Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The poor girl had fallen humiliated from the alp she had scaled in search of her eagle’s nest, into the mud of the swamp below, where (to use the poetic language of an author of our day) “after feeling the soles of her feet too tender to tread the broken glass of reality, Imagination — which in that delicate bosom united the whole of womanhood, from the violet-hidden reveries of a chaste young girl to the passionate desires of the sex — had led her into enchanted gardens where, oh, bitter sight! she now saw, springing from the ground, not the sublime flower of her fancy, but the hairy, twisted limbs of the black mandragora.” Modeste suddenly found herself brought down from the mystic heights of her love to a straight, flat road bordered with ditches — in short the work-day path of common life. What ardent, aspiring soul would not have been bruised and broken by such a fall? Whose feet were these at which she had shed her thoughts? The Modeste who re-entered the Chalet was no more the Modeste who had left it two hours earlier than an actress in the street is like an actress on the boards. She fell into a state of numb depression that was pitiful to see. The sun was darkened, nature veiled itself, even the flowers no longer spoke to her. Like all young girls with a tendency to extremes, she drank too deeply of the cup of disillusion. She fought against reality, and would not bend her neck to the yoke of family and conventions; it was, she felt, too heavy, too hard, too crushing. She would not listen to the consolations of her father and mother, and tasted a sort of savage pleasure in letting her soul suffer to the utmost.

“Poor Butscha was right,” she said one evening.

The words indicate the distance she travelled in a short space of time and in gloomy sadness across the barren plain of reality. Sadness, when caused by the overgrowth of hope, is a disease — sometimes a fatal one. It would be no mean object for physiology to search out in what ways and by what means Thought produces the same internal disorganization as poison; and how it is that despair affects the appetite, destroys the pylorus, and changes all the physical conditions of the strongest life. Such was the case with Modeste. In three short days she became the image of morbid melancholy; she did not sing, she could not be made to smile. Charles Mignon, becoming uneasy at the non-arrival of the two friends, thought of going to fetch them, when, on the evening of the fifth day, he received news of their movements through Latournelle.

Canalis, excessively delighted at the idea of a rich marriage, was determined to neglect nothing that might help him to cut out La Briere, without, however, giving La Briere a chance to reproach him for having violated the laws of friendship. The poet felt that nothing would lower a lover so much in the eyes of a young girl as to exhibit him in a subordinate position; and he therefore proposed to La Briere, in the most natural manner, to take a little country-house at Ingouville for a month, and live there together on pretence of requiring sea-air. As soon as La Briere, who at first saw nothing amiss in the proposal, had consented, Canalis declared that he should pay all expenses, and he sent his valet to Havre, telling him to see Monsieur Latournelle and get his assistance in choosing the house, — well aware that the notary would repeat all particulars to the Mignons. Ernest and Canalis had, as may well be supposed, talked over all the aspects of the affair, and the rather prolix Ernest had given a good many useful hints to his rival. The valet, understanding his master’s wishes, fulfilled them to the letter; he trumpeted the arrival of the great poet, for whom the doctors advised sea-air to restore his health, injured as it was by the double toils of literature and politics. This important personage wanted a house, which must have at least such and such a number of rooms, as he would bring with him a secretary, cook, two servants, and a coachman, not counting himself, Germain Bonnet, the valet. The carriage, selected and hired for a month by Canalis, was a pretty one; and Germain set about finding a pair of fine horses which would also answer as saddle-horses — for, as he said, monsieur le baron and his secretary took horseback exercise. Under the eyes of little Latournelle, who went with him to various houses, Germain made a good deal of talk about the secretary, rejecting two or three because there was no suitable room for Monsieur de La Briere.

“Monsieur le baron,” he said to the notary, “makes his secretary quite his best friend. Ah! I should be well scolded if Monsieur de La Briere was not as well treated as monsieur le baron himself; and after all, you know, Monsieur de La Briere is a lawyer in my master’s court.”

Germain never appeared in public unless punctiliously dressed in black, with spotless gloves, well-polished boots, and otherwise as well apparelled as a lawyer. Imagine the effect he produced in Havre, and the idea people took of the great poet from this sample of him! The valet of a man of wit and intellect ends by getting a little wit and intellect himself which has rubbed off from his master. Germain did not overplay his part; he was simple and good-humored, as Canalis had instructed him to be. Poor La Briere was in blissful ignorance of the harm Germain was doing to his prospects, and the depreciation his consent to the arrangement had brought upon him; it is, however, true that some inkling of the state of things rose to Modeste’s ears from these lower regions.

Canalis had arranged to bring his secretary in his own carriage, and Ernest’s unsuspicious nature did not perceive that he was putting himself in a false position until too late to remedy it. The delay in the arrival of the pair which had troubled Charles Mignon was caused by the painting of the Canalis arms on the panels of the carriage, and by certain orders given to a tailor; for the poet neglected none of the innumerable details which might, even the smallest of them, influence a young girl.

“It is all right,” said Latournelle to Mignon on the sixth day. “The baron’s valet has hired Madame Amaury’s villa at Sanvic, all furnished, for seven hundred francs; he has written to his master that he may start, and that all will be ready on his arrival. So the two gentlemen will be here Sunday. I have also had a letter from Butscha; here it is; it’s not long: ‘My dear master — I cannot get back till Sunday. Between now and then I have some very important inquiries to make which concern the happiness of a person in whom you take an interest.’”

The announcement of this arrival did not rouse Modeste from her gloom; the sense of her fall and the bewilderment of her mind were still too great, and she was not nearly as much of a coquette as her father thought her to be. There is, in truth, a charming and permissible coquetry, that of the soul, which may claim to be love’s politeness. Charles Mignon, when scolding his daughter, failed to distinguish between the mere desire of pleasing and the love of the mind — the thirst for love, and the thirst for admiration. Like every true colonel of the Empire he saw in this correspondence, rapidly read, only the young girl who had thrown herself at the head of a poet; but in the letters which we were forced to lack of space to suppress, a better judge would have admired the dignified and gracious reserve which Modeste had substituted for the rather aggressive and light-minded tone of her first letters. The father, however, was only too cruelly right on one point. Modeste’s last letter, which we have read, had indeed spoken as though the marriage were a settled fact, and the remembrance of that letter filled her with shame; she thought her father very harsh and cruel to force her to receive a man unworthy of her, yet to whom her soul had flown, as it were, bare. She questioned Dumay about his interview with the poet, she inveigled him into relating its every detail, and she did not think Canalis as barbarous as the lieutenant had declared him. The thought of the beautiful casket which held the letters of the thousand and one women of this literary Don Juan made her smile, and she was strongly tempted to say to her father: “I am not the only one to write to him; the elite of my sex send their leaves for the laurel wreath of the poet.”

During this week Modeste’s character underwent a transformation. The catastrophe — and it was a great one to her poetic nature — roused a faculty of discernment and also the malice latent in her girlish heart, in which her suitors were about to encounter a formidable adversary. It is a fact that when a young woman’s heart is chilled her head becomes clear; she observes with great rapidity of judgment, and with a tinge of pleasantry which Shakespeare’s Beatrice so admirably represents in “Much Ado about Nothing.” Modeste was seized with a deep disgust for men, now that the most distinguished among them had betrayed her hopes. When a woman loves, what she takes for disgust is simply the ability to see clearly; but in matters of sentiment she is never, especially if she is a young girl, in a condition to see clearly. If she cannot admire, she despises. And so, after passing through terrible struggles of the soul, Modeste necessarily put on the armor on which, as she had once declared, the word “Disdain” was engraved. After reaching that point she was able, in the character of uninterested spectator, to take part in what she was pleased to call the “farce of the suitors,” a performance in which she herself was about to play the role of heroine. She particularly set before her mind the satisfaction of humiliating Monsieur de La Briere.

“Modeste is saved,” said Madame Mignon to her husband; “she wants to revenge herself on the false Canalis by trying to love the real one.”

Such in truth was Modeste’s plan. It was so utterly commonplace that her mother, to whom she confided her griefs, advised her on the contrary to treat Monsieur de La Briere with extreme politeness.

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