Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



All young girls, romantic or otherwise, can imagine the impatience in which Modeste lived for the next few days. The air was full of tongues of fire. The trees were like a plumage. She was not conscious of a body; she hovered in space, the earth melted away under her feet. Full of admiration for the post-office, she followed her little sheet of paper on its way; she was happy, as we all are happy at twenty years of age, in the first exercise of our will. She was possessed, as in the middle ages. She made pictures in her mind of the poet’s abode, of his study; she saw him unsealing her letter; and then followed myriads of suppositions.

After sketching the poetry we cannot do less than give the profile of the poet. Canalis is a short, spare man, with an air of good-breeding, a dark-complexioned, moon-shaped face, and a rather mean head like that of a man who has more vanity than pride. He loves luxury, rank, and splendor. Money is of more importance to him than to most men. Proud of his birth, even more than of his talent, he destroys the value of his ancestors by making too much of them in the present day, — after all, the Canalis are not Navarreins, nor Cadignans, nor Grandlieus. Nature, however, helps him out in his pretensions. He has those eyes of Eastern effulgence which we demand in a poet, a delicate charm of manner, and a vibrant voice; yet a taint of natural charlatanism destroys the effect of nearly all these advantages; he is a born comedian. If he puts forward his well-shaped foot, it is because the attitude has become a habit; if he uses exclamatory terms they are part of himself; if he poses with high dramatic action he has made that deportment his second nature. Such defects as these are not incompatible with a general benevolence and a certain quality of errant and purely ideal chivalry, which distinguishes the paladin from the knight. Canalis has not devotion enough for a Don Quixote, but he has too much elevation of thought not to put himself on the nobler side of questions and things. His poetry, which takes the town by storm on all profitable occasions, really injures the man as a poet; for he is not without mind, but his talent prevents him from developing it; he is overweighted by his reputation, and is always aiming to make himself appear greater than he has the credit of being. Thus, as often happens, the man is entirely out of keeping with the products of his thought. The author of these naive, caressing, tender little lyrics, these calm idylls pure and cold as the surface of a lake, these verses so essentially feminine, is an ambitious little creature in a tightly buttoned frock-coat, with the air of a diplomat seeking political influence, smelling of the musk of aristocracy, full of pretension, thirsting for money, already spoiled by success in two directions, and wearing the double wreath of myrtle and of laurel. A government situation worth eight thousand francs, three thousand francs’ annuity from the literary fund, two thousand from the Academy, three thousand more from the paternal estate (less the taxes and the cost of keeping it in order) — a total fixed income of fifteen thousand francs, plus the ten thousand bought in, one year with another, by his poetry; in all twenty-five thousand francs — this for Modeste’s hero was so precarious and insufficient an income that he usually spent five or six thousand francs more every year; but the king’s privy purse and the secret funds of the foreign office had hitherto supplied the deficit. He wrote a hymn for the king’s coronation which earned him a whole silver service — having refused a sum of money on the ground that a Canalis owed his duty to his sovereign.

But about this time Canalis had, as the journalists say, exhausted his budget. He felt himself unable to invent any new form of poetry; his lyre did not have seven strings, it had one; and having played on that one string so long, the public allowed him no other alternative but to hang himself with it, or to hold his tongue. De Marsay, who did not like Canalis, made a remark whose poisoned shaft touched the poet to the quick of his vanity. “Canalis,” he said, “always reminds me of that brave man whom Frederic the Great called up and commended after a battle because his trumpet had never ceased tooting its one little tune.” Canalis’s ambition was to enter political life, and he made capital of a journey he had taken to Madrid as secretary to the embassy of the Duc de Chaulieu, though it was really made, according to Parisian gossip, in the capacity of “attache to the duchess.” How many times a sarcasm or a single speech has decided the whole course of a man’s life. Colla, the late president of the Cisalpine republic, and the best lawyer in Piedmont, was told by a friend when he was forty years of age that he knew nothing of botany. He was piqued, became a second Jussieu, cultivated flowers, and compiled and published “The Flora of Piedmont,” in Latin, a labor of ten years. “I’ll master De Marsay some of these days!” thought the crushed poet; “after all, Canning and Chateaubriand are both in politics.”

Canalis would gladly have brought forth some great political poem, but he was afraid of the French press, whose criticisms are savage upon any writer who takes four alexandrines to express one idea. Of all the poets of our day only three, Hugo, Theophile Gautier, and De Vigny, have been able to win the double glory of poet and prose-writer, like Racine and Voltaire, Moliere, and Rabelais — a rare distinction in the literature of France, which ought to give a man a right to the crowning title of poet.

So then, the bard of the faubourg Saint–Germain was doing a wise thing in trying to house his little chariot under the protecting roof of the present government. When he became president of the court of Claims at the foreign office, he stood in need of a secretary — a friend who could take his place in various ways; cook up his interests with publishers, see to his glory in the newspapers, help him if need be in politics — in short, a cat’s paw and satellite. In Paris many men of celebrity in art, science, and literature have one or more train-bearers, captains of the guard, chamberlains as it were, who live in the sunshine of their presence — aides-decamp entrusted with delicate missions, allowing themselves to be compromised if necessary; workers round the pedestal of the idol; not exactly his servants, nor yet his equals; bold in his defence, first in the breach, covering all retreats, busy with his business, and devoted to him just so long as their illusions last, or until the moment when they have got all they wanted. Some of these satellites perceive the ingratitude of their great man; others feel that they are simply made tools of; many weary of the life; very few remain contented with that sweet equality of feeling and sentiment which is the only reward that should be looked for in an intimacy with a superior man — a reward that contented Ali when Mohammed raised him to himself.

Many of these men, misled by vanity, think themselves quite as capable as their patron. Pure devotion, such as Modeste conceived it, without money and without price, and more especially without hope, is rare. Nevertheless there are Mennevals to be found, more perhaps in Paris than elsewhere, men who value a life in the background with its peaceful toil; these are the wandering Benedictines of our social world, which offers them no other monastery. These brave, meek hearts live, by their actions and in their hidden lives, the poetry that poets utter. They are poets themselves in soul, in tenderness, in their lonely vigils and meditations — as truly poets as others of the name on paper, who fatten in the fields of literature at so much a verse; like Lord Byron, like all who live, alas, by ink, the Hippocrene water of today, for want of a better.

Attracted by the fame of Canalis, also by the prospect of political interest, and advised thereto by Madame d’Espard, who acted in the matter for the Duchesse de Chaulieu, a young lawyer of the court of Claims became secretary and confidential friend of the poet, who welcomed and petted him very much as a broker caresses his first dabbler in the funds. The beginning of this companionship bore a very fair resemblance to friendship. The young man had already held the same relation to a minister, who went out of office in 1827, taking care before he did so to appoint his young secretary to a place in the foreign office. Ernest de La Briere, then about twenty-seven years of age, was decorated with the Legion of honor but was without other means than his salary; he was accustomed to the management of business and had learned a good deal of life during his four years in a minister’s cabinet. Kindly, amiable, and over-modest, with a heart full of pure and sound feelings, he was averse to putting himself in the foreground. He loved his country, and wished to serve her, but notoriety abashed him. To him the place of secretary to a Napoleon was far more desirable than that of the minister himself. As soon as he became the friend and secretary of Canalis he did a great amount of labor for him, but by the end of eighteen months he had learned to understand the barrenness of a nature that was poetic through literary expression only. The truth of the old proverb, “The cowl doesn’t make the monk,” is eminently shown in literature. It is extremely rare to find among literary men a nature and a talent that are in perfect accord. The faculties are not the man himself. This disconnection, whose phenomena are amazing, proceeds from an unexplored, possibly an unexplorable mystery. The brain and its products of all kinds (for in art the hand of man is a continuation of his brain) are a world apart, which flourishes beneath the cranium in absolute independence of sentiments, feelings, and all that is called virtue, the virtue of citizens, fathers, and private life. This, however true, is not absolutely so; nothing is absolutely true of man. It is certain that a debauched man will dissipate his talent, that a drunkard will waste it in libations; while, on the other hand, no man can give himself talent by wholesome living: nevertheless, it is all but proved that Virgil, the painter of love, never loved a Dido, and that Rousseau, the model citizen, had enough pride to had furnished forth an aristocracy. On the other hand Raphael and Michael Angelo do present the glorious conjunction of genius with the lines of character. Talent in men is therefore, in all moral points, very much what beauty is in women, — simply a promise. Let us, therefore, doubly admire the man in whom both heart and character equal the perfection of his genius.

When Ernest discovered within his poet an ambitious egoist, the worst species of egoist (for there are some amiable forms of the vice), he felt a delicacy in leaving him. Honest natures cannot easily break the ties that bind them, especially if they have tied them voluntarily. The secretary was therefore still living in domestic relations with the poet when Modeste’s letter arrived — in such relations, be it said, as involved a perpetual sacrifice of his feelings. La Briere admitted the frankness with which Canalis had laid himself bare before him. Moreover, the defects of the man, who will always be considered a great poet during his lifetime and flattered as Martmontel was flattered, were only the wrong side of his brilliant qualities. Without his vanity and his magniloquence it is possible that he might never have acquired the sonorous elocution which is so useful and even necessary an instrument in political life. His cold-bloodedness touched at certain points on rectitude and loyalty; his ostentation had a lining of generosity. Results, we must remember, are to the profit of society; motives concern God.

But after the arrival of Modeste’s letter Ernest deceived himself no longer as to Canalis. The pair had just finished breakfast and were talking together in the poet’s study, which was on the ground-floor of a house standing back in a court-yard, and looked into a garden.

“There!” exclaimed Canalis, “I was telling Madame de Chaulieu the other day that I ought to bring out another poem; I knew admiration was running short, for I have had no anonymous letters for a long time.”

“Is it from an unknown woman?”

“Unknown? yes! — a D’Este, in Havre; evidently a feigned name.”

Canalis passed the letter to La Briere. The little poem, with all its hidden enthusiasms, in short, poor Modeste’s heart, was disdainfully handed over, with the gesture of a spoiled dandy.

“It is a fine thing,” said the lawyer, “to have the power to attract such feelings; to force a poor woman to step out of the habits which nature, education, and the world dictate to her, to break through conventions. What privileges genius wins! A letter such as this, written by a young girl — a genuine young girl — without hidden meanings, with real enthusiasm —”

“Well, what?” said Canalis.

“Why, a man might suffer as much as Tasso and yet feel recompensed,” cried La Briere.

“So he might, my dear fellow, by a first letter of that kind, and even a second; but how about the thirtieth? And suppose you find out that these young enthusiasts are little jades? Or imagine a poet rushing along the brilliant path in search of her, and finding at the end of it an old Englishwoman sitting on a mile-stone and offering you her hand! Or suppose this post-office angel should really be a rather ugly girl in quest of a husband? Ah, my boy! the effervescence then goes down.”

“I begin to perceive,” said La Briere, smiling, “that there is something poisonous in glory, as there is in certain dazzling flowers.”

“And then,” resumed Canalis, “all these women, even when they are simple-minded, have ideals, and you can’t satisfy them. They never say to themselves that a poet is a vain man, as I am accused of being; they can’t conceive what it is for an author to be at the mercy of a feverish excitement, which makes him disagreeable and capricious; they want him always grand, noble; it never occurs to them that genius is a disease, or that Nathan lives with Florine; that D’Arthez is too fat, and Joseph Bridau is too thin; that Beranger limps, and that their own particular deity may have the snuffles! A Lucien de Rubempre, poet and cupid, is a phoenix. And why should I go in search of compliments only to pull the string of a shower-bath of horrid looks from some disillusioned female?”

“Then the true poet,” said La Briere, “ought to remain hidden, like God, in the centre of his worlds, and be only seen in his own creations.”

“Glory would cost too dear in that case,” answered Canalis. “There is some good in life. As for that letter,” he added, taking a cup of tea, “I assure you that when a noble and beautiful woman loves a poet she does not hide in the corner boxes, like a duchess in love with an actor; she feels that her beauty, her fortune, her name are protection enough, and she dares to say openly, like an epic poem: ‘I am the nymph Calypso, enamored of Telemachus.’ Mystery and feigned names are the resources of little minds. For my part I no longer answer masks —”

“I should love a woman who came to seek me,” cried La Briere. “To all you say I reply, my dear Canalis, that it cannot be an ordinary girl who aspires to a distinguished man; such a girl has too little trust, too much vanity; she is too faint-hearted. Only a star, a —”

“— princess!” cried Canalis, bursting into a shout of laughter; “only a princess can descend to him. My dear fellow, that doesn’t happen once in a hundred years. Such a love is like that flower that blossoms every century. Princesses, let me tell you, if they are young, rich, and beautiful, have something else to think of; they are surrounded like rare plants by a hedge of fools, well-bred idiots as hollow as elder-bushes! My dream, alas! the crystal of my dream, garlanded from hence to the Correze with roses — ah! I cannot speak of it — it is in fragments at my feet, and has long been so. No, no, all anonymous letters are begging letters; and what sort of begging? Write yourself to that young woman, if you suppose her young and pretty, and you’ll find out. There is nothing like experience. As for me, I can’t reasonably be expected to love every woman; Apollo, at any rate he of Belvedere, is a delicate consumptive who must take care of his health.”

“But when a woman writes to you in this way her excuse must certainly be in her consciousness that she is able to eclipse in tenderness and beauty every other woman,” said Ernest, “and I should think you might feel some curiosity —”

“Ah,” said Canalis, “permit me, my juvenile friend, to abide by the beautiful duchess who is all my joy.”

“You are right, you are right!” cried Ernest. However, the young secretary read and re-read Modeste’s letter, striving to guess the mind of its hidden writer.

“There is not the least fine-writing here,” he said, “she does not even talk of your genius; she speaks to your heart. In your place I should feel tempted by this fragrance of modesty — this proposed agreement —”

“Then, sign it!” cried Canalis, laughing; “answer the letter and go to the end of the adventure yourself. You shall tell me the results three months hence — if the affair lasts so long.”

Four days later Modeste received the following letter, written on extremely fine paper, protected by two envelopes, and sealed with the arms of Canalis.

Mademoiselle — The admiration for fine works (allowing that my
books are such) implies something so lofty and sincere as to
protect you from all light jesting, and to justify before the
sternest judge the step you have taken in writing to me.

But first I must thank you for the pleasure which such proofs of
sympathy afford, even though we may not merit them — for the maker
of verses and the true poet are equally certain of the intrinsic
worth of their writings — so readily does self-esteem lend itself
to praise. The best proof of friendship that I can give to an
unknown lady in exchange for a faith which allays the sting of
criticism, is to share with her the harvest of my own experience,
even at the risk of dispelling her most vivid illusions.

Mademoiselle, the noblest adornment of a young girl is the flower
of a pure and saintly and irreproachable life. Are you alone in
the world? If you are, there is no need to say more. But if you
have a family, a father or a mother, think of all the sorrow that
might come to them from such a letter as yours addressed to a poet
of whom you know nothing personally. All writers are not angels;
they have many defects. Some are frivolous, heedless, foppish,
ambitious, dissipated; and, believe me, no matter how imposing
innocence may be, how chivalrous a poet is, you will meet with
many a degenerate troubadour in Paris ready to cultivate your
affection only to betray it. By such a man your letter would be
interpreted otherwise than it is by me. He would see a thought
that is not in it, which you, in your innocence, have not
suspected. There are as many natures as there are writers. I am
deeply flattered that you have judged me capable of understanding
you; but had you, perchance, fallen upon a hypocrite, a scoffer,
one whose books may be melancholy but whose life is a perpetual
carnival, you would have found as the result of your generous
imprudence an evil-minded man, the frequenter of green-rooms,
perhaps a hero of some gay resort. In the bower of clematis where
you dream of poets, can you smell the odor of the cigar which
drives all poetry from the manuscript?

But let us look still further. How could the dreamy, solitary life
you lead, doubtless by the sea-shore, interest a poet, whose
mission it is to imagine all, and to paint all? What reality can
equal imagination? The young girls of the poets are so ideal that
no living daughter of Eve can compete with them. And now tell me,
what will you gain — you, a young girl, brought up to be the
virtuous mother of a family — if you learn to comprehend the
terrible agitations of a poet’s life in this dreadful capital,
which may be defined by one sentence — the hell in which men love.

If the desire to brighten the monotonous existence of a young girl
thirsting for knowledge has led you to take your pen in hand and
write to me, has not the step itself the appearance of
degradation? What meaning am I to give to your letter? Are you one
of a rejected caste, and do you seek a friend far away from you?
Or, are you afflicted with personal ugliness, yet feeling within
you a noble soul which can give and receive a confidence? Alas,
alas, the conclusion to be drawn is grievous. You have said too
much, or too little; you have gone too far, or not far enough.
Either let us drop this correspondence, or, if you continue it,
tell me more than in the letter you have now written me.

But, mademoiselle, if you are young, if you are beautiful, if you
have a home, a family, if in your heart you have the precious
ointment, the spikenard, to pour out, as did Magdalene on the feet
of Jesus, let yourself be won by a man worthy of you; become what
every pure young girl should be — a good woman, the virtuous
mother of a family. A poet is the saddest conquest that a girl can
make; he is full of vanity, full of angles that will sharply wound
a woman’s proper pride, and kill a tenderness which has no
experience of life. The wife of a poet should love him long before
she marries him; she must train herself to the charity of angels,
to their forbearance, to all the virtues of motherhood. Such
qualities, mademoiselle, are but germs in a young girl.

Hear the whole truth — do I not owe it to you in return for your
intoxicating flattery? If it is a glorious thing to marry a great
renown, remember also that you must soon discover a superior man
to be, in all that makes a man, like other men. He therefore
poorly realizes the hopes that attach to him as a phoenix. He
becomes like a woman whose beauty is over-praised, and of whom we
say: “I thought her far more lovely.” She has not warranted the
portrait painted by the fairy to whom I owe your letter — the
fairy whose name is Imagination.

Believe me, the qualities of the mind live and thrive only in a
sphere invisible, not in daily life; the wife of a poet bears the
burden; she sees the jewels manufactured, but she never wears
them. If the glory of the position fascinates you, hear me now
when I tell you that its pleasures are soon at an end. You will
suffer when you find so many asperities in a nature which, from a
distance, you thought equable, and such coldness at the shining
summit. Moreover, as women never set their feet within the world
of real difficulties, they cease to appreciate what they once
admired as soon as they think they see the inner mechanism of it.

I close with a last thought, in which there is no disguised
entreaty; it is the counsel of a friend. The exchange of souls can
take place only between persons who are resolved to hide nothing
from each other. Would you show yourself for such as you are to an
unknown man? I dare not follow out the consequences of that idea.

Deign to accept, mademoiselle, the homage which we owe to all
women, even those who are disguised and masked.

So this was the letter she had worn between her flesh and her corset above her palpitating heart throughout one whole day! For this she had postponed the reading until the midnight hour when the household slept, waiting for the solemn silence with the eager anxiety of an imagination on fire! For this she had blessed the poet by anticipation, reading a thousand letters ere she opened one — fancying all things, except this drop of cold water falling upon the vaporous forms of her illusion, and dissolving them as prussic acid dissolves life. What could she do but hide herself in her bed, blow out her candle, bury her face in the sheets and weep?

All this happened during the first days of July. But Modeste presently got up, walked across the room and opened the window. She wanted air. The fragrance of the flowers came to her with the peculiar freshness of the odors of the night. The sea, lighted by the moon, sparkled like a mirror. A nightingale was singing in a tree. “Ah, there is the poet!” thought Modeste, whose anger subsided at once. Bitter reflections chased each other through her mind. She was cut to the quick; she wished to re-read the letter, and lit a candle; she studied the sentences so carefully studied when written; and ended by hearing the wheezing voice of the outer world.

“He is right, and I am wrong,” she said to herself. “But who could ever believe that under the starry mantle of a poet I should find nothing but one of Moliere’s old men?”

When a woman or young girl is taken in the act, “flagrante delicto,” she conceives a deadly hatred to the witness, the author, or the object of her fault. And so the true, the single-minded, the untamed and untamable Modeste conceived within her soul an unquenchable desire to get the better of that righteous spirit, to drive him into some fatal inconsistency, and so return him blow for blow. This girl, this child, as we may call her, so pure, whose head alone had been misguided — partly by her reading, partly by her sister’s sorrows, and more perhaps by the dangerous meditations of her solitary life — was suddenly caught by a ray of sunshine flickering across her face. She had been standing for three hours on the shores of the vast sea of Doubt. Nights like these are never forgotten. Modeste walked straight to her little Chinese table, a gift from her father, and wrote a letter dictated by the infernal spirit of vengeance which palpitates in the hearts of young girls.

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