Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



Modeste’s arrival at Rosembray made a certain sensation in the avenue when the carriage with the liveries of France came in sight, accompanied by the grand equerry, the colonel, Canalis, and La Briere on horseback, preceded by an outrider in full dress, and followed by six servants — among whom were the Negroes and the mulatto — and the britzka of the colonel for the two waiting-women and the luggage. The carriage was drawn by four horses, ridden by postilions dressed with an elegance specially commanded by the grand equerry, who was often better served than the king himself. As Modeste, dazzled by the magnificence of the great lords, entered and beheld this lesser Versailles, she suddenly remembered her approaching interview with the celebrated duchesses, and began to fear that she might seem awkward, or provincial, or parvenue; in fact, she lost her self-possession, and heartily repented having wished for a hunt.

Fortunately, however, as the carriage drew up, Modeste saw an old man, in a blond wig frizzed into little curls, whose calm, plump, smooth face wore a fatherly smile and an expression of monastic cheerfulness which the half-veiled glance of the eye rendered almost noble. This was the Duc de Verneuil, master of Rosembray. The duchess, a woman of extreme piety, the only daughter of a rich and deceased chief-justice, spare and erect, and the mother of four children, resembled Madame Latournelle — if the imagination can go so far as to adorn the notary’s wife with the graces of a bearing that was truly abbatial.

“Ah, good morning, dear Hortense!” said Mademoiselle d’Herouville, kissing the duchess with the sympathy that united their haughty natures; “let me present to you and to the dear duke our little angel, Mademoiselle de La Bastie.”

“We have heard so much of you, mademoiselle,” said the duchess, “that we were in haste to receive you.”

“And regret the time lost,” added the Duc de Verneuil, with courteous admiration.

“Monsieur le Comte de La Bastie,” said the grand equerry, taking the colonel by the arm and presenting him to the duke and duchess, with an air of respect in his tone and gesture.

“I am glad to welcome you, Monsieur le comte!” said Monsieur de Verneuil. “You possess more than one treasure,” he added, looking at Modeste.

The duchess took Modeste under her arm and led her into an immense salon, where a dozen or more women were grouped about the fireplace. The men of the party remained with the duke on the terrace, except Canalis, who respectfully made his way to the superb Eleonore. The Duchesse de Chaulieu, seated at an embroidery-frame, was showing Mademoiselle de Verneuil how to shade a flower.

If Modeste had run a needle through her finger when handling a pin-cushion she could not have felt a sharper prick than she received from the cold and haughty and contemptuous stare with which Madame de Chaulieu favored her. For an instant she saw nothing but that one woman, and she saw through her. To understand the depths of cruelty to which these charming creatures, whom our passions deify, can go, we must see women with each other. Modeste would have disarmed almost any other than Eleonore by the perfectly stupid and involuntary admiration which her face betrayed. Had she not known the duchess’s age she would have thought her a woman of thirty-six; but other and greater astonishments awaited her.

The poet had run plump against a great lady’s anger. Such anger is the worst of sphinxes; the face is radiant, all the rest menacing. Kings themselves cannot make the exquisite politeness of a mistress’s cold anger capitulate when she guards it with steel armor. Canalis tried to cling to the steel, but his fingers slipped on the polished surface, like his words on the heart; and the gracious face, the gracious words, the gracious bearing of the duchess hid the steel of her wrath, now fallen to twenty-five below zero, from all observers. The appearance of Modeste in her sublime beauty, and dressed as well as Diane de Maufrigneuse herself, had fired the train of gunpowder which reflection had been laying in Eleonore’s mind.

All the women had gone to the windows to see the new wonder get out of the royal carriage, attended by her three suitors.

“Do not let us seem so curious,” Madame de Chaulieu had said, cut to the heart by Diane’s exclamation — “She is divine! where in the world does she come from?”— and with that the bevy flew back to their seats, resuming their composure, though Eleonore’s heart was full of hungry vipers all clamorous for a meal.

Mademoiselle d’Herouville said in a low voice and with much meaning to the Duchesse de Verneuil, “Eleonore receives her Melchior very ungraciously.”

“The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse thinks there is a coolness between them,” said Laure de Verneuil, with simplicity.

Charming phrase! so often used in the world of society — how the north wind blows through it.

“Why so?” asked Modeste of the pretty young girl who had lately left the Sacre–Coeur.

“The great poet,” said the pious duchess — making a sign to her daughter to be silent —“left Madame de Chaulieu without a letter for more than two weeks after he went to Havre, having told her that he went there for his health —”

Modeste made a hasty movement, which caught the attention of Laure, Helene, and Mademoiselle d’Herouville.

“— and during that time,” continued the devout duchess, “she was endeavoring to have him appointed commander of the Legion of honor, and minister at Baden.”

“Oh, that was shameful in Canalis; he owes everything to her,” exclaimed Mademoiselle d’Herouville.

“Why did not Madame de Chaulieu come to Havre?” asked Modeste of Helene, innocently.

“My dear,” said the Duchesse de Verneuil, “she would let herself be cut in little pieces without saying a word. Look at her — she is regal; her head would smile, like Mary Stuart’s, after it was cut off; in fact, she has some of that blood in her veins.”

“Did she not write to him?” asked Modeste.

“Diane tells me,” answered the duchess, prompted by a nudge from Mademoiselle d’Herouville, “that in answer to Canalis’s first letter she made a cutting reply a few days ago.”

This explanation made Modeste blush with shame for the man before her; she longed, not to crush him under her feet, but to revenge herself by one of those malicious acts that are sharper than a dagger’s thrust. She looked haughtily at the Duchesse de Chaulieu —

“Monsieur Melchior!” she said.

All the women snuffed the air and looked alternately at the duchess, who was talking in an undertone to Canalis over the embroidery-frame, and then at the young girl so ill brought up as to disturb a lovers’ meeting — a think not permissible in any society. Diane de Maufrigneuse nodded, however, as much as to say, “The child is in the right of it.” All the women ended by smiling at each other; they were enraged with a woman who was fifty-six years old and still handsome enough to put her fingers into the treasury and steal the dues of youth. Melchior looked at Modeste with feverish impatience, and made the gesture of a master to a valet, while the duchess lowered her head with the movement of a lioness disturbed at a meal; her eyes, fastened on the canvas, emitted red flames in the direction of the poet, which stabbed like epigrams, for each word revealed to her a triple insult.

“Monsieur Melchior!” said Modeste again in a voice that asserted its right to be heard.

“What, mademoiselle?” demanded the poet.

Forced to rise, he remained standing half-way between the embroidery frame, which was near a window, and the fireplace where Modeste was seated with the Duchesse de Verneuil on a sofa. What bitter reflections came into his ambitious mind, as he caught a glance from Eleonore. If he obeyed Modeste all was over, and forever, between himself and his protectress. Not to obey her was to avow his slavery, to lose the chances of his twenty-five days of base manoeuvring, and to disregard the plainest laws of decency and civility. The greater the folly, the more imperatively the duchess exacted it. Modeste’s beauty and money thus pitted against Eleonore’s rights and influence made this hesitation between the man and his honor as terrible to witness as the peril of a matador in the arena. A man seldom feels such palpitations as those which now came near causing Canalis an aneurism, except, perhaps, before the green table, where his fortune or his ruin is about to be decided.

“Mademoiselle d’Herouville hurried me from the carriage, and I left behind me,” said Modeste to Canalis, “my handkerchief —”

Canalis shrugged his shoulders significantly.

“And,” continued Modeste, taking no notice of his gesture, “I had tied into one corner of it the key of a desk which contains the fragment of an important letter; have the kindness, Monsieur Melchior, to get it for me.”

Between an angel and a tiger equally enraged Canalis, who had turned livid, no longer hesitated — the tiger seemed to him the least dangerous of the two; and he was about to do as he was told, and commit himself irretrievably, when La Briere appeared at the door of the salon, seeming to his anguished mind like the archangel Gabriel tumbling from heaven.

“Ernest, here, Mademoiselle de La Bastie wants you,” said the poet, hastily returning to his chair by the embroidery frame.

Ernest rushed to Modeste without bowing to any one; he saw only her, took his commission with undisguised joy, and darted from the room, with the secret approbation of every woman present.

“What an occupation for a poet!” said Modeste to Helene d’Herouville, glancing toward the embroidery at which the duchess was now working savagely.

“If you speak to her, if you ever look at her, all is over between us,” said the duchess to the poet in a low voice, not at all satisfied with the very doubtful termination which Ernest’s arrival had put to the scene; “and remember, if I am not present, I leave behind me eyes that will watch you.”

So saying, the duchess, a woman of medium height, but a little too stout, like all women over fifty who retain their beauty, rose and walked toward the group which surrounded Diane de Maufrigneuse, stepping daintily on little feet that were as slender and nervous as a deer’s. Beneath her plumpness could be seen the exquisite delicacy of such women, which comes from the vigor of their nervous systems controlling and vitalizing the development of flesh. There is no other way to explain the lightness of her step, and the incomparable nobility of her bearing. None but the women whose quarterings begin with Noah know, as Eleonore did, how to be majestic in spite of a buxom tendency. A philosopher might have pitied Philoxene, while admiring the graceful lines of the bust and the minute care bestowed upon a morning dress, which was worn with the elegance of a queen and the easy grace of a young girl. Her abundant hair, still undyed, was simply wound about her head in plaits; she bared her snowy throat and shoulders, exquisitely modelled, and her celebrated hand and arm, with pardonable pride. Modeste, together with all other antagonists of the duchess, recognized in her a woman of whom they were forced to say, “She eclipses us.” In fact, Eleonore was one of the “grandes dames” now so rare. To endeavor to explain what august quality there was in the carriage of the head, what refinement and delicacy in the curve of the throat, what harmony in her movements, and nobility in her bearing, what grandeur in the perfect accord of details with the whole being, and in the arts, now a second nature, which render a woman grand and even sacred — to explain all these things would simply be to attempt to analyze the sublime. People enjoy such poetry as they enjoy that of Paganini; they do not explain to themselves the medium, they know the cause is in the spirit that remains invisible.

Madame de Chaulieu bowed her head in salutation of Helene and her aunt; then, saying to Diane, in a pure and equable tone of voice, without a trace of emotion, “Is it not time to dress, duchess?” she made her exit, accompanied by her daughter-inlaw and Mademoiselle d’Herouville. As she left the room she spoke in an undertone to the old maid, who pressed her arm, saying, “You are charming,”— which meant, “I am all gratitude for the service you have just done us.” After that, Mademoiselle d’Herouville returned to the salon to play her part of spy, and her first glance apprised Canalis that the duchess had made him no empty threat. That apprentice in diplomacy became aware that his science was not sufficient for a struggle of this kind, and his wit served him to take a more honest position, if not a worthier one. When Ernest returned, bringing Modeste’s handkerchief, the poet seized his arm and took him out on the terrace.

“My dear friend,” he said, “I am not only the most unfortunate man in the world, but I am also the most ridiculous; and I come to you to get me out of the hornet’s nest into which I have run myself. Modeste is a demon; she sees my difficulty and she laughs at it; she has just spoken to me of a fragment of a letter of Madame de Chaulieu, which I had the folly to give her; if she shows it I can never make my peace with Eleonore. Therefore, will you at once ask Modeste to send me back that paper, and tell her, from me, that I make no pretensions to her hand. Say I count upon her delicacy, upon her propriety as a young girl, to behave to me as if we had never known each other. I beg her not to speak to me; I implore her to treat me harshly — though I hardly dare ask her to feign a jealous anger, which would help my interests amazingly. Go, I will wait here for an answer.”

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