Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER II

A PORTRAIT FROM LIFE

From the manner with which the Latournelles entered the Chalet a stranger would readily have guessed that they came there every evening.

“Ah, you are here already,” said the notary, perceiving the young banker Gobenheim, a connection of Gobenheim–Keller, the head of the great banking house in Paris.

This young man with a livid face — a blonde of the type with black eyes, whose immovable glance has an indescribable fascination, sober in speech as in conduct, dressed in black, lean as a consumptive, but nevertheless vigorously framed — visited the family of his former master and the house of his cashier less from affection than from self-interest. Here they played whist at two sous a point; a dress-coat was not required; he accepted no refreshment except “eau sucree,” and consequently had no civilities to return. This apparent devotion to the Mignon family allowed it to be supposed that Gobenheim had a heart; it also released him from the necessity of going into the society of Havre and incurring useless expenses, thus upsetting the orderly economy of his domestic life. This disciple of the golden calf went to bed at half-past ten o’clock and got up at five in the morning. Moreover, being perfectly sure of Latournelle’s and Butscha’s discretion, he could talk over difficult business matters, obtain the advice of the notary gratis, and get an inkling of the real truth of the gossip of the street. This stolid gold-glutton (the epithet is Butscha’s) belonged by nature to the class of substances which chemistry terms absorbents. Ever since the catastrophe of the house of Mignon, where the Kellers had placed him to learn the principles of maritime commerce, no one at the Chalet had ever asked him to do the smallest thing, no matter what; his reply was too well known. The young fellow looked at Modeste precisely as he would have looked at a cheap lithograph.

“He’s one of the pistons of the big engine called ‘Commerce,’” said poor Butscha, whose clever mind made itself felt occasionally by such little sayings timidly jerked out.

The four Latournelles bowed with the most respectful deference to an old lady dressed in black velvet, who did not rise from the armchair in which she was seated, for the reason that both eyes were covered with the yellow film produced by cataract. Madame Mignon may be sketched in one sentence. Her august countenance of the mother of a family attracted instant notice as that of one whose irreproachable life defies the assaults of destiny, which nevertheless makes her the target of its arrows and a member of the unnumbered tribe of Niobes. Her blonde wig, carefully curled and well arranged upon her head, became the cold white face which resembled that of some burgomaster’s wife painted by Hals or Mirevelt. The extreme neatness of her dress, the velvet boots, the lace collar, the shawl evenly folded and put on, all bore testimony to the solicitous care which Modeste bestowed upon her mother.

When silence was, as the notary had predicted, restored in the pretty salon, Modeste, sitting beside her mother, for whom she was embroidering a kerchief, became for an instant the centre of observation. This curiosity, barely veiled by the commonplace salutations and inquiries of the visitors, would have revealed even to an indifferent person the existence of the domestic plot to which Modeste was expected to fall a victim; but Gobenheim, more than indifferent, noticed nothing, and proceeded to light the candles on the card-table. The behavior of Dumay made the whole scene terrifying to Butscha, to the Latournelles, and above all to Madame Dumay, who knew her husband to be capable of firing a pistol at Modeste’s lover as coolly as though he were a mad dog.

After dinner that day the cashier had gone to walk followed by two magnificent Pyrenees hounds, whom he suspected of betraying him, and therefore left in charge of a farmer, a former tenant of Monsieur Mignon. On his return, just before the arrival of the Latournelles, he had taken his pistols from his bed’s head and placed them on the chimney-piece, concealing this action from Modeste. The young girl took no notice whatever of these preparations, singular as they were.

Though short, thick-set, pockmarked, and speaking always in a low voice as if listening to himself, this Breton, a former lieutenant in the Guard, showed the evidence of such resolution, such sang-froid on his face that throughout life, even in the army, no one had ever ventured to trifle with him. His little eyes, of a calm blue, were like bits of steel. His ways, the look on his face, his speech, his carriage, were all in keeping with the short name of Dumay. His physical strength, well-known to every one, put him above all danger of attack. He was able to kill a man with a blow of his fist, and had performed that feat at Bautzen, where he found himself, unarmed, face to face with a Saxon at the rear of his company. At the present moment the usually firm yet gentle expression of the man’s face had risen to a sort of tragic sublimity; his lips were pale as the rest of his face, indicating a tumult within him mastered by his Breton will; a slight sweat, which every one noticed and guessed to be cold, moistened his brow. The notary knew but too well that these signs might result in a drama before the criminal courts. In fact the cashier was playing a part in connection with Modeste Mignon, which involved to his mind sentiments of honor and loyalty of far greater importance than mere social laws; and his present conduct proceeded from one of those compacts which, in case disaster came of it, could be judged only in a higher court than one of earth. The majority of dramas lie really in the ideas which we make to ourselves about things. Events which seem to us dramatic are nothing more than subjects which our souls convert into tragedy or comedy according to the bent of our characters.

Madame Latournelle and Madame Dumay, who were appointed to watch Modeste, had a certain assumed stiffness of demeanor and a quiver in their voices, which the suspected party did not notice, so absorbed was she in her embroidery. Modeste laid each thread of cotton with a precision that would have made an ordinary workwoman desperate. Her face expressed the pleasure she took in the smooth petals of the flower she was working. The dwarf, seated between his mistress and Gobenheim, restrained his emotion, trying to find means to approach Modeste and whisper a word of warning in her ear.

By taking a position in front of Madame Mignon, Madame Latournelle, with the diabolical intelligence of conscientious duty, had isolated Modeste. Madame Mignon, whose blindness always made her silent, was even paler than usual, showing plainly that she was aware of the test to which her daughter was about to be subjected. Perhaps at the last moment she revolted from the stratagem, necessary as it might seem to her. Hence her silence; she was weeping inwardly. Exupere, the spring of the trap, was wholly ignorant of the piece in which he was to play a part. Gobenheim, by reason of his character, remained in a state of indifference equal to that displayed by Modeste. To a spectator who understood the situation, this contrast between the ignorance of some and the palpitating interest of others would have seemed quite poetic. Nowadays romance-writers arrange such effects; and it is quite within their province to do so, for nature in all ages takes the liberty to be stronger than they. In this instance, as you will see, nature, social nature, which is a second nature within nature, amused herself by making truth more interesting than fiction; just as mountain torrents describe curves which are beyond the skill of painters to convey, and accomplish giant deeds in displacing or smoothing stones which are the wonder of architects and sculptors.

It was eight o’clock. At that season twilight was still shedding its last gleams; there was not a cloud in the sky; the balmy air caressed the earth, the flowers gave forth their fragrance, the steps of pedestrians turning homeward sounded along the gravelly road, the sea shone like a mirror, and there was so little wind that the wax candles upon the card-tables sent up a steady flame, although the windows were wide open. This salon, this evening, this dwelling — what a frame for the portrait of the young girl whom these persons were now studying with the profound attention of a painter in presence of the Margharita Doni, one of the glories of the Pitti palace. Modeste — blossom enclosed, like that of Catullus — was she worth all these precautions?

You have seen the cage; behold the bird! Just twenty years of age, slender and delicate as the sirens which English designers invent for their “Books of Beauty,” Modeste was, like her mother before her, the captivating embodiment of a grace too little understood in France, where we choose to call it sentimentality, but which among German women is the poetry of the heart coming to the surface of the being and spending itself — in affectations if the owner is silly, in divine charms of manner if she is “spirituelle” and intelligent. Remarkable for her pale golden hair, Modeste belonged to the type of woman called, perhaps in memory of Eve, the celestial blonde; whose satiny skin is like a silk paper applied to the flesh, shuddering at the winter of a cold look, expanding in the sunshine of a loving glance, — teaching the hand to be jealous of the eye. Beneath her hair, which was soft and feathery and worn in many curls, the brow, which might have been traced by a compass so pure was its modelling, shone forth discreet, calm to placidity, and yet luminous with thought: when and where could another be found so transparently clear or more exquisitely smooth? It seemed, like a pearl, to have its orient. The eyes, of a blue verging on gray and limpid as the eyes of a child, had all the mischief, all the innocence of childhood, and they harmonized well with the arch of the eyebrows, faintly indicated by lines like those made with a brush on Chinese faces. This candor of the soul was still further evidenced around the eyes, in their corners, and about the temples, by pearly tints threaded with blue, the special privilege of these delicate complexions. The face, whose oval Raphael so often gave to his Madonnas, was remarkable for the sober and virginal tone of the cheeks, soft as a Bengal rose, upon which the long lashes of the diaphanous eyelids cast shadows that were mingled with light. The throat, bending as she worked, too delicate perhaps, and of milky whiteness, recalled those vanishing lines that Leonardo loved. A few little blemishes here and there, like the patches of the eighteenth century, proved that Modeste was indeed a child of earth, and not a creation dreamed of in Italy by the angelic school. Her lips, delicate yet full, were slightly mocking and somewhat sensuous; the waist, which was supple and yet not fragile, had no terrors for maternity, like those of girls who seek beauty by the fatal pressure of a corset. Steel and dimity and lacings defined but did not create the serpentine lines of the elegant figure, graceful as that of a young poplar swaying in the wind.

A pearl-gray dress with crimson trimmings, made with a long waist, modestly outlined the bust and covered the shoulders, still rather thin, with a chemisette which left nothing to view but the first curves of the throat where it joined the shoulders. From the aspect of the young girl’s face, at once ethereal and intelligent, where the delicacy of a Greek nose with its rosy nostrils and firm modelling marked something positive and defined; where the poetry enthroned upon an almost mystic brow seemed belied at times by the pleasure-loving expression of the mouth; where candor claimed the depths profound and varied of the eye, and disputed them with a spirit of irony that was trained and educated — from all these signs an observer would have felt that this young girl, with the keen, alert ear that waked at every sound, with a nostril open to catch the fragrance of the celestial flower of the Ideal, was destined to be the battle-ground of a struggle between the poesies of the dawn and the labors of the day; between fancy and reality, the spirit and the life. Modeste was a pure young girl, inquisitive after knowledge, understanding her destiny, and filled with chastity — the Virgin of Spain rather than the Madonna of Raphael.

She raised her head when she heard Dumay say to Exupere, “Come here, young man.” Seeing them together in the corner of the salon she supposed they were talking of some commission in Paris. Then she looked at the friends who surrounded her, as if surprised by their silence, and exclaimed in her natural manner, “Why are you not playing?”— with a glance at the green table which the imposing Madame Latournelle called the “altar.”

“Yes, let us play,” said Dumay, having sent off Exupere.

“Sit there, Butscha,” said Madame Latournelle, separating the head-clerk from the group around Madame Mignon and her daughter by the whole width of the table.

“And you, come over here,” said Dumay to his wife, making her sit close by him.

Madame Dumay, a little American about thirty-six years of age, wiped her eyes furtively; she adored Modeste, and feared a catastrophe.

“You are not very lively this evening,” remarked Modeste.

“We are playing,” said Gobenheim, sorting his cards.

No matter how interesting this situation may appear, it can be made still more so by explaining Dumay’s position towards Modeste. If the brevity of this explanation makes it seem rather dry, the reader must pardon its dryness in view of our desire to get through with these preliminaries as speedily as possible, and the necessity of relating the main circumstances which govern all dramas.

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