Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XI

Savinien Saved

The clock was striking nine when the little door made in the large door of Madame de Portenduere’s house closed on the abbe, who immediately crossed the road and hastily rang the bell at the doctor’s gate. He fell from Tiennette to La Bougival; the one said to him, “Why do you come so late, Monsieur l’abbe?” as the other had said, “Why do you leave Madame so early when she is in trouble?”

The abbe found a numerous company assembled in the green and brown salon; for Dionis had stopped at Massin’s on his way home to re-assure the heirs by repeating their uncle’s words.

“I believe Ursula has a love-affair,” said he, “which will be nothing but pain and trouble to her; she seems romantic” (extreme sensibility is so called by notaries), “and, you’ll see, she won’t marry soon. Therefore, don’t show her any distrust; be very attentive to her and very respectful to your uncle, for he is slyer than fifty Goupils,” added the notary — without being aware that Goupil is a corruption of the word vulpes, a fox.

So Mesdames Massin and Cremiere with their husbands, the post master and Desire, together with the Nemours doctor and Bongrand, made an unusual and noisy party in the doctor’s salon. As the abbe entered he heard the sound of the piano. Poor Ursula was just finishing a sonata of Beethoven’s. With girlish mischief she had chosen that grand music, which must be studied to be understood, for the purpose of disgusting these women with the thing they coveted. The finer the music the less ignorant persons like it. So, when the door opened and the abbe’s venerable head appeared they all cried out: “Ah! here’s Monsieur l’abbe!” in a tone of relief, delighted to jump up and put an end to their torture.

The exclamation was echoed at the card-table, where Bongrand, the Nemours doctor, and old Minoret were victims to the presumption with which the collector, in order to propitiate his great-uncle, had proposed to take the fourth hand at whist. Ursula left the piano. The doctor rose as if to receive the abbe, but really to put an end to the game. After many compliments to their uncle on the wonderful proficiency of his goddaughter, the heirs made their bow and retired.

“Good-night, my friends,” cried the doctor as the iron gate clanged.

“Ah! that’s where the money goes,” said Madame Cremiere to Madame Massin, as they walked on.

“God forbid that I should spend money to teach my little Aline to make such a din as that!” cried Madame Massin.

“She said it was Beethoven, who is thought to be fine musician,” said the collector; “he has quite a reputation.”

“Not in Nemours, I’m sure of that,” said Madame Cremiere.

“I believe uncle made her play it expressly to drive us away,” said Massin; “for I saw him give that little minx a wink as she opened the music-book.”

“If that’s the sort of charivari they like,” said the post master, “they are quite right to keep it to themselves.”

“Monsieur Bongrand must be fond of whist to stand such a dreadful racket,” said Madame Cremiere.

“I shall never be able to play before persons who don’t understand music,” Ursula was saying as she sat down beside the whist-table.

“In natures richly organized,” said the abbe, “sentiments can be developed only in a congenial atmosphere. Just as a priest is unable to give the blessing in presence of an evil spirit, or as a chestnut-tree dies in a clay soil, so a musician’s genius has a mental eclipse when he is surrounded by ignorant persons. In all the arts we must receive from the souls who make the environment of our souls as much intensity as we convey to them. This axiom, which rules the human mind, has been made into proverbs: ‘Howl with the wolves’; ‘Like meets like.’ But the suffering you felt, Ursula, affects delicate and tender natures only.”

“And so, friends,” said the doctor, “a thing which would merely give pain to most women might kill my Ursula. Ah! when I am no longer here, I charge you to see that the hedge of which Catullus spoke — ‘Ut flos,’ etc. — a protecting hedge is raised between this cherished flower and the world.”

“And yet those ladies flattered you, Ursula,” said Monsieur Bongrand, smiling.

“Flattered her grossly,” remarked the Nemours doctor.

“I have always noticed how vulgar forced flattery is,” said old Minoret. “Why is that?”

“A true thought has its own delicacy,” said the abbe.

“Did you dine with Madame de Portenduere?” asked Ursula, with a look of anxious curiosity.

“Yes; the poor lady is terribly distressed. It is possible she may come to see you this evening, Monsieur Minoret.”

Ursula pressed her godfather’s hand under the table.

“Her son,” said Bongrand, “was rather too simple-minded to live in Paris without a mentor. When I heard that inquiries were being made here about the property of the old lady I feared he was discounting her death.”

“Is it possible you think him capable of it?” said Ursula, with such a terrible glance at Monsieur Bongrand that he said to himself rather sadly, “Alas! yes, she loves him.”

“Yes and no,” said the Nemours doctor, replying to Ursula’s question. “There is a great deal of good in Savinien, and that is why he is now in prison; a scamp wouldn’t have got there.”

“Don’t let us talk about it any more,” said old Minoret. “The poor mother must not be allowed to weep if there’s a way to dry her tears.”

The four friends rose and went out; Ursula accompanied them to the gate, saw her godfather and the abbe knock at the opposite door, and as soon as Tiennette admitted them she sat down on the outer wall with La Bougival beside her.

“Madame la vicomtesse,” said the abbe, who entered first into the little salon, “Monsieur le docteur Minoret was not willing that you should have the trouble of coming to him —”

“I am too much of the old school, madame,” interrupted the doctor, “not to know what a man owes to a woman of your rank, and I am very glad to be able, as Monsieur l’abbe tells me, to be of service to you.”

Madame de Portenduere, who disliked the step the abbe had advised so much that she had almost decided, after he left her, to apply to the notary instead, was surprised by Minoret’s attention to such a degree that she rose to receive him and signed to him to take a chair.

“Be seated, monsieur,” she said with a regal air. “Our dear abbe has told you that the viscount is in prison on account of some youthful debts — a hundred thousand francs or so. If you could lend them to him I would secure you on my farm at Bordieres.”

“We will talk of that, madame, when I have brought your son back to you — if you will allow me to be your emissary in the matter.”

“Very good, monsieur,” she said, bowing her head and looking at the abbe as if to say, “You were right; he really is a man of good society.”

“You see, madame,” said the abbe, “that my friend the doctor is full of devotion to your family.”

“We shall be grateful, monsieur,” said Madame de Portenduere, making a visible effort; “a journey to Paris, at your age, in quest of a prodigal, is —”

“Madame, I had the honor to meet, in ‘65, the illustrious Admiral de Portenduere in the house of that excellent Monsieur de Malesherbes, and also in that of Monsieur le Comte de Buffon, who was anxious to question him on some curious results of his voyages. Possibly Monsieur de Portenduere, your late husband, was present. Those were the glorious days of the French navy; it bore comparison with that of Great Britain, and its officers had their full quota of courage. With what impatience we awaited in ‘83 and ‘84 the news from St. Roch. I came very near serving as surgeon in the king’s service. Your great-uncle, who is still living, Admiral Kergarouet, fought his splendid battle at that time in the ‘Belle–Poule.’”

“Ah! if he did but know his great-nephew is in prison!”

“He would not leave him there a day,” said old Minoret, rising.

He held out his hand to take that of the old lady, which she allowed him to do; then he kissed it respectfully, bowed profoundly, and left the room; but returned immediately to say:—

“My dear abbe, may I ask you to engage a place in the diligence for me tomorrow?”

The abbe stayed behind for half an hour to sing the praises of his friend, who meant to win and had succeeded in winning the good graces of the old lady.

“He is an astonishing man for his age,” she said. “He talks of going to Paris and attending to my son’s affairs as if he were only twenty-five. He has certainly seen good society.”

“The very best, madame; and today more than one son of a peer of France would be glad to marry his goddaughter with a million. Ah! if that idea should come into Savinien’s head! — times are so changed that the objections would not come from your side, especially after his late conduct —”

The amazement into which the speech threw the old lady alone enabled him to finish it.

“You have lost your senses,” she said at last.

“Think it over, madame; God grant that your son may conduct himself in future in a manner to win that old man’s respect.”

“If it were not you, Monsieur l’abbe,” said Madame de Portenduere, “if it were any one else who spoke to me in that way —”

“You would not see him again,” said the abbe, smiling. “Let us hope that your dear son will enlighten you as to what occurs in Paris in these days as to marriages. You will think only of Savinien’s good; as you really have helped to compromise his future you will not stand in the way of his making himself another position.”

“And it is you who say that to me?”

“If I did not say it to you, who would?” cried the abbe rising and making a hasty retreat.

As he left the house he saw Ursula and her godfather standing in their courtyard. The weak doctor had been so entreated by Ursula that he had just yielded to her. She wanted to go with him to Paris, and gave a thousand reasons. He called to the abbe and begged him to engage the whole coupe for him that very evening if the booking-office were still open.

The next day at half-past six o’clock the old man and the young girl reached Paris, and the doctor went at once to consult his notary. Political events were then very threatening. Monsieur Bongrand had remarked in the course of the preceding evening that a man must be a fool to keep a penny in the public funds so long as the quarrel between the press and the court was not made up. Minoret’s notary now indirectly approved of this opinion. The doctor therefore took advantage of his journey to sell out his manufacturing stocks and his shares in the Funds, all of which were then at a high value, depositing the proceeds in the Bank of France. The notary also advised his client to sell the stocks left to Ursula by Monsieur de Jordy. He promised to employ an extremely clever broker to treat with Savinien’s creditors; but said that in order to succeed it would be necessary for the young man to stay several days longer in prison.

“Haste in such matters always means the loss of at least fifteen per cent,” said the notary. “Besides, you can’t get your money under seven or eight days.”

When Ursula heard that Savinien would have to say at least a week longer in jail she begged her godfather to let her go there, if only once. Old Minoret refused. The uncle and niece were staying at a hotel in the Rue Croix des Petits–Champs where the doctor had taken a very suitable apartment. Knowing the scrupulous honor and propriety of his goddaughter he made her promise not to go out while he was away; at other times he took her to see the arcades, the shops, the boulevards; but nothing seemed to amuse or interest her.

“What do you want to do?” asked the old man.

“See Saint–Pelagie,” she answered obstinately.

Minoret called a hackney-coach and took her to the Rue de la Clef, where the carriage drew up before the shabby front of an old convent then transformed into a prison. The sight of those high gray walls, with every window barred, of the wicket through which none can enter without stooping (horrible lesson!), of the whole gloomy structure in a quarter full of wretchedness, where it rises amid squalid streets like a supreme misery — this assemblage of dismal things so oppressed Ursula’s heart that she burst into tears.

“Oh!” she said, “to imprison young men in this dreadful place for money! How can a debt to a money-lender have a power the king has not? He there!” she cried. “Where, godfather?” she added, looking from window to window.

“Ursula,” said the old man, “you are making me commit great follies. This is not forgetting him as you promised.”

“But,” she argued, “if I must renounce him must I also cease to feel an interest in him? I can love him and not marry at all.”

“Ah!” cried the doctor, “there is so much reason in your unreasonableness that I am sorry I brought you.”

Three days later the worthy man had all the receipts signed, and the legal papers ready for Savinien’s release. The payings, including the notaries’ fees, amounted to eighty thousand francs. The doctor went himself to see Savinien released on Saturday at two o’clock. The young viscount, already informed of what had happened by his mother, thanked his liberator with sincere warmth of heart.

“You must return at once to see your mother,” the old doctor said to him.

Savinien answered in a sort of confusion that he had contracted certain debts of honor while in prison, and related the visit of his friends.

“I suspected there was some personal debt,” cried the doctor, smiling. “Your mother borrowed a hundred thousand francs of me, but I have paid out only eighty thousand. Here is the rest; be careful how you spend it, monsieur; consider what you have left of it as your stake on the green cloth of fortune.”

During the last eight days Savinien had made many reflections on the present conditions of life. Competition in everything necessitated hard work on the part of whoever sought a fortune. Illegal methods and underhand dealing demanded more talent than open efforts in face of day. Success in society, far from giving a man position, wasted his time and required an immense deal of money. The name of Portenduere, which his mother considered all-powerful, had no power at all in Paris. His cousin the deputy, Comte de Portenduere, cut a very poor figure in the Elective Chamber in presence of the peerage and the court; and had none too much credit personally. Admiral Kergarouet existed only as the husband of his wife. Savinien admitted to himself that he had seen orators, men from the middle classes, or lesser noblemen, become influential personages. Money was the pivot, the sole means, the only mechanism of a society which Louis XVIII. had tried to create in the likeness of that of England.

On his way from the Rue de la Clef to the Rue Croix des Petits–Champs the young gentleman divulged the upshot of these meditations (which were certainly in keeping with de Marsay’s advice) to the old doctor.

“I ought,” he said, “to go into oblivion for three or four years and seek a career. Perhaps I could make myself a name by writing a book on statesmanship or morals, or a treatise on some of the great questions of the day. While I am looking out for a marriage with some young lady who could make me eligible to the Chamber, I will work hard in silence and in obscurity.”

Studying the young fellow’s face with a keen eye, the doctor saw the serious purpose of a wounded man who was anxious to vindicate himself. He therefore cordially approved of the scheme.

“My friend,” he said, “if you strip off the skin of the old nobility (which is no longer worn these days) I will undertake, after you have lived for three or four years in a steady and industrious manner, to find you a superior young girl, beautiful, amiable, pious, and possessing from seven to eight hundred thousand francs, who will make you happy and of whom you will have every reason to be proud — one whose only nobility is that of the heart!”

“Ah, doctor!” cried the young man, “there is no longer a nobility in these days — nothing but an aristocracy.”

“Go and pay your debts of honor and come back here. I shall engage the coupe of the diligence, for my niece is with me,” said the old man.

That evening, at six o’clock, the three travelers started from the Rue Dauphine. Ursula had put on a veil and did not say a word. Savinien, who once, in a moment of superficial gallantry, had sent her that kiss which invaded and conquered her soul like a love-poem, had completely forgotten the young girl in the hell of his Parisian debts; moreover, his hopeless love for Emilie de Kergarouet hindered him from bestowing a thought on a few glances exchanged with a little country girl. He did not recognize her when the doctor handed her into the coach and then sat down beside her to separate her from the young viscount.

“I have some bills to give you,” said the doctor to the young man. “I have brought all your papers and documents.”

“I came very near not getting off,” said Savinien, “for I had to order linen and clothes; the Philistines took all; I return like a true prodigal.”

However interesting were the subjects of conversation between the young man and the old one, and however witty and clever were certain remarks of the viscount, the young girl continued silent till after dusk, her green veil lowered, and her hands crossed on her shawl.

“Mademoiselle does not seem to have enjoyed Paris very much,” said Savinien at last, somewhat piqued.

“I am glad to return to Nemours,” she answered in a trembling voice raising her veil.

Notwithstanding the dim light Savinien then recognized her by the heavy braids of her hair and the brilliancy of her blue eyes.

“I, too, leave Paris to bury myself in Nemours without regret now that I meet my charming neighbour again,” he said; “I hope, Monsieur le docteur that you will receive me in your house; I love music, and I remember to have listened to Mademoiselle Ursula’s piano.”

“I do not know,” replied the doctor gravely, “whether your mother would approve of your visits to an old man whose duty it is to care for this dear child with all the solicitude of a mother.”

This reserved answer made Savinien reflect, and he then remembered the kisses so thoughtlessly wafted. Night came; the heat was great. Savinien and the doctor went to sleep first. Ursula, whose head was full of projects, did not succumb till midnight. She had taken off her straw-bonnet, and her head, covered with a little embroidered cap, dropped upon her uncle’s shoulder. When they reached Bouron at dawn, Savinien awoke. He then saw Ursula in the slight disarray naturally caused by the jolting of the vehicle; her cap was rumpled and half off; the hair, unbound, had fallen each side of her face, which glowed from the heat of the night; in this situation, dreadful for women to whom dress is a necessary auxiliary, youth and beauty triumphed. The sleep of innocence is always lovely. The half-opened lips showed the pretty teeth; the shawl, unfastened, gave to view, beneath the folds of her muslin gown and without offence to her modesty, the gracefulness of her figure. The purity of the virgin spirit shone on the sleeping countenance all the more plainly because no other expression was there to interfere with it. Old Minoret, who presently woke up, placed his child’s head in the corner of the carriage that she might be more at ease; and she let him do it unconsciously, so deep was her sleep after the many wakeful nights she had spent in thinking of Savinien’s trouble.

“Poor little girl!” said the doctor to his neighbour, “she sleeps like the child she is.”

“You must be proud of her,” replied Savinien; “for she seems as good as she is beautiful.”

“Ah! she is the joy of the house. I could not love her better if she were my own daughter. She will be sixteen on the 5th February. God grant that I may live long enough to marry her to a man who will make her happy. I wanted to take her to the theater in Paris, where she was for the first time, but she refused, the Abbe Chaperon had forbidden it. ‘But,’ I said, ‘when you are married your husband will want you to go there.’ ‘I shall do what my husband wants,’ she answered. ‘If he asks me to do evil and I am weak enough to yield, he will be responsible before God — and so I shall have strength to refuse him, for his own sake.’”

As the coach entered Nemours, at five in the morning, Ursula woke up, ashamed at her rumpled condition, and confused by the look of admiration which she encountered from Savinien. During the hour it had taken the diligence to come from Bouron to Nemours the young man had fallen in love with Ursula; he had studied the pure candor of her soul, the beauty of that body, the whiteness of the skin, the delicacy of the features; he recalled the charm of the voice which had uttered but one expressive sentence, in which the poor child said all, intending to say nothing. A presentiment suddenly seemed to take hold of him; he saw in Ursula the woman the doctor had pictured to him, framed in gold by the magic words, “Seven or eight hundred thousand francs.”

“In three of four years she will be twenty, and I shall be twenty-seven,” he thought. “The good doctor talked of probation, work, good conduct! Sly as he is I shall make him tell me the truth.”

The three neighbours parted in the street in front of their respective homes, and Savinien put a little courting into his eyes as he gave Ursula a parting glance.

Madame de Portenduere let her son sleep till midday; but the doctor and Ursula, in spite of their fatiguing journey, went to high mass. Savinien’s release and his return in company with the doctor had explained the reason of the latter’s absence to the newsmongers of the town and to the heirs, who were once more assembled in conventicle on the square, just as they were two weeks earlier when the doctor attended his first mass. To the great astonishment of all the groups, Madame de Portenduere, on leaving the church, stopped old Minoret, who offered her his arm and took her home. The old lady asked him to dinner that evening, also asking his niece and assuring him that the abbe would be the only other guest.

“He must have wished Ursula to see Paris,” said Minoret–Levrault.

“Pest!” cried Cremiere; “he can’t take a step without that girl!”

“Something must have happened to make old Portenduere accept his arm,” said Massin.

“So none of you have guessed that your uncle has sold his Funds and released that little Savinien?” cried Goupil. “He refused Dionis, but he didn’t refuse Madame de Portenduere — Ha, ha! you are all done for. The viscount will propose a marriage-contract instead of a mortgage, and the doctor will make the husband settle on his jewel of a girl the sum he has now paid to secure the alliance.”

“It is not a bad thing to marry Ursula to Savinien,” said the butcher. “The old lady gives a dinner today to Monsieur Minoret. Tiennette came early for a filet.”

“Well, Dionis, here’s a fine to-do!” said Massin, rushing up to the notary, who was entering the square.

“What is? It’s all going right,” returned the notary. “Your uncle has sold his Funds and Madame de Portenduere has sent for me to witness the signing of a mortgage on her property for one hundred thousand francs, lent to her by your uncle.”

“Yes, but suppose the young people should marry?”

“That’s as if you said Goupil was to be my successor.”

“The two things are not so impossible,” said Goupil.

On returning from mass Madame de Portenduere told Tiennette to inform her son that she wished to see him.

The little house had three bedrooms on the first floor. That of Madame de Portenduere and that of her late husband were separated by a large dressing-room lighted by a skylight, and connected by a little antechamber which opened on the staircase. The window of the other room, occupied by Savinien, looked, like that of his late father, on the street. The staircase went up at the back of the house, leaving room for a little study lighted by a small round window opening on the court. Madame de Portenduere’s bedroom, the gloomiest in the house, also looked into the court; but the widow spent all her time in the salon on the ground floor, which communicated by a passage with the kitchen built at the end of the court, so that this salon was made to answer the double purpose of drawing-room and dining-room combined.

The bedroom of the late Monsieur de Portenduere remained as he had left it on the day of his death; there was no change except that he was absent. Madame de Portenduere had made the bed herself; laying upon it the uniform of a naval captain, his sword, cordon, orders, and hat. The gold snuff-box from which her late husband had taken snuff for the last time was on the table, with his prayer-book, his watch, and the cup from which he drank. His white hair, arranged in one curled lock and framed, hung above a crucifix and the holy water in the alcove. All the little ornaments he had worn, his journals, his furniture, his Dutch spittoon, his spy-glass hanging by the mantel, were all there. The widow had stopped the hands of the clock at the hour of his death, to which they always pointed. The room still smelt of the powder and the tobacco of the deceased. The hearth was as he left it. To her, entering there, he was again visible in the many articles which told of his daily habits. His tall cane with its gold head was where he had last placed it, with his buckskin gloves close by. On a table against the wall stood a gold vase, of coarse workmanship but worth three thousand francs, a gift from Havana, which city, at the time of the American War of Independence, he had protected from an attack by the British, bringing his convoy safe into port after an engagement with superior forces. To recompense this service the King of Spain had made him a knight of his order; the same event gave him a right to the next promotion to the rank of vice-admiral, and he also received the red ribbing. He then married his wife, who had a fortune of about two hundred thousand francs. But the Revolution hindered his promotion, and Monsieur de Portenduere emigrated.

“Where is my mother?” said Savinien to Tiennette.

“She is waiting for you in your father’s room,” said the old Breton woman.

Savinien could not repress a shudder. He knew his mother’s rigid principles, her worship of honor, her loyalty, her faith in nobility, and he foresaw a scene. He went up to the assault with his heart beating and his face rather pale. In the dim light which filtered through the blinds he saw his mother dressed in black, and with an air of solemnity in keeping with that funereal room.

“Monsieur le vicomte,” she said when she saw him, rising and taking his hand to lead him to his father’s bed, “there died your father — a man of honor; he died without reproach from his own conscience. His spirit is there. Surely he groaned in heaven when he saw his son degraded by imprisonment for debt. Under the old monarchy that stain could have been spared you by obtaining a lettre de cachet and shutting you up for a few days in a military prison. — But you are here; you stand before your father, who hears you. You know all that you did before you were sent to that ignoble prison. Will you swear to me before your father’s shade, and in presence of God who sees all, that you have done no dishonorable act; that your debts are the result of youthful folly, and that your honor is untarnished? If your blameless father were there, sitting in that armchair, and asking an explanation of your conduct, could he embrace you after having heard it?”

“Yes, mother,” replied the young man, with grave respect.

She opened her arms and pressed him to her heart, shedding a few tears.

“Let us forget it all, my son,” she said; “it is only a little less money. I shall pray God to let us recover it. As you are indeed worthy of your name, kiss me — for I have suffered much.”

“I swear, mother,” he said, laying his hand upon the bed, “to give you no further unhappiness of that kind, and to do all I can to repair these first faults.”

“Come and breakfast, my child,” she said, turning to leave the room.

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