Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER VI

A MAIDEN’S FIRST ROMANCE

To this period of Modeste’s eager rage for reading succeeded the exercise of a strange faculty given to vigorous imaginations — the power, namely, of making herself an actor in a dream-existence; of representing to her own mind the things desired, with so vivid a conception that they seemed actually to attain reality; in short, to enjoy by thought — to live out her years within her mind; to marry; to grow old; to attend her own funeral like Charles V.; to play within herself the comedy of life and, if need be, that of death. Modeste was indeed playing, but all alone, the comedy of Love. She fancied herself adored to the summit of her wishes in many an imagined phase of social life. Sometimes as the heroine of a dark romance, she loved the executioner, or the wretch who ended her days upon the scaffold, or, like her sister, some Parisian youth without a penny, whose struggles were all beneath a garret-roof. Sometimes she was Ninon, scorning men amid continual fetes; or some applauded actress, or gay adventuress, exhausting in her own behalf the luck of Gil Blas, or the triumphs of Pasta, Malibran, and Florine. Then, weary of the horrors and excitements, she returned to actual life. She married a notary, she ate the plain brown bread of honest everyday life, she saw herself a Madame Latournelle; she accepted a painful existence, she bore all the trials of a struggle with fortune. After that she went back to the romances: she was loved for her beauty; a son of a peer of France, an eccentric, artistic young man, divined her heart, recognized the star which the genius of a De Stael had planted on her brow. Her father returned, possessing millions. With his permission, she put her various lovers to certain tests (always carefully guarding her own independence); she owned a magnificent estate and castle, servants, horses, carriages, the choicest of everything that luxury could bestow, and kept her suitors uncertain until she was forty years old, at which age she made her choice.

This edition of the Arabian Nights in a single copy lasted nearly a year, and taught Modeste the sense of satiety through thought. She held her life too often in her hand, she said to herself philosophically and with too real a bitterness, too seriously, and too often, “Well, what is it, after all?” not to have plunged to her waist in the deep disgust which all men of genius feel when they try to complete by intense toil the work to which they have devoted themselves. Her youth and her rich nature alone kept Modeste at this period of her life from seeking to enter a cloister. But this sense of satiety cast her, saturated as she still was with Catholic spirituality, into the love of Good, the infinite of heaven. She conceived of charity, service to others, as the true occupation of life; but she cowered in the gloomy dreariness of finding in it no food for the fancy that lay crouching in her heart like an insect at the bottom of a calyx. Meanwhile she sat tranquilly sewing garments for the children of the poor, and listening abstractedly to the grumblings of Monsieur Latournelle when Dumay held the thirteenth card or drew out his last trump.

Her religious faith drove Modeste for a time into a singular track of thought. She imagined that if she became sinless (speaking ecclesiastically) she would attain to such a condition of sanctity that God would hear her and accomplish her desires. “Faith,” she thought, “can move mountains; Christ has said so. The Saviour led his apostle upon the waters of the lake Tiberias; and I, all I ask of God is a husband to love me; that is easier than walking upon the sea.” She fasted through the next Lent, and did not commit a single sin; then she said to herself that on a certain day coming out of church she should meet a handsome young man who was worthy of her, whom her mother would accept, and who would fall madly in love with her. When the day came on which she had, as it were, summoned God to send her an angel, she was persistently followed by a rather disgusting beggar; moreover, it rained heavily, and not a single young man was in the streets. On another occasion she went to walk on the jetty to see the English travellers land; but each Englishman had an Englishwoman, nearly as handsome as Modeste herself, who saw no one at all resembling a wandering Childe Harold. Tears overcame her, as she sat down like Marius on the ruins of her imagination. But on the day when she subpoenaed God for the third time she firmly believed that the Elect of her dreams was within the church, hiding, perhaps out of delicacy, behind one of the pillars, round all of which she dragged Madame Latournelle on a tour of inspection. After this failure, she deposed the Deity from omnipotence. Many were her conversations with the imaginary lover, for whom she invented questions and answers, bestowing upon him a great deal of wit and intelligence.

The high ambitions of her heart hidden within these romances were the real explanation of the prudent conduct which the good people who watched over Modeste so much admired; they might have brought her any number of young Althors or Vilquins, and she would never have stooped to such clowns. She wanted, purely and simply, a man of genius, — talent she cared little for; just as a lawyer is of no account to a girl who aims for an ambassador. Her only desire for wealth was to cast it at the feet of her idol. Indeed, the golden background of these visions was far less rich than the treasury of her own heart, filled with womanly delicacy; for its dominant desire was to make some Tasso, some Milton, a Jean–Jacques Rousseau, a Murat, a Christopher Columbus happy.

Commonplace miseries did not seriously touch this youthful soul, who longed to extinguish the fires of the martyrs ignored and rejected in their own day. Sometimes she imagined balms of Gilead, soothing melodies which might have allayed the savage misanthropy of Rousseau. Or she fancied herself the wife of Lord Byron; guessing intuitively his contempt for the real, she made herself as fantastic as the poetry of Manfred, and provided for his scepticism by making him a Catholic. Modeste attributed Moliere’s melancholy to the women of the seventeenth century. “Why is there not some one woman,” she asked herself, “loving, beautiful, and rich, ready to stand beside each man of genius and be his slave, like Lara, the mysterious page?” She had, as the reader perceives, fully understood “il pianto,” which the English poet chanted by the mouth of his Gulmare. Modeste greatly admired the behavior of the young Englishwoman who offered herself to Crebillon, the son, who married her. The story of Sterne and Eliza Draper was her life and her happiness for several months. She made herself ideally the heroine of a like romance, and many a time she rehearsed in imagination the sublime role of Eliza. The sensibility so charmingly expressed in that delightful correspondence filled her eyes with tears which, it is said, were lacking in those of the wittiest of English writers.

Modeste existed for some time on a comprehension, not only of the works, but of the characters of her favorite authors — Goldsmith, the author of Obermann, Charles Nodier, Maturin. The poorest and the most suffering among them were her deities; she guessed their trials, initiated herself into a destitution where the thoughts of genius brooded, and poured upon it the treasures of her heart; she fancied herself the giver of material comfort to these great men, martyrs to their own faculty. This noble compassion, this intuition of the struggles of toilers, this worship of genius, are among the choicest perceptions that flutter through the souls of women. They are, in the first place, a secret between the woman and God, for they are hidden; in them there is nothing striking, nothing that gratifies the vanity, — that powerful auxiliary to all action among the French.

Out of this third period of the development of her ideas, there came to Modeste a passionate desire to penetrate to the heart of one of these abnormal beings; to understand the working of the thoughts and the hidden griefs of genius — to know not only what it wanted but what it was. At the period when this story begins, these vagaries of fancy, these excursions of her soul into the void, these feelers put forth into the darkness of the future, the impatience of an ungiven love to find its goal, the nobility of all her thoughts of life, the decision of her mind to suffer in a sphere of higher things rather than flounder in the marshes of provincial life like her mother, the pledge she had made to herself never to fail in conduct, but to respect her father’s hearth and bring it happiness — all this world of feeling and sentiment had lately come to a climax and taken shape. Modeste wished to be the friend and companion of a poet, an artist, a man in some way superior to the crowd of men. But she intended to choose him — not to give him her heart, her life, her infinite tenderness freed from the trammels of passion, until she had carefully and deeply studied him.

She began this pretty romance by simply enjoying it. Profound tranquillity settled down upon her soul. Her cheeks took on a soft color; and she became the beautiful and noble image of Germany, such as we have lately seen her, the glory of the Chalet, the pride of Madame Latournelle and the Dumays. Modeste was living a double existence. She performed with humble, loving care all the minute duties of the homely life at the Chalet, using them as a rein to guide the poetry of her ideal life, like the Carthusian monks who labor methodically on material things to leave their souls the freer to develop in prayer. All great minds have bound themselves to some form of mechanical toil to obtain greater mastery of thought. Spinosa ground glasses for spectacles; Bayle counted the tiles on the roof; Montesquieu gardened. The body being thus subdued, the soul could spread its wings in all security.

Madame Mignon, reading her daughter’s soul, was therefore right. Modeste loved; she loved with that rare platonic love, so little understood, the first illusion of a young girl, the most delicate of all sentiments, a very dainty of the heart. She drank deep draughts from the chalice of the unknown, the vague, the visionary. She admired the blue plumage of the bird that sings afar in the paradise of young girls, which no hand can touch, no gun can cover, as it flits across the sight; she loved those magic colors, like sparkling jewels dazzling to the eye, which youth can see, and never sees again when Reality, the hideous hag, appears with witnesses accompanied by the mayor. To live the very poetry of love and not to see the lover — ah, what sweet intoxication! what visionary rapture! a chimera with flowing man and outspread wings!

The following is the puerile and even silly event which decided the future life of this young girl.

Modeste happened to see in a bookseller’s window a lithographic portrait of one of her favorites, Canalis. We all know what lies such pictures tell — being as they are the result of a shameless speculation, which seizes upon the personality of celebrated individuals as if their faces were public property.

In this instance Canalis, sketched in a Byronic pose, was offering to public admiration his dark locks floating in the breeze, a bare throat, and the unfathomable brow which every bard ought to possess. Victor Hugo’s forehead will make more persons shave their heads than the number of incipient marshals ever killed by the glory of Napoleon. This portrait of Canalis (poetic through mercantile necessity) caught Modeste’s eye. The day on which it caught her eye one of Arthez’s best books happened to be published. We are compelled to admit, though it may be to Modeste’s injury, that she hesitated long between the illustrious poet and the illustrious prose-writer. Which of these celebrated men was free? — that was the question.

Modeste began by securing the co-operation of Francoise Cochet, a maid taken from Havre and brought back again by poor Bettina, whom Madame Mignon and Madame Dumay now employed by the day, and who lived in Havre. Modeste took her to her own room and assured her that she would never cause her parents any grief, never pass the bounds of a young girl’s propriety, and that as to Francoise herself she would be well provided for after the return of Monsieur Mignon, on condition that she would do a certain service and keep it an inviolable secret. What was it? Why, a nothing — perfectly innocent. All that Modeste wanted of her accomplice was to put certain letters into the post at Havre and to bring some back which would be directed to herself, Francoise Cochet. The treaty concluded, Modeste wrote a polite note to Dauriat, publisher of the poems of Canalis, asking, in the interest of that great poet, for some particulars about him, among others if he were married. She requested the publisher to address his answer to Mademoiselle Francoise, “poste restante,” Havre.

Dauriat, incapable of taking the epistle seriously, wrote a reply in presence of four or five journalists who happened to be in his office at the time, each of whom added his particular stroke of wit to the production.

Mademoiselle — Canalis (Baron of), Constant Cys Melchior, member
of the French Academy, born in 1800, at Canalis (Correze), five
feet four inches in height, of good standing, vaccinated, spotless
birth, has given a substitute to the conscription, enjoys perfect
health, owns a small patrimonial estate in the Correze, and wishes
to marry, but the lady must be rich.

He beareth per pale, gules an axe or, sable three escallops
argent, surmounted by a baron’s coronet; supporters, two larches,
vert. Motto: “Or et fer” (no allusion to Ophir or auriferous).

The original Canalis, who went to the Holy Land with the First
Crusade, is cited in the chronicles of Auvergne as being armed
with an axe on account of the family indigence, which to this day
weighs heavily on the race. This noble baron, famous for
discomfiting a vast number of infidels, died, without “or” or
“fer,” as naked as a worm, near Jerusalem, on the plains of
Ascalon, ambulances not being then invented.

The chateau of Canalis (the domain yields a few chestnuts)
consists of two dismantled towers, united by a piece of wall
covered by a fine ivy, and is taxed at twenty-two francs.

The undersigned (publisher) calls attention to the fact that he
pays ten thousand francs for every volume of poetry written by
Monsieur de Canalis, who does not give his shells, or his nuts
either, for nothing.

The chanticler of the Correze lives in the rue de
Paradis–Poissoniere, number 29, which is a highly suitable
location for a poet of the angelic school. Letters must be
post-paid.

Noble dames of the faubourg Saint–Germain are said to take the
path to Paradise and protect its god. The king, Charles X., thinks
so highly of this great poet as to believe him capable of
governing the country; he has lately made him officer of the
Legion of honor, and (what pays him better) president of the court
of Claims at the foreign office. These functions do not hinder
this great genius from drawing an annuity out of the fund for the
encouragement of the arts and belles letters.

The last edition of the works of Canalis, printed on vellum, royal
8vo, from the press of Didot, with illustrations by Bixiou, Joseph
Bridau, Schinner, Sommervieux, etc., is in five volumes, price,
nine francs post-paid.

This letter fell like a cobble-stone on a tulip. A poet, secretary of claims, getting a stipend in a public office, drawing an annuity, seeking a decoration, adored by the women of the faubourg Saint–Germain — was that the muddy minstrel lingering along the quays, sad, dreamy, worn with toil, and re-entering his garret fraught with poetry? However, Modeste perceived the irony of the envious bookseller, who dared to say, “I invented Canalis; I made Nathan!” Besides, she re-read her hero’s poems — verses extremely seductive, insincere, and hypocritical, which require a word of analysis, were it only to explain her infatuation.

Canalis may be distinguished from Lamartine, chief of the angelic school, by a wheedling tone like that of a sick-nurse, a treacherous sweetness, and a delightful correctness of diction. If the chief with his strident cry is an eagle, Canalis, rose and white, is a flamingo. In him women find the friend they seek, their interpreter, a being who understands them, who explains them to themselves, and a safe confidant. The wide margins given by Didot to the last edition were crowded with Modeste’s pencilled sentiments, expressing her sympathy with this tender and dreamy spirit. Canalis does not possess the gift of life; he cannot breathe existence into his creations; but he knows how to calm vague sufferings like those which assailed Modeste. He speaks to young girls in their own language; he can allay the anguish of a bleeding wound and lull the moans, even the sobs of woe. His gift lies not in stirring words, nor in the remedy of strong emotions, he contents himself with saying in harmonious tones which compel belief, “I suffer with you; I understand you; come with me; let us weep together beside the brook, beneath the willows.” And they follow him! They listen to his empty and sonorous poetry like infants to a nurse’s lullaby. Canalis, like Nodier, enchants the reader by an artlessness which is genuine in the prose writer and artificial in the poet, by his tact, his smile, the shedding of his rose-leaves, in short by his infantile philosophy. He imitates so well the language of our early youth that he leads us back to the prairie-land of our illusions. We can be pitiless to the eagles, requiring from them the quality of the diamond, incorruptible perfection; but as for Canalis, we take him for what he is and let the rest go. He seems a good fellow; the affectations of the angelic school have answered his purpose and succeeded, just as a woman succeeds when she plays the ingenue cleverly, and simulates surprise, youth, innocence betrayed, in short, the wounded angel.

Modeste, recovering her first impression, renewed her confidence in that soul, in that countenance as ravishing as the face of Bernardin de Saint–Pierre. She paid no further attention to the publisher. And so, about the beginning of the month of August she wrote the following letter to this Dorat of the sacristy, who still ranks as a star of the modern Pleiades.

To Monsieur de Canalis — Many a time, monsieur, I have wished to
write to you; and why? Surely you guess why — to tell you how much
I admire your genius. Yes, I feel the need of expressing to you
the admiration of a poor country girl, lonely in her little
corner, whose only happiness is to read your thoughts. I have read
Rene, and I come to you. Sadness leads to reverie. How many other
women are sending you the homage of their secret thoughts? What
chance have I for notice among so many? This paper, filled with my
soul — can it be more to you than the perfumed letters which
already beset you. I come to you with less grace than others, for
I wish to remain unknown and yet to receive your entire confidence
— as though you had long known me.

Answer my letter and be friendly with me. I cannot promise to make
myself known to you, though I do not positively say I will not
some day do so.

What shall I add? Read between the lines of this letter, monsieur,
the great effort which I am making: permit me to offer you my
hand — that of a friend, ah! a true friend.

Your servant, O. d’Este M.

P.S. — If you do me the favor to answer this letter address your
reply, if you please, to Mademoiselle F. Cochet, “poste restante,”
Havre.

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