Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter IV

Zelie

The fright of the heirs at beholding their uncle on his way to mass will now be understood. The dullest persons have mind enough to foresee a danger to self-interests. Self-interest constitutes the mind of the peasant as well as that of the diplomatist, and on that ground the stupidest of men is sometimes the most powerful. So the fatal reasoning, “If that little Ursula has influence enough to drag her godfather into the pale of the Church she will certainly have enough to make him leave her his property,” was now stamped in letters of fire on the brains of the most obtuse heir. The post master had forgotten about his son in his hurry to reach the square; for if the doctor were really in the church hearing mass it was a question of losing two hundred and fifty thousand francs. It must be admitted that the fears of these relations came from the strongest and most legitimate of social feelings, family interests.

“Well, Monsieur Minoret,” said the mayor (formerly a miller who had now become royalist, named Levrault–Cremiere), “when the devil gets old the devil a monk would be. Your uncle, they say, is one of us.”

“Better late than never, cousin,” responded the post master, trying to conceal his annoyance.

“How that fellow will grin if we are defrauded! He is capable of marrying his son to that damned girl — may the devil get her!” cried Cremiere, shaking his fists at the mayor as he entered the porch.

“What’s Cremiere grumbling about?” said the butcher of the town, a Levrault–Levrault the elder. “Isn’t he pleased to see his uncle on the road to paradise?”

“Who would ever have believed it!” ejaculated Massin.

“Ha! one should never say, ‘Fountain, I’ll not drink of your water,’” remarked the notary, who, seeing the group from afar, had left his wife to go to church without him.

“Come, Monsieur Dionis,” said Cremiere, taking the notary by the arm, “what do you advise me to do under the circumstances?”

“I advise you,” said the notary, addressing the heirs collectively, “to go to bed and get up at your usual hour; to eat your soup before it gets cold; to put your feet in your shoes and your hats on your heads; in short, to continue your ways of life precisely as if nothing had happened.”

“You are not consoling,” said Massin.

In spite of his squat, dumpy figure and heavy face, Cremiere–Dionis was really as keen as a blade. In pursuit of usurious fortune he did business secretly with Massin, to whom he no doubt pointed out such peasants as were hampered in means, and such pieces of land as could be bought for a song. The two men were in a position to choose their opportunities; none that were good escaped them, and they shared the profits of mortgage-usury, which retards, though it does not prevent, the acquirement of the soil by the peasantry. So Dionis took a lively interest in the doctor’s inheritance, not so much for the post master and the collector as for his friend the clerk of the court; sooner or later Massin’s share in the doctor’s money would swell the capital with which these secret associates worked the canton.

“We must try to find out through Monsieur Bongrand where the influence comes from,” said the notary in a low voice, with a sign to Massin to keep quiet.

“What are you about, Minoret?” cried a little woman, suddenly descending upon the group in the middle of which stood the post master, as tall and round as a tower. “You don’t know where Desire is and there you are, planted on your two legs, gossiping about nothing, when I thought you on horseback! — Oh, good morning, Messieurs and Mesdames.”

This little woman, thin, pale, and fair, dressed in a gown of white cotton with pattern of large, chocolate-colored flowers, a cap trimmed with ribbon and frilled with lace, and wearing a small green shawl on her flat shoulders, was Minoret’s wife, the terror of postilions, servants, and carters; who kept the accounts and managed the establishment “with finger and eye” as they say in those parts. Like the true housekeeper that she was, she wore no ornaments. She did not give in (to use her own expression) to gew-gaws and trumpery; she held to the solid and the substantial, and wore, even on Sundays, a black apron, in the pocket of which she jingled her household keys. Her screeching voice was agony to the drums of all ears. Her rigid glance, conflicting with the soft blue of her eyes, was in visible harmony with the thin lips of a pinched mouth and a high, projecting, and very imperious forehead. Sharp was the glance, sharper still both gesture and speech. “Zelie being obliged to have a will for two, had it for three,” said Goupil, who pointed out the successive reigns of three young postilions, of neat appearance, who had been set up in life by Zelie, each after seven years’ service. The malicious clerk named them Postilion I., Postilion II., Postilion III. But the little influence these young men had in the establishment, and their perfect obedience proved that Zelie was merely interested in worthy helpers.

This attempt at scandal was against probabilities. Since the birth of her son (nursed by her without any evidence of how it was possible for her to do so) Madame Minoret had thought only of increasing the family fortune and was wholly given up to the management of their immense establishment. To steal a bale of hay or a bushel of oats or get the better of Zelie in even the most complicated accounts was a thing impossible, though she scribbled hardly better than a cat, and knew nothing of arithmetic but addition and subtraction. She never took a walk except to look at the hay, the oats, or the second crops. She sent “her man” to the mowing, and the postilions to tie the bales, telling them the quantity, within a hundred pounds, each field should bear. Though she was the soul of that great body called Minoret–Levrault and led him about by his pug nose, she was made to feel the fears which occasionally (we are told) assail all tamers of wild beasts. She therefore made it a rule to get into a rage before he did; the postilions knew very well when his wife had been quarreling with him, for his anger ricocheted on them. Madame Minoret was as clever as she was grasping; and it was a favorite remark in the whole town, “Where would Minoret–Levrault be without his wife?”

“When you know what has happened,” replied the post master, “you’ll be over the traces yourself.”

“What is it?”

“Ursula has taken the doctor to mass.”

Zelie’s pupils dilated; she stood for a moment yellow with anger, then, crying out, “I’ll see it before I believe it!” she rushed into the church. The service had reached the Elevation. The stillness of the worshippers enabled her to look along each row of chairs and benches as she went up the aisle beside the chapels to Ursula’s place, where she saw old Minoret standing with bared head.

If you recall the heads of Barbe–Marbois, Boissy d’Anglas, Morellet, Helvetius, or Frederick the Great, you will see the exact image of Doctor Minoret, whose green old age resembled that of those celebrated personages. Their heads coined in the same mint (for each had the characteristics of a medal) showed a stern and quasi-puritan profile, cold tones, a mathematical brain, a certain narrowness about the features, shrewd eyes, grave lips, and a something that was surely aristocratic — less perhaps in sentiment than in habit, more in the ideas than in the character. All men of this stamp have high brows retreating at the summit, the sigh of a tendency to materialism. You will find these leading characteristics of the head and these points of the face in all the Encyclopedists, in the orators of the Gironde, in the men of a period when religious ideas were almost dead, men who called themselves deists and were atheists. The deist is an atheist lucky in classification.

Minoret had a forehead of this description, furrowed with wrinkles, which recovered in his old age a sort of artless candor from the manner in which the silvery hair, brushed back like that of a woman when making her toilet, curled in light flakes upon the blackness of his coat. He persisted in dressing, as in his youth, in black silk stockings, shoes with gold buckles, breeches of black poult-de-soie, and a black coat, adorned with the red rosette. This head, so firmly characterized, the cold whiteness of which was softened by the yellowing tones of old age, happened to be, just then, in the full light of a window. As Madame Minoret came in sight of him the doctor’s blue eyes with their reddened lids were raised to heaven; a new conviction had given them a new expression. His spectacles lay in his prayer-book and marked the place where he had ceased to pray. The tall and spare old man, his arms crossed on his breast, stood erect in an attitude which bespoke the full strength of his faculties and the unshakable assurance of his faith. He gazed at the altar humbly with a look of renewed hope, and took no notice of his nephew’s wife, who planted herself almost in front of him as if to reproach him for coming back to God.

Zelie, seeing all eyes turned upon her, made haste to leave the church and returned to the square less hurriedly than she had left it. She had reckoned on the doctor’s money, and possession was becoming problematical. She found the clerk of the court, the collector, and their wives in greater consternation than ever. Goupil was taking pleasure in tormenting them.

“It is not in the public square and before the whole town that we ought to talk of our affairs,” said Zelie; “come home with me. You too, Monsieur Dionis,” she added to the notary; “you’ll not be in the way.”

Thus the probable disinheritance of Massin, Cremiere, and the post master was the news of the day.

Just as the heirs and the notary were crossing the square to go to the post house the noise of the diligence rattling up to the office, which was only a few steps from the church, at the top of the Grand’Rue, made its usual racket.

“Goodness! I’m like you, Minoret; I forgot all about Desire,” said Zelie. “Let us go and see him get down. He is almost a lawyer; and his interests are mixed up in this matter.”

The arrival of the diligence is always an amusement, but when it comes in late some unusual event is expected. The crowd now moved towards the “Ducler.”

“Here’s Desire!” was the general cry.

The tyrant, and yet the life and soul of Nemours, Desire always put the town in a ferment when he came. Loved by the young men, with whom he was invariably generous, he stimulated them by his very presence. But his methods of amusement were so dreaded by older persons that more than one family was very thankful to have him complete his studies and study law in Paris. Desire Minoret, a slight youth, slender and fair like his mother, from whom he obtained his blue eyes and pale skin, smiled from the window on the crowd, and jumped lightly down to kiss his mother. A short sketch of the young fellow will show how proud Zelie felt when she saw him.

He wore very elegant boots, trousers of white English drilling held under his feet by straps of varnished leather, a rich cravat, admirably put on and still more admirably fastened, a pretty fancy waistcoat, in the pocket of said waistcoat a flat watch, the chain of which hung down; and, finally, a short frock-coat of blue cloth, and a gray hat — but his lack of the manner-born was shown in the gilt buttons of the waistcoat and the ring worn outside of his purple kid glove. He carried a cane with a chased gold head.

“You are losing your watch,” said his mother, kissing him.

“No, it is worn that way,” he replied, letting his father hug him.

“Well, cousin, so we shall soon see you a lawyer?” said Massin.

“I shall take the oaths at the beginning of next term,” said Desire, returning the friendly nods he was receiving on all sides.

“Now we shall have some fun,” said Goupil, shaking him by the hand.

“Ha! my old wag, so here you are!” replied Desire.

“You take your law license for all license,” said Goupil, affronted by being treated so cavalierly in presence of others.

“You know my luggage,” cried Desire to the red-faced old conductor of the diligence; “have it taken to the house.”

“The sweat is rolling off your horses,” said Zelie sharply to the conductor; “you haven’t common-sense to drive them in that way. You are stupider than your own beasts.”

“But Monsieur Desire was in a hurry to get here to save you from anxiety,” explained Cabirolle.

“But if there was no accident why risk killing the horses?” she retorted.

The greetings of friends and acquaintances, the crowding of the young men around Desire, and the relating of the incidents of the journey took enough time for the mass to be concluded and the worshippers to issue from the church. By mere chance (which manages many things) Desire saw Ursula on the porch as he passed along, and he stopped short amazed at her beauty. His action also stopped the advance of the relations who accompanied him.

In giving her arm to her godfather, Ursula was obliged to hold her prayer-book in one hand and her parasol in the other; and this she did with the innate grace which graceful women put into the awkward or difficult things of their charming craft of womanhood. If mind does truly reveal itself in all things, we may be permitted to say that Ursula’s attitude and bearing suggested divine simplicity. She was dressed in a white cambric gown made like a wrapper, trimmed here and there with knots of blue ribbon. The pelerine, edged with the same ribbon run through a broad hem and tied with bows like those on the dress, showed the great beauty of her shape. Her throat, of a pure white, was charming in tone against the blue — the right color for a fair skin. A long blue sash with floating ends defined a slender waist which seemed flexible — a most seductive charm in women. She wore a rice-straw bonnet, modestly trimmed with ribbons like those of the gown, the strings of which were tied under her chin, setting off the whiteness of the straw and doing no despite to that of her beautiful complexion. Ursula dressed her own hair naturally (a la Berthe, as it was then called) in heavy braids of fine, fair hair, laid flat on either side of the head, each little strand reflecting the light as she walked. Her gray eyes, soft and proud at the same time, were in harmony with a finely modeled brow. A rosy tinge, suffusing her cheeks like a cloud, brightened a face which was regular without being insipid; for nature had given her, by some rare privilege, extreme purity of form combined with strength of countenance. The nobility of her life was manifest in the general expression of her person, which might have served as a model for a type of trustfulness, or of modesty. Her health, though brilliant, was not coarsely apparent; in fact, her whole air was distinguished. Beneath the little gloves of a light color it was easy to imagine her pretty hands. The arched and slender feet were delicately shod in bronzed kid boots trimmed with a brown silk fringe. Her blue sash holding at the waist a small flat watch and a blue purse with gilt tassels attracted the eyes of every woman she met.

“He has given her a new watch!” said Madame Cremiere, pinching her husband’s arm.

“Heavens! is that Ursula?” cried Desire; “I didn’t recognize her.”

“Well, my dear uncle,” said the post master, addressing the doctor and pointing to the whole population drawn up in parallel hedges to let the doctor pass, “everybody wants to see you.”

“Was it the Abbe Chaperon or Mademoiselle Ursula who converted you, uncle,” said Massin, bowing to the doctor and his protegee, with Jesuitical humility.

“Ursula,” replied the doctor, laconically, continuing to walk on as if annoyed.

The night before, as the old man finished his game of whist with Ursula, the Nemours doctor, and Bongrand, he remarked, “I intend to go to church tomorrow.”

“Then,” said Bongrand, “your heirs won’t get another night’s rest.”

The speech was superfluous, however, for a single glance sufficed the sagacious and clear-sighted doctor to read the minds of his heirs by the expression of their faces. Zelie’s irruption into the church, her glance, which the doctor intercepted, this meeting of all the expectant ones in the public square, and the expression in their eyes as they turned them on Ursula, all proved to him their hatred, now freshly awakened, and their sordid fears.

“It is a feather in your cap, Mademoiselle,” said Madame Cremiere, putting in her word with a humble bow — “a miracle which will not cost you much.”

“It is God’s doing, madame,” replied Ursula.

“God!” exclaimed Minoret–Levrault; “my father-inlaw used to say he served to blanket many horses.”

“Your father-inlaw had the mind of a jockey,” said the doctor severely.

“Come,” said Minoret to his wife and son, “why don’t you bow to my uncle?”

“I shouldn’t be mistress of myself before that little hypocrite,” cried Zelie, carrying off her son.

“I advise you, uncle, not to go to mass without a velvet cap,” said Madame Massin; “the church is very damp.”

“Pooh, niece,” said the doctor, looking round on the assembly, “the sooner I’m put to bed the sooner you’ll flourish.”

He walked on quickly, drawing Ursula with him, and seemed in such a hurry that the others dropped behind.

“Why do you say such harsh things to them? it isn’t right,” said Ursula, shaking his arm in a coaxing way.

“I shall always hate hypocrites, as much after as before I became religious. I have done good to them all, and I asked no gratitude; but not one of my relatives sent you a flower on your birthday, which they know is the only day I celebrate.”

At some distance behind the doctor and Ursula came Madame de Portenduere, dragging herself along as if overcome with trouble. She belonged to the class of old women whose dress recalls the style of the last century. They wear puce-colored gowns with flat sleeves, the cut of which can be seen in the portraits of Madame Lebrun; they all have black lace mantles and bonnets of a shape gone by, in keeping with their slow and dignified deportment; one might almost fancy that they still wore paniers under their petticoats or felt them there, as persons who have lost a leg are said to fancy that the foot is moving. They swathe their heads in old lace which declines to drape gracefully about their cheeks. Their wan and elongated faces, their haggard eyes and faded brows, are not without a certain melancholy grace, in spite of the false fronts with flattened curls to which they cling — and yet these ruins are all subordinate to an unspeakable dignity of look and manner.

The red and wrinkled eyes of this old lady showed plainly that she had been crying during the service. She walked like a person in trouble, seemed to be expecting some one, and looked behind her from time to time. Now, the fact of Madame de Portenduere looking behind her was really as remarkable in its way as the conversion of Doctor Minoret.

“Who can Madame de Portenduere be looking for?” said Madame Massin, rejoining the other heirs, who were for the moment struck dumb by the doctor’s answer.

“For the cure,” said Dionis, the notary, suddenly striking his forehead as if some forgotten thought or memory had occurred to him. “I have an idea! I’ll save your inheritance! Let us go and breakfast gayly with Madame Minoret.”

We can well imagine the alacrity with which the heirs followed the notary to the post house. Goupil, who accompanied his friend Desire, locked arm in arm with him, whispered something in the youth’s ear with an odious smile.

“What do I care?” answered the son of the house, shrugging his shoulders. “I am madly in love with Florine, the most celestial creature in the world.”

“Florine! and who may she be?” demanded Goupil. “I’m too fond of you to let you make a goose of yourself wish such creatures.”

“Florine is the idol of the famous Nathan; my passion is wasted, I know that. She has positively refused to marry me.”

“Sometimes those girls who are fools with their bodies are wise with their heads,” responded Goupil.

“If you could but see her — only once,” said Desire, lackadaisically, “you wouldn’t say such things.”

“If I saw you throwing away your whole future for nothing better than a fancy,” said Goupil, with a warmth which might even have deceived his master, “I would break your doll as Varney served Amy Robsart in ‘Kenilworth.’ Your wife must be a d’Aiglement or a Mademoiselle du Rouvre, and get you made a deputy. My future depends on yours, and I sha’n’t let you commit any follies.”

“I am rich enough to care only for happiness,” replied Desire.

“What are you two plotting together?” cried Zelie, beckoning to the two friends, who were standing in the middle of the courtyard, to come into the house.

The doctor disappeared into the Rue des Bourgeois with the activity of a young man, and soon reached his own house, where strange events had lately taken place, the visible results of which now filled the minds of the whole community of Nemours. A few explanations are needed to make this history and the notary’s remark to the heirs perfectly intelligible to the reader.

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