Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER XIII

A FULL-LENGTH PORTRAIT OF MONSIEUR DE LA BRIERE

Is there in the life of man a more delightful moment than that of a first rendezvous? Are the sensations then hidden at the bottom of our hearts and finding their first expression ever renewed? Can we feel again the nameless pleasures that we felt when, like Ernest de La Briere, we looked up our sharpest razors, our finest shirt, an irreproachable collar, and our best clothes? We deify the garments associated with that all-supreme moment. We weave within us poetic fancies quite equal to those of the woman; and the day when either party guesses them they take wings to themselves and fly away. Are not such things like the flower of wild fruits, bitter-sweet, grown in the heart of a forest, the joy of the scant sun-rays, the joy, as Canalis says in the “Maiden’s Song,” of the plant itself whose eyes unclosing see its own image within its breast?

Such emotions, now taking place in La Briere, tend to show that, like other poor fellows for whom life begins in toil and care, he had never yet been loved. Arriving at Havre overnight, he had gone to bed at once, like a true coquette, to obliterate all traces of fatigue; and now, after taking his bath, he had put himself into a costume carefully adapted to show him off to the best advantage. This is, perhaps, the right moment to exhibit a full-length portrait of him, if only to justify the last letter that Modeste was still to write to him.

Born of a good family in Toulouse, and allied by marriage to the minister who first took him under his protection, Ernest had that air of good-breeding which comes of an education begun in the cradle; and the habit of managing business affairs gave him a certain sedateness which was not pedantic — though pedantry is the natural outgrowth of premature gravity. He was of ordinary height; his face, which won upon all who saw him by its delicacy and sweetness, was warm in the flesh-tints, though without color, and relieved by a small moustache and imperial a la Mazarin. Without this evidence of virility he might have resembled a young woman in disguise, so refined was the shape of his face and the cut of his lips, so feminine the transparent ivory of a set of teeth, regular enough to have seemed artificial. Add to these womanly points a habit of speech as gentle as the expression of the face; as gentle, too, as the blue eyes with their Turkish eyelids, and you will readily understand how it was that the minister occasionally called his young secretary Mademoiselle de La Briere. The full, clear forehead, well framed by abundant black hair, was dreamy, and did not contradict the character of the face, which was altogether melancholy. The prominent arch of the upper eyelid, though very beautifully cut, overshadowed the glance of the eye, and added a physical sadness — if we may so call it — produced by the droop of the lid over the eyeball. This inward doubt or eclipse — which is put into language by the word modesty — was expressed in his whole person. Perhaps we shall be able to make his appearance better understood if we say that the logic of design required greater length in the oval of his head, more space between the chin, which ended abruptly, and the forehead, which was reduced in height by the way in which the hair grew. The face had, in short, a rather compressed appearance. Hard work had already drawn furrows between the eyebrows, which were somewhat too thick and too near together, like those of a jealous nature. Though La Briere was then slight, he belonged to the class of temperaments which begin, after they are thirty, to take on an unexpected amount of flesh.

The young man would have seemed to a student of French history a very fair representative of the royal and almost inconceivable figure of Louis XIII. — that historical figure of melancholy modesty without known cause; pallid beneath the crown; loving the dangers of war and the fatigues of hunting, but hating work; timid with his mistress to the extent of keeping away from her; so indifferent as to allow the head of his friend to be cut off — a figure that nothing can explain but his remorse for having avenged his father on his mother. Was he a Catholic Hamlet, or merely the victim of incurable disease? But the undying worm which gnawed at the king’s vitals was in Ernest’s case simply distrust of himself — the timidity of a man to whom no woman had ever said, “Ah, how I love thee!” and, above all, the spirit of self-devotion without an object. After hearing the knell of the monarchy in the fall of his patron’s ministry, the poor fellow had next fallen upon a rock covered with exquisite mosses, named Canalis; he was, therefore, still seeking a power to love, and this spaniel-like search for a master gave him outwardly the air of a king who has met with his. This play of feeling, and a general tone of suffering in the young man’s face made it more really beautiful than he was himself aware of; for he had always been annoyed to find himself classed by women among the “handsome disconsolate,”— a class which has passed out of fashion in these days, when every man seeks to blow his own trumpet and put himself in the advance.

The self-distrustful Ernest now rested his immediate hopes on the fashionable clothes he intended to wear. He put on, for this sacred interview, where everything depended on a first impression, a pair of black trousers and carefully polished boots, a sulphur-colored waistcoat, which left to sight an exquisitely fine shirt with opal buttons, a black cravat, and a small blue surtout coat which seemed glued to his back and shoulders by some newly-invented process. The ribbon of the Legion of honor was in his buttonhole. He wore a well-fitting pair of kid gloves of the Florentine bronze color, and carried his cane and hat in the left hand with a gesture and air that was worthy of the Grand Monarch, and enabled him to show, as the sacred precincts required, his bare head with the light falling on his carefully arranged hair. He stationed himself before the service began in the church porch, from whence he could examine the church, and the Christians — more particularly the female Christians — who dipped their fingers in the holy water.

An inward voice cried to Modeste as she entered, “It is he!” That surtout, and indeed the whole bearing of the young man were essentially Parisian; the ribbon, the gloves, the cane, the very perfume of his hair were not of Havre. So when La Briere turned about to examine the tall and imposing Madame Latournelle, the notary, and the bundled-up (expression sacred to women) figure of Modeste, the poor child, though she had carefully tutored herself for the event, received a violent blow on her heart when her eyes rested on this poetic figure, illuminated by the full light of day as it streamed through the open door. She could not be mistaken; a small white rose nearly hid the ribbon of the Legion. Would he recognize his unknown mistress muffled in an old bonnet with a double veil? Modeste was so in fear of love’s clairvoyance that she began to stoop in her walk like an old woman.

“Wife,” said little Latournelle as they took their seats, “that gentleman does not belong to Havre.”

“So many strangers come here,” answered his wife.

“But,” said the notary, “strangers never come to look at a church like ours, which is less than two centuries old.”

Ernest remained in the porch throughout the service without seeing any woman who realized his hopes. Modeste, on her part, could not control the trembling of her limbs until Mass was nearly over. She was in the grasp of a joy that none but she herself could depict. At last she heard the foot-fall of a gentleman on the pavement of the aisle. The service over, La Briere was making a circuit of the church, where no one now remained but the punctiliously pious, whom he proceeded to subject to a shrewd and keen analysis. Ernest noticed that a prayer-book shook violently in the hands of a veiled woman as he passed her; as she alone kept her face hidden his suspicions were aroused, and then confirmed by Modeste’s dress, which the lover’s eye now scanned and noted. He left the church with the Latournelles and followed them at a distance to the rue Royale, where he saw them enter a house accompanied by Modeste, whose custom it was to stay with her friends till the hour of vespers. After examining the little house, which was ornamented with scutcheons, he asked the name of the owner, and was told that he was Monsieur Latournelle, the chief notary in Havre. As Ernest lounged along the rue Royale hoping for a glimpse into the house, Modeste caught sight of him, and thereupon declared herself too ill to go to vespers. Poor Ernest thus had his trouble for his pains. He dared not wander about Ingouville; moreover, he made it a point of honor to obey orders, and he therefore went back to Paris, previously writing a letter which Francoise Cochet duly delivered on the morrow with the Havre postmark.

It was the custom of Monsieur and Madame Latournelle to dine at the Chalet every Sunday when they brought back Modeste after vespers. So, as soon as the invalid felt a little better, they started for Ingouville, accompanied by Butscha. Once at home, the happy Modeste forgot her pretended illness and her disguise, and dressed herself charmingly, humming as she came down to dinner —

“Nought is sleeping — Heart! awaking,
Lift thine incense to the skies.”

Butscha shuddered slightly when he caught sight of her, so changed did she seem to him. The wings of love were fastened to her shoulders; she had the air of a nymph, a Psyche; her cheeks glowed with the divine color of happiness.

“Who wrote the words to which you have put that pretty music?” asked her mother.

“Canalis, mamma,” she answered, flushing rosy red from her throat to her forehead.

“Canalis!” cried the dwarf, to whom the inflections of the girl’s voice and her blush told the only thing of which he was still ignorant. “He, that great poet, does he write songs?”

“They are only simple verses,” she said, “which I have ventured to set to German airs.”

“No, no,” interrupted Madame Mignon, “the music is your own, my daughter.”

Modeste, feeling that she grew more and more crimson, went off into the garden, calling Butscha after her.

“You can do me a great service,” she said. “Dumay is keeping a secret from my mother and me as to the fortune which my father is bringing back with him; and I want to know what it is. Did not Dumay send papa when he first went away over five hundred thousand francs? Yes. Well, papa is not the kind of man to stay away four years and only double his capital. It seems he is coming back on a ship of his own, and Dumay’s share amounts to almost six hundred thousand francs.”

“There is no need to question Dumay,” said Butscha. “Your father lost, as you know, about four millions when he went away, and he has doubtless recovered them. He would of course give Dumay ten per cent of his profits; the worthy man admitted the other day how much it was, and my master and I think that in that case the colonel’s fortune must amount to six or seven millions —”

“Oh, papa!” cried Modeste, crossing her hands on her breast and looking up to heaven, “twice you have given me life!”

“Ah, mademoiselle!” said Butscha, “you love a poet. That kind of man is more or less of a Narcissus. Will he know how to love you? A phrase-maker, always busy in fitting words together, must be a bore. Mademoiselle, a poet is no more poetry than a seed is a flower.”

“Butscha, I never saw so handsome a man.”

“Beauty is a veil which often serves to hide imperfections.”

“He has the most angelic heart of heaven —”

“I pray God you may be right,” said the dwarf, clasping his hands, “— and happy! That man shall have, as you have, a servant in Jean Butscha. I will not be notary; I shall give that up; I shall study the sciences.”

“Why?”

“Ah, mademoiselle, to train up your children, if you will deign to make me their tutor. But, oh! if you would only listen to some advice. Let me take up this matter; let me look into the life and habits of this man — find out if he is kind, or bad-tempered, or gentle, if he commands the respect which you merit in a husband, if he is able to love utterly, preferring you to everything, even his own talent —”

“What does that signify if I love him?”

“Ah, true!” cried the dwarf.

At that instant Madame Mignon was saying to her friends —

“My daughter saw the man she loves this morning.”

“Then it must have been that sulphur waistcoat which puzzled you so, Latournelle,” said his wife. “The young man had a pretty white rose in his buttonhole.”

“Ah!” sighed the mother, “the sign of recognition.”

“And he also wore the ribbon of an officer of the Legion of honor. He is a charming young man. But we are all deceiving ourselves; Modeste never raised her veil, and her clothes were huddled on like a beggar-woman’s —”

“And she said she was ill,” cried the notary; “but she has taken off her mufflings and is just as well as she ever was.”

“It is incomprehensible!” said Dumay.

“Not at all,” said the notary; “it is now as clear as day.”

“My child,” said Madame Mignon to Modeste, as she came into the room, followed by Butscha, “did you see a well-dressed young man at church this morning, with a white rose in his button-hole?”

“I saw him,” said Butscha quickly, perceiving by everybody’s strained attention that Modeste was likely to fall into a trap. “It was Grindot, the famous architect, with whom the town is in treaty for the restoration of the church. He has just come from Paris, and I met him this morning examining the exterior as I was on my way to Sainte–Adresse.”

“Oh, an architect, was he? he puzzled me,” said Modeste, for whom Butscha had thus gained time to recover herself.

Dumay looked askance at Butscha. Modeste, fully warned, recovered her impenetrable composure. Dumay’s distrust was now thoroughly aroused, and he resolved to go the mayor’s office early in the morning and ascertain if the architect had really been in Havre the previous day. Butscha, on the other hand, was equally determined to go to Paris and find out something about Canalis.

Gobenheim came to play whist, and by his presence subdued and compressed all this fermentation of feelings. Modeste awaited her mother’s bedtime with impatience. She intended to write, but never did so except at night. Here is the letter which love dictated to her while all the world was sleeping:—

To Monsieur de Canalis — Ah! my friend, my well-beloved! What
atrocious falsehoods those portraits in the shop-windows are! And
I, who made that horrible lithograph my joy! — I am humbled at the
thought of loving one so handsome. No; it is impossible that those
Parisian women are so stupid as not to have seen their dreams
fulfilled in you. You neglected! you unloved! I do not believe a
word of all that you have written me about your lonely and obscure
life, your hunger for an idol — sought in vain until now. You have
been too well loved, monsieur; your brow, white and smooth as a
magnolia leaf, reveals it; and it is I who must be neglected — for
who am I? Ah! why have you called me to life? I felt for a moment
as though the heavy burden of the flesh was leaving me; my soul
had broken the crystal which held it captive; it pervaded my whole
being; the cold silence of material things had ceased; all things
in nature had a voice and spoke to me. The old church was
luminous. It’s arched roof, brilliant with gold and azure like
those of an Italian cathedral, sparkled above my head. Melodies
such as the angels sang to martyrs, quieting their pains, sounded
from the organ. The rough pavements of Havre seemed to my feet a
flowery mead; the sea spoke to me with a voice of sympathy, like
an old friend whom I had never truly understood. I saw clearly how
the roses in my garden had long adored me and bidden me love; they
lifted their heads and smiled as I came back from church. I heard
your name, “Melchior,” chiming in the flower-bells; I saw it
written on the clouds. Yes, yes, I live, I am living, thanks to
thee — my poet, more beautiful than that cold, conventional Lord
Byron, with a face as dull as the English climate. One glance of
thine, thine Orient glance, pierced through my double veil and
sent thy blood to my heart, and from thence to my head and feet.
Ah! that is not the life our mother gave us. A hurt to thee would
hurt me too at the very instant it was given — my life exists by
thy thought only. I know now the purpose of the divine faculty of
music; the angels invented it to utter love. Ah, my Melchior, to
have genius and to have beauty is too much; a man should be made
to choose between them at his birth.

When I think of the treasures of tenderness and affection which
you have given me, and more especially for the last month, I ask
myself if I dream. No, but you hide some mystery; what woman can
yield you up to me and not die? Ah! jealousy has entered my heart
with love — love in which I could not have believed. How could I
have imagined so mighty a conflagration? And now — strange and
inconceivable revulsion! — I would rather you were ugly.

What follies I committed after I came home! The yellow dahlias
reminded me of your waistcoat, the white roses were my loving
friends; I bowed to them with a look that belonged to you, like
all that is of me. The very color of the gloves, moulded to hands
of a gentleman, your step along the nave — all, all, is so printed
on my memory that sixty years hence I shall see the veriest
trifles of this day of days — the color of the atmosphere, the ray
of sunshine that flickered on a certain pillar; I shall hear the
prayer your step interrupted; I shall inhale the incense of the
altar; forever I shall feel above our heads the priestly hands
that blessed us both as you passed by me at the closing
benediction. The good Abbe Marcelin married us then! The
happiness, above that of earth, which I feel in this new world of
unexpected emotions can only be equalled by the joy of telling it
to you, of sending it back to him who poured it into my heart with
the lavishness of the sun itself. No more veils, no more
disguises, my beloved. Come back to me, oh, come back soon. With
joy I now unmask.

You have no doubt heard of the house of Mignon in Havre? Well, I
am, through an irreparable misfortune, its sole heiress. But you
are not to look down upon us, descendant of an Auvergne knight;
the arms of the Mignon de La Bastie will do no dishonor to those
of Canalis. We bear gules, on a bend sable four bezants or;
quarterly four crosses patriarchal or; a cardinal’s hat as crest,
and the fiocchi for supports. Dear, I will be faithful to our
motto: “Una fides, unus Dominus!”— the true faith, and one only
Master.

Perhaps, my friend, you will find some irony in my name, after all
that I have done, and all that I herein avow. I am named Modeste.
Therefore I have not deceived you by signing “O. d’Este M.”
Neither have I misled you about our fortune; it will amount, I
believe, to the sum which rendered you so virtuous. I know that to
you money is a consideration of small importance; therefore I
speak of it without reserve. Let me tell you how happy it makes me
to give freedom of action to our happiness — to be able to say,
when the fancy for travel takes us, “Come, let us go in a
comfortable carriage, sitting side by side, without a thought of
money”— happy, in short, to tell the king, “I have the fortune
which you require in your peers.” Thus Modeste Mignon can be of
service to you, and her gold will have the noblest of uses.

As to your servant herself — you did see her once, at her window.
Yes, “the fairest daughter of Eve the fair” was indeed your
unknown damozel; but how little the Modeste of today resembles
her of that long past era! That one was in her shroud, this one
— have I made you know it? — has received from you the life of life.
Love, pure, and sanctioned, the love my father, now returning
rich and prosperous, will authorize, has raised me with its
powerful yet childlike hand from the grave in which I slept. You
have wakened me as the sun wakens the flowers. The eyes of your
beloved are no longer those of the little Modeste so daring in her
ignorance — no, they are dimmed with the sight of happiness, and
the lids close over them. To-day I tremble lest I can never
deserve my fate. The king has come in his glory; my lord has now a
subject who asks pardon for the liberties she has taken, like the
gambler with loaded dice after cheating Monsieur de Grammont.

My cherished poet! I will be thy Mignon — happier far than the
Mignon of Goethe, for thou wilt leave me in mine own land — in thy
heart. Just as I write this pledge of our betrothal a nightingale
in the Vilquin park answers for thee. Ah, tell me quick that his
note, so pure, so clear, so full, which fills my heart with joy
and love like an Annunciation, does not lie to me.

My father will pass through Paris on his way from Marseilles; the
house of Mongenod, with whom he corresponds, will know his
address. Go to him, my Melchior, tell him that you love me; but do
not try to tell him how I love you — let that be forever between
ourselves and God. I, my dear one, am about to tell everything to
my mother. Her heart will justify my conduct; she will rejoice in
our secret poem, so romantic, human and divine in one.

You have the confession of the daughter; you must now obtain the
consent of the Comte de La Bastie, father of your

Modeste.

P.S. — Above all, do not come to Havre without having first
obtained my father’s consent. If you love me you will not fail to
find him on his way through Paris.

“What are you doing, up at this hour, Mademoiselle Modeste?” said the voice of Dumay at her door.

“Writing to my father,” she answered; “did you not tell me you should start in the morning?”

Dumay had nothing to say to that, and he went to bed, while Modeste wrote another long letter, this time to her father.

On the morrow, Francois Cochet, terrified at seeing the Havre postmark on the envelope which Ernest had mailed the night before, brought her young mistress the following letter and took away the one which Modeste had written:—

To Mademoiselle O. d’Este M. — My heart tells me that you were the
woman so carefully veiled and disguised, and seated between
Monsieur and Madame Latournelle, who have but one child, a son.
Ah, my love, if you have only a modest station, without
distinction, without importance, without money even, you do not
know how happy that would make me. You ought to understand me by
this time; why will you not tell me the truth? I am no poet,
— except in heart, through love, through you. Oh! what power of
affection there is in me to keep me here in this hotel, instead of
mounting to Ingouville which I can see from my windows. Will you
ever love me as I love you? To leave Havre in such uncertainty! Am
I not punished for loving you as if I had committed a crime? But I
obey you blindly. Let me have a letter quickly, for if you have
been mysterious, I have returned you mystery for mystery, and I
must at last throw off my disguise, show you the poet that I am,
and abdicate my borrowed glory.

This letter made Modeste terribly uneasy. She could not get back the one which Francoise had carried away before she came to the last words, whose meaning she now sought by reading them again and again; but she went to her own room and wrote an answer in which she demanded an immediate explanation.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31