CHAPTER VII - A TWO-FOLD CONVERSION
On rising, the doctor, sure that no one had crossed the threshold of his house since he re-entered it, proceeded (but not without extreme trepidation) to verify his facts. He was himself ignorant of any difference in the bank-notes and also of the misplacement of the Pandect volumes. The somnambulist was right. The doctor rang for La Bougival.
"Tell Ursula to come and speak to me," he said, seating himself in the center of his library.
The girl came; she ran up to him and kissed him. The doctor took her on his knee, where she sat contentedly, mingling her soft fair curls with the white hair of her old friend.
"Do you want something, godfather?"
"Yes; but promise me, on your salvation, to answer frankly, without evasion, the questions that I shall put to you."
Ursula colored to the temples.
"Oh! I'll ask nothing that you cannot speak of," he said, noticing how the bashfulness of young love clouded the hitherto childlike purity of the girl's blue eyes.
"Ask me, godfather."
"What thought was in your mind when you ended your prayers last evening, and what time was it when you said them."
"It was a quarter-past or half-past nine."
"Well, repeat your last prayer."
The girl fancied that her voice might convey her faith to the sceptic; she slid from his knee and knelt down, clasping her hands fervently; a brilliant light illumined her face as she turned it on the old man and said:--
"What I asked of God last night I asked again this morning, and I shall ask it till he vouchsafes to grant it."
Then she repeated her prayer with new and still more powerful expression. To her great astonishment her godfather took the last words from her mouth and finished the prayer.
"Good, Ursula," said the doctor, taking her again on his knee. "When you laid your head on the pillow and went to sleep did you think to yourself, 'That dear godfather; I wonder who is playing backgammon with him in Paris'?"
Ursula sprang up as if the last trumpet had sounded in her ears. She gave a cry of terror; her eyes, wide open, gazed at the old man with awful fixity.
"Who are you, godfather? From whom do you get such power?" she asked, imagining that in his desire to deny God he had made some compact with the devil.
"What seeds did you plant yesterday in the garden?"
"Mignonette, sweet-peas, balsams--"
"And the last were larkspur?"
She fell on her knees.
"Do not terrify me!" she exclaimed. "Oh you must have been here--you were here, were you not?"
"Am I not always with you?" replied the doctor, evading her question, to save the strain on the young girl's mind. "Let us go to your room."
"Your legs are trembling," she said.
"Yes, I am confounded, as it were."
"Can it be that you believe in God?" she cried, with artless joy, letting fall the tears that gathered in her eyes.
The old man looked round the simple but dainty little room he had given to his Ursula. On the floor was a plain green carpet, very inexpensive, which she herself kept exquisitely clean; the walls were hung with a gray paper strewn with roses and green leaves; at the windows, which looked to the court, were calico curtains edged with a band of some pink material; between the windows and beneath a tall mirror was a pier-table topped with marble, on which stood a Sevres vase in which she put her nosegays; opposite the chimney was a little bureau-desk of charming marquetry. The bed, of chintz, with chintz curtains lined with pink, was one of those duchess beds so common in the eighteenth century, which had a tuft of carved feathers at the top of each of the four posts, which were fluted on the sides. An old clock, inclosed in a sort of monument made of tortoise-shell inlaid with arabesques of ivory, decorated the mantelpiece, the marble shelf of which, with the candlesticks and the mirror in a frame painted in cameo on a gray ground, presented a remarkable harmony of color, tone, and style. A large wardrobe, the doors of which were inlaid with landscapes in different woods (some having a green tint which are no longer to be found for sale) contained, no doubt, her linen and her dresses. The air of the room was redolent of heaven. The precise arrangement of everything showed a sense of order, a feeling for harmony, which would certainly have influenced any one, even a Minoret-Levrault. It was plain that the things about her were dear to Ursula, and that she loved a room which contained, as it were, her childhood and the whole of her girlish life.
Looking the room well over that he might seem to have a reason for his visit, the doctor saw at once how the windows looked into those of Madame de Portenduere. During the night he had meditated as to the course he ought to pursue with Ursula about his discovery of this dawning passion. To question her now would commit him to some course. He must either approve or disapprove of her love; in either case his position would be a false one. He therefore resolved to watch and examine into the state of things between the two young people, and learn whether it were his duty to check the inclination before it was irresistible. None but an old man could have shown such deliberate wisdom. Still panting from the discovery of the truth of these magnetic facts, he turned about and looked at all the various little things around the room; he wished to examine the almanac which was hanging at a corner of the chimney-piece.
"These ugly things are too heavy for your little hands," he said, taking up the marble candlesticks which were partly covered with leather.
He weighed them in his hand; then he looked at the almanac and took it, saying, "This is ugly too. Why do you keep such a common thing in your pretty room?"
"Oh, please let me have it, godfather."
"No, no, you shall have another to-morrow."
So saying he carried off this possible proof, shut himself up in his study, looked for Saint Savinien and found, as the somnambulist had told him, a little red dot at the 19th of October; he also saw another before his own saint's day, Saint Denis, and a third before Saint John, the abbe's patron. This little dot, no larger than a pin's head, had been seen by the sleeping woman in spite of distance and other obstacles! The old man thought till evening of these events, more momentous for him than for others. He was forced to yield to evidence. A strong wall, as it were, crumbled within him; for his life had rested on two bases,--indifference in matters of religion and a firm disbelief in magnetism. When it was proved to him that the senses-- faculties purely physical, organs, the effects of which could be explained--attained to some of the attributes of the infinite, magnetism upset, or at least it seemed to him to upset, the powerful arguments of Spinoza. The finite and the infinite, two incompatible elements according to that remarkable man, were here united, the one in the other. No matter what power he gave to the divisibility and mobility of matter he could not help recognizing that it possessed qualities that were almost divine.
He was too old now to connect those phenomena to a system, and compare them with those of sleep, of vision, of light. His whole scientific belief, based on the assertions of the school of Locke and Condillac, was in ruins. Seeing his hollow ideas in pieces, his scepticism staggered. Thus the advantage in this struggle between the Catholic child and the Voltairean old man was on Ursula's side. In the dismantled fortress, above these ruins, shone a light; from the center of these ashes issued the path of prayer! Nevertheless, the obstinate old scientist fought his doubts. Though struck to the heart, he would not decide, he struggled on against God.
But he was no longer the same man; his mind showed its vacillation. He became unnaturally dreamy; he read Pascal, and Bossuet's sublime "History of Species"; he read Bonald, he read Saint-Augustine; he determined also to read the works of Swedenborg, and the late Saint- Martin, which the mysterious stranger had mentioned to him. The edifice within him was cracking on all sides; it needed but one more shake, and then, his heart being ripe for God, he was destined to fall into the celestial vineyard as fall the fruits. Often of an evening, when playing with the abbe, his goddaughter sitting by, he would put questions bearing on his opinions which seemed singular to the priest, who was ignorant of the inward workings by which God was remaking that fine conscience.
"Do you believe in apparitions?" asked the sceptic of the pastor, stopping short in the game.
"Cardan, a great philosopher of the sixteenth century said he had seen some," replied the abbe.
"I know all those that scholars have discussed, for I have just reread Plotinus. I am questioning you as a Catholic might, and I ask if you think that dead men can return to the living."
"Jesus reappeared to his disciples after his death," said the abbe. "The Church ought to have faith in the apparitions of the Savior. As for miracles, they are not lacking," he continued, smiling. "Shall I tell you the last? It took place in the eighteenth century."
"Pooh!" said the doctor.
"Yes, the blessed Marie-Alphonse of Ligouri, being very far from Rome, knew of the death of the Pope at the very moment the Holy Father expired; there were numerous witnesses of this miracle. The sainted bishop being in ecstasy, heard the last words of the sovereign pontiff and repeated them at the time to those about him. The courier who brought the announcement of the death did not arrive till thirty hours later."
"Jesuit!" exclaimed old Minoret, laughing, "I did not ask you for proofs; I asked you if you believed in apparitions."
"I think an apparition depends a good deal on who sees it," said the abbe, still fencing with his sceptic.
"My friend," said the doctor, seriously, "I am not setting a trap for you. What do you really believe about it?"
"I believe that the power of God is infinite," replied the abbe.
"When I am dead, if I am reconciled to God, I will ask Him to let me appear to you," said the doctor, smiling.
"That's exactly the agreement Cardan made with his friend," answered the priest.
"Ursula," said Minoret, "if danger ever threatens you, call me, and I will come."
"You have put into one sentence that beautiful elegy of 'Neere' by Andre Chenier," said the abbe. "Poets are sublime because they clothe both facts and feelings with ever-living images."
"Why do you speak of your death, dear godfather?" said Ursula in a grieved tone. "We Christians do not die; the grave is the cradle of our souls."
"Well," said the doctor, smiling, "we must go out of the world, and when I am no longer here you will be astonished at your fortune."
"When you are here no longer, my kind friend, my only consolation will be to consecrate my life to you."
"To me, dead?"
"Yes. All the good works that I can do will be done in your name to redeem your sins. I will pray God every day for his infinite mercy, that he may not punish eternally the errors of a day. I know he will summon among the righteous a soul so pure, so beautiful, as yours."
That answer, said with angelic candor, in a tone of absolute certainty, confounded error and converted Denis Minoret as God converted Saul. A ray of inward light overawed him; the knowledge of this tenderness, covering his years to come, brought tears to his eyes. This sudden effect of grace had something that seemed electrical about it. The abbe clasped his hands and rose, troubled, from his seat. The girl, astonished at her triumph, wept. The old man stood up as if a voice had called him, looking into space as though his eyes beheld the dawn; then he bent his knee upon his chair, clasped his hands, and lowered his eyes to the ground as one humiliated.
"My God," he said in a trembling voice, raising his head, "if any one can obtain my pardon and lead me to thee, surely it is this spotless creature. Have mercy on the repentant old age that this pure child presents to thee!"
He lifted his soul to God; mentally praying for the light of divine knowledge after the gift of divine grace; then he turned to the abbe and held out his hand.
"My dear pastor," he said, "I am become as a little child. I belong to you; I give my soul to your care."
Ursula kissed his hands and bathed them with her tears. The old man took her on his knee and called her gayly his godmother. The abbe, deeply moved, recited the "Veni Creator" in a species of religious ecstasy. The hymn served as the evening prayer of the three Christians kneeling together for the first time.
"What has happened?" asked La Bougival, amazed at the sight.
"My godfather believes in God at last!" replied Ursula.
"Ah! so much the better; he only needed that to make him perfect," cried the old woman, crossing herself with artless gravity.
"Dear doctor," said the good priest, "you will soon comprehend the grandeur of religion and the value of its practices; you will find its philosophy in human aspects far higher than that of the boldest sceptics."
The abbe, who showed a joy that was almost infantine, agreed to catechize the old man and confer with him twice a week. Thus the conversion attributed to Ursula and to a spirit of sordid calculation, was the spontaneous act of the doctor himself. The abbe, who for fourteen years had abstained from touching the wounds of that heart, though all the while deploring them, was now asked for help, as a surgeon is called to an injured man. Ever since this scene Ursula's evening prayers had been said in common with her godfather. Day after day the old man grew more conscious of the peace within him that succeeded all his conflicts. Having, as he said, God as the responsible editor of things inexplicable, his mind was at ease. His dear child told him that he might know by how far he had advanced already in God's kingdom. During the mass which we have seen him attend, he had read the prayers and applied his own intelligence to them; from the first, he had risen to the divine idea of the communion of the faithful. The old neophyte understood the eternal symbol attached to that sacred nourishment, which faith renders needful to the soul after conveying to it her own profound and radiant essence. When on leaving the church he had seemed in a hurry to get home, it was merely that he might once more thank his dear child for having led him to "enter religion,"--the beautiful expression of former days. He was holding her on his knee in the salon and kissing her forehead sacredly at the very moment when his relatives were degrading that saintly influence with their shameless fears, and casting their vulgar insults upon Ursula. His haste to return home, his assumed disdain for their company, his sharp replies as he left the church were naturally attributed by all the heirs to the hatred Ursula had excited against them in the old man's mind.