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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 35)


"Yet they and I have rummaged everywhere," said Bongrand,--"they to find money, and I to find a will in favor of Monsieur de Portenduere. They have sifted the ashes, lifted the marbles, felt of the slippers, bored into the wood-work of the beds, emptied the mattresses, ripped up the quilts, turned his eider-down inside-out, examined every inch of paper piece by piece, searched the drawers, dug up the cellar floor --and I have urged on their devastations."

"What do you think about it?" said the abbe.

"The will has been suppressed by one of the heirs."

"But where's the property?"

"We may whistle for it!"

"Perhaps the will is hidden in the library," said Savinien.

"Yes, and for that reason I don't dissuade Ursula from buying it. If it were not for that, it would be absurd to let her put every penny of her ready money into books she will never open."

At first the whole town believed the doctor's niece had got possession of the unfound capital; but when it was known positively that fourteen hundred francs a year and her gifts constituted her whole fortune the search of the doctor's house and furniture excited a more wide-spread curiosity than before. Some said the money would be found in bank bills hidden away in the furniture, others that the old man had slipped them into his books. The sale of the effects exhibited a spectacle of the most extraordinary precautions on the part of the heirs. Dionis, who was doing duty as auctioneeer, declared, as each lot was cried out, that the heirs only sold the article (whatever it was) and not what it might contain; then, before allowing it to be taken away it was subjected to a final investigation, being thumped and sounded; and when at last it left the house the sellers followed with the looks a father might cast upon a son who was starting for India.

"Ah, mademoiselle," cried La Bougival, returning from the first session in despair, "I shall not go again. Monsieur Bongrand is right, you could never bear the sight. Everything is ticketed. All the town is coming and going just as in the street; the handsome furniture is being ruined, they even stand upon it; the whole place is such a muddle that a hen couldn't find her chicks. You'd think there had been a fire. Lots of things are in the courtyard; the closets are all open, and nothing in them. Oh! the poor dear man, it's well he died, the sight would have killed him."

Bongrand, who bought for Ursula certain articles which her uncle cherished, and which were suitable for her little house, did not appear at the sale of the library. Shrewder than the heirs, whose cupidity might have run up the price of the books had they known he was buying them for Ursula, he commissioned a dealer in old books living in Melun to buy them for him. As a result of the heir's anxiety the whole library was sold book by book. Three thousand volumes were examined, one by one, held by the two sides of the binding and shaken so that loose papers would infallibly fall out. The whole amount of the purchases on Ursula's account amounted to six thousand five hundred francs or thereabouts. The book-cases were not allowed to leave the premises until carefully examined by a cabinet-maker, brought down from Paris to search for secret drawers. When at last Monsieur Bongrand gave orders to take the books and the bookcases to Mademoiselle Mirouet's house the heirs were tortured with vague fears, not dissipated until in course of time they saw how poorly she lived.

Minoret bought up his uncle's house, the value of which his co-heirs ran up to fifty thousand francs, imagining that the post master expected to find a treasure in the walls; in fact the house was sold with a reservation on this subject. Two weeks later Minoret disposed of his post establishment, with all the coaches and horses, to the son of a rich farmer, and went to live in his uncle's house, where he spent considerable sums in repairing and refurnishing the rooms. By making this move he thoughtlessly condemned himself to live within sight of Ursula.

"I hope," he said to Dionis the day when Madame de Portenduere was summoned to pay her debt, "that we shall soon be rid of those nobles; after they are gone we'll drive out the rest."

"That old woman with fourteen quarterings," said Goupil, "won't want to witness her own disaster; she'll go and die in Brittany, where she can manage to find a wife for her son."

"No," said the notary, who had that morning drawn out a deed of sale at Bongrand's request. "Ursula has just bought the house she is living in."

"That cursed fool does everything she can to annoy me!" cried the post master imprudently.

"What does it signify to you whether she lives in Nemours or not?" asked Goupil, surprised at the annoyance which the colossus betrayed.

"Don't you know," answered Minoret, turning as red as a poppy, "that my son is fool enough to be in love with her? I'd give five hundred francs if I could get Ursula out of this town."

CHAPTER XVI

THE TWO ADVERSARIES

Perhaps the foregoing conduct on the part of the post master will have shown already that Ursula, poor and resigned, was destined to be a thorn in the side of the rich Minoret. The bustle attending the settlement of an estate, the sale of the property, the going and coming necessitated by such unusual business, his discussions with his wife about the most trifling details, the purchase of the doctor's house, where Zelie wished to live in bourgeois style to advance her son's interests,--all this hurly-burly, contrasting with his usually tranquil life hindered the huge Minoret from thinking of his victim. But about the middle of May, a few days after his installation in the doctor's house, as he was coming home from a walk, he heard the sound of a piano, saw La Bougival sitting at a window, like a dragon guarding a treasure, and suddenly became aware of an importunate voice within him.

To explain why to a man of Minoret's nature the sight of Ursula, who had no suspicion of the theft committed upon her, now became intolerable; why the spectacle of so much fortitude under misfortune impelled him to a desire to drive the girl out of town; and how and why it was that this desire took the form of hatred and revenge, would require a whole treatise on moral philosophy. Perhaps he felt he was not the real possessor of thirty-six thousand francs a year so long as she to whom they really belonged lived near him. Perhaps he fancied some mere chance might betray his theft if the person despoiled was not got rid of. Perhaps to a nature in some sort primitive, almost uncivilized, and whose owner up to that time had never done anything illegal, the presence of Ursula awakened remorse. Possibly this remorse goaded him the more because he had received his share of the property legitimately acquired. In his own mind he no doubt attributed these stirrings of his conscience to the fact of Ursula's presence, imagining that if she were removed all his uncomfortable feelings would disappear with her. But still, after all, perhaps crime has its own doctrine of perfection. A beginning of evil demands its end; a first stab must be followed by the blow that kills. Perhaps robbery is doomed to lead to murder. Minoret had committed the crime without the slightest reflection, so rapidly had the events taken place; reflection came later. Now, if you have thoroughly possessed yourself of this man's nature and bodily presence you will understand the mighty effect produced on him by a thought. Remorse is more than a thought; it comes from a feeling which can no more be hidden than love; like love, it has its own tyranny. But, just as Minoret had committed the crime against Ursula without the slightest reflection, so he now blindly longed to drive her from Nemours when he felt himself disturbed by the sight of that wronged innocence. Being, in a sense, imbecile, he never thought of the consequences; he went from danger to danger, driven by a selfish instinct, like a wild animal which does not foresee the huntsman's skill, and relies on its own rapidity or strength. Before long the rich bourgeois, who still met in Dionis's salon, noticed a great change in the manners and behavior of the man who had hitherto been so free of care.

"I don't know what has come to Minoret, he is all NO HOW," said his wife, from whom he was resolved to hide his daring deed.

Everybody explained his condition as being, neither more nor less, ennui (in fact the thought now expressed on his face did resemble ennui), caused, they said, by the sudden cessation of business and the change from an active life to one of well-to-do leisure.

While Minoret was thinking only of destroying Ursula's life in Nemours, La Bougival never let a day go by without torturing her foster child with some allusion to the fortune she ought to have had, or without comparing her miserable lot with the prospects the doctor had promised, and of which he had often spoken to her, La Bougival.

"It is not for myself I speak," she said, "but is it likely that monsieur, good and kind as he was, would have died without leaving me the merest trifle?--"

"Am I not here?" replied Ursula, forbidding La Bougival to say another word on the subject.

She could not endure to soil the dear and tender memories that surrounded that noble head--a sketch of which in black and white hung in her little salon--with thoughts of selfish interest. To her fresh and beautiful imagination that sketch sufficed to make her SEE her godfather, on whom her thoughts continually dwelt, all the more because surrounded with the things he loved and used,--his large duchess-sofa, the furniture from his study, his backgammon-table, and the piano he had chosen for her. The two old friends who still remained to her, the Abbe Chaperon and Monsieur Bongrand, the only visitors whom she received, were, in the midst of these inanimate objects representative of the past, like two living memories of her former life to which she attached her present by the love her godfather had blessed.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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