Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XII

Obstacles to Young Love

In 1829 the old noblesse had recovered as to manners and customs something of the prestige it had irrevocably lost in politics. Moreover, the sentiment which governs parents and grandparents in all that relates to matrimonial conventions is an imperishable sentiment, closely allied to the very existence of civilized societies and springing from the spirit of family. It rules in Geneva as in Vienna and in Nemours, where, as we have seen, Zelie Minoret refused her consent to a possible marriage of her son with the daughter of a bastard. Still, all social laws have their exceptions. Savinien thought he might bend his mother’s pride before the inborn nobility of Ursula. The struggle began at once. As soon as they were seated at table his mother told him of the horrible letters, as she called them, which the Kergarouets and the Portendueres had written her.

“There is no such thing as family in these days, mother,” replied Savinien, “nothing but individuals! The nobles are no longer a compact body. No one asks or cares whether I am a Portenduere, or brave, or a statesmen; all they ask now-a-days is, ‘What taxes does he pay?’”

“But the king?” asked the old lady.

“The king is caught between the two Chambers like a man between his wife and his mistress. So I shall have to marry some rich girl without regard to family — the daughter of a peasant if she has a million and is sufficiently well brought-up — that is to say, if she has been taught in school.”

“Oh! there’s no need to talk of that,” said the old lady.

Savinien frowned as he heard the words. He knew the granite will, called Breton obstinacy, that distinguished his mother, and he resolved to know at once her opinion on this delicate matter.

“So,” he went on, “if I loved a young girl — take for instance your neighbour’s godchild, little Ursula — would you oppose my marriage?”

“Yes, as long as I live,” she replied; “and after my death you would be responsible for the honor and the blood of the Kergarouets and the Portendueres.”

“Would you let me die of hunger and despair for the chimera of nobility, which has no reality today unless it has the lustre of great wealth?”

“You could serve France and put faith in God.”

“Would you postpone my happiness till after your death?”

“It would be horrible if you took it then — that is all I have to say.”

“Louis XIV. came very near marrying the niece of Mazarin, a parvenu.”

“Mazarin himself opposed it.”

“Remember the widow Scarron.”

“She was a d’Aubigne. Besides, the marriage was in secret. But I am very old, my son,” she said, shaking her head. “When I am no more you can, as you say, marry whom you please.”

Savinien both loved and respected his mother; but he instantly, though silently, set himself in opposition to her with an obstinacy equal to her own, resolving to have no other wife than Ursula, to whom this opposition gave, as often happens in similar circumstances, the value of a forbidden thing.

When, after vespers, the doctor, with Ursula, who was dressed in pink and white, entered the cold, stiff salon, the girl was seized with nervous trembling, as though she had entered the presence of the queen of France and had a favor to beg of her. Since her confession to the doctor this little house had assumed the proportions of a palace in her eyes, and the old lady herself the social value which a duchess of the Middle Ages might have had to the daughter of a serf. Never had Ursula measured as she did at that moment the distance which separated Vicomte de Portenduere from the daughter of a regimental musician, a former opera-singer and the natural son of an organist.

“What is the matter, my dear?” said the old lady, making the girl sit down beside her.

“Madame, I am confused by the honor you have done me —”

“My little girl,” said Madame de Portenduere, in her sharpest tone. “I know how fond your uncle is of you, and I wished to be agreeable to him, for he has brought back my prodigal son.”

“But, my dear mother,” said Savinien cut to the heart by seeing the color fly into Ursula’s face as she struggled to keep back her tears, “even if we were under no obligations to Monsieur le Chevalier Minoret, I think we should always be most grateful for the pleasure Mademoiselle has given us by accepting your invitation.”

The young man pressed the doctor’s hand in a significant manner, adding: “I see you wear, monsieur, the order of Saint–Michel, the oldest order in France, and one which confers nobility.”

Ursula’s extreme beauty, to which her almost hopeless love gave a depth which great painters have sometimes conveyed in pictures where the soul is brought into strong relief, had struck Madame de Portenduere suddenly, and made her suspect that the doctor’s apparent generosity masked an ambitious scheme. She had made the speech to which Savinien replied with the intention of wounding the doctor in that which was dearest to him; and she succeeded, though the old man could hardly restrain a smile as he heard himself styled a “chevalier,” amused to observe how the eagerness of a lover did not shrink from absurdity.

“The order of Saint–Michel which in former days men committed follies to obtain,” he said, “has now, Monsieur le vicomte, gone the way of other privileges! It is given only to doctors and poor artists. The kings have done well to join it to that of Saint–Lazare who was, I believe, a poor devil recalled to life by a miracle. From this point of view the order of Saint–Michel and Saint–Lazare may be, for many of us, symbolic.”

After this reply, at once sarcastic and dignified, silence reigned, which, as no one seemed inclined to break it, was becoming awkward, when there was a rap at the door.

“There is our dear abbe,” said the old lady, who rose, leaving Ursula alone, and advancing to meet the Abbe Chaperon — an honor she had not paid to the doctor and his niece.

The old man smiled to himself as he looked from his goddaughter to Savinien. To show offence or to complain of Madame de Portenduere’s manners was a rock on which a man of small mind might have struck, but Minoret was too accomplished in the ways of the world not to avoid it. He began to talk to the viscount of the danger Charles X. was then running by confiding the affairs of the nation to the Prince de Polignac. When sufficient time had been spent on the subject to avoid all appearance of revenging himself by so doing, he handed the old lady, in an easy, jesting way, a packet of legal papers and receipted bills, together with the account of his notary.

“Has my son verified them?” she said, giving Savinien a look, to which he replied by bending his head. “Well, then the rest is my notary’s business,” she added, pushing away the papers and treating the affair with the disdain she wished to show for money.

To abase wealth was, according to Madame de Portenduere’s ideas, to elevate the nobility and rob the bourgeoisie of their importance.

A few moments later Goupil came from his employer, Dionis, to ask for the accounts of the transaction between the doctor and Savinien.

“Why do you want them?” said the old lady.

“To put the matter in legal form; there have been no cash payments.”

Ursula and Savinien, who both for the first time exchanged a glance with offensive personage, were conscious of a sensation like that of touching a toad, aggravated by a dark presentiment of evil. They both had the same indefinable and confused vision into the future, which has no name in any language, but which is capable of explanation as the action of the inward being of which the mysterious Swedenborgian had spoken to Doctor Minoret. The certainty that the venomous Goupil would in some way be fatal to them made Ursula tremble; but she controlled herself, conscious of unspeakable pleasure in seeing that Savinien shared her emotion.

“He is not handsome, that clerk of Monsieur Dionis,” said Savinien, when Goupil had closed the door.

“What does it signify whether such persons are handsome or ugly?” said Madame de Portenduere.

“I don’t complain of his ugliness,” said the abbe, “but I do of his wickedness, which passes all bounds; he is a villain.”

The doctor, in spite of his desire to be amiable, grew cold and dignified. The lovers were embarrassed. If it had not been for the kindly good-humor of the abbe, whose gentle gayety enlivened the dinner, the position of the doctor and his niece would have been almost intolerable. At dessert, seeing Ursula turn pale, he said to her:—

“If you don’t feel well, dear child, we have only the street to cross.”

“What is the matter, my dear?” said the old lady to the girl.

“Madame,” said the doctor severely, “her soul is chilled, accustomed as she is to be met by smiles.”

“A very bad education, monsieur,” said Madame de Portenduere. “Is it not, Monsieur l’abbe?”

“Yes,” answered Minoret, with a look at the abbe, who knew not how to reply. “I have, it is true, rendered life unbearable to an angelic spirit if she has to pass it in the world; but I trust I shall not die until I place her in security, safe from coldness, indifference, and hatred —”

“Oh, godfather — I beg of you — say no more. There is nothing the matter with me,” cried Ursula, meeting Madame de Portenduere’s eyes rather than give too much meaning to her words by looking at Savinien.

“I cannot know, madame,” said Savinien to his mother, “whether Mademoiselle Ursula suffers, but I do know that you are torturing me.”

Hearing these words, dragged from the generous young man by his mother’s treatment of herself, Ursula turned pale and begged Madame de Portenduere to excuse her; then she took her uncle’s arm, bowed, left the room, and returned home. Once there, she rushed to the salon and sat down to the piano, put her head in her hands, and burst into tears.

“Why don’t you leave the management of your affairs to my old experience, cruel child?” cried the doctor in despair. “Nobles never think themselves under any obligations to the bourgeoisie. When we do them a service they consider that we do our duty, and that’s all. Besides, the old lady saw that you looked favorably on Savinien; she is afraid he will love you.”

“At any rate he is saved!” said Ursula. “But ah! to try to humiliate a man like you!”

“Wait till I return, my child,” said the old man leaving her.

When the doctor re-entered Madame de Portenduere’s salon he found Dionis the notary, accompanied by Monsieur Bongrand and the mayor of Nemours, witnesses required by law for the validity of deeds in all communes where there is but one notary. Minoret took Monsieur Dionis aside and said a word in his ear, after which the notary read the deeds aloud officially; from which it appeared that Madame de Portenduere gave a mortgage on all her property to secure payment of the hundred thousand francs, the interest on which was fixed at five per cent. At the reading of this last clause the abbe looked at Minoret, who answered with an approving nod. The poor priest whispered something in the old lady’s ear to which she replied —

“I will owe nothing to such persons.”

“My mother leaves me the nobler part,” said Savinien to the doctor; “she will repay the money and charges me to show our gratitude.”

“But you will have to pay eleven thousand francs the first year to meet the interest and the legal costs,” said the abbe.

“Monsieur,” said Minoret to Dionis, “as Monsieur and Madame de Portenduere are not in a condition to pay those costs, add them to the amount of the mortgage and I will pay them.”

Dionis made the change and the sum borrowed was fixed at one hundred and seven thousand francs. When the papers were all signed, Minoret made his fatigue an excuse to leave the house at the same time as the notary and witnesses.

“Madame,” said the abbe, “why did you affront the excellent Monsieur Minoret, who saved you at least twenty-five thousand francs on those debts in Paris, and had the delicacy to give twenty thousand to your son for his debts of honor?”

“Your Minoret is sly,” she said, taking a pinch of snuff. “He knows what he is about.”

“My mother thinks he wishes to force me into marrying his niece by getting hold of our farm,” said Savinien; “as if a Portenduere, son of a Kergarouet, could be made to marry against his will.”

An hour later, Savinien presented himself at the doctor’s house, where all the relatives had assembled, enticed by curiosity. The arrival of the young viscount produced a lively sensation, all the more because its effect was different on each person present. Mesdemoiselles Cremiere and Massin whispered together and looked at Ursula, who blushed. The mothers said to Desire that Goupil was right about the marriage. The eyes of all present turned towards the doctor, who did not rise to receive the young nobleman, but merely bowed his head without laying down the dice-box, for he was playing a game of backgammon with Monsieur Bongrand. The doctor’s cold manner surprised every one.

“Ursula, my child,” he said, “give us a little music.”

While the young girl, delighted to have something to do to keep her in countenance, went to the piano and began to move the green-covered music-books, the heirs resigned themselves, with many demonstrations of pleasure, to the torture and the silence about to be inflicted on them, so eager were they to find out what was going on between their uncle and the Portendueres.

In sometimes happens that a piece of music, poor in itself, when played by a young girl under the influence of deep feeling, makes more impression than a fine overture played by a full orchestra. In all music there is, besides the thought of the composer, the soul of the performer, who, by a privilege granted to this art only, can give both meaning and poetry to passages which are in themselves of no great value. Chopin proves, for that unresponsive instrument the piano, the truth of this fact, already proved by Paganini on the violin. That fine genius is less a musician than a soul which makes itself felt, and communicates itself through all species of music, even simple chords. Ursula, by her exquisite and sensitive organization, belonged to this rare class of beings, and old Schmucke, the master, who came every Saturday and who, during Ursula’s stay in Paris was with her every day, had brought his pupil’s talent to its full perfection. “Rousseau’s Dream,” the piece now chosen by Ursula, composed by Herold in his young days, is not without a certain depth which is capable of being developed by execution. Ursula threw into it the feelings which were agitating her being, and justified the term “caprice” given by Herold to the fragment. With soft and dreamy touch her soul spoke to the young man’s soul and wrapped it, as in a cloud, with ideas that were almost visible.

Sitting at the end of the piano, his elbow resting on the cover and his head on his left hand, Savinien admired Ursula, whose eyes, fixed on the paneling of the wall beyond him, seemed to be questioning another world. Many a man would have fallen deeply in love for a less reason. Genuine feelings have a magnetism of their own, and Ursula was willing to show her soul, as a coquette her dresses to be admired. Savinien entered that delightful kingdom, led by this pure heart, which, to interpret its feelings, borrowed the power of the only art that speaks to thought by thought, without the help of words, or color, or form. Candor, openness of heart have the same power over a man that childhood has; the same charm, the same irresistible seductions. Ursula was never more honest and candid than at this moment, when she was born again into a new life.

The abbe came to tear Savinien from his dream, requesting him to take a fourth hand at whist. Ursula went on playing; the heirs departed, all except Desire, who was resolved to find out the intentions of his uncle and the viscount and Ursula.

“You have as much talent as soul, mademoiselle,” he said, when the young girl closed the piano and sat down beside her godfather. “Who is your master?”

“A German, living close to the Rue Dauphine on the quai Conti,” said the doctor. “If he had not given Ursula a lesson every day during her stay in Paris he would have been here today.”

“He is not only a great musician,” said Ursula, “but a man of adorable simplicity of nature.”

“Those lessons must cost a great deal,” remarked Desire.

The players smiled ironically. When the game was over the doctor, who had hitherto seemed anxious and pensive, turned to Savinien with the air of a man who fulfills a duty.

“Monsieur,” he said, “I am grateful for the feeling which leads you to make me this early visit; but your mother attributes unworthy and underhand motives to what I have done, and I should give her the right to call them true if I did not request you to refrain from coming here, in spite of the honor your visits are to me, and the pleasure I should otherwise feel in cultivating your society. Tell your mother that if I do not beg her, in my niece’s name and my own, to do us the honor of dining here next Sunday it is because I am very certain that she would find herself indisposed on that day.”

The old man held out his hand to the young viscount, who pressed it respectfully, saying:—

“You are quite right, monsieur.”

He then withdrew; but not without a bow to Ursula, in which there was more of sadness than disappointment.

Desire left the house at the same time; but he found it impossible to exchange even a word with the young nobleman, who rushed into his own house precipitately.

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