Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The game opened with the baron and the duke, Gobenheim and Latournelle as partners. Modeste took a seat near the poet, to Ernest’s deep disappointment; he watched the face of the wayward girl, and marked the progress of the fascination which Canalis exerted over her. La Briere had not the gift of seduction which Melchior possessed. Nature frequently denies it to true hearts, who are, as a rule, timid. This gift demands fearlessness, an alacrity of ways and means that might be called the trapeze of the mind; a little mimicry goes with it; in fact there is always, morally speaking, something of the comedian in a poet. There is a vast difference between expressing sentiments we do not feel, though we may imagine all their variations, and feigning to feel them when bidding for success on the theatre of private life. And yet, though the necessary hypocrisy of a man of the world may have gangrened a poet, he ends by carrying the faculties of his talent into the expression of any required sentiment, just as a great man doomed to solitude ends by infusing his heart into his mind.

“He is after the millions,” thought La Briere, sadly; “and he can play passion so well that Modeste will believe him.”

Instead of endeavoring to appear more amiable and wittier than his rival, Ernest imitated the Duc d’Herouville, and was gloomy, anxious, and watchful; but whereas the courier studied the freaks of the young heiress, Ernest simply fell a prey to the pains of dark and concentrated jealousy. He had not yet been able to obtain a glance from his idol. After a while he left the room with Butscha.

“It is all over!” he said; “she is caught by him; I am more disagreeable to her, and moreover, she is right. Canalis is charming; there’s intellect in his silence, passion in his eyes, poetry in his rhodomontades.”

“Is he an honest man?” asked Butscha.

“Oh, yes,” replied La Briere. “He is loyal and chivalrous, and capable of getting rid, under Modeste’s influence, of those affectations which Madame de Chaulieu has taught him.”

“You are a fine fellow,” said the hunchback; “but is he capable of loving — will he love her?”

“I don’t know,” answered La Briere. “Has she said anything about me?” he asked after a moment’s silence.

“Yes,” said Butscha, and he repeated Modeste’s speech about disguises.

Poor Ernest flung himself upon a bench and held his head in his hands. He could not keep back his tears, and he did not wish Butscha to see them; but the dwarf was the very man to guess his emotion.

“What troubles you?” he asked.

“She is right!” cried Ernest, springing up; “I am a wretch.”

And he related the deception into which Canalis had led him when Modeste’s first letter was received, carefully pointing out to Butscha that he had wished to undeceive the young girl before she herself took off the mask, and apostrophizing, in rather juvenile fashion, his luckless destiny. Butscha sympathetically understood the love in the flavor and vigor of his simple language, and in his deep and genuine anxiety.

“But why don’t you show yourself to Mademoiselle Modeste for what you are?” he said; “why do you let your rival do his exercises?”

“Have you never felt your throat tighten when you wished to speak to her?” cried La Briere; “is there never a strange feeling in the roots of your hair and on the surface of your skin when she looks at you, — even if she is thinking of something else?”

“But you had sufficient judgment to show displeasure when she as good as told her excellent father that he was a dolt.”

“Monsieur, I love her too well not to have felt a knife in my heart when I heard her contradicting her own perfections.”

“Canalis supported her.”

“If she had more self-love than heart there would be nothing for a man to regret in losing her,” answered La Briere.

At this moment, Modeste, followed by Canalis, who had lost the rubber, came out with her father and Madame Dumay to breathe the fresh air of the starry night. While his daughter walked about with the poet, Charles Mignon left her and came up to La Briere.

“Your friend, monsieur, ought to have been a lawyer,” he said, smiling and looking attentively at the young man.

“You must not judge a poet as you would an ordinary man — as you would me, for example, Monsieur le comte,” said La Briere. “A poet has a mission. He is obliged by his nature to see the poetry of questions, just as he expresses that of things. When you think him inconsistent with himself he is really faithful to his vocation. He is a painter copying with equal truth a Madonna and a courtesan. Moliere is as true to nature in his old men as in his young ones, and Moliere’s judgment was assuredly a sound and healthy one. These witty paradoxes might be dangerous for second-rate minds, but they have no real influence on the character of great men.”

Charles Mignon pressed La Briere’s hand.

“That adaptability, however, leads a man to excuse himself in his own eyes for actions that are diametrically opposed to each other; above all, in politics.”

“Ah, mademoiselle,” Canalis was at this moment saying, in a caressing voice, replying to a roguish remark of Modeste, “do not think that a multiplicity of emotions can in any way lessen the strength of feelings. Poets, even more than other men, must needs love with constancy and faith. You must not be jealous of what is called the Muse. Happy is the wife of a man whose days are occupied. If you heard the complaints of women who have to endure the burden of an idle husband, either a man without duties, or one so rich as to have nothing to do, you would know that the highest happiness of a Parisian wife is freedom — the right to rule in her own home. Now we writers and men of functions and occupations, we leave the sceptre to our wives; we cannot descend to the tyranny of little minds; we have something better to do. If I ever marry — which I assure you is a catastrophe very remote at the present moment — I should wish my wife to enjoy the same moral freedom that a mistress enjoys, and which is perhaps the real source of her attraction.”

Canalis talked on, displaying the warmth of his fancy and all his graces, for Modeste’s benefit, as he spoke of love, marriage, and the adoration of women, until Monsieur Mignon, who had rejoined them, seized the opportunity of a slight pause to take his daughter’s arm and lead her up to Ernest de La Briere, whom he had been advising to seek an open explanation with her.

“Mademoiselle,” said Ernest, in a voice that was scarcely his own, “it is impossible for me to remain any longer under the weight of your displeasure. I do not defend myself; I do not seek to justify my conduct; I desire only to make you see that before reading your most flattering letter, addressed to the individual and no longer to the poet — the last which you sent to me — I wished, and I told you in my note written at Havre that I wished, to correct the error under which you were acting. All the feelings that I have had the happiness to express to you are sincere. A hope dawned on me in Paris when your father told me he was comparatively poor — but now that all is lost, now that nothing is left for me but endless regrets, why should I stay here where all is torture? Let me carry away with me one smile to live forever in my heart.”

“Monsieur,” answered Modeste, who seemed cold and absent-minded, “I am not the mistress of this house; but I certainly should deeply regret to retain any one where he finds neither pleasure nor happiness.”

She left La Briere and took Madame Dumay’s arm to re-enter the house. A few moments later all the actors in this domestic scene reassembled in the salon, and were a good deal surprised to see Modeste sitting beside the Duc d’Herouville and coquetting with him like an accomplished Parisian woman. She watched his play, gave him the advice he wanted, and found occasion to say flattering things by ranking the merits of noble birth with those of genius and beauty. Canalis thought he knew the reason of this change; he had tried to pique Modeste by calling marriage a catastrophe, and showing that he was aloof from it; but like others who play with fire, he had burned his fingers. Modeste’s pride and her present disdain frightened him, and he endeavored to recover his ground, exhibiting a jealousy which was all the more visible because it was artificial. Modeste, implacable as an angel, tasted the sweets of power, and, naturally enough, abused it. The Duc d’Herouville had never known such a happy evening; a woman smiled on him! At eleven o’clock, an unheard-of hour at the Chalet, the three suitors took their leave — the duke thinking Modeste charming, Canalis believing her excessively coquettish, and La Briere heart-broken by her cruelty.

For eight days the heiress continued to be to her three lovers very much what she had been during that evening; so that the poet appeared to carry the day against his rivals, in spite of certain freaks and caprices which from time to time gave the Duc d’Herouville a little hope. The disrespect she showed to her father, and the great liberties she took with him; her impatience with her blind mother, to whom she seemed to grudge the little services which had once been the delight of her filial piety — seemed the result of a capricious nature and a heedless gaiety indulged from childhood. When Modeste went too far, she turned round and openly took herself to task, ascribing her impertinence and levity to a spirit of independence. She acknowledged to the duke and Canalis her distaste for obedience, and professed to regard it as an obstacle to her marriage; thus investigating the nature of her suitors, after the manner of those who dig into the earth in search of metals, coal, tufa, or water.

“I shall never,” she said, the evening before the day on which the family were to move into the villa, “find a husband who will put up with my caprices as my father does; his kindness never flags. I am sure no one will ever be as indulgent to me as my precious mother.”

“They know that you love them, mademoiselle,” said La Briere.

“You may be very sure, mademoiselle, that your husband will know the full value of his treasure,” added the duke.

“You have spirit and resolution enough to discipline a husband,” cried Canalis, laughing.

Modeste smiled as Henri IV. must have smiled after drawing out the characters of his three principal ministers, for the benefit of a foreign ambassador, by means of three answers to an insidious question.

On the day of the dinner, Modeste, led away by the preference she bestowed on Canalis, walked alone with him up and down the gravelled space which lay between the house and the lawn with its flower-beds. From the gestures of the poet, and the air and manner of the young heiress, it was easy to see that she was listening favorably to him. The two demoiselles d’Herouville hastened to interrupt the scandalous tete-a-tete; and with the natural cleverness of women under such circumstances, they turned the conversation on the court, and the distinction of an appointment under the crown — pointing out the difference that existed between appointments in the household of the king and those of the crown. They tried to intoxicate Modeste’s mind by appealing to her pride, and describing one of the highest stations to which a woman could aspire.

“To have a duke for a son,” said the elder lady, “is an actual advantage. The title is a fortune that we secure to our children without the possibility of loss.”

“How is it, then,” said Canalis, displeased at his tete-a-tete being thus broken in upon, “that Monsieur le duc has had so little success in a matter where his title would seem to be of special service to him?”

The two ladies cast a look at Canalis as full of venom as the tooth of a snake, and they were so disconcerted by Modeste’s amused smile that they were actually unable to reply.

“Monsieur le duc has never blamed you,” she said to Canalis, “for the humility with which you bear your fame; why should you attack him for his modesty?”

“Besides, we have never yet met a woman worthy of my nephew’s rank,” said Mademoiselle d’Herouville. “Some had only the wealth of the position; others, without fortune, had the wit and birth. I must admit that we have done well to wait till God granted us an opportunity to meet one in whom we find the noble blood, the mind, and fortune of a Duchesse d’Herouville.”

“My dear Modeste,” said Helene d’Herouville, leading her new friend apart, “there are a thousand barons in the kingdom, just as there are a hundred poets in Paris, who are worth as much as he; he is so little of a great man that even I, a poor girl forced to take the veil for want of a ‘dot,’ I would not take him. You don’t know what a young man is who has been for ten years in the hands of a Duchesse de Chaulieu. None but an old woman of sixty could put up with the little ailments of which, they say, the great poet is always complaining — a habit in Louis XIV. that became a perfectly insupportable annoyance. It is true the duchess does not suffer from it as much as a wife, who would have him always about her.”

Then, practising a well-known manoeuvre peculiar to her sex, Helene d’Herouville repeated in a low voice all the calumnies which women jealous of the Duchesse de Chaulieu were in the habit of spreading about the poet. This little incident, common as it is in the intercourse of women, will serve to show with what fury the hounds were after Modeste’s wealth.

Ten days saw a great change in the opinions at the Chalet as to the three suitors for Mademoiselle de La Bastie’s hand. This change, which was much to the disadvantage of Canalis, came about through considerations of a nature which ought to make the holders of any kind of fame pause, and reflect. No one can deny, if we remember the passion with which people seek for autographs, that public curiosity is greatly excited by celebrity. Evidently most provincials never form an exact idea in their own minds of how illustrious Parisians put on their cravats, walk on the boulevards, stand gaping at nothing, or eat a cutlet; because, no sooner do they perceive a man clothed in the sunbeams of fashion or resplendent with some dignity that is more or less fugitive (though always envied), than they cry out, “Look at that!” “How queer!” and other depreciatory exclamations. In a word, the mysterious charm that attaches to every kind of fame, even that which is most justly due, never lasts. It is, and especially with superficial people who are envious or sarcastic, a sensation which passes off with the rapidity of lightning, and never returns. It would seem as though fame, like the sun, hot and luminous at a distance, is cold as the summit of an alp when you approach it. Perhaps man is only really great to his peers; perhaps the defects inherent in his constitution disappear sooner to the eyes of his equals than to those of vulgar admirers. A poet, if he would please in ordinary life, must put on the fictitious graces of those who are able to make their insignificances forgotten by charming manners and complying speeches. The poet of the faubourg Saint–Germain, who did not choose to bow before this social dictum, was made before long to feel that an insulting provincial indifference had succeeded to the dazed fascination of the earlier evenings. The prodigality of his wit and wisdom had produced upon these worthy souls somewhat the effect which a shopful of glass-ware produces on the eye; in other words, the fire and brilliancy of Canalis’s eloquence soon wearied people who, to use their own words, “cared more for the solid.”

Forced after a while to behave like an ordinary man, the poet found an unexpected stumbling-block on ground where La Briere had already won the suffrage of the worthy people who at first had thought him sulky. They felt the need of compensating themselves for Canalis’s reputation by preferring his friend. The best of men are influenced by such feelings as these. The simple and straightforward young fellow jarred no one’s self-love; coming to know him better they discovered his heart, his modesty, his silent and sure discretion, and his excellent bearing. The Duc d’Herouville considered him, as a political element, far above Canalis. The poet, ill-balanced, ambitious, and restless as Tasso, loved luxury, grandeur, and ran into debt; while the young lawyer, whose character was equable and well-balanced, lived soberly, was useful without proclaiming it, awaited rewards without begging for them, and laid by his money.

Canalis had moreover laid himself open in a special way to the bourgeois eyes that were watching him. For two or three days he had shown signs of impatience; he had given way to depression, to states of melancholy without apparent reason, to those capricious changes of temper which are the natural results of the nervous temperament of poets. These originalities (we use the provincial word) came from the uneasiness that his conduct toward the Duchesse de Chaulieu which grew daily less explainable, caused him. He knew he ought to write to her, but could not resolve on doing so. All these fluctuations were carefully remarked and commented on by the gentle American, and the excellent Madame Latournelle, and they formed the topic of many a discussion between these two ladies and Madame Mignon. Canalis felt the effects of these discussions without being able to explain them. The attention paid to him was not the same, the faces surrounding him no longer wore the entranced look of the earlier days; while at the same time Ernest was evidently gaining ground.

For the last two days the poet had endeavored to fascinate Modeste only, and he took advantage of every moment when he found himself alone with her, to weave the web of passionate language around his love. Modeste’s blush, as she listened to him on the occasion we have just mentioned, showed the demoiselles d’Herouville the pleasure with which she was listening to sweet conceits that were sweetly said; and they, horribly uneasy at the sight, had immediate recourse to the “ultima ratio” of women in such cases, namely, those calumnies which seldom miss their object. Accordingly, when the party met at the dinner-table the poet saw a cloud on the brow of his idol; he knew that Mademoiselle d’Herouville’s malignity allowed him to lose no time, and he resolved to offer himself as a husband at the first moment when he could find himself alone with Modeste.

Overhearing a few acid though polite remarks exchanged between the poet and the two noble ladies, Gobenheim nudged Butscha with his elbow, and said in an undertone, motioning towards the poet and the grand equerry —

“They’ll demolish one another!”

“Canalis has genius enough to demolish himself all alone,” answered the dwarf.

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