Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



An hour went by in solemn stillness broken only by the cabalistic phrases of the whist-players: “Spades!” “Trumped!” “Cut!” “How are honors?” “Two to four.” “Whose deal?”— phrases which represent in these days the higher emotions of the European aristocracy. Modeste continued to work, without seeming to be surprised at her mother’s silence. Madame Mignon’s handkerchief slipped from her lap to the floor; Butscha precipitated himself upon it, picked it up, and as he returned it whispered in Modeste’s ear, “Take care!” Modeste raised a pair of wondering eyes, whose puzzled glance filled the poor cripple with joy unspeakable. “She is not in love!” he whispered to himself, rubbing his hands till the skin was nearly peeled off. At this moment Exupere tore through the garden and the house, plunged into the salon like an avalanche, and said to Dumay in an audible whisper, “The young man is here!” Dumay sprang for his pistols and rushed out.

“Good God! suppose he kills him!” cried Madame Dumay, bursting into tears.

“What is the matter?” asked Modeste, looking innocently at her friends and not betraying the slightest fear.

“It is all about a young man who is hanging round the house,” cried Madame Latournelle.

“Well!” said Modeste, “why should Dumay kill him?”

“Sancta simplicita!” ejaculated Butscha, looking at his master as proudly as Alexander is made to contemplate Babylon in Lebrun’s great picture.

“Where are you going, Modeste?” asked the mother as her daughter rose to leave the room.

“To get ready for your bedtime, mamma,” answered Modeste, in a voice as pure as the tones of an instrument.

“You haven’t paid your expenses,” said the dwarf to Dumay when he returned.

“Modeste is as pure as the Virgin on our altar,” cried Madame Latournelle.

“Good God! such excitements wear me out,” said Dumay; “and yet I’m a strong man.”

“May I lose that twenty-five sous if I have the slightest idea what you are about,” remarked Gobenheim. “You seem to me to be crazy.”

“And yet it is all about a treasure,” said Butscha, standing on tiptoe to whisper in Gobenheim’s ear.

“Dumay, I am sorry to say that I am still almost certain of what I told you,” persisted Madame Mignon.

“The burden of proof is now on you, madame,” said Dumay, calmly; “it is for you to prove that we are mistaken.”

Discovering that the matter in question was only Modeste’s honor, Gobenheim took his hat, made his bow, and walked off, carrying his ten sous with him — there being evidently no hope of another rubber.

“Exupere, and you too, Butscha, may leave us,” said Madame Latournelle. “Go back to Havre; you will get there in time for the last piece at the theatre. I’ll pay for your tickets.”

When the four friends were alone with Madame Mignon, Madame Latournelle, after looking at Dumay, who being a Breton understood the mother’s obstinacy, and at her husband who was fingering the cards, felt herself authorized to speak up.

“Madame Mignon, come now, tell us what decisive thing has struck your mind.”

“Ah, my good friend, if you were a musician you would have heard, as I have, the language of love that Modeste speaks.”

The piano of the demoiselles Mignon was among the few articles of furniture which had been moved from the town-house to the Chalet. Modeste often conjured away her troubles by practising, without a master. Born a musician, she played to enliven her mother. She sang by nature, and loved the German airs which her mother taught her. From these lessons and these attempts at self-instruction came a phenomenon not uncommon to natures with a musical vocation; Modeste composed, as far as a person ignorant of the laws of harmony can be said to compose, tender little lyric melodies. Melody is to music what imagery and sentiment are to poetry, a flower that blossoms spontaneously. Consequently, nations have had melodies before harmony — botany comes later than the flower. In like manner, Modeste, who knew nothing of the painter’s art except what she had seen her sister do in the way of water-color, would have stood subdued and fascinated before the pictures of Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Murillo, Rembrandt, Albert Durer, Holbein — in other words, before the great ideals of many lands. Lately, for at least a month, Modeste had warbled the songs of nightingales, musical rhapsodies whose poetry and meaning had roused the attention of her mother, already surprised by her sudden eagerness for composition and her fancy for putting airs into certain verses.

“If your suspicions have no other foundation,” said Latournelle to Madame Mignon, “I pity your susceptibilities.”

“When a Breton girl sings,” said Dumay gloomily, “the lover is not far off.”

“I will let you hear Modeste when she is improvising,” said the mother, “and you shall judge for yourselves —”

“Poor girl!” said Madame Dumay, “If she only knew our anxiety she would be deeply distressed; she would tell us the truth — especially if she thought it would save Dumay.”

“My friends, I will question my daughter tomorrow,” said Madame Mignon; “perhaps I shall obtain more by tenderness than you have discovered by trickery.”

Was the comedy of the “Fille mal Gardee” being played here — as it is everywhere and forever — under the noses of these faithful spies, these honest Bartholos, these Pyrenean hounds, without their being able to ferret out, detect, nor even surmise the lover, the love-affair, or the smoke of the fire? At any rate it was certainly not the result of a struggle between the jailers and the prisoner, between the despotism of a dungeon and the liberty of a victim — it was simply the never-ending repetition of the first scene played by man when the curtain of the Creation rose; it was Eve in Paradise.

And now, which of the two, the mother or the watch-dog, had the right of it?

None of the persons who were about Modeste could understand that maiden heart — for the soul and the face we have described were in harmony. The girl had transported her existence into another world, as much denied and disbelieved in in these days of ours as the new world of Christopher Columbus in the sixteenth century. Happily, she kept her own counsel, or they would have thought her crazy. But first we must explain the influence of the past upon her nature.

Two events had formed the soul and developed the mind of this young girl. Monsieur and Madame Mignon, warned by the fate that overtook Bettina, had resolved, just before the failure, to marry Modeste. They chose the son of a rich banker, formerly of Hamburg, but established in Havre since 1815 — a man, moreover, who was under obligations to them. The young man, whose name was Francois Althor, the dandy of Havre, blessed with a certain vulgar beauty in which the middle classes delight, well-made, well-fleshed, and with a fine complexion, abandoned his betrothed so hastily on the day of her father’s failure that neither Modeste nor her mother nor either of the Dumays had seen him since. Latournelle ventured a question on the subject to Jacob Althor, the father; but he only shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I really don’t know what you mean.”

This answer, told to Modeste to give her some experience of life, was a lesson which she learned all the more readily because Latournelle and Dumay made many and long comments on the cowardly desertion. The daughters of Charles Mignon, like spoiled children, had all their wishes gratified; they rode on horseback, kept their own horses and grooms, and otherwise enjoyed a perilous liberty. Seeing herself in possession of an official lover, Modeste had allowed Francisque to kiss her hand, and take her by the waist to mount her. She accepted his flowers and all the little proofs of tenderness with which it is proper to surround the lady of our choice; she even worked him a purse, believing in such ties — strong indeed to noble souls, but cobwebs for the Gobenheims, the Vilquins, and the Althors.

Some time during the spring which followed the removal of Madame Mignon and her daughter to the Chalet, Francisque Althor came to dine with the Vilquins. Happening to see Modeste over the wall at the foot of the lawn, he turned away his head. Six weeks later he married the eldest Mademoiselle Vilquin. In this way Modeste, young, beautiful, and of high birth, learned the lesson that for three whole months of her engagement she had been nothing more than Mademoiselle Million. Her poverty, well known to all, became a sentinel defending the approaches to the Chalet fully as well as the prudence of the Latournelles or the vigilance of Dumay. The talk of the town ran for a time on Mademoiselle Mignon’s position only to insult her.

“Poor girl! what will become of her? — an old maid, of course.”

“What a fate! to have had the world at her feet; to have had the chance to marry Francisque Althor — and now, nobody willing to take her!”

“After a life of luxury, to come down to such poverty —”

And these insults were not uttered in secret or left to Modeste’s imagination; she heard them spoken more than once by the young men and the young women of Havre as they walked to Ingouville, and, knowing that Madame Mignon and her daughter lived at the Chalet, talked of them as they passed the house. Friends of the Vilquins expressed surprise that the mother and daughter were willing to live on among the scenes of their former splendor. From her open window behind the closed blinds Modeste sometimes heard such insolence as this:—

“I am sure I can’t think how they can live there,” some one would say as he paced the villa lawn — perhaps to assist Vilquin in getting rid of his tenant.

“What do you suppose they live on? they haven’t any means of earning money.”

“I am told the old woman has gone blind.”

“Is Mademoiselle Mignon still pretty? Dear me, how dashing she used to be! Well, she hasn’t any horses now.”

Most young girls on hearing these spiteful and silly speeches, born of an envy that now rushed, peevish and drivelling, to avenge the past, would have felt the blood mount to their foreheads; others would have wept; some would have undergone spasms of anger; but Modeste smiled, as we smile at the theatre while watching the actors. Her pride could not descend so low as the level of such speeches.

The other event was more serious than these mercenary meannesses. Bettina Caroline died in the arms of her younger sister, who had nursed her with the devotion of girlhood, and the curiosity of an untainted imagination. In the silence of long nights the sisters exchanged many a confidence. With what dramatic interest was poor Bettina invested in the eyes of the innocent Modeste? Bettina knew love through sorrow only, and she was dying of it. Among young girls every man, scoundrel though he be, is still a lover. Passion is the one thing absolutely real in the things of life, and it insists on its supremacy. Charles d’Estourny, gambler, criminal, and debauchee, remained in the memory of the sisters, the elegant Parisian of the fetes of Havre, the admired of the womenkind. Bettina believed she had carried him off from the coquettish Madame Vilquin, and to Modeste he was her sister’s happy lover. Such adoration in young girls is stronger than all social condemnations. To Bettina’s thinking, justice had been deceived; if not, how could it have sentenced a man who had loved her for six months? — loved her to distraction in the hidden retreat to which he had taken her — that he might, we may add, be at liberty to go his own way. Thus the dying girl inoculated her sister with love. Together they talked of the great drama which imagination enhances; and Bettina carried with her to the grave her sister’s ignorance, leaving her, if not informed, at least thirsting for information.

Nevertheless, remorse had set its fangs too sharply in Bettina’s heart not to force her to warn her sister. In the midst of her own confessions she had preached duty and implicit obedience to Modeste. On the evening of her death she implored her to remember the tears that soaked her pillow, and not to imitate a conduct which even suffering could not expiate. Bettina accused herself of bringing a curse upon the family, and died in despair at being unable to obtain her father’s pardon. Notwithstanding the consolations which the ministers of religion, touched by her repentance, freely gave her, she cried in heartrending tones with her latest breath: “Oh father! father!” “Never give your heart without your hand,” she said to Modeste an hour before she died; “and above all, accept no attentions from any man without telling everything to papa and mamma.”

These words, so earnest in their practical meaning, uttered in the hour of death, had more effect upon Modeste than if Bettina had exacted a solemn oath. The dying girl, farseeing as prophet, drew from beneath her pillow a ring which she had sent by her faithful maid, Francoise Cochet, to be engraved in Havre with these words, “Think of Bettina, 1827,” and placed it on her sister’s finger, begging her to keep it there until she married. Thus there had been between these two young girls a strange commingling of bitter remorse and the artless visions of a fleeting spring-time too early blighted by the keen north wind of desertion; yet all their tears, regrets and memories were always subordinate to their horror of evil.

Nevertheless, this drama of a poor seduced sister returning to die under a roof of elegant poverty, the failure of her father, the baseness of her betrothed, the blindness of her mother caused by grief, had touched the surface only of Modeste’s life, by which alone the Dumays and the Latournelles judged her; for no devotion of friends can take the place of a mother’s eye. The monotonous life in the dainty little Chalet, surrounded by the choice flowers which Dumay cultivated; the family customs, as regular as clock-work, the provincial decorum, the games at whist while the mother knitted and the daughter sewed, the silence, broken only by the roar of the sea in the equinoctial storms — all this monastic tranquillity did in fact hide an inner and tumultuous life, the life of ideas, the life of the spiritual being. We sometimes wonder how it is possible for young girls to do wrong; but such as do so have no blind mother to send her plummet line of intuition to the depths of the subterranean fancies of a virgin heart. The Dumays slept when Modeste opened her window, as it were to watch for the passing of a man — the man of her dreams, the expected knight who was to mount her behind him and ride away under the fire of Dumay’s pistols.

During the depression caused by her sister’s death Modeste flung herself into the practice of reading, until her mind became sodden in it. Born to the use of two languages, she could speak and read German quite as well as French; she had also, together with her sister, learned English from Madame Dumay. Being very little overlooked in the matter of reading by the people about her, who had no literary knowledge, Modeste fed her soul on the modern masterpieces of three literatures, English, French, and German. Lord Byron, Goethe, Schiller, Walter Scott, Hugo, Lamartine, Crabbe, Moore, the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries, history, drama, and fiction, from Astraea to Manon Lescaut, from Montaigne’s Essays to Diderot, from the Fabliaux to the Nouvelle Heloise — in short, the thought of three lands crowded with confused images that girlish head, august in its cold guilelessness, its native chastity, but from which there sprang full-armed, brilliant, sincere, and strong, an overwhelming admiration for genius. To Modeste a new book was an event; a masterpiece that would have horrified Madame Latournelle made her happy — equally unhappy if the great work did not play havoc with her heart. A lyric instinct bubbled in that girlish soul, so full of the beautiful illusions of its youth. But of this radiant existence not a gleam reached the surface of daily life; it escaped the ken of Dumay and his wife and the Latournelles; the ears of the blind mother alone caught the crackling of its flame.

The profound disdain which Modeste now conceived for ordinary men gave to her face a look of pride, an inexpressible untamed shyness, which tempered her Teutonic simplicity, and accorded well with a peculiarity of her head. The hair growing in a point above the forehead seemed the continuation of a slight line which thought had already furrowed between the eyebrows, and made the expression of untameability perhaps a shade too strong. The voice of this charming child, whom her father, delighting in her wit, was wont to call his “little proverb of Solomon,” had acquired a precious flexibility of organ through the practice of three languages. This advantage was still further enhanced by a natural bell-like tone both sweet and fresh, which touched the heart as delightfully as it did the ear. If the mother could no longer see the signs of a noble destiny upon her daughter’s brow, she could study the transitions of her soul’s development in the accents of that voice attuned to love.

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