Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



On re-entering the salon Ernest de La Briere found a young officer of the company of the guard d’Havre, the Vicomte de Serizy, who had just arrived from Rosny to announce that Madame was obliged to be present at the opening of the Chambers. We know the importance then attached to this constitutional solemnity, at which Charles X. delivered his speech, surrounded by the royal family — Madame la Dauphine and Madame being present in their gallery. The choice of the emissary charged with the duty of expressing the princess’s regrets was an attention to Diane, who was then an object of adoration to this charming young man, son of a minister of state, gentleman in ordinary of the chamber, only son and heir to an immense fortune. The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse permitted his attentions solely for the purpose of attracting notice to the age of his mother, Madame de Serizy, who was said, in those chronicles that are whispered behind the fans, to have deprived her of the heart of the handsome Lucien de Rubempre.

“You will do us the pleasure, I hope, to remain at Rosembray,” said the severe duchess to the young officer.

While giving ear to every scandal, the devout lady shut her eyes to the derelictions of her guests who had been carefully selected by the duke; indeed, it is surprising how much these excellent women will tolerate under pretence of bringing the lost sheep back to the fold by their indulgence.

“We reckoned without our constitutional government,” said the grand equerry; “and Rosembray, Madame la duchesse, will lose a great honor.”

“We shall be more at our ease,” said a tall thin old man, about seventy-five years of age, dressed in blue cloth, and wearing his hunting-cap by permission of the ladies. This personage, who closely resembled the Duc de Bourbon, was no less than the Prince de Cadignan, Master of the Hunt, and one of the last of the great French lords. Just as La Briere was endeavoring to slip behind the sofa and obtain a moment’s intercourse with Modeste, a man of thirty-eight, short, fat, and very common in appearance, entered the room.

“My son, the Prince de Loudon,” said the Duchesse de Verneuil to Modeste, who could not restrain the expression of amazement that overspread her young face on seeing the man who bore the historical name that the hero of La Vendee had rendered famous by his bravery and the martyrdom of his death.

“Gaspard,” said the duchess, calling her son to her. The young prince came at once, and his mother continued, motioning to Modeste, “Mademoiselle de La Bastie, my friend.”

The heir presumptive, whose marriage with Desplein’s only daughter had lately been arranged, bowed to the young girl without seeming struck, as his father had been, with her beauty. Modeste was thus enabled to compare the youth of today with the old age of a past epoch; for the old Prince de Cadignan had already said a few words which made her feel that he rendered as true a homage to womanhood as to royalty. The Duc de Rhetore, the eldest son of the Duchesse de Chaulieu, chiefly remarkable for manners that were equally impertinent and free and easy, bowed to Modeste rather cavalierly. The reason of this contrast between the fathers and the sons is to be found, probably, in the fact that young men no longer feel themselves great beings, as their forefathers did, and they dispense with the duties of greatness, knowing well that they are now but the shadow of it. The fathers retain the inherent politeness of their vanished grandeur, like the mountain-tops still gilded by the sun when all is twilight in the valley.

Ernest was at last able to slip a word into Modeste’s ear, and she rose immediately.

“My dear,” said the duchesse, thinking she was going to dress, and pulling a bell-rope, “they shall show you your apartment.”

Ernest accompanied Modeste to the foot of the grand staircase, presenting the request of the luckless poet, and endeavoring to touch her feelings by describing Melchior’s agony.

“You see, he loves — he is a captive who thought he could break his chain.”

“Love in such a rapid seeker after fortune!” retorted Modeste.

“Mademoiselle, you are at the entrance of life; you do not know its defiles. The inconsistencies of a man who falls under the dominion of a woman much older than himself should be forgiven, for he is really not accountable. Think how many sacrifices Canalis has made to her. He has sown too much seed of that kind to resign the harvest; the duchess represents to him ten years of devotion and happiness. You made him forget all that, and unfortunately, he has more vanity than pride; he did not reflect on what he was losing until he met Madame Chaulieu here today. If you really understood him, you would help him. He is a child, always mismanaging his life. You call him a seeker after fortune, but he seeks very badly; like all poets, he is a victim of sensations; he is childish, easily dazzled like a child by anything that shines, and pursuing its glitter. He used to love horses and pictures, and he craved fame — well, he sold his pictures to buy armor and old furniture of the Renaissance and Louis XV.; just now he is seeking political power. Admit that his hobbies are noble things.”

“You have said enough,” replied Modeste; “come,” she added, seeing her father, whom she called with a motion of her head to give her his arm; “come with me, and I will give you that scrap of paper; you shall carry it to the great man and assure him of my condescension to his wishes, but on one condition — you must thank him in my name for the pleasure I have taken in seeing one of the finest of the German plays performed in my honor. I have learned that Goethe’s masterpiece is neither Faust nor Egmont —” and then, as Ernest looked at the malicious girl with a puzzled air, she added: “It is Torquato Tasso! Tell Monsieur de Canalis to re-read it,” she added smiling; “I particularly desire that you will repeat to your friend word for word what I say; for it is not an epigram, it is the justification of his conduct — with this trifling difference, that he will, I trust, become more and more reasonable, thanks to the folly of his Eleonore.”

The duchess’s head-woman conducted Modeste and her father to their apartment, where Francoise Cochet had already put everything in order, and the choice elegance of which astounded the colonel, more especially after he heard from Francoise that there were thirty other apartments in the chateau decorated with the same taste.

“This is what I call a proper country-house,” said Modeste.

“The Comte de La Bastie must build you one like it,” replied her father.

“Here, monsieur,” said Modeste, giving the bit of paper to Ernest; “carry it to our friend and put him out of his misery.”

The word our friend struck the young man’s heart. He looked at Modeste to see if there was anything real in the community of interests which she seemed to admit, and she, understanding perfectly what his look meant, added, “Come, go at once, your friend is waiting.”

La Briere colored excessively, and left the room in a state of doubt and anxiety less endurable than despair. The path that approaches happiness is, to the true lover, like the narrow way which Catholic poetry has called the entrance to Paradise — expressing thus a dark and gloomy passage, echoing with the last cries of earthly anguish.

An hour later this illustrious company were all assembled in the salon; some were playing whist, others conversing; the women had their embroideries in hand, and all were waiting the announcement of dinner. The Prince de Cadignan was drawing Monsieur Mignon out upon China, and his campaigns under the empire, and making him talk about the Portendueres, the L’Estorades, and the Maucombes, Provencal families; he blamed him for not seeking service, and assured him that nothing would be easier than to restore him to his rank as colonel of the Guard.

“A man of your birth and your fortune ought not to belong to the present Opposition,” said the prince, smiling.

This society of distinguished persons not only pleased Modeste, but it enabled her to acquire, during her stay, a perfection of manners which without this revelation she would have lacked all her life. Show a clock to an embryo mechanic, and you reveal to him the whole mechanism; he thus develops the germs of his faculty which lie dormant within him. In like manner Modeste had the instinct to appropriate the distinctive qualities of Madame de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Chaulieu. For her, the sight of these women was an education; whereas a bourgeois would merely have ridiculed their ways or made them absurd by clumsy imitation. A well-born, well-educated, and right-minded young woman like Modeste fell naturally into connection with these people, and saw at once the differences that separate the aristocratic world from the bourgeois world, the provinces from the faubourg Saint–Germain; she caught the almost imperceptible shadings; in short, she perceived the grace of the “grande dame” without doubting that she could herself acquire it. She noticed also that her father and La Briere appeared infinitely better in this Olympus than Canalis. The great poet, abdicating his real and incontestable power, that of the mind, became nothing more than a courtier seeking a ministry, intriguing for an order, and forced to please the whole galaxy. Ernest de La Briere, without ambitions, was able to be himself; while Melchior became, to use a vulgar expression, a mere toady, and courted the Prince de Loudon, the Duc de Rhetore, the Vicomte de Serizy, or the Duc de Maufrigneuse, like a man not free to assert himself, as did Colonel Mignon, who was justly proud of his campaigns, and of the confidence of the Emperor Napoleon. Modeste took note of the strained efforts of the man of real talent, seeking some witticism that should raise a laugh, some clever speech, some compliment with which to flatter these grand personages, whom it was his interest to please. In a word, to Modeste’s eyes the peacock plucked out his tail-feathers.

Toward the middle of the evening the young girl sat down with the grand equerry in a corner of the salon. She led him there purposely to end a suit which she could no longer encourage if she wished to retain her self-respect.

“Monsieur le duc, if you really knew me,” she said, “you would understand how deeply I am touched by your attentions. It is because of the profound respect I feel for your character, and the friendship which a soul like yours inspires in mine, that I cannot endure to wound your self-love. Before your arrival in Havre I loved sincerely, deeply, and forever, one who is worthy of being loved, and my affection for whom is still a secret; but I wish you to know — and in saying this I am more sincere than most young girls — that had I not already formed this voluntary attachment, you would have been my choice, for I recognize your noble and beautiful qualities. A few words which your aunt and sister have said to me as to your intentions lead me to make this frank avowal. If you think it desirable, a letter from my mother shall recall me, on pretence of her illness, tomorrow morning before the hunt begins. Without your consent I do not choose to be present at a fete which I owe to your kindness, and where, if my secret should escape me, you might feel hurt and defrauded. You will ask me why I have come here at all. I could not withstand the invitation. Be generous enough not to reproach me for what was almost a necessary curiosity. But this is not the chief, not the most delicate thing I have to say to you. You have firm friends in my father and myself — more so than perhaps you realize; and as my fortune was the first cause that brought you to me, I wish to say — but without intending to use it as a sedative to calm the grief which gallantry requires you to testify — that my father has thought over the affair of the marshes, his friend Dumay thinks your project feasible, and they have already taken steps to form a company. Gobenheim, Dumay, and my father have subscribed fifteen hundred thousand francs, and undertake to get the rest from capitalists, who will feel it in their interest to take up the matter. If I have not the honor of becoming the Duchesse d’Herouville, I have almost the certainty of enabling you to choose her, free from all trammels in your choice, and in a higher sphere than mine. Oh! let me finish,” she cried, at a gesture from the duke.

“Judging by my nephew’s emotion,” whispered Mademoiselle d’Herouville to her niece, “it is easy to see you have a sister.”

“Monsieur le duc, all this was settled in my mind the day of our first ride, when I heard you deplore your situation. This is what I have wished to say to you. That day determined my future life. Though you did not make the conquest of a woman, you have at least gained faithful friends at Ingouville — if you will deign to accord us that title.”

This little discourse, which Modeste had carefully thought over, was said with so much charm of soul that the tears came to the grand equerry’s eyes; he seized her hand and kissed it.

“Stay during the hunt,” he said; “my want of merit has accustomed me to these refusals; but while accepting your friendship and that of the colonel, you must let me satisfy myself by the judgment of competent scientific men, that the draining of those marshes will be no risk to the company you speak of, before I agree to the generous offer of your friends. You are a noble girl, and though my heart aches to think I can only be your friend, I will glory in that title, and prove it to you at all times and in all seasons.”

“In that case, Monsieur le duc, let us keep our secret. My choice will not be known, at least I think not, until after my mother’s complete recovery. I should like our first blessing to come from her eyes.”

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