Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



The hunt was destined to be not only a meet of the hounds, but a meeting of all the passions excited by the colonel’s millions and Modeste’s beauty; and while it was in prospect there was truce between the adversaries. During the days required for the arrangement of this forestrial solemnity, the salon of the villa Mignon presented the tranquil picture of a united family. Canalis, cut short in his role of injured love by Modeste’s quick perceptions, wished to appear courteous; he laid aside his pretensions, gave no further specimens of his oratory, and became, what all men of intellect can be when they renounce affectation, perfectly charming. He talked finances with Gobenheim, and war with the colonel, Germany with Madame Mignon, and housekeeping with Madame Latournelle — endeavoring to bias them all in favor of La Briere. The Duc d’Herouville left the field to his rivals, for he was obliged to go to Rosembray to consult with the Duc de Verneuil, and see that the orders of the Royal Huntsman, the Prince de Cadignan, were carried out. And yet the comic element was not altogether wanting. Modeste found herself between the depreciatory hints of Canalis as to the gallantry of the grand equerry, and the exaggerations of the two Mesdemoiselles d’Herouville, who passed every evening at the villa. Canalis made Modeste take notice that, instead of being the heroine of the hunt, she would be scarcely noticed. Madame would be attended by the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, daughter-inlaw of the Prince de Cadignan, by the Duchesse de Chaulieu, and other great ladies of the Court, among whom she could produce no sensation; no doubt the officers in garrison at Rouen would be invited, etc. Helene, on the other hand, was incessantly telling her new friend, whom she already looked upon as a sister-inlaw, that she was to be presented to Madame; undoubtedly the Duc de Verneuil would invite her father and herself to stay at Rosembray; if the colonel wished to obtain a favor of the king — a peerage, for instance — the opportunity was unique, for there was hope of the king himself being present on the third day; she would be delighted with the charming welcome with which the beauties of the Court, the Duchesses de Chaulieu, de Maufrigneuse, de Lenoncourt–Chaulieu, and other ladies, were prepared to meet her. It was in fact an excessively amusing little warfare, with its marches and countermarches and stratagems — all of which were keenly enjoyed by the Dumays, the Latournelles, Gobenheim, and Butscha, who, in conclave assembled, said horrible things of these noble personages, cruelly noting and intelligently studying all their little meannesses.

The promises on the d’Herouville side were, however, confirmed by the arrival of an invitation, couched in flattering terms, from the Duc de Verneuil and the Master of the Hunt to Monsieur le Comte de La Bastie and his daughter, to stay at Rosembray and be present at a grand hunt on the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, of November following.

La Briere, full of dark presentiments, craved the presence of Modeste with an eagerness whose bitter joys are known only to lovers who feel that they are parted, and parted fatally from those they love. Flashes of joy came to him intermingled with melancholy meditations on the one theme, “I have lost her,” and made him all the more interesting to those who watched him, because his face and his whole person were in keeping with his profound feeling. There is nothing more poetic than a living elegy, animated by a pair of eyes, walking about, and sighing without rhymes.

The Duc d’Herouville arrived at last to arrange for Modeste’s departure; after crossing the Seine she was to be conveyed in the duke’s caleche, accompanied by the Demoiselles d’Herouville. The duke was charmingly courteous, he begged Canalis and La Briere to be of the party, assuring them, as he did the colonel, that he had taken particular care that hunters should be provided for them. The colonel invited the three lovers to breakfast on the morning of the start. Canalis then began to put into execution a plan that he had been maturing in his own mind for the last few days; namely, to quietly reconquer Modeste, and throw over the duchess, La Briere, and the duke. A graduate of diplomacy could hardly remain stuck in the position in which he found himself. On the other hand La Briere had come to the resolution of bidding Modeste an eternal farewell. Each suitor was therefore on the watch to slip in a last word, like the defendant’s counsel to the court before judgment is pronounced; for all felt that the three weeks’ struggle was approaching its conclusion. After dinner on the evening before the start was to be made, the colonel had taken his daughter by the arm and made her feel the necessity of deciding.

“Our position with the d’Herouville family will be quite intolerable at Rosembray,” he said to her. “Do you mean to be a duchess?”

“No, father,” she answered.

“Then do you love Canalis?”

“No, papa, a thousand times no!” she exclaimed with the impatience of a child.

The colonel looked at her with a sort of joy.

“Ah, I have not influenced you,” cried the true father, “and I will now confess that I chose my son-inlaw in Paris when, having made him believe that I had but little fortune, he grasped my hand and told me I took a weight from his mind —”

“Who is it you mean?” asked Modeste, coloring.

The man of fixed principles and sound moralities,” said her father, slyly, repeating the words which had dissolved poor Modeste’s dream on the day after his return.

“I was not even thinking of him, papa. Please leave me at liberty to refuse the duke myself; I understand him, and I know how to soothe him.”

“Then your choice is not made?”

“Not yet; there is another syllable or two in the charade of my destiny still to be guessed; but after I have had a glimpse of court life at Rosembray I will tell you my secret.”

“Ah! Monsieur de La Briere,” cried the colonel, as the young man approached them along the garden path in which they were walking, “I hope you are going to this hunt?”

“No, colonel,” answered Ernest. “I have come to take leave of you and of mademoiselle; I return to Paris —”

“You have no curiosity,” said Modeste, interrupting, and looking at him.

“A wish — that I cannot expect — would suffice to keep me,” he replied.

“If that is all, you must stay to please me; I wish it,” said the colonel, going forward to meet Canalis, and leaving his daughter and La Briere together for a moment.

“Mademoiselle,” said the young man, raising his eyes to hers with the boldness of a man without hope, “I have an entreaty to make to you.”

“To me?”

“Let me carry away with me your forgiveness. My life can never be happy; it must be full of remorse for having lost my happiness — no doubt by my own fault; but, at least — ”

“Before we part forever,” said Modeste, interrupting a la Canalis, and speaking in a voice of some emotion, “I wish to ask you one thing; and though you once disguised yourself, I think you cannot be so base as to deceive me now.”

The taunt made him turn pale, and he cried out, “Oh, you are pitiless!”

“Will you be frank?”

“You have the right to ask me that degrading question,” he said, in a voice weakened by the violent palpitation of his heart.

“Well, then, did you read my letters to Monsieur de Canalis?”

“No, mademoiselle; and I allowed your father to read them it was to justify my love by showing him how it was born, and how sincere my efforts were to cure you of your fancy.”

“But how came the idea of that unworthy masquerade ever to arise?” she said, with a sort of impatience.

La Briere related truthfully the scene in the poet’s study which Modeste’s first letter had occasioned, and the sort of challenge that resulted from his expressing a favorable opinion of a young girl thus led toward a poet’s fame, as a plant seeks its share of the sun.

“You have said enough,” said Modeste, restraining some emotion. “If you have not my heart, monsieur, you have at least my esteem.”

These simple words gave the young man a violent shock; feeling himself stagger, he leaned against a tree, like a man deprived for a moment of reason. Modest, who had left him, turned her head and came hastily back.

“What is the matter?” she asked, taking his hand to prevent him from falling.

“Forgive me — I thought you despised me.”

“But,” she answered, with a distant and disdainful manner, “I did not say that I loved you.”

And she left him again. But this time, in spite of her harshness, La Briere thought he walked on air; the earth softened under his feet, the trees bore flowers; the skies were rosy, the air cerulean, as they are in the temples of Hymen in those fairy pantomimes which finish happily. In such situations every woman is a Janus, and sees behind her without turning round; and thus Modeste perceived on the face of her lover the indubitable symptoms of a love like Butscha’s — surely the “ne plus ultra” of a woman’s hope. Moreover, the great value which La Briere attached to her opinion filled Modeste with an emotion that was inestimably sweet.

“Mademoiselle,” said Canalis, leaving the colonel and waylaying Modeste, “in spite of the little value you attach to my sentiments, my honor is concerned in effacing a stain under which I have suffered too long. Here is a letter which I received from the Duchesse de Chaulieu five days after my arrival in Havre.”

He let Modeste read the first lines of the letter we have seen, which the duchess began by saying that she had seen Mongenod, and now wished to marry her poet to Modeste; then he tore that passage from the body of the letter, and placed the fragment in her hand.

“I cannot let you read the rest,” he said, putting the paper in his pocket; “but I confide these few lines to your discretion, so that you may verify the writing. A young girl who could accuse me of ignoble sentiments is quite capable of suspecting some collusion, some trickery. Ah, Modeste,” he said, with tears in his voice, “your poet, the poet of Madame de Chaulieu, has no less poetry in his heart than in his mind. You are about to see the duchess; suspend your judgment of me till then.”

He left Modeste half bewildered.

“Oh, dear!” she said to herself; “it seems they are all angels — and not marriageable; the duke is the only one that belongs to humanity.”

“Mademoiselle Modeste,” said Butscha, appearing with a parcel under his arm, “this hunt makes me very uneasy. I dreamed your horse ran away with you, and I have been to Rouen to see if I could get a Spanish bit which, they tell me, a horse can’t take between his teeth. I entreat you to use it. I have shown it to the colonel, and he has thanked me more than there is any occasion for.”

“Poor, dear Butscha!” cried Modeste, moved to tears by this maternal care.

Butscha went skipping off like a man who has just heard of the death of a rich uncle.

“My dear father,” said Modeste, returning to the salon; “I should like to have that beautiful whip — suppose you were to ask Monsieur de La Briere to exchange it for your picture by Van Ostade.”

Modeste looked furtively at Ernest, while the colonel made him this proposition, standing before the picture which was the sole thing he possessed in memory of his campaigns, having bought it of a burgher at Rabiston; and she said to herself as La Briere left the room precipitately, “He will be at the hunt.”

A curious thing happened. Modeste’s three lovers each and all went to Rosembray with their hearts full of hope, and captivated by her many perfections.

Rosembray — an estate lately purchased by the Duc de Verneuil, with the money which fell to him as his share of the thousand millions voted as indemnity for the sale of the lands of the emigres — is remarkable for its chateau, whose magnificence compares only with that of Mesniere or of Balleroy. This imposing and noble edifice is approached by a wide avenue of four rows of venerable elms, from which the visitor enters an immense rising court-yard, like that at Versailles, with magnificent iron railings and two lodges, and adorned with rows of large orange-trees in their tubs. Facing this court-yard, the chateau presents, between two fronts of the main building which retreat on either side of this projection, a double row of nineteen tall windows, with carved arches and diamond panes, divided from each other by a series of fluted pilasters surmounted by an entablature which hides an Italian roof, from which rise several stone chimneys masked by carved trophies of arms. Rosembray was built, under Louis XIV., by a “fermier-general” named Cottin. The facade toward the park differs from that on the court-yard by having a narrower projection in the centre, with columns between five windows, above which rises a magnificent pediment. The family of Marigny, to whom the estates of this Cottin were brought in marriage by Mademoiselle Cottin, her father’s sole heiress, ordered a sunrise to be carved on this pediment by Coysevox. Beneath it are two angels unwinding a scroll, on which is cut this motto in honor of the Grand Monarch, “Sol nobis benignus.”

From the portico, reached by two grand circular and balustraded flights of steps, the view extends over an immense fish-pond, as long and wide as the grand canal at Versailles, beginning at the foot of a grass-plot which compares well with the finest English lawns, and bordered with beds and baskets now filled with the brilliant flowers of autumn. On either side of the piece of water two gardens, laid out in the French style, display their squares and long straight paths, like brilliant pages written in the ciphers of Lenotre. These gardens are backed to their whole length by a border of nearly thirty acres of woodland. From the terrace the view is bounded by a forest belonging to Rosembray and contiguous to two other forests, one of which belongs to the Crown, the other to the State. It would be difficult to find a nobler landscape.

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