Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER VIII

BLADE TO BLADE

To Monsieur de Canalis:

Monsieur — You are certainly a great poet, and you are something
more — an honest man. After showing such loyal frankness to a
young girl who was stepping to the verge of an abyss, have you
enough left to answer without hypocrisy or evasion the following
question?

Would you have written the letter I now hold in answer to mine,
— would your ideas, your language have been the same — had some
one whispered in your ear (what may prove true), Mademoiselle O.
d’Este M. has six millions and does intend to have a dunce for a
master?

Admit the supposition for a moment. Be with me what you are with
yourself; fear nothing. I am wiser than my twenty years; nothing
that is frank can hurt you in my mind. When I have read your
confidence, if you deign to make it, you shall receive from me an
answer to your first letter.

Having admired your talent, often so sublime, permit me to do
homage to your delicacy and your integrity, which force me to
remain always,

Your humble servant, O. d’Este M.

When Ernest de La Briere had held this letter in his hands for some little time he went to walk along the boulevards, tossed in mind like a tiny vessel by a tempest when the wind is blowing from all points of the compass. Most young men, specially true Parisians, would have settled the matter in a single phrase, “The girl is a little hussy.” But for a youth whose soul was noble and true, this attempt to put him, as it were, upon his oath, this appeal to truth, had the power to awaken the three judges hidden in the conscience of every man. Honor, Truth, and Justice, getting on their feet, cried out in their several ways energetically.

“Ah, my dear Ernest,” said Truth, “you never would have read that lesson to a rich heiress. No, my boy; you would have gone in hot haste to Havre to find out if the girl were handsome, and you would have been very unhappy indeed at her preference for genius; and if you could have tripped up your friend and supplanted him in her affections, Mademoiselle d’Este would have been a divinity.”

“What?” cried Justice, “are you not always bemoaning yourselves, you penniless men of wit and capacity, that rich girls marry beings whom you wouldn’t take as your servants? You rail against the materialism of the century which hastens to join wealth to wealth, and never marries some fine young man with brains and no money to a rich girl. What an outcry you make about it; and yet here is a young woman who revolts against that very spirit of the age, and behold! the poet replies with a blow at her heart!”

“Rich or poor, young or old, ugly or handsome, the girl is right; she has sense and judgment, she has tripped you over into the slough of self-interest and lets you know it,” cried Honor. “She deserves an answer, a sincere and loyal and frank answer, and, above all, the honest expression of your thought. Examine yourself! sound your heart and purge it of its meannesses. What would Moliere’s Alceste say?”

And La Briere, having started from the boulevard Poissoniere, walked so slowly, absorbed in these reflections, that he was more than an hour in reaching the boulevard des Capucines. Then he followed the quays, which led him to the Cour des Comptes, situated in that time close to the Saint–Chapelle. Instead of beginning on the accounts as he should have done, he remained at the mercy of his perplexities.

“One thing is evident,” he said to himself; “she hasn’t six millions; but that’s not the point —”

Six days later, Modeste received the following letter:

Mademoiselle — You are not a D’Este. The name is a feigned one to
conceal your own. Do I owe the revelations which you solicit to a
person who is untruthful about herself? Question for question: Are
you of an illustrious family? or a noble family? or a middle-class
family? Undoubtedly ethics and morality cannot change; they are
one: but obligations vary in the different states of life. Just as
the sun lights up a scene diversely and produces differences which
we admire, so morality conforms social duty to rank, to position.
The peccadillo of a soldier is a crime in a general, and
vice-versa. Observances are not alike in all cases. They are not
the same for the gleaner in the field, for the girl who sews at
fifteen sous a day, for the daughter of a petty shopkeeper, for
the young bourgoise, for the child of a rich merchant, for the
heiress of a noble family, for a daughter of the house of Este. A
king must not stoop to pick up a piece of gold, but a laborer
ought to retrace his steps to find ten sous; though both are
equally bound to obey the laws of economy. A daughter of Este, who
is worth six millions, has the right to wear a broad-brimmed hat
and plume, to flourish her whip, press the flanks of her barb, and
ride like an amazon decked in gold lace, with a lackey behind her,
into the presence of a poet and say: “I love poetry; and I would
fain expiate Leonora’s cruelty to Tasso!” but a daughter of the
people would cover herself with ridicule by imitating her. To what
class do you belong? Answer sincerely, and I will answer the
question you have put to me.

As I have not the honor of knowing you personally, and yet am
bound to you, in a measure, by the ties of poetic communion, I am
unwilling to offer any commonplace compliments. Perhaps you have
already won a malicious victory by thus embarrassing a maker of
books.

The young man was certainly not wanting in the sort of shrewdness which is permissible to a man of honor. By return courier he received an answer:—

To Monsieur de Canalis — You grow more and more sensible, my dear
poet. My father is a count. The chief glory of our house was a
cardinal, in the days when cardinals walked the earth by the side
of kings. I am the last of our family, which ends in me; but I
have the necessary quarterings to make my entry into any court or
chapter-house in Europe. We are quite the equals of the Canalis.
You will be so kind as to excuse me from sending you our arms.

Endeavor to answer me as truthfully as I have now answered you. I
await your response to know if I can then sign myself as I do now,

Your servant, O. d’Este M.

“The little mischief! how she abuses her privileges,” cried La Briere; “but isn’t she frank!”

No young man can be four years private secretary to a cabinet minister, and live in Paris and observe the carrying on of many intrigues, with perfect impunity; in fact, the purest soul is more or less intoxicated by the heady atmosphere of the imperial city. Happy in the thought that he was not Canalis, our young secretary engaged a place in the mail-coach for Havre, after writing a letter in which he announced that the promised answer would be sent a few days later, — excusing the delay on the ground of the importance of the confession and the pressure of his duties at the ministry.

He took care to get from the director-general of the post-office a note to the postmaster at Havre, requesting secrecy and attention to his wishes. Ernest was thus enabled to see Francoise Cochet when she came for the letters, and to follow her without exciting observation. Guided by her, he reached Ingouville and saw Modeste Mignon at the window of the Chalet.

“Well, Francoise?” he heard the young girl say, to which the maid responded —

“Yes, mademoiselle, I have one.”

Struck by the girl’s great beauty, Ernest retraced his steps and asked a man on the street the name of the owner of that magnificent estate.

“That?” said the man, nodding to the villa.

“Yes, my friend.”

“Oh, that belongs to Monsieur Vilquin, the richest shipping merchant in Havre, so rich he doesn’t know what he is worth.”

“There is no Cardinal Vilquin that I know of in history,” thought Ernest, as he walked back to Havre for the night mail to Paris. Naturally he questioned the postmaster about the Vilquin family, and learned that it possessed an enormous fortune. Monsieur Vilquin had a son and two daughters, one of whom was married to Monsieur Althor, junior. Prudence kept La Briere from seeming anxious about the Vilquins; the postmaster was already looking at him slyly.

“Is there there any one staying with them at the present moment,” he asked, “besides the family?”

“The d’Herouville family is there just now. They do talk of a marriage between the young duke and the remaining Mademoiselle Vilquin.”

“Ha!” thought Ernest; “there was a celebrated Cardinal d’Herouville under the Valois, and a terrible marshal whom they made a duke in the time of Henri IV.”

Ernest returned to Paris having seen enough of Modeste to dream of her, and to think that, whether she were rich or whether she were poor, if she had a noble soul he would like to make her Madame de La Briere; and so thinking, he resolved to continue the correspondence.

Ah! you poor women of France, try to remain hidden if you can; try to weave the least little romance about your lives in the midst of a civilization which posts in the public streets the hours when the coaches arrive and depart; which counts all letters and stamps them twice over, first with the hour when they are thrown into the boxes, and next with that of their delivery; which numbers the houses, prints the tax of every tenant on a metal register at the doors (after verifying its particulars), and will soon possess one vast register of every inch of its territory down to the smallest parcel of land, and the most insignificant features of it — a giant work ordained by a giant. Try, imprudent young ladies, to escape not only the eye of the police, but the incessant chatter which takes place in a country town about the veriest trifles — how many dishes the prefect has at his dessert, how many slices of melon are left at the door of some small householder — which strains its ear to catch the chink of the gold a thrifty man lays by, and spends its evenings in calculating the incomes of the village and the town and the department. It was mere chance that enabled Modeste to escape discovery through Ernest’s reconnoitring expedition — a step which he already regretted; but what Parisian can allow himself to be the dupe of a little country girl? Incapable of being duped! that horrid maxim is the dissolvent of all noble sentiments in man.

We can readily guess the struggle of feeling to which this honest young fellow fell a prey when we read the letter that he now indited, in which every stroke of the flail which scourged his conscience will be found to have left its trace.

This is what Modeste read a few days later, as she sat by her window on a fine summer’s day:—

Mademoiselle — Without hypocrisy or evasion, yes, if I had been
certain that you possessed an immense fortune I should have acted
differently. Why? I have searched for the reason; here it is. We
have within us an inborn feeling, inordinately developed by social
life, which drives us to the pursuit and to the possession of
happiness. Most men confound happiness with the means that lead to
it; money in their eyes is the chief element of happiness. I
should, therefore, have endeavored to win you, prompted by that
social sentiment which has in all ages made wealth a religion. At
least, I think I should. It is not to be expected of a man still
young that he can have the wisdom to substitute sound sense for
the pleasure of the senses; within sight of a prey the brutal
instincts hidden in the heart of man drive him on. Instead of that
lesson, I should have sent you compliments and flatteries. Should
I have kept my own esteem in so doing? I doubt it. Mademoiselle,
in such a case success brings absolution; but happiness? That is
another thing. Should I have distrusted my wife had I won her in
that way? Most assuredly I should. Your advance on me would sooner
or later have come between us. Your husband, however grand your
fancy may make him, would have ended by reproaching you for having
abased him. You, yourself, might have come, sooner or later, to
despise him. The strong man forgives, but the poet whines. Such,
mademoiselle, is the answer which my honesty compels me to make to
you.

And now, listen to me. You have the triumph of forcing me to
reflect deeply — first on you, whom I do not sufficiently know;
next, on myself, of whom I knew too little. You have had the power
to stir up many of the evil thoughts which crouched in my heart,
as in all hearts; but from them something good and generous has
come forth, and I salute you with my most fervent benedictions,
just as at sea we salute the lighthouse which shows the rocks on
which we were about to perish. Here is my confession, for I would
not lose your esteem nor my own for all the treasures of earth.

I wished to know who you are. I have just returned from Havre,
where I saw Francoise Cochet, and followed her to Ingouville. You
are as beautiful as the woman of a poet’s dream; but I do not know
if you are Mademoiselle Vilquin concealed under Mademoiselle
d’Herouville, or Mademoiselle d’Herouville hidden under
Mademoiselle Vilquin. Though all is fair in war, I blushed at such
spying and stopped short in my inquiries. You have roused my
curiosity; forgive me for being somewhat of a woman; it is, I
believe, the privilege of a poet.

Now that I have laid bare my heart and allowed you to read it, you
will believe in the sincerity of what I am about to add. Though
the glimpse I had of you was all too rapid, it has sufficed to
modify my opinion of your conduct. You are a poet and a poem, even
more than you are a woman. Yes, there is in you something more
precious than beauty; you are the beautiful Ideal of art, of
fancy. The step you took, blamable as it would be in an ordinary
young girl, allotted to an every-day destiny, has another aspect
if endowed with the nature which I now attribute to you. Among the
crowd of beings flung by fate into the social life of this planet
to make up a generation there are exceptional souls. If your
letter is the outcome of long poetic reveries on the fate which
conventions bring to women, if, constrained by the impulse of a
lofty and intelligent mind, you have wished to understand the life
of a man to whom you attribute the gift of genius, to the end that
you may create a friendship withdrawn from the ordinary relations
of life, with a soul in communion with your own, disregarding thus
the ordinary trammels of your sex — then, assuredly, you are an
exception. The law which rightly limits the actions of the crowd
is too limited for you. But in that case, the remark in my first
letter returns in greater force — you have done too much or not
enough.

Accept once more my thanks for the service you have rendered me,
that of compelling me to sound my heart. You have corrected in me
the false idea, only too common in France, that marriage should be
a means of fortune. While I struggled with my conscience a sacred
voice spoke to me. I swore solemnly to make my fortune myself, and
not be led by motives of cupidity in choosing the companion of my
life. I have also reproached myself for the blamable curiosity you
have excited in me. You have not six millions. There is no
concealment possible in Havre for a young lady who possesses such
a fortune; you would be discovered at once by the pack of hounds
of great families whom I see in Paris on the hunt after heiresses,
and who have already sent one, the grand equerry, the young duke,
among the Vilquins. Therefore, believe me, the sentiments I have
now expressed are fixed in my mind as a rule of life, from which I
have abstracted all influences of romance or of actual fact. Prove
to me, therefore, that you have one of those souls which may be
forgiven for its disobedience to the common law, by perceiving and
comprehending the spirit of this letter as you did that of my
first letter. If you are destined to a middle-class life, obey the
iron law which holds society together. Lifted in mind above other
women, I admire you; but if you seek to obey an impulse which you
ought to repress, I pity you. The all-wise moral of that great
domestic epic “Clarissa Harlowe” is that legitimate and honorable
love led the poor victim to her ruin because it was conceived,
developed, and pursued beyond the boundaries of family restraint.
The family, however cruel and even foolish it may be, is in the
right against the Lovelaces. The family is Society. Believe me,
the glory of a young girl, of a woman, must always be that of
repressing her most ardent impulses within the narrow sphere of
conventions. If I had a daughter able to become a Madame de Stael
I should wish her dead at fifteen. Can you imagine a daughter of
yours flaunting on the stage of fame, exhibiting herself to win
the plaudits of a crowd, and not suffer anguish at the thought? No
matter to what heights a woman can rise by the inward poetry of
her soul, she must sacrifice the outer signs of superiority on the
altar of her home. Her impulse, her genius, her aspirations toward
Good, the whole poem of a young girl’s being, should belong to the
man she accepts and the children whom she brings into the world. I
think I perceive in you a secret desire to widen the narrow circle
of the life to which all women are condemned, and to put love and
passion into marriage. Ah! it is a lovely dream! it is not
impossible; it is difficult, but if realized, may it not be to the
despair of souls — forgive me the hackneyed word —“incompris”?

If you seek a platonic friendship it will be to your sorrow in
after years. If your letter was a jest, discontinue it. Perhaps
this little romance is to end here — is it? It has not been without
fruit. My sense of duty is aroused, and you, on your side, will
have learned something of Society. Turn your thoughts to real
life; throw the enthusiasms you have culled from literature into
the virtues of your sex.

Adieu, mademoiselle. Do me the honor to grant me your esteem.
Having seen you, or one whom I believe to be you, I have known
that your letter was simply natural; a flower so lovely turns to
the sun — of poetry. Yes, love poetry as you love flowers, music,
the grandeur of the sea, the beauties of nature; love them as an
adornment of the soul, but remember what I have had the honor of
telling you as to the nature of poets. Be cautious not to marry,
as you say, a dunce, but seek the partner whom God has made for
you. There are souls, believe me, who are fit to appreciate you,
and to make you happy. If I were rich, if you were poor, I would
lay my heart and my fortunes at your feet; for I believe your soul
to be full of riches and of loyalty; to you I could confide my
life and my honor in absolute security.

Once more, adieu, adieu, fairest daughter of Eve the fair.

The reading of this letter, swallowed like a drop of water in the desert, lifted the mountain which weighed heavily on Modeste’s heart: then she saw the mistake she had made in arranging her plan, and repaired it by giving Francoise some envelopes directed to herself, in which the maid could put the letters which came from Paris and drop them again into the box. Modeste resolved to receive the postman herself on the steps of the Chalet at the hour when he made his delivery.

As to the feelings that this reply, in which the noble heart of poor La Briere beat beneath the brilliant phantom of Canalis, excited in Modeste, they were as multifarious and confused as the waves which rushed to die along the shore while with her eyes fixed on the wide ocean she gave herself up to the joy of having (if we dare say so) harpooned an angelic soul in the Parisian Gulf, of having divined that hearts of price might still be found in harmony with genius, and, above all, for having followed the magic voice of intuition.

A vast interest was now about to animate her life. The wires of her cage were broken: the bolts and bars of the pretty Chalet — where were they? Her thoughts took wings.

“Oh, father!” she cried, looking out to the horizon. “Come back and make us rich and happy.”

The answer which Ernest de La Briere received some five days later will tell the reader more than any elaborate disquisition of ours.

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