“Your name is?”

“Jacob Samuel.”

“You were born?”

“At Paris.”

“In what quarter?”

“Rue St. Antoine.”

“Your religion?”

“Jewish.”

“Were you brought up at Paris?”

“No, my birth cost my mother her life; I was educated in Lorraine; previously, I had been at nurse at Meaux.”

At this word Paul started, a thousand tumultuous thoughts agitated his mind; here then was perhaps the real Marquis de Vieuxmenil, and this man was there a suppliant, before him who had, perhaps, deprived him of his name, his fortune, his position. Plunged in these poignant reflections, Paul did not perceive the embarrassing position of the poor pedlar, when a sweet and silvery voice broke on this silence so painful to all.

“It is true, Monsieur Prefect, that father has no license; but it is because we are so unfortunate, that the slightest expense is burdensome to us. We travel on foot, often in want of shelter, and sometimes not having the means to buy bread; your vile excisemen can have no heart, to injure such poor people as we are; but you are just, Monsieur Prefect, and you will take pity on my poor father, who is so good, so much to be pitied, and whom I love so much that I would give my life to save him a sorrow.”

She who spoke thus was Myria, a young girl, fair and gentle, with <<492>>a graceful and fine figure, delicate limbs, large blue eyes, and a skin of the clearest white. She fell on her knees before the Prefect, whilst her father enclosing her pretty fair head between his two lean hands, pressed her with transport to his heart.

Paul, much moved, felt a tear at his eyelid, and hastened to discharge Samuel and his daughter with words of hope and consolation.

On returning to the inn, Samuel found there fifty louis, which the directress of the post said she had received for him from Lorraine. The morrow, the principal amateurs of the town came to buy of him at enormous prices, some articles of fancy, which he had procured for a trifle. Two days after, a small shop in a locality dependent on the Prefecture, was rented to him, at the fourth of its value, and pictures and objects of curiosity arrived for him in quantities, to be deposited in his shop, and these articles were in the same week taken off at extravagant prices.

The month of April had not gone by, before Samuel, comprehending nothing at all of the good fortune which had befallen him so unexpectedly, thought himself dreaming on seeing himself at the head of a good establishment, and the possessor of a small fortune, he, who some weeks before, had not had a shelter where to lay his head. But what gave him still more pleasure than his rising fortune, was the benevolence which the Prefect evinced towards him; every day that functionary entered his dwelling, and remained half an hour in familiar conversation; and as this intimacy was soon known, it gave him great influence, for the Prefect refused nothing to his protegé; and Samuel had daily some new favour to ask of him, not for himself, he would have avoided that as a sacrilege, but for unfortunates who applied to the official through his mediation.

In a short time Samuel thus become important, was sought out by his coreligionaries who had disdained and abandoned him when he was in poverty; his neighbour, among others, a certain Sieur Gershom, invited him to his house, and made many friendly advances, and paid him numerous attentions. This Gershom was a former army contractor, who had amassed much wealth in the wars of the empire, and though uneducated and unpolished, yet made a good figure in the town, owing to his riches and upstart airs. The ex-contractor had a son called Theodore, a good young man, of <<493>>a frank and unassuming disposition, but honourable and desirous to smooth the rough rind of the paternal character, by the varnish of modern civilization. Theodore and Myria loved each other without having declared it, perhaps without having confessed it to themselves. One same tender and animating thought sparkled in their eyes, and in their smile; when one expressed an idea, the other adopted it with joyous eagerness: when one had the slightest sorrow, the other was plunged into grief; in a word, that marvellous unity which nature has given to two souls linked by a mysterious sympathy, reigned between Theodore and Myria, allowing them scarcely to perceive what fearful joys and gilded sorrows there are in that sensation called love, but which in reality has no exact name in any language.

Samuel saw with pleasure this growing affection, as a termination to which he already dreamed of a union with the family of the rich contractor; he was only, as regarded himself, at the commencement of his fortune; but his daughter was so pretty, so sweet a girl, so well bred, that in his paternal heart he said to himself, as all fathers say, that no fortune could equal such a treasure. The ex-contractor Gershom had more sordid thoughts; the war with Algiers had just been resolved upon, and old itchings of business aroused his cupidity. It was then important for him to obtain from the Prefect, through the influence of Samuel, some good contracts for the army of Africa. But Samuel repelled indignantly his proposition, and the seductive offers which accompanied it.

“I love the Marquis of Vieuxmenil for himself alone,” he relied nobly, “I am penetrated with the liveliest gratitude for all the good which he has ever desired to do me; but I will never use the influence I am thought to possess

with him for an affair of money, or any advantage e personal to myself.”

“Very fine,” replied Gershom, biting his lips. “You are very proud to-day: how do you come by such fine sentiments so suddenly?—I like such noble disinterestedness.”

“I act to-day as I have always acted.”

“Not always, or you would still be a miserable pedlar.”

“What can you reproach me with?”

“It is sufficient that I know what I say.”

<<494>>
“Speak out! Thank God, I can look every one in the face, and the little I possess I owe to my labour.”

“And to the protection of the Prefect.”

“It is true.”

“But at what price?”

“What do you mean? I do not understand you.”

“Look, how pure he is! You arrive here without shoes to your feet, and the first functionary of the place receives you, protects you, makes your fortune, and all that for your good looks! On my word you are marvellously simple.”

“What do you mean? What impertinence, or what mystery?”

“Why it is plain enough: you have a young and pretty daughter; there is a prefect in the case, an old bachelor, pretty good-looking still; he becomes your intimate friend, almost your inmate.”

“Not another word, wretch, or you shall not leave this room alive.”

And Samuel became purple with anger; he foamed with rage; his flaming eyes seemed to start from his head; and his nervous arms held Gershom so tightly as almost to strangle him.

“Let me go,” replied the ex-contractor, with a broken voice and a pale countenance, “that I may tell you all I think, and what is said in the neighbourhood. Your daughter we all know is an angel of purity and virtue, and for yourself, you are too honourable for suspicion even to touch. But do you not see what our Prefect aims at? do you not know the dissolute manners of those old nobles? do you not comprehend that his assiduities and his protection, so incomprehensible, must set a stamp of infamy upon your house?”

“Alas! you are too much in the right,” cried Samuel, whose mind was suddenly enlightened by an infernal blaze of light. “You have given me a great deal of pain, but I thank you; you have spread a veil of sorrow over city future prospects and over those of my poor Myria; but I thank you. Adieu!”

On returning home, Samuel embraced his daughter with more tenderness than usual, and in a broken voice, announced to her that on the morrow they would quit the town. The young girl felt her knees fail; but her father was so sad, that she began to weep without daring to question him.

<<495>>That evening, for the first time, Theodore and Myria met alone; it was on one of those clear days on which the last rays of the sun shed slight tints of purple and gold: these mysterious shadows of the decline of day; these sublime harmonies of nature, which appear to descend to the tomb; this silence, which seems only to make way for the infinite,—all this forms a marvellous accord for the solemnization of a last meeting.

But Myria’s voice was stifled by tears, and Theodore’s looks expressed nothing but despair.

“What! you depart to-morrow?”

“Alas!”

“It shall not be; better a thousand times to die.”

“It must be so, Theodore; I must obey my father, as you should yours.”

“I swear never to have any other wife than you.”

The young girl blushed and hastened away, her eyes in tears, beautiful and brilliant enough to cause the star of evening to envy them.

During this time Gershom was introduced into the closet of the Prefect.

“You sent for me, Monsieur le Marquis?”

Yes, sir; and I shall come to the point at once. You solicit a contract for two thousand horses for the army; I hope to be able to secure it for you; but I must have fifty francs per horse.”

“How!” cried the astonished contractor; “but that comes to a hundred thousand francs!”

“I know it, but you can either comply or let it alone.”

“But yet—”

No speeches; yes or no.”

“You are a terrible man.”

“Do you refuse?”

“No, I accept.”

“Very well; make your arrangements immediately, so as not to be called on unprepared.”

“Certainly; but if the Minister of War should not ratify your proposal?”

“In that case you shall be allowed an indemnity of fifty thousand francs.”

“Agreed; and I will go instantly to make my preparations.”

<<496>>
“Stop a moment: the bonus of one hundred thousand francs which I demand, as well as the fifty thousand of indemnity which may be allowed you, shall serve as the dowry of the daughter Jacob Samuel.”

“How!”

“Yes, and she shall wed your son Theodore, and Samuel must know nothing of our arrangement.”

“How you hurry things, Monsieur Prefect!”

“You know that I am not a man of many words; this is a double bargain which shall be as I point it out, or not at all.”

Gershom scratched his forehead, walked two or three times around the Prefect’s room, and then said, with an effort that disagreeably distorted his features,

“It is agreed; I accept.”

On the morrow, at the dawn of day, Samuel and his daughter, clothed in humble garments, were leaving their dwelling, carrying with them only a moderate sure of money, and abandoning all that the honest father believed might be derived from an impure source; but a man barred their passage; it was the Marquis of Vieuxmenil; his sadness was calm, his voice resigned, his air imposing. “Samuel,” said he, “you shall not go. It is I who quit the country, that the honour of your daughter may be respected by all, as it is by me. My friend, you are noble and honourable, and you do not know how much malevolence there is in the littleness of provincial life. You have not known how to despise, as they deserved, infamous calumnies. But it is not you who should be punished. Dissatisfied with the politics of the ministry, I have sent in my resignation, and I depart to-day for Paris. You can then remain here, without fearing the poison breath of scandal.” A struggle of generosity began between Jacob and Paul, and the latter obtained as the only favour, that he first and his daughter should remain eight days longer.

This period had not elapsed, when the contractor Gershom received from Paris the following letter:

“Sir,—

“I have not been able to obtain what you solicited. An honest man holds to his word; consequently you will find enclosed an order for fifty thousand francs on the receiver-general; it is the <<497>>amount of the indemnity agreed upon. I have kept my promise, it is now for you to keep yours.

“Marquis P. de Vieuxmenil.”

The same day, Monsieur Gershom, in his best dress, repaired to the house of Jacob, and asked formally for the hand of his daughter Myria for his son; and as Jacob, his heart filled with joy, said modestly, “But I have no dowry to give my daughter.” Gershom, with an air of consequence replied: “My son is rich enough to do without one; I give him a hundred thousand francs; my means permit it.”

“But, my dear listeners, here is the Paris coach which turns the avenue, and I have just time to reach it as it passes. I beg a thousand pardons; here I trust end my tale.”

“It is a pity,” said the lady of the house, “that you should be forced to interrupt your recital at the most interesting portion.”

“But,” added the curate, “what is the denouement?”

“Monsieur Abbé, I will let you know another time; but I can now tell you, that the history of these two children, over whom an eternal doubt hovers, might well put an end to our recent discussion about the superiority of our two religions. You say that the Messiah is come; we believe that we are yet to look for him; here are two assertions face to face. Since then it belongs to God alone to solve this grave problem, why should not we Jews and Christians live here below as brethren, why should we depart from those sentiments of benevolence towards each other, which render our passage through this life so easy? Why should not each of us say to himself: Since it may be possible that I usurp the rights of another, let us at least endeavour to compensate the doubt by an unalterable fraternity. And since God has willed us to walk side by side in the path of life, let us mutually sustain each other, to arrive without fatigue and without fear at this great mystery, which is to be met beyond the tomb!”

“You are right, brother,” replied the good curate, with emotion.

At this moment the Paris coach stopped at the gate of the villa. I got in, after having cordially pressed the hand of the pastor, saying to him, “Good-bye, father!”

The coach rolled on rapidly, but not fast enough to hinder the <<498>>evening breeze from murmuring in my ear, the last words of the good curate, “God be with you!”