Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



Jean Francois Bernard Dumay, born at Vannes, started as a soldier for the army of Italy in 1799. His father, president of the revolutionary tribunal of that town, had displayed so much energy in his office that the place had become too hot to hold the son when the parent, a pettifogging lawyer, perished on the scaffold after the ninth Thermidor. On the death of his mother, who died of the grief this catastrophe occasioned, Jean sold all that he possessed and rushed to Italy at the age of twenty-two, at the very moment when our armies were beginning to yield. On the way he met a young man in the department of Var, who for reasons analogous to his own was in search of glory, believing a battle-field less perilous than his own Provence. Charles Mignon, the last scion of an ancient family, which gave its name to a street in Paris and to a mansion built by Cardinal Mignon, had a shrewd and calculating father, whose one idea was to save his feudal estate of La Bastie in the Comtat from the claws of the Revolution. Like all timid folk of that day, the Comte de La Bastie, now citizen Mignon, found it more wholesome to cut off other people’s heads than to let his own be cut off. The sham terrorist disappeared after the 9th Thermidor, and was then inscribed on the list of emigres. The estate of La Bastie was sold; the towers and bastions of the old castle were pulled down, and citizen Mignon was soon after discovered at Orleans and put to death with his wife and all his children except Charles, whom he had sent to find a refuge for the family in the Upper Alps.

Horrorstruck at the news, Charles waited for better times in a valley of Mont Genevra; and there he remained till 1799, subsisting on a few louis which his father had put into his hand at starting. Finally, when twenty-three years of age, and without other fortune than his fine presence and that southern beauty which, when it reaches perfection, may be called sublime (of which Antinous, the favorite of Adrian, is the type), Charles resolved to wager his Provencal audacity — taking it, like many another youth, for a vocation — on the red cloth of war. On his way to the base of the army at Nice he met the Breton. The pair became intimate, partly from the contrasts in their characters; they drank from the same cup at the wayside torrents, broke the same biscuit, and were both made sergeants at the peace which followed the battle of Marengo.

When the war recommenced, Charles Mignon was promoted into the cavalry and lost sight of his comrade. In 1812 the last of the Mignon de La Bastie was an officer of the Legion of honor and major of a regiment of cavalry. Taken prisoner by the Russians he was sent, like so many others, to Siberia. He made the journey in company with another prisoner, a poor lieutenant, in whom he recognized his old friend Jean Dumay, brave, neglected, undecorated, unhappy, like a million of other woollen epaulets, rank and file — that canvas of men on which Napoleon painted the picture of the Empire. While in Siberia, the lieutenant-colonel, to kill time, taught writing and arithmetic to the Breton, whose early education had seemed a useless waste of time to Pere Scevola. Charles found in the old comrade of his marching days one of those rare hearts into which a man can pour his griefs while telling his joys.

The young Provencal had met the fate which attends all handsome bachelors. In 1804, at Frankfort on the Main, he was adored by Bettina Wallenrod, only daughter of a banker, and he married her with all the more enthusiasm because she was rich and a noted beauty, while he was only a lieutenant with no prospects but the extremely problematical future of a soldier of fortune of that day. Old Wallenrod, a decayed German baron (there is always a baron in a German bank) delighted to know that the handsome lieutenant was the sole representative of the Mignon de La Bastie, approved the love of the blonde Bettina, whose beauty an artist (at that time there really was one in Frankfort) had lately painted as an ideal head of Germany. Wallenrod invested enough money in the French funds to give his daughter thirty thousand francs a year, and settled it on his anticipated grandsons, naming them counts of La Bastie–Wallenrod. This “dot” made only a small hole in his cash-box, the value of money being then very low. But the Empire, pursuing a policy often attempted by other debtors, rarely paid its dividends; and Charles was rather alarmed at this investment, having less faith than his father-inlaw in the imperial eagle. The phenomenon of belief, or of admiration which is ephemeral belief, is not so easily maintained when in close quarters with the idol. The mechanic distrusts the machine which the traveller admires; and the officers of the army might be called the stokers of the Napoleonic engine — if, indeed, they were not its fuel.

However, the Baron Wallenrod–Tustall-Bartenstild promised to come if necessary to the help of the household. Charles loved Bettina Wallenrod as much as she loved him, and that is saying a good deal; but when a Provencal is moved to enthusiasm all his feelings and attachments are genuine and natural. And how could he fail to adore that blonde beauty, escaping, as it were, from the canvas of Durer, gifted with an angelic nature and endowed with Frankfort wealth? The pair had four children, of whom only two daughters survived at the time when he poured his griefs into the Breton’s heart. Dumay loved these little ones without having seen them, solely through the sympathy so well described by Charlet, which makes a soldier the father of every child. The eldest, named Bettina Caroline, was born in 1805; the other, Marie Modeste, in 1808. The unfortunate lieutenant-colonel, long without tidings of these cherished darlings, was sent, at the peace of 1814, across Russia and Prussia on foot, accompanied by the lieutenant. No difference of epaulets could count between the two friends, who reached Frankfort just as Napoleon was disembarking at Cannes.

Charles found his wife in Frankfort, in mourning for her father, who had always idolized her and tried to keep a smile upon her lips, even by his dying bed. Old Wallenrod was unable to survive the disasters of the Empire. At seventy years of age he speculated in cottons, relying on the genius of Napoleon without comprehending that genius is quite as often beyond as at the bottom of current events. The old man had purchased nearly as many bales of cotton as the Emperor had lost men during his magnificent campaign in France. “I tie in goddon,” said the father to the daughter, a father of the Goriot type, striving to quiet a grief which distressed him. “I owe no mann anything —” and he died, still trying to speak to his daughter in the language that she loved.

Thankful to have saved his wife and daughters from the general wreck, Charles Mignon returned to Paris, where the Emperor made him lieutenant-colonel in the cuirassiers of the Guard and commander of the Legion of honor. The colonel dreamed of being count and general after the first victory. Alas! that hope was quenched in the blood of Waterloo. The colonel, slightly wounded, retired to the Loire, and left Tours before the disbandment of the army.

In the spring of 1816 Charles sold his wife’s property out of the funds to the amount of nearly four hundred thousand francs, intending to seek his fortune in America, and abandon his own country where persecution was beginning to lay a heavy hand on the soldiers of Napoleon. He went to Havre accompanied by Dumay, whose life he had saved at Waterloo by taking him on the crupper of his saddle in the hurly-burly of the retreat. Dumay shared the opinions and the anxieties of his colonel; the poor fellow idolized the two little girls and followed Charles like a spaniel. The latter, confidence that the habit of obedience, the discipline of subordination, and the honesty and affection of the lieutenant would make him a useful as well as a faithful retainer, proposed to take him with him in a civil capacity. Dumay was only too happy to be adopted into the family, to which he resolved to cling like the mistletoe to an oak.

While waiting for an opportunity to embark, at the same time making choice of a ship and reflecting on the chances offered by the various ports for which they sailed, the colonel heard much talk about the brilliant future which the peace seemed to promise to Havre. As he listened to these conversations among the merchants, he foresaw the means of fortune, and without loss of time he set about making himself the owner of landed property, a banker, and a shipping-merchant. He bought land and houses in the town, and despatched a vessel to New York freighted with silks purchased in Lyons at reduced prices. He sent Dumay on the ship as his agent; and when the latter returned, after making a double profit by the sale of the silks and the purchase of cottons at a low valuation, he found the colonel installed with his family in the handsomest house in the rue Royale, and studying the principles of banking with the prodigious activity and intelligence of a native of Provence.

This double operation of Dumay’s was worth a fortune to the house of Mignon. The colonel purchased the villa at Ingouville and rewarded his agent with the gift of a modest little house in the rue Royale. The poor toiler had brought back from New York, together with his cottons, a pretty little wife, attracted it would seem by his French nature. Miss Grummer was worth about four thousand dollars (twenty thousand francs), which sum Dumay placed with his colonel, to whom he now became an alter ego. In a short time he learned to keep his patron’s books, a science which, to use his own expression, pertains to the sergeant-majors of commerce. The simple-hearted soldier, whom fortune had forgotten for twenty years, thought himself the happiest man in the world as the owner of the little house (which his master’s liberality had furnished), with twelve hundred francs a year from money in the funds, and a salary of three thousand six hundred. Never in his dreams had Lieutenant Dumay hoped for a situation so good as this; but greater still was the satisfaction he derived from the knowledge that his lucky enterprise had been the pivot of good fortune to the richest commercial house in Havre.

Madame Dumay, a rather pretty little American, had the misfortune to lose all her children at their birth; and her last confinement was so disastrous as to deprive her of the hope of any other. She therefore attached herself to the two little Mignons, whom Dumay himself loved, or would have loved, even better than his own children had they lived. Madame Dumay, whose parents were farmers accustomed to a life of economy, was quite satisfied to receive only two thousand four hundred francs of her own and her household expenses; so that every year Dumay laid by two thousand and some extra hundreds with the house of Mignon. When the yearly accounts were made up the colonel always added something to this little store by way of acknowledging the cashier’s services, until in 1824 the latter had a credit of fifty-eight thousand francs. In was then that Charles Mignon, Comte de La Bastie, a title he never used, crowned his cashier with the final happiness of residing at the Chalet, where at the time when this story begins Madame Mignon and her daughter were living in obscurity.

The deplorable state of Madame Mignon’s health was caused in part by the catastrophe to which the absence of her husband was due. Grief had taken three years to break down the docile German woman; but it was a grief that gnawed at her heart like a worm at the core of a sound fruit. It is easy to reckon up its obvious causes. Two children, dying in infancy, had a double grave in a soul that could never forget. The exile of her husband to Siberia was to such a woman a daily death. The failure of the rich house of Wallenrod, and the death of her father, leaving his coffers empty, was to Bettina, then uncertain about the fate of her husband, a terrible blow. The joy of Charles’s return came near killing the tender German flower. After that the second fall of the Empire and the proposed expatriation acted on her feelings like a renewed attack of the same fever. At last, however, after ten years of continual prosperity, the comforts of her house, which was the finest in Havre, the dinners, balls, and fetes of a prosperous merchant, the splendors of the villa Mignon, the unbounded respect and consideration enjoyed by her husband, his absolute affection, giving her an unrivalled love in return for her single-minded love for him — all these things brought the woman back to life. At the moment when her doubts and fears at last left her, when she could look forward to the bright evening of her stormy life, a hidden catastrophe, buried in the heart of the family, and of which we shall presently make mention, came as the precursor of renewed trials.

In January, 1826, on the day when Havre had unanimously chosen Charles Mignon as its deputy, three letters, arriving from New York, Paris, and London, fell with the destruction of a hammer upon the crystal palace of his prosperity. In an instant ruin like a vulture swooped down upon their happiness, just as the cold fell in 1812 upon the grand army in Russia. One night sufficed Charles Mignon to decide upon his course, and he spent it in settling his accounts with Dumay. All he owned, not excepting his furniture, would just suffice to pay his creditors.

“Havre shall never see me doing nothing,” said the colonel to the lieutenant. “Dumay, I take your sixty thousand francs at six per cent.”

“Three, my colonel.”

“At nothing, then,” cried Mignon, peremptorily; “you shall have your share in the profits of what I now undertake. The ‘Modeste,’ which is no longer mine, sails tomorrow, and I sail in her. I commit to you my wife and daughter. I shall not write. No news must be taken as good news.”

Dumay, always subordinate, asked no questions of his colonel. “I think,” he said to Latournelle with a knowing little glance, “that my colonel has a plan laid out.”

The following day at dawn he accompanied his master on board the “Modeste” bound for Constantinople. There, on the poop of the vessel, the Breton said to the Provencal —

“What are your last commands, my colonel?”

“That no man shall enter the Chalet,” cried the father with strong emotion. “Dumay, guard my last child as though you were a bull-dog. Death to the man who seduces another daughter! Fear nothing, not even the scaffold — I will be with you.”

“My colonel, go in peace. I understand you. You shall find Mademoiselle Mignon on your return such as you now give her to me, or I shall be dead. You know me, and you know your Pyrenees hounds. No man shall reach your daughter. Forgive me for troubling you with words.”

The two soldiers clasped arms like men who had learned to understand each other in the solitudes of Siberia.

On the same day the Havre “Courier” published the following terrible, simple, energetic, and honorable notice:—

“The house of Charles Mignon suspends payment. But the
undersigned, assignees of the estate, undertake to pay all
liabilities. On and after this date, holders of notes may obtain
the usual discount. The sale of the landed estates will fully
cover all current indebtedness.

“This notice is issued for the honor of the house, and to prevent
any disturbance in the money-market of this town.

“Monsieur Charles Mignon sailed this morning on the ‘Modeste’ for
Asia Minor, leaving full powers with the undersigned to sell his
whole property, both landed and personal.

DUMAY, assignee of the Bank accounts,
LATOURNELLE, notary, assignee of the city and villa property,
GOBENHEIM, assignee of the commercial property.”

Latournelle owed his prosperity to the kindness of Monsieur Mignon, who lent him one hundred thousand francs in 1817 to buy the finest law practice in Havre. The poor man, who had no pecuniary means, was nearly forty years of age and saw no prospect of being other than head-clerk for the rest of his days. He was the only man in Havre whose devotion could be compared with Dumay’s. As for Gobenheim, he profited by the liquidation to get a part of Monsieur Mignon’s business, which lifted his own little bank into prominence.

While unanimous regrets for the disaster were expressed in counting-rooms, on the wharves, and in private houses, where praises of a man so irreproachable, honorable, and beneficent filled every mouth, Latournelle and Dumay, silent and active as ants, sold land, turned property into money, paid the debts, and settled up everything. Vilquin showed a good deal of generosity in purchasing the villa, the town-house, and a farm; and Latournelle made the most of his liberality by getting a good price out of him. Society wished to show civilities to Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon; but they had already obeyed the father’s last wishes and taken refuge in the Chalet, where they went on the very morning of his departure, the exact hour of which had been concealed from them. Not to be shaken in his resolution by his grief at parting, the brave man said farewell to his wife and daughter while they slept. Three hundred visiting cards were left at the house. A fortnight later, just as Charles had predicted, complete forgetfulness settled down upon the Chalet, and proved to these women the wisdom and dignity of his command.

Dumay sent agents to represent his master in New York, Paris, and London, and followed up the assignments of the three banking-houses whose failure had caused the ruin of the Havre house, thus realizing five hundred thousand francs between 1826 and 1828, an eighth of Charles’s whole fortune; then, according to the latter’s directions given on the night of his departure, he sent that sum to New York through the house of Mongenod to the credit of Monsieur Charles Mignon. All this was done with military obedience, except in a matter of withholding thirty thousand francs for the personal expenses of Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon as the colonel had ordered him to do, but which Dumay did not do. The Breton sold his own little house for twenty thousand francs, which sum he gave to Madame Mignon, believing that the more capital he sent to his colonel the sooner the latter would return.

“He might perish for the want of thirty thousand francs,” Dumay remarked to Latournelle, who bought the little house at its full value, where an apartment was always kept ready for the inhabitants of the Chalet.

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