CHAPTER XIV - URSULA AGAIN ORPHANED
The irritation of the heirs, when convinced that their uncle loved Ursula too well not to secure her happiness at their expense, became as underhand as it was bitter. Meeting in Dionis's salon (as they had done every evening since the revolution of 1830) they inveighed against the lovers, and seldom separated without discussing some way of circumventing the old man. Zelie, who had doubtless profited by the fall in the Funds, as the doctor had done, to invest some, at least, of her enormous gains, was bitterest of them all against the orphan girl and the Portendueres. One evening, when Goupil, who usually avoided the dullness of these meetings, had come in to learn something of the affairs of the town which were under discussion, Zelie's hatred was freshly excited; she had seen the doctor, Ursula, and Savinien returning in the caleche from a country drive, with an air of intimacy that told all.
"I'd give thirty thousand francs if God would call uncle to himself before the marriage of young Portenduere with that affected minx can take place," she said.
Goupil accompanied Monsieur and Madame Minoret to the middle of their great courtyard, and there said, looking round to see if they were quite alone:
"Will you give me the means of buying Dionis's practice? If you will, I will break off the marriage between Portenduere and Ursula."
"How?" asked the colossus.
"Do you think I am such a fool as to tell you my plan?" said the notary's head clerk.
"Well, my lad, separate them, and we'll see what we can do," said Zelie.
"I don't embark in any such business on a 'we'll see.' The young man is a fire-eater who might kill me; I ought to be rough-shod and as good a hand with a sword or a pistol as he is. Set me up in business, and I'll keep my word."
"Prevent the marriage and I will set you up," said the post master.
"It is nine months since you have been thinking of lending me a paltry fifteen thousand francs to buy Lecoeur's practice, and you expect me to trust you now! Nonsense; you'll lose your uncle's property, and serve you right."
"It if were only a matter of fifteen thousand francs and Lecoeur's practice, that might be managed," said Zelie; "but to give security for you in a hundred and fifty thousand is another thing."
"But I'll do my part," said Goupil, flinging a seductive look at Zelie, which encountered the imperious glance of the post mistress.
The effect was that of venom on steel.
"We can wait," said Zelie.
"The devil's own spirit is in you," thought Goupil. "If I ever catch that pair in my power," he said to himself as he left the yard, "I'll squeeze them like lemons."
By cultivating the society of the doctor, the abbe, and Monsieur Bongrand, Savinien proved the excellence of his character. The love of this young man for Ursula, so devoid of self-interest, and so persistent, interested the three friends deeply, and they now never separated the lovers in their thoughts. Soon the monotony of this patriarchal life, and the certainty of a future before them, gave to their affection a fraternal character. The doctor often left the pair alone together. He judged the young man rightly; he saw him kiss her hand on arriving, but he knew he would ask no kiss when alone with her, so deeply did the lover respect the innocence, the frankness of the young girl, whose excessive sensibility, often tried, taught him that a harsh word, a cold look, or the alternations of gentleness and roughness might kill her. The only freedom between the two took place before the eyes of the old man in the evenings.
Two years, full of secret happiness, passed thus,--without other events than the fruitless efforts made by the young man to obtain from his mother her consent to his marriage. He talked to her sometimes for hours together. She listened and made no answer to his entreaties, other than by Breton silence or a positive denial.
At nineteen years of age Ursula, elegant in appearance, a fine musician, and well brought up, had nothing more to learn; she was perfected. The fame of her beauty and grace and education spread far. The doctor was called upon to decline the overtures of Madame d'Aiglemont, who was thinking of Ursula for her eldest son. Six months later, in spite of the secrecy the doctor and Ursula maintained on this subject, Savinien heard of it. Touched by so much delicacy, he made use of the incident in another attempt to vanquish his mother's obstinacy; but she merely replied:--
"If the d'Aiglemonts choose to ally themselves ill, is that any reason why we should do so?"
In December, 1834, the kind and now truly pious old doctor, then eighty-eight years old, declined visibly. When seen out of doors, his face pinched and wan and his eyes pale, all the town talked of his approaching death. "You'll soon know results," said the community to the heirs. In truth the old man's death had all the attraction of a problem. But the doctor himself did not know he was ill; he had his illusions, and neither poor Ursula nor Savinien nor Bongrand nor the abbe were willing to enlighten him as to his condition. The Nemours doctor who came to see him every day did not venture to prescribe. Old Minoret felt no pain; his lamp of life was gently going it. His mind continued firm and clear and powerful. In old men thus constituted the soul governs the body, and gives it strength to die erect. The abbe, anxious not to hasten the fatal end, released his parishioner from the duty of hearing mass in church, and allowed him to read the services at home, for the doctor faithfully attended to all his religious duties. The nearer he came to the grave the more he loved God; the lights eternal shone upon all difficulties and explained them more and more clearly to his mind. Early in the year Ursula persuaded him to sell the carriage and horses and dismiss Cabirolle. Monsieur Bongrand, whose uneasiness about Ursula's future was far from quieted by the doctor's half-confidence, boldly opened the subject one evening and showed his old friend the importance of making Ursula legally of age. Still the old man, though he had often consulted the justice of peace, would not reveal to him the secret of his provision for Ursula, though he agreed to the necessity of securing her independence by majority. The more Monsieur Bongrand persisted in his efforts to discover the means selected by his old friend to provide for his darling the more wary the doctor became.
"Why not secure the thing," said Bongrand, "why run any risks?"
"When you are between two risks," replied the doctor, "avoid the most risky."
Bongrand carried through the business of making Ursula of age so promptly that the papers were ready by the day she was twenty. That anniversary was the last pleasure of the old doctor who, seized perhaps with a presentiment of his end, gave a little ball, to which he invited all the young people in the families of Dionis, Cremiere, Minoret, and Massin. Savinien, Bongrand, the abbe and his two assistant priests, the Nemours doctor, and Mesdames Zelie Minoret, Massin, and Cremiere, together with old Schmucke, were the guests at a grand dinner which preceded the ball.
"I feel I am going," said the old man to the notary towards the close of the evening. "I beg you to come to-morrow and draw up my guardianship account with Ursula, so as not to complicate my property after my death. Thank God! I have not withdrawn one penny from my heirs,--I have disposed of nothing but my income. Messieurs Cremiere, Massin, and Minoret my nephew are members of the family council appointed for Ursula, and I wish them to be present at the rendering of my account."
These words, heard by Massin and quickly passed from one to another round the ball-room, poured balm into the minds of the three families, who had lived in perpetual alternations of hope and fear, sometimes thinking they were certain of wealth, oftener that they were disinherited.
When, about two in the morning, the guests were all gone and no one remained in the salon but Savinien, Bongrand, and the abbe, the old doctor said, pointing to Ursula, who was charming in her ball dress; "To you, my friends, I confide her! A few days more, and I shall be here no longer to protect her. Put yourselves between her and the world until she is married,--I fear for her."
The words made a painful impression. The guardian's account, rendered a day or two later in presence of the family council, showed that Doctor Minoret owed a balance to his ward of ten thousand six hundred francs from the bequest of Monsieur de Jordy, and also from a little capital of gifts made by the doctor himself to Ursula during the last fifteen years, on birthdays and other anniversaries.
This formal rendering of the account was insisted on by the justice of the peace, who feared (unhappily, with too much reason) the results of Doctor Minoret's death.
The following day the old man was seized with a weakness which compelled him to keep his bed. In spite of the reserve which always surrounded the doctor's house and kept it from observation, the news of his approaching death spread through the town, and the heirs began to run hither and thither through the streets, like the pearls of a chaplet when the string is broken. Massin called at the house to learn the truth, and was told by Ursula herself that the doctor was in bed. The Nemours doctor had remarked that whenever old Minoret took to his bed he would die; and therefore in spite of the cold, the heirs took their stand in the street, on the square, at their own doorsteps, talking of the event so long looked for, and watching for the moment when the priests should appear, bearing the sacrament, with all the paraphernalia customary in the provinces, to the dying man. Accordingly, two days later, when the Abbe Chaperon, with an assistant and the choir-boys, preceded by the sacristan bearing the cross, passed along the Grand'Rue, all the heirs joined the procession, to get an entrance to the house and see that nothing was abstracted, and lay their eager hands upon its coveted treasures at the earliest moment.
When the doctor saw, behind the clergy, the row of kneeling heirs, who instead of praying were looking at him with eyes that were brighter than the tapers, he could not restrain a smile. The abbe turned round, saw them, and continued to say the prayers slowly. The post master was the first to abandon the kneeling posture; his wife followed him. Massin, fearing that Zelie and her husband might lay hands on some ornament, joined them in the salon, where all the heirs were presently assembled one by one.
"He is too honest a man to steal extreme unction," said Cremiere; "we may be sure of his death now."
"Yes, we shall each get about twenty thousand francs a year," replied Madame Massin.
"I have an idea," said Zelie, "that for the last three years he hasn't invested anything--he grew fond of hoarding."
"Perhaps the money is in the cellar," whispered Massin to Cremiere.
"I hope we shall be able to find it," said Minoret-Levrault.
"But after what he said at the ball we can't have any doubt," cried Madame Massin.
"In any case," began Cremiere, "how shall we manage? Shall we divide; shall we go to law; or could we draw lots? We are adults, you know--"
A discussion, which soon became angry, now arose as to the method of procedure. At the end of half an hour a perfect uproar of voices, Zelie's screeching organ detaching itself from the rest, resounded in the courtyard and even in the street.
The noise reached the doctor's ears; he heard the words, "The house-- the house is worth thirty thousand francs. I'll take it at that," said, or rather bellowed by Cremiere.
"Well, we'll take what it's worth," said Zelie, sharply.
"Monsieur l'abbe," said the old man to the priest, who remained beside his friend after administering the communion, "help me to die in peace. My heirs, like those of Cardinal Ximenes, are capable of pillaging the house before my death, and I have no monkey to revive me. Go and tell them I will have none of them in my house."
The priest and the doctor of the town went downstairs and repeated the message of the dying man, adding, in their indignation, strong words of their own.
"Madame Bougival," said the doctor, "close the iron gate and allow no one to enter; even the dying, it seems, can have no peace. Prepare mustard poultices and apply them to the soles of Monsieur's feet."
"Your uncle is not dead," said the abbe, "and he may live some time longer. He wishes for absolute silence, and no one beside him but his niece. What a difference between the conduct of that young girl and yours!"
"Old hypocrite!" exclaimed Cremiere. "I shall keep watch of him. It is possible he's plotting something against our interests."
The post master had already disappeared into the garden, intending to watch there and wait his chance to be admitted to the house as an assistant. He now returned to it very softly, his boots making no noise, for there were carpets on the stairs and corridors. He was able to reach the door of his uncle's room without being heard. The abbe and the doctor had left the house; La Bougival was making the poultices.
"Are we quite alone?" said the old man to his godchild.
Ursula stood on tiptoe and looked into the courtyard.
"Yes," she said; "the abbe has just closed the gate after him."
"My darling child," said the dying man, "my hours, my minutes even, are counted. I have not been a doctor for nothing; I shall not last till evening. Do not cry, my Ursula," he said, fearing to be interrupted by the child's weeping, "but listen to me carefully; it concerns your marriage to Savinien. As soon as La Bougival comes back go down to the pagoda,--here is the key,--lift the marble top of the Boule buffet and you will find a letter beneath it, sealed and addressed to you; take it and come back here, for I cannot die easy unless I see it in your hands. When I am dead do not let any one know of it immediately, but send for Monsieur de Portenduere; read the letter together; swear to me now, in his name and your own, that you will carry out my last wishes. When Savinien has obeyed me, then announce my death, but not till then. The comedy of the heirs will begin. God grant those monsters may not ill-treat you."
The post master did not listen to the end of this scene; he slipped away on tip-toe, remembering that the lock of the study was on the library side of the door. He had been present in former days at an argument between the architect and a locksmith, the latter declaring that if the pagoda were entered by the window on the river it would be much safer to put the lock of the door opening into the library on the library side. Dazzled by his hopes, and his ears flushed with blood, Minoret sprang the lock with the point of his knife as rapidly as a burglar could have done it. He entered the study, followed the doctor's directions, took the package of papers without opening it, relocked the door, put everything in order, and went into the dining- room and sat down, waiting till La Bougival had gone upstairs with the poultice before he ventured to leave the house. He then made his escape,--all the more easily because poor Ursula lingered to see that La Bougival applied the poultice properly.
"The letter! the letter!" cried the old man, in a dying voice. "Obey me; take the key. I must see you with that letter in your hand."
The words were said with so wild a look that La Bougival exclaimed to Ursula:--
"Do what he asks at once or you will kill him."
She kissed his forehead, took the key and went down. A moment later, recalled by a cry from La Bougival, she ran back. The old man looked at her eagerly. Seeing her hands empty, he rose in his bed, tried to speak, and died with a horrible gasp, his eyes haggard with fear. The poor girl, who saw death for the first time, fell on her knees and burst into tears. La Bougival closed the old man's eyes and straightened him on the bed; then she ran to call Savinien; but the heirs, who stood at the corner of the street, like crows watching till a horse is buried before they scratch at the ground and turn it over with beak and claw, flocked in with the celerity of birds of prey.