Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



An hour later, Modeste, charmingly equipped in a bottle-green cassimere habit, a small hat with a green veil, buckskin gloves, and velvet boots which met the lace frills of her drawers, and mounted on an elegantly caparisoned little horse, was exhibiting to her father and the Duc d’Herouville the beautiful present she had just received; she was evidently delighted with an attention of a kind that particularly flatters women.

“Did it come from you, Monsieur le duc?” she said, holding the sparkling handle toward him. “There was a card with it, saying, ‘Guess if you can,’ and some asterisks. Francoise and Dumay credit Butscha with this charming surprise; but my dear Butscha is not rich enough to buy such rubies. And as for papa (to whom I said, as I remember, on Sunday evening, that I had no whip), he sent to Rouen for this one,” — pointing to a whip in her father’s hand, with a top like a cone of turquoise, a fashion then in vogue which has since become vulgar.

“I would give ten years of my old age, mademoiselle, to have the right to offer you that beautiful jewel,” said the duke, courteously.

“Ah, here comes the audacious giver!” cried Modeste, as Canalis rode up. “It is only a poet who knows where to find such choice things. Monsieur,” she said to Melchior, “my father will scold you, and say that you justify those who accuse you of extravagance.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Canalis, with apparent simplicity, “so that is why La Briere rode at full gallop from Havre to Paris?”

“Does your secretary take such liberties?” said Modeste, turning pale, and throwing the whip to Francoise with an impetuosity that expressed scorn. “Give me your whip, papa.”

“Poor Ernest, who lies there on his bed half-dead with fatigue!” said Canalis, overtaking the girl, who had already started at a gallop. “You are pitiless, mademoiselle. ‘I have’ (the poor fellow said to me) ‘only this one chance to remain in her memory.’”

“And should you think well of a woman who could take presents from half the parish?” said Modeste.

She was surprised to receive no answer to this inquiry, and attributed the poet’s inattention to the noise of the horse’s feet.

“How you delight in tormenting those who love you,” said the duke. “Your nobility of soul and your pride are so inconsistent with your faults that I begin to suspect you calumniate yourself, and do those naughty things on purpose.”

“Ah! have you only just found that out, Monsieur le duc?” she exclaimed, laughing. “You have the sagacity of a husband.”

They rode half a mile in silence. Modeste was a good deal astonished not to receive the fire of the poet’s eyes. The evening before, as she was pointing out to him an admirable effect of setting sunlight across the water, she had said, remarking his inattention, “Well, don’t you see it?”— to which he replied, “I can see only your hand”; but now his admiration for the beauties of nature seemed a little too intense to be natural.

“Does Monsieur de La Briere know how to ride?” she asked, for the purpose of teasing him.

“Not very well, but he gets along,” answered the poet, cold as Gobenheim before the colonel’s return.

At a cross-road, which Monsieur Mignon made them take through a lovely valley to reach a height overlooking the Seine, Canalis let Modeste and the duke pass him, and then reined up to join the colonel.

“Monsieur le comte,” he said, “you are an open-hearted soldier, and I know you will regard my frankness as a title to your esteem. When proposals of marriage, with all their brutal — or, if you please, too civilized — discussions, are carried on by third parties, it is an injury to all. We are both gentlemen, and both discreet; and you, like myself, have passed beyond the age of surprises. Let us therefore speak as intimates. I will set you the example. I am twenty-nine years old, without landed estates, and full of ambition. Mademoiselle Modeste, as you must have perceived, pleases me extremely. Now, in spite of the little defects which your dear girl likes to assume —”

“— not counting those she really possesses,” said the colonel, smiling —

“— I should gladly make her my wife, and I believe I could render her happy. The question of money is of the utmost importance to my future, which hangs today in the balance. All young girls expect to be loved whether or no — fortune or no fortune. But you are not the man to marry your dear Modeste without a ‘dot,’ and my situation does not allow me to make a marriage of what is called love unless with a woman who has a fortune at least equal to mine. I have, from my emoluments and sinecures, from the Academy and from my works, about thirty thousand francs a year, a large income for a bachelor. If my wife brought me as much more, I should still be in about the same condition that I am now. Shall you give Mademoiselle a million?”

“Ah, monsieur, we have not reached that point as yet,” said the colonel, Jesuitically.

“Then suppose,” said Canalis, quickly, “that we go no further; we will let the matter drop. You shall have no cause to complain of me, Monsieur le comte; the world shall consider me among the unfortunate suitors of your charming daughter. Give me your word of honor to say nothing on the subject to any one, not even to Mademoiselle Modeste, because,” he added, throwing a word of promise to the ear, “my circumstances may so change that I can ask you for her without ‘dot.’”

“I promise you that,” said the colonel. “You know, monsieur, with what assurance the public, both in Paris and the provinces, talk of fortunes that they make and unmake. People exaggerate both happiness and unhappiness; we are never so fortunate nor so unfortunate as people say we are. There is nothing sure and certain in business except investments in land. I am awaiting the accounts of my agents with very great impatience. The sale of my merchandise and my ship, and the settlement of my affairs in China, are not yet concluded; and I cannot know the full amount of my fortune for at least six months. I did, however, say to Monsieur de La Briere in Paris that I would guarantee a ‘dot’ of two hundred thousand francs in ready money. I wish to entail my estates, and enable my grandchildren to inherit my arms and title.”

Canalis did not listen to this statement after the opening sentence. The four riders, having now reached a wider road, went abreast and soon reached a stretch of table-land, from which the eye took in on one side the rich valley of the Seine toward Rouen, and on the other an horizon bounded only by the sea.

“Butscha was right, God is the greatest of all landscape painters,” said Canalis, contemplating the view, which is unique among the many fine scenes that have made the shores of the Seine so justly celebrated.

“Above all do we feel that, my dear baron,” said the duke, “on hunting-days, when nature has a voice, and a lively tumult breaks the silence; at such times the landscape, changing rapidly as we ride through it, seems really sublime.”

“The sun is the inexhaustible palette,” said Modeste, looking at the poet in a species of bewilderment.

A remark that she presently made on his absence of mind gave him an opportunity of saying that he was just then absorbed in his own thoughts — an excuse that authors have more reason for giving than other men.

“Are we really made happy by carrying our lives into the midst of the world, and swelling them with all sorts of fictitious wants and over-excited vanities?” said Modeste, moved by the aspect of the fertile and billowy country to long for a philosophically tranquil life.

“That is a bucolic, mademoiselle, which is only written on tablets of gold,” said the poet.

“And sometimes under garret-roofs,” remarked the colonel.

Modeste threw a piercing glance at Canalis, which he was unable to sustain; she was conscious of a ringing in her ears, darkness seemed to spread before her, and then she suddenly exclaimed in icy tones:—

“Ah! it is Wednesday!”

“I do not say this to flatter your passing caprice, mademoiselle,” said the duke, to whom the little scene, so tragical for Modeste, had left time for thought; “but I declare I am so profoundly disgusted with the world and the Court and Paris that had I a Duchesse d’Herouville, gifted with the wit and graces of mademoiselle, I would gladly bind myself to live like a philosopher at my chateau, doing good around me, draining my marshes, educating my children —”

“That, Monsieur le duc, will be set to the account of your great goodness,” said Modeste, letting her eyes rest steadily on the noble gentleman. “You flatter me in not thinking me frivolous, and in believing that I have enough resources within myself to be able to live in solitude. It is perhaps my lot,” she added, glancing at Canalis, with an expression of pity.

“It is the lot of all insignificant fortunes,” said the poet. “Paris demands Babylonian splendor. Sometimes I ask myself how I have ever managed to keep it up.”

“The king does that for both of us,” said the duke, candidly; “we live on his Majesty’s bounty. If my family had not been allowed, after the death of Monsieur le Grand, as they call Cinq–Mars, to keep his office among us, we should have been obliged to sell Herouville to the Black Brethren. Ah, believe me, mademoiselle, it is a bitter humiliation to me to have to think of money in marrying.”

The simple honesty of this confession came from his heart, and the regret was so sincere that it touched Modeste.

“In these days,” said the poet, “no man in France, Monsieur le duc, is rich enough to marry a woman for herself, her personal worth, her grace, or her beauty —”

The colonel looked at Canalis with a curious eye, after first watching Modeste, whose face no longer expressed the slightest astonishment.

“For persons of high honor,” he said slowly, “it is a noble employment of wealth to repair the ravages of time and destiny, and restore the old historic families.”

“Yes, papa,” said Modeste, gravely.

The colonel invited the duke and Canalis to dine with him sociably in their riding-dress, promising them to make no change himself. When Modeste went to her room to make her toilette, she looked at the jewelled whip she had disdained in the morning.

“What workmanship they put into such things nowadays!” she said to Francoise Cochet, who had become her waiting-maid.

“That poor young man, mademoiselle, who has got a fever —”

“Who told you that?”

“Monsieur Butscha. He came here this afternoon and asked me to say to you that he hoped you would notice he had kept his word on the appointed day.”

Modeste came down into the salon dressed with royal simplicity.

“My dear father,” she said aloud, taking the colonel by the arm, “please go and ask after Monsieur de La Briere’s health, and take him back his present. You can say that my small means, as well as my natural tastes, forbid my wearing ornaments which are only fit for queens or courtesans. Besides, I can only accept gifts from a bridegroom. Beg him to keep the whip until you know whether you are rich enough to buy it back.”

“My little girl has plenty of good sense,” said the colonel, kissing his daughter on the forehead.

Canalis took advantage of a conversation which began between the duke and Madame Mignon to escape to the terrace, where Modeste joined him, influenced by curiosity, though the poet believed her desire to become Madame de Canalis had brought her there. Rather alarmed at the indecency with which he had just executed what soldiers call a “volte-face,” and which, according to the laws of ambition, every man in his position would have executed quite as brutally, he now endeavored, as the unfortunate Modeste approached him, to find plausible excuses for his conduct.

“Dear Modeste,” he began, in a coaxing tone, “considering the terms on which we stand to each other, shall I displease you if I say that your replies to the Duc d’Herouville were very painful to a man in love, — above all, to a poet whose soul is feminine, nervous, full of the jealousies of true passion. I should make a poor diplomatist indeed if I had not perceived that your first coquetries, your little premeditated inconsistencies, were only assumed for the purpose of studying our characters —”

Modeste raised her head with the rapid, intelligent, half-coquettish motion of a wild animal, in whom instinct produces such miracles of grace.

“— and therefore when I returned home and thought them over, they never misled me. I only marvelled at a cleverness so in harmony with your character and your countenance. Do not be uneasy, I never doubted that your assumed duplicity covered an angelic candor. No, your mind, your education, have in no way lessened the precious innocence which we demand in a wife. You are indeed a wife for a poet, a diplomatist, a thinker, a man destined to endure the chances and changes of life; and my admiration is equalled only by the attachment I feel to you. I now entreat you — if yesterday you were not playing a little comedy when you accepted the love of a man whose vanity will change to pride if you accept him, one whose defects will become virtues under your divine influence — I entreat you do not excite a passion which, in him, amounts to vice. Jealousy is a noxious element in my soul, and you have revealed to me its strength; it is awful, it destroys everything — Oh! I do not mean the jealousy of an Othello,” he continued, noticing Modeste’s gesture. “No, no; my thoughts were of myself: I have been so indulged on that point. You know the affection to which I owe all the happiness I have ever enjoyed — very little at the best” (he sadly shook his head). “Love is symbolized among all nations as a child, because it fancies the world belongs to it, and it cannot conceive otherwise. Well, Nature herself set the limit to that sentiment. It was still-born. A tender, maternal soul guessed and calmed the painful constriction of my heart — for a woman who feels, who knows, that she is past the joys of love becomes angelic in her treatment of others. The duchess has never made me suffer in my sensibilities. For ten years not a word, not a look, that could wound me! I attach more value to words, to thoughts, to looks, than ordinary men. If a look is to me a treasure beyond all price, the slightest doubt is deadly poison; it acts instantaneously, my love dies. I believe — contrary to the mass of men, who delight in trembling, hoping, expecting — that love can only exist in perfect, infantile, and infinite security. The exquisite purgatory, where women delight to send us by their coquetry, is a base happiness to which I will not submit: to me, love is either heaven or hell. If it is hell, I will have none of it. I feel an affinity with the azure skies of Paradise within my soul. I can give myself without reserve, without secrets, doubts or deceptions, in the life to come; and I demand reciprocity. Perhaps I offend you by these doubts. Remember, however, that I am only talking of myself —”

“— a good deal, but never too much,” said Modeste, offended in every hole and corner of her pride by this discourse, in which the Duchesse de Chaulieu served as a dagger. “I am so accustomed to admire you, my dear poet.”

“Well, then, can you promise me the same canine fidelity which I offer to you? Is it not beautiful? Is it not just what you have longed for?”

“But why, dear poet, do you not marry a deaf-mute, and one who is also something of an idiot? I ask nothing better than to please my husband. But you threaten to take away from a girl the very happiness you so kindly arrange for her; you are tearing away every gesture, every word, every look; you cut the wings of your bird, and then expect it to hover about you. I know poets are accused of inconsistency — oh! very unjustly,” she added, as Canalis made a gesture of denial; “that alleged defect which comes from the brilliant activity of their minds which commonplace people cannot take into account. I do not believe, however, that a man of genius can invent such irreconcilable conditions and call his invention life. You are requiring the impossible solely for the pleasure of putting me in the wrong — like the enchanters in fairy-tales, who set tasks to persecuted young girls whom the good fairies come and deliver.”

“In this case the good fairy would be true love,” said Canalis in a curt tone, aware that his elaborate excuse for a rupture was seen through by the keen and delicate mind which Butscha had piloted so well.

“My dear poet, you remind me of those fathers who inquire into a girl’s ‘dot’ before they are willing to name that of their son. You are quarrelling with me without knowing whether you have the slightest right to do so. Love is not gained by such dry arguments as yours. The poor duke on the contrary abandons himself to it like my Uncle Toby; with this difference, that I am not the Widow Wadman — though widow indeed of many illusions as to poetry at the present moment. Ah, yes, we young girls will not believe in anything that disturbs our world of fancy! I was warned of all this beforehand. My dear poet, you are attempting to get up a quarrel which is unworthy of you. I no longer recognize the Melchior of yesterday.”

“Because Melchior has discovered a spirit of ambition in you which —”

Modeste looked at him from head to foot with an imperial eye.

“But I shall be peer of France and ambassador as well as he,” added Canalis.

“Do you take me for a bourgeois,” she said, beginning to mount the steps of the portico; but she instantly turned back and added, “That is less impertinent than to take me for a fool. The change in your conduct comes from certain silly rumors which you have heard in Havre, and which my maid Francoise has repeated to me.”

“Ah, Modeste, how can you think it?” said Canalis, striking a dramatic attitude. “Do you think me capable of marrying you only for your money?”

“If I do you that wrong after your edifying remarks on the banks of the Seine can you easily undeceive me,” she said, annihilating him with her scorn.

“Ah!” thought the poet, as he followed her into the house, “if you think, my little girl, that I’m to be caught in that net, you take me to be younger than I am. Dear, dear, what a fuss about an artful little thing whose esteem I value about as much as that of the king of Borneo. But she has given me a good reason for the rupture by accusing me of such unworthy sentiments. Isn’t she sly? La Briere will get a burden on his back — idiot that he is! And five years hence it will be a good joke to see them together.”

The coldness which this altercation produced between Modeste and Canalis was visible to all eyes that evening. The poet went off early, on the ground of La Briere’s illness, leaving the field to the grand equerry. About eleven o’clock Butscha, who had come to walk home with Madame Latournelle, whispered in Modeste’s ear, “Was I right?”

“Alas, yes,” she said.

“But I hope you have left the door half open, so that he can come back; we agreed upon that, you know.”

“Anger got the better of me,” said Modeste. “Such meanness sent the blood to my head and I told him what I thought of him.”

“Well, so much the better. When you are both so angry that you can’t speak civilly to each other I engage to make him desperately in love and so pressing that you will be deceived yourself.”

“Come, come, Butscha; he is a great poet; he is a gentleman; he is a man of intellect.”

“Your father’s eight millions are more to him than all that.”

“Eight millions!” exclaimed Modeste.

“My master, who has sold his practice, is going to Provence to attend to the purchase of lands which your father’s agent has suggested to him. The sum that is to be paid for the estate of La Bastie is four millions; your father has agreed to it. You are to have a ‘dot’ of two millions and another million for an establishment in Paris, a hotel and furniture. Now, count up.”

“Ah! then I can be Duchesse d’Herouville!” cried Modeste, glancing at Butscha.

“If it hadn’t been for that comedian of a Canalis you would have kept HIS whip, thinking it came from me,” said the dwarf, indirectly pleading La Briere’s cause.

“Monsieur Butscha, may I ask if I am to marry to please you?” said Modeste, laughing.

“That fine fellow loves you as well as I do — and you loved him for eight days,” retorted Butscha; “and HE has got a heart.”

“Can he compete, pray, with an office under the Crown? There are but six, grand almoner, chancellor, grand chamberlain, grand master, high constable, grand admiral — but they don’t appoint high constables any longer.”

“In six months, mademoiselle, the masses — who are made up of wicked Butschas — could send all those grand dignities to the winds. Besides, what signifies nobility in these days? There are not a thousand real noblemen in France. The d’Herouvilles are descended from a tipstaff in the time of Robert of Normandy. You will have to put up with many a vexation from the old aunt with the furrowed face. Look here — as you are so anxious for the title of duchess — you belong to the Comtat, and the Pope will certainly think as much of you as he does of all those merchants down there; he’ll sell you a duchy with some name ending in ‘ia’ or ‘agno.’ Don’t play away your happiness for an office under the Crown.”

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