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Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 9)


If you recall the heads of Barbe-Marbois, Boissy d'Anglas, Morellet, Helvetius, or Frederick the Great, you will see the exact image of Doctor Minoret, whose green old age resembled that of those celebrated personages. Their heads coined in the same mint (for each had the characteristics of a medal) showed a stern and quasi-puritan profile, cold tones, a mathematical brain, a certain narrowness about the features, shrewd eyes, grave lips, and a something that was surely aristocratic--less perhaps in sentiment than in habit, more in the ideas than in the character. All men of this stamp have high brows retreating at the summit, the sigh of a tendency to materialism. You will find these leading characteristics of the head and these points of the face in all the Encyclopedists, in the orators of the Gironde, in the men of a period when religious ideas were almost dead, men who called themselves deists and were atheists. The deist is an atheist lucky in classification.

Minoret had a forehead of this description, furrowed with wrinkles, which recovered in his old age a sort of artless candor from the manner in which the silvery hair, brushed back like that of a woman when making her toilet, curled in light flakes upon the blackness of his coat. He persisted in dressing, as in his youth, in black silk stockings, shoes with gold buckles, breeches of black poult-de-soie, and a black coat, adorned with the red rosette. This head, so firmly characterized, the cold whiteness of which was softened by the yellowing tones of old age, happened to be, just then, in the full light of a window. As Madame Minoret came in sight of him the doctor's blue eyes with their reddened lids were raised to heaven; a new conviction had given them a new expression. His spectacles lay in his prayer-book and marked the place where he had ceased to pray. The tall and spare old man, his arms crossed on his breast, stood erect in an attitude which bespoke the full strength of his faculties and the unshakable assurance of his faith. He gazed at the altar humbly with a look of renewed hope, and took no notice of his nephew's wife, who planted herself almost in front of him as if to reproach him for coming back to God.

Zelie, seeing all eyes turned upon her, made haste to leave the church and returned to the square less hurriedly than she had left it. She had reckoned on the doctor's money, and possession was becoming problematical. She found the clerk of the court, the collector, and their wives in greater consternation than ever. Goupil was taking pleasure in tormenting them.

"It is not in the public square and before the whole town that we ought to talk of our affairs," said Zelie; "come home with me. You too, Monsieur Dionis," she added to the notary; "you'll not be in the way."

Thus the probable disinheritance of Massin, Cremiere, and the post master was the news of the day.

Just as the heirs and the notary were crossing the square to go to the post house the noise of the diligence rattling up to the office, which was only a few steps from the church, at the top of the Grand'Rue, made its usual racket.

"Goodness! I'm like you, Minoret; I forgot all about Desire," said Zelie. "Let us go and see him get down. He is almost a lawyer; and his interests are mixed up in this matter."

The arrival of the diligence is always an amusement, but when it comes in late some unusual event is expected. The crowd now moved towards the "Ducler."

"Here's Desire!" was the general cry.

The tyrant, and yet the life and soul of Nemours, Desire always put the town in a ferment when he came. Loved by the young men, with whom he was invariably generous, he stimulated them by his very presence. But his methods of amusement were so dreaded by older persons that more than one family was very thankful to have him complete his studies and study law in Paris. Desire Minoret, a slight youth, slender and fair like his mother, from whom he obtained his blue eyes and pale skin, smiled from the window on the crowd, and jumped lightly down to kiss his mother. A short sketch of the young fellow will show how proud Zelie felt when she saw him.

He wore very elegant boots, trousers of white English drilling held under his feet by straps of varnished leather, a rich cravat, admirably put on and still more admirably fastened, a pretty fancy waistcoat, in the pocket of said waistcoat a flat watch, the chain of which hung down; and, finally, a short frock-coat of blue cloth, and a gray hat,--but his lack of the manner-born was shown in the gilt buttons of the waistcoat and the ring worn outside of his purple kid glove. He carried a cane with a chased gold head.

"You are losing your watch," said his mother, kissing him.

"No, it is worn that way," he replied, letting his father hug him.

"Well, cousin, so we shall soon see you a lawyer?" said Massin.

"I shall take the oaths at the beginning of next term," said Desire, returning the friendly nods he was receiving on all sides.

"Now we shall have some fun," said Goupil, shaking him by the hand.

"Ha! my old wag, so here you are!" replied Desire.

"You take your law license for all license," said Goupil, affronted by being treated so cavalierly in presence of others.

"You know my luggage," cried Desire to the red-faced old conductor of the diligence; "have it taken to the house."

"The sweat is rolling off your horses," said Zelie sharply to the conductor; "you haven't common-sense to drive them in that way. You are stupider than your own beasts."

"But Monsieur Desire was in a hurry to get here to save you from anxiety," explained Cabirolle.

"But if there was no accident why risk killing the horses?" she retorted.

The greetings of friends and acquaintances, the crowding of the young men around Desire, and the relating of the incidents of the journey took enough time for the mass to be concluded and the worshippers to issue from the church. By mere chance (which manages many things) Desire saw Ursula on the porch as he passed along, and he stopped short amazed at her beauty. His action also stopped the advance of the relations who accompanied him.

In giving her arm to her godfather, Ursula was obliged to hold her prayer-book in one hand and her parasol in the other; and this she did with the innate grace which graceful women put into the awkward or difficult things of their charming craft of womanhood. If mind does truly reveal itself in all things, we may be permitted to say that Ursula's attitude and bearing suggested divine simplicity. She was dressed in a white cambric gown made like a wrapper, trimmed here and there with knots of blue ribbon. The pelerine, edged with the same ribbon run through a broad hem and tied with bows like those on the dress, showed the great beauty of her shape. Her throat, of a pure white, was charming in tone against the blue,--the right color for a fair skin. A long blue sash with floating ends defined a slender waist which seemed flexible,--a most seductive charm in women. She wore a rice-straw bonnet, modestly trimmed with ribbons like those of the gown, the strings of which were tied under her chin, setting off the whiteness of the straw and doing no despite to that of her beautiful complexion. Ursula dressed her own hair naturally (a la Berthe, as it was then called) in heavy braids of fine, fair hair, laid flat on either side of the head, each little strand reflecting the light as she walked. Her gray eyes, soft and proud at the same time, were in harmony with a finely modeled brow. A rosy tinge, suffusing her cheeks like a cloud, brightened a face which was regular without being insipid; for nature had given her, by some rare privilege, extreme purity of form combined with strength of countenance. The nobility of her life was manifest in the general expression of her person, which might have served as a model for a type of trustfulness, or of modesty. Her health, though brilliant, was not coarsely apparent; in fact, her whole air was distinguished. Beneath the little gloves of a light color it was easy to imagine her pretty hands. The arched and slender feet were delicately shod in bronzed kid boots trimmed with a brown silk fringe. Her blue sash holding at the waist a small flat watch and a blue purse with gilt tassels attracted the eyes of every woman she met.

"He has given her a new watch!" said Madame Cremiere, pinching her husband's arm.

"Heavens! is that Ursula?" cried Desire; "I didn't recognize her."

"Well, my dear uncle," said the post master, addressing the doctor and pointing to the whole population drawn up in parallel hedges to let the doctor pass, "everybody wants to see you."

"Was it the Abbe Chaperon or Mademoiselle Ursula who converted you, uncle," said Massin, bowing to the doctor and his protegee, with Jesuitical humility.

"Ursula," replied the doctor, laconically, continuing to walk on as if annoyed.

The night before, as the old man finished his game of whist with Ursula, the Nemours doctor, and Bongrand, he remarked, "I intend to go to church to-morrow."

"Then," said Bongrand, "your heirs won't get another night's rest."

The speech was superfluous, however, for a single glance sufficed the sagacious and clear-sighted doctor to read the minds of his heirs by the expression of their faces. Zelie's irruption into the church, her glance, which the doctor intercepted, this meeting of all the expectant ones in the public square, and the expression in their eyes as they turned them on Ursula, all proved to him their hatred, now freshly awakened, and their sordid fears.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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