Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



“Do you know, Ernest,” cried Canalis, when they had driven a short distance from the house, “I don’t see any marriageable woman in society in Paris who compares with that adorable girl.”

“Ah, that ends it!” replied Ernest. “She loves you, or she will love you if you desire it. Your fame won half the battle. Well, you may now have it all your own way. You shall go there alone in future. Modeste despises me; she is right to do so; and I don’t see any reason why I should condemn myself to see, to love, desire, and adore that which I can never possess.”

After a few consoling remarks, dashed with his own satisfaction at having made a new version of Caesar’s phrase, Canalis divulged a desire to break with the Duchesse de Chaulieu. La Briere, totally unable to keep up the conversation, made the beauty of the night an excuse to be set down, and then rushed like one possessed to the seashore, where he stayed till past ten, in a half-demented state, walking hurriedly up and down, talking aloud in broken sentences, sometimes standing still or sitting down, without noticing the uneasiness of two custom-house officers who were on the watch. After loving Modeste’s wit and intellect and her aggressive frankness, he now joined adoration of her beauty — that is to say, love without reason, love inexplicable — to all the other reasons which had drawn him ten days earlier, to the church in Havre.

He returned to the Chalet, where the Pyrenees hounds barked at him till he was forced to relinquish the pleasure of gazing at Modeste’s windows. In love, such things are of no more account to the lover than the work which is covered by the last layer of color is to an artist; yet they make up the whole of love, just as the hidden toil is the whole of art. Out of them arise the great painter and the true lover whom the woman and the public end, sometimes too late, by adoring.

“Well then!” he cried aloud, “I will stay, I will suffer, I will love her for myself only, in solitude. Modeste shall be my sun, my life; I will breathe with her breath, rejoice in her joys and bear her griefs, be she even the wife of that egoist, Canalis.”

“That’s what I call loving, monsieur,” said a voice which came from a shrub by the side of the road. “Ha, ha, so all the world is in love with Mademoiselle de La Bastie?”

And Butscha suddenly appeared and looked at La Briere. La Briere checked his anger when, by the light of the moon, he saw the dwarf, and he made a few steps without replying.

“Soldiers who serve in the same company ought to be good comrades,” remarked Butscha. “You don’t love Canalis; neither do I.”

“He is my friend,” replied Ernest.

“Ha, you are the little secretary?”

“You are to know, monsieur, that I am no man’s secretary. I have the honor to be of counsel to a supreme court of this kingdom.”

“I have the honor to salute Monsieur de La Briere,” said Butscha. “I myself have the honor to be head clerk to Latournelle, chief councillor of Havre, and my position is a better one than yours. Yes, I have had the happiness of seeing Mademoiselle Modeste de La Bastie nearly every evening for the last four years, and I expect to live near her, as a king’s servant lives in the Tuileries. If they offered me the throne of Russia I should answer, ‘I love the sun too well.’ Isn’t that telling you, monsieur, that I care more for her than for myself? I am looking after her interests with the most honorable intentions. Do you believe that the proud Duchesse de Chaulieu would cast a favorable eye on the happiness of Madame de Canalis if her waiting-woman, who is in love with Monsieur Germain, not liking that charming valet’s absence in Havre, were to say to her mistress while brushing her hair —”

“Who do you know about all this?” said La Briere, interrupting Butscha.

“In the first place, I am clerk to a notary,” answered Butscha. “But haven’t you seen my hump? It is full of resources, monsieur. I have made myself cousin to Mademoiselle Philoxene Jacmin, born at Honfleur, where my mother was born, a Jacmin — there are eight branches of the Jacmins at Honfleur. So my cousin Philoxene, enticed by the bait of a highly improbable fortune, has told me a good many things.”

“The duchess is vindictive?” said La Briere.

“Vindictive as a queen, Philoxene says; she has never yet forgiven the duke for being nothing more than her husband,” replied Butscha. “She hates as she loves. I know all about her character, her tastes, her toilette, her religion, and her manners; for Philoxene stripped her for me, soul and corset. I went to the opera expressly to see her, and I didn’t grudge the ten francs it cost me — I don’t mean the play. If my imaginary cousin had not told me the duchess had seen her fifty summers, I should have thought I was over-generous in giving her thirty; she has never known a winter, that duchess!”

“Yes,” said La Briere, “she is a cameo — preserved because it is stone. Canalis would be in a bad way if the duchess were to find out what he is doing here; and I hope, monsieur, that you will go no further in this business of spying, which is unworthy of an honest man.”

“Monsieur,” said Butscha, proudly; “for me Modeste is my country. I do not spy; I foresee, I take precautions. The duchess will come here if it is desirable, or she will stay tranquilly where she is, according to what I judge best.”



“And how, pray?”

“Ha, that’s it!” said the little hunchback, plucking a blade of grass. “See here! this herb believes that men build palaces for it to grow in; it wedges its way between the closest blocks of marble, and brings them down, just as the masses forced into the edifice of feudality have brought it to the ground. The power of the feeble life that can creep everywhere is greater than that of the mighty behind their cannons. I am one of three who have sworn that Modeste shall be happy, and we would sell our honor for her. Adieu, monsieur. If you truly love Mademoiselle de La Bastie, forget this conversation and shake hands with me, for I think you’ve got a heart. I longed to see the Chalet, and I got here just as SHE was putting out her light. I saw the dogs rush at you, and I overheard your words, and that is why I take the liberty of saying we serve in the same regiment — that of loyal devotion.”

“Monsieur,” said La Briere, wringing the hunchback’s hand, “would you have the friendliness to tell me if Mademoiselle Modeste ever loved any one WITH LOVE before she wrote to Canalis?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Butscha in an altered voice; “that thought is an insult. And even now, who knows if she really loves? does she know herself? She is enamored of genius, of the soul and intellect of that seller of verses, that literary quack; but she will study him, we shall all study him; and I know how to make the man’s real character peep out from under that turtle-shell of fine manners — we’ll soon see the petty little head of his ambition and his vanity!” cried Butscha, rubbing his hands. “So, unless mademoiselle is desperately taken with him —”

“Oh! she was seized with admiration when she saw him, as if he were something marvellous,” exclaimed La Briere, letting the secret of his jealousy escape him.

“If he is a loyal, honest fellow, and loves her; if he is worthy of her; if he renounces his duchess,” said Butscha — “then I’ll manage the duchess! Here, my dear sir, take this road, and you will get home in ten minutes.”

But as they parted, Butscha turned back and hailed poor Ernest, who, as a true lover, would gladly have stayed there all night talking of Modeste.

“Monsieur,” said Butscha, “I have not yet had the honor of seeing our great poet. I am very curious to observe that magnificent phenomenon in the exercise of his functions. Do me the favor to bring him to the Chalet tomorrow evening, and stay as long as possible; for it takes more than an hour for a man to show himself for what he is. I shall be the first to see if he loves, if he can love, or if he ever will love Mademoiselle Modeste.”

“You are very young to —”

“— to be a professor,” said Butscha, cutting short La Briere. “Ha, monsieur, deformed folks are born a hundred years old. And besides, a sick man who has long been sick, knows more than his doctor; he knows the disease, and that is more than can be said for the best of doctors. Well, so it is with a man who cherishes a woman in his heart when the woman is forced to disdain him for his ugliness or his deformity; he ends by knowing so much of love that he becomes seductive, just as the sick man recovers his health; stupidity alone is incurable. I have had neither father nor mother since I was six years old; I am now twenty-five. Public charity has been my mother, the procureur du roi my father. Oh! don’t be troubled,” he added, seeing Ernest’s gesture; “I am much more lively than my situation. Well, for the last six years, ever since a woman’s eye first told me I had no right to love, I do love, and I study women. I began with the ugly ones, for it is best to take the bull by the horns. So I took my master’s wife, who has certainly been an angel to me, for my first study. Perhaps I did wrong; but I couldn’t help it. I passed her through my alembic and what did I find? this thought, crouching at the bottom of her heart, ‘I am not so ugly as they think me’; and if a man were to work upon that thought he could bring her to the edge of the abyss, pious as she is.”

“And have you studied Modeste?”

“I thought I told you,” replied Butscha, “that my life belongs to her, just as France belongs to the king. Do you now understand what you called my spying in Paris? No one but me really knows what nobility, what pride, what devotion, what mysterious grace, what unwearying kindness, what true religion, gaiety, wit, delicacy, knowledge, and courtesy there are in the soul and in the heart of that adorable creature!”

Butscha drew out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes, and La Briere pressed his hand for a long time.

“I live in the sunbeam of her existence; it comes from her, it is absorbed in me; that is how we are united — as nature is to God, by the Light and by the Word. Adieu, monsieur; never in my life have I talked in this way; but seeing you beneath her windows, I felt in my heart that you loved her as I love her.”

Without waiting for an answer Butscha quitted the poor lover, into whose heart his words had put an inexpressible balm. Ernest resolved to make a friend of him, not suspecting that the chief object of the clerk’s loquacity was to gain communication with some one connected with Canalis. Ernest was rocked to sleep that night by the ebb and flow of thoughts and resolutions and plans for his future conduct, whereas Canalis slept the sleep of the conqueror, which is the sweetest of slumbers after that of the just.

At breakfast next morning, the friends agreed to spend the evening of the following day at the Chalet and initiate themselves into the delights of provincial whist. To get rid of the day they ordered their horses, purchased by Germain at a large price, and started on a voyage of discovery round the country, which was quite as unknown to them as China; for the most foreign thing to Frenchmen in France is France itself.

By dint of reflecting on his position as an unfortunate and despised lover, Ernest went through something of the same process as Modeste’s first letter had forced upon him. Though sorrow is said to develop virtue, it only develops it in virtuous persons; that cleaning-out of the conscience takes place only in persons who are by nature clean. La Briere vowed to endure his sufferings in Spartan silence, to act worthily, and give way to no baseness; while Canalis, fascinated by the enormous “dot,” was telling himself to take every means of captivating the heiress. Selfishness and devotion, the key-notes of the two characters, therefore took, by the action of a moral law which is often very odd in its effects, certain measures that were contrary to their respective natures. The selfish man put on self-abnegation; the man who thought chiefly of others took refuge on the Aventinus of pride. That phenomenon is often seen in political life. Men frequently turn their characters wrong side out, and it sometimes happens that the public is unable to tell which is the right side.

After dinner the two friends heard of the arrival of the grand equerry, who was presented at the Chalet the same evening by Latournelle. Mademoiselle d’Herouville had contrived to wound that worthy man by sending a footmen to tell him to come to her, instead of sending her nephew in person; thus depriving the notary of a distinguished visit he would certainly have talked about for the rest of his natural life. So Latournelle curtly informed the grand equerry, when he proposed to drive him to the Chalet, that he was engaged to take Madame Latournelle. Guessing from the little man’s sulky manner that there was some blunder to repair, the duke said graciously:—

“Then I shall have the pleasure, if you will allow me, of taking Madame Latournelle also.”

Disregarding Mademoiselle d’Herouville’s haughty shrug, the duke left the room with the notary. Madame Latournelle, half-crazed with joy at seeing the gorgeous carriage at her door, with footmen in royal livery letting down the steps, was too agitated on hearing that the grand equerry had called for her, to find her gloves, her parasol, her absurdity, or her usual air of pompous dignity. Once in the carriage, however, and while expressing confused thanks and civilities to the little duke, she suddenly exclaimed, from a thought in her kind heart —

“But Butscha, where is he?”

“Let us take Butscha,” said the duke, smiling.

When the people on the quays, attracted in groups by the splendor of the royal equipage, saw the funny spectacle, the three little men with the spare gigantic woman, they looked at one another and laughed.

“If you melt all three together, they might make one man fit to mate with that big cod-fish,” said a sailor from Bordeaux.

“Is there any other thing you would like to take with you, madame?” asked the duke, jestingly, while the footman awaited his orders.

“No, monseigneur,” she replied, turning scarlet and looking at her husband as much as to say, “What did I do wrong?”

“Monsieur le duc honors me by considering that I am a thing,” said Butscha; “a poor clerk is usually thought to be a nonentity.”

Though this was said with a laugh, the duke colored and did not answer. Great people are to blame for joking with their social inferiors. Jesting is a game, and games presuppose equality; it is to obviate any inconvenient results of this temporary equality that players have the right, after the game is over, not to recognize each other.

The visit of the grand equerry had the ostensible excuse of an important piece of business; namely, the retrieval of an immense tract of waste land left by the sea between the mouths of the two rivers, which tract had just been adjudged by the Council of State to the house of Herouville. The matter was nothing less than putting flood-gates with double bridges, draining three or four hundred acres, cutting canals, and laying out roadways. When the duke had explained the condition of the land, Charles Mignon remarked that time must be allowed for the soil, which was still moving, to settle and grow solid in a natural way.

“Time, which has providentially enriched your house, Monsieur le duc, can alone complete the work,” he said, in conclusion. “It would be prudent to let fifty years elapse before you reclaim the land.”

“Do not let that be your final word, Monsieur le comte,” said the duke. “Come to Herouville and see things for yourself.”

Charles Mignon replied that every capitalist should take time to examine into such matters with a cool head, thus giving the duke a pretext for his visits to the Chalet. The sight of Modeste made a lively impression on the young man, and he asked the favor of receiving her at Herouville with her father, saying that his sister and his aunt had heard much of her, and wished to make her acquaintance. On this the count proposed to present his daughter to those ladies himself, and invited the whole party to dinner on the day of his return to the villa. The duke accepted the invitation. The blue ribbon, the title, and above all, the ecstatic glances of the noble gentleman had an effect upon Modeste; but she appeared to great advantage in carriage, dignity, and conversation. The duke withdrew reluctantly, carrying with him an invitation to visit the Chalet every evening — an invitation based on the impossibility of a courtier of Charles X. existing for a single evening without his rubber.

The following evening, therefore, Modeste was to see all three of her lovers. No matter what young girls may say, and though the logic of the heart may lead them to sacrifice everything to preference, it is extremely flattering to their self-love to see a number of rival adorers around them — distinguished or celebrated men, or men of ancient lineage — all endeavoring to shine and to please. Suffer as Modeste may in general estimation, it must be told she subsequently admitted that the sentiments expressed in her letters paled before the pleasure of seeing three such different minds at war with one another, — three men who, taken separately, would each have done honor to the most exacting family. Yet this luxury of self-love was checked by a misanthropical spitefulness, resulting from the terrible wound she had received — although by this time she was beginning to think of that wound as a disappointment only. So when her father said to her, laughing, “Well, Modeste, do you want to be a duchess?” she answered, with a mocking curtsey —

“Sorrows have made me philosophical.”

“Do you mean to be only a baroness?” asked Butscha.

“Or a viscountess?” said her father.

“How could that be?” she asked quickly.

“If you accept Monsieur de La Briere, he has enough merit and influence to obtain permission from the king to bear my titles and arms.”

“Oh, if it comes to disguising himself, he will not make any difficulty,” said Modeste, scornfully.

Butscha did not understand this epigram, whose meaning could only be guessed by Monsieur and Madame Mignon and Dumay.

“When it is a question of marriage, all men disguise themselves,” remarked Latournelle, “and women set them the example. I’ve heard it said ever since I came into the world that ‘Monsieur this or Mademoiselle that has made a good marriage,’— meaning that the other side had made a bad one.”

“Marriage,” said Butscha, “is like a lawsuit; there’s always one side discontented. If one dupes the other, certainly half the husbands in the world are playing a comedy at the expense of the other half.”

“From which you conclude, Sieur Butscha?” inquired Modeste.

“To pay the utmost attention to the manoeuvres of the enemy,” answered the clerk.

“What did I tell you, my darling?” said Charles Mignon, alluding to their conversation on the seashore.

“Men play as many parts to get married as mothers make their daughters play to get rid of them,” said Latournelle.

“Then you approve of stratagems?” said Modeste.

“On both sides,” cried Gobenheim, “and that brings it even.”

This conversation was carried on by fits and starts, as they say, in the intervals of cutting and dealing the cards; and it soon turned chiefly on the merits of the Duc d’Herouville, who was thought very good-looking by little Latournelle, little Dumay, and little Butscha. Without the foregoing discussion on the lawfulness of matrimonial tricks, the reader might possibly find the forthcoming account of the evening so impatiently awaited by Butscha, somewhat too long.

Desplein, the famous surgeon, arrived the next morning, and stayed only long enough to send to Havre for fresh horses and have them put-to, which took about an hour. After examining Madame Mignon’s eyes, he decided that she could recover her sight, and fixed a suitable time, a month later, to perform the operation. This important consultation took place before the assembled members of the Chalet, who stood trembling and expectant to hear the verdict of the prince of science. That illustrious member of the Academy of Sciences put about a dozen brief questions to the blind woman as he examined her eyes in the strong light from a window. Modeste was amazed at the value which a man so celebrated attached to time, when she saw the travelling-carriage piled with books which the great surgeon proposed to read during the journey; for he had left Paris the evening before, and had spent the night in sleeping and travelling. The rapidity and clearness of Desplein’s judgment on each answer made by Madame Mignon, his succinct tone, his decisive manner, gave Modeste her first real idea of a man of genius. She perceived the enormous difference between a second-rate man, like Canalis, and Desplein, who was even more than a superior man. A man of genius finds in the consciousness of his talent and in the solidity of his fame an arena of his own, where his legitimate pride can expand and exercise itself without interfering with others. Moreover, his perpetual struggle with men and things leave them no time for the coxcombry of fashionable genius, which makes haste to gather in the harvests of a fugitive season, and whose vanity and self-love are as petty and exacting as a custom-house which levies tithes on all that comes in its way.

Modeste was the more enchanted by this great practical genius, because he was evidently charmed with the exquisite beauty of Modeste — he, through whose hands so many women had passed, and who had long since examined the sex, as it were, with magnifier and scalpel.

“It would be a sad pity,” he said, with an air of gallantry which he occasionally put on, and which contrasted with his assumed brusqueness, “if a mother were deprived of the sight of so charming a daughter.”

Modeste insisted on serving the simple breakfast which was all the great surgeon would accept. She accompanied her father and Dumay to the carriage stationed at the garden-gate, and said to Desplein at parting, her eyes shining with hope —

“And will my dear mamma really see me?”

“Yes, my little sprite, I’ll promise you that,” he answered, smiling; “and I am incapable of deceiving you, for I, too, have a daughter.”

The horses started and carried him off as he uttered the last words with unexpected grace and feeling. Nothing is more charming than the peculiar unexpectedness of persons of talent.

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