Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



“Ladies,” said the Prince de Cadignan, as the guests were about to separate for the night, “I know that several of you propose to follow the hounds with us tomorrow, and it becomes my duty to tell you that if you will be Dianas you must rise, like Diana, with the dawn. The meet is for half-past eight o’clock. I have in the course of my life seen many women display greater courage than men, but for a few seconds only; and you will need a strong dose of resolution to keep you on horseback the whole day, barring a halt for breakfast, which we shall take, like true hunters and huntresses, on the nail. Are you still determined to show yourselves trained horse-women?”

“Prince, it is necessary for me to do so,” said Modeste, adroitly.

“I answer for myself,” said the Duchesse de Chaulieu.

“And I for my daughter Diane; she is worthy of her name,” added the prince. “So, then, you all persist in your intentions? However, I shall arrange, for the sake of Madame and Mademoiselle de Verneuil and others of the party who stay at home, to drive the stag to the further end of the pond.”

“Make yourself quite easy, mesdames,” said the Prince de Loudon, when the Royal Huntsman had left the room; “that breakfast ‘on the nail’ will take place under a comfortable tent.”

The next day, at dawn, all signs gave promise of a glorious day. The skies, veiled by a slight gray vapor, showed spaces of purest blue, and would surely be swept clear before mid-day by the northwest wind, which was already playing with the fleecy cloudlets. As the hunting party left the chateau, the Master of the Hunt, the Duc de Rhetore, and the Prince de Loudon, who had no ladies to escort, rode in the advance, noticing the white masses of the chateau, with its rising chimneys relieved against the brilliant red-brown foliage which the trees in Normandy put on at the close of a fine autumn.

“The ladies are fortunate in their weather,” remarked the Duc de Rhetore.

“Oh, in spite of all their boasting,” replied the Prince de Cadignan, “I think they will let us hunt without them!”

“So they might, if each had not a squire,” said the duke.

At this moment the attention of these determined huntsmen — for the Prince de Loudon and the Duc de Rhetore are of the race of Nimrod, and the best shots of the faubourg Saint–Germain — was attracted by a loud altercation; and they spurred their horses to an open space at the entrance to the forest of Rosembray, famous for its mossy turf, which was appointed for the meet. The cause of the quarrel was soon apparent. The Prince de Loudon, afflicted with anglomania, had brought out his own hunting establishment, which was exclusively Britannic, and placed it under orders of the Master of the Hunt. Now, one of his men, a little Englishman — fair, pale, insolent, and phlegmatic, scarcely able to speak a word of French, and dressed with a neatness which distinguishes all Britons, even those of the lower classes — had posted himself on one side of this open space. John Barry wore a short frock-coat, buttoned tightly at the waist, made of scarlet cloth, with buttons bearing the De Verneuil arms, white leather breeches, top-boots, a striped waistcoat, and a collar and cape of black velvet. He held in his hand a small hunting-whip, and hanging to his wrist by a silken cord was a brass horn. This man, the first whipper-in, was accompanied by two thorough-bred dogs — fox-hounds, white, with liver spots, long in the leg, fine in the muzzle, with slender heads, and little ears at their crests. The huntsman — famous in the English county from which the Prince de Loudon had obtained him at great cost — was in charge of an establishment of fifteen horses and sixty English hounds, which cost the Duc de Verneuil, who was nothing of a huntsman, but chose to indulge his son in this essentially royal taste, an enormous sum of money to keep up.

Now, when John arrived on the ground, he found himself forestalled by three other whippers-in, in charge of two of the royal packs of hounds which had been brought there in carts. They were the three best huntsmen of the Prince de Cadignan, and presented, both in character and in their distinctively French costume, a marked contrast to the representative of insolent Albion. These favorites of the Prince, each wearing full-brimmed, three-cornered hats, very flat and very wide-spreading, beneath which grinned their swarthy, tanned, and wrinkled faces, lighted by three pairs of twinkling eyes, were noticeably lean, sinewy, and vigorous, like men in whom sport had become a passion. All three were supplied with immense horns of Dampierre, wound with green worsted cords, leaving only the brass tubes visible; but they controlled their dogs by the eye and voice. Those noble animals were far more faithful and submissive subjects than the human lieges whom the king was at that moment addressing; all were marked with white, black, or liver spots, each having as distinctive a countenance as the soldiers of Napoleon, their eyes flashing like diamonds at the slightest noise. One of them, brought from Poitou, was short in the back, deep in the shoulder, low-jointed, and lop-eared; the other, from England, white, fine as a greyhound with no belly, small ears, and built for running. Both were young, impatient, and yelping eagerly, while the old hounds, on the contrary, covered with scars, lay quietly with their heads on their forepaws, and their ears to the earth like savages.

As the Englishman came up, the royal dogs and huntsmen looked at each other as though they said, “If we cannot hunt by ourselves his Majesty’s service is insulted.”

Beginning with jests, the quarrel presently grew fiercer between Monsieur Jacquin La Roulie, the old French whipper-in, and John Barry, the young islander. The two princes guessed from afar the subject of the altercation, and the Master of the Hunt, setting spurs to his horse, brought it to an end by saying, in a voice of authority:—

“Who drew the wood?”

“I, monseigneur,” said the Englishman.

“Very good,” said the Prince de Cadignan, proceeding to take Barry’s report.

Dogs and men became silent and respectful before the Royal Huntsman, as though each recognized his dignity as supreme. The prince laid out the day’s work; for it is with a hunt as it is with a battle, and the Master of Charles X.‘s hounds was the Napoleon of forests. Thanks to the admirable system which he has introduced into French venery, he was able to turn his thoughts exclusively to the science and strategy of it. He now quietly assigned a special duty to the Prince de Loudon’s establishment, that of driving the stag to water, when, as he expected, the royal hounds had sent it into the Crown forest which outlined the horizon directly in front of the chateau. The prince knew well how to soothe the self-love of his old huntsmen by giving them the most arduous part of the work, and also that of the Englishman, whom he employed at his own speciality, affording him a chance to show the fleetness of his horses and dogs in the open. The two national systems were thus face to face and allowed to do their best under each other’s eyes.

“Does monseigneur wish us to wait any longer?” said La Roulie, respectfully.

“I know what you mean, old friend,” said the prince. “It is late, but —”

“Here come the ladies,” said the second whipper-in.

At that moment the cavalcade of sixteen riders was seen to approach at the head of which were the green veils of the four ladies. Modeste, accompanied by her father, the grand equerry, and La Briere, was in the advance, beside the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse whom the Vicomte de Serizy escorted. Behind them rode the Duchesse de Chaulieu, flanked by Canalis, on whom she was smiling without a trace of rancor. When they had reached the open space where the huntsmen with their red coats and brass bugles, surrounded by the hounds, made a picture worthy of Van der Meulen, the Duchesse de Chaulieu, who, in spite of her embonpoint, sat her horse admirably, rode up to Modeste, finding it more for her dignity not to avoid that young person, to whom the evening before she had not said a single word.

When the Master of the Hunt finished his compliments to the ladies on their amazing punctuality, Eleonore deigned to observe the magnificent whip which sparked in Modeste’s little hand, and graciously asked leave to look at it.

“I have never seen anything of the kind more beautiful,” she said, showing it to Diane de Maufrigneuse. “It is in keeping with its possessor,” she added, returning it to Modeste.

“You must admit, Madame la duchesse,” answered Mademoiselle de La Bastie, with a tender and malicious glance at La Briere, “that it is a rather strange gift from the hand of a future husband.”

“I should take it,” said Madame de Maufrigneuse, “as a declaration of my rights, in remembrance of Louis XIV.”

La Briere’s eyes were suffused, and for a moment he dropped his reins; but a second glance from Modeste ordered him not to betray his happiness. The hunt now began.

The Duc d’Herouville took occasion to say in a low voice to his fortunate rival; “Monsieur, I hope that you will make your wife happy; if I can be useful to you in any way, command my services; I should be only too glad to contribute to the happiness of so charming a pair.”

This great day, in which such vast interests of heart and fortune were decided, caused but one anxiety to the Master of the Hunt — namely, whether or not the stag would cross the pond and be killed on the lawn before the house; for huntsmen of his calibre are like great chess-players who can predict a checkmate under certain circumstances. The happy old man succeeded to the height of his wishes; the run was magnificent, and the ladies released him from his attendance upon them for the hunt of the next day but one — which, however, turned out to be rainy.

The Duc de Verneuil’s guests stayed five days at Rosembray. On the last day the Gazette de France announced the appointment of Monsieur le Baron de Canalis to the rank of commander of the Legion of honor, and to the post of minister at Carlsruhe.

When, early in the month of December, Madame de La Bastie, operated upon by Desplein, recovered her sight and saw Ernest de La Briere for the first time, she pressed Modeste’s hand and whispered in her ear, “I should have chosen him myself.”

Toward the last of February all the deeds for the estates in Provence were signed by Latournelle, and about that time the family of La Bastie obtained the marked honor of the king’s signature to the marriage contract and to the ordinance transmitting their title and arms to La Briere, who henceforth took the name of La Briere–La Bastie. The estate of La Bastie was entailed by letters-patent issued about the end of April. La Briere’s witnesses on the occasion of his marriage were Canalis and the minister whom he had served for five years as secretary. Those of the bride were the Duc d’Herouville and Desplein, whom the Mignons long held in grateful remembrance, after giving him magnificent and substantial proofs of their regard.

Later, in the course of this long history of our manners and customs, we may again meet Monsieur and Madame de La Briere–La Bastie; and those who have the eyes to see, will then behold how sweet, how easy, is the marriage yoke with an educated and intelligent woman; for Modeste, who had the wit to avoid the follies of pedantry, is the pride and happiness of her husband, as she is of her family and of all those who surround her.

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