Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



“Those two young men,” said Madame Latournelle, on the Saturday evening, “have no idea how many spies they have on their tracks. We are eight in all, on the watch.”

“Don’t say two young men, wife; say three!” cried little Latournelle, looking round him. “Gobenheim is not here, so I can speak out.”

Modeste raised her head, and everybody, imitating Modeste, raised theirs and looked at the notary.

“Yes, a third lover — and he is something like a lover — offers himself as a candidate.”

“Bah!” exclaimed the colonel.

“I speak of no less a person,” said Latournelle, pompously, “than Monsieur le Duc d’Herouville, Marquis de Saint–Sever, Duc de Nivron, Comte de Bayeux, Vicomte d’Essigny, grand equerry and peer of France, knight of the Spur and the Golden Fleece, grandee of Spain, and son of the last governor of Normandy. He saw Mademoiselle Modeste at the time when he was staying with the Vilquins, and he regretted then — as his notary, who came from Bayeux yesterday, tells me — that she was not rich enough for him; for his father recovered nothing but the estate of Herouville on his return to France, and that is saddled with a sister. The young duke is thirty-three years old. I am definitively charged to lay these proposals before you, Monsieur le comte,” added the notary, turning respectfully to the colonel.

“Ask Modeste if she wants another bird in her cage,” replied the count; “as far as I am concerned, I am willing that my lord the grand equerry shall pay her attention.”

Notwithstanding the care with which Charles Mignon avoided seeing people, and though he stayed in the Chalet and never went out without Modeste, Gobenheim had reported Dumay’s wealth; for Dumay had said to him when giving up his position as cashier: “I am to be bailiff for my colonel, and all my fortune, except what my wife needs, is to go to the children of our little Modeste.” Every one in Havre had therefore propounded the same question that the notary had already put to himself: “If Dumay’s share in the profits is six hundred thousand francs, and he is going to be Monsieur Mignon’s bailiff, then Monsieur Mignon must certainly have a colossal fortune. He arrived at Marseilles on a ship of his own, loaded with indigo; and they say at the Bourse that the cargo, not counting the ship, is worth more than he gives out as his whole fortune.”

The colonel was unwilling to dismiss the servants he had brought back with him, whom he had chosen with care during his travels; and he therefore hired a house for them in the lower part of Ingouville, where he installed his valet, cook, and coachman, all Negroes, and three mulattos on whose fidelity he could rely. The coachman was told to search for saddle-horses for Mademoiselle and for his master, and for carriage-horses for the caleche in which the colonel and the lieutenant had returned to Havre. That carriage, bought in Paris, was of the latest fashion, and bore the arms of La Bastie, surmounted by a count’s coronet. These things, insignificant in the eyes of a man who for four years had been accustomed to the unbridled luxury of the Indies and of the English merchants at Canton, were the subject of much comment among the business men of Havre and the inhabitants of Ingouville and Graville. Before five days had elapsed the rumor of them ran from one end of Normandy to the other like a train of gunpowder touched by fire.

“Monsieur Mignon has come back from China with millions,” some one said in Rouen; “and it seems he was made a count in mid-ocean.”

“But he was the Comte de La Bastie before the Revolution,” answered another.

“So they call him a liberal just because he was plain Charles Mignon for twenty-five years! What are we coming to?” said a third.

Modeste was considered, therefore, notwithstanding the silence of her parents and friends, as the richest heiress in Normandy, and all eyes began once more to see her merits. The aunt and sister of the Duc d’Herouville confirmed in the aristocratic salons of Bayeux Monsieur Charles Mignon’s right to the title and arms of count, derived from Cardinal Mignon, for whom the Cardinal’s hat and tassels were added as a crest. They had seen Mademoiselle de La Bastie when they were staying at the Vilquins, and their solicitude for the impoverished head of their house now became active.

“If Mademoiselle de La Bastie is really as rich as she is beautiful,” said the aunt of the young duke, “she is the best match in the province. She at least is noble.”

The last words were aimed at the Vilquins, with whom they had not been able to come to terms, after incurring the humiliation of staying in that bourgeois household.

Such were the little events which, contrary to the rules of Aristotle and of Horace, precede the introduction of another person into our story; but the portrait and the biography of this personage, this late arrival, shall not be long, taking into consideration his own diminutiveness. The grand equerry shall not take more space here than he will take in history. Monsieur le Duc d’Herouville, offspring of the matrimonial autumn of the last governor of Normandy, was born during the emigration in 1799, at Vienna. The old marechal, father of the present duke, returned with the king in 1814, and died in 1819, before he was able to marry his son. He could only leave him the vast chateau of Herouville, the park, a few dependencies, and a farm which he had bought back with some difficulty; all of which returned a rental of about fifteen thousand francs a year. Louis XVIII. gave the post of grand equerry to the son, who, under Charles X., received the usual pension of twelve thousand francs which was granted to the pauper peers of France. But what were these twenty-seven thousand francs a year and the salary of grand equerry to such a family? In Paris, of course, the young duke used the king’s coaches, and had a mansion provided for him in the rue Saint–Thomas-du-Louvre, near the royal stables; his salary paid for his winters in the city, and his twenty-seven thousand francs for the summers in Normandy. If this noble personage was still a bachelor he was less to blame than his aunt, who was not versed in La Fontaine’s fables. Mademoiselle d’Herouville made enormous pretensions wholly out of keeping with the spirit of the times; for great names, without the money to keep them up, can seldom win rich heiresses among the higher French nobility, who are themselves embarrassed to provide for their sons under the new law of the equal division of property. To marry the young Duc d’Herouville, it was necessary to conciliate the great banking-houses; but the haughty pride of the daughter of the house alienated these people by cutting speeches. During the first years of the Restoration, from 1817 to 1825, Mademoiselle d’Herouville, though in quest of millions, refused, among others, the daughter of Mongenod the banker, with whom Monsieur de Fontaine afterwards contented himself.

At last, having lost several good opportunities to establish her nephew, entirely through her own fault, she was just considering whether the property of the Nucingens was not too basely acquired, or whether she should lend herself to the ambition of Madame de Nucingen, who wished to make her daughter a duchess. The king, anxious to restore the d’Herouvilles to their former splendor, had almost brought about this marriage, and when it failed he openly accused Mademoiselle d’Herouville of folly. In this way the aunt made the nephew ridiculous, and the nephew, in his own way, was not less absurd. When great things disappear they leave crumbs, “frusteaux,” Rabelais would say, behind them; and the French nobility of this century has left us too many such fragments. Neither the clergy nor the nobility have anything to complain of in this long history of manners and customs. Those great and magnificent social necessities have been well represented; but we ought surely to renounce the noble title of historian if we are not impartial, if we do not here depict the present degeneracy of the race of nobles, although we have already done so elsewhere — in the character of the Comte de Mortsauf (in “The Lily of the Valley”), in the “Duchesse de Langeais,” and the very nobleness of the nobility in the “Marquis d’Espard.” How then could it be that the race of heroes and valiant men belonging to the proud house of Herouville, who gave the famous marshal to the nation, cardinals to the church, great leaders to the Valois, knights to Louis XIV., was reduced to a little fragile being smaller than Butscha? That is a question which we ask ourselves in more than one salon in Paris when we hear the greatest names of France announced, and see the entrance of a thin, pinched, undersized young man, scarcely possessing the breath of life, or a premature old one, or some whimsical creature in whom an observer can with great difficulty trace the signs of a past grandeur. The dissipations of the reign of Louis XV., the orgies of that fatal and egotistic period, have produced an effete generation, in which manners alone survive the nobler vanished qualities — forms, which are the sole heritage our nobles have preserved. The abandonment in which Louis XVI. was allowed to perish may thus be explained, with some slight reservations, as a wretched result of the reign of Madame de Pompadour.

The grand equerry, a fair young man with blue eyes and a pallid face, was not without a certain dignity of thought; but his thin, undersized figure, and the follies of his aunt who had taken him to the Vilquins and elsewhere to pay his court, rendered him extremely diffident. The house of Herouville had already been threatened with extinction by the deed of a deformed being (see the “Enfant Maudit” in “Philosophical Studies”). The grand marshal, that being the family term for the member who was made duke by Louis XIII., married at the age of eighty. The young duke admired women, but he placed them too high and respected them too much; in fact, he adored them, and was only at his ease with those whom he could not respect. This characteristic caused him to lead a double life. He found compensation with women of easy virtue for the worship to which he surrendered himself in the salons, or, if you like, the boudoirs, of the faubourg Saint–Germain. Such habits and his puny figure, his suffering face with its blue eyes turning upward in ecstasy, increased the ridicule already bestowed upon him — very unjustly bestowed, as it happened, for he was full of wit and delicacy; but his wit, which never sparkled, only showed itself when he felt at ease. Fanny Beaupre, an actress who was supposed to be his nearest friend (at a price), called him “a sound wine so carefully corked that you break all your corkscrews.” The beautiful Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, whom the grand equerry could only worship, annihilated him with a speech which, unfortunately, was repeated from mouth to mouth, like all such pretty and malicious sayings.

“He always seems to me,” she said, “like one of those jewels of fine workmanship which we exhibit but never wear, and keep in cotton-wool.”

Everything about him, even to his absurdly contrasting title of grand equerry, amused the good-natured king, Charles X., and made him laugh, — although the Duc d’Herouville justified his appointment in the matter of being a fine horseman. Men are like books, often understood and appreciated too late. Modeste had seen the duke during his fruitless visit to the Vilquins, and many of these reflections passed through her mind as she watched him come and go. But under the circumstances in which she now found herself, she saw plainly that the courtship of the Duc d’Herouville would save her from being at the mercy of either Canalis.

“I see no reason,” she said to Latournelle, “why the Duc d’Herouville should not be received. I have passed, in spite of our indigence,” she continued, with a mischievous look at her father, “to the condition of heiress. Haven’t you observed Gobenheim’s glances? They have quite changed their character within a week. He is in despair at not being able to make his games of whist count for mute adoration of my charms.”

“Hush, my darling!” cried Madame Latournelle, “here he comes.”

“Old Althor is in despair,” said Gobenheim to Monsieur Mignon as he entered.

“Why?” asked the count.

“Vilquin is going to fail; and the Bourse thinks you are worth several millions. What ill-luck for his son!”

“No one knows,” said Charles Mignon, coldly, “what my liabilities in India are; and I do not intend to take the public into my confidence as to my private affairs. Dumay,” he whispered to his friend, “if Vilquin is embarrassed we could get back the villa by paying him what he gave for it.”

Such was the general state of things, due chiefly to accident, when on Sunday morning Canalis and La Briere arrived, with a courier in advance, at the villa of Madame Amaury. It was known that the Duc d’Herouville, his sister, and his aunt were coming the following Tuesday to occupy, also under pretext of ill-health, a hired house at Graville. This assemblage of suitors made the wits of the Bourse remark that, thanks to Mademoiselle Mignon, rents would rise at Ingouville. “If this goes on, she will have a hospital here,” said the younger Mademoiselle Vilquin, vexed at not becoming a duchess.

The everlasting comedy of “The Heiress,” about to be played at the Chalet, might very well be called, in view of Modeste’s frame of mind, “The Designs of a Young Girl”; for since the overthrow of her illusions she had fully made up her mind to give her hand to no man whose qualifications did not fully satisfy her.

The two rivals, still intimate friends, intended to pay their first visit at the Chalet on the evening of the day succeeding their arrival. They had spent Sunday and part of Monday in unpacking and arranging Madame Amaury’s house for a month’s stay. The poet, always calculating effects, wished to make the most of the probable excitement which his arrival would case in Havre, and which would of course echo up to the Mignons. Therefore, in his role of a man needing rest, he did not leave the house. La Briere went twice to walk past the Chalet, though always with a sense of despair, for he feared to displease Modeste, and the future seemed to him dark with clouds. The two friends came down to dinner on Monday dressed for the momentous visit. La Briere wore the same clothes he had so carefully selected for the famous Sunday; but he now felt like the satellite of planet, and resigned himself to the uncertainties of his situation. Canalis, on the other hand, had carefully attended to his black coat, his orders, and all those little drawing-room elegancies, which his intimacy with the Duchesse de Chaulieu and the fashionable world of the faubourg had brought to perfection. He had gone into the minutiae of dandyism, while poor La Briere was about to present himself with the negligence of a man without hope. Germain, as he waited at dinner could not help smiling to himself at the contrast. After the second course, however, the valet came in with a diplomatic, that is to say, uneasy air.

“Does Monsieur le baron know,” he said to Canalis in a low voice, “that Monsieur the grand equerry is coming to Graville to get cured of the same illness which has brought Monsieur de La Briere and Monsieur le baron to the sea-shore?”

“What, the little Duc d’Herouville?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Is he coming for Mademoiselle de La Bastie?” asked La Briere, coloring.

“So it appears, monsieur.”

“We are cheated!” cried Canalis looking at La Briere.

“Ah!” retorted Ernest quickly, “that is the first time you have said, ‘we’ since we left Paris: it has been ‘I’ all along.”

“You understood me,” cried Canalis, with a burst of laughter. “But we are not in a position to struggle against a ducal coronet, nor the duke’s title, nor against the waste lands which the Council of State have just granted, on my report, to the house of Herouville.”

“His grace,” said La Briere, with a spice of malice that was nevertheless serious, “will furnish you with compensation in the person of his sister.”

At this instant, the Comte de La Bastie was announced; the two young men rose at once, and La Briere hastened forward to present Canalis.

“I wished to return the visit that you paid me in Paris,” said the count to the young lawyer, “and I knew that by coming here I should have the double pleasure of greeting one of our great living poets.”

“Great! — Monsieur,” replied the poet, smiling, “no one can be great in a century prefaced by the reign of a Napoleon. We are a tribe of would-be great poets; besides, second-rate talent imitates genius nowadays, and renders real distinction impossible.”

“Is that the reason why you have thrown yourself into politics?” asked the count.

“It is the same thing in that sphere,” said the poet; “there are no statesmen in these days, only men who handle events more or less. Look at it, monsieur; under the system of government that we derive from the Charter, which makes a tax-list of more importance than a coat-of-arms, there is absolutely nothing solid except that which you went to seek in China — wealth.”

Satisfied with himself and with the impression he was making on the prospective father-inlaw, Canalis turned to Germain.

“Serve the coffee in the salon,” he said, inviting Monsieur de La Bastie to leave the dining-room.

“I thank you for this visit, monsieur le comte,” said La Briere; “it saves me from the embarrassment of presenting my friend to you in your own house. You have a heart, and you have also a quick mind.”

“Bah! the ready wit of Provence, that is all,” said Charles Mignon.

“Ah, do you come from Provence?” cried Canalis.

“You must pardon my friend,” said La Briere; “he has not studied, as I have, the history of La Bastie.”

At the word friend Canalis threw a searching glance at Ernest.

“If your health will allow,” said the count to the poet, “I shall hope to receive you this evening under my roof; it will be a day to mark, as the old writer said ‘albo notanda lapillo.’ Though we cannot duly receive so great a fame in our little house, yet your visit will gratify my daughter, whose admiration for your poems has even led her to set them to music.”

“You have something better than fame in your house,” said Canalis; “you have beauty, if I am to believe Ernest.”

“Yes, a good daughter; but you will find her rather countrified,” said Charles Mignon.

“A country girl sought by the Duc d’Herouville,” remarked Canalis, dryly.

“Oh!” replied Monsieur Mignon, with the perfidious good-humor of a Southerner, “I leave my daughter free. Dukes, princes, commoners, — they are all the same to me, even men of genius. I shall make no pledges, and whoever my Modeste chooses will be my son-inlaw, or rather my son,” he added, looking at La Briere. “It could not be otherwise. Madame de La Bastie is German. She has never adopted our etiquette, and I let my two women lead me their own way. I have always preferred to sit in the carriage rather than on the box. I can make a joke of all this at present, for we have not yet seen the Duc d’Herouville, and I do not believe in marriages arranged by proxy, any more than I believe in choosing my daughter’s husband.”

“That declaration is equally encouraging and discouraging to two young men who are searching for the philosopher’s stone of happiness in marriage,” said Canalis.

“Don’t you consider it useful, necessary, and even politic to stipulate for perfect freedom of action for parents, daughters, and suitors?” asked Charles Mignon.

Canalis, at a sign from La Briere, kept silence. The conversation presently became unimportant, and after a few turns round the garden the count retired, urging the visit of the two friends.

“That’s our dismissal,” cried Canalis; “you saw it as plainly as I did. Well, in his place, I should not hesitate between the grand equerry and either of us, charming as we are.”

“I don’t think so,” said La Briere. “I believe that frank soldier came here to satisfy his desire to see you, and to warn us of his neutrality while receiving us in his house. Modeste, in love with your fame, and misled by my person, stands, as it were, between the real and the ideal, between poetry and prose. I am, unfortunately, the prose.”

“Germain,” said Canalis to the valet, who came to take away the coffee, “order the carriage in half an hour. We will take a drive before we go to the Chalet.”

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