CHAPTER VIII - THE CONFERENCE
While Ursula was playing variations on Weber's "Last Thought" to her godfather, a plot was hatching in the Minoret-Levraults' dining-room which was destined to have a lasting effect on the events of this drama. The breakfast, noisy as all provincial breakfasts are, and enlivened by excellent wines brought to Nemours by the canal either from Burgundy or Touraine, lasted more than two hours. Zelie had sent for oysters, salt-water fish, and other gastronomical delicacies to do honor to Desire's return. The dining-room, in the center of which a round table offered a most appetizing sight, was like the hall of an inn. Content with the size of her kitchens and offices, Zelie had built a pavilion for the family between the vast courtyard and a garden planted with vegetables and full of fruit-trees. Everything about the premises was solid and plain. The example of Levrault- Levrault had been a warning to the town. Zelie forbade her builder to lead her into such follies. The dining-room was, therefore, hung with varnished paper and furnished with walnut chairs and sideboards, a porcelain stove, a tall clock, and a barometer. Though the plates and dishes were of common white china, the table shone with handsome linen and abundant silverware. After Zelie had served the coffee, coming and going herself like shot in a decanter,--for she kept but one servant, --and when Desire, the budding lawyer, had been told of the event of the morning and its probably consequences, the door was closed, and the notary Dionis was called upon to speak. By the silence in the room and the looks that were cast on that authoritative face, it was easy to see the power that such men exercise over families.
"My dear children," said he, "your uncle having been born in 1746, is eighty-three years old at the present time; now, old men are given to folly, and that little--"
"Viper!" cried Madame Massin.
"Hussy!" said Zelie.
"Let us call her by her own name," said Dionis.
"Well, she's a thief," said Madame Cremiere.
"A pretty thief," remarked Desire.
"That little Ursula," went on Dionis, "has managed to get hold of his heart. I have been thinking of your interests, and I did not wait until now before making certain inquiries; now this is what I have discovered about that young--"
"Marauder," said the collector.
"Inveigler," said the clerk of the court.
"Hold your tongue, friends," said the notary, "or I'll take my hat and be off."
"Come, come, papa," cried Minoret, pouring out a little glass of rum and offering it to the notary; "here, drink this, it comes from Rome itself; and now go on."
"Ursula is, it is true, the legitimate daughter of Joseph Mirouet; but her father was the natural son of Valentin Mirouet, your uncle's father-in-law. Being therefore an illegitimate niece, any will the doctor might make in her favor could probably be contested; and if he leaves her his fortune in that way you could bring a suit against Ursula. This, however, might turn out ill for you, in case the court took the view that there was no relationship between Ursula and the doctor. Still, the suit would frighten an unprotected girl, and bring about a compromise--"
"The law is so rigid as to the rights of natural children," said the newly fledged licentiate, eager to parade his knowledge, "that by the judgment of the court of appeals dated July 7, 1817, a natural child can claim nothing from his natural grandfather, not even a maintenance. So you see the illegitimate parentage is made retrospective. The law pursues the natural child even to its legitimate descent, on the ground that benefactions done to grandchildren reach the natural son through that medium. This is shown by articles 757, 908, and 911 of the civil Code. The royal court of Paris, by a decision of the 26th of January of last year, cut off a legacy made to the legitimate child of a natural son by his grandfather, who, as grandfather, was as distant to a natural grandson as the doctor, being an uncle, is to Ursula."
"All that," said Goupil, "seems to me to relate only to the bequests made by grandfathers to natural descendants. Ursula is not a blood relation of Doctor Minoret. I remember a decision of the royal court at Colmar, rendered in 1825, just before I took my degree, which declared that after the decease of a natural child his descendants could no longer be prohibited from inheriting. Now, Ursula's father is dead."
Goupil's argument produced what journalists who report the sittings of legislative assemblies are wont to call "profound sensation."
"What does that signify?" cried Dionis. "The actual case of the bequest of an uncle to an illegitimate child may not yet have been presented for trial; but when it is, the sternness of French law against such children will be all the more firmly applied because we live in times when religion is honored. I'll answer for it that out of such a suit as I propose you could get a compromise,--especially if they see you are determined to carry Ursula to a court of appeals."
Here the joy of the heirs already fingering their gold was made manifest in smiles, shrugs, and gestures round the table, and prevented all notice of Goupil's dissent. This elation, however, was succeeded by deep silence and uneasiness when the notary uttered his next word, a terrible "But!"
As if he had pulled the string of a puppet-show, starting the little people in jerks by means of machinery, Dionis beheld all eyes turned on him and all faces rigid in one and the same pose.
"BUT no law prevents your uncle from adopting or marrying Ursula," he continued. "As for adoption, that could be contested, and you would, I think, have equity on your side. The royal courts would never trifle with questions of adoptions; you would get a hearing there. It is true the doctor is an officer of the Legion of honor, and was formerly surgeon to the ex-emperor; but, nevertheless, he would get the worst of it. Moreover, you would have due warning in case of adoption--but how about marriage? Old Minoret is shrewd enough to go to Paris and marry her after a year's domicile, and give her a million by the marriage contract. The only thing, therefore, that really puts your property in danger is your uncle's marriage with the girl."
Here the notary paused.
"There's another danger," said Goupil, with a knowing air,--"that of a will made in favor of a third person, old Bongrand for instance, who will hold the property in trust for Mademoiselle Ursula--"
"If you tease your uncle," continued Dionis, cutting short his head- clerk, "if you are not all of you very polite to Ursula, you will drive him into either a marriage or into making that private trust which Goupil speaks of,--though I don't think him capable of that; it is a dangerous thing. As for marriage, that is easy to prevent. Desire there has only got to hold out a finger to the girl; she's sure to prefer a handsome young man, cock of the walk in Nemours, to an old one."
"Mother," said Desire to Zelie's ear, as much allured by the millions as by Ursula's beauty, "If I married her we should get the whole property."
"Are you crazy?--you, who'll some day have fifty thousand francs a year and be made a deputy! As long as I live you never shall cut your throat by a foolish marriage. Seven hundred thousand francs, indeed! Why, the mayor's only daughter will have fifty thousand a year, and they have already proposed her to me--"
This reply, the first rough speech his mother had ever made to him, extinguished in Desire's breast all desire for a marriage with the beautiful Ursula; for his father and he never got the better of any decision once written in the terrible blue eyes of Zelie Minoret.
"Yes, but see here, Monsieur Dionis," cried Cremiere, whose wife had been nudging him, "if the good man took the thing seriously and married his goddaughter to Desire, giving her the reversion of all the property, good-by to our share in it; if he lives five years longer uncle may be worth a million."
"Never!" cried Zelie, "never in my life shall Desire marry the daughter of a bastard, a girl picked up in the streets out of charity. My son will represent the Minorets after the death of his uncle, and the Minorets have five hundred years of good bourgeoisie behind them. That's equal to the nobility. Don't be uneasy, any of you; Desire will marry when we find a chance to put him in the Chamber of deputies."
This lofty declaration was backed by Goupil, who said:--
"Desire, with an allowance of twenty-four thousand francs a year, will be president of a royal court or solicitor-general; either office leads to the peerage. A foolish marriage would ruin him."
The heirs were now all talking at once; but they suddenly held their tongues when Minoret rapped on the table with his fist to keep silence for the notary.
"Your uncle is a worthy man," continued Dionis. "He believes he's immortal; and, like most clever men, he'll let death overtake him before he has made a will. My advice therefore is to induce him to invest his capital in a way that will make it difficult for him to disinherit you, and I know of an opportunity, made to hand. That little Portenduere is in Saint-Pelagie, locked-up for one hundred and some odd thousand francs' worth of debt. His old mother knows he is in prison; she is crying like a Magdalen. The abbe is to dine with her; no doubt she wants to talk to him about her troubles. Well, I'll go and see your uncle to-night and persuade him to sell his five per cent consols, which are now at 118, and lend Madame de Portenduere, on the security of her farm at Bordieres and her house here, enough to pay the debts of the prodigal son. I have a right as notary to speak to him in behalf of young Portenduere; and it is quite natural that I should wish to make him change his investments; I get deeds and commissions out of the business. If I become his adviser I'll propose to him other land investments for his surplus capital; I have some excellent ones now in my office. If his fortune were once invested in landed estate or in mortgage notes in this neighbourhood, it could not take wings to itself very easily. It is easy to make difficulties between the wish to realize and the realization."
The heirs, struck with the truth of this argument (much cleverer than that of Monsieur Josse), murmured approval.
"You must be careful," said the notary in conclusion, "to keep your uncle in Nemours, where his habits are known, and where you can watch him. Find him a lover for the girl and you'll prevent his marrying her himself."
"Suppose she married the lover?" said Goupil, seized by an ambitious desire.
"That wouldn't be a bad thing; then you could figure up the loss; the old man would have to say how much he gives her," replied the notary. "But if you set Desire at her he could keep the girl dangling on till the old man died. Marriages are made and unmade."
"The shortest way," said Goupil, "if the doctor is likely to live much longer, is to marry her to some worthy young man who will get her out of your way by settling at Sens, or Montargis, or Orleans with a hundred thousand francs in hand."
Dionis, Massin, Zelie, and Goupil, the only intelligent heads in the company, exchanged four thoughtful smiles.
"He'd be a worm at the core," whispered Zelie to Massin.
"How did he get here?" returned the clerk.
"That will just suit you!" cried Desire to Goupil. "But do you think you can behave decently enough to satisfy the old man and the girl?"
"In these days," whispered Zelie again in Massin's year, "notaries look out for no interests but their own. Suppose Dionis went over to Ursula just to get the old man's business?"
"I am sure of him," said the clerk of the court, giving her a sly look out of his spiteful little eyes. He was just going to add, "because I hold something over him," but he withheld the words.
"I am quite of Dionis's opinion," he said aloud.
"So am I," cried Zelie, who now suspected the notary of collusion with the clerk.
"My wife has voted!" said the post master, sipping his brandy, though his face was already purple from digesting his meal and absorbing a notable quantity of liquids.
"And very properly," remarked the collector.
"I shall go and see the doctor after dinner," said Dionis.
"If Monsieur Dionis's advice is good," said Madame Cremiere to Madame Massin, "we had better go and call on our uncle, as we used to do, every Sunday evening, and behave exactly as Monsieur Dionis has told us."
"Yes, and be received as he received us!" cried Zelie. "Minoret and I have more than forty thousand francs a year, and yet he refused our invitations! We are quite his equals. If I don't know how to write prescriptions I know how to paddle my boat as well as he--I can tell him that!"
"As I am far from having forty thousand francs a year," said Madame Massin, rather piqued, "I don't want to lose ten thousand."
"We are his nieces; we ought to take care of him, and then besides we shall see how things are going," said Madame Cremiere; "you'll thank us some day, cousin."
"Treat Ursula kindly," said the notary, lifting his right forefinger to the level of his lips; "remember old Jordy left her his savings."
"You have managed those fools as well as Desroches, the best lawyer in Paris, could have done," said Goupil to his patron as they left the post-house.
"And now they are quarreling over my fee," replied the notary, smiling bitterly.
The heirs, after parting with Dionis and his clerk, met again in the square, with face rather flushed from their breakfast, just as vespers were over. As the notary predicted, the Abbe Chaperon had Madame de Portenduere on his arm.
"She dragged him to vespers, see!" cried Madame Massin to Madame Cremiere, pointing to Ursula and the doctor, who were leaving the church.
"Let us go and speak to him," said Madame Cremiere, approaching the old man.
The change in the faces of his relatives (produced by the conference) did not escape Doctor Minoret. He tried to guess the reason of this sudden amiability, and out of sheer curiosity encouraged Ursula to stop and speak to the two women, who were eager to greet her with exaggerated affection and forced smiles.
"Uncle, will you permit me to come and see you to-night?" said Madame Cremiere. "We feared sometimes we were in your way--but it is such a long time since our children have paid you their respects; our girls are old enough now to make dear Ursula's acquaintance."
"Ursula is a little bear, like her name," replied the doctor.
"Let us tame her," said Madame Massin. "And besides, uncle," added the good housewife, trying to hide her real motive under a mask of economy, "they tell us the dear girl has such talent for the forte that we are very anxious to hear her. Madame Cremiere and I are inclined to take her music-master for our children. If there were six or eight scholars in a class it would bring the price of his lessons within our means."
"Certainly," said the old man, "and it will be all the better for me because I want to give Ursula a singing-master."
"Well, to-night then, uncle. We will bring your great-nephew Desire to see you; he is now a lawyer."
"Yes, to-night," echoed Minoret, meaning to fathom the motives of these petty souls.
The two nieces pressed Ursula's hand, saying, with affected eagerness, "Au revoir."
"Oh, godfather, you have read my heart!" cried Ursula, giving him a grateful look.
"You are going to have a voice," he said; "and I shall give you masters of drawing and Italian also. A woman," added the doctor, looking at Ursula as he unfastened the gate of his house, "ought to be educated to the height of every position in which her marriage may place her."
Ursula grew red as a cherry; her godfather's thoughts evidently turned in the same direction as her own. Feeling that she was too near confessing to the doctor the involuntary attraction which led her to think about Savinien and to center all her ideas of affection upon him, she turned aside and sat down in front of a great cluster of climbing plants, on the dark background of which she looked at a distance like a blue and white flower.
"Now you see, godfather, that your nieces were very kind to me; yes, they were very kind," she repeated as he approached her, to change the thoughts that made him pensive.
"Poor little girl!" cried the old man.
He laid Ursula's hand upon his arm, tapping it gently, and took her to the terraces beside the river, where no one could hear them.
"Why do you say, 'Poor little girl'?"
"Don't you see how they fear you?"
"My next of kin are very uneasy about my conversion. They no doubt attribute it to your influence over me; they fancy I deprive them of their inheritance to enrich you."
"But you won't do that?" said Ursula naively, looking up at him.
"Oh, divine consolation of my old age!" said the doctor, taking his godchild in his arms and kissing her on both cheeks. "It was for her and not for myself, oh God! that I besought thee just now to let me live until the day I give her to some good being who is worthy of her! --You will see comedies, my little angel, comedies which the Minorets and Cremieres and Massins will come and play here. You want to brighten and prolong my life; they are longing for my death."
"God forbids us to hate any one, but if that is-- Ah! I despise them!" exclaimed Ursula.
"Dinner is ready!" called La Bougival from the portico, which, on the garden side, was at the end of the corridor.