Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



At this instant Butscha, the hidden prompter of the fishing part, was requesting the secretary to say nothing about his trip to Paris, and not to interfere in any way with what he, Butscha, might do. The dwarf had already made use of an unfavorable feeling lately roused against Monsieur Mignon in Havre in consequence of his reserve and his determination to keep silence as to the amount of his fortune. The persons who were most bitter against him even declared calumniously that he had made over a large amount of property to Dumay to save it from the just demands of his associates in China. Butscha took advantage of this state of feeling. He asked the fishermen, who owed him many a good turn, to keep the secret and lend him their tongues. They served him well. The captain of the fishing-smack told Germain that one of his cousins, a sailor, had just returned from Marseilles, where he had been paid off from the brig in which Monsieur Mignon returned to France. The brig had been sold to the account of some other person than Monsieur Mignon, and the cargo was only worth three or four hundred thousand francs at the utmost.

“Germain,” said Canalis, as the valet was leaving the room, “serve champagne and claret. A member of the legal fraternity of Havre must carry away with him proper ideas of a poet’s hospitality. Besides, he has got a wit that is equal to Figaro’s,” added Canalis, laying his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder, “and we must make it foam and sparkle with champagne; you and I, Ernest, will not spare the bottle either. Faith, it is over two years since I’ve been drunk,” he added, looking at La Briere.

“Not drunk with wine, you mean,” said Butscha, looking keenly at him, “yes, I can believe that. You get drunk every day on yourself, you drink in so much praise. Ha, you are handsome, you are a poet, you are famous in your lifetime, you have the gift of an eloquence that is equal to your genius, and you please all women — even my master’s wife. Admired by the finest sultana-valide that I ever saw in my life (and I never saw but her) you can, if you choose, marry Mademoiselle de La Bastie. Goodness! the mere inventory of your present advantages, not to speak of the future (a noble title, peerage, embassy!), is enough to make me drunk already — like the men who bottle other men’s wine.”

“All such social distinctions,” said Canalis, “are of little use without the one thing that gives them value — wealth. Here we can talk as men with men; fine sentiments only do in verse.”

“That depends on circumstances,” said the dwarf, with a knowing gesture.

“Ah! you writer of conveyances,” said the poet, smiling at the interruption, “you know as well as I do that ‘cottage’ rhymes with ‘pottage,’— and who would like to live on that for the rest of his days?”

At table Butscha played the part of Trigaudin, in the “Maison en loterie,” in a way that alarmed Ernest, who did not know the waggery of a lawyer’s office, which is quite equal to that of an atelier. Butscha poured forth the scandalous gossip of Havre, the private history of fortune and boudoirs, and the crimes committed code in hand, which are called in Normandy, “getting out of a thing as best you can.” He spared no one; and his liveliness increased with the torrents of wine which poured down his throat like rain through a gutter.

“Do you know, La Briere,” said Canalis, filling Butscha’s glass, “that this fellow would make a capital secretary to the embassy?”

“And oust his chief!” cried the dwarf flinging a look at Canalis whose insolence was lost in the gurgling of carbonic acid gas. “I’ve little enough gratitude and quite enough scheming to get astride of your shoulders. Ha, ha, a poet carrying a hunchback! that’s been seen, often seen — on book-shelves. Come, don’t look at me as if I were swallowing swords. My dear great genius, you’re a superior man; you know that gratitude is the word of fools; they stick it in the dictionary, but it isn’t in the human heart; pledges are worth nothing, except on a certain mount that is neither Pindus nor Parnassus. You think I owe a great deal to my master’s wife, who brought me up. Bless you, the whole town has paid her for that in praises, respect, and admiration — the very best of coin. I don’t recognize any service that is only the capital of self-love. Men make a commerce of their services, and gratitude goes down on the debit side — that’s all. As to schemes, they are my divinity. What?” he exclaimed, at a gesture of Canalis, “don’t you admire the faculty which enables a wily man to get the better of a man of genius? it takes the closest observation of his vices, and his weaknesses, and the wit to seize the happy moment. Ask diplomacy if its greatest triumphs are not those of craft over force? If I were your secretary, Monsieur le baron, you’d soon be prime-minister, because it would be my interest to have you so. Do you want a specimen of my talents in that line? Well then, listen; you love Mademoiselle Modeste distractedly, and you’ve good reason to do so. The girl has my fullest esteem; she is a true Parisian. Sometimes we get a few real Parisians born down here in the provinces. Well, Modeste is just the woman to help a man’s career. She’s got that in her,” he cried, with a turn of his wrist in the air. “But you’ve a dangerous competitor in the duke; what will you give me to get him out of Havre within three days?”

“Finish this bottle,” said the poet, refilling Butscha’s glass.

“You’ll make me drunk,” said the dwarf, tossing off his ninth glass of champagne. “Have you a bed where I could sleep it off? My master is as sober as the camel that he is, and Madame Latournelle too. They are brutal enough, both of them, to scold me; and they’d have the rights of it too — there are those deeds I ought to be drawing! —” Then, suddenly returning to his previous ideas, after the fashion of a drunken man, he exclaimed, “and I’ve such a memory; it is on a par with my gratitude.”

“Butscha!” cried the poet, “you said just now you had no gratitude; you contradict yourself.”

“Not at all,” he replied. “To forget a thing means almost always recollecting it. Come, come, do you want me to get rid of the duke? I’m cut out for a secretary.”

“How could you manage it?” said Canalis, delighted to find the conversation taking this turn of its own accord.

“That’s none of your business,” said the dwarf, with a portentous hiccough.

Butscha’s head rolled between his shoulders, and his eyes turned from Germain to La Briere, and from La Briere to Canalis, after the manner of men who, knowing they are tipsy, wish to see what other men are thinking of them; for in the shipwreck of drunkenness it is noticeable that self-love is the last thing that goes to the bottom.

“Ha! my great poet, you’re a pretty good trickster yourself; but you are not deep enough. What do you mean by taking me for one of your own readers — you who sent your friend to Paris, full gallop, to inquire into the property of the Mignon family? Ha, ha! I hoax, thou hoaxest, we hoax — Good! But do me the honor to believe that I’m deep enough to keep the secrets of my own business. As the head-clerk of a notary, my heart is a locked box, padlocked! My mouth never opens to let out anything about a client. I know all, and I know nothing. Besides, my passion is well known. I love Modeste; she is my pupil, and she must make a good marriage. I’ll fool the duke, if need be; and you shall marry —”

“Germain, coffee and liqueurs,” said Canalis.

“Liqueurs!” repeated Butscha with a wave of his hand, and the air of a sham virgin repelling seduction; “Ah, those poor deeds! one of ’em was a marriage contract; and that second clerk of mine is as stupid as — as — an epithalamium, and he’s capable of digging his penknife right through the bride’s paraphernalia; he thinks he’s a handsome man because he’s five feet six — idiot!”

“Here is some creme de the, a liqueur of the West Indies,” said Canalis. “You, whom Mademoiselle Modeste consults —”

“Yes, she consults me.”

“Well, do you think she loves me?” asked the poet.

“Loves you? yes, more than she loves the duke,” answered the dwarf, rousing himself from a stupor which was admirably played. “She loves you for your disinterestedness. She told me she was ready to make the greatest sacrifices for your sake; to give up dress and spend as little as possible on herself, and devote her life to showing you that in marrying her you hadn’t done so” (hiccough) “bad a thing for yourself. She’s as right as a trivet — yes, and well informed. She knows everything, that girl.”

“And she has three hundred thousand francs?”

“There may be quite as much as that,” cried the dwarf, enthusiastically. “Papa Mignon — mignon by name, mignon by nature, and that’s why I respect him — well, he would rob himself of everything to marry his daughter. Your Restoration” (hiccough) “has taught him how to live on half-pay; he’d be quite content to live with Dumay on next to nothing, if he could rake and scrape enough together to give the little one three hundred thousand francs. But don’t let’s forget that Dumay is going to leave all his money to Modeste. Dumay, you know, is a Breton, and that fact clinches the matter; he won’t go back from his word, and his fortune is equal to the colonel’s. But I don’t approve of Monsieur Mignon’s taking back that villa, and, as they often ask my advice, I told them so. ‘You sink too much in it,’ I said; ‘if Vilquin does not buy it back there’s two hundred thousand francs which won’t bring you a penny; it only leaves you a hundred thousand to get along with, and it isn’t enough.’ The colonel and Dumay are consulting about it now. But nevertheless, between you and me, Modeste is sure to be rich. I hear talk on the quays against it; but that’s all nonsense; people are jealous. Why, there’s no such ‘dot’ in Havre,” cried Butscha, beginning to count on his fingers. “Two to three hundred thousand in ready money,” bending back the thumb of his left hand with the forefinger of his right, “that’s one item; the reversion of the villa Mignon, that’s another; ‘tertio,’ Dumay’s property!” doubling down his middle finger. “Ha! little Modeste may count upon her six hundred thousand francs as soon as the two old soldiers have got their marching orders for eternity.”

This coarse and candid statement, intermingled with a variety of liqueurs, sobered Canalis as much as it appeared to befuddle Butscha. To the latter, a young provincial, such a fortune must of course seem colossal. He let his head fall into the palm of his right hand, and putting his elbows majestically on the table, blinked his eyes and continued talking to himself:—

“In twenty years, thanks to that Code, which pillages fortunes under what they call ‘Successions,’ an heiress worth a million will be as rare as generosity in a money-lender. Suppose Modeste does want to spend all the interest of her own money — well, she is so pretty, so sweet and pretty; why she’s — you poets are always after metaphors — she’s a weasel as tricky as a monkey.”

“How came you to tell me she had six millions?” said Canalis to La Briere, in a low voice.

“My friend,” said Ernest, “I do assure you that I was bound to silence by an oath; perhaps, even now, I ought not to say as much as that.”

“Bound! to whom?”

“To Monsieur Mignon.”

“Ernest! you who know how essential fortune is to me —”

Butscha snored.

“— who know my situation, and all that I shall lose in the Duchesse de Chaulieu, by this attempt at marrying, YOU could coldly let me plunge into such a thing as this?” exclaimed Canalis, turning pale. “It was a question of friendship; and ours was a compact entered into long before you ever saw that crafty Mignon.”

“My dear fellow,” said Ernest, “I love Modeste too well to —”

“Fool! then take her,” cried the poet, “and break your oath.”

“Will you promise me on your word of honor to forget what I now tell you, and to behave to me as though this confidence had never been made, whatever happens?”

“I’ll swear that, by my mother’s memory.”

“Well then,” said La Briere, “Monsieur Mignon told me in Paris that he was very far from having the colossal fortune which the Mongenods told me about and which I mentioned to you. The colonel intends to give two hundred thousand francs to his daughter. And now, Melchior, I ask you, was the father really distrustful of us, as you thought; or was he sincere? It is not for me to answer those questions. If Modeste without a fortune deigns to choose me, she will be my wife.”

“A blue-stocking! educated till she is a terror! a girl who has read everything, who knows everything — in theory,” cried Canalis, hastily, noticing La Briere’s gesture, “a spoiled child, brought up in luxury in her childhood, and weaned of it for five years. Ah! my poor friend, take care what you are about.”

“Ode and Code,” said Butscha, waking up, “you do the ode and I the code; there’s only a C’s difference between us. Well, now, code comes from ‘coda,’ a tail — mark that word! See here! a bit of good advice is worth your wine and your cream of tea. Father Mignon — he’s cream, too; the cream of honest men — he is going with his daughter on this riding party; do you go up frankly and talk ‘dot’ to him. He’ll answer plainly, and you’ll get at the truth, just as surely as I’m drunk, and you’re a great poet — but no matter for that; we are to leave Havre together, that’s settled, isn’t it? I’m to be your secretary in place of that little fellow who sits there grinning at me and thinking I’m drunk. Come, let’s go, and leave him to marry the girl.”

Canalis rose to leave the room to dress for the excursion.

“Hush, not a word — he is going to commit suicide,” whispered Butscha, sober as a judge, to La Briere as he made the gesture of a street boy at Canalis’s back. “Adieu, my chief!” he shouted, in stentorian tones, “will you allow me to take a snooze in that kiosk down in the garden?”

“Make yourself at home,” answered the poet.

Butscha, pursued by the laughter of the three servants of the establishment, gained the kiosk by walking over the flower-beds and round the vases with the perverse grace of an insect describing its interminable zig-zags as it tries to get out of a closed window. When he had clambered into the kiosk, and the servants had retired, he sat down on a wooden bench and wallowed in the delights of his triumph. He had completely fooled a great man; he had not only torn off his mask, but he had made him untie the strings himself; and he laughed like an author over his own play — that is to say, with a true sense of the immense value of his “vis comica.”

“Men are tops!” he cried, “you’ve only to find the twine to wind ’em up with. But I’m like my fellows,” he added, presently. “I should faint away if any one came and said to me ‘Mademoiselle Modeste has been thrown from her horse, and has broken her leg.’”

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