Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER XV

A FATHER STEPS IN

The Comte de La Bastie was at this moment overwhelmed with the sorrows which lay in wait for him as their prey. He had learned from his daughter’s letter of Bettina’s death and of his wife’s infirmity, and Dumay related to him, when they met, his terrible perplexity as to Modeste’s love affairs.

“Leave me to myself,” he said to his faithful friend.

As the lieutenant closed the door, the unhappy father threw himself on a sofa, with his head in his hands, weeping those slow, scanty tears which suffuse the eyes of a man of sixty, but do not fall — tears soon dried, yet quick to start again — the last dews of the human autumn.

“To have children, to have a wife, to adore them — what is it but to have many hearts and bare them to a dagger?” he cried, springing up with the bound of a tiger and walking up and down the room. “To be a father is to give one’s self over, bound hand and foot to sorrow. If I meet that D’Estourny I will kill him. To have daughters! — one gives her life to a scoundrel, the other, my Modeste, falls a victim to whom? a coward, who deceives her with the gilded paper of a poet. If it were Canalis himself it might not be so bad; but that Scapin of a lover! — I will strangle him with my two hands,” he cried, making an involuntary gesture of furious determination. “And what then? suppose my Modeste were to die of grief?”

He gazed mechanically out of the windows of the hotel des Princes, and then returned to the sofa, where he sat motionless. The fatigues of six voyages to India, the anxieties of speculation, the dangers he had encountered and evaded, and his many griefs, had silvered Charles Mignon’s head. His handsome soldierly face, so pure in outline and now bronzed by the suns of China and the southern seas, had acquired an air of dignity which his present grief rendered almost sublime.

“Mongenod told me he felt confidence in the young man who is coming to ask me for my daughter,” he thought at last; and at this moment Ernest de La Briere was announced by one of the servants whom Monsieur de La Bastie had attached to himself during the last four years.

“You have come, monsieur, from my friend Mongenod?” he said.

“Yes,” replied Ernest, growing timid when he saw before him a face as sombre as Othello’s. “My name is Ernest de La Briere, related to the family of the late cabinet minister, and his private secretary during his term of office. On his dismissal, his Excellency put me in the Court of Claims, to which I am legal counsel, and where I may possibly succeed as chief —”

“And how does all this concern Mademoiselle de La Bastie?” asked the count.

“Monsieur, I love her; and I have the unhoped-for happiness of being loved by her. Hear me, monsieur,” cried Ernest, checking a violent movement on the part of the angry father. “I have the strangest confession to make to you, a shameful one for a man of honor; but the worst punishment of my conduct, natural enough in itself, is not the telling of it to you; no, I fear the daughter even more than the father.”

Ernest then related simply, and with the nobleness that comes of sincerity, all the facts of his little drama, not omitting the twenty or more letters, which he had brought with him, nor the interview which he had just had with Canalis. When Monsieur Mignon had finished reading the letters, the unfortunate lover, pale and suppliant, actually trembled under the fiery glance of the Provencal.

“Monsieur,” said the latter, “in this whole matter there is but one error, but that is cardinal. My daughter will not have six millions; at the utmost, she will have a marriage portion of two hundred thousand francs, and very doubtful expectations.”

“Ah, monsieur!” cried Ernest, rising and grasping Monsieur Mignon’s hand; “you take a load from my breast. Nothing can now hinder my happiness. I have friends, influence; I shall certainly be chief of the Court of Claims. Had Mademoiselle Mignon no more than ten thousand francs, if I had even to make a settlement on her, she should still be my wife; and to make her happy as you, monsieur, have made your wife happy, to be to you a real son (for I have no father), are the deepest desires of my heart.”

Charles Mignon stepped back three paces and fixed upon La Briere a look which entered the eyes of the young man as a dagger enters its sheath; he stood silent a moment, recognizing the absolute candor, the pure truthfulness of that open nature in the light of the young man’s inspired eyes. “Is fate at last weary of pursuing me?” he asked himself. “Am I to find in this young man the pearl of sons-inlaw?” He walked up and down the room in strong agitation.

“Monsieur,” he said at last, “you are bound to submit wholly to the judgment which you have come here to seek, otherwise you are now playing a farce.”

“Oh, monsieur!”

“Listen to me,” said the father, nailing La Briere where he stood with a glance. “I shall be neither harsh, nor hard, nor unjust. You shall have the advantages and the disadvantages of the false position in which you have placed yourself. My daughter believes that she loves one of the great poets of the day, whose fame is really that which has attracted her. Well, I, her father, intend to give her the opportunity to choose between the celebrity which has been a beacon to her, and the poor reality which the irony of fate has flung at her feet. Ought she not to choose between Canalis and yourself? I rely upon your honor not to repeat what I have told you as to the state of my affairs. You may each come, I mean you and your friend the Baron de Canalis, to Havre for the last two weeks of October. My house will be open to both of you, and my daughter must have an opportunity to study you. You must yourself bring your rival, and not disabuse him as to the foolish tales he will hear about the wealth of the Comte de La Bastie. I go to Havre tomorrow, and I shall expect you three days later. Adieu, monsieur.”

Poor La Briere went back to Canalis with a dragging step. The poet, meantime, left to himself, had given way to a current of thought out of which had come that secondary impulse which Monsieur de Talleyrand valued so much. The first impulse is the voice of nature, the second that of society.

“A girl worth six millions,” he thought to himself, “and my eyes were not able to see that gold shining in the darkness! With such a fortune I could be peer of France, count, marquis, ambassador. I’ve replied to middle-class women and silly women, and crafty creatures who wanted autographs; I’ve tired myself to death with masked-ball intrigues — at the very moment when God was sending me a soul of price, an angel with golden wings! Bah! I’ll make a poem on it, and perhaps the chance will come again. Heavens! the luck of that little La Briere — strutting about in my lustre — plagiarism! I’m the cast and he’s to be the statue, is he? It is the old fable of Bertrand and Raton. Six millions, a beauty, a Mignon de La Bastie, an aristocratic divinity loving poetry and the poet! And I, who showed my muscle as man of the world, who did those Alcide exercises to silence by moral force the champion of physical force, that old soldier with a heart, that friend of this very young girl, whom he’ll now go and tell that I have a heart of iron! — I, to play Napoleon when I ought to have been seraphic! Good heavens! True, I shall have my friend. Friendship is a beautiful thing. I have kept him, but at what a price! Six millions, that’s the cost of it; we can’t have many friends if we pay all that for them.”

La Briere entered the room as Canalis reached this point in his meditations. He was gloom personified.

“Well, what’s the matter?” said Canalis.

“The father exacts that his daughter shall choose between the two Canalis —”

“Poor boy!” cried the poet, laughing, “he’s a clever fellow, that father.”

“I have pledged my honor that I will take you to Havre,” said La Briere, piteously.

“My dear fellow,” said Canalis, “if it is a question of your honor you may count on me. I’ll ask for leave of absence for a month.”

“Modeste is so beautiful!” exclaimed La Briere, in a despairing tone. “You will crush me out of sight. I wondered all along that fate should be so kind to me; I knew it was all a mistake.”

“Bah! we will see about that,” said Canalis with inhuman gaiety.

That evening, after dinner, Charles Mignon and Dumay, were flying, by virtue of three francs to each postilion, from Paris to Havre. The father had eased the watch-dog’s mind as to Modeste and her love affairs; the guard was relieved, and Butscha’s innocence established.

“It is all for the best, my old Dumay,” said the count, who had been making certain inquiries of Mongenod respecting Canalis and La Briere. “We are going to have two actors for one part!” he cried gaily.

Nevertheless, he requested his old comrade to be absolutely silent about the comedy which was now to be played at the Chalet — a comedy it might be, but also a gentle punishment, or, if you prefer it, a lesson given by the father to the daughter.

The two friends kept up a long conversation all the way from Paris to Havre, which put the colonel in possession of the facts relating to his family during the past four years, and informing Dumay that Desplein, the great surgeon, was coming to Havre at the end of the present month to examine the cataract on Madame Mignon’s eyes, and decide if it were possible to restore her sight.

A few moments before the breakfast-hour at the Chalet, the clacking of a postilion’s whip apprised the family that the two soldiers were arriving; only a father’s joy at returning after long absence could be heralded with such clatter, and it brought all the women to the garden gate. There is many a father and many a child — perhaps more fathers than children — who will understand the delights of such an arrival, and that happy fact shows that literature has no need to depict it. Perhaps all gentle and tender emotions are beyond the range of literature.

Not a word that could trouble the peace of the family was uttered on this joyful day. Truce was tacitly established between father, mother, and child as to the so-called mysterious love which had paled Modeste’s cheeks — for this was the first day she had left her bed since Dumay’s departure for Paris. The colonel, with the charming delicacy of a true soldier, never left his wife’s side nor released her hand; but he watched Modeste with delight, and was never weary of noting her refined, elegant, and poetic beauty. Is it not by such seeming trifles that we recognize a man of feeling? Modeste, who feared to interrupt the subdued joy of the husband and wife kept at a little distance, coming from time to time to kiss her father’s forehead, and when she kissed it overmuch she seemed to mean that she was kissing it for two — for Bettina and herself.

“Oh, my darling, I understand you,” said the colonel, pressing her hand as she assailed him with kisses.

“Hush!” whispered the young girl, glancing at her mother.

Dumay’s rather sly and pregnant silence made Modeste somewhat uneasy as to the upshot of his journey to Paris. She looked at him furtively every now and then, without being able to get beneath his epidermis. The colonel, like a prudent father, wanted to study the character of his only daughter, and above all consult his wife, before entering on a conference upon which the happiness of the whole family depended.

“To-morrow, my precious child,” he said as they parted for the night, “get up early, and we will go and take a walk on the seashore. We have to talk about your poems, Mademoiselle de La Bastie.”

His last words, accompanied by a smile, which reappeared like an echo on Dumay’s lips, were all that gave Modeste any clew to what was coming; but it was enough to calm her uneasiness and keep her awake far into the night with her head full of suppositions; this, however, did not prevent her from being dressed and ready in the morning long before the colonel.

“You know all, my kind papa?” she said as soon as they were on the road to the beach.

“I know all, and a good deal more than you do,” he replied.

After that remark father and daughter went some little way in silence.

“Explain to me, my child, how it happens that a girl whom her mother idolizes could have taken such an important step as to write to a stranger without consulting her.”

“Oh, papa! because mamma would never have allowed it.”

“And do you think, my daughter, that that was proper? Though you have been educating your mind in this fatal way, how is it that your good sense and your intellect did not, in default of modesty, step in and show you that by acting as you did you were throwing yourself at a man’s head. To think that my daughter, my only remaining child, should lack pride and delicacy! Oh, Modeste, you made your father pass two hours in hell when he heard of it; for, after all, your conduct has been the same as Bettina’s without the excuse of a heart’s seduction; you were a coquette in cold blood, and that sort of coquetry is head-love, the worst vice of French women.”

“I, without pride!” said Modeste, weeping; “but he has not yet seen me.”

He knows your name.”

“I did not tell it to him till my eyes had vindicated the correspondence, lasting three months, during which our souls had spoken to each other.”

“Oh, my dear misguided angel, you have mixed up a species of reason with a folly that has compromised your own happiness and that of your family.”

“But, after all, papa, happiness is the absolution of my temerity,” she said, pouting.

“Oh! your conduct is temerity, is it?”

“A temerity that my mother practised before me,” she retorted quickly.

“Rebellious child! your mother after seeing me at a ball told her father, who adored her, that she thought she could be happy with me. Be honest, Modeste; is there any likeness between a love hastily conceived, I admit, but under the eyes of a father, and your mad action of writing to a stranger?”

“A stranger, papa? say rather one of our greatest poets, whose character and whose life are exposed to the strongest light of day, to detraction, to calumny — a man robed in fame, and to whom, my dear father, I was a mere literary and dramatic personage, one of Shakespeare’s women, until the moment when I wished to know if the man himself were as beautiful as his soul.”

“Good God! my poor child, you are turning marriage into poetry. But if, from time immemorial, girls have been cloistered in the bosom of their families, if God, if social laws put them under the stern yoke of parental sanction, it is, mark my words, to spare them the misfortunes that this very poetry which charms and dazzles you, and which you are therefore unable to judge of, would entail upon them. Poetry is indeed one of the pleasures of life, but it is not life itself.”

“Papa, that is a suit still pending before the Court of Facts; the struggle is forever going on between our hearts and the claims of family.”

“Alas for the child that finds her happiness in resisting them,” said the colonel, gravely. “In 1813 I saw one of my comrades, the Marquis d’Aiglemont, marry his cousin against the wishes of her father, and the pair have since paid dear for the obstinacy which the young girl took for love. The family must be sovereign in marriage.”

“My poet has told me all that,” she answered. “He played Orgon for some time; and he was brave enough to disparage the personal lives of poets.”

“I have read your letters,” said Charles Mignon, with the flicker of a malicious smile on his lips that made Modeste very uneasy, “and I ought to remark that your last epistle was scarcely permissible in any woman, even a Julie d’Etanges. Good God! what harm novels do!”

“We should live them, my dear father, whether people wrote them or not; I think it is better to read them. There are not so many adventures in these days as there were under Louis XIV. and Louis XV., and so they publish fewer novels. Besides, if you have read those letters, you must know that I have chosen the most angelic soul, the most sternly upright man for your son-inlaw, and you must have seen that we love one another at least as much as you and mamma love each other. Well, I admit that it was not all exactly conventional; I did, if you will have me say so, wrong —”

“I have read your letters,” said her father, interrupting her, “and I know exactly how far your lover justified you in your own eyes for a proceeding which might be permissible in some woman who understood life, and who was led away by strong passion, but which in a young girl of twenty was a monstrous piece of wrong-doing.”

“Yes, wrong-doing for commonplace people, for the narrow-minded Gobenheims, who measure life with a square rule. Please let us keep to the artistic and poetic life, papa. We young girls have only two ways to act; we must let a man know we love him by mincing and simpering, or we must go to him frankly. Isn’t the last way grand and noble? We French girls are delivered over by our families like so much merchandise, at sixty days’ sight, sometimes thirty, like Mademoiselle Vilquin; but in England, and Switzerland, and Germany, they follow very much the plan I have adopted. Now what have you got to say to that? Am I not half German?”

“Child!” cried the colonel, looking at her; “the supremacy of France comes from her sound common-sense, from the logic to which her noble language constrains her mind. France is the reason of the whole world. England and Germany are romantic in their marriage customs — though even there noble families follow our customs. You certainly do not mean to deny that your parents, who know life, who are responsible for your soul and for your happiness, have no right to guard you from the stumbling-blocks that are in your way? Good heavens!” he continued, speaking half to himself, “is it their fault, or is it ours? Ought we to hold our children under an iron yoke? Must we be punished for the tenderness that leads us to make them happy, and teaches our hearts how to do so?”

Modeste watched her father out of the corner of her eye as she listened to this species of invocation, uttered in a broken voice.

“Was it wrong,” she said, “in a girl whose heart was free, to choose for her husband not only a charming companion, but a man of noble genius, born to an honorable position, a gentleman; the equal of myself, a gentlewoman?”

“You love him?” asked her father.

“Father!” she said, laying her head upon his breast, “would you see me die?”

“Enough!” said the old soldier. “I see your love is inextinguishable.”

“Yes, inextinguishable.”

“Can nothing change it?”

“Nothing.”

“No circumstances, no treachery, no betrayal? You mean that you will love him in spite of everything, because of his personal attractions? Even though he proved a D’Estourny, would you love him still?”

“Oh, my father! you do not know your daughter. Could I love a coward, a man without honor, without faith?”

“But suppose he had deceived you?”

“He? that honest, candid soul, half melancholy? You are joking, father, or else you have never met him.”

“But you see now that your love is not inextinguishable, as you chose to call it. I have already made you admit that circumstances could alter your poem; don’t you now see that fathers are good for something?”

“You want to give me a lecture, papa; it is positively l’Ami des Enfants over again.”

“Poor deceived girl,” said her father, sternly; “it is no lecture of mine, I count for nothing in it; indeed, I am only trying to soften the blow.”

“Father, don’t play tricks with my life,” exclaimed Modeste, turning pale.

“Then, my daughter, summon all your courage. It is you who have been playing tricks with your life, and life is now tricking you.”

Modeste looked at her father in stupid amazement.

“Suppose that young man whom you love, whom you saw four days ago at church in Havre, was a deceiver?”

“Never!” she cried; “that noble head, that pale face full of poetry —”

“— was a lie,” said the colonel interrupting her. “He was no more Monsieur de Canalis than I am that sailor over there putting out to sea.”

“Do you know what you are killing in me?” she said in a low voice.

“Comfort yourself, my child; though accident has put the punishment of your fault into the fault itself, the harm done is not irreparable. The young man whom you have seen, and with whom you exchanged hearts by correspondence, is a loyal and honorable fellow; he came to me and confided everything. He loves you, and I have no objection to him as a son-inlaw.”

“If he is not Canalis, who is he then?” said Modeste in a changed voice.

“The secretary; his name is Ernest de La Briere. He is not a nobleman; but he is one of those plain men with fixed principles and sound morality who satisfy parents. However, that is not the point; you have seen him and nothing can change your heart; you have chosen him, comprehend his soul, it is as beautiful as he himself.”

The count was interrupted by a heavy sigh from Modeste. The poor girl sat with her eyes fixed on the sea, pale and rigid as death, as if a pistol shot had struck her in those fatal words, a plain man, with fixed principles and sound morality.

“Deceived!” she said at last.

“Like your poor sister, but less fatally.”

“Let us go home, father,” she said, rising from the hillock on which they were sitting. “Papa, hear me, I swear before God to obey your wishes, whatever they may be, in the affair of my marriage.”

“Then you don’t love him any longer?” asked her father.

“I loved an honest man, with no falsehood on his face, upright as yourself, incapable of disguising himself like an actor, with the paint of another man’s glory on his cheeks.”

“You said nothing could change you”; remarked the colonel, ironically.

“Ah, do not trifle with me!” she exclaimed, clasping her hands and looking at her father in distressful anxiety; “don’t you see that you are wringing my heart and destroying my beliefs with your jokes.”

“God forbid! I have told you the exact truth.”

“You are very kind, father,” she said after a pause, and with a sort of solemnity.

“He has kept your letters,” resumed the colonel; “now suppose the rash caresses of your soul had fallen into the hands of one of those poets who, as Dumay says, light their cigars with them?”

“Oh! — you are going too far.”

“Canalis told him so.”

“Has Dumay seen Canalis?”

“Yes,” answered her father.

The two walked along in silence.

“So that is why that gentleman,” resumed Modeste, “told me so much harm of poets and poetry; no wonder the little secretary said — Why,” she added, interrupting herself, “his virtues, his noble qualities, his fine sentiments are nothing but an epistolary theft! The man who steals glory and a name may very likely —”

“— break locks, steal purses, and cut people’s throats on the highway,” cried the colonel. “Ah, you young girls, that’s just like you — with your peremptory opinions and your ignorance of life. A man who once deceives a woman was born under the scaffold on which he ought to die.”

This ridicule stopped Modeste’s effervescence for a moment and least, and again there was silence.

“My child,” said the colonel, presently, “men in society, as in nature everywhere, are made to win the hearts of women, and women must defend themselves. You have chosen to invert the parts. Was that wise? Everything is false in a false position. The first wrong-doing was yours. No, a man is not a monster because he seeks to please a woman; it is our right to win her by aggression with all its consequences, short of crime and cowardice. A man may have many virtues even if he does deceive a woman; if he deceives her, it is because he finds her wanting in some of the treasures that he sought in her. None but a queen, an actress, or a woman placed so far above a man that she seems to him a queen, can go to him of herself without incurring blame — and for a young girl to do it! Why, she is false to all that God has given her that is sacred and lovely and noble — no matter with what grace or what poetry or what precautions she surrounds her fault.”

“To seek the master and find the servant!” she said bitterly, “oh! I can never recover from it!”

“Nonsense! Monsieur Ernest de La Briere is, to my thinking, fully the equal of the Baron de Canalis. He was private secretary of a cabinet minister, and he is now counsel for the Court of Claims; he has a heart, and he adores you, but — he does not write verses. No, I admit, he is not a poet; but for all that he may have a heart full of poetry. At any rate, my dear girl,” added her father, as Modeste made a gesture of disgust, “you are to see both of them, the sham and the true Canalis —”

“Oh, papa! —”

“Did you not swear just now to obey me in everything, even in the affair of your marriage? Well, I allow you to choose which of the two you like best for a husband. You have begun by a poem, you shall finish with a bucolic, and try if you can discover the real character of these gentlemen here, in the country, on a few hunting or fishing excursions.”

Modeste bowed her head and walked home with her father, listening to what he said but replying only in monosyllables.

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