Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XVI

The Two Adversaries

Perhaps the foregoing conduct on the part of the post master will have shown already that Ursula, poor and resigned, was destined to be a thorn in the side of the rich Minoret. The bustle attending the settlement of an estate, the sale of the property, the going and coming necessitated by such unusual business, his discussions with his wife about the most trifling details, the purchase of the doctor’s house, where Zelie wished to live in bourgeois style to advance her son’s interests — all this hurly-burly, contrasting with his usually tranquil life hindered the huge Minoret from thinking of his victim. But about the middle of May, a few days after his installation in the doctor’s house, as he was coming home from a walk, he heard the sound of a piano, saw La Bougival sitting at a window, like a dragon guarding a treasure, and suddenly became aware of an importunate voice within him.

To explain why to a man of Minoret’s nature the sight of Ursula, who had no suspicion of the theft committed upon her, now became intolerable; why the spectacle of so much fortitude under misfortune impelled him to a desire to drive the girl out of town; and how and why it was that this desire took the form of hatred and revenge, would require a whole treatise on moral philosophy. Perhaps he felt he was not the real possessor of thirty-six thousand francs a year so long as she to whom they really belonged lived near him. Perhaps he fancied some mere chance might betray his theft if the person despoiled was not got rid of. Perhaps to a nature in some sort primitive, almost uncivilized, and whose owner up to that time had never done anything illegal, the presence of Ursula awakened remorse. Possibly this remorse goaded him the more because he had received his share of the property legitimately acquired. In his own mind he no doubt attributed these stirrings of his conscience to the fact of Ursula’s presence, imagining that if she were removed all his uncomfortable feelings would disappear with her. But still, after all, perhaps crime has its own doctrine of perfection. A beginning of evil demands its end; a first stab must be followed by the blow that kills. Perhaps robbery is doomed to lead to murder. Minoret had committed the crime without the slightest reflection, so rapidly had the events taken place; reflection came later. Now, if you have thoroughly possessed yourself of this man’s nature and bodily presence you will understand the mighty effect produced on him by a thought. Remorse is more than a thought; it comes from a feeling which can no more be hidden than love; like love, it has its own tyranny. But, just as Minoret had committed the crime against Ursula without the slightest reflection, so he now blindly longed to drive her from Nemours when he felt himself disturbed by the sight of that wronged innocence. Being, in a sense, imbecile, he never thought of the consequences; he went from danger to danger, driven by a selfish instinct, like a wild animal which does not foresee the huntsman’s skill, and relies on its own rapidity or strength. Before long the rich bourgeois, who still met in Dionis’s salon, noticed a great change in the manners and behavior of the man who had hitherto been so free of care.

“I don’t know what has come to Minoret, he is all no how,” said his wife, from whom he was resolved to hide his daring deed.

Everybody explained his condition as being, neither more nor less, ennui (in fact the thought now expressed on his face did resemble ennui), caused, they said, by the sudden cessation of business and the change from an active life to one of well-to-do leisure.

While Minoret was thinking only of destroying Ursula’s life in Nemours, La Bougival never let a day go by without torturing her foster child with some allusion to the fortune she ought to have had, or without comparing her miserable lot with the prospects the doctor had promised, and of which he had often spoken to her, La Bougival.

“It is not for myself I speak,” she said, “but is it likely that monsieur, good and kind as he was, would have died without leaving me the merest trifle? —”

“Am I not here?” replied Ursula, forbidding La Bougival to say another word on the subject.

She could not endure to soil the dear and tender memories that surrounded that noble head — a sketch of which in black and white hung in her little salon — with thoughts of selfish interest. To her fresh and beautiful imagination that sketch sufficed to make her see her godfather, on whom her thoughts continually dwelt, all the more because surrounded with the things he loved and used — his large duchess-sofa, the furniture from his study, his backgammon-table, and the piano he had chosen for her. The two old friends who still remained to her, the Abbe Chaperon and Monsieur Bongrand, the only visitors whom she received, were, in the midst of these inanimate objects representative of the past, like two living memories of her former life to which she attached her present by the love her godfather had blessed.

After a while the sadness of her thoughts, softening gradually, gave tone to the general tenor of her life and united all its parts in an indefinable harmony, expressed by the exquisite neatness, the exact symmetry of her room, the few flowers sent by Savinien, the dainty nothings of a young girl’s life, the tranquillity which her quiet habits diffused about her, giving peace and composure to the little home. After breakfast and after mass she continued her studies and practiced; then she took her embroidery and sat at the window looking on the street. At four o’clock Savinien, returning from a walk (which he took in all weathers), finding the window open, would sit upon the outer casing and talk with her for half an hour. In the evening the abbe and Monsieur Bongrand came to see her, but she never allowed Savinien to accompany them. Neither did she accept Madame de Portenduere’s proposition, which Savinien had induced his mother to make, that she should visit there.

Ursula and La Bougival lived, moreover, with the strictest economy; they did not spend, counting everything, more than sixty francs a month. The old nurse was indefatigable; she washed and ironed; cooked only twice a week — mistress and maid eating their food cold on other days; for Ursula was determined to save the seven hundred francs still due on the purchase of the house. This rigid conduct, together with her modesty and her resignation to a life of poverty after the enjoyment of luxury and the fond indulgence of all her wishes, deeply impressed certain persons. Ursula won the respect of others, and no voice was raised against her. Even the heirs, once satisfied, did her justice. Savinien admired the strength of character of so young a girl. From time to time Madame de Portenduere, when they met in church, would address a few kind words to her, and twice she insisted on her coming to dinner and fetched her herself. If all this was not happiness it was at least tranquillity. But a benefit which came to Ursula through the legal care and ability of Bongrand started the smouldering persecution which up to this time had laid in Minoret’s breast as a dumb desire.

As soon as the legal settlement of the doctor’s estate was finished, the justice of peace, urged by Ursula, took the cause of the Portendueres in hand and promised her to get them out of their trouble. In dealing with the old lady, whose opposition to Ursula’s happiness made him furious, he did not allow her to be ignorant of the fact that his devotion to her service was solely to give pleasure to Mademoiselle Mirouet. He chose one of his former clerks to act for the Portendueres at Fontainebleau, and himself put in a motion for a stay of proceedings. He intended to profit by the interval which must elapse between the stoppage of the present suit and some new step on the part of Massin to renew the lease at six thousand francs, get a premium from the present tenants and the payment in full of the rent of the current year.

At this time, when these matters had to be discussed, the former whist-parties were again organized in Madame de Portenduere’s salon, between himself, the abbe, Savinien, and Ursula, whom the abbe and he escorted there and back every evening. In June, Bongrand succeeded in quashing the proceedings; whereupon the new lease was signed; he obtained a premium of thirty-two thousand francs from the farmer and a rent of six thousand a year for eighteen years. The evening of the day on which this was finally settled he went to see Zelie, whom he knew to be puzzled as to how to invest her money, and proposed to sell her the farm at Bordieres for two hundred and twenty thousand francs.

“I’d buy it at once,” said Minoret, “if I were sure the Portendueres would go and live somewhere else.”

“Why?” said the justice of peace.

“We want to get rid of the nobles in Nemours.”

“I did hear the old lady say that if she could settle her affairs she should go and live in Brittany, as she would not have means enough left to live her. She is thinking of selling her house.”

“Well, sell it to me,” said Minoret.

“To you?” said Zelie. “You talk as if you were master of everything. What do you want with two houses in Nemours?”

“If I don’t settle this matter of the farm with you to-night,” said Bongrand, “our lease will get known, Massin will put in a fresh claim, and I shall lose this chance of liquidation which I am anxious to make. So if you don’t take my offer I shall go at once to Melun, where some farmers I know are ready to buy the farm with their eyes shut.”

“Why did you come to us, then?” said Zelie.

“Because you can pay me in cash, and my other clients would make me wait some time for the money. I don’t want difficulties.”

“Get her out of Nemours and I’ll pay it,” exclaimed Minoret.

“You understand that I cannot answer for Madame de Portenduere’s actions,” said Bongrand. “I can only repeat what I heard her say, but I feel certain they will not remain in Nemours.”

On this assurance, enforced by a nudge from Zelie, Minoret agreed to the purchase, and furnished the funds to pay off the mortgage due to the doctor’s estate. The deed of sale was immediately drawn up by Dionis. Towards the end of June Bongrand brought the balance of the purchase money to Madame de Portenduere, advising her to invest it in the Funds, where, joined to Savinien’s ten thousand, it would give her, at five per cent, an income of six thousand francs. Thus, so far from losing her resources, the old lady actually gained by the transaction. But she did not leave Nemours. Minoret thought he had been tricked — as though Bongrand had had an idea that Ursula’s presence was intolerable to him; and he felt a keen resentment which embittered his hatred to his victim. Then began a secret drama which was terrible in its effects — the struggle of two determinations; one which impelled Minoret to drive his victim from Nemours, the other which gave Ursula the strength to bear persecution, the cause of which was for a certain length of time undiscoverable. The situation was a strange and even unnatural one, and yet it was led up to by all the preceding events, which served as a preface to what was now to occur.

Madame Minoret, to whom her husband had given a handsome silver service costing twenty thousand francs, gave a magnificent dinner every Sunday, the day on which her son, the deputy procureur, came from Fontainebleau, bringing with him certain of his friends. On these occasions Zelie sent to Paris for delicacies — obliging Dionis the notary to emulate her display. Goupil, whom the Minorets endeavored to ignore as a questionable person who might tarnish their splendor, was not invited until the end of July. The clerk, who was fully aware of this intended neglect, was forced to be respectful to Desire, who, since his entrance into office, had assumed a haughty and dignified air, even in his own family.

“You must have forgotten Esther,” Goupil said to him, “as you are so much in love with Mademoiselle Mirouet.”

“In the first place, Esther is dead, monsieur; and in the next I have never even thought of Ursula,” said the new magistrate.

“Why, what did you tell me, papa Minoret?” cried Goupil, insolently.

Minoret, caught in a lie by a man whom he feared, would have lost countenance if it had not been for a project in his head, which was, in fact, the reason why Goupil was invited to dinner — Minoret having remembered the proposition the clerk had once made to prevent the marriage between Savinien and Ursula. For all answer, he led Goupil hurriedly to the end of the garden.

“You’ll soon be twenty-eight years old, my good fellow,” said he, “and I don’t see that you are on the road to fortune. I wish you well, for after all you were once my son’s companion. Listen to me. If you can persuade that little Mirouet, who possesses in her own right forty thousand francs, to marry you, I will give you, as true as my name is Minoret, the means to buy a notary’s practice at Orleans.”

“No,” said Goupil, “that’s too far out of the way; but Montargis —”

“No,” said Minoret; “Sens.”

“Very good — Sens,” replied the hideous clerk. “There’s an archbishop at Sens, and I don’t object to devotion; a little hypocrisy and there you are, on the way to fortune. Besides, the girl is pious, and she’ll succeed at Sens.”

“It is to be fully understood,” continued Minoret, “that I shall not pay the money till you marry my cousin, for whom I wish to provide, out of consideration for my deceased uncle.”

“Why not for me too?” said Goupil maliciously, instantly suspecting a secret motive in Minoret’s conduct. “Isn’t it through information you got from me that you make twenty-four thousand a year from that land, without a single enclosure, around the Chateau du Rouvre? The fields and the mill the other side of the Loing make sixteen thousand more. Come, old fellow, do you mean to play fair with me?”

“Yes.”

“If I wanted to show my teeth I could coax Massin to buy the Rouvre estate, park, gardens, preserves, and timber —”

“You’d better think twice before you do that,” said Zelie, suddenly intervening.

“If I choose,” said Goupil, giving her a viperish look; “Massin would buy the whole for two hundred thousand francs.”

“Leave us, wife,” said the colossus, taking Zelie by the arm, and shoving her away; “I understand him. We have been so very busy,” he continued, returning to Goupil, “that we have had no time to think of you; but I rely on your friendship to buy the Rouvre estate for me.”

“It is a very ancient marquisate,” said Goupil, maliciously; “which will soon be worth in your hands fifty thousand francs a year; that means a capital of more than two millions as money is now.”

“My son could then marry the daughter of a marshal of France, or the daughter of some old family whose influence would get him a fine place under the government in Paris,” said Minoret, opening his huge snuff-box and offering a pinch to Goupil.

“Very good; but will you play fair?” cried Goupil, shaking his fingers.

Minoret pressed the clerk’s hands replying:—

“On my word of honor.”

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