Honore de Balzac >> Ursula (page 26)

"Monsieur le vicomte," she said when she saw him, rising and taking his hand to lead him to his father's bed, "there died your father,--a man of honor; he died without reproach from his own conscience. His spirit is there. Surely he groaned in heaven when he saw his son degraded by imprisonment for debt. Under the old monarchy that stain could have been spared you by obtaining a lettre de cachet and shutting you up for a few days in a military prison.--But you are here; you stand before your father, who hears you. You know all that you did before you were sent to that ignoble prison. Will you swear to me before your father's shade, and in presence of God who sees all, that you have done no dishonorable act; that your debts are the result of youthful folly, and that your honor is untarnished? If your blameless father were there, sitting in that armchair, and asking an explanation of your conduct, could he embrace you after having heard it?"

"Yes, mother," replied the young man, with grave respect.

She opened her arms and pressed him to her heart, shedding a few tears.

"Let us forget it all, my son," she said; "it is only a little less money. I shall pray God to let us recover it. As you are indeed worthy of your name, kiss me--for I have suffered much."

"I swear, mother," he said, laying his hand upon the bed, "to give you no further unhappiness of that kind, and to do all I can to repair these first faults."

"Come and breakfast, my child," she said, turning to leave the room.



In 1829 the old noblesse had recovered as to manners and customs something of the prestige it had irrevocably lost in politics. Moreover, the sentiment which governs parents and grandparents in all that relates to matrimonial conventions is an imperishable sentiment, closely allied to the very existence of civilized societies and springing from the spirit of family. It rules in Geneva as in Vienna and in Nemours, where, as we have seen, Zelie Minoret refused her consent to a possible marriage of her son with the daughter of a bastard. Still, all social laws have their exceptions. Savinien thought he might bend his mother's pride before the inborn nobility of Ursula. The struggle began at once. As soon as they were seated at table his mother told him of the horrible letters, as she called them, which the Kergarouets and the Portendueres had written her.

"There is no such thing as family in these days, mother," replied Savinien, "nothing but individuals! The nobles are no longer a compact body. No one asks or cares whether I am a Portenduere, or brave, or a statesmen; all they ask now-a-days is, 'What taxes does he pay?'"

"But the king?" asked the old lady.

"The king is caught between the two Chambers like a man between his wife and his mistress. So I shall have to marry some rich girl without regard to family,--the daughter of a peasant if she has a million and is sufficiently well brought-up--that is to say, if she has been taught in school."

"Oh! there's no need to talk of that," said the old lady.

Savinien frowned as he heard the words. He knew the granite will, called Breton obstinacy, that distinguished his mother, and he resolved to know at once her opinion on this delicate matter.

"So," he went on, "if I loved a young girl,--take for instance your neighbour's godchild, little Ursula,--would you oppose my marriage?"

"Yes, as long as I live," she replied; "and after my death you would be responsible for the honor and the blood of the Kergarouets and the Portendueres."

"Would you let me die of hunger and despair for the chimera of nobility, which has no reality to-day unless it has the lustre of great wealth?"

"You could serve France and put faith in God."

"Would you postpone my happiness till after your death?"

"It would be horrible if you took it then,--that is all I have to say."

"Louis XIV. came very near marrying the niece of Mazarin, a parvenu."

"Mazarin himself opposed it."

"Remember the widow Scarron."

"She was a d'Aubigne. Besides, the marriage was in secret. But I am very old, my son," she said, shaking her head. "When I am no more you can, as you say, marry whom you please."

Savinien both loved and respected his mother; but he instantly, though silently, set himself in opposition to her with an obstinacy equal to her own, resolving to have no other wife than Ursula, to whom this opposition gave, as often happens in similar circumstances, the value of a forbidden thing.

When, after vespers, the doctor, with Ursula, who was dressed in pink and white, entered the cold, stiff salon, the girl was seized with nervous trembling, as though she had entered the presence of the queen of France and had a favor to beg of her. Since her confession to the doctor this little house had assumed the proportions of a palace in her eyes, and the old lady herself the social value which a duchess of the Middle Ages might have had to the daughter of a serf. Never had Ursula measured as she did at that moment the distance which separated Vicomte de Portenduere from the daughter of a regimental musician, a former opera-singer and the natural son of an organist.

"What is the matter, my dear?" said the old lady, making the girl sit down beside her.

"Madame, I am confused by the honor you have done me--"

"My little girl," said Madame de Portenduere, in her sharpest tone. "I know how fond your uncle is of you, and I wished to be agreeable to him, for he has brought back my prodigal son."

"But, my dear mother," said Savinien cut to the heart by seeing the color fly into Ursula's face as she struggled to keep back her tears, "even if we were under no obligations to Monsieur le Chevalier Minoret, I think we should always be most grateful for the pleasure Mademoiselle has given us by accepting your invitation."

The young man pressed the doctor's hand in a significant manner, adding: "I see you wear, monsieur, the order of Saint-Michel, the oldest order in France, and one which confers nobility."

Ursula's extreme beauty, to which her almost hopeless love gave a depth which great painters have sometimes conveyed in pictures where the soul is brought into strong relief, had struck Madame de Portenduere suddenly, and made her suspect that the doctor's apparent generosity masked an ambitious scheme. She had made the speech to which Savinien replied with the intention of wounding the doctor in that which was dearest to him; and she succeeded, though the old man could hardly restrain a smile as he heard himself styled a "chevalier," amused to observe how the eagerness of a lover did not shrink from absurdity.

"The order of Saint-Michel which in former days men committed follies to obtain," he said, "has now, Monsieur le vicomte, gone the way of other privileges! It is given only to doctors and poor artists. The kings have done well to join it to that of Saint-Lazare who was, I believe, a poor devil recalled to life by a miracle. From this point of view the order of Saint-Michel and Saint-Lazare may be, for many of us, symbolic."

After this reply, at once sarcastic and dignified, silence reigned, which, as no one seemed inclined to break it, was becoming awkward, when there was a rap at the door.

"There is our dear abbe," said the old lady, who rose, leaving Ursula alone, and advancing to meet the Abbe Chaperon,--an honor she had not paid to the doctor and his niece.

The old man smiled to himself as he looked from his goddaughter to Savinien. To show offence or to complain of Madame de Portenduere's manners was a rock on which a man of small mind might have struck, but Minoret was too accomplished in the ways of the world not to avoid it. He began to talk to the viscount of the danger Charles X. was then running by confiding the affairs of the nation to the Prince de Polignac. When sufficient time had been spent on the subject to avoid all appearance of revenging himself by so doing, he handed the old lady, in an easy, jesting way, a packet of legal papers and receipted bills, together with the account of his notary.

"Has my son verified them?" she said, giving Savinien a look, to which he replied by bending his head. "Well, then the rest is my notary's business," she added, pushing away the papers and treating the affair with the disdain she wished to show for money.

To abase wealth was, according to Madame de Portenduere's ideas, to elevate the nobility and rob the bourgeoisie of their importance.

A few moments later Goupil came from his employer, Dionis, to ask for the accounts of the transaction between the doctor and Savinien.

"Why do you want them?" said the old lady.

"To put the matter in legal form; there have been no cash payments."

Ursula and Savinien, who both for the first time exchanged a glance with offensive personage, were conscious of a sensation like that of touching a toad, aggravated by a dark presentiment of evil. They both had the same indefinable and confused vision into the future, which has no name in any language, but which is capable of explanation as the action of the inward being of which the mysterious Swedenborgian had spoken to Doctor Minoret. The certainty that the venomous Goupil would in some way be fatal to them made Ursula tremble; but she controlled herself, conscious of unspeakable pleasure in seeing that Savinien shared her emotion.

Title: Ursula
Author: Honore de Balzac
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