Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The two young men were equally impatient to see Modeste, but La Briere dreaded the interview, while Canalis approached it with the confidence of self-conceit. The eagerness with which La Briere had met the father, and the flattery of his attention to the family pride of the ex-merchant, showed Canalis his own maladroitness, and determined him to select a special role. The great poet resolved to pretend indifference, though all the while displaying his seductive powers; to appear to disdain the young lady, and thus pique her self-love. Trained by the handsome Duchesse de Chaulieu, he was bound to be worthy of his reputation as a man who knew women, when, in fact, he did not know them at all — which is often the case with those who are the happy victims of an exclusive passion. While poor Ernest, gloomily ensconced in his corner of the caleche, gave way to the terrors of genuine love, and foresaw instinctively the anger, contempt, and disdain of an injured and offended young girl, Canalis was preparing himself, not less silently, like an actor making ready for an important part in a new play; certainly neither of them presented the appearance of a happy man. Important interests were involved for Canalis. The mere suggestion of his desire to marry would bring about a rupture of the tie which had bound him for the last ten years to the Duchesse de Chaulieu. Though he had covered the purpose of his journey with the vulgar pretext of needing rest — in which, by the bye, women never believe, even when it is true — his conscience troubled him somewhat; but the word “conscience” seemed so Jesuitical to La Briere that he shrugged his shoulders when the poet mentioned his scruples.

“Your conscience, my friend, strikes me as nothing more nor less than a dread of losing the pleasures of vanity, and some very real advantages and habits by sacrificing the affections of Madame de Chaulieu; for, if you were sure of succeeding with Modeste, you would renounce without the slightest compunction the wilted aftermath of a passion that has been mown and well-raked for the last eight years. If you simply mean that you are afraid of displeasing your protectress, should she find out the object of your stay here, I believe you. To renounce the duchess and yet not succeed at the Chalet is too heavy a risk. You take the anxiety of this alternative for remorse.”

“You have no comprehension of feelings,” said the poet, irritably, like a man who hears truth when he expects a compliment.

“That is what a bigamist should tell the jury,” retorted La Briere, laughing.

This epigram made another disagreeable impression on Canalis. He began to think La Briere too witty and too free for a secretary.

The arrival of an elegant caleche, driven by a coachman in the Canalis livery, made the more excitement at the Chalet because the two suitors were expected, and all the personages of this history were assembled to receive them, except the duke and Butscha.

“Which is the poet?” asked Madame Latournelle of Dumay in the embrasure of a window, where she stationed herself as soon as she heard the wheels.

“The one who walks like a drum-major,” answered the lieutenant.

“Ah!” said the notary’s wife, examining Canalis, who was swinging his body like a man who knows he is being looked at. The fault lay with the great lady who flattered him incessantly and spoiled him — as all women older than their adorers invariably spoil and flatter them; Canalis in his moral being was a sort of Narcissus. When a woman of a certain age wishes to attach a man forever, she begins by deifying his defects, so as to cut off all possibility of rivalry; for a rival is never, at the first approach, aware of the super-fine flattery to which the man is accustomed. Coxcombs are the product of this feminine manoeuvre, when they are not fops by nature. Canalis, taken young by the handsome duchess, vindicated his affectations to his own mind by telling himself that they pleased that “grande dame,” whose taste was law. Such shades of character may be excessively faint, but it is improper for the historian not to point them out. For instance, Melchior possessed a talent for reading which was greatly admired, and much injudicious praise had given him a habit of exaggeration, which neither poets nor actors are willing to check, and which made people say of him (always through De Marsay) that he no longer declaimed, he bellowed his verses; lengthening the sounds that he might listen to himself. In the slang of the green-room, Canalis “dragged the time.” He was fond of exchanging glances with his hearers, throwing himself into postures of self-complacency and practising those tricks of demeanor which actors call “balancoires,”— the picturesque phrase of an artistic people. Canalis had his imitators, and was in fact the head of a school of his kind. This habit of declamatory chanting slightly affected his conversation, as we have seen in his interview with Dumay. The moment the mind becomes finical the manners follow suit, and the great poet ended by studying his demeanor, inventing attitudes, looking furtively at himself in mirrors, and suiting his discourse to the particular pose which he happened to have taken up. He was so preoccupied with the effect he wished to produce, that a practical joke, Blondet, had bet once or twice, and won the wager, that he could nonplus him at any moment by merely looking fixedly at his hair, or his boots, or the tails of his coats.

These airs and graces, which started in life with a passport of flowery youth, now seemed all the more stale and old because Melchior himself was waning. Life in the world of fashion is quite as exhausting to men as it is to women, and perhaps the twenty years by which the duchess exceeded her lover’s age, weighed more heavily upon him than upon her; for to the eyes of the world she was always handsome — without rouge, without wrinkles, and without heart. Alas! neither men nor women have friends who are friendly enough to warn them of the moment when the fragrance of their modesty grows stale, when the caressing glance is but an echo of the stage, when the expression of the face changes from sentiment to sentimentality, and the artifices of the mind show their rusty edges. Genius alone renews its skin like a snake; and in the matter of charm, as in everything else, it is only the heart that never grows old. People who have hearts are simple in all their ways. Now Canalis, as we know, had a shrivelled heart. He misused the beauty of his glance by giving it, without adequate reason, the fixity that comes to the eyes in meditation. In short, applause was to him a business, in which he was perpetually on the lookout for gain. His style of paying compliments, charming to superficial people, seemed insulting to others of more delicacy, by its triteness and the cool assurance of its cut-and-dried flattery. As a matter of fact, Melchior lied like a courtier. He remarked without blushing to the Duc de Chaulieu, who made no impression whatever when he was obliged to address the Chamber as minister of foreign affairs, “Your excellency was truly sublime!” Many men like Canalis are purged of their affectations by the administration of non-success in little doses.

These defects, slight in the gilded salons of the faubourg Saint–Germain, where every one contributes his or her quota of absurdity, and where these particular forms of exaggerated speech and affected diction — magniloquence, if you please to call it so — are surrounded by excessive luxury and sumptuous toilettes, which are to some extent their excuse, were certain to be far more noticed in the provinces, whose own absurdities are of a totally different type. Canalis, by nature over-strained and artificial, could not change his form; in fact, he had had time to grow stiff in the mould into which the duchess had poured him; moreover, he was thoroughly Parisian, or, if you prefer it, truly French. The Parisian is amazed that everything everywhere is not as it in Paris; the Frenchman, as it is in France. Good taste, on the contrary, demands that we adapt ourselves to the customs of foreigners without losing too much of our own character — as did Alcibiades, that model of a gentleman. True grace is elastic; it lends itself to circumstances; it is in harmony with all social centres; it wears a robe of simple material in the streets, noticeable only by its cut, in preference to the feathers and flounces of middle-class vulgarity. Now Canalis, instigated by a woman who loved herself much more than she loved him, wished to lay down the law and be, everywhere, such as he himself might see fit to be. He believed he carried his own public with him wherever he went — an error shared by several of the great men of Paris.

While the poet made a studied and effective entrance into the salon of the Chalet, La Briere slipped in behind him like a person of no account.

“Ha! do I see my soldier?” said Canalis, perceiving Dumay, after addressing a compliment to Madame Mignon, and bowing to the other women. “Your anxieties are relieved, are they not?” he said, offering his hand effusively; “I comprehend them to their fullest extent after seeing mademoiselle. I spoke to you of terrestrial creatures, not of angels.”

All present seemed by their attitudes to ask the meaning of this speech.

“I shall always consider it a triumph,” resumed the poet, observing that everybody wished for an explanation, “to have stirred to mention on of those men of iron whom Napoleon had the eye to find and make the supporting piles on which he tried to build an empire, too colossal to be lasting: for such structures time alone is the cement. But this triumph — why should I be proud of it? — I count for nothing. It was the triumph of ideas over facts. Your battles, my dear Monsieur Dumay, your heroic charges, Monsieur le comte, nay, war itself was the form in which Napoleon’s idea clothed itself. Of all of these things, what remains? The sod that covers them knows nothing; harvests come and go without revealing their resting-place; were it not for the historian, the writer, futurity would have no knowledge of those heroic days. Therefore your fifteen years of war are now ideas and nothing more; that which preserves the Empire forever is the poem that the poets make of them. A nation that can win such battles must know how to sing them.”

Canalis paused, to gather by a glance that ran round the circle the tribute of amazement which he expected of provincials.

“You must be aware, monsieur, of the regret I feel at not seeing you,” said Madame Mignon, “since you compensate me with the pleasure of hearing you.”

Modeste, determined to think Canalis sublime, sat motionless with amazement; the embroidery slipped from her fingers, which held it only by the needleful of thread.

“Modeste, this is Monsieur Ernest de La Briere. Monsieur Ernest, my daughter,” said the count, thinking the secretary too much in the background.

The young girl bowed coldly, giving Ernest a glance that was meant to prove to every one present that she saw him for the first time.

“Pardon me, monsieur,” she said without blushing; “the great admiration I feel for the greatest of our poets is, in the eyes of my friends, a sufficient excuse for seeing only him.”

The pure, fresh voice, with accents like that of Mademoiselle Mars, charmed the poor secretary, already dazzled by Modeste’s beauty, and in his sudden surprise he answered by a phrase that would have been sublime, had it been true.

“He is my friend,” he said.

“Ah, then you do pardon me,” she replied.

“He is more than a friend,” cried Canalis taking Ernest by the shoulder and leaning upon it like Alexander on Hephaestion, “we love each other as though we were brothers —”

Madame Latournelle cut short the poet’s speech by pointing to Ernest and saying aloud to her husband, “Surely that is the gentleman we saw at church.”

“Why not?” said Charles Mignon, quickly, observing that Ernest reddened.

Modeste coldly took up her embroidery.

“Madame may be right; I have been twice in Havre lately,” replied La Briere, sitting down by Dumay.

Canalis, charmed with Modeste’s beauty, mistook the admiration she expressed, and flattered himself he had succeeded in producing his desired effects.

“I should think a man without heart, if he had no devoted friend near him,” said Modeste, to pick up the conversation interrupted by Madame Latournelle’s awkwardness.

“Mademoiselle, Ernest’s devotion makes me almost think myself worth something,” said Canalis; “for my dear Pylades is full of talent; he was the right hand of the greatest minister we have had since the peace. Though he holds a fine position, he is good enough to be my tutor in the science of politics; he teaches me to conduct affairs and feeds me with his experience, when all the while he might aspire to a much better situation. Oh! he is worth far more than I.” At a gesture from Modeste he continued gracefully: “Yes, the poetry that I express he carries in his heart; and if I speak thus openly before him it is because he has the modesty of a nun.”

“Enough, oh, enough!” cried La Briere, who hardly knew which way to look. “My dear Canalis, you remind me of a mother who is seeking to marry off her daughter.”

“How is it, monsieur,” said Charles Mignon, addressing Canalis, “that you can even think of becoming a political character?”

“It is abdication,” said Modeste, “for a poet; politics are the resource of matter-of-fact men.”

“Ah, mademoiselle, the rostrum is today the greatest theatre of the world; it has succeeded the tournaments of chivalry, it is now the meeting-place for all intellects, just as the army has been the rallying-point of courage.”

Canalis stuck spurs into his charger and talked for ten minutes on political life: “Poetry was but a preface to the statesman.” “To-day the orator has become a sublime reasoner, the shepherd of ideas.” “A poet may point the way to nations or individuals, but can he ever cease to be himself?” He quoted Chateaubriand and declared that he would one day be greater on the political side than on the literary. “The forum of France was to be the pharos of humanity.” “Oral battles supplanted fields of battle: there were sessions of the Chamber finer than any Austerlitz, and orators were seen to be as lofty as generals; they spent their lives, their courage, their strength, as freely as those who went to war.” “Speech was surely one of the most prodigal outlets of the vital fluid that man had ever known,” etc.

This improvisation of modern commonplaces, clothed in sonorous phrases and newly invented words, and intended to prove that the Comte de Canalis was becoming one of the glories of the French government, made a deep impression upon the notary and Gobenheim, and upon Madame Latournelle and Madame Mignon. Modeste looked as though she were at the theatre, in an attitude of enthusiasm for an actor — very much like that of Ernest toward herself; for though the secretary knew all these high-sounding phrases by heart, he listened through the eyes, as it were, of the young girl, and grew more and more madly in love with her. To this true lover, Modeste was eclipsing all the Modestes he had created as he read her letters and answered them.

This visit, the length of which was predetermined by Canalis, careful not to allow his admirers a chance to get surfeited, ended by an invitation to dinner on the following Monday.

“We shall not be at the Chalet,” said the Comte de La Bastie. “Dumay will have sole possession of it. I return to the villa, having bought it back under a deed of redemption within six months, which I have today signed with Monsieur Vilquin.”

“I hope,” said Dumay, “that Vilquin will not be able to return to you the sum you have just lent him, and that the villa will remain yours.”

“It is an abode in keeping with your fortune,” said Canalis.

“You mean the fortune that I am supposed to have,” replied Charles Mignon, hastily.

“It would be too sad,” said Canalis, turning to Modeste with a charming little bow, “if this Madonna were not framed in a manner worthy of her divine perfections.”

That was the only thing Canalis said to Modeste. He affected not to look at her, and behaved like a man to whom all idea of marriage was interdicted.

“Ah! my dear Madame Mignon,” cried the notary’s wife, as soon as the gravel was heard to grit under the feet of the Parisians, “what an intellect!”

“Is he rich? — that is the question,” said Gobenheim.

Modeste was at the window, not losing a single movement of the great poet, and paying no attention to his companion. When Monsieur Mignon returned to the salon, and Modeste, having received a last bow from the two friends as the carriage turned, went back to her seat, a weighty discussion took place, such as provincials invariably hold over Parisians after a first interview. Gobenheim repeated his phrase, “Is he rich?” as a chorus to the songs of praise sung by Madame Latournelle, Modeste, and her mother.

“Rich!” exclaimed Modeste; “what can that signify! Do you not see that Monsieur de Canalis is one of those men who are destined for the highest places in the State. He has more than fortune; he possesses that which gives fortune.”

“He will be minister or ambassador,” said Monsieur Mignon.

“That won’t hinder tax-payers from having to pay the costs of his funeral,” remarked the notary.

“How so?” asked Charles Mignon.

“He strikes me as a man who will waste all the fortunes with whose gifts Mademoiselle Modeste so liberally endows him,” answered Latournelle.

“Modeste can’t avoid being liberal to a poet who called her a Madonna,” said Dumay, sneering, and faithful to the repulsion with which Canalis had originally inspired him.

Gobenheim arranged the whist-table with all the more persistency because, since the return of Monsieur Mignon, Latournelle and Dumay had allowed themselves to play for ten sous points.

“Well, my little darling,” said the father to the daughter in the embrasure of a window. “Admit that papa thinks of everything. If you send your orders this evening to your former dressmaker in Paris, and all your other furnishing people, you shall show yourself eight days hence in all the splendor of an heiress. Meantime we will install ourselves in the villa. You already have a pretty horse, now order a habit; you owe that amount of civility to the grand equerry.”

“All the more because there will be a number of us to ride,” said Modeste, who was recovering the colors of health.

“The secretary did not say much,” remarked Madame Mignon.

“A little fool,” said Madame Latournelle; “the poet has an attentive word for everybody. He thanked Monsieur Latournelle for his help in choosing the house; and said he must have taken counsel with a woman of good taste. But the other looked as gloomy as a Spaniard, and kept his eyes fixed on Modeste as though he would like to swallow her whole. If he had even looked at me I should have been afraid of him.”

“He had a pleasant voice,” said Madame Mignon.

“No doubt he came to Havre to inquire about the Mignons in the interests of his friend the poet,” said Modeste, looking furtively at her father. “It was certainly he whom we saw in church.”

Madame Dumay and Monsieur and Madame Latournelle, accepted this as the natural explanation of Ernest’s journey.

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