Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XIX

Apparitions

Though the public opinion of the little town recognized Ursula’s perfect innocence, she recovered slowly. While in a state of bodily exhaustion, which left her mind and spirit free, she became the medium of phenomena the effects of which were astounding, and of a nature to challenge science, if science had been brought into contact with them.

Ten days after Madame de Portenduere’s visit Ursula had a dream, with all the characteristics of a supernatural vision, as much in its moral aspects as in the, so to speak, physical circumstances. Her godfather appeared to her and made a sign that she should come with him. She dressed herself and followed him through the darkness to their former house in the Rue des Bourgeois, where she found everything precisely as it was on the day of her godfather’s death. The old man wore the clothes that were on him the evening before his death. His face was pale, his movements caused no sound; nevertheless, Ursula heard his voice distinctly, though it was feeble and as if repeated by a distant echo. The doctor conducted his child as far as the Chinese pagoda, where he made her lift the marble top of the little Boule cabinet just as she had raised it on the day of his death; but instead of finding nothing there she saw the letter her godfather had told her to fetch. She opened it and read both the letter addressed to herself and the will in favor of Savinien. The writing, as she afterwards told the abbe, shone as if traced by sunbeams —“it burned my eyes,” she said. When she looked at her uncle to thank him she saw the old benevolent smile upon his discolored lips. Then, in a feeble voice, but still clearly, he told her to look at Minoret, who was listening in the corridor to what he said to her; and next, slipping the lock of the library door with his knife, and taking the papers from the study. With his right hand the old man seized his goddaughter and obliged her to walk at the pace of death and follow Minoret to his own house. Ursula crossed the town, entered the post house and went into Zelie’s old room, where the spectre showed her Minoret unfolding the letters, reading them and burning them.

“He could not,” said Ursula, telling her dream to the abbe, “light the first two matches, but the third took fire; he burned the papers and buried their remains in the ashes. Then my godfather brought me back to our house, and I saw Minoret–Levrault slipping into the library, where he took from the third volume of Pandects three certificates of twelve thousand francs each; also, from the preceding volume, a number of banknotes. ‘He is,’ said my godfather, ‘the cause of all the trouble which has brought you to the verge of the tomb; but God wills that you shall yet be happy. You will not die now; you will marry Savinien. If you love me, and if you love Savinien, I charge you to demand your fortune from my nephew. Swear it.’”

Resplendent as though transfigured, the spectre had so powerful an influence on Ursula’s soul that she promised all her uncle asked, hoping to put an end to the nightmare. She woke suddenly and found herself standing in the middle of her bedroom, facing her godfather’s portrait, which had been placed there during her illness. She went back to bed and fell asleep after much agitation, and on waking again she remembered all the particulars of this singular vision; but she dared not speak of it. Her judgment and her delicacy both shrank from revealing a dream the end and object of which was her pecuniary benefit. She attributed the vision, not unnaturally, to remarks made by La Bougival the preceding evening, when the old woman talked of the doctor’s intended liberality and of her own convictions on that subject. But the dream returned, with aggravated circumstances which made it fearful to the poor girl. On the second occasion the icy hand of her godfather was laid upon her shoulder, causing her the most horrible distress, an indefinable sensation. “You must obey the dead,” he said, in a sepulchral voice. “Tears,” said Ursula, relating her dreams, “fell from his white, wide-open eyes.”

The third time the vision came the dead man took her by the braids of her long hair and showed her the post master talking with Goupil and promising money if he would remove Ursula to Sens. Ursula then decided to relate the three dreams to the Abbe Chaperon.

“Monsieur l’abbe,” she said, “do you believe that the dead reappear?”

“My child, sacred history, profane history, and modern history, have much testimony to that effect; but the Church has never made it an article of faith; and as for science, in France science laughs at the idea.”

“What do you believe?”

“That the power of God is infinite.”

“Did my godfather ever speak to you of such matters?”

“Yes, often. He had entirely changed his views of them. His conversion, as he told me at least twenty times, dated from the day when a woman in Paris heard you praying for him in Nemours, and saw the red dot you made against Saint–Savinien’s day in your almanac.”

Ursula uttered a piercing cry, which alarmed the priest; she remembered the scene when, on returning to Nemours, her godfather read her soul, and took away the almanac.

“If that is so,” she said, “then my visions are possibly true. My godfather has appeared to me, as Jesus appeared to his disciples. He was wrapped in yellow light; he spoke to me. I beg you to say a mass for the repose of his soul and to implore the help of God that these visions may cease, for they are destroying me.”

She then related the three dreams with all their details, insisting on the truth of what she said, on her own freedom of action, on the somnambulism of her inner being, which, she said, detached itself from her body at the bidding of the spectre and followed him with perfect ease. The thing that most surprised the abbe, to whom Ursula’s veracity was known, was the exact description which she gave of the bedroom formerly occupied by Zelie at the post house, which Ursula had never entered and about which no one had ever spoken to her.

“By what means can these singular apparitions take place?” asked Ursula. “What did my godfather think?”

“Your godfather, my dear child, argued my hypothesis. He recognized the possibility of a spiritual world, a world of ideas. If ideas are of man’s creation, if they subsist in a life of their own, they must have forms which our external senses cannot grasp, but which are perceptible to our inward senses when brought under certain conditions. Thus your godfather’s ideas might so enfold you that you would clothe them with his bodily presence. Then, if Minoret really committed those actions, they too resolve themselves into ideas; for all action is the result of many ideas. Now, if ideas live and move in a spiritual world, your spirit must be able to perceive them if it penetrates that world. These phenomena are not more extraordinary than those of memory; and those of memory are quite as amazing and inexplicable as those of the perfume of plants — which are perhaps the ideas of the plants.”

“How you enlarge and magnify the world!” exclaimed Ursula. “But to hear the dead speak, to see them walk, act — do you think it possible?”

“In Sweden,” replied the abbe, “Swedenborg has proved by evidence that he communicated with the dead. But come with me into the library and you shall read in the life of the famous Duc de Montmorency, beheaded at Toulouse, and who certainly was not a man to invent foolish tales, an adventure very like yours, which happened a hundred years earlier at Cardan.”

Ursula and the abbe went upstairs, and the good man hunted up a little edition in 12mo, printed in Paris in 1666, of the “History of Henri de Montmorency,” written by a priest of that period who had known the prince.

“Read it,” said the abbe, giving Ursula the volume, which he had opened at the 175th page. “Your godfather often re-read that passage, — and see! here’s a little of his snuff in it.”

“And he not here!” said Ursula, taking the volume to read the passage.

“The siege of Privat was remarkable for the loss of a great number of officers. Two brigadier-generals died there — namely, the Marquis d’Uxelles, of a wound received at the outposts, and the Marquis de Portes, from a musket-shot through the head. The day the latter was killed he was to have been made a marshal of France. About the moment when the marquis expired the Duc de Montmorency, who was sleeping in his tent, was awakened by a voice like that of the marquis bidding him farewell. The affection he felt for a friend so near made him attribute the illusion of this dream to the force of his own imagination; and owing to the fatigues of the night, which he had spent, according to his custom, in the trenches, he fell asleep once more without any sense of dread. But the same voice disturbed him again, and the phantom obliged him to wake up and listen to the same words it had said as it first passed. The duke then recollected that he had heard the philosopher Pitrat discourse on the possibility of the separation of the soul from the body, and that he and the marquis had agreed that the first who died should bid adieu to the other. On which, not being able to restrain his fears as to the truth of this warning, he sent a servant to the marquis’s quarters, which were distant from him. But before the man could get back, the king sent to inform the duke, by persons fitted to console him, of the great loss he had sustained.

“I leave learned men to discuss the cause of this event, which I have frequently heard the Duc de Montmorency relate: I think that the truth and singularity of the fact itself ought to be recorded and preserved.”

“If all this is so,” said Ursula, “what ought I do do?”

“My child,” said the abbe, “it concerns matters so important, and which may prove so profitable to you, that you ought to keep absolutely silent about it. Now that you have confided to me the secret of these apparitions perhaps they may not return. Besides, you are now strong enough to come to church; well, then, come tomorrow and thank God and pray to him for the repose of your godfather’s soul. Feel quite sure that you have entrusted your secret to prudent hands.”

“If you knew how afraid I am to go to sleep — what glances my godfather gives me! The last time he caught hold of my dress — I awoke with my face all covered with tears.”

“Be at peace; he will not come again,” said the priest.

Without losing a moment the Abbe Chaperon went straight to Minoret and asked for a few moments interview in the Chinese pagoda, requesting that they might be entirely alone.

“Can any one hear us?” he asked.

“No one,” replied Minoret.

“Monsieur, my character must be known to you,” said the abbe, fastening a gentle but attentive look on Minoret’s face. “I have to speak to you of serious and extraordinary matters, which concern you, and about which you may be sure that I shall keep the profoundest secrecy; but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than give you this information. While your uncle lived, there stood there,” said the priest, pointing to a certain spot in the room, “a small buffet made by Boule, with a marble top” (Minoret turned livid), “and beneath the marble your uncle placed a letter for Ursula —” The abbe then went on to relate, without omitting the smallest circumstance, Minoret’s conduct to Minoret himself. When the last post master heard the detail of the two matches refusing to light he felt his hair begin to writhe on his skull.

“Who invented such nonsense?” he said, in a strangled voice, when the tale ended.

“The dead man himself.”

This answer made Minoret tremble, for he himself had dreamed of the doctor.

“God is very good, Monsieur l’abbe, to do miracles for me,” he said, danger inspiring him to make the sole jest of his life.

“All that God does is natural,” replied the priest.

“Your phantoms don’t frighten me,” said the colossus, recovering his coolness.

“I did not come to frighten you, for I shall never speak of this to any one in the world,” said the abbe. “You alone know the truth. The matter is between you and God.”

“Come now, Monsieur l’abbe, do you really think me capable of such a horrible abuse of confidence?”

“I believe only in crimes which are confessed to me, and of which the sinner repents,” said the priest, in an apostolic tone.

“Crime?” cried Minoret.

“A crime frightful in its consequences.”

“What consequences?”

“In the fact that it escapes human justice. The crimes which are not expiated here below will be punished in another world. God himself avenges innocence.”

“Do you think God concerns himself with such trifles?”

“If he did not see the worlds in all their details at a glance, as you take a landscape into your eye, he would not be God.”

“Monsieur l’abbe, will you give me your word of honor that you have had these facts from my uncle?”

“Your uncle has appeared three times to Ursula and has told them and repeated them to her. Exhausted by such visions she revealed them to me privately; she considers them so devoid of reason that she will never speak of them. You may make yourself easy on that point.”

“I am easy on all points, Monsieur Chaperon.”

“I hope you are,” said the old priest. “Even if I considered these warnings absurd, I should still feel bound to inform you of them, considering the singular nature of the details. You are an honest man, and you have obtained your handsome fortune in too legal a way to wish to add to it by theft. Besides, you are an almost primitive man, and you would be tortured by remorse. We have within us, be we savage or civilized, the sense of what is right, and this will not permit us to enjoy in peace ill-gotten gains acquired against the laws of the society in which we live — for well-constituted societies are modeled on the system God has ordained for the universe. In this respect societies have a divine origin. Man does not originate ideas, he invents no form; he answers to the eternal relations that surround him on all sides. Therefore, see what happens! Criminals going to the scaffold, and having it in their power to carry their secret with them, are compelled by the force of some mysterious power to make confessions before their heads are taken off. Therefore, Monsieur Minoret, if your mind is at ease, I go my way satisfied.”

Minoret was so stupefied that he allowed the abbe to find his own way out. When he thought himself alone he flew into the fury of a choleric man; the strangest blasphemies escaped his lips, in which Ursula’s name was mingled with odious language.

“Why, what has she done to you?” cried Zelie, who had slipped in on tiptoe after seeing the abbe out of the house.

For the first and only time in his life, Minoret, drunk with anger and driven to extremities by his wife’s reiterated questions, turned upon her and beat her so violently that he was obliged, when she fell half-dead on the floor, to take her in his arms and put her to bed himself, ashamed of his act. He was taken ill and the doctor bled him twice; when he appeared again in the streets everybody noticed a great change in him. He walked alone, and often roamed the town as though uneasy. When any one addressed him he seemed preoccupied in his mind, he who had never before had two ideas in his head. At last, one evening, he went up to Monsieur Bongrand in the Grand’Rue, the latter being on his way to take Ursula to Madame de Portenduere’s, where the whist parties had begun again.

“Monsieur Bongrand, I have something important to say to my cousin,” he said, taking the justice by the arm, “and I am very glad you should be present, for you can advise her.”

They found Ursula studying; she rose, with a cold and dignified air, as soon as she saw Minoret.

“My child, Monsieur Minoret wants to speak to you on a matter of business,” said Bongrand. “By the bye, don’t forget to give me your certificates; I shall go to Paris in the morning and will draw your dividend and La Bougival’s.”

“Cousin,” said Minoret, “our uncle accustomed you to more luxury than you have now.”

“We can be very happy with very little money,” she replied.

“I thought money might help your happiness,” continued Minoret, “and I have come to offer you some, out of respect for the memory of my uncle.”

“You had a natural way of showing respect for him,” said Ursula, sternly; “you could have left his house as it was, and allowed me to buy it; instead of that you put it at a high price, hoping to find some hidden treasure in it.”

“But,” said Minoret, evidently troubled, “if you had twelve thousand francs a year you would be in a position to marry well.”

“I have not got them.”

“But suppose I give them to you, on condition of your buying an estate in Brittany near Madame de Portenduere — you could then marry her son.”

“Monsieur Minoret,” said Ursula, “I have no claim to that money, and I cannot accept it from you. We are scarcely relations, still less are we friends. I have suffered too much from calumny to give a handle for evil-speaking. What have I done to deserve that money? What reason have you to make me such a present? These questions, which I have a right to ask, persons will answer as they see fit; some would consider your gift the reparation of a wrong, and, as such, I choose not to accept it. Your uncle did not bring me up to ignoble feelings. I can accept nothing except from friends, and I have no friendship for you.”

“Then you refuse?” cried the colossus, into whose head the idea had never entered that a fortune could be rejected.

“I refuse,” said Ursula.

“But what grounds have you for offering Mademoiselle Ursula such a fortune?” asked Bongrand, looking fixedly at Minoret. “You have an idea — have you an idea? —”

“Well, yes, the idea of getting her out of Nemours, so that my son will leave me in peace; he is in love with her and wants to marry her.”

“Well, we’ll see about it,” said Bongrand, settling his spectacles. “Give us time to think it over.”

He walked home with Minoret, applauding the solicitude shown by the father for his son’s interests, and slightly blaming Ursula for her hasty decision. As soon as Minoret was within his own gate, Bongrand went to the post house, borrowed a horse and cabriolet, and started for Fontainebleau, where he went to see the deputy procureur, and was told that he was spending the evening at the house of the sub-prefect. Bongrand, delighted, followed him there. Desire was playing whist with the wife of the procureur du roi, the wife of the sub-prefect, and the colonel of the regiment in garrison.

“I come to bring you some good news,” said Bongrand to Desire; “you love your cousin Ursula, and the marriage can be arranged.”

“I love Ursula Mirouet!” cried Desire, laughing. “Where did you get that idea? I do remember seeing her sometimes at the late Doctor Minoret’s; she certainly is a beauty; but she is dreadfully pious. I certainly took notice of her charms, but I must say I never troubled my head seriously for that rather insipid little blonde,” he added, smiling at the sub-prefect’s wife (who was a piquante brunette — to use a term of the last century). “You are dreaming, my dear Monsieur Bongrand; I thought every one knew that my father was a lord of a manor, with a rent roll of forty-five thousand francs a year from lands around his chateau at Rouvre — good reasons why I should not love the goddaughter of my late great-uncle. If I were to marry a girl without a penny these ladies would consider me a fool.”

“Have you never tormented your father to let you marry Ursula?”

“Never.”

“You hear that, monsieur?” said the justice to the procureur du roi, who had been listening to the conversation, leading him aside into the recess of a window, where they remained in conversation for a quarter of an hour.

An hour later Bongrand was back in Nemours, at Ursula’s house, whence he sent La Bougival to Minoret to beg his attendance. The colossus came at once.

“Mademoiselle —” began Bongrand, addressing Minoret as he entered the room.

“Accepts?” cried Minoret, interrupting him.

“No, not yet,” replied Bongrand, fingering his glasses. “I had scruples as to your son’s feelings; for Ursula has been much tried lately about a supposed lover. We know the importance of tranquillity. Can you swear to me that your son truly loves her and that you have no other intention than to preserve our dear Ursula from any further Goupilisms?”

“Oh, I’ll swear to that,” cried Minoret.

“Stop, papa Minoret,” said the justice, taking one hand from the pocket of his trousers to slap Minoret on the shoulder (the colossus trembled); “Don’t swear falsely.”

“Swear falsely?”

“Yes, either you or your son, who has just sworn at Fontainebleau, in presence of four persons and the procureur du roi, that he has never even thought of his cousin Ursula. You have other reasons for offering this fortune. I saw you were inventing that tale, and went myself to Fontainebleau to question your son.”

Minoret was dumbfounded at his own folly.

“But where’s the harm, Monsieur Bongrand, in proposing to a young relative to help on a marriage which seems to be for her happiness, and to invent pretexts to conquer her reluctance to accept the money.”

Minoret, whose danger suggested to him an excuse which was almost admissible, wiped his forehead, wet with perspiration.

“You know the cause of my refusal,” said Ursula; “and I request you never to come here again. Though Monsieur de Portenduere has not told me his reason, I know that he feels such contempt for you, such dislike even, that I cannot receive you into my house. My happiness is my only fortune — I do not blush to say so; I shall not risk it. Monsieur de Portenduere is only waiting for my majority to marry me.”

“Then the old saw that ‘Money does all’ is a lie,” said Minoret, looking at the justice of peace, whose observing eyes annoyed him so much.

He rose and left the house, but, once outside, he found the air as oppressive as in the little salon.

“There must be an end put to this,” he said to himself as he re-entered his own home.

When Ursula came down, bring her certificates and those of La Bougival, she found Monsieur Bongrand walking up and down the salon with great strides.

“Have you no idea what the conduct of that huge idiot means?” he said.

“None that I can tell,” she replied.

Bongrand looked at her with inquiring surprise.

“Then we have the same idea,” he said. “Here, keep the number of your certificates, in case I lose them; you should always take that precaution.”

Bongrand himself wrote the number of the two certificates, hers and that of La Bougival, and gave them to her.

“Adieu, my child, I shall be gone two days, but you will see me on the third.”

That night the apparition appeared to Ursula in a singular manner. She thought her bed was in the cemetery of Nemours, and that her uncle’s grave was at the foot of it. The white stone, on which she read the inscription, opened, like the cover of an oblong album. She uttered a piercing cry, but the doctor’s spectre slowly rose. First she saw his yellow head, with its fringe of white hair, which shone as if surmounted by a halo. Beneath the bald forehead the eyes were like two gleams of light; the dead man rose as if impelled by some superior force or will. Ursula’s body trembled; her flesh was like a burning garment, and there was (as she subsequently said) another self moving within her bodily presence. “Mercy!” she cried, “mercy, godfather!” “It is too late,” he said, in the voice of death — to use the poor girl’s own expression when she related this new dream to the abbe. “He has been warned; he has paid no heed to the warning. The days of his son are numbered. If he does not confess all and restore what he has taken within a certain time he must lose his son, who will die a violent and horrible death. Let him know this.” The spectre pointed to a line of figures which gleamed upon the side of the tomb as if written with fire, and said, “There is his doom.” When her uncle lay down again in his grave Ursula heard the sound of the stone falling back into its place, and immediately after, in the distance, a strange sound of horses and the cries of men.

The next day Ursula was prostrate. She could not rise, so terribly had the dream overcome her. She begged her nurse to find the Abbe Chaperon and bring him to her. The good priest came as soon as he had said mass, but he was not surprised at Ursula’s revelation. He believed the robbery had been committed, and no longer tried to explain to himself the abnormal condition of his “little dreamer.” He left Ursula at once and went directly to Minoret’s.

“Monsieur l’abbe,” said Zelie, “my husband’s temper is so soured I don’t know what he mightn’t do. Until now he’s been a child; but for the last two months he’s not the same man. To get angry enough to strike me — me, so gentle! There must be something dreadful the matter to change him like that. You’ll find him among the rocks; he spends all his time there — doing what, I’d like to know?”

In spite of the heat (it was then September, 1836), the abbe crossed the canal and took a path which led to the base of one of the rocks, where he saw Minoret.

“You are greatly troubled, Monsieur Minoret,” said the priest going up to him. “You belong to me because you suffer. Unhappily, I come to increase your pain. Ursula had a terrible dream last night. Your uncle lifted the stone from his grave and came forth to prophecy a great disaster in your family. I certainly am not here to frighten you; but you ought to know what he said —”

“I can’t be easy anywhere, Monsieur Chaperon, not even among these rocks, and I’m sure I don’t want to know anything that is going on in another world.”

“Then I will leave you, monsieur; I did not take this hot walk for pleasure,” said the abbe, mopping his forehead.

“Well, what do you want to say?” demanded Minoret.

“You are threatened with the loss of your son. If the dead man told things that you alone know, one must needs tremble when he tells things that no one can know till they happen. Make restitution, I say, make restitution. Don’t damn your soul for a little money.”

“Restitution of what?”

“The fortune the doctor intended for Ursula. You took those three certificates — I know it now. You began by persecuting that poor girl, and you end by offering her a fortune; you have stumbled into lies, you have tangled yourself up in this net, and you are taking false steps every day. You are very clumsy and unskilful; your accomplice Goupil has served you ill; he simply laughs at you. Make haste and clear your mind, for you are watched by intelligent and penetrating eyes — those of Ursula’s friends. Make restitution! and if you do not save your son (who may not really be threatened), you will save your soul, and you will save your honor. Do you believe that in a society like ours, in a little town like this, where everybody’s eyes are everywhere, and all things are guessed and all things are known, you can long hide a stolen fortune? Come, my son, an innocent man wouldn’t have let me talk so long.”

“Go to the devil!” cried Minoret. “I don’t know what you all mean by persecuting me. I prefer these stones — they leave me in peace.”

“Farewell, then; I have warned you. Neither the poor girl nor I have said a single word about this to any living person. But take care — there is a man who has his eye upon you. May God have pity upon you!”

The abbe departed; presently he turned back to look at Minoret. The man was holding his head in his hands as if it troubled him; he was, in fact, partly crazy. In the first place, he had kept the three certificates because he did not know what to do with them. He dared not draw the money himself for fear it should be noticed; he did not wish to sell them, and was still trying to find some way of transferring the certificates. In this horrible state of uncertainty he bethought him of acknowledging all to his wife and getting her advice. Zelie, who always managed affairs for him so well, she could get him out of his troubles. The three-per-cent Funds were now selling at eighty. Restitution! why, that meant, with arrearages, giving up a million! Give up a million, when there was no one who could know that he had taken it! —

So Minoret continued through September and a part of October irresolute and a prey to his torturing thoughts. To the great surprise of the little town he grew thin and haggard.

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