Ursula, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter IX

A First Confidence

Ursula and her godfather were sitting at dessert in the pretty dining-room decorated with Chinese designs in black and gold lacquer (the folly of Levrault–Levrault) when the justice of peace arrived. The doctor offered him (and this was a great mark of intimacy) a cup of his coffee, a mixture of Mocha with Bourbon and Martinique, roasted, ground, and made by himself in a silver apparatus called a Chaptal.

“Well,” said Bongrand, pushing up his glasses and looking slyly at the old man, “the town is in commotion; your appearance in church has put your relatives beside themselves. You have left your fortune to the priests, to the poor. You have roused the families, and they are bestirring themselves. Ha! ha! I saw their first irruption into the square; they were as busy as ants who have lost their eggs.”

“What did I tell you, Ursula?” cried the doctor. “At the risk of grieving you, my child, I must teach you to know the world and put you on your guard against undeserved enmity.”

“I should like to say a word to you on this subject,” said Bongrand, seizing the occasion to speak to his old friend of Ursula’s future.

The doctor put a black velvet cap on his white head, the justice of peace wore his hat to protect him from the night air, and they walked up and down the terrace discussing the means of securing to Ursula what her godfather intended to bequeath her. Bongrand knew Dionis’s opinion as to the invalidity of a will made by the doctor in favor of Ursula; for Nemours was so preoccupied with the Minoret affairs that the matter had been much discussed among the lawyers of the little town. Bongrand considered that Ursula was not a relative of Doctor Minoret, but he felt that the whole spirit of legislation was against the foisting into families of illegitimate off-shoots. The makers of the Code had foreseen only the weakness of fathers and mothers for their natural children, without considering that uncles and aunts might have a like tenderness and a desire to provide for such children. Evidently there was a gap in the law.

“In all other countries,” he said, ending an explanation of the legal points which Dionis, Goupil, and Desire had just explained to the heirs, “Ursula would have nothing to fear; she is a legitimate child, and the disability of her father ought only to affect the inheritance from Valentine Mirouet, her grandfather. But in France the magistracy is unfortunately overwise and very consequential; it inquires into the spirit of the law. Some lawyers talk morality, and might try to show that this hiatus in the Code came from the simple-mindedness of the legislators, who did not foresee the case, though, none the less, they established a principle. To bring a suit would be long and expensive. Zelie would carry it to the court of appeals, and I might not be alive when the case was tried.”

“The best of cases is often worthless,” cried the doctor. “Here’s the question the lawyers will put, ‘To what degree of relationship ought the disability of natural children in matters of inheritance to extend?’ and the credit of a good lawyer will lie in gaining a bad cause.”

“Faith!” said Bongrand, “I dare not take upon myself to affirm that the judges wouldn’t interpret the meaning of the law as increasing the protection given to marriage, the eternal base of society.”

Without explaining his intentions, the doctor rejected the idea of a trust. When Bongrand suggested to him a marriage with Ursula as the surest means of securing his property to her, he exclaimed, “Poor little girl! I might live fifteen years; what a fate for her!”

“Well, what will you do, then?” asked Bongrand.

“We’ll think about it — I’ll see,” said the old man, evidently at a loss for a reply.

Just then Ursula came to say that Monsieur Dionis wished to speak to the doctor.

“Already!” cried Minoret, looking at Bongrand. “Yes,” he said to Ursula, “send him here.”

“I’ll bet my spectacles to a bunch of matches that he is the advance-guard of your heirs,” said Bongrand. “They breakfasted together at the post house, and something is being engineered.”

The notary, conducted by Ursula, came to the lower end of the garden. After the usual greetings and a few insignificant remarks, Dionis asked for a private interview; Ursula and Bongrand retired to the salon.

The distrust which superior men excite in men of business is very remarkable. The latter deny them the “lesser” powers while recognizing their possession of the “higher.” It is, perhaps, a tribute to them. Seeing them always on the higher plane of human things, men of business believe them incapable of descending to the infinitely petty details which (like the dividends of finance and the microscopic facts of science) go to equalize capital and to form the worlds. They are mistaken! The man of honor and of genius sees all. Bongrand, piqued by the doctor’s silence, but impelled by a sense of Ursula’s interests which he thought endangered, resolved to defend her against the heirs. He was wretched at not knowing what was taking place between the old man and Dionis.

“No matter how pure and innocent Ursula may be,” he thought as he looked at her, “there is a point on which young girls do make their own law and their own morality. I’ll test here. The Minoret–Levraults,” he began, settling his spectacles, “might possibly ask you in marriage for their son.”

The poor child turned pale. She was too well trained, and had too much delicacy to listen to what Dionis was saying to her uncle; but after a moment’s inward deliberation, she thought she might show herself, and then, if she was in the way, her godfather would let her know it. The Chinese pagoda which the doctor made his study had outside blinds to the glass doors; Ursula invented the excuse of shutting them. She begged Monsieur Bongrand’s pardon for leaving him alone in the salon, but he smiled at her and said, “Go! go!”

Ursula went down the steps of the portico which led to the pagoda at the foot of the garden. She stood for some minutes slowly arranging the blinds and watching the sunset. The doctor and notary were at the end of the terrace, but as they turned she heard the doctor make an answer which reached the pagoda where she was.

“My heirs would be delighted to see me invest my property in real estate or mortgages; they imagine it would be safer there. I know exactly what they are saying; perhaps you come from them. Let me tell you, my good sir, that my disposition of my property is irrevocably made. My heirs will have the capital I brought here with me; I wish them to know that, and to let me alone. If any one of them attempts to interfere with what I think proper to do for that young girl (pointing to Ursula) I shall come back from the other world and torment him. So, Monsieur Savinien de Portenduere will stay in prison if they count on me to get him out. I shall not sell my property in the Funds.”

Hearing this last fragment of the sentence Ursula experienced the first and only pain which so far had ever touched her. She laid her head against the blind to steady herself.

“Good God, what is the matter with her?” thought the old doctor. “She has no color; such an emotion after dinner might kill her.”

He went to her with open arms, and she fell into them almost fainting.

“Adieu, Monsieur,” he said to the notary, “please leave us.”

He carried his child to an immense Louis XV. sofa which was in his study, looked for a phial of hartshorn among his remedies, and made her inhale it.

“Take my place,” said the doctor to Bongrand, who was terrified; “I must be alone with her.”

The justice of peace accompanied the notary to the gate, asking him, but without showing any eagerness, what was the matter with Ursula.

“I don’t know,” replied Dionis. “She was standing by the pagoda, listening to us, and just as her uncle (so-called) refused to lend some money at my request to young de Portenduere who is in prison for debt — for he has not had, like Monsieur du Rouvre, a Monsieur Bongrand to defend him — she turned pale and staggered. Can she love him? Is there anything between them?”

“At fifteen years of age? pooh!” replied Bongrand.

“She was born in February, 1813; she’ll be sixteen in four months.”

“I don’t believe she ever saw him,” said the judge. “No, it is only a nervous attack.”

“Attack of the heart, more likely,” said the notary.

Dionis was delighted with this discovery, which would prevent the marriage “in extremis” which they dreaded — the only sure means by which the doctor could defraud his relatives. Bongrand, on the other hand, saw a private castle of his own demolished; he had long thought of marrying his son to Ursula.

“If the poor girl loves that youth it will be a misfortune for her,” replied Bongrand after a pause. “Madame de Portenduere is a Breton and infatuated with her noble blood.”

“Luckily — I mean for the honor of the Portendueres,” replied the notary, on the point of betraying himself.

Let us do the faithful and upright Bongrand the justice to say that before he re-entered the salon he had abandoned, not without deep regret for his son, the hope he had cherished of some day calling Ursula his daughter. He meant to give his son six thousand francs a year the day he was appointed substitute, and if the doctor would give Ursula a hundred thousand francs what a pearl of a home the pair would make! His Eugene was so loyal and charming a fellow! Perhaps he had praised his Eugene too often, and that had made the doctor distrustful.

“I shall have to come down to the mayor’s daughter,” he thought. “But Ursula without any money is worth more than Mademoiselle Levrault–Cremiere with a million. However, the thing to be done is to manoeuvre the marriage with this little Portenduere — if she really loves him.”

The doctor, after closing the door to the library and that to the garden, took his goddaughter to the window which opened upon the river.

“What ails you, my child?” he said. “Your life is my life. Without your smiles what would become of me?”

“Savinien in prison!” she said.

With these words a shower of tears fell from her eyes and she began to sob.

“Saved!” thought the doctor, who was holding her pulse with great anxiety. “Alas! she has all the sensitiveness of my poor wife,” he thought, fetching a stethoscope which he put to Ursula’s heart, applying his ear to it. “Ah, that’s all right,” he said to himself. “I did not know, my darling, that you loved any one as yet,” he added, looking at her; “but think out loud to me as you think to yourself; tell me all that has passed between you.”

“I do not love him, godfather; we have never spoken to each other,” she answered, sobbing. “But to hear that he is in prison, and to know that you — harshly — refused to get him out — you, so good!”

“Ursula, my dear little good angel, if you do not love him why did you put that little red dot against Saint Savinien’s day just as you put one before that of Saint Denis? Come, tell me everything about your little love-affair.”

Ursula blushed, swallowed a few tears, and for a moment there was silence between them.

“Surely you are not afraid of your father, your friend, mother, doctor, and godfather, whose heart is now more tender than it ever has been.”

“No, no, dear godfather,” she said. “I will open my heart to you. Last May, Monsieur Savinien came to see his mother. Until then I had never taken notice of him. When he left home to live in Paris I was a child, and I did not see any difference between him and — all of you — except perhaps that I loved you, and never thought of loving any one else. Monsieur Savinien came by the mail-post the night before his mother’s fete-day; but we did not know it. At seven the next morning, after I had said my prayers, I opened the window to air my room and I saw the windows in Monsieur Savinien’s room open; and Monsieur Savinien was there, in a dressing gown, arranging his beard; in all his movements there was such grace — I mean, he seemed to me so charming. He combed his black moustache and the little tuft on his chin, and I saw his white throat — so round! — must I tell you all? I noticed that his throat and face and that beautiful black hair were all so different from yours when I watch you arranging your beard. There came — I don’t know how — a sort of glow into my heart, and up into my throat, my head; it came so violently that I sat down — I couldn’t stand, I trembled so. But I longed to see him again, and presently I got up; he saw me then, and, just for play, he sent me a kiss from the tips of his fingers and —”

“And?”

“And then,” she continued, “I hid myself — I was ashamed, but happy — why should I be ashamed of being happy? That feeling — it dazzled my soul and gave it some power, but I don’t know what — it came again each time I saw within me the same young face. I loved this feeling, violent as it was. Going to mass, some unconquerable power made me look at Monsieur Savinien with his mother on his arm; his walk, his clothes, even the tap of his boots on the pavement, seemed to me so charming. The least little thing about him — his hand with the delicate glove — acted like a spell upon me; and yet I had strength enough not to think of him during mass. When the service was over I stayed in the church to let Madame de Portenduere go first, and then I walked behind him. I couldn’t tell you how these little things excited me. When I reached home, I turned round to fasten the iron gate —”

“Where was La Bougival?” asked the doctor.

“Oh, I let her go to the kitchen,” said Ursula simply. “Then I saw Monsieur Savinien standing quite still and looking at me. Oh! godfather, I was so proud, for I thought I saw a look in his eyes of surprise and admiration — I don’t know what I would not do to make him look at me again like that. It seemed to me I ought to think of nothing forevermore but pleasing him. That glance is now the best reward I have for any good I do. From that moment I have thought of him incessantly, in spite of myself. Monsieur Savinien went back to Paris that evening, and I have not seen him since. The street seems empty; he took my heart away with him — but he does not know it.”

“Is that all?” asked the old man.

“All, dear godfather,” she said, with a sigh of regret that there was not more to tell.

“My little girl,” said the doctor, putting her on his knee; “you are nearly sixteen and your womanhood is beginning. You are now between your blessed childhood, which is ending, and the emotions of love, which will make your life a tumultuous one; for you have a nervous system of exquisite sensibility. What has happened to you, my child, is love,” said the old man with an expression of deepest sadness, —“love in its holy simplicity; love as it ought to be; involuntary, sudden, coming like a thief who takes all — yes, all! I expected it. I have studied women; many need proofs and miracles of affection before love conquers them; but others there are, under the influence of sympathies explainable today by magnetic fluids, who are possessed by it in an instant. To you I can now tell all — as soon as I saw the charming woman whose name you bear, I felt that I should love her forever, solely and faithfully, without knowing whether our characters or persons suited each other. Is there a second-sight in love? What answer can I give to that, I who have seen so many unions formed under celestial auspices only to be ruptured later, giving rise to hatreds that are well-nigh eternal, to repugnances that are unconquerable. The senses sometimes harmonize while ideas are at variance; and some persons live more by their minds than by their bodies. The contrary is also true; often minds agree and persons displease. These phenomena, the varying and secret cause of many sorrows, show the wisdom of laws which give parents supreme power over the marriages of their children; for a young girl is often duped by one or other of these hallucinations. Therefore I do not blame you. The sensations you feel, the rush of sensibility which has come from its hidden source upon your heart and upon your mind, the happiness with which you think of Savinien, are all natural. But, my darling child, society demands, as our good abbe has told us, the sacrifice of many natural inclinations. The destinies of men and women differ. I was able to choose Ursula Mirouet for my wife; I could go to her and say that I loved her; but a young girl is false to herself if she asks the love of the man she loves. A woman has not the right which men have to seek the accomplishment of her hopes in open day. Modesty is to her — above all to you, my Ursula — the insurmountable barrier which protects the secrets of her heart. Your hesitation in confiding to me these first emotions shows me you would suffer cruel torture rather than admit to Savinien —”

“Oh, yes!” she said.

“But, my child, you must do more. You must repress these feelings; you must forget them.”

“Why?”

“Because, my darling, you must love only the man you marry; and, even if Monsieur Savinien de Portenduere loved you —”

“I never thought of it.”

“But listen: even if he loved you, even if his mother asked me to give him your hand, I should not consent to the marriage until I had subjected him to a long and thorough probation. His conduct has been such as to make families distrust him and to put obstacles between himself and heiresses which cannot be easily overcome.”

A soft smile came in place of tears on Ursula’s sweet face as she said, “Then poverty is good sometimes.”

The doctor could find no answer to such innocence.

“What has he done, godfather?” she asked.

“In two years, my treasure, he has incurred one hundred and twenty thousand francs of debt. He has had the folly to get himself locked up in Saint–Pelagie, the debtor’s prison; an impropriety which will always be, in these days, a discredit to him. A spendthrift who is willing to plunge his poor mother into poverty and distress might cause his wife, as your poor father did, to die of despair.”

“Don’t you think he will do better?” she asked.

“If his mother pays his debts he will be penniless, and I don’t know a worse punishment than to be a nobleman without means.”

This answer made Ursula thoughtful; she dried her tears, and said:—

“If you can save him, save him, godfather; that service will give you a right to advise him; you can remonstrate —”

“Yes,” said the doctor, imitating her, “and then he can come here, and the old lady will come here, and we shall see them, and —”

“I was thinking only of him,” said Ursula, blushing.

“Don’t think of him, my child; it would be folly,” said the doctor gravely. “Madame de Portenduere, who was a Kergarouet, would never consent, even if she had to live on three hundred francs a year, to the marriage of her son, the Vicomte Savinien de Portenduere, with whom? — with Ursula Mirouet, daughter of a bandsman in a regiment, without money, and whose father — alas! I must now tell you all — was the bastard son of an organist, my father-inlaw.”

“O godfather! you are right; we are equal only in the sight of God. I will not think of him again — except in my prayers,” she said, amid the sobs which this painful revelation excited. “Give him what you meant to give me — what can a poor girl like me want? — ah, in prison, he! —”

“Offer to God your disappointments, and perhaps he will help us.”

There was silence for some minutes. When Ursula, who at first did not dare to look at her godfather, raised her eyes, her heart was deeply moved to see the tears which were rolling down his withered cheeks. The tears of old men are as terrible as those of children are natural.

“Oh what is it?” cried Ursula, flinging herself at his feet and kissing his hands. “Are you not sure of me?”

“I, who longed to gratify all your wishes, it is I who am obliged to cause the first great sorrow of your life!” he said. “I suffer as much as you. I never wept before, except when I lost my children — and, Ursula — Yes,” he cried suddenly, “I will do all you desire!”

Ursula gave him, through her tears a look that was vivid as lightning. She smiled.

“Let us go into the salon, darling,” said the doctor. “Try to keep the secret of all this to yourself,” he added, leaving her alone for a moment in his study.

He felt himself so weak before that heavenly smile that he feared he might say a word of hope and thus mislead her.

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