Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter X

The Family of Portenduere

Madame de Portenduere was at this moment alone with the abbe in her frigid little salon on the ground floor, having finished the recital of her troubles to the good priest, her only friend. She held in her hand some letters which he had just returned to her after reading them; these letters had brought her troubles to a climax. Seated on her sofa beside a square table covered with the remains of a dessert, the old lady was looking at the abbe, who sat on the other side of the table, doubled up in his armchair and stroking his chin with the gesture common to valets on the stage, mathematicians, and priests — a sign of profound meditation on a problem that was difficult to solve.

This little salon, lighted by two windows on the street and finished with a wainscot painted gray, was so damp that the lower panels showed the geometrical cracks of rotten wood when the paint no longer binds it. The red-tiled floor, polished by the old lady’s one servant, required, for comfort’s sake, before each seat small round mats of brown straw, on one of which the abbe was now resting his feet. The old damask curtains of light green with green flowers were drawn, and the outside blinds had been closed. Two wax candles lighted the table, leaving the rest of the room in semi-obscurity. Is it necessary to say that between the two windows was a fine pastel by Latour representing the famous Admiral de Portenduere, the rival of the Suffren, Guichen, Kergarouet and Simeuse naval heroes? On the paneled wall opposite to the fireplace were portraits of the Vicomte de Portenduere and of the mother of the old lady, a Kergarouet–Ploegat. Savinien’s great-uncle was therefore the Vice-admiral de Kergarouet, and his cousin was the Comte de Portenduere, grandson of the admiral — both of them very rich.

The Vice-admiral de Kergarouet lived in Paris and the Comte de Portenduere at the chateau of that name in Dauphine. The count represented the elder branch, and Savinien was the only scion of the younger. The count, who was over forty years of age and married to a rich wife, had three children. His fortune, increased by various legacies, amounted, it was said, to sixty thousand francs a year. As deputy from Isere he passed his winters in Paris, where he had bought the hotel de Portenduere with the indemnities he obtained under the Villele law. The vice-admiral had recently married his niece by marriage, for the sole purpose of securing his money to her.

The faults of the young viscount were therefore likely to cost him the favor of two powerful protectors. If Savinien had entered the navy, young and handsome as he was, with a famous name, and backed by the influence of an admiral and a deputy, he might, at twenty-three years of age, been a lieutenant; but his mother, unwilling that her only son should go into either naval or military service, had kept him at Nemours under the tutelage of one of the Abbe Chaperon’s assistants, hoping that she could keep him near her until her death. She meant to marry him to a demoiselle d’Aiglemont with a fortune of twelve thousand francs a year; to whose hand the name of Portenduere and the farm at Bordieres enabled him to pretend. This narrow but judicious plan, which would have carried the family to a second generation, was already balked by events. The d’Aiglemonts were ruined, and one of the daughters, Helene, had disappeared, and the mystery of her disappearance was never solved.

The weariness of a life without atmosphere, without prospects, without action, without other nourishment than the love of a son for his mother, so worked upon Savinien that he burst his chains, gentle as they were, and swore that he would never live in the provinces — comprehending, rather late, that his future fate was not to be in the Rue des Bourgeois. At twenty-one years of age he left his mother’s house to make acquaintance with his relations, and try his luck in Paris. The contrast between life in Paris and life in Nemours was likely to be fatal to a young man of twenty-one, free, with no one to say him nay, naturally eager for pleasure, and for whom his name and his connections opened the doors of all the salons. Quite convinced that his mother had the savings of many years in her strong-box, Savinien soon spent the six thousand francs which she had given him to see Paris. That sum did not defray his expenses for six months, and he soon owed double that sum to his hotel, his tailor, his boot maker, to the man from whom he hired his carriages and horses, to a jeweler, — in short, to all those traders and shopkeepers who contribute to the luxury of young men.

He had only just succeeded in making himself known, and had scarcely learned how to converse, how to present himself in a salon, how to wear his waistcoats and choose them and to order his coats and tie his cravat, before he found himself in debt for over thirty thousand francs, while still seeking the right phrases in which to declare his love for the sister of the Marquis de Ronquerolles, the elegant Madame de Serizy, whose youth had been at its climax during the Empire.

“How is that you all manage?” asked Savinien one day, at the end of a gay breakfast with a knot of young dandies, with whom he was intimate as the young men of the present day are intimate with each other, all aiming for the same thing and all claiming an impossible equality. “You were no richer than I and yet you get along without anxiety; you contrive to maintain yourselves, while as for me I make nothing but debts.”

“We all began that way,” answered Rastignac, laughing, and the laugh was echoed by Lucien de Rubempre, Maxime de Trailles, Emile Blondet, and others of the fashionable young men of the day.

“Though de Marsay was rich when he started in life he was an exception,” said the host, a parvenu named Finot, ambitious of seeming intimate with these young men. “Any one but he,” added Finot bowing to that personage, “would have been ruined by it.”

“A true remark,” said Maxime de Trailles.

“And a true idea,” added Rastignac.

“My dear fellow,” said de Marsay, gravely, to Savinien; “debts are the capital stock of experience. A good university education with tutors for all branches, who don’t teach you anything, costs sixty thousand francs. If the education of the world does cost double, at least it teaches you to understand life, politics, men — and sometimes women.”

Blondet concluded the lesson by a paraphrase from La Fontaine: “The world sells dearly what we think it gives.”

Instead of laying to heart the sensible advice which the cleverest pilots of the Parisian archipelago gave him, Savinien took it all as a joke.

“Take care, my dear fellow,” said de Marsay one day. “You have a great name; if you don’t obtain the fortune that name requires you’ll end your days in the uniform of a cavalry-sergeant. ‘We have seen the fall of nobler heads,’” he added, declaiming the line of Corneille as he took Savinien’s arm. “About six years ago,” he continued, “a young Comte d’Esgrignon came among us; but he did not stay two years in the paradise of the great world. Alas! he lived and moved like a rocket. He rose to the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and fell to his native town, where he is now expiating his faults with a wheezy old father and a game of whist at two sous a point. Tell Madame de Serizy your situation, candidly, without shame; she will understand it and be very useful to you. Whereas, if you play the charade of first love with her she will pose as a Raffaelle Madonna, practice all the little games of innocence upon you, and take you journeying at enormous cost through the Land of Sentiment.”

Savinien, still too young and too pure in honor, dared not confess his position as to money to Madame de Serizy. At a moment when he knew not which way to turn he had written his mother an appealing letter, to which she replied by sending him the sum of twenty thousand francs, which was all she possessed. This assistance brought him to the close of the first year. During the second, being harnessed to the chariot of Madame de Serizy, who was seriously taken with him, and who was, as the saying is, forming him, he had recourse to the dangerous expedient of borrowing. One of his friends, a deputy and the friend of his cousin the Comte de Portenduere, advised him in his distress to go to Gobseck or Gigonnet or Palma, who, if duly informed as to his mother’s means, would give him an easy discount. Usury and the deceptive help of renewals enabled him to lead a happy life for nearly eighteen months. Without daring to leave Madame de Serizy the poor boy had fallen madly in love with the beautiful Comtesse de Kergarouet, a prude after the fashion of young women who are awaiting the death of an old husband and making capital of their virtue in the interests of a second marriage. Quite incapable of understanding that calculating virtue is invulnerable, Savinien paid court to Emilie de Kergarouet in all the splendor of a rich man. He never missed either ball or theater at which she was present.

“You haven’t powder enough, my boy, to blow up that rock,” said de Marsay, laughing.

That young king of fashion, who did, out of commiseration for the lad, endeavor to explain to him the nature of Emilie de Fontaine, merely wasted his words; the gloomy lights of misfortune and the twilight of a prison were needed to convince Savinien.

A note, imprudently given to a jeweler in collusion with the money-lenders, who did not wish to have the odium of arresting the young man, was the means of sending Savinien de Portenduere, in default of one hundred and seventeen thousand francs and without the knowledge of his friends, to the debtor’s prison at Sainte–Pelagie. So soon as the fact was known Rastignac, de Marsay, and Lucien de Rubempre went to see him, and each offered him a banknote of a thousand francs when they found how really destitute he was. Everything belonging to him had been seized except the clothes and the few jewels he wore. The three young men (who brought an excellent dinner with them) discussed Savinien’s situation while drinking de Marsay’s wine, ostensibly to arrange for his future but really, no doubt, to judge of him.

“When a man is named Savinien de Portenduere,” cried Rastignac, “and has a future peer of France for a cousin and Admiral Kergarouet for a great-uncle, and commits the enormous blunder of allowing himself to be put in Sainte–Pelagie, it is very certain that he must not stay there, my good fellow.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” cried de Marsay. “You could have had my traveling-carriage, ten thousand francs, and letters of introduction for Germany. We know Gobseck and Gigonnet and the other crocodiles; we could have made them capitulate. But tell me, in the first place, what ass ever led you to drink of that cursed spring.”

“Des Lupeaulx.”

The three young men looked at each other with one and the same thought and suspicion, but they did not utter it.

“Explain all your resources; show us your hand,” said de Marsay.

When Savinien had told of his mother and her old-fashioned ways, and the little house with three windows in the Rue des Bourgeois, without other grounds than a court for the well and a shed for the wood; when he had valued the house, built of sandstone and pointed in reddish cement, and put a price on the farm at Bordieres, the three dandies looked at each other, and all three said with a solemn air the word of the abbe in Alfred de Musset’s “Marrons du feu” (which had then just appeared) — “Sad!”

“Your mother will pay if you write a clever letter,” said Rastignac.

“Yes, but afterwards?” cried de Marsay.

“If you had merely been put in the fiacre,” said Lucien, “the government would find you a place in diplomacy, but Saint–Pelagie isn’t the antechamber of an embassy.”

“You are not strong enough for Parisian life,” said Rastignac.

“Let us consider the matter,” said de Marsay, looking Savinien over as a jockey examines a horse. “You have fine blue eyes, well opened, a white forehead well shaped, magnificent black hair, a little moustache which suits those pale cheeks, and a slim figure; you’ve a foot that tells race, shoulders and chest not quite those of a porter, but solid. You are what I call an elegant male brunette. Your face is of the style Louis XII., hardly any color, well-formed nose; and you have the thing that pleases women, a something, I don’t know what it is, which men take no account of themselves; it is in the air, the manner, the tone of the voice, the dart of the eye, the gesture — in short, in a number of little things which women see and to which they attach a meaning which escapes us. You don’t know your merits, my dear fellow. Take a certain tone and style and in six months you’ll captivate an English-woman with a hundred thousand pounds; but you must call yourself viscount, a title which belongs to you. My charming step-mother, Lady Dudley, who has not her equal for matching two hearts, will find you some such woman in the fens of Great Britain. What you must now do is to get the payment of your debts postponed for ninety days. Why didn’t you tell us about them? The money-lenders at Baden would have spared you — served you perhaps; but now, after you have once been in prison, they’ll despise you. A money-lender is, like society, like the masses, down on his knees before the man who is strong enough to trick him, and pitiless to the lambs. To the eyes of some persons Sainte–Pelagie is a she-devil who burns the souls of young men. Do you want my candid advice? I shall tell you as I told that little d’Esgrignon: ‘Arrange to pay your debts leisurely; keep enough to live on for three years, and marry some girl in the provinces who can bring you an income of thirty thousand francs.’ In the course of three years you can surely find some virtuous heiress who is willing to call herself Madame la Vicomtesse de Portenduere. Such is virtue — let’s drink to it. I give you a toast: ‘The girl with money!”

The young men did not leave their ex-friend till the official hour for parting. The gate was no sooner closed behind them than they said to each other: “He’s not strong enough!” “He’s quite crushed.” “I don’t believe he’ll pull through it?”

The next day Savinien wrote his mother a confession in twenty-two pages. Madame de Portenduere, after weeping for one whole day, wrote first to her son, promising to get him out of prison, and then to the Comte de Portenduere and to Admiral Kergarouet.

The letters the abbe had just read and which the poor mother was holding in her hand and moistening with tears, were the answers to her appeal, which had arrived that morning, and had almost broken her heart.

Paris, September, 1829.

To Madame de Portenduere:

Madame — You cannot doubt the interest which the admiral and I both feel in your troubles. What you ask of Monsieur de Kergarouet grieves me all the more because our house was a home to your son; we were proud of him. If Savinien had had more confidence in the admiral we could have taken him to live with us, and he would already have obtained some good situation. But, unfortunately, he told us nothing; he ran into debt of his own accord, and even involved himself for me, who knew nothing of his pecuniary position. It is all the more to be regretted because Savinien has, for the moment, tied our hands by allowing the authorities to arrest him.

If my nephew had not shown a foolish passion for me and sacrificed our relationship to the vanity of a lover, we could have sent him to travel in Germany while his affairs were being settled here. Monsieur de Kergarouet intended to get him a place in the War office; but this imprisonment for debt will paralyze such efforts. You must pay his debts; let him enter the navy; he will make his way like the true Portenduere that he is; he has the fire of the family in his beautiful black eyes, and we will all help him.

Do not be disheartened, madame; you have many friends, among whom I beg you to consider me as one of the most sincere; I send you our best wishes, with the respects of

Your very affectionate servant, Emilie de Kergarouet.

The second letter was as follows:—

Portenduere, August, 1829.

To Madame de Portenduere:

My dear aunt — I am more annoyed than surprised at Savinien’s pranks. As I am married and the father of two sons and one daughter, my fortune, already too small for my position and prospects, cannot be lessened to ransom a Portenduere from the hands of the Jews. Sell your farm, pay his debts, and come and live with us at Portenduere. You shall receive the welcome we owe you, even though our views may not be entirely in accordance with yours. You shall be made happy, and we will manage to marry Savinien, whom my wife thinks charming. This little outbreak is nothing; do not make yourself unhappy; it will never be known in this part of the country, where there are a number of rich girls who would be delighted to enter our family.

My wife joins me in assuring you of the happiness you would give us, and I beg you to accept her wishes for the realization of this plan, together with my affectionate respects.

Luc–Savinien, Comte de Portenduere.

“What letters for a Kergarouet to receive!” cried the old Breton lady, wiping her eyes.

“The admiral does not know his nephew is in prison,” said the Abbe Chaperon at last; “the countess alone read your letter, and has answered it for him. But you must decide at once on some course,” he added after a pause, “and this is what I have the honor to advise. Do not sell your farm. The lease is just out, having lasted twenty-four years; in a few months you can raise the rent to six thousand francs and get a premium for double that amount. Borrow what you need of some honest man — not from the townspeople who make a business of mortgages. Your neighbour here is a most worthy man; a man of good society, who knew it as it was before the Revolution, who was once an atheist, and is now an earnest Catholic. Do not let your feelings debar you from going to his house this very evening; he will fully understand the step you take; forget for a moment that you are a Kergarouet.”

“Never!” said the old mother, in a sharp voice.

“Well, then, be an amiable Kergarouet; come when he is alone. He will lend you the money at three and a half per cent, perhaps even at three per cent, and will do you this service delicately; you will be pleased with him. He can go to Paris and release Savinien himself — for he will have to go there to sell out his funds — and he can bring the lad back to you.”

“Are you speaking of that little Minoret?”

“That little Minoret is eighty-three years old,” said the abbe, smiling. “My dear lady, do have a little Christian charity; don’t wound him — he might be useful to you in other ways.”

“What ways?”

“He has an angel in his house; a precious young girl —”

“Oh! that little Ursula. What of that?”

The poor abbe did not pursue the subject after these significant words, the laconic sharpness of which cut through the proposition he was about to make.

“I think Doctor Minoret is very rich,” he said.

“So much the better for him.”

“You have indirectly caused your son’s misfortunes by refusing to give him a profession; beware for the future,” said the abbe sternly. “Am I to tell Doctor Minoret that you are coming?”

“Why cannot he come to me if he knows I want him?” she replied.

“Ah, madame, if you go to him you will pay him three per cent; if he comes to you you will pay him five,” said the abbe, inventing this reason to influence the old lady. “And if you are forced to sell your farm by Dionis the notary, or by Massin the clerk (who would refuse to lend you the money, knowing it was more their interest to buy), you would lose half its value. I have not the slightest influence on the Dionis, Massins, or Levraults, or any of those rich men who covet your farm and know that your son is in prison.”

“They know it! oh, do they know it?” she exclaimed, throwing up her arms. “There! my poor abbe, you have let your coffee get cold! Tiennette, Tiennette!”

Tiennette, an old Breton servant sixty years of age, wearing a short gown and a Breton cap, came quickly in and took the abbe’s coffee to warm it.

“Let be, Monsieur le recteur,” she said, seeing that the abbe meant to drink it, “I’ll just put it into the bain-marie, it won’t spoil it.”

“Well,” said the abbe to Madame de Portenduere in his most insinuating voice, “I shall go and tell the doctor of your visit, and you will come —”

The old mother did not yield till after an hour’s discussion, during which the abbe was forced to repeat his arguments at least ten times. And even then the proud Kergarouet was not vanquished until he used the words, “Savinien would go.”

“It is better that I should go than he,” she said.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31