CHAPTER XIII - BETROTHAL OF HEARTS
This rupture between the Portendueres and Doctor Minoret gave talk among the heirs for a week; they did homage to the genius of Dionis, and regarded their inheritance as rescued.
So, in an age when ranks are leveled, when the mania for equality puts everybody on one footing and threatens to destroy all bulwarks, even military subordination,--that last refuge of power in France, where passions have now no other obstacles to overcome than personal antipathies, or differences of fortune,--the obstinacy of an old- fashioned Breton woman and the dignity of Doctor Minoret created a barrier between these lovers, which was to end, as such obstacles often do, not in destroying but in strengthening love. To an ardent man a woman's value is that which she costs him; Savinien foresaw a struggle, great efforts, many uncertainties, and already the young girl was rendered dearer to him; he was resolved to win her. Perhaps our feelings obey the laws of nature as to the lastingness of her creations; to a long life a long childhood.
The next morning, when they woke, Ursula and Savinien had the same thought. An intimate understanding of this kind would create love if it were not already its most precious proof. When the young girl parted her curtains just far enough to let her eyes take in Savinien's window, she saw the face of her lover above the fastening of his. When one reflects on the immense services that windows render to lovers it seems natural and right that a tax should be levied on them. Having thus protested against her godfather's harshness, Ursula dropped the curtain and opened her window to close the outer blinds, through which she could continue to see without being seen herself. Seven or eight times during the day she went up to her room, always to find the young viscount writing, tearing up what he had written, and then writing again--to her, no doubt!
The next morning when she woke La Bougival gave her the following letter:--
To Mademoiselle Ursula:
Mademoiselle,--I do not conceal from myself the distrust a young man inspires when he has placed himself in the position from which your godfather's kindness released me. I know that I must in future give greater guarantees of good conduct than other men; therefore, mademoiselle, it is with deep humility that I place myself at your feet and ask you to consider my love. This declaration is not dictated by passion; it comes from an inward certainty which involves the whole of life. A foolish infatuation for my young aunt, Madame de Kergarouet, was the cause of my going to prison; will you not regard as a proof of my sincere love the total disappearance of those wishes, of that image, now effaced from my heart by yours? No sooner did I see you, asleep and so engaging in your childlike slumber at Bouron, than you occupied my soul as a queen takes possession of her empire. I will have no other wife than you. You have every qualification I desire in her who is to bear my name. The education you have received and the dignity of your own mind, place you on the level of the highest positions. But I doubt myself too much to dare describe you to yourself; I can only love you. After listening to you yesterday I recalled certain words which seem as though written for you; suffer me to transcribe them:--
"Made to draw all hearts and charm all eyes, gentle and intelligent, spiritual yet able to reason, courteous as though she had passed her life at court, simple as the hermit who had never known the world, the fire of her soul is tempered in her eyes by sacred modesty."
I feel the value of the noble soul revealed in you by many, even the most trifling, things. This it is which gives me the courage to ask you, provided you love no one else, to let me prove to you by my conduct and my devotion that I am not unworthy of you. It concerns my very life; you cannot doubt that all my powers will be employed, not only in trying to please you, but in deserving your esteem, which is more precious to me than any other upon earth. With this hope, Ursula--if you will suffer me so to call you in my heart--Nemours will be to me a paradise, the hardest tasks will bring me joys derived through you, as life itself is derived from God. Tell me that I may call myself
Ursula kissed the letter; then, having re-read it and clasped it with passionate motions, she dressed herself eagerly to carry it to her uncle.
"Ah, my God! I nearly forgot to say my prayers!" she exclaimed, turning back to kneel on her prie-Dieu.
A few moments later she went down to the garden, where she found her godfather and made him read the letter. They both sat down on a bench under the arch of climbing plants opposite to the Chinese pagoda. Ursula awaited the old man's words, and the old man reflected long, too long for the impatient young girl. At last, the result of their secret interview appeared in the following answer, part of which the doctor undoubtedly dictated.
To Monsieur le Vicomte Savinien de Portenduere:
Monsieur,--I cannot be otherwise than greatly honored by the letter in which you offer me your hand; but, at my age, and according to the rules of my education, I have felt bound to communicate it to my godfather, who is all I have, and whom I love as a father and also as a friend. I must now tell you the painful objections which he has made to me, and which must be to you my answer.
Monsieur le vicomte, I am a poor girl, whose fortune depends entirely, not only on my godfather's good-will, but also on the doubtful success of the measures he may take to elude the schemes of his relatives against me. Though I am the legitimate daughter of Joseph Mirouet, band-master of the 45th regiment of infantry, my father himself was my godfather's natural half-brother; and therefore these relatives may, though without reason, being a suit against a young girl who would be defenceless. You see, monsieur, that the smallness of my fortune is not my greatest misfortune. I have many things to make me humble. It is for your sake, and not for my own, that I lay before you these facts, which to loving and devoted hearts are sometimes of little weight. But I beg you to consider, monsieur, that if I did not submit them to you, I might be suspected of leading your tenderness to overlook obstacles which the world, and more especially your mother, regard as insuperable.
I shall be sixteen in four months. Perhaps you will admit that we are both too young and too inexperienced to understand the miseries of a life entered upon without other fortune than that I have received from the kindness of the late Monsieur de Jordy. My godfather desires, moreover, not to marry me until I am twenty. Who knows what fate may have in store for you in four years, the finest years of your life? do not sacrifice them to a poor girl.
Having thus explained to you, monsieur, the opinions of my dear godfather, who, far from opposing my happiness, seeks to contribute to it in every way, and earnestly desires that his protection, which must soon fail me, may be replaced by a tenderness equal to his own; there remains only to tell you how touched I am by your offer and by the compliments which accompany it. The prudence which dictates my letter is that of an old man to whom life is well-known; but the gratitude I express is that of a young girl, in whose soul no other sentiment has arisen.
Therefore, monsieur, I can sign myself, in all sincerity,
Savinien made no reply. Was he trying to soften his mother? Had this letter put an end to his love? Many such questions, all insoluble, tormented poor Ursula, and, by repercussion, the doctor too, who suffered from every agitation of his darling child. Ursula went often to her chamber to look at Savinien, whom she usually found sitting pensively before his table with his eyes turned towards her window. At the end of the week, but no sooner, she received a letter from him; the delay was explained by his increasing love.
To Mademoiselle Ursula Mirouet:
Dear Ursula,--I am a Breton, and when my mind is once made up nothing can change me. Your godfather, whom may God preserve to us, is right; but does it follow that I am wrong in loving you? Therefore, all I want to know from you is whether you could love me. Tell me this, if only by a sign, and then the next four years will be the finest of my life.
A friend of mine has delivered to my great-uncle, Vice-admiral Kergarouet, a letter in which I asked his help to enter the navy. The kind old man, grieved at my misfortune, replies that even the king's favor would be thwarted by the rules of the service in case I wanted a certain rank. Nevertheless, if I study three months at Toulon, the minister of war can send me to sea as master's mate; then after a cruise against the Algerines, with whom we are now at war, I can go through an examination and become a midshipman. Moreover, if I distinguish myself in an expedition they are fitting out against Algiers, I shall certainly be made ensign--but how soon? that no one can tell. Only, they will make the rules as elastic as possible to have the name of Portenduere again in the navy.
I see very plainly that I can only hope to obtain you from your godfather; and your respect for him makes you still dearer to me. Before replying to the admiral, I must have an interview with the doctor; on his reply my whole future will depend. Whatever comes of it, know this, that rich or poor, the daughter of a band master or the daughter of a king, you are the woman whom the voice of my heart points out to me. Dear Ursula, we live in times when prejudices which might once have separated us have no power to prevent our marriage. To you, then, I offer the feelings of my heart, to your uncle the guarantees which secure to him your happiness. He has not seen that I, in a few hours, came to love you more than he has loved you in fifteen years.
Until this evening.
"Here, godfather," said Ursula, holding the letter out to him with a proud gesture.
"Ah, my child!" cried the doctor when he had read it, "I am happier than even you. He repairs all his faults by this resolution."
After dinner Savinien presented himself, and found the doctor walking with Ursula by the balustrade of the terrace overlooking the river. The viscount had received his clothes from Paris, and had not missed heightening his natural advantages by a careful toilet, as elegant as though he were striving to please the proud and beautiful Comtesse de Kergarouet. Seeing him approach her from the portico, the poor girl clung to her uncle's arm as though she were saving herself from a fall over a precipice, and the doctor heard the beating of her heart, which made him shudder.
"Leave us, my child," he said to the girl, who went to the pagoda and sat upon the steps, after allowing Savinien to take her hand and kiss it respectfully.
"Monsieur, will you give this dear hand to a naval captain?" he said to the doctor in a low voice.
"No," said Minoret, smiling; "we might have to wait too long, but--I will give her to a lieutenant."
Tears of joy filled the young man's eyes as he pressed the doctor's hand affectionately.
"I am about to leave," he said, "to study hard and try to learn in six months what the pupils of the Naval School take six years to acquire."
"You are going?" said Ursula, springing towards them from the pavilion.
"Yes, mademoiselle, to deserve you. Therefore the more eager I am to go, the more I prove to you my affection."
"This is the 3rd of October," she said, looking at him with infinite tenderness; "do not go till after the 19th."
"Yes," said the old man, "we will celebrate Saint-Savinien's day."
"Good-by, then," cried the young man. "I must spend this week in Paris, to take the preliminary steps, buy books and mathematical instruments, and try to conciliate the minister and get the best terms that I can for myself."
Ursula and her godfather accompanied Savinien to the gate. Soon after he entered his mother's house they saw him come out again, followed by Tiennette carrying his valise.
"If you are rich," said Ursula to her uncle, "why do you make him serve in the navy?"
"Presently it will be I who incurred his debts," said the doctor, smiling. "I don't oblige him to do anything; but the uniform, my dear, and the cross of the Legion of honor, won in battle, will wipe out many stains. Before six years are over he may be in command of a ship, and that's all I ask of him."
"But he may be killed," she said, turning a pale face upon the doctor.
"Lovers, like drunkards, have a providence of their own," he said, laughing.
That night the poor child, with La Bougival's help, cut off a sufficient quantity of her long and beautiful blond hair to make a chain; and the next day she persuaded old Schmucke, the music-master, to take it to Paris and have the chain made and returned by the following Sunday. When Savinien got back he informed the doctor and Ursula that he had signed his articles and was to be at Brest on the 25th. The doctor asked him to dinner on the 18th, and he passed nearly two whole days in the old man's house. Notwithstanding much sage advice and many resolutions, the lovers could not help betraying their secret understanding to the watchful eyes of the abbe, Monsieur Bongrand, the Nemours doctor, and La Bougival.
"Children," said the old man, "you are risking your happiness by not keeping it to yourselves."
On the fete-day, after mass, during which several glances had been exchanged, Savinien, watched by Ursula, crossed the road and entered the little garden where the pair were practically alone; for the kind old man, by way of indulgence, was reading his newspapers in the pagoda.
"Dear Ursula," said Savinien; "will you make a gift greater than my mother could make me even if--"
"I know what you wish to ask me," she said, interrupting him. "See, here is my answer," she added, taking from the pocket of her apron the box containing the chain made of her hair, and offering it to him with a nervous tremor which testified to her illimitable happiness. "Wear it," she said, "for love of me. May it shield you from all dangers by reminding you that my life depends on yours."
"Naughty little thing! she is giving him a chain of her hair," said the doctor to himself. "How did she manage to get it? what a pity to cut those beautiful fair tresses; she will be giving him my life's blood next."
"You will not blame me if I ask you to give me, now that I am leaving you, a formal promise to have no other husband than me," said Savinien, kissing the chain and looking at Ursula with tears in his eyes.
"Have I not said so too often--I who went to see the walls of Sainte- Pelagie when you were behind them?--" she replied, blushing. "I repeat it, Savinien; I shall never love any one but you, and I will be yours alone."
Seeing that Ursula was half-hidden by the creepers, the young man could not deny himself the happiness of pressing her to his heart and kissing her forehead; but she gave a feeble cry and dropped upon the bench, and when Savinien sat beside her, entreating pardon, he saw the doctor standing before them.
"My friend," said the old man, "Ursula is a born sensitive; too rough a word might kill her. For her sake you must moderate the enthusiasm of your love--Ah! if you had loved her for sixteen years as I have, you would have been satisfied with her word of promise," he added, to revenge himself for the last sentence in Savinien's second letter.
Two days later the young man departed. In spite of the letters which he wrote regularly to Ursula, she fell a prey to an illness without apparent cause. Like a fine fruit with a worm at the core, a single thought gnawed her heart. She lost both appetite and color. The first time her godfather asked her what she felt, she replied:--
"I want to see the ocean."
"It is difficult to take you to a sea-port in the depth of winter," answered the old man.
"Shall I really go?" she said.
If the wind was high, Ursula was inwardly convulsed, certain, in spite of the learned assurances of the doctor and the abbe, that Savinien was being tossed about in a whirlwind. Monsieur Bongrand made her happy for days with the gift of an engraving representing a midshipman in uniform. She read the newspapers, imagining that they would give news of the cruiser on which her lover sailed. She devoured Cooper's sea-tales and learned to use sea-terms. Such proofs of concentration of feeling, often assumed by other women, were so genuine in Ursula that she saw in dreams the coming of Savinien's letters, and never failed to announce them, relating the dream as a forerunner.
"Now," she said to the doctor the fourth time that this happened, "I am easy; wherever Savinien may be, if he is wounded I shall know it instantly."
The old doctor thought over this remark so anxiously that the abbe and Monsieur Bongrand were troubled by the sorrowful expression of his face.
"What pains you?" they said, when Ursula had left them.
"Will she live?" replied the doctor. "Can so tender and delicate a flower endure the trials of the heart?"
Nevertheless, the "little dreamer," as the abbe called her, was working hard. She understood the importance of a fine education to a woman of the world, and all the time she did not give to her singing and to the study of harmony and composition she spent in reading the books chosen for her by the abbe from her godfather's rich library. And yet while leading this busy life she suffered, though without complaint. Sometimes she would sit for hours looking at Savinien's window. On Sundays she would leave the church behind Madame de Portenduere and watch her tenderly; for, in spite of the old lady's harshness, she loved her as Savinien's mother. Her piety increased; she went to mass every morning, for she firmly believed that her dreams were the gift of God.
At last her godfather, frightened by the effects produced by this nostalgia of love, promised on her birthday to take her to Toulon to see the departure of the fleet for Algiers. Savinien's ship formed part of it, but he was not to be informed beforehand of their intention. The abbe and Monsieur Bongrand kept secret the object of this journey, said to be for Ursula's health, which disturbed and greatly puzzled the relations. After beholding Savinien in his naval uniform, and going on board the fine flag-ship of the admiral, to whom the minister had given young Portenduere a special recommendation, Ursula, at her lover's entreaty, went with her godfather to Nice, and along the shores of the Mediterranean to Genoa, where she heard of the safe arrival of the fleet at Algiers and the landing of the troops. The doctor would have liked to continue the journey through Italy, as much to distract Ursula's mind as to finish, in some sense, her education, by enlarging her ideas through comparison with other manners and customs and countries, and by the fascination of a land where the masterpieces of art can still be seen, and where so many civilizations have left their brilliant traces. But the tidings of the opposition by the throne to the newly elected Chamber of 1830 obliged the doctor to return to France, bringing back his treasure in a flourishing state of health and possessed of a charming little model of the ship on which Savinien was serving.
The elections of 1830 united into an active body the various Minoret relations,--Desire and Goupil having formed a committee in Nemours by whose efforts a liberal candidate was put in nomination at Fontainebleau. Massin, as collector of taxes, exercised an enormous influence over the country electors. Five of the post master's farmers were electors. Dionis represented eleven votes. After a few meetings at the notary's, Cremiere, Massin, the post master, and their adherents took a habit of assembling there. By the time the doctor returned, Dionis's office and salon were the camp of his heirs. The justice of peace and the mayor, who had formed an alliance, backed by the nobility in the neighbouring castles, to resist the liberals of Nemours, now worsted in their efforts, were more closely united than ever by their defeat.
By the time Bongrand and the Abbe Chaperon were able to tell the doctor by word of mouth the result of the antagonism, which was defined for the first time, between the two classes in Nemours (giving incidentally such importance to his heirs) Charles X. had left Rambouillet for Cherbourg. Desire Minoret, whose opinions were those of the Paris bar, sent for fifteen of his friends, commanded by Goupil and mounted on horses from his father's stable, who arrived in Paris on the night of the 28th. With this troop Goupil and Desire took part in the capture of the Hotel-de-Veille. Desire was decorated with the Legion of honor and appointed deputy procureur du roi at Fontainebleau. Goupil received the July cross. Dionis was elected mayor of Nemours, and the city council was composed of the post master (now assistant-mayor), Massin, Cremiere, and all the adherents of the family faction. Bongrand retained his place only through the influence of his son, procureur du roi at Melun, whose marriage with Mademoiselle Levrault was then on the tapis.
Seeing the three-per-cents quoted at forty-five, the doctor started by post for Paris, and invested five hundred and forty thousand francs in shares to bearer. The rest of his fortune which amounted to about two hundred and seventy thousand francs, standing in his own name in the same funds, gave him ostensibly an income of fifteen thousand francs a year. He made the same disposition of Ursula's little capital bequeathed to her by de Jordy, together with the accrued interest thereon, which gave her about fourteen hundred francs a year in her own right. La Bougival, who had laid by some five thousand francs of her savings, did the same by the doctor's advice, receiving in future three hundred and fifty francs a year in dividends. These judicious transactions, agreed on between the doctor and Monsieur Bongrand, were carried out in perfect secrecy, thanks to the political troubles of the time.
When quiet was again restored the doctor bought the little house which adjoined his own and pulled it down so as to build a coach-house and stables on its side. To employ a capital which would have given him a thousand francs a year on outbuildings seemed actual folly to the Minoret heirs. This folly, if it were one, was the beginning of a new era in the doctor's existence, for he now (at a period when horses and carriages were almost given away) brought back from Paris three fine horses and a caleche.
When, in the early part of November, 1830, the old man came to church on a rainy day in the new carriage, and gave his hand to Ursula to help her out, all the inhabitants flocked to the square,--as much to see the caleche and question the coachman, as to criticize the goddaughter, to whose excessive pride and ambition Massin, Cremiere, the post master, and their wives attributed this extravagant folly of the old man.
"A caleche! Hey, Massin!" cried Goupil. "Your inheritance will go at top speed now!"
"You ought to be getting good wages, Cabirolle," said the post master to the son of one of his conductors, who stood by the horses; "for it is to be supposed an old man of eighty-four won't use up many horse- shoes. What did those horses cost?"
"Four thousand francs. The caleche, though second-hand, was two thousand; but it's a fine one, the wheels are patent."
"Yes, it's a good carriage," said Cremiere; "and a man must be rich to buy that style of thing."
"Ursula means to go at a good pace," said Goupil. "She's right; she's showing you how to enjoy life. Why don't you have fine carriages and horses, papa Minoret? I wouldn't let myself be humiliated if I were you--I'd buy a carriage fit for a prince."
"Come, Cabirolle, tell us," said Massin, "is it the girl who drives our uncle into such luxury?"
"I don't know," said Cabirolle; "but she is almost mistress of the house. There are masters upon masters down from Paris. They say now she is going to study painting."
"Then I shall seize the occasion to have my portrait drawn," said Madame Cremiere.
In the provinces they always say a picture is drawn, not painted.
"The old German is not dismissed, is he?" said Madame Massin.
"He was there yesterday," replied Cabirolle.
"Now," said Goupil, "you may as well give up counting on your inheritance. Ursula is seventeen years old, and she is prettier than ever. Travel forms young people, and the little minx has got your uncle in the toils. Five or six parcels come down for her by the diligence every week, and the dressmakers and milliners come too, to try on her gowns and all the rest of it. Madame Dionis is furious. Watch for Ursula as she comes out of church and look at the little scarf she is wearing round her neck,--real cashmere, and it cost six hundred francs!"
If a thunderbolt had fallen in the midst of the heirs the effect would have been less than that of Goupil's last words; the mischief-maker stood by rubbing his hands.
The doctor's old green salon had been renovated by a Parisian upholsterer. Judged by the luxury displayed, he was sometimes accused of hoarding immense wealth, sometimes of spending his capital on Ursula. The heirs called him in turn a miser and a spendthrift, but the saying, "He's an old fool!" summed upon, on the whole, the verdict of the neighbourhood. These mistaken judgments of the little town had the one advantage of misleading the heirs, who never suspected the love between Savinien and Ursula, which was the secret reason of the doctor's expenditure. The old man took the greatest delights in accustoming his godchild to her future station in the world. Possessing an income of over fifty thousand francs a year, it gave him pleasure to adorn his idol.
In the month of February, 1832, the day when Ursula was eighteen, her eyes beheld Savinien in the uniform of an ensign as she looked from her window when she rose in the morning.
"Why didn't I know he was coming?" she said to herself.
After the taking of Algiers, Savinien had distinguished himself by an act of courage which won him the cross. The corvette on which he was serving was many months at sea without his being able to communicate with the doctor; and he did not wish to leave the service without consulting him. Desirous of retaining in the navy a name already illustrious in its service, the new government had profited by a general change of officers to make Savinien an ensign. Having obtained leave of absence for fifteen days, the new officer arrived from Toulon by the mail, in time for Ursula's fete, intending to consult the doctor at the same time.
"He has come!" cried Ursula rushing into her godfather's bedroom.
"Very good," he answered; "I can guess what brings him, and he may now stay in Nemours."
"Ah! that's my birthday present--it is all in that sentence," she said, kissing him.
On a sign, which she ran up to make from her window, Savinien came over at once; she longed to admire him, for he seemed to her so changed for the better. Military service does, in fact, give a certain grave decision to the air and carriage and gestures of a man, and an erect bearing which enables the most superficial observer to recognize a military man even in plain clothes. The habit of command produces this result. Ursula loved Savinien the better for it, and took a childlike pleasure in walking round the garden with him, taking his arm, and hearing him relate the part he played (as midshipman) in the taking of Algiers. Evidently Savinien had taken the city. The doctor, who had been watching them from his window as he dressed, soon came down. Without telling the viscount everything, he did say that, in case Madame de Portenduere consented to his marriage with Ursula, the fortune of his godchild would make his naval pay superfluous.
"Alas!" said Savinien. "It will take a great deal of time to overcome my mother's opposition. Before I left her to enter the navy she was placed between two alternatives,--either to consent to my marrying Ursula or else to see me only from time to time and to know me exposed to the dangers of the profession; and you see she chose to let me go."
"But, Savinien, we shall be together," said Ursula, taking his hand and shaking it with a sort of impatience.
To see each other and not to part,--that was the all of love to her; she saw nothing beyond it; and her pretty gesture and the petulant tone of her voice expressed such innocence that Savinien and the doctor were both moved by it. The resignation was written and despatched, and Ursula's fete received full glory from the presence of her betrothed. A few months later, towards the month of May, the home- life of the doctor's household had resumed the quite tenor of its way but with one welcome visitor the more. The attentions of the young viscount were soon interpreted in the town as those of a future husband,--all the more because his manners and those of Ursula, whether in church, or on the promenade, though dignified and reserved, betrayed the understanding of their hearts. Dionis pointed out to the heirs that the doctor had never asked Madame de Portenduere for the interest of his money, three years of which was now due.
"She'll be forced to yield, and consent to this derogatory marriage of her son," said the notary. "If such a misfortune happens it is probable that the greater part of your uncle's fortune will serve for what Basile calls 'an irresistible argument.'"