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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 25)


However interesting were the subjects of conversation between the young man and the old one, and however witty and clever were certain remarks of the viscount, the young girl continued silent till after dusk, her green veil lowered, and her hands crossed on her shawl.

"Mademoiselle does not seem to have enjoyed Paris very much," said Savinien at last, somewhat piqued.

"I am glad to return to Nemours," she answered in a trembling voice raising her veil.

Notwithstanding the dim light Savinien then recognized her by the heavy braids of her hair and the brilliancy of her blue eyes.

"I, too, leave Paris to bury myself in Nemours without regret now that I meet my charming neighbour again," he said; "I hope, Monsieur le docteur that you will receive me in your house; I love music, and I remember to have listened to Mademoiselle Ursula's piano."

"I do not know," replied the doctor gravely, "whether your mother would approve of your visits to an old man whose duty it is to care for this dear child with all the solicitude of a mother."

This reserved answer made Savinien reflect, and he then remembered the kisses so thoughtlessly wafted. Night came; the heat was great. Savinien and the doctor went to sleep first. Ursula, whose head was full of projects, did not succumb till midnight. She had taken off her straw-bonnet, and her head, covered with a little embroidered cap, dropped upon her uncle's shoulder. When they reached Bouron at dawn, Savinien awoke. He then saw Ursula in the slight disarray naturally caused by the jolting of the vehicle; her cap was rumpled and half off; the hair, unbound, had fallen each side of her face, which glowed from the heat of the night; in this situation, dreadful for women to whom dress is a necessary auxiliary, youth and beauty triumphed. The sleep of innocence is always lovely. The half-opened lips showed the pretty teeth; the shawl, unfastened, gave to view, beneath the folds of her muslin gown and without offence to her modesty, the gracefulness of her figure. The purity of the virgin spirit shone on the sleeping countenance all the more plainly because no other expression was there to interfere with it. Old Minoret, who presently woke up, placed his child's head in the corner of the carriage that she might be more at ease; and she let him do it unconsciously, so deep was her sleep after the many wakeful nights she had spent in thinking of Savinien's trouble.

"Poor little girl!" said the doctor to his neighbour, "she sleeps like the child she is."

"You must be proud of her," replied Savinien; "for she seems as good as she is beautiful."

"Ah! she is the joy of the house. I could not love her better if she were my own daughter. She will be sixteen on the 5th February. God grant that I may live long enough to marry her to a man who will make her happy. I wanted to take her to the theater in Paris, where she was for the first time, but she refused, the Abbe Chaperon had forbidden it. 'But,' I said, 'when you are married your husband will want you to go there.' 'I shall do what my husband wants,' she answered. 'If he asks me to do evil and I am weak enough to yield, he will be responsible before God--and so I shall have strength to refuse him, for his own sake.'"

As the coach entered Nemours, at five in the morning, Ursula woke up, ashamed at her rumpled condition, and confused by the look of admiration which she encountered from Savinien. During the hour it had taken the diligence to come from Bouron to Nemours the young man had fallen in love with Ursula; he had studied the pure candor of her soul, the beauty of that body, the whiteness of the skin, the delicacy of the features; he recalled the charm of the voice which had uttered but one expressive sentence, in which the poor child said all, intending to say nothing. A presentiment suddenly seemed to take hold of him; he saw in Ursula the woman the doctor had pictured to him, framed in gold by the magic words, "Seven or eight hundred thousand francs."

"In three of four years she will be twenty, and I shall be twenty- seven," he thought. "The good doctor talked of probation, work, good conduct! Sly as he is I shall make him tell me the truth."

The three neighbours parted in the street in front of their respective homes, and Savinien put a little courting into his eyes as he gave Ursula a parting glance.

Madame de Portenduere let her son sleep till midday; but the doctor and Ursula, in spite of their fatiguing journey, went to high mass. Savinien's release and his return in company with the doctor had explained the reason of the latter's absence to the newsmongers of the town and to the heirs, who were once more assembled in conventicle on the square, just as they were two weeks earlier when the doctor attended his first mass. To the great astonishment of all the groups, Madame de Portenduere, on leaving the church, stopped old Minoret, who offered her his arm and took her home. The old lady asked him to dinner that evening, also asking his niece and assuring him that the abbe would be the only other guest.

"He must have wished Ursula to see Paris," said Minoret-Levrault.

"Pest!" cried Cremiere; "he can't take a step without that girl!"

"Something must have happened to make old Portenduere accept his arm," said Massin.

"So none of you have guessed that your uncle has sold his Funds and released that little Savinien?" cried Goupil. "He refused Dionis, but he didn't refuse Madame de Portenduere-- Ha, ha! you are all done for. The viscount will propose a marriage-contract instead of a mortgage, and the doctor will make the husband settle on his jewel of a girl the sum he has now paid to secure the alliance."

"It is not a bad thing to marry Ursula to Savinien," said the butcher. "The old lady gives a dinner to-day to Monsieur Minoret. Tiennette came early for a filet."

"Well, Dionis, here's a fine to-do!" said Massin, rushing up to the notary, who was entering the square.

"What is? It's all going right," returned the notary. "Your uncle has sold his Funds and Madame de Portenduere has sent for me to witness the signing of a mortgage on her property for one hundred thousand francs, lent to her by your uncle."

"Yes, but suppose the young people should marry?"

"That's as if you said Goupil was to be my successor."

"The two things are not so impossible," said Goupil.

On returning from mass Madame de Portenduere told Tiennette to inform her son that she wished to see him.

The little house had three bedrooms on the first floor. That of Madame de Portenduere and that of her late husband were separated by a large dressing-room lighted by a skylight, and connected by a little antechamber which opened on the staircase. The window of the other room, occupied by Savinien, looked, like that of his late father, on the street. The staircase went up at the back of the house, leaving room for a little study lighted by a small round window opening on the court. Madame de Portenduere's bedroom, the gloomiest in the house, also looked into the court; but the widow spent all her time in the salon on the ground floor, which communicated by a passage with the kitchen built at the end of the court, so that this salon was made to answer the double purpose of drawing-room and dining-room combined.

The bedroom of the late Monsieur de Portenduere remained as he had left it on the day of his death; there was no change except that he was absent. Madame de Portenduere had made the bed herself; laying upon it the uniform of a naval captain, his sword, cordon, orders, and hat. The gold snuff-box from which her late husband had taken snuff for the last time was on the table, with his prayer-book, his watch, and the cup from which he drank. His white hair, arranged in one curled lock and framed, hung above a crucifix and the holy water in the alcove. All the little ornaments he had worn, his journals, his furniture, his Dutch spittoon, his spy-glass hanging by the mantel, were all there. The widow had stopped the hands of the clock at the hour of his death, to which they always pointed. The room still smelt of the powder and the tobacco of the deceased. The hearth was as he left it. To her, entering there, he was again visible in the many articles which told of his daily habits. His tall cane with its gold head was where he had last placed it, with his buckskin gloves close by. On a table against the wall stood a gold vase, of coarse workmanship but worth three thousand francs, a gift from Havana, which city, at the time of the American War of Independence, he had protected from an attack by the British, bringing his convoy safe into port after an engagement with superior forces. To recompense this service the King of Spain had made him a knight of his order; the same event gave him a right to the next promotion to the rank of vice- admiral, and he also received the red ribbing. He then married his wife, who had a fortune of about two hundred thousand francs. But the Revolution hindered his promotion, and Monsieur de Portenduere emigrated.

"Where is my mother?" said Savinien to Tiennette.

"She is waiting for you in your father's room," said the old Breton woman.

Savinien could not repress a shudder. He knew his mother's rigid principles, her worship of honor, her loyalty, her faith in nobility, and he foresaw a scene. He went up to the assault with his heart beating and his face rather pale. In the dim light which filtered through the blinds he saw his mother dressed in black, and with an air of solemnity in keeping with that funereal room.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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