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Honore De Balzac - Modeste Mignon (1844)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



This story was. first printed in the Journal des Debats, in three numbers. It appears, from a long letter written early in that year, to Madame Hanska, l'Etrangere, to whom the story is dedicated, that the central idea of it was hers, rather than Balzac's. He actually wished her to write the story and let him print it over his own name. Many efforts have been made to discover who sat to Balzac for the portrait of De Canalis. Opinions fluctuate between Lamartine and Chateaubriand. It is most probable that the picture is composite.

CHARLES MIGNON, the last survivor of the family to whom Paris owes the street and the hotel built by Cardinal Mignon, had for his father a crafty man who wished to save his estate of La Bastle (a fief under the counts of Provence) from the clutches of the Revolution. He therefore vanished on the 9th of Thermidor, was placed on the list of emigres, and the fief of La Bastie was sold. But he was discovered at Orange and killed, with his wife and all hls children, with the exception of one son, Charles, who thus became the sole representative of the ancient family. When this young man came to the age of three-and-twenty, he had developed into a fine and noble youth, with a beauty of person equal to that of Antinois. He entered the army, and there met and formed a friendship with Anne Francois Dumay, a young bourgeois. The two were friends through many adventures in the wars of Napoleon, having passed through imprisonment in Siberia together, and proved each other in a devotion that should last through life.

In one of the episodes of war, Charles Mignon had been quartered at Frankfort-on-the-Main, where he had won the love of the beautiful heiress, Bettina Wallenrod, and married her. They had four children, of whom but two daughters survived. Bettina's father became involved in unfortunate investments and died just before Charles's return from Napoleon's last terrible expedition to Russia, in 1815. Thus Charles found himself with his wife's dowry as the sole capital with which to begin life again. He decided on a banker's and shipowner's career, and chose Havre as the field of his operations. He became very successful, and after some years built a beautiful villa at Ingouville, that suburb of Havre which, built high in terraces, overlooks the sea. Somewhat lower than the Villa Mignon, he built a charming little chalet for the occupation of his friend Dumay, giving him a lease for twelve years. After some years of prosperity he failed, in consequence of a series of disasters, and was obliged to sell the villa and grounds to a Monsieur Vilquin. The lease he had given to Dumay, however, held good, and his wife and two daughters, Bettina and Modeste, found there a comfortable though unpretentious home. Charles Mignon, with indomitable courage, immediately embarked on a voyage to the East, determined to retrieve his fortunes, leaving his family in charge of the faithful Dumay, together with the task of discharging all the obligations of the firm.

There was the beginning of a tragedy in the Mignon family, even before Charles Mignon sailed away. The oldest daughter, Bettina, beautiful with a dark Spanish beauty, had been induced to leave her home with a young man who had been the privileged guest of her father and mother. This betrayal of all the sacredness of hospitality had filled the father's heart with bitterness. The family had managed to make excuses for the daughter's absence, saying that she had been sent south for her health. When the financial disaster came she was still away from home, and Charles, in parting from the faithful Dumay, gave him as an inviolable trust his remaining daughter, Modeste, to be guarded from ever speaking to a young man, or even looking upon one. After her father's failure and departure, the elder daughter, Bettina, returned, ill indeed, and deserted by her lover, only to die in the little chalet. At this crowning misfortune of her life, the gentle mother had yielded to a month of solitude and weeping, with the result that her eyes gave way and she became totally blind.

It was a sad and simple little household in which Modeste grew from girlhood to womanhood. Fulfilling her father's orders, Dumay guarded her from all male society. His injunctions were absolute. "If any man, of whatever age or rank, speaks to her," he said, "he is a dead man. I will blow his brains out and surrender myself to the public prosecutor."

Modeste grew into a type of exquisite and angelic beauty, devoted herself to her blind mother, and satisfied the cravings of an active and imaginative mind with indiscriminate reading. The notary and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Latournelle, and a man named Gobenhiem, came nearly every evening for a rubber of whist, and at half-past ten the party would break up for the night. Butscha, a dwarf, and clerk in the notary's office, came also, frequently.

Thus guarded, it would seem that the demon of unrest could never enter the young girl's heart. But one day, while Madame Dumay, the American wife of the faithful guardian, was giving Modeste the little diversion of a long walk, Madame Mignon held council with her only friends, Madame Latournelle, the notary, and Dumay.

"Listen, my friends," she said, "my daughter is in love. I feel it. I see it. A strange change has come over her." "Bless my stars!" Dumay exclaimed.

"Do not interrupt me. For the last two months Modeste has dressed herself with care, as if she were going to meet some-one. She has become excessively particular about her shoes. Some days the poor child is gloomy and watchful, and then again she is gay. You cannot discern these shades. Her cheerfulness betrays itself in the tones of her voice. Oh, my friends, I have learned to know happiness as well as grief. By the kiss my poor Modeste gives me I can guess what is going on in her mind. Though I am blind, my affection is clairvoyant, and I implore you—watch my daughter!"

At this, all constituted themselves spies over poor Modeste. She never was alone for a moment. But they could find no accusing clue. Unless she were in love with the nightingales in Vilquin's park, or with some goblin prince, she could have seen no one.

None of the persons about the girl understood her, for, in truth, her heart and her lovely, innocent face were in unison. She had transplanted her life into the world of the imagination. She could be silent, or she would have been thought mad. She

had learned the world's ways by observing the conduct of friends who had thrown the family over after their loss of wealth, including the man to whom her father had betrothed her. Her sister, in dying, had given her glimpses of what love is and had said words that had sunk deep in the girl's heart. She lived entirely in her imagination, creating to satiety lovers, experiences, and adventures for herself, This satiety flung her at last into a love of goodness and of heaven. She fancied that by becoming irreproachable, in the Catholic sense, she might achieve such saintliness that God would grant her desires. "I only ask God to send me a husband," thought she.

She adored genius. She longed to become the wife of some great man, to sink her life in his, to sacrifice herself to his greatness. Her world of feeling finally took shape in the determination to marry an artist or a poet; but first to subject him to thorough study before giving him her heart.

She thus led a double life. While performing her simple duties, her mind was definitely fixing her fate. Madame Mignon, who read her soul, was right. Modeste was in love, but only with that Platonic sentiment so rare—the first illusion of girlhood, the subtlest of feelings, the heart's daintiest morsel.

A trifling, foolish accident sealed her fate. On a book-seller's counter one day she saw a portrait of De Canalis, one of her favorite poets. She at once chose him to love, as fulfilling her dreams. But was he married? Taking her maid into her confidence, she posted a letter to his publisher, politely re-questing him to let her know, in the interests of the poet, whether he were married or no. This person could hardly take the matter seriously, and placed the letter in the hands of several journalists, who concocted a reply, asserting with much rodomontade that he was a bachelor, and commenting on his circumstances, his political standing, and other details.

Modeste was not discouraged by this, but began a correspondence, which the foppish poet regarded with indifference and handed over to his friend and secretary, Ernest de la Briere, a man of sensibility and worth of soul. In the secretary's reply to Modeste's first note he tried to dissuade her from a correspondence with an unknown poet, telling her that a poet was but a man, and in this instance a Parisian, and that her appreciation of his genius might be misunderstood. Modeste replied to this in a manner showing qualities of mind and heart so rare, although in her girlish innocence she said many unwise things, that De la Briere became more and more interested, and finally, totally forgetting that he was playing the part of poet, he went down to Havre one day and followed the maid as she took the letter from the post, and saw Modeste at a window. He returned to Paris, resolving that, rich or poor, if she had a noble soul he would gladly make her Madame de la Briere; and he determined to carry on the correspondence.

Many letters passed between Modeste and the young De la Briere, masquerading under the name of De Canalis, the poet. The poor private secretary's really heroic feelings gave them-selves rein in these letters, and the young girl poured forth her soul with no reserve. At last she bade De la Briere come to Havre the next Sunday, and to be at service in the cathedral with a white rose in his buttonhole, that she might see him be-fore promising to marry him. De la Briere, who was handsome, dressed himself with care, not forgetting the rose, and obeyed her behest. Modeste, in the greatest agitation, disguised her-self as an old woman, and, attending service, saw the adorable De Canalis, as she believed him to be, and found in his appearance the complete realization of her dreams. The sight of his melancholy and pleasing personality, dressed in the latest of Parisian fashions, removed her last doubt, and she determined to send the letter that should give him the right to claim her as his wife.

Just at this time Monsieur Dumay received a letter from Charles Mignon containing the information that he was returning with a fortune of seven million francs. He bade Dumay to keep secret the fact of his great wealth, admitting that he had made a modest fortune, and told him that his intention was to choose desirable sons-in-law, and to petition the King to settle his name and titles upon one of these latter. At the time of writing he did not know of the death of his oldest daughter, Bettina. He intended, he wrote, to land at Marseilles, to publish the report that his daughters would have about two hundred thousand francs' dowry, and to devote himself to deciding

which of his sons-in-law should be most worthy to inherit the real wealth, titles, and repurchased estate of La Bastie.

Modeste was happy at the thought of her father's return, but disturbed that her dowry was to be no larger. She had written her supposed poet that she was to have six millions of francs; for, although he had written that he had hoped to find her poor, as it was his wish to make his own fortune rather than to depend on a wife, she longed to endow him with wealth. She was ecstatically happy, and her joy overflowed in musical improvisation, an art in which she was skilled to the verge of genius. Her joyous moods and wonderful singing filled her guardians with suspicion, particularly her ever-brooding mother. They talked much about the mysterious lover, who seemed so certainly to be the object that inspired these manifestations, but who was so elusive. The appearance of the fashionably dressed stranger at church had not escaped their observation. Suspicion turned in his direction, but La Butscha, the dwarf, who loved Modeste with an all-consuming passion himself, became her friend and ally and declared this person to have been an architect come down to estimate some repairs.

Having seen the supposed De Canalis, Modeste wrote an imprudent letter, fully abandoning the reserve she had hitherto preserved and confessing fully the love in her heart. At the same time she wrote one to her father. On going out to post them, she met Dumay, and at his demand gave him the letter she had written to her lover, supposing it to be the one for her father. In this way the whole truth came out, and Modeste proudly acknowledged everything.

Dumay at once set out for Paris to face De Canalis. In the meantime, De la Briere had written Modeste a letter, in which he confessed his masquerading, and told of his deep love for her and his hope that she was poor, so that he might aspire to win her.

Dumay, on reaching Paris, found De Canalis living in sumptuous style in a fashionable quarter. Intimidated by such magnificence, he asked him his intentions in regard to Mademoiselle Mignon. The poet scornfully assured him of his ignorance of such a person, and pointed to a casket, full of adoring letters from lovely women, which he declared himself to be too noble to destroy or to use for lighting his cigars. Dismayed, the old soldier took his leave.

De la Briere then entered the poet's room and confessed his part in the affair, adding that he was fortunate in it, as he had not only won a lovely girl, but a fortune of six million francs as well, as he had just heard from a banker that she was daughter of Comte de la Bastie, and would have that sum. Her father was in Paris and had sent for him to come and see him. De Canalis was instantly stricken with regret that he should have missed this glorious fate, and was furious at his ill luck, in that he had not detected the golden gleam under the first anonymous letter of poor Modeste.

The Comte de la Bastie had heard from Dumay the particulars of his eldest daughter's death, his wife's blindness, and Modeste's imbroglio. He was a stricken man, but the one ray of hope was in the excellent character of the young De la Briere. He received the lover with dignity. During a long conversation he detected his worth, and told him his daughter should be his. Then De la Briere confessed the deception he had practised. The Count assured him that that was something beyond his jurisdiction. His daughter believed herself to be in love with a poet. It was for her to overlook or not the fraud that had been worked upon her. Fixing upon him a keen look, he said that there was but one thing to do. That was for him-self and the poet to go down to Havre in their true characters, telling him at the same time that Modeste had but two hundred thousand francs, and pledging him not to reveal this latter fact to De Canalis, and let Modeste choose between them herself.

The two young men accordingly prepared for an extended visit at Havre, De Canalis believing Modeste to have six million francs and De la Briere two hundred thousand. De Canalis took a magnificent villa and many servants, giving out that he needed the baths, and bringing with him his friend and secretary, Monsieur de la Briere.

Before their arrival, Charles Mignon took his daughter for a walk and talked long and kindly to her of her imprudence, and endeavored to show her the real value of De la Briere, with whom she was incensed to fury because of his deception.

Thus there were to be two avowed suitors for the hand of Mademoiselle Mignon, to whom was immediately added a third, the Duc d'Herouville, adorned with many titles and an impoverished purse. This young man had some noble qualities, but was small and timid, and had two elderly sisters who were of an indomitable family pride and determined to marry him to Modeste and her reputed millions and title. She perceived his value as an offset to the pretensions of De Canalis and De la Briere, for her intelligence was fully awake now to the fact that her love and pride had been cruelly wounded in the trick played upon her. The comedy of The Heiress about to be played at the chalet might truly be called by the name Modeste gave it in jest, a competition, for she was resolved, after the overthrow of her illusions, to give her hand only to the man whose character should prove thoroughly satisfactory.

De Canalis at first carried off all the honors. Parisian to the core, man of the world, handsome and a poseur, a poet, adored and flattered by the great Duchesse de Chaulieu, his patroness, with a gift of conversation and a habit—all-conquering in the salons of Paris—of declaiming his own verse, the actual poet captured the girl's fancy nearly as the imagined one had by correspondence. Through her skilful handling of the affair, however, all were somewhat in doubt, and De la Briere became more and more the victim of a true devotion.

One evening he was walking alone by the sea, indulging his unhappiness, when the dwarf Butscha joined him, and told him much that he had learned in his visit to Paris concerning the private life of De Canalis. He confessed his own love for Modeste and his determination to watch over her. He had discovered, by talking with his cousin, the Duchesse de Chaulieu's maid, that this great lady would never forgive De Canalis his desertion of herself, and that the latter was a ruined man unless he married Modeste and her millions. Butscha opened this conversation for the purpose of drawing out the secretary and discovering still more, if possible, of De Canalis's character; for his love for Modeste was so great that he determined to see to it for himself that she married a man worthy of her.

Later, the devoted dwarf had a conversation with Modeste in which he showed her that he read her soul like a book, and asked her whether, should she discover a change in De Canalis when he learned of the smallness of her real fortune, she would still insist upon making him her husband. The girl did not reply, but Butscha knew he had planted a thought in her mind.

Butscha accordingly spread the rumor that Charles Mignon's fortune was greatly overrated, and that Modeste would have a dowry of but two hundred thousand francs. This news caused De Canalis instantaneously to change and to withdraw his suit. He wrote a long letter to the Duchesse de Chaulieu, whose favor he hoped it was not yet too late to regain.

Eleonore, Duchesse de Chaulieu, was a grande dame, who retained her magnificent beauty, unimpaired, at the age of fifty-six. Made wretched and furious at the desertion of De Canalis, she gladly believed in the sincerity of his words of repentance. The rumor came to her ears that Modeste was rich but not beautiful, so she was all the more inclined to forgive the recreant poet.

She accordingly wrote De Canalis a magnanimous letter, in which she lnformed him that she had intended to marry him to Mademoiselle de la Bastie, whom she understood from her father's banker to be worth eight thousand francs. De Canalis, once more upset in his calculations, tore off that part of the letter relating to the Duchess's wish to marry him to Modest; and gave it to the latter, in order to prove to her that his relations wlth the Duchess were simply those of friendship, and strove by judicious behavior to regain the ground he had lost.

De la Briere had given Modeste a magnificent riding-whip, whose jeweled handle had cost him all his savings. This the girl had coldly resigned to her father's keeping. The D'Herouville faction were making active efforts to win, and had arranged that her father and she should receive an invitation to a royal hunt in Normandy, where her head should be turned with the magnificence of what the Duke could command for his wife.

At this hunt all the opposing factions met. The Duchesse of Chaulieu, on beholding the amazing beauty of Modeste, hated her, and showed her hatred as only a great lady can, under the mask of graciousness, She gave De Canalis to under-stand that it must be a choice between her and the beautiful heiress. De Canalis, greatly agitated that Modeste still possessed the part of the letter the Duchess had written, announcing her intention of marrying him to her, implored his friend De la Briere to get it for him from the girl, as if the Duchess discovered it to be in her possession all would be over for him.

The secretary approached Modeste, and walking down the superb suite of apartments placed at the disposal of herself and her father, made known the poet's desire. Modeste made no objection and gave the incriminating scrap of paper into his hand, with a good-natured but contemptuous message for the poet, whose character she now thoroughly understood.

The aristocratic society gathered at this hunt pleased Modeste. She instinctively assimilated everything that gave distinction to the Duchesses of Maufrigneuse and De Chaulieu; but, in the midst of this Olympus, she discovered that her father and De la Briere were infinitely superior to De Canalis. The great poet, abdicating his claim to real and indisputable power —that of the intellect—was nothing but a Master of Appeals, eager to become a Minister, anxious for a collar of the Legion of Honor, and obliged to subserve every constellation. Ernest de la Briere, devoid of ambition, was simply himself, while her father, the Comte de la Bastie, proud of his services and of the Emperor Napoleon's esteem, was simple in dignity and easy in speech. Feeling her regard for De la Briere deepen, Modeste felt it her duty to put an end to the struggle the Duc d'Herouville was making for the honor of her hand, and, telling him at the same time that he had no firmer friends than her father and herself, she spoke truthfully as to the state of her real feelings toward him. To her little speech the Duke replied with dignity :

"You are a noble girl, and, though it breaks my heart to be no more than your friend, I shall glory in the title, and prove it to you wherever and whenever I find occasion."

On the occasion of a grand hunt, the Duchesse de Chaulieu, feeling it beneath her dignity to sulk longer with a young person of Modeste's pretensions, when the victory in regard to De Canalis remained on her own side, drew near her horse, and remarked the beauty of the jeweled whip she carried in her hand.

"You will confess, Madame," replied Mademoiselle de la Bastie, with a mischievous but tender glance at De la Briere, in which he could read an avowal, " that it is a very strange gift as coming from a future husband—"

"Indeed!" exclaimed Madame de Maufrigneuse. "I should regard it as a recognition of my rights, remembering Louis the Fourteenth."

There were tears in De la Briere's eyes; he dropped his bridle and was ready to fall; but another look from Modeste recalled him to himself, by warning him not to betray his happiness.

When, later, Modeste's mother, by a fortunate operation, regained her eyesight, and could at last see Ernest de la Briere, she murmured in Modeste's ear: "I should have chosen him!"

Toward the end of February all the documents relating to the acquisition of the estates were signed, and the transmission of the title and arms was made to De la Briere, who was authorized to call himself the Vicomte de la Briere. The wedding, which took place at the same time, was the beginning of a long life of happiness for both, and Modeste, who kept her promise of avoiding all the absurdities of pedantry, became the pride and delight of her husband, of her family, and of her circle of friends.



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