CHAPTER XVII - THE MALIGNITY OF PROVINCIAL MINDS
Like all crafty persons, Goupil, fortunately for Minoret, believed that the proposed marriage with Ursula was only a pretext on the part of the colossus and Zelie for making up with him, now that he was opposing them with Massin.
"It isn't he," thought Goupil, "who has invented this scheme; I know my Zelie,--she taught him his part. Bah! I'll let Massin go. In three years time I'll be deputy from Sens." Just then he saw Bongrand on his way to the opposite house for his whist, and he rushed hastily after him.
"You take a great interest in Mademoiselle Mirouet, my dear Monsieur Bongrand," he said. "I know you will not be indifferent to her future. Her relations are considering it, and there is the programme; she ought to marry a notary whose practice should be in the chief town of an arrondisement. This notary, who would of course be elected deputy in three years, should settle on a dower of a hundred thousand francs on her."
"She can do better than that," said Bongrand coldly. "Madame de Portenduere is greatly changed since her misfortunes; trouble is killing her. Savinien will have six thousand francs a year, and Ursula has a capital of forty thousand. I shall show them how to increase it a la Massin, but honestly, and in ten years they will have a little fortune.
"Savinien will do a foolish thing," said Goupil; "he can marry Mademoiselle du Rouvre whenever he likes,--an only daughter to whom the uncle and aunt intend to leave a fine property."
"Where love enters farewell prudence, as La Fontaine says-- By the bye, who is your notary?" added Bongrand from curiosity.
"Suppose it were I?" answered Goupil.
"You!" exclaimed Bongrand, without hiding his disgust.
"Well, well!--Adieu, monsieur," replied Goupil, with a parting glance of gall and hatred and defiance.
"Do you wish to be the wife of a notary who will settle a hundred thousand francs on you?" cried Bongrand entering Madame de Portenduere's little salon, where Ursula was seated beside the old lady.
Ursula and Savinien trembled and looked at each other,--she smiling, he not daring to show his uneasiness.
"I am not mistress of myself," said Ursula, holding out her hand to Savinien in such a way that the old lady did not perceive the gesture.
"Well, I have refused the offer without consulting you."
"Why did you do that?" said Madame de Portenduere. "I think the position of a notary is a very good one."
"I prefer my peaceful poverty," said Ursula, "which is really wealth compared with what my station in life might have given me. Besides, my old nurse spares me a great deal of care, and I shall not exchange the present, which I like, for an unknown fate."
A few weeks later the post poured into two hearts the poison of anonymous letters,--one addressed to Madame de Portenduere, the other to Ursula. The following is the one to the old lady:--
"You love your son, you wish to marry him in a manner conformable with the name he bears; and yet you encourage his fancy for an ambitious girl without money and the daughter of a regimental band- master, by inviting her to your house. You ought to marry him to Mademoiselle du Rouvre, on whom her two uncles, the Marquis de Ronquerolles and the Chevalier du Rouvre, who are worth money, would settle a handsome sum rather than leave it to that old fool the Marquis du Rouvre, who runs through everything. Madame de Serizy, aunt of Clementine du Rouvre, who has just lost her only son in the campaign in Algiers, will no doubt adopt her niece. A person who is your well-wisher assures you that Savinien will be accepted."
The letter to Ursula was as follows:--
Dear Ursula,--There is a young man in Nemours who idolizes you. He cannot see you working at your window without emotions which prove to him that his love will last through life. This young man is gifted with an iron will and a spirit of perseverance which nothing can discourage. Receive his addresses favorably, for his intentions are pure, and he humbly asks your hand with a sincere desire to make you happy. His fortune, already suitable, is nothing to that which he will make for you when you are once his wife. You shall be received at court as the wife of a minister and one of the first ladies in the land.
As he sees you every day (without your being able to see him) put a pot of La Bougival's pinks in your window and he will understand from that that he has your permission to present himself.
Ursula burned the letter and said nothing about it to Savinien. Two days later she received another letter in the following language:--
"You do wrong, my dear Ursula, not to answer one who loves you better than life itself. You think you will marry Savinien--you are very much mistaken. That marriage will not take place. Madame de Portenduere went this morning to Rouvre to ask for the hand of Mademoiselle Clementine for her son. Savinien will yield in the end. What objection can he make? The uncles of the young lady are willing to guarantee their fortune to her; it amounts to over sixty thousand francs a year."
This letter agonized Ursula's heart and afflicted her with the tortures of jealousy, a form of suffering hitherto unknown to her, but which to this fine organization, so sensitive to pain, threw a pall over the present and over the future, and even over the past. From the moment when she received this fatal paper she lay on the doctor's sofa, her eyes fixed on space, lost in a dreadful dream. In an instant the chill of death had come upon her warm young life. Alas, worse than that! it was like the awful awakening of the dead to the sense that there was no God,--the masterpiece of that strange genius called Jean Paul. Four times La Bougival called her to breakfast. When the faithful creature tried to remonstrate, Ursula waved her hand and answered in one harsh word, "Hush!" said despotically, in strange contrast to her usual gentle manner. La Bougival, watching her mistress through the glass door, saw her alternately red with a consuming fever, and blue as if a shudder of cold had succeeded that unnatural heat. This condition grew worse and worse up to four o'clock; then she rose to see if Savinien were coming, but he did not come. Jealousy and distrust tear all reserves from love. Ursula, who till then had never made one gesture by which her love could be guessed, now took her hat and shawl and rushed into the passage as if to go and meet him. But an afterthought of modesty sent her back to her little salon, where she stayed and wept. When the abbe arrived in the evening La Bougival met him at the door.
"Ah, monsieur!" she cried; "I don't know what's the matter with mademoiselle; she is--"
"I know," said the abbe sadly, stopping the words of the poor nurse.
He then told Ursula (what she had not dared to verify) that Madame de Portenduere had gone to dine at Rouvre.
"And Savinien too?" she asked.
Ursula was seized with a little nervous tremor which made the abbe quiver as though a whole Leyden jar had been discharged at him; he felt moreover a lasting commotion in his heart.
"So we shall not go there to-night," he said as gently as he could; "and, my child, it would be better if you did not go there again. The old lady will receive you in a way to wound your pride. Monsieur Bongrand and I, who had succeeded in bringing her to consider your marriage, have no idea from what quarter this new influence has come to change her, as it were in a moment."
"I expect the worst; nothing can surprise me now," said Ursula in a pained voice. "In such extremities it is a comfort to feel that we have done nothing to displease God."
"Submit, dear daughter, and do not seek to fathom the ways of Providence," said the abbe.
"I shall not unjustly distrust the character of Monsieur de Portenduere--"
"Why do you no longer call him Savinien?" asked the priest, who detected a slight bitterness in Ursula's tone.
"Of my dear Savinien," cried the girl, bursting into tears. "Yes, my good friend," she said, sobbing, "a voice tells me he is as noble in heart as he is in race. He has not only told me that he loves me alone, but he has proved it in a hundred delicate ways, and by restraining heroically his ardent feelings. Lately when he took the hand I held out to him, that evening when Monsieur Bongrand proposed to me a husband, it was the first time, I swear to you, that I had ever given it. He began with a jest when he blew me a kiss across the street, but since then our affection has never outwardly passed, as you well know, the narrowest limits. But I will tell you,--you who read my soul except in this one region where none but the angels see, --well, I will tell you, this love has been in me the secret spring of many seeming merits; it made me accept my poverty; it softened the bitterness of my irreparable loss, for my mourning is more perhaps in my clothes now than in my heart-- Oh, was I wrong? can it be that love was stronger in me than my gratitude to my benefactor, and God has punished me for it? But how could it be otherwise? I respected in myself Savinien's future wife; yes, perhaps I was too proud, perhaps it is that pride which God has humbled. God alone, as you have often told me, should be the end and object of all our actions."
The abbe was deeply touched as he watched the tears roll down her pallid face. The higher her sense of security had been, the lower she was now to fall.
"But," she said, continuing, "if I return to my orphaned condition, I shall know how to take up its feelings. After all, could I have tied a mill-stone round the neck of him I love? What can he do here? Who am I to bind him to me? Besides, do I not love him with a friendship so divine that I can bear the loss of my own happiness and my hopes? You know I have often blamed myself for letting my hopes rest upon a grave, and for knowing they were waiting on that poor old lady's death. If Savinien is rich and happy with another I have enough to pay for my entrance to a convent, where I shall go at once. There can no more be two loves in a woman's heart than there can be two masters in heaven, and the life of a religious is attractive to me."
"He could not let his mother go alone to Rouvre," said the abbe, gently.
"Do not let us talk of that, my dear good friend," she answered. "I will write to-night and set him free. I am glad to have to close the windows of this room," she continued, telling her old friend of the anonymous letters, but declaring that she would not allow any inquiries to be made as to who her unknown lover might be.
"Why! it was an anonymous letter that first took Madame de Portenduere to Rouvre," cried the abbe. "You are annoyed for some object by evil persons."
"How can that be? Neither Savinien nor I have injured any one; and I am no longer an obstacle to the prosperity of others."
"Well, well, my child," said the abbe, quietly, "let us profit by this tempest, which has scattered our little circle, to put the library in order. The books are still in heaps. Bongrand and I want to get them in order; we wish to make a search among them. Put your trust in God, and remember also that in our good Bongrand and in me you have two devoted friends."
"That is much, very much," she said, going with him to the threshold of the door, where she stretched out her neck like a bird looking over its nest, hoping against hope to see Savinien.
Just then Minoret and Goupil, returning from a walk in the meadows, stopped as they passed, and the colossus spoke to Ursula.
"Is anything the matter, cousin; for we are still cousins, are we not? You seem changed."
Goupil looked so ardently at Ursula that she was frightened, and went back into the house without replying.
"She is cross," said Minoret to the abbe.
"Mademoiselle Mirouet is quite right not to talk to men on the threshold of her door," said the abbe; "she is too young--"
"Oh!" said Goupil. "I am told she doesn't lack lovers."
The abbe bowed hurriedly and went as fast as he could to the Rue des Bourgeois.
"Well," said Goupil to Minoret, "the thing is working. Did you notice how pale she was. Within a fortnight she'll have left the town--you'll see."
"Better have you for a friend than an enemy," cried Minoret, frightened at the atrocious grin which gave to Goupil's face the diabolical expression of the Mephistopheles of Joseph Brideau.
"I should think so!" returned Goupil. "If she doesn't marry me I'll make her die of grief."
"Do it, my boy, and I'll GIVE you the money to buy a practice in Paris. You can then marry a rich woman--"
"Poor Ursula! what makes you so bitter against her? what has she done to you?" asked the clerk in surprise.
"She annoys me," said Minoret, gruffly.
"Well, wait till Monday and you shall see how I'll rasp her," said Goupil, studying the expression of the late post master's face.
The next day La Bougival carried the following letter to Savinien.
"I don't know what the dear child has written to you," she said, "but she is almost dead this morning."
Who, reading this letter to her lover, could fail to understand the sufferings the poor girl had gone through during the night.
My dear Savinien,--Your mother wishes you to marry Mademoiselle du Rouvre, and perhaps she is right. You are placed between a life that is almost poverty-stricken and a life of opulence; between the betrothed of your heart and a wife in conformity with the demands of the world; between obedience to your mother and the fulfilment of your own choice--for I still believe that you have chosen me. Savinien, if you have now to make your decision I wish you to do so in absolute freedom; I give you back the promise you made to yourself--not to me--in a moment which can never fade from my memory, for it was, like other days that have succeeded it, of angelic purity and sweetness. That memory will suffice me for my life. If you should persist in your pledge to me, a dark and terrible idea would henceforth trouble my happiness. In the midst of our privations--which we have hitherto accepted so gayly--you might reflect, too late, that life would have been to you a better thing had you now conformed to the laws of the world. If you were a man to express that thought, it would be to me the sentence of an agonizing death; if you did not express it, I should watch suspiciously every cloud upon your brow.
Dear Savinien, I have preferred you to all else on earth. I was right to do so, for my godfather, though jealous of you, used to say to me, "Love him, my child; you will certainly belong to each other one of these days." When I went to Paris I loved you hopelessly, and the feeling contented me. I do not know if I can now return to it, but I shall try. What are we, after all, at this moment? Brother and sister. Let us stay so. Marry that happy girl who can have the joy of giving to your name the lustre it ought to have, and which your mother thinks I should diminish. You will not hear of me again. The world will approve of you; I shall never blame you--but I shall love you ever. Adieu, then!
"Wait," cried the young man. Signing to La Bougival to sit down, he scratched off hastily the following reply:--
My dear Ursula,--Your letter cuts me to the heart, inasmuch as you have needlessly felt such pain; and also because our hearts, for the first time, have failed to understand each other. If you are not my wife now, it is solely because I cannot marry without my mother's consent. Dear, eight thousand francs a year and a pretty cottage on the Loing, why, that's a fortune, is it not? You know we calculated that if we kept La Bougival we could lay by half our income every year. You allowed me that evening, in your uncle's garden, to consider you mine; you cannot now of yourself break those ties which are common to both of us.--Ursula, need I tell you that I yesterday informed Monsieur du Rouvre that even if I were free I could not receive a fortune from a young person whom I did not know? My mother refuses to see you again; I must therefore lose the happiness of our evenings; but surely you will not deprive me of the brief moments I can spend at your window? This evening, then-- Nothing can separate us.
"Take this to her, my old woman; she must not be unhappy one moment longer."
That afternoon at four o'clock, returning from the walk which he always took expressly to pass before Ursula's house, Savinien found his mistress waiting for him, her face a little pallid from these sudden changes and excitements.
"It seems to me that until now I have never known what the pleasure of seeing you is," she said to him.
"You once said to me," replied Savinien, smiling,--"for I remember all your words,--'Love lives by patience; we will wait!' Dear, you have separated love from faith. Ah! this shall be the end of our quarrels; we will never have another. You have claimed to love me better than I love you, but--did I ever doubt you?" he said, offering her a bouquet of wild-flowers arranged to express his thoughts.
"You have never had any reason to doubt me," she replied; "and, besides, you don't know all," she added, in a troubled voice.
Ursula had refused to receive letters by the post. But that afternoon, without being able even to guess at the nature of the trick, she had found, a few moments before Savinien's arrival, a letter tossed on her sofa which contained the words: "Tremble! a rejected lover can become a tiger."
Withstanding Savinien's entreaties, she refused to tell him, out of prudence, the secret of her fears. The delight of seeing him again, after she had thought him lost to her, could alone have made her recover from the mortal chill of terror. The expectation of indefinite evil is torture to every one; suffering assumes the proportions of the unknown, and the unknown is the infinite of the soul. To Ursula the pain was exquisite. Something without her bounded at the slightest noise; yet she was afraid of silence, and suspected even the walls of collusion. Even her sleep was restless. Goupil, who knew nothing of her nature, delicate as that of a flower, had found, with the instinct of evil, the poison that could wither and destroy her.
The next day passed without a shock. Ursula sat playing on her piano till very late; and went to bed easier in mind and very sleepy. About midnight she was awakened by the music of a band composed of a clarinet, hautboy, flute, cornet a piston, trombone, bassoon, flageolet, and triangle. All the neighbours were at their windows. The poor girl, already frightened at seeing the people in the street, received a dreadful shock as she heard the coarse, rough voice of a man proclaiming in loud tones: "For the beautiful Ursula Mirouet, from her lover."
The next day, Sunday, the whole town had heard of it; and as Ursula entered and left the church she saw the groups of people who stood gossiping about her, and felt herself the object of their terrible curiosity. The serenade set all tongues wagging, and conjectures were rife on all sides. Ursula reached home more dead than alive, determined not to leave the house again,--the abbe having advised her to say vespers in her own room. As she entered the house she saw lying in the passage, which was floored with brick, a letter which had evidently been slipped under the door. She picked it up and read it, under the idea that it would obtain an explanation. It was as follows:--
"Resign yourself to becoming my wife, rich and idolized. I am resolved. If you are not mine living you shall be mine dead. To your refusal you may attribute not only your own misfortunes, but those which will fall on others.
"He who loves you, and whose wife you will be."
Curiously enough, at the very moment that the gentle victim of this plot was drooping like a cut flower, Mesdemoiselles Massin, Dionis, and Cremiere were envying her lot.
"She is a lucky girl," they were saying; "people talk of her, and court her, and quarrel about her. The serenade was charming; there was a cornet-a-piston."
"What's a piston?"
"A new musical instrument, as big as this, see!" replied Angelique Cremiere to Pamela Massin.
Early that morning Savinien had gone to Fontainebleau to endeavor to find out who had engaged the musicians of the regiment then in garrison. But as there were two men to each instrument it was impossible to find out which of them had gone to Nemours. The colonel forbade them to play for any private person in future without his permission. Savinien had an interview with the procureur du roi, Ursula's legal guardian, and explained to him the injury these scenes would do to a young girl naturally so delicate and sensitive, begging him to take some action to discover the author of such wrong.
Three nights later three violins, a flute, a guitar, and a hautboy began another serenade. This time the musicians fled towards Montargis, where there happened then to be a company of comic actors. A loud and ringing voice called out as they left: "To the daughter of the regimental bandsman Mirouet." By this means all Nemours came to know the profession of Ursula's father, a secret the old doctor had sedulously kept.
Savinien did not go to Montargis. He received in the course of the day an anonymous letter containing a prophecy:--
"You will never marry Ursula. If you wish her to live, give her up at once to a man who loves her more than you love her. He has made himself a musician and an artist to please her, and he would rather see her dead than let her be your wife."
The doctor came to Ursula three times in the course of that day, for she was really in danger of death from the horror of this mysterious persecution. Feeling that some infernal hand had plunged her into the mire, the poor girl lay like a martyr; she said nothing, but lifted her eyes to heaven, and wept no more; she seemed awaiting other blows, and prayed fervently.
"I am glad I cannot go down into the salon," she said to Monsieur Bongrand and the abbe, who left her as little as possible; "HE would come, and I am now unworthy of the looks with which HE blessed me. Do you think HE will suspect me?"
"If Savinien does not discover the author of these infamies he means to get the assistance of the Paris police," said Bongrand.
"Whoever it is will know I am dying," said Ursula; "and will cease to trouble me."
The abbe, Bongrand, and Savinien were lost in conjectures and suspicions. Together with Tiennette, La Bougival, and two persons on whom the abbe could rely, they kept the closest watch and were on their guard night and day for a week; but no indiscretion could betray Goupil, whose machinations were known to himself only. There were no more serenades and no more letters, and little by little the watch relaxed. Bongrand thought the author of the wrong was frightened; Savinien believed that the procureur du roi to whom he had sent the letters received by Ursula and himself and his mother, had taken steps to put an end to the persecution.
The armistice was not of long duration, however. When the doctor had checked the nervous fever from which poor Ursula was suffering, and just as she was recovering her courage, a rope-ladder was found, early one morning in July, attached to her window. The postilion of the mail-post declared that as he drove past the house in the middle of the night a small man was in the act of coming down the ladder, and though he tried to pull up, his horses, being startled, carried him down the hill so fast that he was out of Nemours before he stopped them. Some of the persons who frequented Dionis's salon attributed these manoeuvres to the Marquis du Rouvre, then much hampered in means, for Massin held his notes to a large amount. It was said that a prompt marriage of his daughter to Savinien would save Chateau du Rouvre from his creditors; and Madame de Portenduere, the gossips added, would approve of anything that would discredit and degrade Ursula and lead to this marriage of her son.
So far from this being true, the old lady was well-nigh vanquished by the sufferings of the innocent girl. The abbe was so painfully overcome by this act of infernal wickedness that he fell ill himself and was kept to the house for several days. Poor Ursula, to whom this last insult had caused a relapse, received by post a letter from the abbe, which was taken in by La Bougival on recognizing the handwriting. It was as follows:--
My child,--Leave Nemours, and thus evade the malice of your enemies. Perhaps they are seeking to endanger Savinien's life. I will tell you more when I am able to go to you.
Your devoted friend,
When Savinien, who was almost maddened by these proceedings, carried this letter to the abbe, the poor priest read it and re-read it; so amazed and horror-stricken was he to see the perfection with which his own handwriting and signature were imitated. The dangerous condition into which this last atrocity threw poor Ursula sent Savinien once more to the procureur du roi with the forged letter.
"A murder is being committed by means that the law cannot touch," he said, "upon an orphan whom the Code places in your care as legal guardian. What is to be done?"
"If you can find any means of repression," said the official, "I will adopt them; but I know of none. That infamous wretch gives the best advice. Mademoiselle Mirouet must be sent to the sisters of the Adoration of the Sacred Heart. Meanwhile the commissary of police at Fontainebleau shall at my request authorize you to carry arms in your own defence. I have been myself to Rouvre, and I found Monsieur du Rouvre justly indignant at the suspicions some of the Nemours people have put upon him. Minoret, the father of my assistant, is in treaty for the purchase of the estate. Mademoiselle is to marry a rich Polish count; and Monsieur du Rouvre himself left the neighbourhood the day I saw him, to avoid arrest for debt."
Desire Minoret, when questioned by his chief, dared not tell his thought. He recognized Goupil. Goupil, he fully believed, was the only man capable of carrying a persecution to the very verge of the penal code without infringing a hair's-breadth upon it.