Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



Such was the result to the celebrated house of Mignon at Havre of the crisis of 1825–26, which convulsed many of the principal business centres in Europe and caused the ruin of several Parisian bankers, among them (as those who remember that crisis will recall) the president of the chamber of commerce.

We can now understand how this great disaster, coming suddenly at the close of ten years of domestic happiness, might well have been the death of Bettina Mignon, again separated from her husband and ignorant of his fate — to her as adventurous and perilous as the exile to Siberia. But the grief which was dragging her to the grave was far other than these visible sorrows. The caustic that was slowly eating into her heart lay beneath a stone in the little graveyard of Ingouville, on which was inscribed:—


Died aged twenty-two.

Pray for her.

This inscription is to the young girl whom it covered what many another epitaph has been for the dead lying beneath them — a table of contents to a hidden book. Here is the book, in its dreadful brevity; and it will explain the oath exacted and taken when the colonel and the lieutenant bade each other farewell.

A young man of charming appearance, named Charles d’Estourny, came to Havre for the commonplace purpose of being near the sea, and there he saw Bettina Mignon. A “soi-disant” fashionable Parisian is never without introductions, and he was invited at the instance of a friend of the Mignons to a fete given at Ingouville. He fell in love with Bettina and with her fortune, and in three months he had done the work of seduction and enticed her away. The father of a family of daughters should no more allow a young man whom he does not know to enter his home than he should leave books and papers lying about which he has not read. A young girl’s innocence is like milk, which a small matter turns sour — a clap of thunder, an evil odor, a hot day, a mere breath.

When Charles Mignon read his daughter’s letter of farewell he instantly despatched Madame Dumay to Paris. The family gave out that a journey to another climate had suddenly been advised for Caroline by their physician; and the physician himself sustained the excuse, though unable to prevent some gossip in the society of Havre. “Such a vigorous young girl! with the complexion of a Spaniard, and that black hair! — she consumptive!” “Yes, they say she committed some imprudence.” “Ah, ah!” cried a Vilquin. “I am told she came back bathed in perspiration after riding on horseback, and drank iced water; at least, that is what Dr. Troussenard says.”

By the time Madame Dumay returned to Havre the catastrophe of the failure had taken place, and society paid no further attention to the absence of Bettina or the return of the cashier’s wife. At the beginning of 1827 the newspapers rang with the trial of Charles d’Estourny, who was found guilty of cheating at cards. The young corsair escaped into foreign parts without taking thought of Mademoiselle Mignon, who was of little value to him since the failure of the bank. Bettina heard of his infamous desertion and of her father’s ruin almost at the same time. She returned home struck by death, and wasted away in a short time at the Chalet. Her death at least protected her reputation. The illness that Monsieur Mignon alleged to be the cause of her absence, and the doctor’s order which sent her to Nice were now generally believed. Up to the last moment the mother hoped to save her daughter’s life. Bettina was her darling and Modeste was the father’s. There was something touching in the two preferences. Bettina was the image of Charles, just as Modeste was the reproduction of her mother. Both parents continued their love for each other in their children. Bettina, a daughter of Provence, inherited from her father the beautiful hair, black as a raven’s wing, which distinguishes the women of the South, the brown eye, almond-shaped and brilliant as a star, the olive tint, the velvet skin as of some golden fruit, the arched instep, and the Spanish waist from which the short basque skirt fell crisply. Both mother and father were proud of the charming contrast between the sisters. “A devil and an angel!” they said to each other, laughing, little thinking it prophetic.

After weeping for a month in the solitude of her chamber, where she admitted no one, the mother came forth at last with injured eyes. Before losing her sight altogether she persisted, against the wishes of her friends, in visiting her daughter’s grave, on which she riveted her gaze in contemplation. That image remained vivid in the darkness which now fell upon her, just as the red spectrum of an object shines in our eyes when we close them in full daylight. This terrible and double misfortune made Dumay, not less devoted, but more anxious about Modeste, now the only daughter of the father who was unaware of his loss. Madame Dumay, idolizing Modeste, like other women deprived of their children, cast her motherliness about the girl — yet without disregarding the commands of her husband, who distrusted female intimacies. Those commands were brief. “If any man, of any age, or any rank,” Dumay said, “speaks to Modeste, ogles her, makes love to her, he is a dead man. I’ll blow his brains out and give myself to the authorities; my death may save her. If you don’t wish to see my head cut off, do you take my place in watching her when I am obliged to go out.”

For the last three years Dumay had examined his pistols every night. He seemed to have put half the burden of his oath upon the Pyrenean hounds, two animals of uncommon sagacity. One slept inside the Chalet, the other was stationed in a kennel which he never left, and where he never barked; but terrible would have been the moment had the pair made their teeth meet in some unknown adventurer.

We can now imagine the sort of life led by mother and daughter at the Chalet. Monsieur and Madame Latournelle, often accompanied by Gobenheim, came to call and play whist with Dumay nearly every evening. The conversation turned on the gossip of Havre and the petty events of provincial life. The little company separated between nine and ten o’clock. Modeste put her mother to bed, and together they said their prayers, kept up each other’s courage, and talked of the dear absent one, the husband and father. After kissing her mother for good-night, the girl went to her own room about ten o’clock. The next morning she prepared her mother for the day with the same care, the same prayers, the same prattle. To her praise be it said that from the day when the terrible infirmity deprived her mother of a sense, Modeste had been like a servant to her, displaying at all times the same solicitude; never wearying of the duty, never thinking it monotonous. Such constant devotion, combined with a tenderness rare among young girls, was thoroughly appreciated by those who witnessed it. To the Latournelle family, and to Monsieur and Madame Dumay, Modeste was, in soul, the pearl of price.

On sunny days, between breakfast and dinner, Madame Mignon and Madame Dumay took a little walk toward the sea. Modeste accompanied them, for two arms were needed to support the blind mother. About a month before the scene to which this explanation is a parenthesis, Madame Mignon had taken counsel with her friends, Madame Latournelle, the notary, and Dumay, while Madame Dumay carried Modeste in another direction for a longer walk.

“Listen to what I have to say,” said the blind woman. “My daughter is in love. I feel it; I see it. A singular change has taken place within her, and I do not see how it is that none of you have perceived it.”

“In the name of all that’s honorable —” cried the lieutenant.

“Don’t interrupt me, Dumay. For the last two months Modeste has taken as much care of her personal appearance as if she expected to meet a lover. She has grown extremely fastidious about her shoes; she wants to set off her pretty feet; she scolds Madame Gobet, the shoemaker. It is the same thing with her milliner. Some days my poor darling is absorbed in thought, evidently expectant, as if waiting for some one. Her voice has curt tones when she answers a question, as though she were interrupted in the current of her thoughts and secret expectations. Then, if this awaited lover has come —”

“Good heavens!”

“Sit down, Dumay,” said the blind woman. “Well, then Modeste is gay. Oh! she is not gay to your sight; you cannot catch these gradations; they are too delicate for eyes that see only the outside of nature. Her gaiety is betrayed to me by the tones of her voice, by certain accents which I alone can catch and understand. Modeste then, instead of sitting still and thoughtful, gives vent to a wild, inward activity by impulsive movements — in short, she is happy. There is a grace, a charm in the very ideas she utters. Ah, my friends, I know happiness as well as I know sorrow; I know its signs. By the kiss my Modeste gives me I can guess what is passing within her. I know whether she has received what she was looking for, or whether she is uneasy or expectant. There are many gradations in a kiss, even in that of an innocent young girl, and Modeste is innocence itself; but hers is the innocence of knowledge, not of ignorance. I may be blind, but my tenderness is all-seeing, and I charge you to watch over my daughter.”

Dumay, now actually ferocious, the notary, in the character of a man bound to ferret out a mystery, Madame Latournelle, the deceived chaperone, and Madame Dumay, alarmed for her husband’s safety, became at once a set of spies, and Modeste from this day forth was never left alone for an instant. Dumay passed nights under her window wrapped in his cloak like a jealous Spaniard; but with all his military sagacity he was unable to detect the least suspicious sign. Unless she loved the nightingales in the villa park, or some fairy prince, Modeste could have seen no one, and had neither given nor received a signal. Madame Dumay, who never went to bed till she knew Modeste was asleep, watched the road from the upper windows of the Chalet with a vigilance equal to her husband’s. Under these eight Argus eyes the blameless child, whose every motion was studied and analyzed, came out of the ordeal so fully acquitted of all criminal conversation that the four friends declared to each other privately that Madame Mignon was foolishly over-anxious. Madame Latournelle, who always took Modeste to church and brought her back again, was commissioned to tell the mother that she was mistaken about her daughter.

“Modeste,” she said, “is a young girl of very exalted ideas; she works herself into enthusiasm for the poetry of one writer or the prose of another. You have only to judge by the impression made upon her by that scaffold symphony, ‘The Last Hours of a Convict’” (the saying was Butscha’s, who supplied wit to his benefactress with a lavish hand); “she seemed to me all but crazy with admiration for that Monsieur Hugo. I’m sure I don’t know where such people” (Victor Hugo, Lamartine, Byron being such people to the Madame Latournelles of the bourgeoisie) “get their ideas. Modeste kept talking to me of Childe Harold, and as I did not wish to get the worst of the argument I was silly enough to try to read the thing. Perhaps it was the fault of the translator, but it actually turned my stomach; I was dazed; I couldn’t possibly finish it. Why, the man talks about comparisons that howl, rocks that faint, and waves of war! However, he is only a travelling Englishman, and we must expect absurdities — though his are really inexcusable. He takes you to Spain, and sets you in the clouds above the Alps, and makes the torrents talk, and the stars; and he says there are too many virgins! Did you ever hear the like? Then, after Napoleon’s campaigns, the lines are full of sonorous brass and flaming cannon-balls, rolling along from page to page. Modeste tells me that all that bathos is put in by the translator, and that I ought to read the book in English. But I certainly sha’n’t learn English to read Lord Byron when I didn’t learn it to teach Exupere. I much prefer the novels of Ducray–Dumenil to all these English romances. I’m too good a Norman to fall in love with foreign things — above all when they come from England.”

Madame Mignon, notwithstanding her melancholy, could not help smiling at the idea of Madame Latournelle reading Childe Harold. The stern scion of a parliamentary house accepted the smile as an approval of her doctrine.

“And, therefore, my dear Madame Mignon,” she went on, “you have taken Modeste’s fancies, which are nothing but the results of her reading, for a love-affair. Remember, she is just twenty. Girls fall in love with themselves at that age; they dress to see themselves well-dressed. I remember I used to make my little sister, now dead, put on a man’s hat and pretend we were monsieur and madame. You see, you had a very happy youth in Frankfort; but let us be just — Modeste is living here without the slightest amusement. Although, to be sure, her every wish is attended to, still she knows she is shut up and watched, and the life she leads would give her no pleasure at all if it were not for the amusement she gets out of her books. Come, don’t worry yourself; she loves nobody but you. You ought to be very glad that she goes into these enthusiasms for the corsairs of Byron and the heroes of Walter Scott and your own Germans, Egmont, Goethe, Werther, Schiller, and all the other ‘ers.’”

“Well, madame, what do you say to that?” asked Dumay, respectfully, alarmed at Madame Mignon’s silence.

“Modeste is not only inclined to love, but she loves some man,” answered the mother, obstinately.

“Madame, my life is at stake, and you must allow me — not for my sake, but for my wife, my colonel, for all of us — to probe this matter to the bottom, and find out whether it is the mother or the watch-dog who is deceived.”

“It is you who are deceived, Dumay. Ah! if I could but see my daughter!” cried the poor woman.

“But whom is it possible for her to love?” asked the notary. “I’ll answer for my Exupere.”

“It can’t be Gobenheim,” said Dumay, “for since the colonel’s departure he has not spent nine hours a week in this house. Besides, he doesn’t even notice Modeste — that five-franc piece of a man! His uncle Gobenheim–Keller is all the time writing him, ‘Get rich enough to marry a Keller.’ With that idea in his mind you may be sure he doesn’t know which sex Modeste belongs to. No other men ever come here — for of course I don’t count Butscha, poor little fellow; I love him! He is your Dumay, madame,” said the cashier to Madame Latournelle. “Butscha knows very well that a mere glance at Modeste would cost him a Breton ducking. Not a soul has any communication with this house. Madame Latournelle who takes Modeste to church ever since your — your misfortune, madame, has carefully watched her on the way and all through the service, and has seen nothing suspicious. In short, if I must confess the truth, I have myself raked all the paths about the house every evening for the last month, and found no trace of footsteps in the morning.”

“Rakes are neither costly nor difficult to handle,” remarked the daughter of Germany.

“But the dogs?” cried Dumay.

“Lovers have philters even for dogs,” answered Madame Mignon.

“If you are right, my honor is lost! I may as well blow my brains out,” exclaimed Dumay.

“Why so, Dumay?” said the blind woman.

“Ah, madame, I could never meet my colonel’s eye if he did not find his daughter — now his only daughter — as pure and virtuous as she was when he said to me on the vessel, ‘Let no fear of the scaffold hinder you, Dumay, if the honor of my Modeste is at stake.’”

“Ah! I recognize you both,” said Madame Mignon in a voice of strong emotion.

“I’ll wager my salvation that Modeste is as pure as she was in her cradle,” exclaimed Madame Dumay.

“Well, I shall make certain of it,” replied her husband, “if Madame la Comtesse will allow me to employ certain means; for old troopers understand strategy.”

“I will allow you to do anything that shall enlighten us, provided it does no injury to my last child.”

“What are you going to do, Jean?” asked Madame Dumay; “how can you discover a young girl’s secret if she means to hide it?”

“Obey me, all!” cried the lieutenant, “I shall need every one of you.”

If this rapid sketch were clearly developed it would give a whole picture of manners and customs in which many a family could recognize the events of their own history; but it must suffice as it is to explain the importance of the few details heretofore given about persons and things on the memorable evening when the old soldier had made ready his plot against the young girl, intending to wrench from the recesses of her heart the secret of a love and a lover seen only by a blind mother.

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