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
"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
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
"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
"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."