CHAPTER XX - REMORSE
An alarming circumstance hastened the confession which Minoret was inclined to make to Zelie; the sword of Damocles began to move above their heads. Towards the middle of October Monsieur and Madame Minoret received from their son Desire the following letter:--
My dear Mother,--If I have not been to see you since vacation, it is partly because I have been on duty during the absence of my chief, but also because I knew that Monsieur de Portenduere was waiting my arrival at Nemours, to pick a quarrel with me. Tired, perhaps, of seeing his vengeance on our family delayed, the viscount came to Fontainebleau, where he had appointed one of his Parisian friends to meet him, having already obtained the help of the Vicomte de Soulanges commanding the troop of cavalry here in garrison.
He called upon me, very politely, accompanied by the two gentlemen, and told me that my father was undoubtedly the instigator of the malignant persecutions against Ursula Mirouet, his future wife; he gave me proofs, and told me of Goupil's confession before witnesses. He also told me of my father's conduct, first in refusing to pay Goupil the price agreed on for his wicked invention, and next, out of fear of Goupil's malignity, going security to Monsieur Dionis for the price of his practice which Goupil is to have.
The viscount, not being able to fight a man sixty-seven years of age, and being determined to have satisfaction for the insults offered to Ursula, demanded it formally of me. His determination, having been well-weighed and considered, could not be shaken. If I refused, he was resolved to meet me in society before persons whose esteem I value, and insult me openly. In France, a coward is unanimously scorned. Besides, the motives for demanding reparation should be explained by honorable men. He said he was sorry to resort to such extremities. His seconds declared it would be wiser in me to arrange a meeting in the usual manner among men of honor, so that Ursula Mirouet might not be known as the cause of the quarrel; to avoid all scandal it was better to make a journey to the nearest frontier. In short, my seconds met his yesterday, and they unanimously agreed that I owed him reparation. A week from to-day I leave for Geneva with my two friends. Monsieur de Portenduere, Monsieur de Soulanges, and Monsieur de Trailles will meet me there.
The preliminaries of the duel are settled; we shall fight with pistols; each fires three times, and after that, no matter what happens, the affair terminates. To keep this degrading matter from public knowledge (for I find it impossible to justify my father's conduct) I do not go to see you now, because I dread the violence of the emotion to which you would yield and which would not be seemly. If I am to make my way in the world I must conform to the rules of society. If the son of a viscount has a dozen reasons for fighting a duel the son of a post master has a hundred. I shall pass the night in Nemours on my way to Geneva, and I will bid you good-by then.
After the reading of this letter a scene took place between Zelie and Minoret which ended in the latter confessing the theft and relating all the circumstances and the strange scenes connected with it, even Ursula's dreams. The million fascinated Zelie quite as much as it did Minoret.
"You stay quietly here," Zelie said to her husband, without the slightest remonstrance against his folly. "I'll manage the whole thing. We'll keep the money, and Desire shall not fight a duel."
Madame Minoret put on her bonnet and shawl and carried her son's letter to Ursula, whom she found alone, as it was about midday. In spite of her assurance Zelie was discomfited by the cold look which the young girl gave her. But she took herself to task for her cowardice and assumed an easy air.
"Here, Mademoiselle Mirouet, do me the kindness to read that and tell me what you think of it," she cried, giving Ursula her son's letter.
Ursula went through various conflicting emotions as she read the letter, which showed her how truly she was loved and what care Savinien took of the honor of the woman who was to be his wife; but she had too much charity and true religion to be willing to be the cause of death or suffering to her most cruel enemy.
"I promise, madame, to prevent the duel; you may feel perfectly easy, --but I must request you to leave me this letter."
"My dear little angel, can we not come to some better arrangement. Monsieur Minoret and I have acquired property about Rouvre,--a really regal castle, which gives us forty-eight thousand francs a year; we shall give Desire twenty-four thousand a year which we have in the Funds; in all, seventy thousand francs a year. You will admit that there are not many better matches than he. You are an ambitious girl, --and quite right too," added Zelie, seeing Ursula's quick gesture of denial; "I have therefore come to ask your hand for Desire. You will bear your godfather's name, and that will honor it. Desire, as you must have seen, is a handsome fellow; he is very much thought of at Fontainebleau, and he will soon be procureur du roi himself. You are a coaxing girl and can easily persuade him to live in Paris. We will give you a fine house there; you will shine; you will play a distinguished part; for, with seventy thousand francs a year and the salary of an office, you and Desire can enter the highest society. Consult your friends; you'll see what they tell you."
"I need only consult my heart, madame."
"Ta, ta, ta! now don't talk to me about that little lady-killer Savinien. You'd pay too high a price for his name, and for that little moustache curled up at the points like two hooks, and his black hair. How do you expect to manage on seven thousand francs a year, with a man who made two hundred thousand francs of debt in two years? Besides --though this is a thing you don't know yet--all men are alike; and without flattering myself too much, I may say that my Desire is the equal of a king's son."
"You forget, madame, the danger your son is in at this moment; which can, perhaps, be averted only by Monsieur de Portenduere's desire to please me. If he knew that you had made me these unworthy proposals that danger might not be escaped. Besides, let me tell you, madame, that I shall be far happier in the moderate circumstances to which you allude than I should be in the opulence with which you are trying to dazzle me. For reasons hitherto unknown, but which will yet be made known, Monsieur Minoret, by persecuting me in an odious manner, strengthened the affection that exists between Monsieur de Portenduere and myself--which I can now admit because his mother has blessed it. I will also tell you that this affection, sanctioned and legitimate, is life itself to me. No destiny, however brilliant, however lofty, could make me change. I love without the possibility of changing. It would therefore be a crime if I married a man to whom I could take nothing but a soul that is Savinien's. But, madame, since you force me to be explicit, I must tell you that even if I did not love Monsieur de Portenduere I could not bring myself to bear the troubles and joys of life in the company of your son. If Monsieur Savinien made debts, you have often paid those of your son. Our characters have neither the similarities nor the differences which enable two persons to live together without bitterness. Perhaps I should not have towards him the forbearance a wife owes to her husband; I should then be a trial to him. Pray cease to think of an alliance of which I count myself quite unworthy, and which I fell I can decline without pain to you; for with the great advantages you name to me, you cannot fail to find some girl of better station, more wealth, and more beauty than mine."
"Will you swear to me," said Zelie, "to prevent these young men from taking that journey and fighting that duel?"
"It will be, I foresee, the greatest sacrifice that Monsieur de Portenduere can make to me, but I shall tell him that my bridal crown must have no blood upon it."
"Well, I thank you, cousin, and I can only hope you will be happy."
"And I, madame, sincerely wish that you may realize all your expectations for the future of your son."
These words struck a chill to the heart of the mother, who suddenly remembered the predictions of Ursula's last dream; she stood still, her small eyes fixed on Ursula's face, so white, so pure, so beautiful in her mourning dress, for Ursula had risen too to hasten her so- called cousin's departure.
"Do you believe in dreams?" said Zelie.
"I suffer from them too much not to do so."
"But if you do--" began Zelie.
"Adieu, madame," exclaimed Ursula, bowing to Madame Minoret as she heard the abbe's entering step.
The priest was surprised to find Madame Minoret with Ursula. The uneasiness depicted on the thin and wrinkled face of the former post mistress induced him to take note of the two women.
"Do you believe in spirits?" Zelie asked him.
"What do you believe in?" he answered, smiling.
"They are all sly," thought Zelie,--"every one of them! They want to deceive us. That old priest and the old justice and that young scamp Savinien have got some plan in their heads. Dreams! no more dreams than there are hairs on the palm of my hand."
With two stiff, curt bows she left the room.
"I know why Savinien went to Fontainebleau," said Ursula to the abbe, telling him about the duel and begging him to use his influence to prevent it.
"Did Madame Minoret offer you her son's hand?" asked the abbe.
"Minoret has no doubt confessed his crime to her," added the priest.
Monsieur Bongrand, who came in at this moment, was told of the step taken by Zelie, whose hatred to Ursula was well known to him. He looked at the abbe as if to say: "Come out, I want to speak to you of Ursula without her hearing me."
"Savinien must be told that you refused eighty thousand francs a year and the dandy of Nemours," he said aloud.
"Is it, then, a sacrifice?" she answered, laughing. "Are there sacrifices when one truly loves? Is it any merit to refuse the son of a man we all despise? Others may make virtues of their dislikes, but that ought not to be the morality of a girl brought up by a de Jordy, and the abbe, and my dear godfather," she said, looking up at his portrait.
Bongrand took Ursula's hand and kissed it.
"Do you know what Madame Minoret came about?" said the justice as soon as they were in the street.
"What?" asked the priest, looking at Bongrand with an air that seemed merely curious.
"She had some plan for restitution."
"Then you think--" began the abbe.
"I don't think, I know; I have the certainty--and see there!"
So saying, Bongrand pointed to Minoret, who was coming towards them on his way home.
"When I was a lawyer in the criminal courts," continued Bongrand, "I naturally had many opportunities to study remorse; but I have never seen any to equal that of this man. What gives him that flaccidity, that pallor of the cheeks where the skin was once as tight as a drum and bursting with the good sound health of a man without a care? What has put those black circles round his eyes and dulled their rustic vivacity? Did you ever expect to see lines of care on that forehead? Who would have supposed that the brain of that colossus could be excited? The man has felt his heart! I am a judge of remorse, just as you are a judge of repentance, my dear abbe. That which I have hitherto observed has developed in men who were awaiting punishment, or enduring it to get quits with the world; they were either resigned, or breathing vengeance; but here is remorse without expiation, remorse pure and simple, fastening on its prey and rending him."
The judge stopped Minoret and said: "Do you know that Mademoiselle Mirouet has refused your son's hand?"
"But," interposed the abbe, "do not be uneasy; she will prevent the duel."
"Ah, then my wife succeeded?" said Minoret. "I am very glad, for it nearly killed me."
"You are, indeed, so changed that you are no longer like yourself," remarked Bongrand.
Minoret looked alternately at the two men to see if the priest had betrayed the dreams; but the abbe's face was unmoved, expressing only a calm sadness which reassured the guilty man.
"And it is the more surprising," went on Monsieur Bongrand, "because you ought to be filled with satisfaction. You are lord of Rouvre and all those farms and mills and meadows and--with your investments in the Funds, you have an income of one hundred thousand francs--"
"I haven't anything in the Funds," cried Minoret, hastily.
"Pooh," said Bongrand; "this is just as it was about your son's love for Ursula,--first he denied it, and now he asks her in marriage. After trying to kill Ursula with sorrow you now want her for a daughter-in-law. My good friend, you have got some secret in your pouch."
Minoret tried to answer; he searched for words and could find nothing better than:--
"You're very queer, monsieur. Good-day, gentlemen"; and he turned with a slow step into the Rue des Bourgeois.
"He has stolen the fortune of our poor Ursula," said Bongrand, "but how can we ever find the proof?"
"God has put into us the sentiment that is now appealing to that man; but all that is merely what is called 'presumptive,' and human justice requires something more."
The abbe maintained the silence of a priest. As often happens in similar circumstances, he thought much oftener than he wished to think of the robbery, now almost admitted by Minoret, and of Savinien's happiness, delayed only by Ursula's loss of fortune--for the old lady had privately owned to him that she knew she had done wrong in not consenting to the marriage in the doctor's lifetime.