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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 12)


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.

CHAPTER VI

A TREATISE ON MESMERISM

Towards the end of the eighteenth century science was sundered as widely by the apparition of Mesmer as art had been by that of Gluck. After re-discovering magnetism Mesmer came to France, where, from time immemorial, inventors have flocked to obtain recognition for their discoveries. France, thanks to her lucid language, is in some sense the clarion of the world.

"If homoeopathy gets to Paris it is saved," said Hahnemann, recently.

"Go to France," said Monsieur de Metternich to Gall, "and if they laugh at your bumps you will be famous."

Mesmer had disciples and antagonists as ardent for and against his theories as the Piccinists and the Gluckists for theirs. Scientific France was stirred to its center; a solemn conclave was opened. Before judgment was rendered, the medical faculty proscribed, in a body, Mesmer's so-called charlatanism, his tub, his conducting wires, and his theory. But let us at once admit that the German, unfortunately, compromised his splendid discovery by enormous pecuniary claims. Mesmer was defeated by the doubtfulness of facts, by universal ignorance of the part played in nature by imponderable fluids then unobserved, and by his own inability to study on all sides a science possessing a triple front. Magnetism has many applications; in Mesmer's hands it was, in its relation to the future, merely what cause is to effect. But, if the discoverer lacked genius, it is a sad thing both for France and for human reason to have to say that a science contemporaneous with civilization, cultivated by Egypt and Chaldea, by Greece and India, met in Paris in the eighteenth century the fate that Truth in the person of Galileo found in the sixteenth; and that magnetism was rejected and cast out by the combined attacks of science and religion, alarmed for their own positions. Magnetism, the favorite science of Jesus Christ and one of the divine powers which he gave to his disciples, was no better apprehended by the Church than by the disciples of Jean-Jacques, Voltaire, Locke, and Condillac. The Encyclopedists and the clergy were equally averse to the old human power which they took to be new. The miracles of the convulsionaries, suppressed by the Church and smothered by the indifference of scientific men (in spite of the precious writings of the Councilor, Carre de Montgeron) were the first summons to make experiments with those human fluids which give power to employ certain inward forces to neutralize the sufferings caused by outward agents. But to do this it was necessary to admit the existence of fluids intangible, invisible, imponderable, three negative terms in which the science of that day chose to see a definition of the void. In modern philosophy there is no void. Ten feet of void and the world crumbles away! To materialists especially the world is full, all things hang together, are linked, related, organized. "The world as the result of chance," said Diderot, "is more explicable than God. The multiplicity of causes, the incalculable number of issues presupposed by chance, explain creation. Take the Eneid and all the letters composing it; if you allow me time and space, I can, by continuing to cast the letters, arrive at last at the Eneid combination."

Those foolish persons who deify all rather than admit a God recoil before the infinite divisibility of matter which is in the nature of imponderable forces. Locke and Condillac retarded by fifty years the immense progress which natural science is now making under the great principle of unity due to Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire. Some intelligent persons, without any system, convinced by facts conscientiously studied, still hold to Mesmer's doctrine, which recognizes the existence of a penetrative influence acting from man to man, put in motion by the will, curative by the abundance of the fluid, the working of which is in fact a duel between two forces, between an ill to be cured and the will to cure it.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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