CHAPTER XV - THE DOCTOR'S WILL
While these events were taking place the post master had hurried home to open the mysterious package and know its contents.
To my dear Ursula Mirouet, daughter of my natural half-brother, Joseph Mirouet, and Dinah Grollman:--
My dear Angel,--The fatherly affection I bear you--and which you have so fully justified--came not only from the promise I gave your father to take his place, but also from your resemblance to my wife, Ursula Mirouet, whose grace, intelligence, frankness, and charm you constantly recall to my mind. Your position as the daughter of a natural son of my father-in-law might invalidate all testamentary bequests made by me in your favor--
"The old rascal!" cried the post master.
Had I adopted you the result might also have been a lawsuit, and I shrank from the idea of transmitting my fortune to you by marriage, for I might live years and thus interfere with your happiness, which is now delayed only by Madame de Portenduere. Having weighted these difficulties carefully, and wishing to leave you enough money to secure to you a prosperous existence--
"The scoundrel, he has thought of everything!"
--without injuring my heirs--
"The Jesuit! as if he did not owe us every penny of his money!"
--I intend you to have the savings from my income which I have for the last eighteen years steadily invested, by the help of my notary, seeking to make you thereby as happy as any one can be made by riches. Without means, your education and your lofty ideas would cause you unhappiness. Besides, you ought to bring a liberal dowry to the fine young man who loves you. You will therefore find in the middle of the third volume of Pandects, folio, bound in red morocco (the last volume on the first shelf above the little table in the library, on the side of the room next the salon), three certificates of Funds in the three-per-cents, made out to bearer, each amounting to twelve thousand francs a year--
"What depths of wickedness!" screamed the post master. "Ah! God would not permit me to be so defrauded."
Take these at once, and also some uninvested savings made to this date, which you will find in the preceding volume. Remember, my darling child, that you must obey a wish that has made the happiness of my whole life; a wish that will force me to ask the intervention of God should you disobey me. But, to guard against all scruples in your dear conscience--for I well know how ready it is to torture you--you will find herewith a will in due form bequeathing these certificates to Monsieur Savinien de Portenduere. So, whether you possess them in your own name, or whether they come to you from him you love, they will be, in every sense, your legitimate property.
To this letter was annexed the following paper written on a sheet of stamped paper.
This is my will: I, Denis Minoret, doctor of medicine, settled in Nemours, being of sound mind and body, as the date of this document will show, do bequeath my soul to God, imploring him to pardon my errors in view of my sincere repentance. Next, having found in Monsieur le Vicomte Savinien de Portenduere a true and honest affection for me, I bequeath to him the sum of thirty-six thousand francs a year from the Funds, at three per cent, the said bequest to take precedence of all inheritance accruing to my heirs.
Written by my own hand, at Nemours, on the 11th of January, 1831.
Without an instant's hesitation the post master, who had locked himself into his wife's bedroom to insure being alone, looked about for the tinder-box, and received two warnings from heaven by the extinction of two matches which obstinately refused to light. The third took fire. He burned the letter and the will on the hearth and buried the vestiges of paper and sealing-wax in the ashes by way of superfluous caution. Then, allured by the thought of possessing thirty-six thousand francs a year of which his wife knew nothing, he returned at full speed to his uncle's house, spurred by the only idea, a clear-cut, simple idea, which was able to piece and penetrate his dull brain. Finding the house invaded by the three families, now masters of the place, he trembled lest he should be unable to accomplish a project to which he gave no reflection whatever, except so far as to fear the obstacles.
"What are you doing here?" he said to Massin and Cremiere. "We can't leave the house and the property to be pillaged. We are the heirs, but we can't camp here. You, Cremiere, go to Dionis at once and tell him to come and certify to the death; I can't draw up the mortuary certificate for an uncle, though I am assistant-mayor. You, Massin, go and ask old Bongrand to attach the seals. As for you, ladies," he added, turning to his wife and Mesdames Cremiere and Massin, "go and look after Ursula; then nothing can be stolen. Above all, close the iron gate and don't let any one leave the house."
The women, who felt the justice of this remark, ran to Ursula's bedroom, where they found the noble girl, so cruelly suspected, on her knees before God, her face covered with tears. Minoret, suspecting that the women would not long remain with Ursula, went at once to the library, found the volume, opened it, took the three certificates, and found in the other volume about thirty bank notes. In spite of his brutal nature the colossus felt as though a peal of bells were ringing in each ear. The blood whistled in his temples as he committed the theft; cold as the weather was, his shirt was wet on his back; his legs gave way under him and he fell into a chair in the salon as if an axe had fallen on his head.
"How the inheritance of money loosens a man's tongue! Did you hear Minoret?" said Massin to Cremiere as they hurried through the town. "'Go here, go there,' just as if he knew everything."
"Yes, for a dull beast like him he had a certain air of--"
"Stop!" said Massin, alarmed at a sudden thought. "His wife is there; they've got some plan! Do you do both errands; I'll go back."
Just as the post master fell into the chair he saw at the gate the heated face of the clerk of the court who returned to the house of death with the celerity of a weasel.
"Well, what is it now?" asked the post master, unlocking the gate for his co-heir.
"Nothing; I have come back to be present at the sealing," answered Massin, giving him a savage look.
"I wish those seals were already on, so that we could go home," said Minoret.
"We shall have to put a watcher over them," said Massin. "La Bougival is capable of anything in the interests of that minx. We'll put Goupil there."
"Goupil!" said the post master; "put a rat in the meal!"
"Well, let's consider," returned Massin. "To-night they'll watch the body; the seals can be affixed in an hour; our wives could look after them. To-morrow we'll have the funeral at twelve o'clock. But the inventory can't be made under a week."
"Let's get rid of that girl at once," said the colossus; "then we can safely leave the watchman of the town-hall to look after the house and the seals."
"Good," cried Massin. "You are the head of the Minoret family."
"Ladies," said Minoret, "be good enough to stay in the salon; we can't think of our dinner to-day; the seals must be put on at once for the security of all interests."
He took his wife apart and told her Massin's proposition about Ursula. The women, whose hearts were full of vengeance against the minx, as they called her, hailed the idea of turning her out. Bongrand arrived with his assistants to apply the seals, and was indignant when the request was made to him, by Zelie and Madame Massin, as a near friend of the deceased, to tell Ursula to leave the house.
"Go and turn her out of her father's house, her benefactor's house yourselves," he cried. "Go! you who owe your inheritance to the generosity of her soul; take her by the shoulders and fling her into the street before the eyes of the whole town! You think her capable of robbing you? Well, appoint a watcher of the seals; you have a right to do that. But I tell you at once I shall put no seals on Ursula's room; she has a right to that room, and everything in it is her own property. I shall tell her what her rights are, and tell her too to put everything that belongs to her in this house in that room-- Oh! in your presence," he said, hearing a growl of dissatisfaction among the heirs.
"What do you think of that?" said the collector to the post master and the women, who seemed stupefied by the angry address of Bongrand.
"Call HIM a magistrate!" cried the post master.
Ursula meanwhile was sitting on her little sofa in a half-fainting condition, her head thrown back, her braids unfastened, while every now and then her sobs broke forth. Her eyes were dim and their lids swollen; she was, in fact, in a state of moral and physical prostration which might have softened the hardest hearts--except those of the heirs.
"Ah! Monsieur Bongrand, after my happy birthday comes death and mourning," she said, with the poetry natural to her. "You know, YOU, what he was. In twenty years he never said an impatient word to me. I believed he would live a hundred years. He has been my mother," she cried, "my good, kind mother."
These simple thoughts brought torrents of tears from her eyes, interrupted by sobs; then she fell back exhausted.
"My child," said the justice of peace, hearing the heirs on the staircase. "You have a lifetime before you in which to weep, but you have now only a moment to attend to your interests. Gather everything that belongs to you in this house and put it into your own room at once. The heirs insist on my affixing the seals."
"Ah! his heirs may take everything if they choose," cried Ursula, sitting upright under an impulse of savage indignation. "I have something here," she added, striking her breast, "which is far more precious--"
"What is it?" said the post master, who with Massin at his heels now showed his brutal face.
"The remembrances of his virtues, of his life, of his words--an image of his celestial soul," she said, her eyes and face glowing as she raised her hand with a glorious gesture.
"And a key!" cried Massin, creeping up to her like a cat and seizing a key which fell from the bosom of her dress in her sudden movement.
"Yes," she said, blushing, "that is the key of his study; he sent me there at the moment he was dying."
The two men glanced at each other with horrid smiles, and then at Monsieur Bongrand, with a meaning look of degrading suspicion. Ursula who intercepted it, rose to her feet, pale as if the blood had left her body. Her eyes sent forth the lightnings that perhaps can issue only at some cost of life, as she said in a choking voice:--
"Monsieur Bongrand, everything in this room is mine through the kindness of my godfather; they may have it all; I have nothing on me but the clothes I wear. I shall leave the house and never return to it."
She went to her godfather's room, and no entreaties could make her leave it,--the heirs, who now began to be slightly ashamed of their conduct, endeavoring to persuade her. She requested Monsieur Bongrand to engage two rooms for her at the "Vieille Poste" inn until she could find some lodging in town where she could live with La Bougival. She returned to her own room for her prayer-book, and spent the night, with the abbe, his assistant, and Savinien, in weeping and praying beside her uncle's body. Savinien came, after his mother had gone to bed, and knelt, without a word, beside his Ursula. She smiled at him sadly, and thanked him for coming faithfully to share her troubles.
"My child," said Monsieur Bongrand, bring her a large package, "one of your uncle's heirs has taken these necessary articles from your drawers, for the seals cannot be opened for several days; after that you will recover everything that belongs to you. I have, for your own sake, placed the seals on your room."
"Thank you," she replied, pressing his hand. "Look at him again,--he seems to sleep, does he not?"
The old man's face wore that flower of fleeting beauty which rests upon the features of the dead who die a painless death; light appeared to radiate from it.
"Did he give you anything secretly before he died?" whispered M. Bongrand.
"Nothing," she said; "he spoke only of a letter."
"Good! it will certainly be found," said Bongrand. "How fortunate for you that the heirs demanded the sealing."
At daybreak Ursula bade adieu to the house where her happy youth was passed; more particularly, to the modest chamber in which her love began. So dear to her was it that even in this hour of darkest grief tears of regret rolled down her face for the dear and peaceful haven. With one last glance at Savinien's windows she left the room and the house, and went to the inn accompanied by La Bougival, who carried the package, by Monsieur Bongrand, who gave her his arm, and by Savinien, her true protector.
Thus it happened that in spite of all his efforts and cautions the worst fears of the justice of peace were realized; he was now to see Ursula without means and at the mercy of her benefactor's heirs.
The next afternoon the whole town attended the doctor's funeral. When the conduct of the heirs to his adopted daughter was publicly known, a vast majority of the people thought it natural and necessary. An inheritance was involved; the good man was known to have hoarded; Ursula might think she had rights; the heirs were only defending their property; she had humbled them enough during their uncle's lifetime, for he had treated them like dogs and sent them about their business.
Desire Minoret, who was not going to do wonders in life (so said those who envied his father), came down for the funeral. Ursula was unable to be present, for she was in bed with a nervous fever, caused partly by the insults of the heirs and partly by her heavy affliction.
"Look at that hypocrite weeping," said some of the heirs, pointing to Savinien, who was deeply affected by the doctor's death.
"The question is," said Goupil, "has he any good grounds for weeping. Don't laugh too soon, my friends; the seals are not yet removed."
"Pooh!" said Minoret, who had good reason to know the truth, "you are always frightening us about nothing."
As the funeral procession left the church to proceed to the cemetery, a bitter mortification was inflicted on Goupil; he tried to take Desire's arm, but the latter withdrew it and turned away from his former comrade in presence of all Nemours.
"I won't be angry, or I couldn't get revenge," thought the notary's clerk, whose dry heart swelled in his bosom like a sponge.
Before breaking the seals and making the inventory, it took some time for the procureur du roi, who is the legal guardian of orphans, to commission Monsieur Bongrand to act in his place. After that was done the settlement of the Minoret inheritance (nothing else being talked of in the town for ten days) began with all the legal formalities. Dionis had his pickings; Goupil enjoyed some mischief-making; and as the business was profitable the sessions were many. After the first of these sessions all parties breakfasted together; notary, clerk, heirs, and witnesses drank the best wines in the doctor's cellar.
In the provinces, and especially in little towns where every one lives in his own house, it is sometimes very difficult to find a lodging. When a man buys a business of any kind the dwelling-house is almost always included in the purchase. Monsieur Bongrand saw no other way of removing Ursula from the village inn than to buy a small house on the Grand'Rue at the corner of the bridge over the Loing. The little building had a front door opening on a corridor, and one room on the ground-floor with two windows on the street; behind this came the kitchen, with a glass door opening to an inner courtyard about thirty feet square. A small staircase, lighted on the side towards the river by small windows, led to the first floor where there were three chambers, and above these were two attic rooms. Monsieur Bongrand borrowed two thousand francs from La Bougival's savings to pay the first instalment of the price,--six thousand francs,--and obtained good terms for payment of the rest. As Ursula wished to buy her uncle's books, Bongrand knocked down the partition between two rooms on the bedroom floor, finding that their united length was the same as that of the doctor's library, and gave room for his bookshelves.
Savinien and Bongrand urged on the workmen who were cleaning, painting, and otherwise renewing the tiny place, so that before the end of March Ursula was able to leave the inn and take up her abode in the ugly house; where, however, she found a bedroom exactly like the one she had left; for it was filled with all her furniture, claimed by the justice of peace when the seals were removed. La Bougival, sleeping in the attic, could be summoned by a bell placed near the head of the young girl's bed. The room intended for the books, the salon on the ground-floor and the kitchen, though still unfurnished, had been hung with fresh papers and repainted, and only awaited the purchases which the young girl hoped to make when her godfather's effects were sold.
Though the strength of Ursula's character was well known to the abbe and Monsieur Bongrand, they both feared the sudden change from the comfort and elegancies to which her uncle had accustomed her to this barren and denuded life. As for Savinien he wept over it. He did, in fact, make private payments to the workman and to the upholsterer, so that Ursula should perceive no difference between the new chamber and the old one. But the young girl herself, whose happiness now lay in Savinien's own eyes, showed the gentlest resignation, which endeared her more and more to her two old friends, and proved to them for the hundredth time that no troubles but those of the heart could make her suffer. The grief she felt for the loss of her godfather was far too deep to let her even feel the bitterness of her change of fortune, though it added fresh obstacles to her marriage. Savinien's distress in seeing her thus reduced did her so much harm that she whispered to him, as they came from mass on the morning on the day when she first went to live in her new house:
"Love could not exist without patience; let us wait."
As soon as the form of the inventory was drawn up, Massin, advised by Goupil (who turned to him under the influence of his secret hatred to the post master), summoned Monsieur and Madame de Portenduere to pay off the mortgage which had now elapsed, together with the interest accruing thereon. The old lady was bewildered at a summons to pay one hundred and twenty-nine thousand five hundred and seventeen francs within twenty-four hours under pain of execution on her house. It was impossible for her to borrow the money. Savinien went to Fontainebleau to consult a lawyer.
"You are dealing with a bad set of people who will not compromise," was the lawyer's opinion. "They intend to sue in the matter and get your farm at Bordieres. The best way for you would be to make a voluntary sale of it and so escape costs."
This dreadful news broke down the old lady. Her son very gently pointed out to her that had she consented to his marriage in Minoret's life-time, the doctor would have left his property to Ursula's husband and they would to-day have been opulent instead of being, as they now were, in the depths of poverty. Though said without reproach, this argument annihilated the poor woman even more than the thought of her coming ejectment. When Ursula heard of this catastrophe she was stupefied with grief, having scarcely recovered from her fever, and the blow which the heirs had already dealt her. To love and be unable to succor the man she loves,--that is one of the most dreadful of all sufferings to the soul of a noble and sensitive woman.
"I wished to buy my uncle's house," she said, "now I will buy your mother's."
"Can you?" said Savinien. "You are a minor, and you cannot sell out your Funds without formalities to which the procureur du roi, now your legal guardian, would not agree. We shall not resist. The whole town will be glad to see the discomfiture of a noble family. These bourgeois are like hounds after a quarry. Fortunately, I still have ten thousand francs left, on which I can support my mother till this deplorable matter is settled. Besides, the inventory of your godfather's property is not yet finished; Monsieur Bongrand still thinks he shall find something for you. He is as much astonished as I am that you seem to be left without fortune. The doctor so often spoke both to him and to me of the future he had prepared for you that neither of us can understand this conclusion."
"Pooh!" she said; "so long as I can buy my godfather's books and furniture and prevent their being dispersed, I am content."
"But who knows the price these infamous creatures will set on anything you want?"
Nothing was talked of from Montargis to Fontainebleau but the million for which the Minoret heirs were searching. But the most minute search made in every corner of the house after the seals were removed, brought no discovery. The one hundred and twenty-nine thousand francs of the Portenduere debt, the capital of the fifteen thousand a year in the three per cents (then quoted at 76), the house, valued at forty thousand francs, and its handsome furniture, produced a total of about six hundred thousand francs, which to most persons seemed a comforting sum. But what had become of the money the doctor must have saved?
Minoret began to have gnawing anxieties. La Bougival and Savinien, who persisted in believing, as did the justice of peace, in the existence of a will, came every day at the close of each session to find out from Bongrand the results of the day's search. The latter would sometimes exclaim, before the agents and the heirs were fairly out of hearing, "I can't understand the thing!" Bongrand, Savinien, and the abbe often declared to each other that the doctor, who received no interest from the Portenduere loan, could not have kept his house as he did on fifteen thousand francs a year. This opinion, openly expressed, made the post master turn livid more than once.
"Yet they and I have rummaged everywhere," said Bongrand,--"they to find money, and I to find a will in favor of Monsieur de Portenduere. They have sifted the ashes, lifted the marbles, felt of the slippers, bored into the wood-work of the beds, emptied the mattresses, ripped up the quilts, turned his eider-down inside-out, examined every inch of paper piece by piece, searched the drawers, dug up the cellar floor --and I have urged on their devastations."
"What do you think about it?" said the abbe.
"The will has been suppressed by one of the heirs."
"But where's the property?"
"We may whistle for it!"
"Perhaps the will is hidden in the library," said Savinien.
"Yes, and for that reason I don't dissuade Ursula from buying it. If it were not for that, it would be absurd to let her put every penny of her ready money into books she will never open."
At first the whole town believed the doctor's niece had got possession of the unfound capital; but when it was known positively that fourteen hundred francs a year and her gifts constituted her whole fortune the search of the doctor's house and furniture excited a more wide-spread curiosity than before. Some said the money would be found in bank bills hidden away in the furniture, others that the old man had slipped them into his books. The sale of the effects exhibited a spectacle of the most extraordinary precautions on the part of the heirs. Dionis, who was doing duty as auctioneeer, declared, as each lot was cried out, that the heirs only sold the article (whatever it was) and not what it might contain; then, before allowing it to be taken away it was subjected to a final investigation, being thumped and sounded; and when at last it left the house the sellers followed with the looks a father might cast upon a son who was starting for India.
"Ah, mademoiselle," cried La Bougival, returning from the first session in despair, "I shall not go again. Monsieur Bongrand is right, you could never bear the sight. Everything is ticketed. All the town is coming and going just as in the street; the handsome furniture is being ruined, they even stand upon it; the whole place is such a muddle that a hen couldn't find her chicks. You'd think there had been a fire. Lots of things are in the courtyard; the closets are all open, and nothing in them. Oh! the poor dear man, it's well he died, the sight would have killed him."
Bongrand, who bought for Ursula certain articles which her uncle cherished, and which were suitable for her little house, did not appear at the sale of the library. Shrewder than the heirs, whose cupidity might have run up the price of the books had they known he was buying them for Ursula, he commissioned a dealer in old books living in Melun to buy them for him. As a result of the heir's anxiety the whole library was sold book by book. Three thousand volumes were examined, one by one, held by the two sides of the binding and shaken so that loose papers would infallibly fall out. The whole amount of the purchases on Ursula's account amounted to six thousand five hundred francs or thereabouts. The book-cases were not allowed to leave the premises until carefully examined by a cabinet-maker, brought down from Paris to search for secret drawers. When at last Monsieur Bongrand gave orders to take the books and the bookcases to Mademoiselle Mirouet's house the heirs were tortured with vague fears, not dissipated until in course of time they saw how poorly she lived.
Minoret bought up his uncle's house, the value of which his co-heirs ran up to fifty thousand francs, imagining that the post master expected to find a treasure in the walls; in fact the house was sold with a reservation on this subject. Two weeks later Minoret disposed of his post establishment, with all the coaches and horses, to the son of a rich farmer, and went to live in his uncle's house, where he spent considerable sums in repairing and refurnishing the rooms. By making this move he thoughtlessly condemned himself to live within sight of Ursula.
"I hope," he said to Dionis the day when Madame de Portenduere was summoned to pay her debt, "that we shall soon be rid of those nobles; after they are gone we'll drive out the rest."
"That old woman with fourteen quarterings," said Goupil, "won't want to witness her own disaster; she'll go and die in Brittany, where she can manage to find a wife for her son."
"No," said the notary, who had that morning drawn out a deed of sale at Bongrand's request. "Ursula has just bought the house she is living in."
"That cursed fool does everything she can to annoy me!" cried the post master imprudently.
"What does it signify to you whether she lives in Nemours or not?" asked Goupil, surprised at the annoyance which the colossus betrayed.
"Don't you know," answered Minoret, turning as red as a poppy, "that my son is fool enough to be in love with her? I'd give five hundred francs if I could get Ursula out of this town."