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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 17)


CHAPTER VIII

THE CONFERENCE

While Ursula was playing variations on Weber's "Last Thought" to her godfather, a plot was hatching in the Minoret-Levraults' dining-room which was destined to have a lasting effect on the events of this drama. The breakfast, noisy as all provincial breakfasts are, and enlivened by excellent wines brought to Nemours by the canal either from Burgundy or Touraine, lasted more than two hours. Zelie had sent for oysters, salt-water fish, and other gastronomical delicacies to do honor to Desire's return. The dining-room, in the center of which a round table offered a most appetizing sight, was like the hall of an inn. Content with the size of her kitchens and offices, Zelie had built a pavilion for the family between the vast courtyard and a garden planted with vegetables and full of fruit-trees. Everything about the premises was solid and plain. The example of Levrault- Levrault had been a warning to the town. Zelie forbade her builder to lead her into such follies. The dining-room was, therefore, hung with varnished paper and furnished with walnut chairs and sideboards, a porcelain stove, a tall clock, and a barometer. Though the plates and dishes were of common white china, the table shone with handsome linen and abundant silverware. After Zelie had served the coffee, coming and going herself like shot in a decanter,--for she kept but one servant, --and when Desire, the budding lawyer, had been told of the event of the morning and its probably consequences, the door was closed, and the notary Dionis was called upon to speak. By the silence in the room and the looks that were cast on that authoritative face, it was easy to see the power that such men exercise over families.

"My dear children," said he, "your uncle having been born in 1746, is eighty-three years old at the present time; now, old men are given to folly, and that little--"

"Viper!" cried Madame Massin.

"Hussy!" said Zelie.

"Let us call her by her own name," said Dionis.

"Well, she's a thief," said Madame Cremiere.

"A pretty thief," remarked Desire.

"That little Ursula," went on Dionis, "has managed to get hold of his heart. I have been thinking of your interests, and I did not wait until now before making certain inquiries; now this is what I have discovered about that young--"

"Marauder," said the collector.

"Inveigler," said the clerk of the court.

"Hold your tongue, friends," said the notary, "or I'll take my hat and be off."

"Come, come, papa," cried Minoret, pouring out a little glass of rum and offering it to the notary; "here, drink this, it comes from Rome itself; and now go on."

"Ursula is, it is true, the legitimate daughter of Joseph Mirouet; but her father was the natural son of Valentin Mirouet, your uncle's father-in-law. Being therefore an illegitimate niece, any will the doctor might make in her favor could probably be contested; and if he leaves her his fortune in that way you could bring a suit against Ursula. This, however, might turn out ill for you, in case the court took the view that there was no relationship between Ursula and the doctor. Still, the suit would frighten an unprotected girl, and bring about a compromise--"

"The law is so rigid as to the rights of natural children," said the newly fledged licentiate, eager to parade his knowledge, "that by the judgment of the court of appeals dated July 7, 1817, a natural child can claim nothing from his natural grandfather, not even a maintenance. So you see the illegitimate parentage is made retrospective. The law pursues the natural child even to its legitimate descent, on the ground that benefactions done to grandchildren reach the natural son through that medium. This is shown by articles 757, 908, and 911 of the civil Code. The royal court of Paris, by a decision of the 26th of January of last year, cut off a legacy made to the legitimate child of a natural son by his grandfather, who, as grandfather, was as distant to a natural grandson as the doctor, being an uncle, is to Ursula."

"All that," said Goupil, "seems to me to relate only to the bequests made by grandfathers to natural descendants. Ursula is not a blood relation of Doctor Minoret. I remember a decision of the royal court at Colmar, rendered in 1825, just before I took my degree, which declared that after the decease of a natural child his descendants could no longer be prohibited from inheriting. Now, Ursula's father is dead."

Goupil's argument produced what journalists who report the sittings of legislative assemblies are wont to call "profound sensation."

"What does that signify?" cried Dionis. "The actual case of the bequest of an uncle to an illegitimate child may not yet have been presented for trial; but when it is, the sternness of French law against such children will be all the more firmly applied because we live in times when religion is honored. I'll answer for it that out of such a suit as I propose you could get a compromise,--especially if they see you are determined to carry Ursula to a court of appeals."

Here the joy of the heirs already fingering their gold was made manifest in smiles, shrugs, and gestures round the table, and prevented all notice of Goupil's dissent. This elation, however, was succeeded by deep silence and uneasiness when the notary uttered his next word, a terrible "But!"

As if he had pulled the string of a puppet-show, starting the little people in jerks by means of machinery, Dionis beheld all eyes turned on him and all faces rigid in one and the same pose.

"BUT no law prevents your uncle from adopting or marrying Ursula," he continued. "As for adoption, that could be contested, and you would, I think, have equity on your side. The royal courts would never trifle with questions of adoptions; you would get a hearing there. It is true the doctor is an officer of the Legion of honor, and was formerly surgeon to the ex-emperor; but, nevertheless, he would get the worst of it. Moreover, you would have due warning in case of adoption--but how about marriage? Old Minoret is shrewd enough to go to Paris and marry her after a year's domicile, and give her a million by the marriage contract. The only thing, therefore, that really puts your property in danger is your uncle's marriage with the girl."

Here the notary paused.

"There's another danger," said Goupil, with a knowing air,--"that of a will made in favor of a third person, old Bongrand for instance, who will hold the property in trust for Mademoiselle Ursula--"

"If you tease your uncle," continued Dionis, cutting short his head- clerk, "if you are not all of you very polite to Ursula, you will drive him into either a marriage or into making that private trust which Goupil speaks of,--though I don't think him capable of that; it is a dangerous thing. As for marriage, that is easy to prevent. Desire there has only got to hold out a finger to the girl; she's sure to prefer a handsome young man, cock of the walk in Nemours, to an old one."

"Mother," said Desire to Zelie's ear, as much allured by the millions as by Ursula's beauty, "If I married her we should get the whole property."

"Are you crazy?--you, who'll some day have fifty thousand francs a year and be made a deputy! As long as I live you never shall cut your throat by a foolish marriage. Seven hundred thousand francs, indeed! Why, the mayor's only daughter will have fifty thousand a year, and they have already proposed her to me--"

This reply, the first rough speech his mother had ever made to him, extinguished in Desire's breast all desire for a marriage with the beautiful Ursula; for his father and he never got the better of any decision once written in the terrible blue eyes of Zelie Minoret.

"Yes, but see here, Monsieur Dionis," cried Cremiere, whose wife had been nudging him, "if the good man took the thing seriously and married his goddaughter to Desire, giving her the reversion of all the property, good-by to our share in it; if he lives five years longer uncle may be worth a million."

"Never!" cried Zelie, "never in my life shall Desire marry the daughter of a bastard, a girl picked up in the streets out of charity. My son will represent the Minorets after the death of his uncle, and the Minorets have five hundred years of good bourgeoisie behind them. That's equal to the nobility. Don't be uneasy, any of you; Desire will marry when we find a chance to put him in the Chamber of deputies."

This lofty declaration was backed by Goupil, who said:--

"Desire, with an allowance of twenty-four thousand francs a year, will be president of a royal court or solicitor-general; either office leads to the peerage. A foolish marriage would ruin him."

The heirs were now all talking at once; but they suddenly held their tongues when Minoret rapped on the table with his fist to keep silence for the notary.

"Your uncle is a worthy man," continued Dionis. "He believes he's immortal; and, like most clever men, he'll let death overtake him before he has made a will. My advice therefore is to induce him to invest his capital in a way that will make it difficult for him to disinherit you, and I know of an opportunity, made to hand. That little Portenduere is in Saint-Pelagie, locked-up for one hundred and some odd thousand francs' worth of debt. His old mother knows he is in prison; she is crying like a Magdalen. The abbe is to dine with her; no doubt she wants to talk to him about her troubles. Well, I'll go and see your uncle to-night and persuade him to sell his five per cent consols, which are now at 118, and lend Madame de Portenduere, on the security of her farm at Bordieres and her house here, enough to pay the debts of the prodigal son. I have a right as notary to speak to him in behalf of young Portenduere; and it is quite natural that I should wish to make him change his investments; I get deeds and commissions out of the business. If I become his adviser I'll propose to him other land investments for his surplus capital; I have some excellent ones now in my office. If his fortune were once invested in landed estate or in mortgage notes in this neighbourhood, it could not take wings to itself very easily. It is easy to make difficulties between the wish to realize and the realization."

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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