Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER IX

THE POWER OF THE UNSEEN

To Monsieur de Canalis:

My friend — Suffer me to give you that name — you have delighted
me; I would not have you other than you are in this letter, the
first — oh, may it not be the last! Who but a poet could have
excused and understood a young girl so delicately?

I wish to speak with the sincerity that dictated the first lines
of your letter. And first, let me say that most fortunately you do
not know me. I can joyfully assure you than I am neither that
hideous Mademoiselle Vilquin nor the very noble and withered
Mademoiselle d’Herouville who floats between twenty and forty
years of age, unable to decide on a satisfactory date. The
Cardinal d’Herouville flourished in the history of the Church at
least a century before the cardinal of whom we boast as our only
family glory — for I take no account of lieutenant-generals, and
abbes who write trumpery little verses.

Moreover, I do not live in the magnificent villa Vilquin; there is
not in my veins, thank God, the ten-millionth of a drop of that
chilly blood which flows behind a counter. I come on one side from
Germany, on the other from the south of France; my mind has a
Teutonic love of reverie, my blood the vivacity of Provence. I am
noble on my father’s and on my mother’s side. On my mother’s I
derive from every page of the Almanach de Gotha. In short, my
precautions are well taken. It is not in any man’s power, nor even
in the power of the law, to unmask my incognito. I shall remain
veiled, unknown.

As to my person and as to my “belongings,” as the Normans say,
make yourself easy. I am at least as handsome as the little girl
(ignorantly happy) on whom your eyes chanced to light during your
visit to Havre; and I do not call myself poverty-stricken,
although ten sons of peers may not accompany me on my walks. I
have seen the humiliating comedy of the heiress sought for her
millions played on my account. In short, make no attempt, even on
a wager, to reach me. Alas! though free as air, I am watched and
guarded — by myself, in the first place, and secondly, by people
of nerve and courage who would not hesitate to put a knife in your
heart if you tried to penetrate my retreat. I do not say this to
excite your courage or stimulate your curiosity; I believe I have
no need of such incentives to interest you and attach you to me.

I will now reply to the second edition, considerably enlarged, of
your first sermon.

Will you have a confession? I said to myself when I saw you so
distrustful, and mistaking me for Corinne (whose improvisations
bore me dreadfully), that in all probability dozes of Muses had
already led you, rashly curious, into their valleys, and begged
you to taste the fruits of their boarding-school Parnassus. Oh!
you are perfectly safe with me, my friend; I may love poetry, but
I have no little verses in my pocket-book, and my stockings are,
and will remain, immaculately white. You shall not be pestered
with the “Flowers of my Heart” in one or more volumes. And,
finally, should it ever happen that I say to you the word “Come!”
you will not find — you know it now — an old maid, no, nor a poor
and ugly one.

Ah! my friend, if you only knew how I regret that you came to
Havre! You have lowered the charm of what you call my romance. God
alone knew the treasure I was reserving for the man noble enough,
and trusting enough, and perspicacious enough to come — having
faith in my letters, having penetrated step by step into the
depths of my heart — to come to our first meeting with the
simplicity of a child: for that was what I dreamed to be the
innocence of a man of genius. And now you have spoiled my
treasure! But I forgive you; you live in Paris and, as you say,
there is always a man within a poet.

Because I tell you this will you think me some little girl who
cultivates a garden-full of illusions? You, who are witty and
wise, have you not guessed that when Mademoiselle d’Este received
your pedantic lesson she said to herself: “No, dear poet, my first
letter was not the pebble which a vagabond child flings about the
highway to frighten the owner of the adjacent fruit-trees, but a
net carefully and prudently thrown by a fisherman seated on a rock
above the sea, hoping and expecting a miraculous draught.”

All that you say so beautifully about the family has my approval.
The man who is able to please me, and of whom I believe myself
worthy, will have my heart and my life — with the consent of my
parents, for I will neither grieve them, nor take them unawares:
happily, I am certain of reigning over them; and, besides, they
are wholly without prejudice. Indeed, in every way, I feel myself
protected against any delusions in my dream. I have built the
fortress with my own hands, and I have let it be fortified by the
boundless devotion of those who watch over me as if I were a
treasure — not that I am unable to defend myself in the open, if
need be; for, let me say, circumstances have furnished me with
armor of proof on which is engraved the word “Disdain.” I have the
deepest horror of all that is calculating — of all that is not
pure, disinterested, and wholly noble. I worship the beautiful,
the ideal, without being romantic; though I HAVE been, in my heart
of hearts, in my dreams. But I recognize the truth of the various
things, just even to vulgarity, which you have written me about
Society and social life.

For the time being we are, and we can only be, two friends. Why
seek an unseen friend? you ask. Your person may be unknown to me,
but your mind, your heart I know; they please me, and I feel an
infinitude of thoughts within my soul which need a man of genius
for their confidant. I do not wish the poem of my heart to be
wasted; I would have it known to you as it is to God. What a
precious thing is a true comrade, one to whom we can tell all! You
will surely not reject the unpublished leaflets of a young girl’s
thoughts when they fly to you like the pretty insects fluttering
to the sun? I am sure you have never before met with this good
fortune of the soul — the honest confidences of an honest girl.
Listen to her prattle; accept the music that she sings to you in
her own heart. Later, if our souls are sisters, if our characters
warrant the attempt, a white-haired old serving-man shall await
you by the wayside and lead you to the cottage, the villa, the
castle, the palace — I don’t know yet what sort of bower it will
be, nor what its color, nor whether this conclusion will ever be
possible; but you will admit, will you not? that it is poetic, and
that Mademoiselle d’Este has a complying disposition. Has she not
left you free? Has she gone with jealous feet to watch you in the
salons of Paris? Has she imposed upon you the labors of some high
emprise, such as paladins sought voluntarily in the olden time?
No, she asks a perfectly spiritual and mystic alliance. Come to me
when you are unhappy, wounded, weary. Tell me all, hide nothing; I
have balms for all your ills. I am twenty years of age, dear
friend, but I have the sense of fifty, and unfortunately I have
known through the experience of another all the horrors and the
delights of love. I know what baseness the human heart can
contain, what infamy; yet I myself am an honest girl. No, I have
no illusions; but I have something better, something real — I have
beliefs and a religion. See! I open the ball of our confidences.

Whoever I marry — provided I choose him for myself — may sleep in
peace or go to the East Indies sure that he will find me on his
return working at the tapestry which I began before he left me;
and in every stitch he shall read a verse of the poem of which he
has been the hero. Yes, I have resolved within my heart never to
follow my husband where he does not wish me to go. I will be the
divinity of his hearth. That is my religion of humanity. But why
should I not test and choose the man to whom I am to be like the
life to the body? Is a man ever impeded by life? What can that
woman be who thwarts the man she loves? — an illness, a disease,
not life. By life, I mean that joyous health which makes each hour
a pleasure.

But to return to your letter, which will always be precious to me.
Yes, jesting apart, it contains that which I desired, an
expression of prosaic sentiments which are as necessary to family
life as air to the lungs; and without which no happiness is
possible. To act as an honest man, to think as a poet, to love as
women love, that is what I longed for in my friend, and it is now
no longer a chimera.

Adieu, my friend. I am poor at this moment. That is one of the
reasons why I cling to my concealment, my mask, my impregnable
fortress. I have read your last verses in the “Revue,”— ah! with
what delight, now that I am initiated in the austere loftiness of
your secret soul.

Will it make you unhappy to know that a young girl prays for you;
that you are her solitary thought — without a rival except in her
father and mother? Can there be any reason why you should reject
these pages full of you, written for you, seen by no eye but
yours? Send me their counterpart. I am so little of a woman yet
that your confidences — provided they are full and true — will
suffice for the happiness of your

O. d’Este M.

“Good heavens! can I be in love already?” cried the young secretary, when he perceived that he had held the above letter in his hands more than an hour after reading it. “What shall I do? She thinks she is writing to the great poet! Can I continue the deception? Is she a woman of forty, or a girl of twenty?”

Ernest was now fascinated by the great gulf of the unseen. The unseen is the obscurity of infinitude, and nothing is more alluring. In that sombre vastness fires flash, and furrow and color the abyss with fancies like those of Martin. For a busy man like Canalis, an adventure of this kind is swept away like a harebell by a mountain torrent, but in the more unoccupied life of the young secretary, this charming girl, whom his imagination persistently connected with the blonde beauty at the window, fastened upon his heart, and did as much mischief in his regulated life as a fox in a poultry-yard. La Briere allowed himself to be preoccupied by this mysterious correspondent; and he answered her last letter with another, a pretentious and carefully studied epistle, in which, however, passion begins to reveal itself through pique.

Mademoiselle — Is it quite loyal in you to enthrone yourself in
the heart of a poor poet with a latent intention of abandoning him
if he is not exactly what you wish, leaving him to endless
regrets — showing him for a moment an image of perfection, were it
only assumed, and at any rate giving him a foretaste of happiness?
I was very short-sighted in soliciting this letter, in which you
have begun to unfold the elegant fabric of your thoughts. A man
can easily become enamored with a mysterious unknown who combines
such fearlessness with such originality, so much imagination with
so much feeling. Who would not wish to know you after reading your
first confidence? It requires a strong effort on my part to retain
my senses in thinking of you, for you combine all that can trouble
the head or the heart of man. I therefore make the most of the
little self-possession you have left me to offer you my humble
remonstrances.

Do you really believe, mademoiselle, that letters, more or less
true in relation to the life of the writers, more or less
insincere — for those which we write to each other are the
expressions of the moment at which we pen them, and not of the
general tenor of our lives — do you believe, I say, that beautiful
as they may be, they can at all replace the representation that we
could make of ourselves to each other by the revelations of daily
intercourse? Man is dual. There is a life invisible, that of the
heart, to which letters may suffice; and there is a life material,
to which more importance is, alas, attached than you are aware of
at your age. These two existences must, however, be made to
harmonize in the ideal which you cherish; and this, I may remark
in passing, is very rare.

The pure, spontaneous, disinterested homage of a solitary soul
which is both educated and chaste, is one of those celestial
flowers whose color and fragrance console for every grief, for
every wound, for every betrayal which makes up the life of a
literary man; and I thank you with an impulse equal to your own.
But after this poetical exchange of my griefs for the pearls of
your charity, what next? what do you expect? I have neither the
genius nor the splendid position of Lord Byron; above all, I have
not the halo of his fictitious damnation and his false social
woes. But what could you have hoped from him in like
circumstances? His friendship? Well, he who ought to have felt
only pride was eaten up by vanity of every kind — sickly,
irritable vanity which discouraged friendship. I, a thousand-fold
more insignificant than he, may I not have discordances of
character, and make friendship a burden heavy indeed to bear? In
exchange for your reveries, what will you gain? The
dissatisfaction of a life which will not be wholly yours. The
compact is madness. Let me tell you why. In the first place, your
projected poem is a plagiarism. A young German girl, who was not,
like you, semi-German, but altogether so, adored Goethe with the
rash intoxication of girlhood. She made him her friend, her
religion, her god, knowing at the same time that he was married.
Madame Goethe, a worthy German woman, lent herself to this worship
with a sly good-nature which did not cure Bettina. But what was
the end of it all? The young ecstatic married a man who was
younger and handsomer than Goethe. Now, between ourselves, let us
admit that a young girl who should make herself the handmaid of a
man of genius, his equal through comprehension, and should piously
worship him till death, like one of those divine figures sketched
by the masters on the shutters of their mystic shrines, and who,
when Germany lost him, should have retired to some solitude away
from men, like the friend of Lord Bolingbroke — let us admit, I
say, that the young girl would have lived forever, inlaid in the
glory of the poet as Mary Magdalene in the cross and triumph of
our Lord. If that is sublime, what say you to the reverse of the
picture? As I am neither Goethe nor Lord Byron, the colossi of
poetry and egotism, but simply the author of a few esteemed
verses, I cannot expect the honors of a cult. Neither am I
disposed to be a martyr. I have ambition, and I have a heart; I am
still young and I have my career to make. See me for what I am.
The bounty of the king and the protection of his ministers give me
sufficient means of living. I have the outward bearing of a very
ordinary man. I go to the soirees in Paris like any other
empty-headed fop; and if I drive, the wheels of my carriage do not
roll on the solid ground, absolutely indispensable in these days,
of property invested in the funds. But if I am not rich, neither do
I have the reliefs and consolations of life in a garret, the toil
uncomprehended, the fame in penury, which belong to men who are
worth far more than I— D’Arthez, for instance.

Ah! what prosaic conclusions will your young enthusiasm find to
these enchanting visions. Let us stop here. If I have had the
happiness of seeming to you a terrestrial paragon, you have been
to me a thing of light and a beacon, like those stars that shine
for a moment and disappear. May nothing ever tarnish this episode
of our lives. Were we to continue it I might love you; I might
conceive one of those mad passions which rend all obstacles, which
light fires in the heart whose violence is greater than their
duration. And suppose I succeeded in pleasing you? we should end
our tale in the common vulgar way — marriage, a household,
children, Belise and Henriette Chrysale together! — could it be?
Therefore, adieu.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/balzac/modeste/chapter9.html

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