Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The poet’s reflections during the night were thoroughly matter of fact. He sincerely saw nothing worse in life than the situation of a married man without money. Still trembling at the danger he had been led into by his vanity, his desire to get the better of the duke, and his belief in the Mignon millions, he began to ask himself what the duchess must be thinking of his stay in Havre, aggravated by the fact that he had not written to her for fourteen days, whereas in Paris they exchanged four or five letters a week.

“And that poor woman is working hard to get me appointed commander of the Legion and ambassador to the Court of Baden!” he cried.

Thereupon, with that promptitude of decision which results — in poets as well as in speculators — from a lively intuition of the future, he sat down and composed the following letter:—

To Madame la Duchesse de Chaulieu:

My dear Eleonore — You have doubtless been surprised at not
hearing from me; but the stay I am making in this place is not
altogether on account of my health. I have been trying to do a
good turn to our little friend La Briere. The poor fellow has
fallen in love with a certain Mademoiselle Modeste de La Bastie, a
rather pale, insignificant, and thread-papery little thing, who,
by the way, has the vice of liking literature, and calls herself a
poet to excuse the caprices and humors of a rather sullen nature.
You know Ernest — he is so easy to catch that I have been afraid
to leave him to himself. Mademoiselle de La Bastie was inclined to
coquet with your Melchior, and was only too ready to become your
rival, though her arms are thin, and she has no more bust than
most girls; moreover, her hair is as dead and colorless as that of
Madame de Rochefide, and her eyes small, gray, and very
suspicious. I put a stop — perhaps rather brutally — to the
attentions of Mademoiselle Immodeste; but love, such as mine for
you, demanded it. What care I for all the women on earth,
— compared to you, what are they?

The people with whom I pass my time, and who form the circle round
the heiress, are so thoroughly bourgeois that they almost turn my
stomach. Pity me; imagine! I pass my evenings with notaries,
notaresses, cashiers, provincial money-lenders — ah! what a change
from my evenings in the rue de Grenelle. The alleged fortune of
the father, lately returned from China, has brought to Havre that
indefatigable suitor, the grand equerry, hungry after the
millions, which he wants, they say, to drain his marshes. The king
does not know what a fatal present he made the duke in those waste
lands. His Grace, who has not yet found out that the lady had only
a small fortune, is jealous of me; for La Briere is quietly making
progress with his idol under cover of his friend, who serves as a

Notwithstanding Ernest’s romantic ecstasies, I myself, a poet,
think chiefly of the essential thing, and I have been making some
inquiries which darken the prospects of our friend. If my angel
would like absolution for some of our little sins, she will try to
find out the facts of the case by sending for Mongenod, the
banker, and questioning him, with the dexterity that characterizes
her, as to the father’s fortune? Monsieur Mignon, formerly colonel
of cavalry in the Imperial guard, has been for the last seven
years a correspondent of the Mongenods. It is said that he gives
his daughter a “dot” of two hundred thousand francs, and before I
make the offer on Ernest’s behalf I am anxious to get the rights
of the story. As soon as the affair is arranged I shall return to
Paris. I know a way to settle everything to the advantage of our
young lover — simply by the transmission of the father-inlaw’s
title, and no one, I think, can more readily obtain that favor
than Ernest, both on account of his own services and the influence
which you and I and the duke can exert for him. With his tastes,
Ernest, who of course will step into my office when I go to Baden,
will be perfectly happy in Paris with twenty-five thousand francs
a year, a permanent place, and a wife — luckless fellow!

Ah, dearest, how I long for the rue de Grenelle! Fifteen days of
absence! when they do not kill love, they revive all the ardor of
its earlier days, and you know, better than I, perhaps, the
reasons that make my love eternal — my bones will love thee in the
grave! Ah! I cannot bear this separation. If I am forced to stay
here another ten days, I shall make a flying visit of a few hours
to Paris.

Has the duke obtained for me the thing we wanted; and shall you,
my dearest life, be ordered to drink the Baden waters next year?
The billing and cooing of the “handsome disconsolate,” compared
with the accents of our happy love — so true and changeless for now
ten years! — have given me a great contempt for marriage. I had
never seen the thing so near. Ah, dearest! what the world calls a
“false step” brings two beings nearer together than the law — does
it not?

The concluding idea served as a text for two pages of reminiscences and aspirations a little too confidential for publication.

The evening before the day on which Canalis put the above epistle into the post, Butscha, under the name of Jean Jacmin, had received a letter from his fictitious cousin, Philoxene, and had mailed his answer, which thus preceded the letter of the poet by about twelve hours. Terribly anxious for the last two weeks, and wounded by Melchior’s silence, the duchess herself dictated Philoxene’s letter to her cousin, and the moment she had read the answer, rather too explicit for her quinquagenary vanity, she sent for the banker and made close inquiries as to the exact fortune of Monsieur Mignon. Finding herself betrayed and abandoned for the millions, Eleonore gave way to a paroxysm of anger, hatred, and cold vindictiveness. Philoxene knocked at the door of the sumptuous room, and entering found her mistress with her eyes full of tears — so unprecedented a phenomenon in the fifteen years she had waited upon her that the woman stopped short stupefied.

“We expiate the happiness of ten years in ten minutes,” she heard the duchess say.

“A letter from Havre, madame.”

Eleonore read the poet’s prose without noticing the presence of Philoxene, whose amazement became still greater when she saw the dawn of fresh serenity on the duchess’s face as she read further and further into the letter. Hold out a pole no thicker than a walking-stick to a drowning man, and he will think it a high-road of safety. The happy Eleonore believed in Canalis’s good faith when she had read through the four pages in which love and business, falsehood and truth, jostled each other. She who, a few moments earlier, had sent for her husband to prevent Melchior’s appointment while there was still time, was now seized with a spirit of generosity that amounted almost to the sublime.

“Poor fellow!” she thought; “he has not had one faithless thought; he loves me as he did on the first day; he tells me all — Philoxene!” she cried, noticing her maid, who was standing near and pretending to arrange the toilet-table.

“Madame la duchesse?”

“A mirror, child!”

Eleonore looked at herself, saw the fine razor-like lines traced on her brow, which disappeared at a little distance; she sighed, and in that sigh she felt she bade adieu to love. A brave thought came into her mind, a manly thought, outside of all the pettiness of women — a thought which intoxicates for a moment, and which explains, perhaps, the clemency of the Semiramis of Russia when she married her young and beautiful rival to Momonoff.

“Since he has not been faithless, he shall have the girl and her millions,” she thought — “provided Mademoiselle Mignon is as ugly as he says she is.”

Three raps, circumspectly given, announced the duke, and his wife went herself to the door to let him in.

“Ah! I see you are better, my dear,” he cried, with the counterfeit joy that courtiers assume so readily, and by which fools are so readily taken in.

“My dear Henri,” she answered, “why is it you have not yet obtained that appointment for Melchior — you who sacrificed so much to the king in taking a ministry which you knew could only last one year.”

The duke glanced at Philoxene, who showed him by an almost imperceptible sign the letter from Havre on the dressing-table.

“You would be terribly bored at Baden and come back at daggers drawn with Melchior,” said the duke.

“Pray why?”

“Why, you would always be together,” said the former diplomat, with comic good-humor.

“Oh, no,” she said; “I am going to marry him.”

“If we can believe d’Herouville, our dear Canalis stands in no need of your help in that direction,” said the duke, smiling. “Yesterday Grandlieu read me some passages from a letter the grand equerry had written him. No doubt they were dictated by the aunt for the express purpose of their reaching you, for Mademoiselle d’Herouville, always on the scent of a ‘dot,’ knows that Grandlieu and I play whist nearly every evening. That good little d’Herouville wants the Prince de Cadignan to go down and give a royal hunt in Normandy, and endeavor to persuade the king to be present, so as to turn the head of the damozel when she sees herself the object of such a grand affair. In short, two words from Charles X. would settle the matter. D’Herouville says the girl has incomparable beauty —”

“Henri, let us go to Havre!” cried the duchess, interrupting him.

“Under what pretext?” said her husband, gravely; he was one of the confidants of Louis XVIII.

“I never saw a hunt.”

“It would be all very well if the king went; but it is a terrible bore to go so far, and he will not do it; I have just been speaking with him about it.”

“Perhaps Madame would go?”

“That would be better,” returned the duke, “I dare say the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse would help you to persuade her from Rosny. If she goes the king will not be displeased at the use of his hunting equipage. Don’t go to Havre, my dear,” added the duke, paternally, “that would be giving yourself away. Come, here’s a better plan, I think. Gaspard’s chateau of Rosembray is on the other side of the forest of Brotonne; why not give him a hint to invite the whole party?”

“He invite them?” said Eleonore.

“I mean, of course, the duchess; she is always engaged in pious works with Mademoiselle d’Herouville; give that old maid a hint, and get her to speak to Gaspard.”

“You are a love of a man,” cried Eleonore; “I’ll write to the old maid and to Diane at once, for we must get hunting things made — a riding hat is so becoming. Did you win last night at the English embassy?”

“Yes,” said the duke; “I cleared myself.”

“Henri, above all things, stop proceedings about Melchior’s two appointments.”

After writing half a dozen lines to the beautiful Diane de Maufrigneuse, and a short hint to Mademoiselle d’Herouville, Eleonore sent the following answer like the lash of a whip through the poet’s lies.

To Monsieur le Baron de Canalis:—

My dear poet — Mademoiselle de La Bastie is very beautiful;
Mongenod has proved to me that her father has millions. I did
think of marrying you to her; I am therefore much displeased at
your want of confidence. If you had any intention of marrying La
Briere when you went to Havre it is surprising that you said
nothing to me about it before you started. And why have you
omitted writing to a friend who is so easily made anxious as I?
Your letter arrived a trifle late; I had already seen the banker.
You are a child, Melchior, and you are playing tricks with us. It
is not right. The duke himself is quite indignant at your
proceedings; he thinks you less than a gentleman, which casts some
reflections on your mother’s honor.

Now, I intend to see things for myself. I shall, I believe, have
the honor of accompanying Madame to the hunt which the Duc
d’Herouville proposes to give for Mademoiselle de La Bastie. I
will manage to have you invited to Rosembray, for the meet will
probably take place in Duc de Verneuil’s park.

Pray believe, my dear poet, that I am none the less, for life,

Your friend, Eleonore de M.

“There, Ernest, just look at that!” cried Canalis, tossing the letter at Ernest’s nose across the breakfast-table; “that’s the two thousandth love-letter I have had from that woman, and there isn’t even a ‘thou’ in it. The illustrious Eleonore has never compromised herself more than she does there. Marry, and try your luck! The worst marriage in the world is better than this sort of halter. Ah, I am the greatest Nicodemus that ever tumbled out of the moon! Modeste has millions, and I’ve lost her; for we can’t get back from the poles, where we are today, to the tropics, where we were three days ago! Well, I am all the more anxious for your triumph over the grand equerry, because I told the duchess I came here only for your sake; and so I shall do my best for you.”

“Alas, Melchior, Modeste must needs have so noble, so grand, so well-balanced a nature to resist the glories of the Court, and all these splendors cleverly displayed for her honor and glory by the duke, that I cannot believe in the existence of such perfection — and yet, if she is still the Modeste of her letters, there might be hope!”

“Well, well, you are a happy fellow, you young Boniface, to see the world and your mistress through green spectacles!” cried Canalis, marching off to pace up and down the garden.

Caught between two lies, the poet was at a loss what to do.

“Play by rule, and you lose!” he cried presently, sitting down in the kiosk. “Every man of sense would have acted as I did four days ago, and got himself out of the net in which I saw myself. At such times people don’t disentangle nets, they break through them! Come, let us be calm, cold, dignified, affronted. Honor requires it; English stiffness is the only way to win her back. After all, if I have to retire finally, I can always fall back on my old happiness; a fidelity of ten years can’t go unrewarded. Eleonore will arrange me some good marriage.”

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