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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 10)


"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-in-law used to say he served to blanket many horses."

"Your father-in-law 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.

CHAPTER V

URSULA

The father-in-law 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-in- law, 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-in-law; 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.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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