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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 34)


At daybreak Ursula bade adieu to the house where her happy youth was passed; more particularly, to the modest chamber in which her love began. So dear to her was it that even in this hour of darkest grief tears of regret rolled down her face for the dear and peaceful haven. With one last glance at Savinien's windows she left the room and the house, and went to the inn accompanied by La Bougival, who carried the package, by Monsieur Bongrand, who gave her his arm, and by Savinien, her true protector.

Thus it happened that in spite of all his efforts and cautions the worst fears of the justice of peace were realized; he was now to see Ursula without means and at the mercy of her benefactor's heirs.

The next afternoon the whole town attended the doctor's funeral. When the conduct of the heirs to his adopted daughter was publicly known, a vast majority of the people thought it natural and necessary. An inheritance was involved; the good man was known to have hoarded; Ursula might think she had rights; the heirs were only defending their property; she had humbled them enough during their uncle's lifetime, for he had treated them like dogs and sent them about their business.

Desire Minoret, who was not going to do wonders in life (so said those who envied his father), came down for the funeral. Ursula was unable to be present, for she was in bed with a nervous fever, caused partly by the insults of the heirs and partly by her heavy affliction.

"Look at that hypocrite weeping," said some of the heirs, pointing to Savinien, who was deeply affected by the doctor's death.

"The question is," said Goupil, "has he any good grounds for weeping. Don't laugh too soon, my friends; the seals are not yet removed."

"Pooh!" said Minoret, who had good reason to know the truth, "you are always frightening us about nothing."

As the funeral procession left the church to proceed to the cemetery, a bitter mortification was inflicted on Goupil; he tried to take Desire's arm, but the latter withdrew it and turned away from his former comrade in presence of all Nemours.

"I won't be angry, or I couldn't get revenge," thought the notary's clerk, whose dry heart swelled in his bosom like a sponge.

Before breaking the seals and making the inventory, it took some time for the procureur du roi, who is the legal guardian of orphans, to commission Monsieur Bongrand to act in his place. After that was done the settlement of the Minoret inheritance (nothing else being talked of in the town for ten days) began with all the legal formalities. Dionis had his pickings; Goupil enjoyed some mischief-making; and as the business was profitable the sessions were many. After the first of these sessions all parties breakfasted together; notary, clerk, heirs, and witnesses drank the best wines in the doctor's cellar.

In the provinces, and especially in little towns where every one lives in his own house, it is sometimes very difficult to find a lodging. When a man buys a business of any kind the dwelling-house is almost always included in the purchase. Monsieur Bongrand saw no other way of removing Ursula from the village inn than to buy a small house on the Grand'Rue at the corner of the bridge over the Loing. The little building had a front door opening on a corridor, and one room on the ground-floor with two windows on the street; behind this came the kitchen, with a glass door opening to an inner courtyard about thirty feet square. A small staircase, lighted on the side towards the river by small windows, led to the first floor where there were three chambers, and above these were two attic rooms. Monsieur Bongrand borrowed two thousand francs from La Bougival's savings to pay the first instalment of the price,--six thousand francs,--and obtained good terms for payment of the rest. As Ursula wished to buy her uncle's books, Bongrand knocked down the partition between two rooms on the bedroom floor, finding that their united length was the same as that of the doctor's library, and gave room for his bookshelves.

Savinien and Bongrand urged on the workmen who were cleaning, painting, and otherwise renewing the tiny place, so that before the end of March Ursula was able to leave the inn and take up her abode in the ugly house; where, however, she found a bedroom exactly like the one she had left; for it was filled with all her furniture, claimed by the justice of peace when the seals were removed. La Bougival, sleeping in the attic, could be summoned by a bell placed near the head of the young girl's bed. The room intended for the books, the salon on the ground-floor and the kitchen, though still unfurnished, had been hung with fresh papers and repainted, and only awaited the purchases which the young girl hoped to make when her godfather's effects were sold.

Though the strength of Ursula's character was well known to the abbe and Monsieur Bongrand, they both feared the sudden change from the comfort and elegancies to which her uncle had accustomed her to this barren and denuded life. As for Savinien he wept over it. He did, in fact, make private payments to the workman and to the upholsterer, so that Ursula should perceive no difference between the new chamber and the old one. But the young girl herself, whose happiness now lay in Savinien's own eyes, showed the gentlest resignation, which endeared her more and more to her two old friends, and proved to them for the hundredth time that no troubles but those of the heart could make her suffer. The grief she felt for the loss of her godfather was far too deep to let her even feel the bitterness of her change of fortune, though it added fresh obstacles to her marriage. Savinien's distress in seeing her thus reduced did her so much harm that she whispered to him, as they came from mass on the morning on the day when she first went to live in her new house:

"Love could not exist without patience; let us wait."

As soon as the form of the inventory was drawn up, Massin, advised by Goupil (who turned to him under the influence of his secret hatred to the post master), summoned Monsieur and Madame de Portenduere to pay off the mortgage which had now elapsed, together with the interest accruing thereon. The old lady was bewildered at a summons to pay one hundred and twenty-nine thousand five hundred and seventeen francs within twenty-four hours under pain of execution on her house. It was impossible for her to borrow the money. Savinien went to Fontainebleau to consult a lawyer.

"You are dealing with a bad set of people who will not compromise," was the lawyer's opinion. "They intend to sue in the matter and get your farm at Bordieres. The best way for you would be to make a voluntary sale of it and so escape costs."

This dreadful news broke down the old lady. Her son very gently pointed out to her that had she consented to his marriage in Minoret's life-time, the doctor would have left his property to Ursula's husband and they would to-day have been opulent instead of being, as they now were, in the depths of poverty. Though said without reproach, this argument annihilated the poor woman even more than the thought of her coming ejectment. When Ursula heard of this catastrophe she was stupefied with grief, having scarcely recovered from her fever, and the blow which the heirs had already dealt her. To love and be unable to succor the man she loves,--that is one of the most dreadful of all sufferings to the soul of a noble and sensitive woman.

"I wished to buy my uncle's house," she said, "now I will buy your mother's."

"Can you?" said Savinien. "You are a minor, and you cannot sell out your Funds without formalities to which the procureur du roi, now your legal guardian, would not agree. We shall not resist. The whole town will be glad to see the discomfiture of a noble family. These bourgeois are like hounds after a quarry. Fortunately, I still have ten thousand francs left, on which I can support my mother till this deplorable matter is settled. Besides, the inventory of your godfather's property is not yet finished; Monsieur Bongrand still thinks he shall find something for you. He is as much astonished as I am that you seem to be left without fortune. The doctor so often spoke both to him and to me of the future he had prepared for you that neither of us can understand this conclusion."

"Pooh!" she said; "so long as I can buy my godfather's books and furniture and prevent their being dispersed, I am content."

"But who knows the price these infamous creatures will set on anything you want?"

Nothing was talked of from Montargis to Fontainebleau but the million for which the Minoret heirs were searching. But the most minute search made in every corner of the house after the seals were removed, brought no discovery. The one hundred and twenty-nine thousand francs of the Portenduere debt, the capital of the fifteen thousand a year in the three per cents (then quoted at 76), the house, valued at forty thousand francs, and its handsome furniture, produced a total of about six hundred thousand francs, which to most persons seemed a comforting sum. But what had become of the money the doctor must have saved?

Minoret began to have gnawing anxieties. La Bougival and Savinien, who persisted in believing, as did the justice of peace, in the existence of a will, came every day at the close of each session to find out from Bongrand the results of the day's search. The latter would sometimes exclaim, before the agents and the heirs were fairly out of hearing, "I can't understand the thing!" Bongrand, Savinien, and the abbe often declared to each other that the doctor, who received no interest from the Portenduere loan, could not have kept his house as he did on fifteen thousand francs a year. This opinion, openly expressed, made the post master turn livid more than once.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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