Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 23)

"Ah, madame, if you go to him you will pay him three per cent; if he comes to you you will pay him five," said the abbe, inventing this reason to influence the old lady. "And if you are forced to sell your farm by Dionis the notary, or by Massin the clerk (who would refuse to lend you the money, knowing it was more their interest to buy), you would lose half its value. I have not the slightest influence on the Dionis, Massins, or Levraults, or any of those rich men who covet your farm and know that your son is in prison."

"They know it! oh, do they know it?" she exclaimed, throwing up her arms. "There! my poor abbe, you have let your coffee get cold! Tiennette, Tiennette!"

Tiennette, an old Breton servant sixty years of age, wearing a short gown and a Breton cap, came quickly in and took the abbe's coffee to warm it.

"Let be, Monsieur le recteur," she said, seeing that the abbe meant to drink it, "I'll just put it into the bain-marie, it won't spoil it."

"Well," said the abbe to Madame de Portenduere in his most insinuating voice, "I shall go and tell the doctor of your visit, and you will come--"

The old mother did not yield till after an hour's discussion, during which the abbe was forced to repeat his arguments at least ten times. And even then the proud Kergarouet was not vanquished until he used the words, "Savinien would go."

"It is better that I should go than he," she said.



The clock was striking nine when the little door made in the large door of Madame de Portenduere's house closed on the abbe, who immediately crossed the road and hastily rang the bell at the doctor's gate. He fell from Tiennette to La Bougival; the one said to him, "Why do you come so late, Monsieur l'abbe?" as the other had said, "Why do you leave Madame so early when she is in trouble?"

The abbe found a numerous company assembled in the green and brown salon; for Dionis had stopped at Massin's on his way home to re-assure the heirs by repeating their uncle's words.

"I believe Ursula has a love-affair," said he, "which will be nothing but pain and trouble to her; she seems romantic" (extreme sensibility is so called by notaries), "and, you'll see, she won't marry soon. Therefore, don't show her any distrust; be very attentive to her and very respectful to your uncle, for he is slyer than fifty Goupils," added the notary--without being aware that Goupil is a corruption of the word vulpes, a fox.

So Mesdames Massin and Cremiere with their husbands, the post master and Desire, together with the Nemours doctor and Bongrand, made an unusual and noisy party in the doctor's salon. As the abbe entered he heard the sound of the piano. Poor Ursula was just finishing a sonata of Beethoven's. With girlish mischief she had chosen that grand music, which must be studied to be understood, for the purpose of disgusting these women with the thing they coveted. The finer the music the less ignorant persons like it. So, when the door opened and the abbe's venerable head appeared they all cried out: "Ah! here's Monsieur l'abbe!" in a tone of relief, delighted to jump up and put an end to their torture.

The exclamation was echoed at the card-table, where Bongrand, the Nemours doctor, and old Minoret were victims to the presumption with which the collector, in order to propitiate his great-uncle, had proposed to take the fourth hand at whist. Ursula left the piano. The doctor rose as if to receive the abbe, but really to put an end to the game. After many compliments to their uncle on the wonderful proficiency of his goddaughter, the heirs made their bow and retired.

"Good-night, my friends," cried the doctor as the iron gate clanged.

"Ah! that's where the money goes," said Madame Cremiere to Madame Massin, as they walked on.

"God forbid that I should spend money to teach my little Aline to make such a din as that!" cried Madame Massin.

"She said it was Beethoven, who is thought to be fine musician," said the collector; "he has quite a reputation."

"Not in Nemours, I'm sure of that," said Madame Cremiere.

"I believe uncle made her play it expressly to drive us away," said Massin; "for I saw him give that little minx a wink as she opened the music-book."

"If that's the sort of charivari they like," said the post master, "they are quite right to keep it to themselves."

"Monsieur Bongrand must be fond of whist to stand such a dreadful racket," said Madame Cremiere.

"I shall never be able to play before persons who don't understand music," Ursula was saying as she sat down beside the whist-table.

"In natures richly organized," said the abbe, "sentiments can be developed only in a congenial atmosphere. Just as a priest is unable to give the blessing in presence of an evil spirit, or as a chestnut- tree dies in a clay soil, so a musician's genius has a mental eclipse when he is surrounded by ignorant persons. In all the arts we must receive from the souls who make the environment of our souls as much intensity as we convey to them. This axiom, which rules the human mind, has been made into proverbs: 'Howl with the wolves'; 'Like meets like.' But the suffering you felt, Ursula, affects delicate and tender natures only."

"And so, friends," said the doctor, "a thing which would merely give pain to most women might kill my Ursula. Ah! when I am no longer here, I charge you to see that the hedge of which Catullus spoke,--"Ut flos," etc.,--a protecting hedge is raised between this cherished flower and the world."

"And yet those ladies flattered you, Ursula," said Monsieur Bongrand, smiling.

"Flattered her grossly," remarked the Nemours doctor.

"I have always noticed how vulgar forced flattery is," said old Minoret. "Why is that?"

"A true thought has its own delicacy," said the abbe.

"Did you dine with Madame de Portenduere?" asked Ursula, with a look of anxious curiosity.

"Yes; the poor lady is terribly distressed. It is possible she may come to see you this evening, Monsieur Minoret."

Ursula pressed her godfather's hand under the table.

"Her son," said Bongrand, "was rather too simple-minded to live in Paris without a mentor. When I heard that inquiries were being made here about the property of the old lady I feared he was discounting her death."

"Is it possible you think him capable of it?" said Ursula, with such a terrible glance at Monsieur Bongrand that he said to himself rather sadly, "Alas! yes, she loves him."

"Yes and no," said the Nemours doctor, replying to Ursula's question. "There is a great deal of good in Savinien, and that is why he is now in prison; a scamp wouldn't have got there."

"Don't let us talk about it any more," said old Minoret. "The poor mother must not be allowed to weep if there's a way to dry her tears."

The four friends rose and went out; Ursula accompanied them to the gate, saw her godfather and the abbe knock at the opposite door, and as soon as Tiennette admitted them she sat down on the outer wall with La Bougival beside her.

"Madame la vicomtesse," said the abbe, who entered first into the little salon, "Monsieur le docteur Minoret was not willing that you should have the trouble of coming to him--"

"I am too much of the old school, madame," interrupted the doctor, "not to know what a man owes to a woman of your rank, and I am very glad to be able, as Monsieur l'abbe tells me, to be of service to you."

Madame de Portenduere, who disliked the step the abbe had advised so much that she had almost decided, after he left her, to apply to the notary instead, was surprised by Minoret's attention to such a degree that she rose to receive him and signed to him to take a chair.

"Be seated, monsieur," she said with a regal air. "Our dear abbe has told you that the viscount is in prison on account of some youthful debts,--a hundred thousand francs or so. If you could lend them to him I would secure you on my farm at Bordieres."

"We will talk of that, madame, when I have brought your son back to you--if you will allow me to be your emissary in the matter."

"Very good, monsieur," she said, bowing her head and looking at the abbe as if to say, "You were right; he really is a man of good society."

"You see, madame," said the abbe, "that my friend the doctor is full of devotion to your family."

"We shall be grateful, monsieur," said Madame de Portenduere, making a visible effort; "a journey to Paris, at your age, in quest of a prodigal, is--"

"Madame, I had the honor to meet, in '65, the illustrious Admiral de Portenduere in the house of that excellent Monsieur de Malesherbes, and also in that of Monsieur le Comte de Buffon, who was anxious to question him on some curious results of his voyages. Possibly Monsieur de Portenduere, your late husband, was present. Those were the glorious days of the French navy; it bore comparison with that of Great Britain, and its officers had their full quota of courage. With what impatience we awaited in '83 and '84 the news from St. Roch. I came very near serving as surgeon in the king's service. Your great- uncle, who is still living, Admiral Kergarouet, fought his splendid battle at that time in the 'Belle-Poule.'"

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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