Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter V

Ursula

The father-inlaw of Doctor Minoret, the famous harpsichordist and maker of instruments, Valentin Mirouet, also one of our most celebrated organists, died in 1785 leaving a natural son, the child of his old age, whom he acknowledged and called by his own name, but who turned out a worthless fellow. He was deprived on his death bed of the comfort of seeing this petted son. Joseph Mirouet, a singer and composer, having made his debut at the Italian opera under a feigned name, ran away with a young lady in Germany. The dying father commended the young man, who was really full of talent, to his son-inlaw, proving to him, at the same time, that he had refused to marry the mother that he might not injure Madame Minoret. The doctor promised to give the unfortunate Joseph half of whatever his wife inherited from her father, whose business was purchased by the Erards. He made due search for his illegitimate brother-inlaw; but Grimm informed him one day that after enlisting in a Prussian regiment Joseph had deserted and taken a false name and that all efforts to find him would be frustrated.

Joseph Mirouet, gifted by nature with a delightful voice, a fine figure, a handsome face, and being moreover a composer of great taste and much brilliancy, led for over fifteen years the Bohemian life which Hoffman has so well described. So, by the time he was forty, he was reduced to such depths of poverty that he took advantage of the events of 1806 to make himself once more a Frenchman. He settled in Hamburg, where he married the daughter of a bourgeois, a girl devoted to music, who fell in love with the singer (whose fame was ever prospective) and chose to devote her life to him. But after fifteen years of Bohemia, Joseph Mirouet was unable to bear prosperity; he was naturally a spendthrift, and though kind to his wife, he wasted her fortune in a very few years. The household must have dragged on a wretched existence before Joseph Mirouet reached the point of enlisting as a musician in a French regiment. In 1813 the surgeon-major of the regiment, by the merest chance, heard the name of Mirouet, was struck by it, and wrote to Doctor Minoret, to whom he was under obligations.

The answer was not long in coming. As a result, in 1814, before the allied occupation, Joseph Mirouet had a home in Paris, where his wife died giving birth to a little girl, whom the doctor desired should be called Ursula after his wife. The father did not long survive the mother, worn out, as she was, by hardship and poverty. When dying the unfortunate musician bequeathed his daughter to the doctor, who was already her godfather, in spite of his repugnance for what he called the mummeries of the Church. Having seen his own children die in succession either in dangerous confinements or during the first year of their lives, the doctor had awaited with anxiety the result of a last hope. When a nervous, delicate, and sickly woman begins with a miscarriage it is not unusual to see her go through a series of such pregnancies as Ursula Minoret did, in spite of the care and watchfulness and science of her husband. The poor man often blamed himself for their mutual persistence in desiring children. The last child, born after a rest of nearly two years, died in 1792, a victim of its mother’s nervous condition — if we listen to physiologists, who tell us that in the inexplicable phenomenon of generation the child derives from the father by blood and from the mother in its nervous system.

Compelled to renounce the joys of a feeling all powerful within him, the doctor turned to benevolence as a substitute for his denied paternity. During his married life, thus cruelly disappointed, he had longed more especially for a fair little daughter, a flower to bring joy to the house; he therefore gladly accepted Joseph Mirouet’s legacy, and gave to the orphan all the hopes of his vanished dreams. For two years he took part, as Cato for Pompey, in the most minute particulars of Ursula’s life; he would not allow the nurse to suckle her or to take her up or put her to bed without him. His medical science and his experience were all put to use in her service. After going through many trials, alternations of hope and fear, and the joys and labors of a mother, he had the happiness of seeing this child of the fair German woman and the French singer a creature of vigorous health and profound sensibility.

With all the eager feelings of a mother the happy old man watched the growth of the pretty hair, first down, then silk, at last hair, fine and soft and clinging to the fingers that caressed it. He often kissed the little naked feet the toes of which, covered with a pellicle through which the blood was seen, were like rosebuds. He was passionately fond of the child. When she tried to speak, or when she fixed her beautiful blue eyes upon some object with that serious, reflective look which seems the dawn of thought, and which she ended with a laugh, he would stay by her side for hours, seeking, with Jordy’s help, to understand the reasons (which most people call caprices) underlying the phenomena of this delicious phase of life, when childhood is both flower and fruit, a confused intelligence, a perpetual movement, a powerful desire.

Ursula’s beauty and gentleness made her so dear to the doctor that he would have liked to change the laws of nature in her behalf. He declared to old Jordy that his teeth ached when Ursula was cutting hers. When old men love children there is no limit to their passion — they worship them. For these little beings they silence their own manias or recall a whole past in their service. Experience, patience, sympathy, the acquisitions of life, treasures laboriously amassed, all are spent upon that young life in which they live again; their intelligence does actually take the place of motherhood. Their wisdom, ever on the alert, is equal to the intuition of a mother; they remember the delicate perceptions which in their own mother were divinations, and import them into the exercise of a compassion which is carried to an extreme in their minds by a sense of the child’s unutterable weakness. The slowness of their movements takes the place of maternal gentleness. In them, as in children, life is reduced to its simplest expression; if maternal sentiment makes the mother a slave, the abandonment of self allows an old man to devote himself utterly. For these reasons it is not unusual to see children in close intimacy with old persons. The old soldier, the old abbe, the old doctor, happy in the kisses and cajoleries of little Ursula, were never weary of answering her talk and playing with her. Far from making them impatient her petulances charmed them; and they gratified all her wishes, making each the ground of some little training.

The child grew up surrounded by old men, who smiled at her and made themselves mothers for her sake, all three equally attentive and provident. Thanks to this wise education, Ursula’s soul developed in a sphere that suited it. This rare plant found its special soil; it breathed the elements of its true life and assimilated the sun rays that belonged to it.

“In what faith do you intend to bring up the little one?” asked the abbe of the doctor, when Ursula was six years old.

“In yours,” answered Minoret.

An atheist after the manner of Monsieur Wolmar in the “Nouvelle Heloise” he did not claim the right to deprive Ursula of the benefits offered by the Catholic religion. The doctor, sitting at the moment on a bench outside the Chinese pagoda, felt the pressure of the abbe’s hand on his.

“Yes, abbe, every time she talks to me of God I shall send her to her friend ‘Shapron,’” he said, imitating Ursula’s infant speech, “I wish to see whether religious sentiment is inborn or not. Therefore I shall do nothing either for or against the tendencies of that young soul; but in my heart I have appointed you her spiritual guardian.”

“God will reward you, I hope,” replied the abbe, gently joining his hands and raising them towards heaven as if he were making a brief mental prayer.

So, from the time she was six years old the little orphan lived under the religious influence of the abbe, just as she had already come under the educational training of her friend Jordy.

The captain, formerly a professor in a military academy, having a taste for grammar and for the differences among European languages, had studied the problem of a universal tongue. This learned man, patient as most old scholars are, delighted in teaching Ursula to read and write. He taught her also the French language and all she needed to know of arithmetic. The doctor’s library afforded a choice of books which could be read by a child for amusement as well as instruction.

The abbe and the soldier allowed the young mind to enrich itself with the freedom and comfort which the doctor gave to the body. Ursula learned as she played. Religion was given with due reflection. Left to follow the divine training of a nature that was led into regions of purity by these judicious educators, Ursula inclined more to sentiment than to duty; she took as her rule of conduct the voice of her own conscience rather than the demands of social law. In her, nobility of feeling and action would ever be spontaneous; her judgment would confirm the impulse of her heart. She was destined to do right as a pleasure before doing it as an obligation. This distinction is the peculiar sign of Christian education. These principles, altogether different from those that are taught to men, were suitable for a woman — the spirit and the conscience of the home, the beautifier of domestic life, the queen of her household. All three of these old preceptors followed the same method with Ursula. Instead of recoiling before the bold questions of innocence, they explained to her the reasons of things and the best means of action, taking care to give her none but correct ideas. When, apropos of a flower, a star, a blade of grass, her thoughts went straight to God, the doctor and the professor told her that the priest alone could answer her. None of them intruded on the territory of the others; the doctor took charge of her material well-being and the things of life; Jordy’s department was instruction; moral and spiritual questions and the ideas appertaining to the higher life belonged to the abbe. This noble education was not, as it often is, counteracted by injudicious servants. La Bougival, having been lectured on the subject, and being, moreover, too simple in mind and character to interfere, did nothing to injure the work of these great minds. Ursula, a privileged being, grew up with good geniuses round her; and her naturally fine disposition made the task of each a sweet and easy one. Such manly tenderness, such gravity lighted by smiles, such liberty without danger, such perpetual care of soul and body made little Ursula, when nine years of age, a well-trained child and delightful to behold.

Unhappily, this paternal trinity was broken up. The old captain died the following year, leaving the abbe and the doctor to finish his work, of which, however, he had accomplished the most difficult part. Flowers will bloom of themselves if grown in a soil thus prepared. The old gentleman had laid by for ten years past one thousand francs a year, that he might leave ten thousand to his little Ursula, and keep a place in her memory during her whole life. In his will, the wording of which was very touching, he begged his legatee to spend the four or five hundred francs that came of her little capital exclusively on her dress. When the justice of the peace applied the seals to the effects of his old friend, they found in a small room, which the captain had allowed no one to enter, a quantity of toys, many of them broken, while all had been used — toys of a past generation, reverently preserved, which Monsieur Bongrand was, according to the captain’s last wishes, to burn with his own hands.

About this time it was that Ursula made her first communion. The abbe employed one whole year in duly instructing the young girl, whose mind and heart, each well developed, yet judiciously balancing one another, needed a special spiritual nourishment. The initiation into a knowledge of divine things which he gave her was such that Ursula grew into the pious and mystical young girl whose character rose above all vicissitudes, and whose heart was enabled to conquer adversity. Then began a secret struggle between the old man wedded to unbelief and the young girl full of faith — long unsuspected by her who incited it, — the result of which had now stirred the whole town, and was destined to have great influence on Ursula’s future by rousing against her the antagonism of the doctor’s heirs.

During the first six months of the year 1824 Ursula spent all her mornings at the parsonage. The old doctor guessed the abbe’s secret hope. He meant to make Ursula an unanswerable argument against him. The old unbeliever, loved by his godchild as though she were his own daughter, would surely believe in such artless candor; he could not fail to be persuaded by the beautiful effects of religion on the soul of a child, where love was like those trees of Eastern climes, bearing both flowers and fruit, always fragrant, always fertile. A beautiful life is more powerful than the strongest argument. It is impossible to resist the charms of certain sights. The doctor’s eyes were wet, he knew not how or why, when he saw the child of his heart starting for the church, wearing a frock of white crape, and shoes of white satin; her hair bound with a fillet fastened at the side with a knot of white ribbon, and rippling upon her shoulders; her eyes lighted by the star of a first hope; hurrying, tall and beautiful, to a first union, and loving her godfather better since her soul had risen towards God. When the doctor perceived that the thought of immortality was nourishing that spirit (until then within the confines of childhood) as the sun gives life to the earth without knowing why, he felt sorry that he remained at home alone.

Sitting on the steps of his portico he kept his eyes fixed on the iron railing of the gate through which the child had disappeared, saying as she left him: “Why won’t you come, godfather? how can I be happy without you?” Though shaken to his very center, the pride of the Encyclopedist did not as yet give way. He walked slowly in a direction from which he could see the procession of communicants, and distinguish his little Ursula brilliant with exaltation beneath her veil. She gave him an inspired look, which knocked, in the stony regions of his heart, on the corner closed to God. But still the old deist held firm. He said to himself: “Mummeries! if there be a maker of worlds, imagine the organizer of infinitude concerning himself with such trifles!” He laughed as he continued his walk along the heights which look down upon the road to the Gatinais, where the bells were ringing a joyous peal that told of the joy of families.

The noise of backgammon is intolerable to persons who do not know the game, which is really one of the most difficult that was ever invented. Not to annoy his godchild, the extreme delicacy of whose organs and nerves could not bear, he thought, without injury the noise and the exclamations she did not know the meaning of, the abbe, old Jordy while living, and the doctor always waited till their child was in bed before they began their favorite game. Sometimes the visitors came early when she was out for a walk, and the game would be going on when she returned; then she resigned herself with infinite grace and took her seat at the window with her work. She had a repugnance to the game, which is really in the beginning very hard and unconquerable to some minds, so that unless it be learned in youth it is almost impossible to take it up in after life.

The night of her first communion, when Ursula came into the salon where her godfather was sitting alone, she put the backgammon-board before him.

“Whose throw shall it be?” she asked.

“Ursula,” said the doctor, “isn’t it a sin to make fun of your godfather the day of your first communion?”

“I am not making fun of you,” she said, sitting down. “I want to give you some pleasure — you who are always on the look-out for mine. When Monsieur Chaperon was pleased with me he gave me a lesson in backgammon, and he has given me so many that now I am quite strong enough to beat you — you shall not deprive yourself any longer for me. I have conquered all difficulties, and now I like the noise of the game.”

Ursula won. The abbe had slipped in to enjoy his triumph. The next day Minoret, who had always refused to let Ursula learn music, sent to Paris for a piano, made arrangements at Fontainebleau for a teacher, and submitted to the annoyance that her constant practicing was to him. One of poor Jordy’s predictions was fulfilled — the girl became an excellent musician. The doctor, proud of her talent, had lately sent to Paris for a master, an old German named Schmucke, a distinguished professor who came once a week; the doctor willingly paying for an art which he had formerly declared to be useless in a household. Unbelievers do not like music — a celestial language, developed by Catholicism, which has taken the names of the seven notes from one of the church hymns; every note being the first syllable of the seven first lines in the hymn to Saint John.

The impression produced on the doctor by Ursula’s first communion though keen was not lasting. The calm and sweet contentment which prayer and the exercise of resolution produced in that young soul had not their due influence upon him. Having no reasons for remorse or repentance himself, he enjoyed a serene peace. Doing his own benefactions without hope of a celestial harvest, he thought himself on a nobler plane than religious men whom he always accused for making, as he called it, terms with God.

“But,” the abbe would say to him, “if all men would be so, you must admit that society would be regenerated; there would be no more misery. To be benevolent after your fashion one must needs be a great philosopher; you rise to your principles through reason, you are a social exception; whereas it suffices to be a Christian to make us benevolent in ours. With you, it is an effort; with us, it comes naturally.”

“In other words, abbe, I think, and you feel — that’s the whole of it.”

However, at twelve years of age, Ursula, whose quickness and natural feminine perceptions were trained by her superior education, and whose intelligence in its dawn was enlightened by a religious spirit (of all spirits the most refined), came to understand that her godfather did not believe in a future life, nor in the immortality of the soul, nor in providence, nor in God. Pressed with questions by the innocent creature, the doctor was unable to hide the fatal secret. Ursula’s artless consternation made him smile, but when he saw her depressed and sad he felt how deep an affection her sadness revealed. Absolute devotion has a horror of every sort of disagreement, even in ideas which it does not share. Sometimes the doctor accepted his darling’s reasonings as he would her kisses, said as they were in the sweetest of voices with the purest and most fervent feeling. Believers and unbelievers speak different languages and cannot understand each other. The young girl pleading God’s cause was unreasonable with the old man, as a spoilt child sometimes maltreats its mother. The abbe rebuked her gently, telling her that God had power to humiliate proud spirits. Ursula replied that David had overcome Goliath.

This religious difference, these complaints of the child who wished to drag her godfather to God, were the only troubles of this happy life, so peaceful, yet so full, and wholly withdrawn from the inquisitive eyes of the little town. Ursula grew and developed, and became in time the modest and religiously trained young woman whom Desire admired as she left the church. The cultivation of flowers in the garden, her music, the pleasures of her godfather, and all the little cares she was able to give him (for she had eased La Bougival’s labors by doing everything for him) — these things filled the hours, the days, the months of her calm life. Nevertheless, for about a year the doctor had felt uneasy about his Ursula, and watched her health with the utmost care. Sagacious and profoundly practical observer that he was, he thought he perceived some commotion in her moral being. He watched her like a mother, but seeing no one about her who was worthy of inspiring love, his uneasiness on the subject at length passed away.

At this conjuncture, one month before the day when this drama begins, the doctor’s intellectual life was invaded by one of those events which plough to the very depths of a man’s convictions and turn them over. But this event needs a succinct narrative of certain circumstances in his medical career, which will give, perhaps, fresh interest to the story.

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