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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 24)


"Ah! if he did but know his great-nephew is in prison!"

"He would not leave him there a day," said old Minoret, rising.

He held out his hand to take that of the old lady, which she allowed him to do; then he kissed it respectfully, bowed profoundly, and left the room; but returned immediately to say:--

"My dear abbe, may I ask you to engage a place in the diligence for me to-morrow?"

The abbe stayed behind for half an hour to sing the praises of his friend, who meant to win and had succeeded in winning the good graces of the old lady.

"He is an astonishing man for his age," she said. "He talks of going to Paris and attending to my son's affairs as if he were only twenty- five. He has certainly seen good society."

"The very best, madame; and to-day more than one son of a peer of France would be glad to marry his goddaughter with a million. Ah! if that idea should come into Savinien's head!--times are so changed that the objections would not come from your side, especially after his late conduct--"

The amazement into which the speech threw the old lady alone enabled him to finish it.

"You have lost your senses," she said at last.

"Think it over, madame; God grant that your son may conduct himself in future in a manner to win that old man's respect."

"If it were not you, Monsieur l'abbe," said Madame de Portenduere, "if it were any one else who spoke to me in that way--"

"You would not see him again," said the abbe, smiling. "Let us hope that your dear son will enlighten you as to what occurs in Paris in these days as to marriages. You will think only of Savinien's good; as you really have helped to compromise his future you will not stand in the way of his making himself another position."

"And it is you who say that to me?"

"If I did not say it to you, who would?" cried the abbe rising and making a hasty retreat.

As he left the house he saw Ursula and her godfather standing in their courtyard. The weak doctor had been so entreated by Ursula that he had just yielded to her. She wanted to go with him to Paris, and gave a thousand reasons. He called to the abbe and begged him to engage the whole coupe for him that very evening if the booking-office were still open.

The next day at half-past six o'clock the old man and the young girl reached Paris, and the doctor went at once to consult his notary. Political events were then very threatening. Monsieur Bongrand had remarked in the course of the preceding evening that a man must be a fool to keep a penny in the public funds so long as the quarrel between the press and the court was not made up. Minoret's notary now indirectly approved of this opinion. The doctor therefore took advantage of his journey to sell out his manufacturing stocks and his shares in the Funds, all of which were then at a high value, depositing the proceeds in the Bank of France. The notary also advised his client to sell the stocks left to Ursula by Monsieur de Jordy. He promised to employ an extremely clever broker to treat with Savinien's creditors; but said that in order to succeed it would be necessary for the young man to stay several days longer in prison.

"Haste in such matters always means the loss of at least fifteen per cent," said the notary. "Besides, you can't get your money under seven or eight days."

When Ursula heard that Savinien would have to say at least a week longer in jail she begged her godfather to let her go there, if only once. Old Minoret refused. The uncle and niece were staying at a hotel in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs where the doctor had taken a very suitable apartment. Knowing the scrupulous honor and propriety of his goddaughter he made her promise not to go out while he was away; at other times he took her to see the arcades, the shops, the boulevards; but nothing seemed to amuse or interest her.

"What do you want to do?" asked the old man.

"See Saint-Pelagie," she answered obstinately.

Minoret called a hackney-coach and took her to the Rue de la Clef, where the carriage drew up before the shabby front of an old convent then transformed into a prison. The sight of those high gray walls, with every window barred, of the wicket through which none can enter without stooping (horrible lesson!), of the whole gloomy structure in a quarter full of wretchedness, where it rises amid squalid streets like a supreme misery,--this assemblage of dismal things so oppressed Ursula's heart that she burst into tears.

"Oh!" she said, "to imprison young men in this dreadful place for money! How can a debt to a money-lender have a power the king has not? HE there!" she cried. "Where, godfather?" she added, looking from window to window.

"Ursula," said the old man, "you are making me commit great follies. This is not forgetting him as you promised."

"But," she argued, "if I must renounce him must I also cease to feel an interest in him? I can love him and not marry at all."

"Ah!" cried the doctor, "there is so much reason in your unreasonableness that I am sorry I brought you."

Three days later the worthy man had all the receipts signed, and the legal papers ready for Savinien's release. The payings, including the notaries' fees, amounted to eighty thousand francs. The doctor went himself to see Savinien released on Saturday at two o'clock. The young viscount, already informed of what had happened by his mother, thanked his liberator with sincere warmth of heart.

"You must return at once to see your mother," the old doctor said to him.

Savinien answered in a sort of confusion that he had contracted certain debts of honor while in prison, and related the visit of his friends.

"I suspected there was some personal debt," cried the doctor, smiling. "Your mother borrowed a hundred thousand francs of me, but I have paid out only eighty thousand. Here is the rest; be careful how you spend it, monsieur; consider what you have left of it as your stake on the green cloth of fortune."

During the last eight days Savinien had made many reflections on the present conditions of life. Competition in everything necessitated hard work on the part of whoever sought a fortune. Illegal methods and underhand dealing demanded more talent than open efforts in face of day. Success in society, far from giving a man position, wasted his time and required an immense deal of money. The name of Portenduere, which his mother considered all-powerful, had no power at all in Paris. His cousin the deputy, Comte de Portenduere, cut a very poor figure in the Elective Chamber in presence of the peerage and the court; and had none too much credit personally. Admiral Kergarouet existed only as the husband of his wife. Savinien admitted to himself that he had seen orators, men from the middle classes, or lesser noblemen, become influential personages. Money was the pivot, the sole means, the only mechanism of a society which Louis XVIII. had tried to create in the likeness of that of England.

On his way from the Rue de la Clef to the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs the young gentleman divulged the upshot of these meditations (which were certainly in keeping with de Marsay's advice) to the old doctor.

"I ought," he said, "to go into oblivion for three or four years and seek a career. Perhaps I could make myself a name by writing a book on statesmanship or morals, or a treatise on some of the great questions of the day. While I am looking out for a marriage with some young lady who could make me eligible to the Chamber, I will work hard in silence and in obscurity."

Studying the young fellow's face with a keen eye, the doctor saw the serious purpose of a wounded man who was anxious to vindicate himself. He therefore cordially approved of the scheme.

"My friend," he said, "if you strip off the skin of the old nobility (which is no longer worn these days) I will undertake, after you have lived for three or four years in a steady and industrious manner, to find you a superior young girl, beautiful, amiable, pious, and possessing from seven to eight hundred thousand francs, who will make you happy and of whom you will have every reason to be proud,--one whose only nobility is that of the heart!"

"Ah, doctor!" cried the young man, "there is no longer a nobility in these days,--nothing but an aristocracy."

"Go and pay your debts of honor and come back here. I shall engage the coupe of the diligence, for my niece is with me," said the old man.

That evening, at six o'clock, the three travelers started from the Rue Dauphine. Ursula had put on a veil and did not say a word. Savinien, who once, in a moment of superficial gallantry, had sent her that kiss which invaded and conquered her soul like a love-poem, had completely forgotten the young girl in the hell of his Parisian debts; moreover, his hopeless love for Emilie de Kergarouet hindered him from bestowing a thought on a few glances exchanged with a little country girl. He did not recognize her when the doctor handed her into the coach and then sat down beside her to separate her from the young viscount.

"I have some bills to give you," said the doctor to the young man. "I have brought all your papers and documents."

"I came very near not getting off," said Savinien, "for I had to order linen and clothes; the Philistines took all; I return like a true prodigal."

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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