Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



During these little events other little events were going on in Havre, which caused Modeste to forget her present uneasiness. Dumay went down to Havre early in the morning, and soon discovered that no architect had been in town the day before. Furious at Butscha’s lie, which revealed a conspiracy of which he was resolved to know the meaning, he rushed from the mayor’s office to his friend Latournelle.

“Where’s your Master Butscha?” he demanded of the notary, when he saw that the clerk was not in his place.

“Butscha, my dear fellow, has gone to Paris. He heard some news of his father this morning on the quays, from a Swedish sailor. It seems the father went to the Indies and served a prince, or something, and he is now in Paris.”

“Lies! it’s all a trick! infamous! I’ll find that damned cripple if I’ve got to go express to Paris for him,” cried Dumay. “Butscha is deceiving us; he knows something about Modeste, and hasn’t told us. If he meddles in this thing he shall never be a notary. I’ll roll him in the mud from which he came, I’ll —”

“Come, come, my friend; never hang a man before you try him,” said Latournelle, frightened at Dumay’s rage.

After stating the facts on which his suspicions were founded, Dumay begged Madame Latournelle to go and stay at the Chalet during his absence.

“You will find the colonel in Paris,” said the notary. “In the shipping news quoted this morning in the Journal of Commerce, I found under the head of Marseilles — here, see for yourself,” he said, offering the paper. “‘The Bettina Mignon, Captain Mignon, arrived October 6’; it is now the 17th, and the colonel is sure to be in Paris.”

Dumay requested Gobenheim to do without him in future, and then went back to the Chalet, which he reached just as Modeste was sealing her two letters, to her father and Canalis. Except for the address the letters were precisely alike both in weight and appearance. Modeste thought she had laid that to her father over that to her Melchior, but had, in fact, done exactly the reverse. This mistake, so often made in the little things of life, occasioned the discovery of her secret by Dumay and her mother. The former was talking vehemently to Madame Mignon in the salon, and revealing to her his fresh fears caused by Modeste’s duplicity and Butscha’s connivance.

“Madame,” he cried, “he is a serpent whom we have warmed in our bosoms; there’s no place in his contorted little body for a soul!”

Modeste put the letter for her father into the pocket of her apron, supposing it to be that for Canalis, and came downstairs with the letter for her lover in her hand, to see Dumay before he started for Paris.

“What has happened to my Black Dwarf? why are you talking so loud!” she said, appearing at the door.

“Mademoiselle, Butscha has gone to Paris, and you, no doubt, know why, — to carry on that affair of the little architect with the sulphur waistcoat, who, unluckily for the hunchback’s lies, has never been here.”

Modeste was struck dumb; feeling sure that the dwarf had departed on a mission of inquiry as to her poet’s morals, she turned pale, and sat down.

“I’m going after him; I shall find him,” continued Dumay. “Is that the letter for your father, mademoiselle?” he added, holding out his hand. “I will take it to the Mongenods. God grant the colonel and I may not pass each other on the road.”

Modeste gave him the letter. Dumay looked mechanically at the address.

“‘Monsieur le Baron de Canalis, rue de Paradis–Poissoniere, No. 29’!” he cried out; “what does that mean?”

“Ah, my daughter! that is the man you love,” exclaimed Madame Mignon; “the stanzas you set to music were his —”

“And that’s his portrait that you have in a frame upstairs,” added Dumay.

“Give me back that letter, Monsieur Dumay,” said Modeste, erecting herself like a lioness defending her cubs.

“There it is, mademoiselle,” he replied.

Modeste put it into the bosom of her dress, and gave Dumay the one intended for her father.

“I know what you are capable of, Dumay,” she said; “and if you take one step against Monsieur de Canalis, I shall take another out of this house, to which I will never return.”

“You will kill your mother, mademoiselle,” replied Dumay, who left the room and called his wife.

The poor mother was indeed half-fainting — struck to the heart by Modeste’s words.

“Good-bye, wife,” said the Breton, kissing the American. “Take care of the mother; I go to save the daughter.”

He made his preparations for the journey in a few minutes, and started for Havre. An hour later he was travelling post to Paris, with the haste that nothing but passion or speculation can get out of wheels.

Recovering herself under Modeste’s tender care, Madame Mignon went up to her bedroom leaning on the arm of her daughter, to whom she said, as her sole reproach, when they were alone:—

“My unfortunate child, see what you have done! Why did you conceal anything from me? Am I so harsh?”

“Oh! I was just going to tell it to you comfortably,” sobbed Modeste.

She thereupon related everything to her mother, read her the letters and their answers, and shed the rose of her poem petal by petal into the heart of the kind German woman. When this confidence, which took half the day, was over, when she saw something that was almost a smile on the lips of the too indulgent mother, Modeste fell upon her breast in tears.

“Oh, mother!” she said amid her sobs, “you, whose heart, all gold and poetry, is a chosen vessel, chosen of God to hold a sacred love, a single and celestial love that endures for life; you, whom I wish to imitate by loving no one but my husband — you will surely understand what bitter tears I am now shedding. This butterfly, this Psyche of my thoughts, this dual soul which I have nurtured with maternal care, my love, my sacred love, this living mystery of mysteries — it is about to fall into vulgar hands, and they will tear its diaphanous wings and rend its veil under the miserable pretext of enlightening me, of discovering whether genius is as prudent as a banker, whether my Melchior has saved his money, or whether he has some entanglement to shake off; they want to find out if he is guilty to bourgeois eyes of youthful indiscretions — which to the sun of our love are like the clouds of the dawn. Oh! what will come of it? what will they do? See! feel my hand, it burns with fever. Ah! I shall never survive it.”

And Modeste, really taken with a chill, was forced to go to bed, causing serious uneasiness to her mother, Madame Latournelle, and Madame Dumay, who took good care of her during the journey of the lieutenant to Paris — to which city the logic of events compels us to transport our drama for a moment.

Truly modest minds, like that of Ernest de La Briere, but especially those who, knowing their own value, also know that they are neither loved nor appreciated, can understand the infinite joy to which the young secretary abandoned himself on reading Modeste’s letter. Could it be that after thinking him lofty and witty in soul, his young, his artless, his tricksome mistress now thought him handsome? This flattery is the flattery supreme. And why? Beauty is, undoubtedly, the signature of the master to the work into which he has put his soul; it is the divine spirit manifested. And to see it where it is not, to create it by the power of an inward look — is not that the highest reach of love? And so the poor youth cried aloud with all the rapture of an applauded author, “At last I am beloved!” When a woman, be she maid, wife, or widow, lets the charming words escape her, “Thou art handsome,” the words may be false, but the man opens his thick skull to their subtle poison, and thenceforth he is attached by an everlasting tie to the pretty flatterer, the true or the deceived judge; she becomes his particular world, he thirsts for her continual testimony, and he never wearies of it, even if he is a crowned prince. Ernest walked proudly up and down his room; he struck a three-quarter, full-face, and profile attitude before the glass; he tried to criticise himself; but a voice, diabolically persuasive, whispered to him, “Modeste is right.” He took up her letter and re-read it; he saw his fairest of the fair; he talked with her; then, in the midst of his ecstacy, a dreadful thought came to him:—

“She thinks me Canalis, and she has a million of money!”

Down went his happiness, just as a somnambulist, having attained the peak of a roof, hears a voice, awakes, and falls crushed upon the pavement.

“Without the halo of fame I shall be hideous in her eyes,” he cried; “what a maddening situation I have put myself in!”

La Briere was too much the man of his letters which we have read, his heart was too noble and pure to allow him to hesitate at the call of honor. He at once resolved to find Modeste’s father, if he were in Paris, and confess all to him, and to let Canalis know the serious results of their Parisian jest. To a sensitive nature like his, Modeste’s large fortune was in itself a determining reason. He could not allow it to be even suspected that the ardor of the correspondence, so sincere on his part, had in view the capture of a “dot.” Tears were in his eyes as he made his way to the rue Chantereine to find the banker Mongenod, whose fortune and business connections were partly the work of the minister to whom Ernest owed his start in life.

At the hour when La Briere was inquiring about the father of his beloved from the head of the house of Mongenod, and getting information that might be useful to him in his strange position, a scene was taking place in Canalis’s study which the ex-lieutenant’s hasty departure from Havre may have led the reader to foresee.

Like a true soldier of the imperial school, Dumay, whose Breton blood had boiled all the way to Paris, considered a poet to be a poor stick of a fellow, of no consequence whatever — a buffoon addicted to choruses, living in a garret, dressed in black clothes that were white at every seam, wearing boots that were occasionally without soles, and linen that was unmentionable, and whose fingers knew more about ink than soap; in short, one who looked always as if he had tumbled from the moon, except when scribbling at a desk, like Butscha. But the seething of the Breton’s heart and brain received a violent application of cold water when he entered the courtyard of the pretty house occupied by the poet and saw a groom washing a carriage, and also, through the windows of a handsome dining-room, a valet dressed like a banker, to whom the groom referred him, and who answered, looking the stranger over from head to foot, that Monsieur le baron was not visible. “There is,” added the man, “a meeting of the council of state today, at which Monsieur le baron is obliged to be present.”

“Is this really the house of Monsieur Canalis,” said Dumay, “a writer of poetry?”

“Monsieur le baron de Canalis,” replied the valet, “is the great poet of whom you speak; but he is also the president of the court of Claims attached to the ministry of foreign affairs.”

Dumay, who had come to box the ears of a scribbling nobody, found himself confronted by a high functionary of the state. The salon where he was told to wait offered, as a topic for his meditations, the insignia of the Legion of honor glittering on a black coat which the valet had left upon a chair. Presently his eyes were attracted by the beauty and brilliancy of a silver-gilt cup bearing the words “Given by Madame.” Then he beheld before him, on a pedestal, a Sevres vase on which was engraved, “The gift of Madame la Dauphine.”

These mute admonitions brought Dumay to his senses while the valet went to ask his master if he would receive a person who had come from Havre expressly to see him — a stranger named Dumay.

“What sort of a man?” asked Canalis.

“He is well-dressed, and wears the ribbon of the Legion of honor.”

Canalis made a sign of assent, and the valet retreated, and then returned and announced, “Monsieur Dumay.”

When he heard himself announced, when he was actually in presence of Canalis, in a study as gorgeous as it was elegant, with his feet on a carpet far handsomer than any in the house of Mignon, and when he met the studied glance of the poet who was playing with the tassels of a sumptuous dressing-gown, Dumay was so completely taken aback that he allowed the great poet to have the first word.

“To what do I owe the honor of your visit, monsieur?”

“Monsieur,” began Dumay, who remained standing.

“If you have a good deal to say,” interrupted Canalis, “I must ask you to be seated.”

And Canalis himself plunged into an armchair a la Voltaire, crossed his legs, raised the upper one to the level of his eye and looked fixedly at Dumay, who became, to use his own martial slang, “bayonetted.”

“I am listening, monsieur,” said the poet; “my time is precious — the ministers are expecting me.”

“Monsieur,” said Dumay, “I shall be brief. You have seduced — how, I do not know — a young lady in Havre, young, beautiful, and rich; the last and only hope of two noble families; and I have come to ask your intentions.”

Canalis, who had been busy during the last three months with serious matters of his own, and was trying to get himself made commander of the Legion of honor and minister to a German court, had completely forgotten Modeste’s letter.”

“I!” he exclaimed.

“You!” repeated Dumay.

“Monsieur,” answered Canalis, smiling; “I know no more of what you are talking about than if you had said it in Hebrew. I seduce a young girl! I, who —” and a superb smile crossed his features. “Come, come, monsieur, I’m not such a child as to steal fruit over the hedges when I have orchards and gardens of my own where the finest peaches ripen. All Paris knows where my affections are set. Very likely there may be some young girl in Havre full of enthusiasm for my verses — of which they are not worthy; that would not surprise me at all; nothing is more common. See! look at that lovely coffer of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and edged with that iron-work as fine as lace. That coffer belonged to Pope Leo X., and was given to me by the Duchesse de Chaulieu, who received it from the king of Spain. I use it to hold the letters I receive from ladies and young girls living in every quarter of Europe. Oh! I assure you I feel the utmost respect for these flowers of the soul, cut and sent in moments of enthusiasm that are worthy of all reverence. Yes, to me the impulse of a heart is a noble and sublime thing! Others — scoffers — light their cigars with such letters, or give them to their wives for curl-papers; but I, who am a bachelor, monsieur, I have too much delicacy not to preserve these artless offerings — so fresh, so disinterested — in a tabernacle of their own. In fact, I guard them with a species of veneration, and at my death they will be burned before my eyes. People may call that ridiculous, but I do not care. I am grateful; these proofs of devotion enable me to bear the criticisms and annoyances of a literary life. When I receive a shot in the back from some enemy lurking under cover of a daily paper, I look at that casket and think — here and there in this wide world there are hearts whose wounds have been healed, or soothed, or dressed by me!”

This bit of poetry, declaimed with all the talent of a great actor, petrified the lieutenant, whose eyes opened to their utmost extent, and whose astonishment delighted the poet.

“I will permit you,” continued the peacock, spreading his tail, “out of respect for your position, which I fully appreciate, to open that coffer and look for the letter of your young lady. Though I know I am right, I remember names, and I assure you you are mistaken in thinking —”

“And this is what a poor child comes to in this gulf of Paris!” cried Dumay — “the darling of her parents, the joy of her friends, the hope of all, petted by all, the pride of a family, who has six persons so devoted to her that they would willingly make a rampart of their lives and fortunes between her and sorrow. Monsieur,” Dumay remarked after a pause, “you are a great poet, and I am only a poor soldier. For fifteen years I served my country in the ranks; I have had the wind of many a bullet in my face; I have crossed Siberia and been a prisoner there; the Russians flung me on a kibitka, and God knows what I suffered. I have seen thousands of my comrades die — but you, you have given me a chill to the marrow of my bones, such as I never felt before.”

Dumay fancied that his words moved the poet, but in fact they only flattered him — a thing which at this period of his life had become almost an impossibility; for his ambitious mind had long forgotten the first perfumed phial that praise had broken over his head.

“Ah, my soldier!” he said solemnly, laying his hand on Dumay’s shoulder, and thinking to himself how droll it was to make a soldier of the empire tremble, “this young girl may be all in all to you, but to society at large what is she? nothing. At this moment the greatest mandarin in China may be yielding up the ghost and putting half the universe in mourning, and what is that to you? The English are killing thousands of people in India more worthy than we are; why, at this very moment while I am speaking to you some ravishing woman is being burned alive — did that make you care less for your cup of coffee this morning at breakfast? Not a day passes in Paris that some mother in rags does not cast her infant on the world to be picked up by whoever finds it; and yet see! here is this delicious tea in a cup that cost five louis, and I write verses which Parisian women rush to buy, exclaiming, ‘Divine! delicious! charming! food for the soul!’ Social nature, like Nature herself, is a great forgetter. You will be quite surprised ten years hence at what you have done today. You are here in a city where people die, where they marry, where they adore each other at an assignation, where young girls suffocate themselves, where the man of genius with his cargo of thoughts teeming with humane beneficence goes to the bottom — all side by side, sometimes under the same roof, and yet ignorant of each other, ignorant and indifferent. And here you come among us and ask us to expire with grief at this commonplace affair.”

“You call yourself a poet!” cried Dumay, “but don’t you feel what you write?”

“Good heavens! if we endured the joys or the woes we sing we should be as worn out in three months as a pair of old boots,” said the poet, smiling. “But stay, you shall not come from Havre to Paris to see Canalis without carrying something back with you. Warrior!” (Canalis had the form and action of an Homeric hero) “learn this from the poet: Every noble sentiment in man is a poem so exclusively individual that his nearest friend, his other self, cares nothing for it. It is a treasure which is his alone, it is —”

“Forgive me for interrupting you,” said Dumay, who was gazing at the poet with horror, “but did you ever come to Havre?”

“I was there for a day and a night in the spring of 1824 on my way to London.”

“You are a man of honor,” continued Dumay; “will you give me your word that you do not know Mademoiselle Modeste Mignon?”

“This is the first time that name ever struck my ear,” replied Canalis.

“Ah, monsieur!” said Dumay, “into what dark intrigue am I about to plunge? Can I count upon you to help me in my inquiries? — for I am certain that some one has been using your name. You ought to have had a letter yesterday from Havre.”

“I received none. Be sure, monsieur, that I will help you,” said Canalis, “so far as I have the opportunity of doing so.”

Dumay withdrew, his heart torn with anxiety, believing that the wretched Butscha had worn the skin of the poet to deceive Modeste; whereas Butscha himself, keen-witted as a prince seeking revenge, and far cleverer than any paid spy, was ferretting out the life and actions of Canalis, escaping notice by his insignificance, like an insect that bores its way into the sap of a tree.

The Breton had scarcely left the poet’s house when La Briere entered his friend’s study. Naturally, Canalis told him of the visit of the man from Havre.

“Ha!” said Ernest, “Modeste Mignon; that is just what I have come to speak of.”

“Ah, bah!” cried Canalis; “have I had a triumph by proxy?”

“Yes; and here is the key to it. My friend, I am loved by the sweetest girl in all the world — beautiful enough to shine beside the greatest beauties in Paris, with a heart and mind worthy of Clarissa. She has seen me; I have pleased her, and she thinks me the great Canalis. But that is not all. Modeste Mignon is of high birth, and Mongenod has just told me that her father, the Comte de La Bastie, has something like six millions. The father is here now, and I have asked him through Mongenod for an interview at two o’clock. Mongenod is to give him a hint, just a word, that it concerns the happiness of his daughter. But you will readily understand that before seeing the father I feel I ought to make a clean breast of it to you.”

“Among the plants whose flowers bloom in the sunshine of fame,” said Canalis, impressively, “there is one, and the most magnificent, which bears like the orange-tree a golden fruit amid the mingled perfumes of beauty and of mind; a lovely plant, a true tenderness, a perfect bliss, and — it eludes me.” Canalis looked at the carpet that Ernest might not read his eyes. “Could I,” he continued after a pause to regain his self-possession, “how could I have divined that flower from a pretty sheet of perfumed paper, that true heart, that young girl, that woman in whom love wears the livery of flattery, who loves us for ourselves, who offers us felicity? It needed but an angel or a demon to perceive her; and what am I but the ambitious head of a Court of Claims! Ah, my friend, fame makes us the target of a thousand arrows. One of us owes his rich marriage to an hydraulic piece of poetry, while I, more seductive, more a woman’s man than he, have missed mine, — for, do you love her, poor girl?” he said, looking up at La Briere.

“Oh!” ejaculated the young man.

“Well then,” said the poet, taking his secretary’s arm and leaning heavily upon it, “be happy, Ernest. By a mere accident I have been not ungrateful to you. You are richly rewarded for your devotion, and I will generously further your happiness.”

Canalis was furious; but he could not behave otherwise than with propriety, and he made the best of his disappointment by mounting it as a pedestal.

“Ah, Canalis, I have never really known you till this moment.”

“Did you expect to? It takes some time to go round the world,” replied the poet with his pompous irony.

“But think,” said La Briere, “of this enormous fortune.”

“Ah, my friend, is it not well invested in you?” cried Canalis, accompanying the words with a charming gesture.

“Melchior,” said La Briere, “I am yours for life and death.”

He wrung the poet’s hand and left him abruptly, for he was in haste to meet Monsieur Mignon.

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