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Honore De Balzac - Ursule Mirouet (1841)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Balzac considered this novel a "most beautiful piece of work." He dedicated it to his niece, saying: "You young girls are a public to be dreaded; you ought never to be suffered to read any book less pure than your own pure souls."

N 1778, Mesmer, the discoverer of animal magnetism, settled in Paris, where he created a great sensation by the practise of his art. He was bitterly opposed by the physicians of the city, chief among whom was Dr. Minoret, a member of the circle known as encyclopedists, and at last he was driven from Paris to end his days in poverty and exile.

Though an ardent atheist and a Republican, Dr. Minoret had married a devout Catholic and Royalist, Ursule, daughter of Valentin Mirouet, the famous harpsichord-player. During the Revolution she died of an aneurism, precipitated by the sight of Madame Roland on her way to the guillotine. She left no children to be a solace to her desolated husband.

Now her father, Valentin Mirouet, had a natural son, known as Joseph Mirouet, whom he recognized but never legitimatized out of regard for his daughter, Madame Minoret. Handsome, a divine singer, Joseph was withal wayward, and ran away in early manhood to make a career for himself. At the age of forty he married a music-mad daughter of a merchant in Hamburg. The blissful pair ran through with her fortune in less than a year, when, happily ignorant of this fact, the wife died in giving birth to a daughter. Joseph drifted with the infant to Paris, shortly before the capitulation of that city in 1814, and, humbled by poverty, took a situation as regimental bandmaster. Worn out by grief and privation, he became mortally ill, and was taken to the camp hospital, where Dr. Minoret chanced to find him. The physician made the last

hours of the dying man happy by adopting the child, standing godfather to her (though "church mummeries" were repugnant to him) and christening her with the name of his beloved wife, Ursule. Thenceforth the doctor began to live for little Ursule alone, He would sometimes tell his friends that he suffered from pain in his teeth when the baby was cutting hers.

Feeling that Paris in those troublous times was no place in which to rear a child, the old man thought of his birthplace, Nemours, which he had not visited since he was a young man. Having purchased a suitable house there through an agent, he suddenly made his appearance in that provincial seat, creating the greatest possible excitement among its citizens, for Nemours was inhabited chiefly by an intermixture of families of which the clan Minoret furnished the common base. There were such families as Massin-Minoret, Minoret-Minoret, Minoret-Levrault, Minoret-Cremiere, besides offshoots such as Minoret-Francois and Jean-Minoret—enough to madden a Father Anselme, if Nemours ever required a genealogist.

The advent of the old doctor, reputed to be fabulously rich, and with no relatives nearer than themselves, became the sole topic of discussion in most of the households of the city, and the occasion of numerous family councils. Desire Minoret-Levrault, the postmaster's son, a dandified young law-student of Paris, home on his vacation, looked up the laws on inheritance, and announced that the law would probably refuse to recognize a will made by the old man in favor of Ursule, since, though herself born in lawful wedlock, her father was an illegitimate child, and it was impossible to prove the existence of that tie of kinship between testator and inheritor which the State, in defense of legitimate relationship, had made requisite. At the worst, the old man would probably bequeath her a competency. There was one sure consolation, said the smart young legal aspirant to his mother, Zelie, the old man was a confirmed atheist, and would leave nothing to the Church. "Thank God!" ejaculated the pious woman.

Dr. Minoret had little to do with his relatives. He attached to himself two warm friends, the Abbe Chaperon and Monsieur Bongrand, the judge of the district. The friends became as devoted to Ursule as was the doctor. In deference to the desire expressed by her dying father, Ursule's guardian permitted the Abbe to instruct the little girl in the Catholic religion. Under the guidance of this devout man, Ursule became a pious and mystical creature, with whom the love of God was inextricably entwined with the love of her godfather. When she set out for her first communion in her pretty white frock, with her eyes shining like stars, she said to the admiring old man : "Why are you not coming too, godfather? Am I to be happy without you?" Then it was that a secret struggle began between infidel old age and devout youth which was destined to set the town by the ears.

This contest culminated in victory for Ursule through a very curious experience of the doctor's. Since his retirement to Nemours, the science of imponderable agents had been developed to account for the phenomena of mesmerism. The materialists could not successfully combat it, and so an old colleague of Dr. Minoret in his fight with Mesmer called on him to return to Paris to confute a new "charlatan" that had arisen, practising the same cult.

This man, by the visions of a medium whom he threw into a magnetic trance, claimed to be able to tell what was occurring at a distance, thereby proving the existence of a spiritual world dominated by higher than physical laws.

Dr. Minoret called upon this so-called impostor, and to his surprise found him a man of noble presence and great dignity of manner. The mesmerist caused his medium to pass into a trance, and invited his visitor to test her clairvoyance. The doctor asked her what Ursule was doing at Nemours, and also of what she was thinking.

"She is marking a tiny red spot opposite Saint Savinien's day in the calendar, and she is thinking of a young man who bears that name," was the answer.

"Ah," ejaculated the doctor, "the son of Madame de Portenduere, our neighbor!"

Dr. Minoret was so agitated that he left the room at once, and took stage for Nemours. On his arrival he went at once to Ursule's chamber, and looked at the calendar upon her dressing-table. There, opposite St. Savinien's day, he found a small red mark. And this dot, no larger than a pin's head, the clairvoyante had discerned in spite of distance and obstacles!

The infidel was forced to submit to evidence. A thick wall within himself, as it were, crumbled down, for he had founded his infidelity upon his materialism. Kneeling by the bedside, where every night and morning Ursule prayed for his conversion, he lifted up his soul to God, beseeching forgiveness.

The next morning he asked Ursule to let him accompany her to mass.

"My little godmother," he said, "at last you have brought me to God."

Far prouder than even on her first communion was Ursule, as, arm in arm with the old man, she entered the house of God.

But his relatives were in the greatest consternation at the sight, and met in spontaneous conclave to discuss measures to keep the old man's money from falling into the hands of Ursule and the Church. Dionis, the notary, presented the most acceptable plan.

"I should be likely to know it if your uncle had made a will, and I do not believe he has done so. He has probably made a secret hoard, the hiding-place of which he intends to reveal only to those he wishes to be his heirs. My advice, therefore, is that he should be induced to invest his capital in such a way as to make it difficult for him to dispossess you, his lawful heirs. The opportunity for such investment now offers. Young Portenduere, after cutting quite a dash in Parisian society, is locked up for a hundred thousand francs of debts. His old mother is distracted, and has invited the Abbe Chaperon to dinner, to talk over the matter, no doubt. Now, the Abbe, having opened up to the old man an endless inheritance of heavenly glory, can undoubtedly influence him in the disposition of his earthly riches. I am in my rights as a notary in applying to your uncle in behalf of the Portendueres, and, seconded by the Abbe, I think I can persuade him to lend the sum necessary to release the young prodigal, taking mortgages on Madame de Portenduere's farm and her city house. Perhaps I can get him to put the rest of his money in other mortgages. If so, I will see that his capital is tied up in this way until he dies."

Next day Dionis presented this proposition to Dr. Minoret in the presence of the cure and Ursule. The shrewd old man at once refused it.

"My heirs would undoubtedly be glad to see me sewn up in this fashion. But my arrangements are unalterable. Monsieur de Portenduere must remain in prison if his release depends on me."

Hearing these words Ursule, with an inarticulate cry, sank in her chair, with her head lying on the table. The doctor sprang to her side. " Good evening, Monsieur," he said to the notary, "leave me."

" What is it, my child?" he asked, after Ursule had recovered her senses.

"Savinien—in prison!" she cried.

"I did not know, sweetheart, that you loved him so much already."

"I do not love him, godfather; we have never spoken to each other," she sobbed. "But to know that the poor young man is in prison, and to hear you, who are so kind, sternly refuse to help him out—"

"Ursule, my sweet little woman, if you do not love him, why have you put a red dot to the day of Saint Savinien? Come, confess to your godfather, whose heart in these last few days has become more tender to you than ever it was."

"Well, then, dear godfather, I will open my soul to you. While you were in Paris Monsieur de Portenduere came from that city on a flying visit to his mother, to return next day—alas, poor unsuspecting young man!—to a prison they were pre-paring for him. In the morning, as I opened my window, I saw across the way Monsieur Savinien shaving himself. I saw his throat so white and round, and he combed his imperial, and twirled his black mustache with such grace! Something rose up in me like a mist, penetrating my bosom with a delicious warmth, and setting my head a swim. I trembled so that I could not stand. But I longed to see him so much that I pulled myself up on tiptoe; then he noticed me, and for fun he blew me a kiss from the tips of his fingers, and—"

"And—?"

"I hid myself, ashamed and happy, without understanding why I should be ashamed of my happiness. He went away that evening, taking my heart with him."

"My child," said the doctor tenderly, "your love is natural, and you need not be ashamed of it. But there are many natural impulses that in the unequal conditions of life we must restrain. You must reserve your love for your future husband, and that Monsieur Savinien can never be. His mother would never consent that the son of Vicomte de Portenduere of the Royal Navy should marry the daughter of a regimental band-master who was—for now I must tell you—the bastard son of an organist, my father-in-law."

"Yes, godfather, you are right. We are equals only in the eyes of God. I will think of him no more—except in my prayers. But give him all you have intended to leave me. What can a poor girl like me want of money?—and he, in prison!"

"I will do anything you like, child."

When her godfather set out for Paris to release young M. de Portenduere, Ursule found so many ingenious reasons for going along with him that he had neither the wit nor the heart to refuse her. Arriving at the city, she insisted on seeing the prison wherein they had shut up the poor young man.

"My child," said the doctor, "this is not forgetting him."

"Oh," replied the young girl naively, "I may love him even if I do not marry him."

The young man returned to Nemours in the stage-coach with the doctor and Ursule. The young girl fell asleep, and her head, resting on the old man's shoulder, cushioned by curls, made such an enchanting picture of trusting innocence that Savinien, contrasting the provincial maiden with the bold beauties of the city whose coquetries had lured him into his ruinous extravagance, fell headlong in love. Impetuous in reforming his career as he had been in ruining it, he vowed to win Ursule Mirouet as his wife. Knowing his mother's aristocratic prejudices, he realized that this would be no easy task.

He was thoroughly sobered when, on entering his home, he found that his mother was not at the threshold to greet him.

"She is waiting for you in your father's room," said Tiennette, the old servant.

Then Savinien realized for the first time how deeply his mother was affected by his disgrace; for his father's room, which she kept in the exact condition it was in when her husband, the naval captain, died in it, was her holy of holies, into which she retired in spiritual crises.

"Monsieur le Vicomte," said the stately woman, rising as he entered and pointing to the bed, "there your father died—a man of honor. His spirit is above. Can you swear to me, before that Shade, and before God, who sees all things, that your debts were the consequences only of a young man's follies, that you have wronged no man nor woman—in short, that your honor is unspotted?"

"Yes, mother," said the young man gravely.

She opened her arms and clasped him to her heart.

"Then all is forgotten; we have lost nothing but money!"

Through the influence of his uncle, Admiral de Kergarouet, Savinien secured a minor appointment in the navy. Then he called upon Dr. Minoret, and told him of his new chance in life, that might lead in time to his father's rank.

"Monsieur, will you give your ward to a ship's captain?" he asked.

"No," replied Dr. Minoret with a smile; "we might have to wait too long, but—to a ship's lieutenant."

In December, 1834, the doctor, now eighty-eight years old, took to his bed from sheer weakness of age. The heirs heard that he was dying and trooped to his house to take possession and prevent anything being removed. The old man ordered them out, saying, "I want to be alone with Ursule." All the heirs departed save the postmaster, Minoret-Levrault, who slipped into the gallery adjoining the sick man's chamber. He overheard the old doctor tell his ward the location of a hidden letter, and command her to bring it to him when the nurse had returned to relieve her.

The eavesdropper stole away and secured the letter. Taking it home he opened it, and found a note to Ursule, telling the hiding-place of valuable certificates intended for her, and a will, getting around the law that forbade bequests to illegitimate relatives by leaving the old man's property to Ursule's intended husband, Savinien. Striking two matches that went out, and a third that lighted, the postmaster burned the note and will, and buried their ashes and the wax of the envelope in the cinders on the hearth. Returning to the doctor's house, he found it in commotion over the old man's death. He had expired with dismay on seeing Ursule return empty-handed from her errand to find the will. In the confusion the post-master was able to steal the certificates without detection.

The heirs drove the hapless ward out of her godfather's house, of which they took possession. The postmaster, conspiring with a malicious clerk of the notary, Goupil, tried to drive her out of town, by concocting most diabolical anonymous letters, telling of Savinien's engagement to an aristocratic girl, and by hiring a band to serenade her, as if from a lover. But her father's old friends stood by her, and, though stricken almost to death by shame of the notoriety to which she was subjected, she survived to triumph over her detractors, through the very condition into which they had thrown her. In this state of physical prostration she became endowed with clairvoyant powers, and in a trance she beheld Dr. Minoret beckoning her to follow him. He led her to the hiding-place of the letter, and showed her the postmaster stealing it. Following the thief home, guided by her godfather's apparition, she saw Minoret-Levrault burn the letter after two ineffectual attempts, and bury the wax and ashes in the cinders. So, too, she saw the postmaster return to Dr. Minoret's house and steal the certificates.

Ursule told this dream to the Abbe Chaperon and Justice Bongrand. They confronted the postmaster with the details of his theft. Though frightened, he maintained a bold front. Finally the apparition of the doctor foretold a terrible accident to his son, which soon after took place. Seeing the hand of God in all these events, at last he broke down and made full confession and restitution. A reaction took place among the heirs, and Ursule became the heroine of Nemours. Madame de Portenduere's opposition to the marriage of her son and Mademoiselle Mirouet at last broke down, and the young pair were wedded upon the day Savinien received his commission as lieutenant.

When, in the Champs-Elysees you see one of those neat little low carriages, known as escargots (or snail-shells), drive past, and admire a pretty, fair woman leaning lightly against a young man, her face surrounded by a myriad of curls, like light foliage, with eyes like luminous periwinkle-flowers, full of love—if you should feel the sting of envious wishes, remember that this handsome couple, the favorites of God, have paid in advance their tribute to the woes of life. For these married lovers will undoubtedly be the Vicomte de Portenduere and his wife. There are not two such couples in all Paris.



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