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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 19)


"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.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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