Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The foregoing letters seemed very original to the persons from whom the author of the “Comedy of Human Life” obtained them; but their interest in this duel, this crossing of pens between two minds, may not be shared. For every hundred readers, eighty might weary of the battle. The respect due to the majority in every nation under a constitutional government, leads us, therefore, to suppress eleven other letters exchanged between Ernest and Modeste during the month of September. If, later on, some flattering majority should arise to claim them, let us hope that we can then find means to insert them in their proper place.

Urged by a mind that seemed as aggressive as the heart was lovable, the truly chivalrous feelings of the poor secretary gave themselves free play in these suppressed letters, which seem, perhaps, more beautiful than they really are, because the imagination is charmed by a sense of the communion of two free souls. Ernest’s whole life was now wrapped up in these sweet scraps of paper; they were to him what banknotes are to a miser; while in Modeste’s soul a deep love took the place of her delight in agitating a glorious life, and being, in spite of distance, its mainspring. Ernest’s heart was the complement of Canalis’s glory. Alas! it often takes two men to make a perfect lover, just as in literature we compose a type by collecting the peculiarities of several similar characters. How many a time a woman has been heard to say in her own salon after close and intimate conversations:—

“Such a one is my ideal as to soul, and I love the other who is only a dream of the senses.”

The last letter written by Modeste, which here follows, gives us a glimpse of the enchanted isle to which the meanderings of this correspondence had led the two lovers.

To Monsieur de Canalis — Be at Havre next Sunday; go to church;
after the morning service, walk once or twice round the nave, and
go out without speaking to any one; but wear a white rose in your
button-hole. Then return to Paris, where you shall receive an
answer. I warn you that this answer will not be what you wish;
for, as I told you, the future is not yet mine. But should I not
indeed be mad and foolish to say yes without having seen you? When
I have seen you I can say no without wounding you; I can make sure
that you shall not see me.

This letter had been sent off the evening before the day when the abortive struggle between Dumay and Modeste had taken place. The happy girl was impatiently awaiting Sunday, when her eyes were to vindicate or condemn her heart and her actions — a solemn moment in the life of any woman, and which three months of close communion of souls now rendered as romantic as the most imaginative maiden could have wished. Every one, except the mother, had taken this torpor of expectation for the calm of innocence. No matter how firmly family laws and religious precepts may bind, there will always be the Clarissas and the Julies, whose souls like flowing cups o’erlap the brim under some spiritual pressure. Modeste was glorious in the savage energy with which she repressed her exuberant youthful happiness and remained demurely quiet. Let us say frankly that the memory of her sister was more potent upon her than any social conventions; her will was iron in the resolve to bring no grief upon her father and her mother. But what tumultuous heavings were within her breast! no wonder that a mother guessed them.

On the following day Modeste and Madame Dumay took Madame Mignon about mid-day to a seat in the sun among the flowers. The blind woman turned her wan and blighted face toward the ocean; she inhaled the odors of the sea and took the hand of her daughter who remained beside her. The mother hesitated between forgiveness and remonstrance ere she put the important question; for she comprehended the girl’s love and recognized, as the pretended Canalis had done, that Modeste was exceptional in nature.

“God grant that your father return in time! If he delays much longer he will find none but you to love him. Modeste, promise me once more never to leave him,” she said in a fond maternal tone.

Modeste lifted her mother’s hands to her lips and kissed them gently, replying: “Need I say it again?”

“Ah, my child! I did this thing myself. I left my father to follow my husband; and yet my father was all alone; I was all the child he had. Is that why God has so punished me? What I ask of you is to marry as your father wishes, to cherish him in your heart, not to sacrifice him to your own happiness, but to make him the centre of your home. Before losing my sight, I wrote him all my wishes, and I know he will execute them. I enjoined him to keep his property intact and in his own hands; not that I distrust you, my Modeste, for a moment, but who can be sure of a son-inlaw? Ah! my daughter, look at me; was I reasonable? One glance of the eye decided my life. Beauty, so often deceitful, in my case spoke true; but even were it the same with you, my poor child, swear to me that you will let your father inquire into the character, the habits, the heart, and the previous life of the man you distinguish with your love — if, by chance, there is such a man.”

“I will never marry without the consent of my father,” answered Modeste.

“You see, my darling,” said Madame Mignon after a long pause, “that if I am dying by inches through Bettina’s wrong-doing, your father would not survive yours, no, not for a moment. I know him; he would put a pistol to his head — there could be no life, no happiness on earth for him.”

Modeste walked a few steps away from her mother, but immediately came back.

“Why did you leave me?” demanded Madame Mignon.

“You made me cry, mamma,” answered Modeste.

“Ah, my little darling, kiss me. You love no one here? you have no lover, have you?” she asked, holding Modeste on her lap, heart to heart.

“No, my dear mamma,” said the little Jesuit.

“Can you swear it?”

“Oh, yes!” cried Modeste.

Madame Mignon said no more; but she still doubted.

“At least, if you do choose your husband, you will tell your father?” she resumed.

“I promised that to my sister, and to you, mother. What evil do you think I could commit while I wear that ring upon my finger and read those words: ‘Think of Bettina?’ Poor sister!”

At these words a truce of silence came between the pair; the mother’s blighted eyes rained tears which Modeste could not check, though she threw herself upon her knees, and cried: “Forgive me! oh, forgive me, mother!”

At this instant the excellent Dumay was coming up the hill of Ingouville on the double-quick — a fact quite abnormal in the present life of the cashier.

Three letters had brought ruin to the Mignons; a single letter now restored their fortunes. Dumay had received from a sea-captain just arrived from the China Seas the following letter containing the first news of his patron and friend, Charles Mignon:—

To Monsieur Jean Dumay:

My Dear Dumay — I shall quickly follow, barring the chances of the
voyage, the vessel which carries this letter. In fact, I should
have taken it, but I did not wish to leave my own ship to which I
am accustomed.

I told you that no new was to be good news. But the first words of
this letter ought to make you a happy man. I have made seven
millions at the least. I am bringing back a large part of it in
indigo, one third in safe London securities, and another third in
good solid gold. Your remittances helped me to make the sum I had
settled in my own mind much sooner than I expected. I wanted two
millions for my daughters and a competence for myself.

I have been engaged in the opium trade with the largest houses in
Canton, all ten times richer than ever I was. You have no idea, in
Europe, what these rich East India merchants are. I went to Asia
Minor and purchased opium at low prices, and from thence to Canton
where I delivered my cargoes to the companies who control the
trade. My last expedition was to the Philippine Islands where I
exchanged opium for indigo of the first quality. In fact, I may
have half a million more than I stated, for I reckoned the indigo
at what it cost me. I have always been well in health; not the
slightest illness. That is the result of working for one’s
children. Since the second year I have owned a pretty little brig
of seven hundred tons, called the “Mignon.” She is built of oak,
double-planked, and copper-fastened; and all the interior fittings
were done to suit me. She is, in fact, an additional piece of

A sea-life and the active habits required by my business have kept
me in good health. To tell you all this is the same as telling it
to my two daughters and my dear wife. I trust that the wretched
man who took away my Bettina deserted her when he heard of my
ruin; and that I shall find the poor lost lamb at the Chalet. My
three dear women and my Dumay! All four of you have been ever
present in my thoughts for the last three years. You are a rich
man, now, Dumay. Your share, outside of my own fortune, amounts to
five hundred and sixty thousand francs, for which I send you
herewith a check, which can only be paid to you in person by the
Mongenods, who have been duly advised from New York.

A few short months, and I shall see you all again, and all well, I
trust. My dear Dumay, if I write this letter to you it is because
I am anxious to keep my fortune a secret for the present. I
therefore leave to you the happiness of preparing my dear angels
for my return. I have had enough of commerce; and I am resolved to
leave Havre. My intention is to buy back the estate of La Bastie,
and to entail it, so as to establish an estate yielding at least a
hundred thousand francs a year, and then to ask the king to grant
that one of my sons-inlaw may succeed to my name and title. You
know, my poor Dumay, what a terrible misfortune overtook us
through the fatal reputation of a large fortune — my daughter’s
honor was lost. I have therefore resolved that the amount of my
present fortune shall not be known. I shall not disembark at
Havre, but at Marseilles. I shall sell my indigo, and negotiate
for the purchase of La Bastie through the house of Mongenod in
Paris. I shall put my funds in the Bank of France and return to
the Chalet giving out that I have a considerable fortune in
merchandise. My daughters will be supposed to have two or three
hundred thousand francs. To choose which of my sons-inlaw is
worthy to succeed to my title and estates and to live with us, is
now the object of my life; but both of them must be, like you and
me, honest, loyal, and firm men, and absolutely honorable.

My dear old fellow, I have never doubted you for a moment. We have
gone through wars and commerce together and now we will undertake
agriculture; you shall be my bailiff. You will like that, will you
not? And so, old friend, I leave it to your discretion to tell
what you think best to my wife and daughters; I rely upon your
prudence. In four years great changes may have taken place in
their characters.

Adieu, my old Dumay. Say to my daughters and to my wife that I
have never failed to kiss them in my thoughts morning and evening
since I left them. The second check for forty thousand francs
herewith enclosed is for my wife and children.

Till we meet. — Your colonel and friend,

Charles Mignon.

“Your father is coming,” said Madame Mignon to her daughter.

“What makes you think so, mamma?” asked Modeste.

“Nothing else could make Dumay hurry himself.”

“Victory! victory!” cried the lieutenant as soon as he reached the garden gate. “Madame, the colonel has not been ill a moment; he is coming back — coming back on the ‘Mignon,’ a fine ship of his own, which together with its cargo is worth, he tells me, eight or nine hundred thousand francs. But he requires secrecy from all of us; his heart is still wrung by the misfortunes of our dear departed girl.”

“He has still to learn her death,” said Madame Mignon.

“He attributes her disaster, and I think he is right, to the rapacity of young men after great fortunes. My poor colonel expects to find the lost sheep here. Let us be happy among ourselves but say nothing to any one, not even to Latournelle, if that is possible. Mademoiselle,” he whispered in Modeste’s ear, “write to your father and tell him of his loss and also the terrible results on your mother’s health and eyesight; prepare him for the shock he has to meet. I will engage to get the letter into his hands before he reaches Havre, for he will have to pass through Paris on his way. Write him a long letter; you have plenty of time. I will take the letter on Monday; Monday I shall probably go to Paris.”

Modeste was so afraid that Canalis and Dumay would meet that she started hastily for the house to write to her poet and put off the rendezvous.

“Mademoiselle,” said Dumay, in a very humble manner and barring Modeste’s way, “may your father find his daughter with no other feelings in her heart than those she had for him and for her mother before he was obliged to leave her.”

“I have sworn to myself, to my sister, and to my mother to be the joy, the consolation, and the glory of my father, and I shall keep my oath!” replied Modeste with a haughty and disdainful glance at Dumay. “Do not trouble my delight in the thought of my father’s return with insulting suspicions. You cannot prevent a girl’s heart from beating — you don’t want me to be a mummy, do you?” she said. “My hand belongs to my family, but my heart is my own. If I love any one, my father and my mother will know it. Does that satisfy you, monsieur?”

“Thank you, mademoiselle; you restore me to life,” said Dumay, “but you might still call me Dumay, even when you box my ears!”

“Swear to me,” said her mother, “that you have not engaged a word or a look with any young man.”

“I can swear that, my dear mother,” said Modeste, laughing, and looking at Dumay who was watching her and smiling to himself like a mischievous girl.

“She must be false indeed if you are right,” cried Dumay, when Modeste had left them and gone into the house.

“My daughter Modeste may have faults,” said her mother, “but falsehood is not one of them; she is incapable of saying what is not true.”

“Well! then let us feel easy,” continued Dumay, “and believe that misfortune has closed his account with us.”

“God grant it!” answered Madame Mignon. “You will see him, Dumay; but I shall only hear him. There is much of sadness in my joy.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51