Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 21)



Madame de Portenduere was at this moment alone with the abbe in her frigid little salon on the ground floor, having finished the recital of her troubles to the good priest, her only friend. She held in her hand some letters which he had just returned to her after reading them; these letters had brought her troubles to a climax. Seated on her sofa beside a square table covered with the remains of a dessert, the old lady was looking at the abbe, who sat on the other side of the table, doubled up in his armchair and stroking his chin with the gesture common to valets on the stage, mathematicians, and priests,--a sign of profound meditation on a problem that was difficult to solve.

This little salon, lighted by two windows on the street and finished with a wainscot painted gray, was so damp that the lower panels showed the geometrical cracks of rotten wood when the paint no longer binds it. The red-tiled floor, polished by the old lady's one servant, required, for comfort's sake, before each seat small round mats of brown straw, on one of which the abbe was now resting his feet. The old damask curtains of light green with green flowers were drawn, and the outside blinds had been closed. Two wax candles lighted the table, leaving the rest of the room in semi-obscurity. Is it necessary to say that between the two windows was a fine pastel by Latour representing the famous Admiral de Portenduere, the rival of the Suffren, Guichen, Kergarouet and Simeuse naval heroes? On the paneled wall opposite to the fireplace were portraits of the Vicomte de Portenduere and of the mother of the old lady, a Kergarouet-Ploegat. Savinien's great-uncle was therefore the Vice-admiral de Kergarouet, and his cousin was the Comte de Portenduere, grandson of the admiral,--both of them very rich.

The Vice-admiral de Kergarouet lived in Paris and the Comte de Portenduere at the chateau of that name in Dauphine. The count represented the elder branch, and Savinien was the only scion of the younger. The count, who was over forty years of age and married to a rich wife, had three children. His fortune, increased by various legacies, amounted, it was said, to sixty thousand francs a year. As deputy from Isere he passed his winters in Paris, where he had bought the hotel de Portenduere with the indemnities he obtained under the Villele law. The vice-admiral had recently married his niece by marriage, for the sole purpose of securing his money to her.

The faults of the young viscount were therefore likely to cost him the favor of two powerful protectors. If Savinien had entered the navy, young and handsome as he was, with a famous name, and backed by the influence of an admiral and a deputy, he might, at twenty-three years of age, been a lieutenant; but his mother, unwilling that her only son should go into either naval or military service, had kept him at Nemours under the tutelage of one of the Abbe Chaperon's assistants, hoping that she could keep him near her until her death. She meant to marry him to a demoiselle d'Aiglemont with a fortune of twelve thousand francs a year; to whose hand the name of Portenduere and the farm at Bordieres enabled him to pretend. This narrow but judicious plan, which would have carried the family to a second generation, was already balked by events. The d'Aiglemonts were ruined, and one of the daughters, Helene, had disappeared, and the mystery of her disappearance was never solved.

The weariness of a life without atmosphere, without prospects, without action, without other nourishment than the love of a son for his mother, so worked upon Savinien that he burst his chains, gentle as they were, and swore that he would never live in the provinces-- comprehending, rather late, that his future fate was not to be in the Rue des Bourgeois. At twenty-one years of age he left his mother's house to make acquaintance with his relations, and try his luck in Paris. The contrast between life in Paris and life in Nemours was likely to be fatal to a young man of twenty-one, free, with no one to say him nay, naturally eager for pleasure, and for whom his name and his connections opened the doors of all the salons. Quite convinced that his mother had the savings of many years in her strong-box, Savinien soon spent the six thousand francs which she had given him to see Paris. That sum did not defray his expenses for six months, and he soon owed double that sum to his hotel, his tailor, his boot maker, to the man from whom he hired his carriages and horses, to a jeweler,-- in short, to all those traders and shopkeepers who contribute to the luxury of young men.

He had only just succeeded in making himself known, and had scarcely learned how to converse, how to present himself in a salon, how to wear his waistcoats and choose them and to order his coats and tie his cravat, before he found himself in debt for over thirty thousand francs, while still seeking the right phrases in which to declare his love for the sister of the Marquis de Ronquerolles, the elegant Madame de Serizy, whose youth had been at its climax during the Empire.

"How is that you all manage?" asked Savinien one day, at the end of a gay breakfast with a knot of young dandies, with whom he was intimate as the young men of the present day are intimate with each other, all aiming for the same thing and all claiming an impossible equality. "You were no richer than I and yet you get along without anxiety; you contrive to maintain yourselves, while as for me I make nothing but debts."

"We all began that way," answered Rastignac, laughing, and the laugh was echoed by Lucien de Rubempre, Maxime de Trailles, Emile Blondet, and others of the fashionable young men of the day.

"Though de Marsay was rich when he started in life he was an exception," said the host, a parvenu named Finot, ambitious of seeming intimate with these young men. "Any one but he," added Finot bowing to that personage, "would have been ruined by it."

"A true remark," said Maxime de Trailles.

"And a true idea," added Rastignac.

"My dear fellow," said de Marsay, gravely, to Savinien; "debts are the capital stock of experience. A good university education with tutors for all branches, who don't teach you anything, costs sixty thousand francs. If the education of the world does cost double, at least it teaches you to understand life, politics, men,--and sometimes women."

Blondet concluded the lesson by a paraphrase from La Fontaine: "The world sells dearly what we think it gives."

Instead of laying to heart the sensible advice which the cleverest pilots of the Parisian archipelago gave him, Savinien took it all as a joke.

"Take care, my dear fellow," said de Marsay one day. "You have a great name; if you don't obtain the fortune that name requires you'll end your days in the uniform of a cavalry-sergeant. 'We have seen the fall of nobler heads,'" he added, declaiming the line of Corneille as he took Savinien's arm. "About six years ago," he continued, "a young Comte d'Esgrignon came among us; but he did not stay two years in the paradise of the great world. Alas! he lived and moved like a rocket. He rose to the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and fell to his native town, where he is now expiating his faults with a wheezy old father and a game of whist at two sous a point. Tell Madame de Serizy your situation, candidly, without shame; she will understand it and be very useful to you. Whereas, if you play the charade of first love with her she will pose as a Raffaelle Madonna, practice all the little games of innocence upon you, and take you journeying at enormous cost through the Land of Sentiment."

Savinien, still too young and too pure in honor, dared not confess his position as to money to Madame de Serizy. At a moment when he knew not which way to turn he had written his mother an appealing letter, to which she replied by sending him the sum of twenty thousand francs, which was all she possessed. This assistance brought him to the close of the first year. During the second, being harnessed to the chariot of Madame de Serizy, who was seriously taken with him, and who was, as the saying is, forming him, he had recourse to the dangerous expedient of borrowing. One of his friends, a deputy and the friend of his cousin the Comte de Portenduere, advised him in his distress to go to Gobseck or Gigonnet or Palma, who, if duly informed as to his mother's means, would give him an easy discount. Usury and the deceptive help of renewals enabled him to lead a happy life for nearly eighteen months. Without daring to leave Madame de Serizy the poor boy had fallen madly in love with the beautiful Comtesse de Kergarouet, a prude after the fashion of young women who are awaiting the death of an old husband and making capital of their virtue in the interests of a second marriage. Quite incapable of understanding that calculating virtue is invulnerable, Savinien paid court to Emilie de Kergarouet in all the splendor of a rich man. He never missed either ball or theater at which she was present.

"You haven't powder enough, my boy, to blow up that rock," said de Marsay, laughing.

That young king of fashion, who did, out of commiseration for the lad, endeavor to explain to him the nature of Emilie de Fontaine, merely wasted his words; the gloomy lights of misfortune and the twilight of a prison were needed to convince Savinien.

A note, imprudently given to a jeweler in collusion with the money- lenders, who did not wish to have the odium of arresting the young man, was the means of sending Savinien de Portenduere, in default of one hundred and seventeen thousand francs and without the knowledge of his friends, to the debtor's prison at Sainte-Pelagie. So soon as the fact was known Rastignac, de Marsay, and Lucien de Rubempre went to see him, and each offered him a banknote of a thousand francs when they found how really destitute he was. Everything belonging to him had been seized except the clothes and the few jewels he wore. The three young men (who brought an excellent dinner with them) discussed Savinien's situation while drinking de Marsay's wine, ostensibly to arrange for his future but really, no doubt, to judge of him.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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