Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XXI

Showing How Difficult it is to Steal that Which Seems Very Easily Stolen

The following day, as the abbe was leaving the altar after saying mass, a thought struck him with such force that it seemed to him the utterance of a voice. He made a sign to Ursula to wait for him, and accompanied her home without having breakfasted.

“My child,” he said, “I want to see the two volumes your godfather showed you in your dreams — where he said that he placed those certificates and banknotes.”

Ursula and the abbe went up to the library and took down the third volume of the Pandects. When the old man opened it he noticed, not without surprise, a mark left by some enclosure upon the pages, which still kept the outline of the certificate. In the other volume he found a sort of hollow made by the long-continued presence of a package, which had left its traces on the two pages next to it.

“Yes, go up, Monsieur Bongrand,” La Bougival was heard to say, and the justice of the peace came into the library just as the abbe was putting on his spectacles to read three numbers in Doctor Minoret’s hand-writing on the fly-leaf of colored paper with which the binder had lined the cover of the volume — figures which Ursula had just discovered.

“What’s the meaning of those figures?” said the abbe; “our dear doctor was too much of a bibliophile to spoil the fly-leaf of a valuable volume. Here are three numbers written between a first number preceded by the letter M and a last number preceded by a U.”

“What are you talking of?” said Bongrand. “Let me see that. Good God!” he cried, after a moment’s examination; “it would open the eyes of an atheist as an actual demonstration of Providence! Human justice is, I believe, the development of the divine thought which hovers over the worlds.” He seized Ursula and kissed her forehead. “Oh! my child, you will be rich and happy, and all through me!”

“What is it?” exclaimed the abbe.

“Oh, monsieur,” cried La Bougival, catching Bongrand’s blue overcoat, “let me kiss you for what you’ve just said.”

“Explain, explain! don’t give us false hopes,” said the abbe.

“If I bring trouble on others by becoming rich,” said Ursula, forseeing a criminal trial, “I—”

“Remember,” said the justice, interrupting her, “the happiness you will give to Savinien.”

“Are you mad?” said the abbe.

“No, my dear friend,” said Bongrand. “Listen; the certificates in the Funds are issued in series — as many series as there are letters in the alphabet; and each number bears the letter of its series. But the certificates which are made out ‘to bearer’ cannot have a letter; they are not in any person’s name. What you see there shows that the day the doctor placed his money in the Funds, he noted down, first, the number of his own certificate for fifteen thousand francs interest which bears his initial M; next, the numbers of three inscriptions to bearer; these are without a letter; and thirdly, the certificate of Ursula’s share in the Funds, the number of which is 23,534, and which follows, as you see, that of the fifteen-thousand-franc certificate with lettering. This goes far to prove that those numbers are those of five certificates of investments made on the same day and noted down by the doctor in case of loss. I advised him to take certificates to bearer for Ursula’s fortune, and he must have made his own investment and that of Ursula’s little property the same day. I’ll go to Dionis’s office and look at the inventory. If the number of the certificate for his own investment is 23,533, letter M, we may be sure that he invested, through the same broker on the same day, first his own property on a single certificate; secondly his savings in three certificates to bearer (numbered, but without the series letter); thirdly, Ursula’s own property; the transfer books will show, of course, undeniable proofs of this. Ha! Minoret, you deceiver, I have you — Motus, my children!”

Whereupon he left them abruptly to reflect with admiration on the ways by which Providence had brought the innocent to victory.

“The finger of God is in all this,” cried the abbe.

“Will they punish him?” asked Ursula.

“Ah, mademoiselle,” cried La Bougival. “I’d give the rope to hang him.”

Bongrand was already at Goupil’s, now the appointed successor of Dionis, but he entered the office with a careless air. “I have a little matter to verify about the Minoret property,” he said to Goupil.

“What is it?” asked the latter.

“The doctor left one or more certificates in the three-per-cent Funds?”

“He left one for fifteen thousand francs a year,” said Goupil; “I recorded it myself.”

“Then just look on the inventory,” said Bongrand.

Goupil took down a box, hunted through it, drew out a paper, found the place, and read:—

“‘Item, one certificate’— Here, read for yourself — under the number 23,533, letter M.”

“Do me the kindness to let me have a copy of that clause within an hour,” said Bongrand.

“What good is it to you?” asked Goupil.

“Do you want to be a notary?” answered the justice of peace, looking sternly at Dionis’s proposed successor.

“Of course I do,” cried Goupil. “I’ve swallowed too many affronts not to succeed now. I beg you to believe, monsieur, that the miserable creature once called Goupil has nothing in common with Maitre Jean–Sebastien-Marie Goupil, notary of Nemours and husband of Mademoiselle Massin. The two beings do not know each other. They are no longer even alike. Look at me!”

Thus adjured Monsieur Bongrand took notice of Goupil’s clothes. The new notary wore a white cravat, a shirt of dazzling whiteness adorned with ruby buttons, a waistcoat of red velvet, with trousers and coat of handsome black broad-cloth, made in Paris. His boots were neat; his hair, carefully combed, was perfumed — in short he was metamorphosed.

“The fact is you are another man,” said Bongrand.

“Morally as well as physically. Virtue comes with practice — a practice; besides, money is the source of cleanliness —”

“Morally as well as physically,” returned Bongrand, settling his spectacles.

“Ha! monsieur, is a man worth a hundred thousand francs a year ever a democrat? Consider me in future as an honest man who knows what refinement is, and who intends to love his wife,” said Goupil; “and what’s more, I shall prevent my clients from ever doing dirty actions.”

“Well, make haste,” said Bongrand. “Let me have that copy in an hour, and notary Goupil will have undone some of the evil deeds of Goupil the clerk.”

After asking the Nemours doctor to lend him his horse and cabriolet, he went back to Ursula’s house for the two important volumes and for her own certificate of Funds; then, armed with the extract from the inventory, he drove to Fontainebleau and had an interview with the procureur du roi. Bongrand easily convinced that official of the theft of the three certificates by one or other of the heirs — presumably by Minoret.

“His conduct is explained,” said the procureur.

As a measure of precaution the magistrate at once notified the Treasury to withhold transfer of the said certificates, and told Bongrand to go to Paris and ascertain if the shares had ever been sold. He then wrote a polite note to Madame Minoret requesting her presence.

Zelie, very uneasy about her son’s duel, dressed herself at once, had the horses put to her carriage and hurried to Fontainebleau. The procureur’s plan was simple enough. By separating the wife from the husband, and bringing the terrors of the law to bear upon her, he expected to learn the truth. Zelie found the official in his private office and was utterly annihilated when he addressed her as follows:—

“Madame,” he said; “I do not believe you are an accomplice in a theft that has been committed upon the Minoret property, on the track of which the law is now proceeding. But you can spare your husband the shame of appearing in the prisoner’s dock by making a full confession of what you know about it. The punishment which your husband has incurred is, moreover, not the only thing to be dreaded. Your son’s career is to be thought of; you must avoid destroying that. Half an hour hence will be too late. The police are already under orders for Nemours, the warrant is made out.”

Zelie nearly fainted; when she recovered her senses she confessed everything. After proving to her that she was in point of fact an accomplice, the magistrate told her that if she did not wish to injure either son or husband she must behave with the utmost prudence.

“You have now to do with me as an individual, not as a magistrate,” he said. “No complaint has been lodged by the victim, nor has any publicity been given to the theft. But your husband has committed a great crime, which may be brought before a judge less inclined than myself to be considerate. In the present state of the affair I am obliged to make you a prisoner — oh, in my own house, on parole,” he added, seeing that Zelie was about to faint. “You must remember that my official duty would require me to issue a warrant at once and begin an examination; but I am acting now individually, as guardian of Mademoiselle Ursula Mirouet, and her best interests demand a compromise.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Zelie.

“Write to your husband in the following words,” he continued, placing Zelie at his desk and proceeding to dictate the letter:—

“My Friend — I am arrested, and I have told all. Return the certificates which uncle left to Monsieur de Portenduere in the will which you burned; for the procureur du roi has stopped payment at the Treasury.”

“You will thus save him from the denials he would otherwise attempt to make,” said the magistrate, smiling at Zelie’s orthography. “We will see that the restitution is properly made. My wife will make your stay in our house as agreeable as possible. I advise you to say nothing of the matter and not to appear anxious or unhappy.”

Now that Zelie had confessed and was safely immured, the magistrate sent for Desire, told him all the particulars of his father’s theft, which was really to Ursula’s injury, but, as matters stood, legally to that of his co-heirs, and showed him the letter written by his mother. Desire at once asked to be allowed to go to Nemours and see that his father made immediate restitution.

“It is a very serious matter,” said the magistrate. “The will having been destroyed, if the matter gets wind, the co-heirs, Massin and Cremiere may put in a claim. I have proof enough against your father. I will release your mother, for I think the little ceremony that has already taken place has been sufficient warning as to her duty. To her, I will seem to have yielded to your entreaties in releasing her. Take her with you to Nemours, and manage the whole matter as best you can. Don’t fear any one. Monsieur Bongrand loves Ursula Mirouet too well to let the matter become known.”

Zelie and Desire started soon after for Nemours. Three hours later the procureur du roi received by a mounted messenger the following letter, the orthography of which has been corrected so as not to bring ridicule on a man crushed by affliction.

To Monsieur le procureur du roi at Fontainebleau:

Monsieur — God is less kind to us than you; we have met with an irreparable misfortune. When my wife and son reached the bridge at Nemours a trace became unhooked. There was no servant behind the carriage; the horses smelt the stable; my son, fearing their impatience, jumped down to hook the trace rather than have the coachman leave the box. As he turned to resume his place in the carriage beside his mother the horses started; Desire did not step back against the parapet in time; the step of the carriage cut through both legs and he fell, the hind wheel passing over his body. The messenger who goes to Paris for the best surgeon will bring you this letter, which my son in the midst of his sufferings desires me to write so as to let you know our entire submission to your decisions in the matter about which he was coming to speak to me.

I shall be grateful to you to my dying day for the manner in which you have acted, and I will deserve your goodness.

Francois Minoret.

This cruel event convulsed the whole town of Nemours. The crowds standing about the gate of the Minoret house were the first to tell Savinien that his vengeance had been taken by a hand more powerful than his own. He went at once to Ursula’s house, where he found both the abbe and the young girl more distressed than surprised.

The next day, after the wounds were dressed, and the doctors and surgeons from Paris had given their opinion that both legs must be amputated, Minoret went, pale, humbled, and broken down, accompanied by the abbe, to Ursula’s house, where he found also Monsieur Bongrand and Savinien.

“Mademoiselle,” he said; “I am very guilty towards you; but if all the wrongs I have done you are not wholly reparable, there are some that I can expiate. My wife and I have made a vow to make over to you in absolute possession our estate at Rouvre in case our son recovers, and also in case we have the dreadful sorrow of losing him.”

He burst into tears as he said the last words.

“I can assure you, my dear Ursula,” said the abbe, “that you can and that you ought to accept a part of this gift.”

“Will you forgive me?” said Minoret, humbly kneeling before the astonished girl. “The operation is about to be performed by the first surgeon of the Hotel–Dieu; but I do not trust to human science, I rely only on the power of God. If you will forgive us, if you ask God to restore our son to us, he will have strength to bear the agony and we shall have the joy of saving him.”

“Let us go to the church!” cried Ursula, rising.

But as she gained her feet, a piercing cry came from her lips, and she fell backward fainting. When her senses returned, she saw her friends — but not Minoret who had rushed for a doctor — looking at her with anxious eyes, seeking an explanation. As she gave it, terror filled their hearts.

“I saw my godfather standing in the doorway,” she said, “and he signed to me that there was no hope.”

The day after the operation Desire died — carried off by the fever and the shock to the system that succeed operations of this nature. Madame Minoret, whose heart had no other tender feeling than maternity, became insane after the burial of her son, and was taken by her husband to the establishment of Doctor Blanche, where she died in 1841.

Three months after these events, in January, 1837, Ursula married Savinien with Madame de Portenduere’s consent. Minoret took part in the marriage contract and insisted on giving Mademoiselle Mirouet his estate at Rouvre and an income of twenty-four thousand francs from the Funds; keeping for himself only his uncle’s house and ten thousand francs a year. He has become the most charitable of men, and the most religious; he is churchwarden of the parish, and has made himself the providence of the unfortunate.

“The poor take the place of my son,” he said.

If you have ever noticed by the wayside, in countries where they poll the oaks, some old tree, whitened and as if blasted, still throwing out its twigs though its trunk is riven and seems to implore the axe, you will have an idea of the old post master, with his white hair, — broken, emaciated, in whom the elders of the town can see no trace of the jovial dullard whom you first saw watching for his son at the beginning of this history; he does not even take his snuff as he once did; he carries something more now than the weight of his body. Beholding him, we feel that the hand of God was laid upon that figure to make it an awful warning. After hating so violently his uncle’s godchild the old man now, like Doctor Minoret himself, has concentrated all his affections on her, and has made himself the manager of her property in Nemours.

Monsieur and Madame de Portenduere pass five months of the year in Paris, where they have bought a handsome house in the Faubourg Saint–Germain. Madame de Portenduere the elder, after giving her house in Nemours to the Sisters of Charity for a free school, went to live at Rouvre, where La Bougival keeps the porter’s lodge. Cabirolle, the former conductor of the “Ducler,” a man sixty years of age, has married La Bougival and the twelve hundred francs a year which she possesses besides the ample emoluments of her place. Young Cabirolle is Monsieur de Portenduere’s coachman.

If you happen to see in the Champs–Elysees one of those charming little low carriages called ‘escargots,’ lined with gray silk and trimmed with blue, and containing a pretty young woman whom you admire because her face is wreathed in innumerable fair curls, her eyes luminous as forget-me-nots and filled with love; if you see her bending slightly towards a fine young man, and, if you are, for a moment, conscious of envy — pause and reflect that this handsome couple, beloved of God, have paid their quota to the sorrows of life in times now past. These married lovers are the Vicomte de Portenduere and his wife. There is not another such home in Paris as theirs.

“It is the sweetest happiness I have ever seen,” said the Comtesse de l’Estorade, speaking of them lately.

Bless them, therefore, and be not envious; seek an Ursula for yourselves, a young girl brought up by three old men, and by the best of all mothers — adversity.

Goupil, who does service to everybody and is justly considered the wittiest man in Nemours, has won the esteem of the little town, but he is punished in his children, who are rickety and hydrocephalous. Dionis, his predecessor, flourishes in the Chamber of Deputies, of which he is one of the finest ornaments, to the great satisfaction of the king of the French, who sees Madame Dionis at all his balls. Madame Dionis relates to the whole town of Nemours the particulars of her receptions at the Tuileries and the splendor of the court of the king of the French. She lords it over Nemours by means of the throne, which therefore must be popular in the little town.

Bongrand is chief-justice of the court of appeals at Melun. His son is in the way of becoming an honest attorney-general.

Madame Cremiere continues to make her delightful speeches. On the occasion of her daughter’s marriage, she exhorted her to be the working caterpillar of the household, and to look into everything with the eyes of a sphinx. Goupil is making a collection of her “slapsus-linquies,” which he calls a Cremiereana.

“We have had the great sorrow of losing our good Abbe Chaperon,” said the Vicomtesse de Portenduere this winter — having nursed him herself during his illness. “The whole canton came to his funeral. Nemours is very fortunate, however, for the successor of that dear saint is the venerable cure of Saint–Lange.”

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