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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 2)


Three distinct volleys of cracking whips rent the air like a discharge of musketry; the red waistcoats of the postilions dawned in sight, ten horses neighed. The master pulled off his cap and waved it; he was seen. The best mounted postilion, who was returning with two gray carriage-horses, set spurs to his beast and came on in advance of the five diligence horses and the three other carriage-horses, and soon reached his master.

"Have you seen the 'Ducler'?"

On the great mail routes names, often fantastic, are given to the different coaches; such, for instance, as the "Caillard," the "Ducler" (the coach between Nemours and Paris), the "Grand Bureau." Every new enterprise is called the "Competition." In the days of the Lecompte company their coaches were called the "Countess."--"'Caillard' could not overtake the 'Countess'; but 'Grand Bureau' caught up with her finely," you will hear the men say. If you see a postilion pressing his horses and refusing a glass of wine, question the conductor and he will tell you, snuffing the air while his eye gazes far into space, "The 'Competition' is ahead."--"We can't get in sight of her," cries the postilion; "the vixen! she wouldn't stop to let her passengers dine."--"The question is, has she got any?" responds the conductor. "Give it to Polignac!" All lazy and bad horses are called Polignac. Such are the jokes and the basis of conversation between postilions and conductors on the roofs of the coaches. Each profession, each calling in France has its slang.

"Have you seen the 'Ducler'?" asked Minoret.

"Monsieur Desire?" said the postilion, interrupting his master. "Hay! you must have heard us, didn't our whips tell you? we felt you were somewhere along the road."

Just then a woman dressed in her Sunday clothes,--for the bells were pealing from the clock tower and calling the inhabitants to mass,--a woman about thirty-six years of age came up to the post master.

"Well, cousin," she said, "you wouldn't believe me-- Uncle is with Ursula in the Grand'Rue, and they are going to mass."

In spite of the modern poetic canons as to local color, it is quite impossible to push realism so far as to repeat the horrible blasphemy mingled with oaths which this news, apparently so unexciting, brought from the huge mouth of Minoret-Levrault; his shrill voice grew sibilant, and his face took on the appearance of what people oddly enough call a sunstroke.

"Is that true?" he asked, after the first explosion of his wrath was over.

The postilions bowed to their master as they and their horses passed him, but he seemed to neither see nor hear them. Instead of waiting for his son, Minoret-Levrault hurried up to the Grand'Rue with his cousin.

"Didn't I always tell you so?" she resumed. "When Doctor Minoret goes out of his head that demure little hypocrite will drag him into religion; whoever lays hold of the mind gets hold of the purse, and she'll have our inheritance."

"But, Madame Massin--" said the post master, dumbfounded.

"There now!" exclaimed Madame Massin, interrupting her cousin. "You are going to say, just as Massin does, that a little girl of fifteen can't invent such plans and carry them out, or make an old man of eighty-three, who has never set foot in a church except to be married, change his opinions,--now don't tell me he has such a horror of priests that he wouldn't even go with the girl to the parish church when she made her first communion. I'd like to know why, if Doctor Minoret hates priests, he has spent nearly every evening for the last fifteen years of his life with the Abbe Chaperon. The old hypocrite never fails to give Ursula twenty francs for wax tapers every time she takes the sacrament. Have you forgotten the gift Ursula made to the church in gratitude to the cure for preparing her for her first communion? She spent all her money on it, and her godfather returned it to her doubled. You men! you don't pay attention to things. When I heard that, I said to myself, 'Farewell baskets, the vintage is done!' A rich uncle doesn't behave that way to a little brat picked up in the streets without some good reason."

"Pooh, cousin; I dare say the good man is only taking her to the door of the church," replied the post master. "It is a fine day, and he is out for a walk."

"I tell you he is holding a prayer-book, and looks sanctimonious-- you'll see him."

"They hide their game pretty well," said Minoret, "La Bougival told me there was never any talk of religion between the doctor and the abbe. Besides, the abbe is one of the most honest men on the face of the globe; he'd give the shirt off his back to a poor man; he is incapable of a base action, and to cheat a family out of their inheritance is--"

"Theft," said Madame Massin.

"Worse!" cried Minoret-Levrault, exasperated by the tongue of his gossiping neighbour.

"Of course I know," said Madame Massin, "that the Abbe Chaperon is an honest man; but he is capable of anything for the sake of his poor. He must have mined and undermined uncle, and the old man has just tumbled into piety. We did nothing, and here he is perverted! A man who never believed in anything, and had principles of his own! Well! we're done for. My husband is absolutely beside himself."

Madame Massin, whose sentences were so many arrows stinging her fat cousin, made him walk as fast as herself, in spite of his obesity and to the great astonishment of the church-goers, who were on their way to mass. She was determined to overtake this uncle and show him to the post master.

Nemours is commanded on the Gatinais side by a hill, at the foot of which runs the road to Montargis and the Loing. The church, on the stones of which time has cast a rich discolored mantle (it was rebuilt in the fourteenth century by the Guises, for whom Nemours was raised to a peerage-duchy), stands at the end of the little town close to a great arch which frames it. For buildings, as for men, position does everything. Shaded by a few trees, and thrown into relief by a neatly kept square, this solitary church produces a really grandiose effect. As the post master of Nemours entered the open space, he beheld his uncle with the young girl called Ursula on his arm, both carrying prayer-books and just entering the church. The old man took off his hat in the porch, and his head, which was white as a hill-top covered with snow, shone among the shadows of the portal.

"Well, Minoret, what do you say to the conversion of your uncle?" cried the tax-collector of Nemours, named Cremiere.

"What do you expect me to say?" replied the post master, offering him a pinch of snuff.

"Well answered, Pere Levrault. You can't say what you think, if it is true, as an illustrious author says it is, that a man must think his words before he speaks his thoughts," cried a young man, standing near, who played the part of Mephistopheles in the little town.

This ill-conditioned youth, named Goupil, was head clerk to Monsieur Cremiere-Dionis, the Nemours notary. Notwithstanding a past conduct that was almost debauched, Dionis had taken Goupil into his office when a career in Paris--where the clerk had wasted all the money he inherited from his father, a well-to-do farmer, who educated him for a notary--was brought to a close by his absolute pauperism. The mere sight of Goupil told an observer that he had made haste to enjoy life, and had paid dear for his enjoyments. Though very short, his chest and shoulders were developed at twenty-seven years of age like those of a man of forty. Legs small and weak, and a broad face, with a cloudy complexion like the sky before a storm, surmounted by a bald forehead, brought out still further the oddity of his conformation. His face seemed as though it belonged to a hunchback whose hunch was inside of him. One singularity of that pale and sour visage confirmed the impression of an invisible gobbosity; the nose, crooked and out of shape like those of many deformed persons, turned from right to left of the face instead of dividing it down the middle. The mouth, contracted at the corners, like that of a Sardinian, was always on the qui vive of irony. His hair, thin and reddish, fell straight, and showed the skull in many places. His hands, coarse and ill-joined at the wrists to arms that were far too long, were quick-fingered and seldom clean. Goupil wore boots only fit for the dust-heap, and raw silk stockings now of a russet black; his coat and trousers, all black, and threadbare and greasy with dirt, his pitiful waistcoat with half the button-moulds gone, an old silk handkerchief which served as a cravat--in short, all his clothing revealed the cynical poverty to which his passions had reduced him. This combination of disreputable signs was guarded by a pair of eyes with yellow circles round the pupils, like those of a goat, both lascivious and cowardly. No one in Nemours was more feared nor, in a way, more deferred to than Goupil. Strong in the claims made for him by his very ugliness, he had the odious style of wit peculiar to men who allow themselves all license, and he used it to gratify the bitterness of his life-long envy. He wrote the satirical couplets sung during the carnival, organized charivaris, and was himself a "little journal" of the gossip of the town. Dionis, who was clever and insincere, and for that reason timid, kept Goupil as much through fear as for his keen mind and thorough knowledge of all the interests of the town. But the master so distrusted his clerk that he himself kept the accounts, refused to let him live in his house, held him at arm's length, and never confided any secret or delicate affair to his keeping. In return the clerk fawned upon the notary, hiding his resentment at this conduct, and watching Madame Dionis in the hope that he might get his revenge there. Gifted with a ready mind and quick comprehension he found work easy.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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