Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



At this moment Modeste, happy as she was in the return of her father, was, nevertheless, pacing her room disconsolate as Perrette on seeing her eggs broken. She had hoped her father would bring back a much larger fortune than Dumay had mentioned. Nothing could satisfy her new-found ambition on behalf of her poet less than at least half the six millions she had talked of in her second letter. Trebly agitated by her two joys and the grief caused by her comparative poverty, she seated herself at the piano, that confidant of so many young girls, who tell out their wishes and provocations on the keys, expressing them by the notes and tones of their music. Dumay was talking with his wife in the garden under the windows, telling her the secret of their own wealth, and questioning her as to her desires and her intentions. Madame Dumay had, like her husband, no other family than the Mignons. Husband and wife agreed, therefore, to go and live in Provence, if the Comte de La Bastie really meant to live in Provence, and to leave their money to whichever of Modeste’s children might need it most.

“Listen to Modeste,” said Madame Mignon, addressing them. “None but a girl in love can compose such airs without having studied music.”

Houses may burn, fortunes be engulfed, fathers return from distant lands, empires may crumble away, the cholera may ravage cities, but a maiden’s love wings its way as nature pursues hers, or that alarming acid which chemistry has lately discovered, and which will presently eat through the globe, if nothing stops it.

Modeste, under the inspiration of her present situation, was putting to music certain stanzas which we are compelled to quote here — albeit they are printed in the second volume of the edition Dauriat had mentioned — because, in order to adapt them to her music, which had the inexpressible charm of sentiment so admired in great singers, Modeste had taken liberties with the lines in a manner that may astonish the admirers of a poet so famous for the correctness, sometimes too precise, of his measures.


Hear, arise! the lark is shaking
Sunlit wings that heavenward rise;
Sleep no more; the violet, waking,
Wafts her incense to the skies.

Flowers revived, their eyes unclosing,
See themselves in drops of dew
In each calyx-cup reposing,
Pearls of a day their mirror true.

Breeze divine, the god of roses,
Passed by night to bless their bloom;
See! for him each bud uncloses,
Glows, and yields its rich perfume.

Then arise! the lark is shaking
Sunlit wings that heavenward rise;
Nought is sleeping — Heart, awaking,
Lift thine incense to the skies.

“It is very pretty,” said Madame Dumay. “Modeste is a musician, and that’s the whole of it.”

“The devil is in her!” cried the cashier, into whose heart the suspicion of the mother forced its way and made him shiver.

“She loves,” persisted Madame Mignon.

By succeeding, through the undeniable testimony of the song, in making the cashier a sharer in her belief as to the state of Modeste’s heart, Madame Mignon destroyed the happiness the return and the prosperity of his master had brought him. The poor Breton went down the hill to Havre and to his desk in Gobenheim’s counting-room with a heavy heart; then, before returning to dinner, he went to see Latournelle, to tell his fears, and beg once more for the notary’s advice and assistance.

“Yes, my dear friend,” said Dumay, when they parted on the steps of the notary’s door, “I now agree with madame; she loves — yes, I am sure of it; and the devil knows the rest. I am dishonored.”

“Don’t make yourself unhappy, Dumay,” answered the little notary. “Among us all we can surely get the better of the little puss; sooner or later, every girl in love betrays herself — you may be sure of that. But we will talk about it this evening.”

Thus it happened that all those devoted to the Mignon family were fully as disquieted and uncertain as they were before the old soldier tried the experiment which he expected would be so decisive. The ill-success of his past efforts so stimulated Dumay’s sense of duty, that he determined not to go to Paris to see after his own fortune as announced by his patron, until he had guessed the riddle of Modeste’s heart. These friends, to whom feelings were more precious than interests, well knew that unless the daughter were pure and innocent, the father would die of grief when he came to know the death of Bettina and the blindness of his wife. The distress of poor Dumay made such an impression on the Latournelles that they even forgot their parting with Exupere, whom they had sent off that morning to Paris. During dinner, while the three were alone, Monsieur and Madame Latournelle and Butscha turned the problem over and over in their minds, and discussed every aspect of it.

“If Modeste loved any one in Havre she would have shown some fear yesterday,” said Madame Latournelle; “her lover, therefore, lives somewhere else.”

“She swore to her mother this morning,” said the notary, “in presence of Dumay, that she had not exchanged a look or a word with any living soul.”

“Then she loves after my fashion!” exclaimed Butscha.

“And how is that, my poor lad?” asked Madame Latournelle.

“Madame,” said the little cripple, “I love alone and afar — oh! as far as from here to the stars.”

“How do you manage it, you silly fellow?” said Madame Latournelle, laughing.

“Ah, madame!” said Butscha, “what you call my hump is the socket of my wings.”

“So that is the explanation of your seal, is it?” cried the notary.

Butscha’s seal was a star, and under it the words “Fulgens, sequar,” —“Shining One, I follow thee,”— the motto of the house of Chastillonest.

“A beautiful woman may feel as distrustful as the ugliest,” said Butscha, as if speaking to himself; “Modeste is clever enough to fear she may be loved only for her beauty.”

Hunchbacks are extraordinary creations, due entirely to society for, according to Nature’s plan, feeble or aborted beings ought to perish. The curvature or distortion of the spinal column creates in these outwardly deformed subjects as it were a storage-battery, where the nerve currents accumulate more abundantly than under normal conditions — where they develop, and whence they are emitted, so to say, in lightning flashes, to energize the interior being. From this, forces result which are sometimes brought to light by magnetism, though they are far more frequently lost in the vague spaces of the spiritual world. It is rare to find a deformed person who is not gifted with some special faculty — a whimsical or sparkling gaiety perhaps, an utter malignity, or an almost sublime goodness. Like instruments which the hand of art can never fully waken, these beings, highly privileged though they know it not, live within themselves, as Butscha lived, provided their natural forces so magnificently concentrated have not been spent in the struggle they have been forced to maintain, against tremendous odds, to keep alive. This explains many superstitions, the popular legends of gnomes, frightful dwarfs, deformed fairies — all that race of bottles, as Rabelais called them, containing elixirs and precious balms.

Butscha, therefore, had very nearly found the key to the puzzle. With all the anxious solicitude of a hopeless lover, a vassal ever ready to die — like the soldiers alone and abandoned in the snows of Russia, who still cried out, “Long live the Emperor,”— he meditated how to capture Modeste’s secret for his own private knowledge. So thinking, he followed his patrons to the Chalet that evening, with a cloud of care upon his brow: for he knew it was most important to hide from all these watchful eyes and ears the net, whatever it might be, in which he should entrap his lady. It would have to be, he thought, by some intercepted glance, some sudden start or quiver, as when a surgeon lays his finger on a hidden sore. That evening Gobenheim did not appear, and Butscha was Dumay’s partner against Monsieur and Madame Latournelle. During the few moment’s of Modeste’s absence, about nine o’clock, to prepare for her mother’s bedtime, Madame Mignon and her friends spoke openly to one another; but the poor clerk, depressed by the conviction of Modeste’s love, which had now seized upon him as upon the rest, seemed as remote from the discussion as Gobenheim had been the night before.

“Well, what’s the matter with you, Butscha?” cried Madame Latournelle; “one would really think you hadn’t a friend in the world.”

Tears shone in the eyes of the poor fellow, who was the son of a Swedish sailor, and whose mother was dead.

“I have no one in the world but you,” he answered with a troubled voice; “and your compassion is so much a part of your religion that I can never lose it — and I will never deserve to lose it.”

This answer struck the sensitive chord of true delicacy in the minds of all present.

“We love you, Monsieur Butscha,” said Madame Mignon, with much feeling in her voice.

“I’ve six hundred thousand francs of my own, this day,” cried Dumay, “and you shall be a notary and the successor of Latournelle.”

The American wife took the hand of the poor hunchback and pressed it.

“What! you have six hundred thousand francs!” exclaimed Latournelle, pricking up his ears as Dumay let fall the words; “and you allow these ladies to live as they do! Modeste ought to have a fine horse; and why doesn’t she continue to take lessons in music, and painting, and —”

“Why, he has only had the money a few hours!” cried the little wife.

“Hush!” murmured Madame Mignon.

While these words were exchanged, Butscha’s august mistress turned towards him, preparing to make a speech:—

“My son,” she said, “you are so surrounded by true affection that I never thought how my thoughtless use of that familiar phrase might be construed; but you must thank me for my little blunder, because it has served to show you what friends your noble qualities have won.”

“Then you must have news from Monsieur Mignon,” resumed the notary.

“He is on his way home,” said Madame Mignon; “but let us keep the secret to ourselves. When my husband learns how faithful Butscha has been to us, how he has shown us the warmest and the most disinterested friendship when others have given us the cold shoulder, he will not let you alone provide for him, Dumay. And so, my friend,” she added, turning her blind face toward Butscha; “you can begin at once to negotiate with Latournelle.”

“He’s of legal age, twenty-five and a half years. As for me, it will be paying a debt, my boy, to make the purchase easy for you,” said the notary.

Butscha was kissing Madame Mignon’s hand, and his face was wet with tears as Modeste opened the door of the salon.

“What are you doing to my Black Dwarf?” she demanded. “Who is making him unhappy?”

“Ah! Mademoiselle Mignon, do we luckless fellows, cradled in misfortune, ever weep for grief? They have just shown me as much affection as I could feel for them if they were indeed my own relations. I’m to be a notary; I shall be rich. Ha! ha! the poor Butscha may become the rich Butscha. You don’t know what audacity there is in this abortion,” he cried.

With that he gave himself a resounding blow on the cavity of his chest and took up a position before the fireplace, after casting a glance at Modeste, which slipped like a ray of light between his heavy half-closed eyelids. He perceived, in this unexpected incident, a chance of interrogating the heart of his sovereign. Dumay thought for a moment that the clerk dared to aspire to Modeste, and he exchanged a rapid glance with the others, who understood him, and began to eye the little man with a species of terror mingled with curiosity.

“I, too, have my dreams,” said Butscha, not taking his eyes from Modeste.

The young girl lowered her eyelids with a movement that was a revelation to the young man.

“You love romance,” he said, addressing her. “Let me, in this moment of happiness, tell you mine; and you shall tell me in return whether the conclusion of the tale I have invented for my life is possible. To me wealth would bring greater happiness than to other men; for the highest happiness I can imagine would be to enrich the one I loved. You, mademoiselle, who know so many things, tell me if it is possible for a man to make himself beloved independently of his person, be it handsome or ugly, and for his spirit only?”

Modeste raised her eyes and looked at Butscha. It was a piercing and questioning glance; for she shared Dumay’s suspicion of Butscha’s motive.

“Let me be rich, and I will seek some beautiful poor girl, abandoned like myself, who has suffered, who knows what misery is. I will write to her and console her, and be her guardian spirit; she shall read my heart, my soul; she shall possess by double wealth, my two wealths, — my gold, delicately offered, and my thought robed in all the splendor which the accident of birth has denied to my grotesque body. But I myself shall remain hidden like the cause that science seeks. God himself may not be glorious to the eye. Well, naturally, the maiden will be curious; she will wish to see me; but I shall tell her that I am a monster of ugliness; I shall picture myself hideous.”

At these words Modeste gave Butscha a glance that looked him through and through. If she had said aloud, “What do you know of my love?” she could not have been more explicit.

“If I have the honor of being loved for the poem of my heart, if some day such love may make a woman think me only slightly deformed, I ask you, mademoiselle, shall I not be happier than the handsomest of men, — as happy as a man of genius beloved by some celestial being like yourself.”

The color which suffused the young girl’s face told the cripple nearly all he sought to know.

“Well, if that be so,” he went on, “if we enrich the one we love, if we please the spirit and withdraw the body, is not that the way to make one’s self beloved? At any rate it is the dream of your poor dwarf — a dream of yesterday; for today your mother gives me the key to future wealth by promising me the means of buying a practice. But before I become another Gobenheim, I seek to know whether this dream could be really carried out. What do you say, mademoiselle, you?”

Modeste was so astonished that she did not notice the question. The trap of the lover was much better baited than that of the soldier, for the poor girl was rendered speechless.

“Poor Butscha!” whispered Madame Latournelle to her husband. “Do you think he is going mad?”

“You want to realize the story of Beauty and the Beast,” said Modeste at length; “but you forget that the Beast turned into Prince Charming.”

“Do you think so?” said the dwarf. “Now I have always thought that that transformation meant the phenomenon of the soul made visible, obliterating the form under the light of the spirit. If I were not loved I should stay hidden, that is all. You and yours, madame,” he continued, addressing his mistress, “instead of having a dwarf at your service, will now have a life and a fortune.”

So saying, Butscha resumed his seat, remarking to the three whist-players with an assumption of calmness, “Whose deal is it?” but within his soul he whispered sadly to himself: “She wants to be loved for herself; she corresponds with some pretended great man; how far has it gone?”

“Dear mamma, it is nearly ten o’clock,” said Modeste.

Madame Mignon said good-night to her friends, and went to bed.

They who wish to love in secret may have Pyrenean hounds, mothers, Dumays, and Latournelles to spy upon them, and yet not be in any danger; but when it comes to a lover! — ah! that is diamond cut diamond, flame against flame, mind to mind, an equation whose terms are mutual.

On Sunday morning Butscha arrived at the Chalet before Madame Latournelle, who always came to take Modeste to church, and he proceeded to blockade the house in expectation of the postman.

“Have you a letter for Mademoiselle Mignon?” he said to that humble functionary when he appeared.

“No, monsieur, none.”

“This house has been a good customer to the post of late,” remarked the clerk.

“You may well say that,” replied the man.

Modeste both heard and saw the little colloquy from her chamber window, where she always posted herself behind the blinds at this particular hour to watch for the postman. She ran downstairs, went into the little garden, and called in an imperative voice:—

“Monsieur Butscha!”

“Here am I, mademoiselle,” said the cripple, reaching the gate as Modeste herself opened it.

“Will you be good enough to tell me whether among your various titles to a woman’s affection you count that of the shameless spying in which you are now engaged?” demanded the girl, endeavoring to crush her slave with the glance and gesture of a queen.

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he answered proudly. “Ah! I never expected,” he continued in a low tone, “that the grub could be of service to a star, — but so it is. Would you rather that your mother and Monsieur Dumay and Madame Latournelle had guessed your secret than one, excluded as it were from life, who seeks to be to you one of those flowers that you cut and wear for a moment? They all know you love; but I, I alone, know how. Use me as you would a vigilant watch-dog; I will obey you, protect you, and never bark; neither will I condemn you. I ask only to be of service to you. Your father has made Dumay keeper of the hen-roost, take Butscha to watch outside — poor Butscha, who doesn’t ask for anything, not so much as a bone.”

“Well, I’ve give you a trial,” said Modeste, whose strongest desire was to get rid of so clever a watcher. “Please go at once to all the hotels in Graville and in Havre, and ask if a gentleman has arrived from England named Monsieur Arthur —”

“Listen to me, mademoiselle,” said Butscha, interrupting Modeste respectfully. “I will go and take a walk on the seashore, for you don’t want me to go to church today; that’s what it is.”

Modeste looked at her dwarf with a perfectly stupid astonishment.

“Mademoiselle, you have wrapped your face in cotton-wool and a silk handkerchief, but there’s nothing the matter with you; and you have put that thick veil on your bonnet to see some one yourself without being seen.”

“Where did you acquire all that perspicacity?” cried Modeste, blushing.

“Moreover, mademoiselle, you have not put on your corset; a cold in the head wouldn’t oblige you to disfigure your waist and wear half a dozen petticoats, nor hide your hands in these old gloves, and your pretty feet in those hideous shoes, nor dress yourself like a beggar-woman, nor —”

“That’s enough,” she said. “How am I to be certain that you will obey me?”

“My master is obliged to go to Sainte–Adresse. He does not like it, but he is so truly good he won’t deprive me of my Sunday; I will offer to go for him.”

“Go, and I will trust you.”

“You are sure I can do nothing for you in Havre?”

“Nothing. Hear me, mysterious dwarf — look,” she continued, pointing to the cloudless sky; “can you see a single trace of that bird that flew by just now? No; well then, my actions are pure as the air is pure, and leave no stain behind them. You may reassure Dumay and the Latournelles, and my mother. That hand,” she said, holding up a pretty delicate hand, with the points of the rosy fingers, through which the light shone, slightly turning back, “will never be given, it will never even be kissed by what people call a lover until my father has returned.”

“Why don’t you want me in the church today?”

“Do you venture to question me after all I have done you the honor to say, and to ask of you?”

Butscha bowed without another word, and departed to find his master, in all the rapture of being taken into the service of his goddess.

Half an hour later, Monsieur and Madame Latournelle came to fetch Modeste, who complained of a horrible toothache.

“I really have not had the courage to dress myself,” she said.

“Well then,” replied the worthy chaperone, “stay at home.”

“Oh, no!” said Modeste. “I would rather not. I have bundled myself up, and I don’t think it will do me any harm to go out.”

And Mademoiselle Mignon marched off beside Latournelle, refusing to take his arm lest she should be questioned about the outward trembling which betrayed her inward agitation at the thought of at last seeing her great poet. One look, the first — was it not about to decide her fate?

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