Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER XXII

A RIDDLE GUESSED

During the dinner, which was magnificent and admirably well served, the duke obtained a signal advantage over Canalis. Modeste, who had received her habit and other equestrian equipments the night before, spoke of taking rides about the country. A turn of the conversation led her to express the wish to see a hunt with hounds, a pleasure she had never yet enjoyed. The duke at once proposed to arrange a hunt in one of the crown forests, which lay a few leagues from Havre. Thanks to his intimacy with the Prince de Cadignan, Master of the Hunt, he saw his chance of displaying an almost regal pomp before Modeste’s eyes, and alluring her with a glimpse of court fascinations, to which she could be introduced by marriage. Glances were exchanged between the duke and the two demoiselles d’Herouville, which plainly said, “The heiress is ours!” and the poet, who detected them, and who had nothing but his personal splendors to depend on, determined all the more firmly to obtain some pledge of affection at once. Modeste, on the other hand, half-frightened at being thus pushed beyond her intentions by the d’Herouvilles, walked rather markedly apart with Melchior, when the company adjourned to the park after dinner. With the pardonable curiosity of a young girl, she let him suspect the calumnies which Helene had poured into her ears; but on Canalis’s exclamation of anger, she begged him to keep silence about them, which he promised.

“These stabs of the tongue,” he said, “are considered fair in the great world. They shock your upright nature; but as for me, I laugh at them; I am even pleased. These ladies must feel that the duke’s interests are in great peril, when they have recourse to such warfare.”

Making the most of the advantage Modeste had thus given him, Canalis entered upon his defence with such warmth, such eagerness, and with a passion so exquisitely expressed, as he thanked her for a confidence in which he could venture to see the dawn of love, that she found herself suddenly as much compromised with the poet as she feared to be with the grand equerry. Canalis, feeling the necessity of prompt action, declared himself plainly. He uttered vows and protestations in which his poetry shone like a moon, invoked for the occasion, and illuminating his allusions to the beauty of his mistress and the charms of her evening dress. This counterfeit enthusiasm, in which the night, the foliage, the heavens and the earth, and Nature herself played a part, carried the eager lover beyond all bounds; for he dwelt on his disinterestedness, and revamped in his own charming style, Diderot’s famous apostrophe to “Sophie and fifteen hundred francs!” and the well-worn “love in a cottage” of every lover who knows perfectly well the length of the father-inlaw’s purse.

“Monsieur,” said Modeste, after listening with delight to the melody of this concerto; “the freedom granted to me by my parents has allowed me to listen to you; but it is to them that you must address yourself.”

“But,” exclaimed Canalis, “tell me that if I obtain their consent, you will ask nothing better than to obey them.”

“I know beforehand,” she replied, “that my father has certain fancies which may wound the proper pride of an old family like yours. He wishes to have his own title and name borne by his grandsons.”

“Ah! dear Modeste, what sacrifices would I not make to commit my life to the guardian care of an angel like you.”

“You will permit me not to decide in a moment the fate of my whole life,” she said, turning to rejoin the demoiselles d’Herouville.

Those noble ladies were just then engaged in flattering the vanity of little Latournelle, intending to win him over to their interests. Mademoiselle d’Herouville, to whom we shall in future confine the family name, to distinguish her from her niece Helene, was giving the notary to understand that the post of judge of the Supreme Court in Havre, which Charles X. would bestow as she desired, was an office worthy of his legal talent and his well-known probity. Butscha, meanwhile, who had been walking about with La Briere, was greatly alarmed at the progress Canalis was evidently making, and he waylaid Modeste at the lower step of the portico when the whole party returned to the house to endure the torments of their inevitable whist.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, in a low whisper, “I do hope you don’t call him Melchior.”

“I’m very near it, my Black Dwarf,” she said, with a smile that might have made an angel swear.

“Good God!” exclaimed Butscha, letting fall his hands, which struck the marble steps.

“Well! and isn’t he worth more than that spiteful and gloomy secretary in whom you take such an interest?” she retorted, assuming, at the mere thought of Ernest, the haughty manner whose secret belongs exclusively to young girls — as if their virginity lent them wings to fly to heaven. “Pray, would your little La Briere accept me without a fortune?” she said, after a pause.

“Ask your father,” replied Butscha, who walked a few steps from the house, to get Modeste at a safe distance from the windows. “Listen to me, mademoiselle. You know that he who speaks to you is ready to give not only his life but his honor for you, at any moment, and at all times. Therefore you may believe in him; you can confide to him that which you may not, perhaps, be willing to say to your father. Tell me, has that sublime Canalis been making you the disinterested offer that you now fling as a reproach at poor Ernest?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe it?”

“That question, my manikin,” she replied, giving him one of the ten or a dozen nicknames she had invented for him, “strikes me as undervaluing the strength of my self-love.”

“Ah, you are laughing, my dear Mademoiselle Modeste; then there’s no danger: I hope you are only making a fool of him.”

“Pray what would you think of me, Monsieur Butscha, if I allowed myself to make fun of those who do me the honor to wish to marry me? You ought to know, master Jean, that even if a girl affects to despise the most despicable attentions, she is flattered by them.”

“Then I flatter you?” said the young man, looking up at her with a face that was illuminated like a city for a festival.

“You?” she said; “you give me the most precious of all friendships — a feeling as disinterested as that of a mother for her child. Compare yourself to no one; for even my father is obliged to be devoted to me.” She paused. “I cannot say that I love you, in the sense which men give to that word, but what I do give you is eternal and can know no change.”

“Then,” said Butscha, stooping to pick up a pebble that he might kiss the hem of her garment, “suffer me to watch over you as a dragon guards a treasure. The poet was covering you just now with the lace-work of his precious phrases, the tinsel of his promises; he chanted his love on the best strings of his lyre, I know he did. If, as soon as this noble lover finds out how small your fortune is, he makes a sudden change in his behavior, and is cold and embarrassed, will you still marry him? shall you still esteem him?”

“He would be another Francisque Althor,” she said, with a gesture of bitter disgust.

“Let me have the pleasure of producing that change of scene,” said Butscha. “Not only shall it be sudden, but I believe I can change it back and make your poet as loving as before — nay, it is possible to make him blow alternately hot and cold upon your heart, just as gracefully as he has talked on both sides of an argument in one evening without ever finding it out.”

“If you are right,” she said, “who can be trusted?”

“One who truly loves you.”

“The little duke?”

Butscha looked at Modeste. The pair walked some distance in silence; the girl was impenetrable and not an eyelash quivered.

“Mademoiselle, permit me to be the exponent of the thoughts that are lying at the bottom of your heart like sea-mosses under the waves, and which you do not choose to gather up.”

“Eh!” said Modeste, “so my intimate friend and counsellor thinks himself a mirror, does he?”

“No, an echo,” he answered, with a gesture of sublime humility. “The duke loves you, but he loves you too much. If I, a dwarf, have understood the infinite delicacy of your heart, it would be repugnant to you to be worshipped like a saint in her shrine. You are eminently a woman; you neither want a man perpetually at your feet of whom you are eternally sure, nor a selfish egoist like Canalis, who will always prefer himself to you. Why? ah, that I don’t know. But I will make myself a woman, an old woman, and find out the meaning of the plan which I have read in your eyes, and which perhaps is in the heart of every girl. Nevertheless, in your great soul you feel the need of worshipping. When a man is at your knees, you cannot put yourself at his. You can’t advance in that way, as Voltaire might say. The little duke has too many genuflections in his moral being and the poet has too few — indeed, I might say, none at all. Ha, I have guessed the mischief in your smiles when you talk to the grand equerry, and when he talks to you and you answer him. You would never be unhappy with the duke, and everybody will approve your choice, if you do choose him; but you will never love him. The ice of egotism, and the burning heat of ecstasy both produce indifference in the heart of every woman. It is evident to my mind that no such perpetual worship will give you the infinite delights which you are dreaming of in marriage — in some marriage where obedience will be your pride, where noble little sacrifices can be made and hidden, where the heart is full of anxieties without a cause, and successes are awaited with eager hope, where each new chance for magnanimity is hailed with joy, where souls are comprehended to their inmost recesses, and where the woman protects with her love the man who protects her.”

“You are a sorcerer!” exclaimed Modeste.

“Neither will you find that sweet equality of feeling, that continual sharing of each other’s life, that certainty of pleasing which makes marriage tolerable, if you take Canalis — a man who thinks of himself only, whose ‘I’ is the one string to his lute, whose mind is so fixed on himself that he has hitherto taken no notice of your father or the duke — a man of second-rate ambitions, to whom your dignity and your devotion will matter nothing, who will make you a mere appendage to his household, and who already insults you by his indifference to your behavior; yes, if you permitted yourself to go so far as to box your mother’s ears Canalis would shut his eyes to it, and deny your crime even to himself, because he thirsts for your money. And so, mademoiselle, when I spoke of the man who truly loves you I was not thinking of the great poet who is nothing but a little comedian, nor of the duke, who might be a good marriage for you, but never a husband —”

“Butscha, my heart is a blank page on which you are yourself writing all that you read there,” cried Modeste, interrupting him. “You are carried away by your provincial hatred for everything that obliges you to look higher than your own head. You can’t forgive a poet for being a statesman, for possessing the gift of speech, for having a noble future before him — and you calumniate his intentions.”

“His! — mademoiselle, he will turn his back upon you with the baseness of an Althor.”

“Make him play that pretty little comedy, and —”

“That I will! he shall play it through and through within three days, — on Wednesday — recollect, Wednesday! Until then, mademoiselle, amuse yourself by listening to the little tunes of the lyre, so that the discords and the false notes may come out all the more distinctly.”

Modeste ran gaily back to the salon, where La Briere, who was sitting by the window, where he had doubtless been watching his idol, rose to his feet as if a groom of the chambers had suddenly announced, “The Queen.” It was a movement of spontaneous respect, full of that living eloquence that lies in gesture even more than in speech. Spoken love cannot compare with acts of love; and every young girl of twenty has the wisdom of fifty in applying the axiom. In it lies the great secret of attraction. Instead of looking Modeste in the face, as Canalis who paid her public homage would have done, the neglected lover followed her with a furtive look between his eyelids, humble after the manner of Butscha, and almost timid. The young heiress observed it, as she took her place by Canalis, to whose game she proceeded to pay attention. During a conversation which ensued, La Briere heard Modeste say to her father that she should ride out for the first time on the following Wednesday; and she also reminded him that she had no whip in keeping with her new equipments. The young man flung a lightning glance at the dwarf, and a few minutes later the two were pacing the terrace.

“It is nine o’clock,” cried Ernest. “I shall start for Paris at full gallop; I can get there tomorrow morning by ten. My dear Butscha, from you she will accept anything, for she is attached to you; let me give her a riding-whip in your name. If you will do me this immense kindness, you shall have not only my friendship but my devotion.”

“Ah, you are very happy,” said Butscha, ruefully; “you have money, you!”

“Tell Canalis not to expect me, and that he must find some pretext to account for my absence.”

An hour later Ernest had ridden out of Havre. He reached Paris in twelve hours, where his first act was to secure a place in the mail-coach for Havre on the following evening. Then he went to three of the chief jewellers in Paris and compared all the whip-handles that they could offer; he was in search of some artistic treasure that was regally superb. He found one at last, made by Stidmann for a Russian, who was unable to pay for it when finished — a fox-head in gold, with a ruby of exorbitant value; all his savings went into the purchase, the cost of which was seven thousand francs. Ernest gave a drawing of the arms of La Bastie, and allowed the shop-people twenty hours to engrave them. The handle, a masterpiece of delicate workmanship, was fitted to an india-rubber whip and put into a morocco case lined with velvet, on which two M.‘s interlaced were stamped in gold.

La Briere got back to Havre by the mail-coach Wednesday morning in time to breakfast with Canalis. The poet had concealed his secretary’s absence by declaring that he was busy with some work sent from Paris. Butscha, who met La Briere at the coach-door, took the box containing the precious work of art to Francoise Cochet, with instructions to place it on Modeste’s dressing-table.

“Of course you will accompany Mademoiselle Modeste on her ride today?” said Butscha, who went to Canalis’s house to let La Briere know by a wink that the whip had gone to its destination.

“I?” answered Ernest; “no, I am going to bed.”

“Bah!” exclaimed Canalis, looking at him. “I don’t know what to make of you.”

Breakfast was then served, and the poet naturally invited their visitor to stay and take it. Butscha complied, having seen in the expression of the valet’s face the success of a trick in which we shall see the first fruits of his promise to Modeste.

“Monsieur is very right to detain the clerk of Monsieur Latournelle,” whispered Germain in his master’s ear.

Canalis and Germain went into the salon on a sign that passed between them.

“I went out this morning to see the men fish, monsieur,” said the valet — “an excursion proposed to me by the captain of a smack, whose acquaintance I have made.”

Germain did not acknowledge that he had the bad taste to play billiards in a cafe — a fact of which Butscha had taken advantage to surround him with friends of his own and manage him as he pleased.

“Well?” said Canalis, “to the point — quick!”

“Monsieur le baron, I heard a conversation about Monsieur Mignon, which I encouraged as far as I could; for no one, of course, knew that I belong to you. Ah! monsieur, judging by the talk of the quays, you are running your head into a noose. The fortune of Mademoiselle de La Bastie is, like her name, modest. The vessel on which the father returned does not belong to him, but to rich China merchants to whom he renders an account. They even say things that are not at all flattering to Monsieur Mignon’s honor. Having heard that you and Monsieur le duc were rivals for Mademoiselle de La Bastie’s hand, I have taken the liberty to warn you; of the two, wouldn’t it be better that his lordship should gobble her? As I came home I walked round the quays, and into that theatre-hall where the merchants meet; I slipped boldly in and out among them. Seeing a well-dressed stranger, those worthy fellows began to talk to me of Havre, and I got them, little by little, to speak of Colonel Mignon. What they said only confirms the stories the fishermen told me; and I feel that I should fail in my duty if I keep silence. That is why I did not get home in time to dress monsieur this morning.”

“What am I to do?” cried Canalis, who remembered his proposals to Modeste the night before, and did not see how he could get out of them.

“Monsieur knows my attachment to him,” said Germain, perceiving that the poet was quite thrown off his balance; “he will not be surprised if I give him a word of advice. There is that clerk; try to get the truth out of him. Perhaps he’ll unbutton after a bottle or two of champagne, or at any rate a third. It would be strange indeed if monsieur, who will one day be ambassador, as Philoxene has heard Madame la duchesse say time and time again, couldn’t turn a little notary’s clerk inside out.”

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