The Cloaks by M. Loeve Veimars

The following tale is taken from a work by M. Loeve Veimars, entitled 'Les Manteaux.' The scene is laid in Germany, and the story opens with the election of a magistrate of the little city of Birling. Full of his new dignity, he repairs to his home, where he acquaints his patient wife, to whom he is in the habit of playing the tyrant, with the accession to his importance. His old friend, Waldau, the town clerk, comes to ask him if he has any commands for Felsenbourg, the seat of the administration, whither he is about to repair. The new councillor requests him to deliver a letter to his younger brother, Maurice, who had quitted his home suddenly, and of whom he has heard nothing until very recently, and who has now applied to him for a share of their father's property, or some pecuniary assistance. The answer of the elder brother is at once unsatisfactory and unfeeling: he tells him that their parent died without any fortune, and concludes with a sneer at his youthful irregularities. The councillor's amiable spouse is affected by her husband's cruelty; Waldau's dress is more consistent with his scanty means than adapted to the inclemency of the weather, and she expresses a hope that his travelling costume is a warmer one.

'Alas! no,' replies Waldau; 'I had a cloak, but I have given it to my grandmother, who is confined to her arm-chair with the gout, and I am in truth, setting off like the prodigal son.'

'Dear Philip,' said Marie to her husband, in a supplicating tone, 'lend him yours.'

'Mine!' replied the councillor, 'indeed I cannot; but my late father's is somewhere upstairs, and I will look it out for you, Waldau.'

Marie blushed at her husband's selfishness. 'It is old, indeed,' said she, 'but it is large and stout. There is nothing splendid about it, Waldau; it is simple and useful, like its former possessor; and I beseech you, when you shall see our brother Maurice, give it to him in my name. It may be useful to him, notwithstanding its homely appearance; at all events, while it must recall to Maurice's recollection the memory of his father, it may also bring him wise reflections.'

She bids him also tell Maurice how much she feels for him, and regrets that she is unable to offer him any assistance. Waldau wraps himself in the cloak, and proceeds to Felsenbourg, which he reaches, but not without being overturned on the road. He is rather hurt by the fall, but not so much as to prevent his repairing immediately to find Maurice.

The evening was somewhat advanced, and the streets of the city, very different from those of the obscure but peaceful town in which Waldau dwelt, were crowded still with passengers on horseback and on foot. Waldau observed directly before him a portico well lighted, over which he saw inscribed, in large characters, "The Palace of Felsenbourg." He entered with some timidity, and looked around for some one who might direct him in this vast building, when a young man, passing close by him, attracted his attention. He was clothed in a court dress, glittering with embroidery, and held in his hand the hat of a noble, adorned with large white plumes. The old town-clerk drew himself up hastily, but who can describe his surprise when he saw, in the half glance which his awe permitted him to cast upon this person, that he was the banished son, his early friend; in short, Maurice himself? Waldau was petrified with astonishment: could he believe his eyes, or did they abuse him? He wished to speak, but the words died upon his lips; all that he could do was to follow with his eyes this unexpected figure.

When he recovered the use of his faculties, the object who had deprived him of them, was no longer before him; but he saw him as he withdrew beneath the shadows of the columns, by the splendour of his garments, the gems on which glittered beneath the lamps which filled the vault. A little man dressed in black now approached, and dispelled the ideas which were bewildering his brain. 'Will you be so obliging,' he said to this person, 'as to tell me the name of the gentleman who passed us just now?'

'It is Mr. Wiesel.'

'It is Maurice, then! Good heavens! but tell me what part does he play here?'

'A very important part, Sir: nothing less than that of the prince's confidant,' replied the little man, gravely, and with a low bow.

The honest old man is overjoyed, and, without pressing his inquiries any further, he writes in all haste to the councillor, to inform him of his brother's good fortune. Upon the receipt of the letter, the elder Wiesel sets out for Felsenbourg, frightened to death lest Waldau should have delivered the unkind epistle, which he now wishes he had never written. Poor Waldau is, in the mean time, suffering from the effects of his fall; and, on the day following his arrival, he finds himself unable to rise from his bed. To crown his misfortunes, his money is exhausted; and, relying upon the generosity of Maurice's temper, and ever doubting that the prince's confidant is well able to assist him, he writes to him for a loan, requests an introduction to the minister, and his interest in procuring the remission of a tax. Maurice hastens to him immediately, and, after the first congratulations are over, the following conversation ensues:—

'To speak seriously, my dear Waldau,' said Maurice, 'your request for money distresses me, because I am not in a situation to comply with it; but, as to your other request, I have laughed heartily at it. That I should introduce you to the minister! that I should procure the remission of a tax! pray, for whom do you take me?'

'For whom? Good heaven!' replied the old man, cursing in his heart all courtiers and their impudence; 'why, for the favorite of his highness, for his Jonathan, for the elect of the tribe, the primus a rege.'

'My poor friend,' said Maurice, 'is more ill than I thought; and the joy I feel at meeting him again, is damped at this discovery. It must be the fever, dear Waldau, which has thus troubled your judgment.'

'Oh, yes,' said Waldau, 'I suppose so; aegria somma? said Waldau bitterly. 'It was one of those delusions which a fever works upon sick brains, that I beheld yesterday traversing the palace of Felsenbourg to go to the court; it was in a delirium that I beheld him shining in gold and jewels, gemmis atque auro.'

'I, going to the court V 'You, or who else is the prince's favorite?

'The prince's favorite! Dear Waldau, am I to laugh or to weep at these extravagances?'

'Auri sacra fames, the thirst of wealth will soon render you incapable of doing either the one or the other.'

'How can you thus deceive yourself!'

'He deceived himself too, then—the little man in black, who followed the glittering Weisel under the portico of the palace.'

'Ha, ha, what charming simplicity!' cried Maurice, laughing heartily. 'Still the same honest, excellent, innocent Waldau.—I a courtier, I a favourite! this is indeed an everlasting joke. Know, then, my poor credulous friend, that I am a member of a strolling company who are engaged to play in the hotel of the Count of Felsenbourg. I played yesterday the part of the Confidante, in the new piece; and the little man in black, of whom you speak, is the head tailor, who had just been fitting me with a coat of scarlet serge, covered with tinsel and spangles, and to which habit I am indebted for the respect with which you have overwhelmed me.'

'God bless me!' cried Waldau, 'and are you then a player?'

'A player, it is true, but of the prince's company; and, I swear to you, vanity apart, not one of the worst.'

'Then am I ruined—totally undone,' ejaculated the town-clerk; 'the councillor will certainly kill me.'

Maurice ceased to laugh when he saw the terror of Waldau. He soon saw his brother's letter, which lay upon the table, and, opening it, found not only that Pierre was still the same, but that his last hope—the share of his father's fortune—was for ever gone. He was burdened with debts, the payment of which could no longer be postponed. 'Ah! my Louisa—ah, my promised happiness—farewell,' cried he, mournfully.

This Louisa, of whom Maurice spoke, was the preserving angel of an infirm mother and two sisters, for whom she procured, by her own exertions, the necessaries of life. The obscure chamber which they occupied was near that of the player; and they frequently saw each other, and the innocence of the young girl, her simple candour, and the boyish good temper of Maurice, soon gave rise to a tender and reciprocal feeling. Poverty has at least this good effect, that it breaks down some of those obstacles which beset the more exalted ranks. Wiesel soon became the assiduous and indispensable friend of the family. Louisa, daily more attracted by his amiable character, and charmed by the frankness with which he expressed his affection, did not seek to conceal that she loved him. The deplorable condition of their fortunes alone stood in the way of their union they swore eternal constancy, and resolved to wait for better times; but the letter of Pierre seemed to make that time more distant than ever.

Maurice is obliged to quit the sick man to go to the theatre, and an old woman comes to take his place. The weather is excessively severe, and Waldau requests him to put on the old cloak which his brother has sent, and in which, he adds, 'Your father breathed his last.' Maurice seizes it, and, kissing it respectfully, goes out.

The councillor arrives, and, finding from Waldau that his brother has had his letter, he runs, without waiting for an explanation, to the hotel Felsenbourg, where the porter, in answer to his inquiries for M. Wiesel, tells him he is in the theatre. He enters, and is first terrified by seeing an old man on the stage dressed in the gray cloak of his dead father; and no sooner has he recovered from his terror than he finds that his brother is a player. He rushes out of the theatre, half mad with rage.

Maurice, in the meantime, has returned to his sick friend, where he finds his brother's wife, for whom he has a warm affection. Quitting the chamber, to fetch some medicine from a neighbouring apothecary, he sees an old woman, who, looking at him very attentively, passes her shrivelled hand several times over the collar of his coat.

Maurice, not quite understanding this familiarity, draws back, and looks at her attentively. Her thin and colourless features were strangely contrasted with the benevolent vivacity which seemed to animate them. She asks him to sell his cloak, and, on his refusal, expresses some surprise that he can be attached to such a rag.

'No matter,' he replies; 'rag as it is, it is dear to me.'

'Not for its beauty, surely?'

'No; but if you must know, it's my father's legacy.'

'Your father's! Oh, my child, you ought to honour his memory; for no one can deny that you are his son. Every feature resembles him, excepting that you have a good-natured sort of smile in the corner of your mouth, which he never had.

'Oh, yes, he had once, but the world had deprived him of it?'

'Say rather, that years had, child; for they do every thing in this world; and even I, who now talk to you, if I had some few scores of years less, would you have let me stand here in the snow so long? Oh, no; you would have whipped this precious cloak over my shoulders.'

'Go along, you old gipsey; such nymphs are not to my taste.'

'Well, my son, the frankness of your heart pleases me, and I will reward it.'

'Oh, pray keep your rewards: I am not in want of them.'

'How naturally that word want comes out of your mouth; and merely because your head is full of it.'

'Who are you, infernal sybil?' said Maurice, drawing her towards the light.

'The sight of my wrinkled face will give you no great pleasure, my child, but, perhaps, my advice may. Listen to me, then. Go home to your own chamber, lock the door, and rip up the collar of your cloak, and when you have done so you will have nothing more to do but to pray to God, as the great king Solomon did, to grant you wisdom.' As she spoke thus, the old woman hobbled hastily away.

Maurice put his hand to the collar of his cloak, and thought he heard a noise like the rustling of paper. He hastened back to Marie and the town clerk, and told them of his adventure.

'Just heaven!' cried Waldau, 'it must be so. You remember your late father, Maurice, and his eternal apprehensions, which all the locks in the world could not have quieted. You know, too, that he was often obliged to come to this city for the purpose of receiving large sums of money. What would a suspicious man do in such a case? He would convert his money, not into gold, but into paper, because they might easily be concealed.

I do not doubt, from the story of the old woman, who has perhaps been his hostess, his housekeeper, or some faded flower of the mysterious garland of the past, that this cloak served your father for a strong box. Better acquainted with handling ducats than a needle, he probably had recourse to this old woman. You know it was upon his return from a journey that he died. Marie, open the collar quickly—Maurice, take my scissors, they are in my bag—quick.'

Marie uttered a joyful exclamation, as she felt papers through the fold of the cloth. At the same moment, a loud noise was heard, and Maurice rose.

The unhappy Pierre, upon quitting the theatre in a state of distraction, had fallen into the canal, and, although he was quickly extricated, he had only time to mention the place of his abode before he died. The noise was caused by persons bringing home his corpse. In the confusion which followed, the cloak, now become so important an object, was stolen, and all searches and inquiries for its recovery were fruitless.

When the first grief for the death of Pierre is over, Maurice finds that his father's property, which he divides with his brother's widow, is enough to enable him to marry his Louisa: he returns to Berling, and on the day fixed for the wedding, on which also Waldau is married to Marie, the old woman appears at the door in the old cloak. Maurice brings her into the middle of the room.

'Who are you?' said he, 'and whence did you get this cloak?—What brings you here?—Quick—speak—explain yourself.'

'You put a great many questions at once,' said the old woman. 'What brings me here?—your good stars. As to the cloak—it is mine, for I bought it.'

While she spoke, Maurice looked at her, distrustingly. 'This old woman,' said he to himself, 'has duped me once, and would willingly do so again. She has found the money in the cloak, and has now come to make a merit of restoring just so much of it as she thinks fit.'

The old woman seemed to comprehend what was passing in his mind. 'I see what you think,' said she; 'but why, Mr. Giddybrain, did you despise my advice? why did you so easily abandon this precious cloak? Did I not find it one fine day hanging up before the shop of my neighbour, the old clothesman, who told me he bought it of a porter? and what would become of the bills for twenty thousand florins which are sewed up in it, if I had not bought them at the exorbitant price of three silver pieces? There, take your own; keep it more safely for the future, and thank heaven for having preserved the life of your father's nurse.'

Maurice embraces the old woman, who receives the praises and thanks of every body present. 'Well, children,' said she, 'since you are all happy, you must find some little corner among you for me, where I may end my days in peace.'

'O, yes!' said Marie, with warmth, 'you shall never quit us.'

A few days afterwards you might have thought that the old woman had never quitted the ancient dwelling, so much did the two families seem to look upon her as a mother. Their happiness was such as springs from humble virtue. Piety, innocence, and gentleness, adorned their lives, and their days had passed in an uniform and peaceable manner, when, about a year after the return of the old nurse, she appeared one morning before Maurice in the same attitude as on the day of his marriage, and covered with the same old cloak. He offered to embrace her, but, repulsing him, 'Gently,' said she, 'take care.'—'Do you bring me another treasure, then, my good mother?' She smiled as she opened the cloak;—it was a son, which his Louisa had just given him.