Etext prepared by John Bickers, email@example.com and Dagny, firstname.lastname@example.org
by HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To a Polish Lady.
Daughter of an enslaved land, angel through love, witch through fancy, child by faith, aged by experience, man in brain, woman in heart, giant by hope, mother through sorrows, poet in thy dreams, –to THEE belongs this book, in which thy love, thy fancy, thy experience, thy sorrow, thy hope, thy dreams, are the warp through which is shot a woof less brilliant than the poesy of thy soul, whose expression, when it shines upon thy countenance, is, to those who love thee, what the characters of a lost language are to scholars.
At the beginning of October, 1829, Monsieur Simon Babylas Latournelle, notary, was walking up from Havre to Ingouville, arm in arm with his son and accompanied by his wife, at whose side the head clerk of the lawyer’s office, a little hunchback named Jean Butscha, trotted along like a page. When these four personages (two of whom came the same way every evening) reached the elbow of the road where it turns back upon itself like those called in Italy “cornice,” the notary looked about to see if any one could overhear him either from the terrace above or the path beneath, and when he spoke he lowered his voice as a further precaution.
“Exupere,” he said to his son, “you must try to carry out intelligently a little manoeuvre which I shall explain to you, but you are not to ask the meaning of it; and if you guess the meaning I command you to toss it into that Styx which every lawyer and every man who expects to have a hand in the government of his country is bound to keep within him for the secrets of others. After you have paid your respects and compliments to Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon, to Monsieur and Madame Dumay, and to Monsieur Gobenheim if he is at the Chalet, and as soon as quiet is restored, Monsieur Dumay will take you aside; you are then to look attentively at Mademoiselle Modeste (yes, I am willing to allow it) during the whole time he is speaking to you. My worthy friend will ask you to go out and take a walk; at the end of an hour, that is, about nine o’clock, you are to come back in a great hurry; try to puff as if you were out of breath, and whisper in Monsieur Dumay’s ear, quite low, but so that Mademoiselle Modeste is sure to overhear you, these words: ‘The young man has come.'”
Exupere was to start the next morning for Paris to begin the study of law. This impending departure had induced Latournelle to propose him to his friend Dumay as an accomplice in the important conspiracy which these directions indicate.
“Is Mademoiselle Modeste suspected of having a lover?” asked Butscha in a timid voice of Madame Latournelle.
“Hush, Butscha,” she replied, taking her husband’s arm.
Madame Latournelle, the daughter of a clerk of the supreme court, feels that her birth authorizes her to claim issue from a parliamentary family. This conviction explains why the lady, who is somewhat blotched as to complexion, endeavors to assume in her own person the majesty of a court whose decrees are recorded in her father’s pothooks. She takes snuff, holds herself as stiff as a ramrod, poses for a person of consideration, and resembles nothing so much as a mummy brought momentarily to life by galvanism. She tries to give high-bred tones to her sharp voice, and succeeds no better in doing that than in hiding her general lack of breeding. Her social usefulness seems, however, incontestable when we glance at the flower- bedecked cap she wears, at the false front frizzling around her forehead, at the gowns of her choice; for how could shopkeepers dispose of those products if there were no Madame Latournelle? All these absurdities of the worthy woman, who is truly pious and charitable, might have passed unnoticed, if nature, amusing herself as she often does by turning out these ludicrous creations, had not endowed her with the height of a drum-major, and thus held up to view the comicalities of her provincial nature. She has never been out of Havre; she believes in the infallibility of Havre; she proclaims herself Norman to the very tips of her fingers; she venerates her father, and adores her husband.
Little Latournelle was bold enough to marry this lady after she had attained the anti-matrimonial age of thirty-three, and what is more, he had a son by her. As he could have got the sixty thousand francs of her “dot” in several other ways, the public assigned his uncommon intrepidity to a desire to escape an invasion of the Minotaur, against whom his personal qualifications would have insufficiently protected him had he rashly dared his fate by bringing home a young and pretty wife. The fact was, however, that the notary recognized the really fine qualities of Mademoiselle Agnes (she was called Agnes) and reflected to himself that a woman’s beauty is soon past and gone to a husband. As to the insignificant youth on whom the clerk of the court bestowed in baptism his Norman name of “Exupere,” Madame Latournelle is still so surprised at becoming his mother, at the age of thirty- five years and seven months, that she would still provide him, if it were necessary, with her breast and her milk,–an hyperbole which alone can fully express her impassioned maternity. “How handsome he is, that son of mine!” she says to her little friend Modeste, as they walk to church, with the beautiful Exupere in front of them. “He is like you,” Modeste Mignon answers, very much as she might have said, “What horrid weather!” This silhouette of Madame Latournelle is quite important as an accessory, inasmuch as for three years she has been the chaperone of the young girl against whom the notary and his friend Dumay are now plotting to set up what we have called, in the “Physiologie du Mariage,” a “mouse-trap.”
As for Latournelle, imagine a worthy little fellow as sly as the purest honor and uprightness would allow him to be,–a man whom any stranger would take for a rascal at sight of his queer physiognomy, to which, however, the inhabitants of Havre were well accustomed. His eyesight, said to be weak, obliged the worthy man to wear green goggles for the protection of his eyes, which were constantly inflamed. The arch of each eyebrow, defined by a thin down of hair, surrounded the tortoise-shell rim of the glasses and made a couple of circles as it were, slightly apart. If you have never observed on the human face the effect produced by these circumferences placed one within the other, and separated by a hollow space or line, you can hardly imagine how perplexing such a face will be to you, especially if pale, hollow-cheeked, and terminating in a pointed chin like that of Mephistopheles,–a type which painters give to cats. This double resemblance was observable on the face of Babylas Latournelle. Above the atrocious green spectacles rose a bald crown, all the more crafty in expression because a wig, seemingly endowed with motion, let the white hairs show on all sides of it as it meandered crookedly across the forehead. An observer taking note of this excellent Norman, clothed in black and mounted on his two legs like a beetle on a couple of pins, and knowing him to be one of the most trustworthy of men, would have sought, without finding it, for the reason of such physical misrepresentation.
Jean Butscha, a natural son abandoned by his parents and taken care of by the clerk of the court and his daughter, and now, through sheer hard work, head-clerk to the notary, fed and lodged by his master, who gave him a salary of nine hundred francs, almost a dwarf, and with no semblance of youth,–Jean Butscha made Modeste his idol, and would willingly have given his life for hers. The poor fellow, whose eyes were hollowed beneath their heavy lids like the touch-holes of a cannon, whose head overweighted his body, with its shock of crisp hair, and whose face was pock-marked, had lived under pitying eyes from the time he was seven years of age. Is not that enough to explain his whole being? Silent, self-contained, pious, exemplary in conduct, he went his way over that vast tract of country named on the map of the heart Love-without-Hope, the sublime and arid steppes of Desire. Modeste had christened this grotesque little being her “Black Dwarf.” The nickname sent him to the pages of Walter Scott’s novel, and he one day said to Modeste: “Will you accept a rose against the evil day from your mysterious dwarf?” Modeste instantly sent the soul of her adorer to its humble mud-cabin with a terrible glance, such as young girls bestow on the men who cannot please them. Butscha’s conception of himself was lowly, and, like the wife of his master, he had never been out of Havre.
Perhaps it will be well, for the sake of those who have never seen that city, to say a few words as to the present destination of the Latournelle family,–the head clerk being included in the latter term. Ingouville is to Havre what Montmartre is to Paris,–a high hill at the foot of which the city lies; with this difference, that the hill and the city are surrounded by the sea and the Seine, that Havre is helplessly circumscribed by enclosing fortifications, and, in short, that the mouth of the river, the harbor, and the docks present a very different aspect from the fifty thousand houses of Paris. At the foot of Montmartre an ocean of slate roofs lies in motionless blue billows; at Ingouville the sea is like the same roofs stirred by the wind. This eminence, or line of hills, which coasts the Seine from Rouen to the seashore, leaving a margin of valley land more or less narrow between itself and the river, and containing in its cities, its ravines, its vales, its meadows, veritable treasures of the picturesque, became of enormous value in and about Ingouville, after the year 1816, the period at which the prosperity of Havre began. This township has become since that time the Auteuil, the Ville-d’Avray, the Montmorency, in short, the suburban residence of the merchants of Havre. Here they build their houses on terraces around its ampitheatre of hills, and breathe the sea air laden with the fragrance of their splendid gardens. Here these bold speculators cast off the burden of their counting-rooms and the atmosphere of their city houses, which are built closely together without open spaces, often without court- yards,–a vice of construction with the increasing population of Havre, the inflexible line of the fortifications, and the enlargement of the docks has forced upon them. The result is, weariness of heart in Havre, cheerfulness and joy at Ingouville. The law of social development has forced up the suburb of Graville like a mushroom. It is to-day more extensive than Havre itself, which lies at the foot of its slopes like a serpent.
At the crest of the hill Ingouville has but one street, and (as in all such situations) the houses which overlook the river have an immense advantage over those on the other side of the road, whose view they obstruct, and which present the effect of standing on tip-toe to look over the opposing roofs. However, there exist here, as elsewhere, certain servitudes. Some houses standing at the summit have a finer position or possess legal rights of view which compel their opposite neighbors to keep their buildings down to a required height. Moreover, the openings cut in the capricious rock by roads which follow its declensions and make the ampitheatre habitable, give vistas through which some estates can see the city, or the river, or the sea. Instead of rising to an actual peak, the hill ends abruptly in a cliff. At the end of the street which follows the line of the summit, ravines appear in which a few villages are clustered (Sainte-Adresse and two or three other Saint-somethings) together with several creeks which murmur and flow with the tides of the sea. These half-deserted slopes of Ingouville form a striking contrast to the terraces of fine villas which overlook the valley of the Seine. Is the wind on this side too strong for vegetation? Do the merchants shrink from the cost of terracing it? However this may be, the traveller approaching Havre on a steamer is surprised to find a barren coast and tangled gorges to the west of Ingouville, like a beggar in rags beside a perfumed and sumptuously apparelled rich man.
In 1829 one of the last houses looking toward the sea, and which in all probability stands about the centre of the Ingouville to-day, was called, and perhaps is still called, “the Chalet.” Originally it was a porter’s lodge with a trim little garden in front of it. The owner of the villa to which it belonged,–a mansion with park, gardens, aviaries, hot-houses, and lawns–took a fancy to put the little dwelling more in keeping with the splendor of his own abode, and he reconstructed it on the model of an ornamental cottage. He divided this cottage from his own lawn, which was bordered and set with flower-beds and formed the terrace of his villa, by a low wall along which he planted a concealing hedge. Behind the cottage (called, in spite of all his efforts to prevent it, the Chalet) were the orchards and kitchen gardens of the villa. The Chalet, without cows or dairy, is separated from the roadway by a wooden fence whose palings are hidden under a luxuriant hedge. On the other side of the road the opposite house, subject to a legal privilege, has a similar hedge and paling, so as to leave an unobstructed view of Havre to the Chalet.
This little dwelling was the torment of the present proprietor of the villa, Monsieur Vilquin; and here is the why and the wherefore. The original creator of the villa, whose sumptuous details cry aloud, “Behold our millions!” extended his park far into the country for the purpose, as he averred, of getting his gardeners out of his pockets; and so, when the Chalet was finished, none but a friend could be allowed to inhabit it. Monsieur Mignon, the next owner of the property, was very much attached to his cashier, Dumay, and the following history will prove that the attachment was mutual; to him therefore he offered the little dwelling. Dumay, a stickler for legal methods, insisted on signing a lease for three hundred francs for twelve years, and Monsieur Mignon willingly agreed, remarking,–
“My dear Dumay, remember, you have now bound yourself to live with me for twelve years.”
In consequence of certain events which will presently be related, the estates of Monsieur Mignon, formerly the richest merchant in Havre, were sold to Vilquin, one of his business competitors. In his joy at getting possession of the celebrated villa Mignon, the latter forgot to demand the cancelling of the lease. Dumay, anxious not to hinder the sale, would have signed anything Vilquin required, but the sale once made, he held to his lease like a vengeance. And there he remained, in Vilquin’s pocket as it were; at the heart of Vilquin’s family life, observing Vilquin, irritating Vilquin,–in short, the gadfly of all the Vilquins. Every morning, when he looked out of his window, Vilquin felt a violent shock of annoyance as his eye lighted on the little gem of a building, the Chalet, which had cost sixty thousand francs and sparkled like a ruby in the sun. That comparison is very nearly exact. The architect has constructed the cottage of brilliant red brick pointed with white. The window-frames are painted of a lively green, the woodwork is brown verging on yellow. The roof overhangs by several feet. A pretty gallery, with open-worked balustrade, surmounts the lower floor and projects at the centre of the facade into a veranda with glass sides. The ground-floor has a charming salon and a dining-room, separated from each other by the landing of a staircase built of wood, designed and decorated with elegant simplicity. The kitchen is behind the dining-room, and the corresponding room back of the salon, formerly a study, is now the bedroom of Monsieur and Madame Dumay. On the upper floor the architect has managed to get two large bedrooms, each with a dressing-room, to which the veranda serves as a salon; and above this floor, under the eaves, which are tipped together like a couple of cards, are two servants’ rooms with mansard roofs, each lighted by a circular window and tolerably spacious.
Vilquin has been petty enough to build a high wall on the side toward the orchard and kitchen garden; and in consequence of this piece of spite, the few square feet which the lease secured to the Chalet resembled a Parisian garden. The out-buildings, painted in keeping with the cottage, stood with their backs to the wall of the adjoining property.
The interior of this charming dwelling harmonized with its exterior. The salon, floored entirely with iron-wood, was painted in a style that suggested the beauties of Chinese lacquer. On black panels edged with gold, birds of every color, foliage of impossible greens, and fantastic oriental designs glowed and shimmered. The dining-room was entirely sheathed in Northern woods carved and cut in open-work like the beautiful Russian chalets. The little antechamber formed by the landing and the well of the staircase was painted in old oak to represent Gothic ornament. The bedrooms, hung with chintz, were charming in their costly simplicity. The study, where the cashier and his wife now slept, was panelled from top to bottom, on the walls and ceiling, like the cabin of a steamboat. These luxuries of his predecessor excited Vilquin’s wrath. He would fain have lodged his daughter and her husband in the cottage. This desire, well known to Dumay, will presently serve to illustrate the Breton obstinacy of the latter.
The entrance to the Chalet is by a little trellised iron door, the uprights of which, ending in lance-heads, show for a few inches above the fence and its hedge. The little garden, about as wide as the more pretentious lawn, was just now filled with flowers, roses, and dahlias of the choicest kind, and many rare products of the hot-houses, for (another Vilquinard grievance) the elegant little hot-house, a very whim of a hot-house, a hot-house representing dignity and style, belonged to the Chalet, and separated, or if you prefer, united it to the villa Vilquin. Dumay consoled himself for the toils of business in taking care of this hot-house, whose exotic treasures were one of Modeste’s joys. The billiard-room of the villa Vilquin, a species of gallery, formerly communicated through an immense aviary with this hot-house. But after the building of the wall which deprived him of a view into the orchards, Dumay bricked up the door of communication. “Wall for wall!” he said.
In 1827 Vilquin offered Dumay a salary of six thousand francs, and ten thousand more as indemnity, if he would give up the lease. The cashier refused; though he had but three thousand francs from Gobenheim, a former clerk of his master. Dumay was a Breton transplanted by fate into Normandy. Imagine therefore the hatred conceived for the tenants of the Chalet by the Norman Vilquin, a man worth three millions! What criminal leze-million on the part of a cashier, to hold up to the eyes of such a man the impotence of his wealth! Vilquin, whose desperation in the matter made him the talk of Havre, had just proposed to give Dumay a pretty house of his own, and had again been refused. Havre itself began to grow uneasy at the man’s obstinacy, and a good many persons explained it by the phrase, “Dumay is a Breton.” As for the cashier, he thought Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon would be ill-lodged elsewhere. His two idols now inhabited a temple worthy of them; the sumptuous little cottage gave them a home, where these dethroned royalties could keep the semblance of majesty about them,–a species of dignity usually denied to those who have seen better days.
Perhaps as the story goes on, the reader will not regret having learned in advance a few particulars as to the home and the habitual companions of Modeste Mignon, for, at her age, people and things have as much influence upon the future life as a person’s own character,– indeed, character often receives ineffaceable impressions from its surroundings.
A PORTRAIT FROM LIFE
From the manner with which the Latournelles entered the Chalet a stranger would readily have guessed that they came there every evening.
“Ah, you are here already,” said the notary, perceiving the young banker Gobenheim, a connection of Gobenheim-Keller, the head of the great banking house in Paris.
This young man with a livid face–a blonde of the type with black eyes, whose immovable glance has an indescribable fascination, sober in speech as in conduct, dressed in black, lean as a consumptive, but nevertheless vigorously framed–visited the family of his former master and the house of his cashier less from affection than from self-interest. Here they played whist at two sous a point; a dress- coat was not required; he accepted no refreshment except “eau sucree,” and consequently had no civilities to return. This apparent devotion to the Mignon family allowed it to be supposed that Gobenheim had a heart; it also released him from the necessity of going into the society of Havre and incurring useless expenses, thus upsetting the orderly economy of his domestic life. This disciple of the golden calf went to bed at half-past ten o’clock and got up at five in the morning. Moreover, being perfectly sure of Latournelle’s and Butscha’s discretion, he could talk over difficult business matters, obtain the advice of the notary gratis, and get an inkling of the real truth of the gossip of the street. This stolid gold-glutton (the epithet is Butscha’s) belonged by nature to the class of substances which chemistry terms absorbents. Ever since the catastrophe of the house of Mignon, where the Kellers had placed him to learn the principles of maritime commerce, no one at the Chalet had ever asked him to do the smallest thing, no matter what; his reply was too well known. The young fellow looked at Modeste precisely as he would have looked at a cheap lithograph.
“He’s one of the pistons of the big engine called ‘Commerce,'” said poor Butscha, whose clever mind made itself felt occasionally by such little sayings timidly jerked out.
The four Latournelles bowed with the most respectful deference to an old lady dressed in black velvet, who did not rise from the armchair in which she was seated, for the reason that both eyes were covered with the yellow film produced by cataract. Madame Mignon may be sketched in one sentence. Her august countenance of the mother of a family attracted instant notice as that of one whose irreproachable life defies the assaults of destiny, which nevertheless makes her the target of its arrows and a member of the unnumbered tribe of Niobes. Her blonde wig, carefully curled and well arranged upon her head, became the cold white face which resembled that of some burgomaster’s wife painted by Hals or Mirevelt. The extreme neatness of her dress, the velvet boots, the lace collar, the shawl evenly folded and put on, all bore testimony to the solicitous care which Modeste bestowed upon her mother.
When silence was, as the notary had predicted, restored in the pretty salon, Modeste, sitting beside her mother, for whom she was embroidering a kerchief, became for an instant the centre of observation. This curiosity, barely veiled by the commonplace salutations and inquiries of the visitors, would have revealed even to an indifferent person the existence of the domestic plot to which Modeste was expected to fall a victim; but Gobenheim, more than indifferent, noticed nothing, and proceeded to light the candles on the card-table. The behavior of Dumay made the whole scene terrifying to Butscha, to the Latournelles, and above all to Madame Dumay, who knew her husband to be capable of firing a pistol at Modeste’s lover as coolly as though he were a mad dog.
After dinner that day the cashier had gone to walk followed by two magnificent Pyrenees hounds, whom he suspected of betraying him, and therefore left in charge of a farmer, a former tenant of Monsieur Mignon. On his return, just before the arrival of the Latournelles, he had taken his pistols from his bed’s head and placed them on the chimney-piece, concealing this action from Modeste. The young girl took no notice whatever of these preparations, singular as they were.
Though short, thick-set, pockmarked, and speaking always in a low voice as if listening to himself, this Breton, a former lieutenant in the Guard, showed the evidence of such resolution, such sang-froid on his face that throughout life, even in the army, no one had ever ventured to trifle with him. His little eyes, of a calm blue, were like bits of steel. His ways, the look on his face, his speech, his carriage, were all in keeping with the short name of Dumay. His physical strength, well-known to every one, put him above all danger of attack. He was able to kill a man with a blow of his fist, and had performed that feat at Bautzen, where he found himself, unarmed, face to face with a Saxon at the rear of his company. At the present moment the usually firm yet gentle expression of the man’s face had risen to a sort of tragic sublimity; his lips were pale as the rest of his face, indicating a tumult within him mastered by his Breton will; a slight sweat, which every one noticed and guessed to be cold, moistened his brow. The notary knew but too well that these signs might result in a drama before the criminal courts. In fact the cashier was playing a part in connection with Modeste Mignon, which involved to his mind sentiments of honor and loyalty of far greater importance than mere social laws; and his present conduct proceeded from one of those compacts which, in case disaster came of it, could be judged only in a higher court than one of earth. The majority of dramas lie really in the ideas which we make to ourselves about things. Events which seem to us dramatic are nothing more than subjects which our souls convert into tragedy or comedy according to the bent of our characters.
Madame Latournelle and Madame Dumay, who were appointed to watch Modeste, had a certain assumed stiffness of demeanor and a quiver in their voices, which the suspected party did not notice, so absorbed was she in her embroidery. Modeste laid each thread of cotton with a precision that would have made an ordinary workwoman desperate. Her face expressed the pleasure she took in the smooth petals of the flower she was working. The dwarf, seated between his mistress and Gobenheim, restrained his emotion, trying to find means to approach Modeste and whisper a word of warning in her ear.
By taking a position in front of Madame Mignon, Madame Latournelle, with the diabolical intelligence of conscientious duty, had isolated Modeste. Madame Mignon, whose blindness always made her silent, was even paler than usual, showing plainly that she was aware of the test to which her daughter was about to be subjected. Perhaps at the last moment she revolted from the stratagem, necessary as it might seem to her. Hence her silence; she was weeping inwardly. Exupere, the spring of the trap, was wholly ignorant of the piece in which he was to play a part. Gobenheim, by reason of his character, remained in a state of indifference equal to that displayed by Modeste. To a spectator who understood the situation, this contrast between the ignorance of some and the palpitating interest of others would have seemed quite poetic. Nowadays romance-writers arrange such effects; and it is quite within their province to do so, for nature in all ages takes the liberty to be stronger than they. In this instance, as you will see, nature, social nature, which is a second nature within nature, amused herself by making truth more interesting than fiction; just as mountain torrents describe curves which are beyond the skill of painters to convey, and accomplish giant deeds in displacing or smoothing stones which are the wonder of architects and sculptors.
It was eight o’clock. At that season twilight was still shedding its last gleams; there was not a cloud in the sky; the balmy air caressed the earth, the flowers gave forth their fragrance, the steps of pedestrians turning homeward sounded along the gravelly road, the sea shone like a mirror, and there was so little wind that the wax candles upon the card-tables sent up a steady flame, although the windows were wide open. This salon, this evening, this dwelling–what a frame for the portrait of the young girl whom these persons were now studying with the profound attention of a painter in presence of the Margharita Doni, one of the glories of the Pitti palace. Modeste,–blossom enclosed, like that of Catullus,–was she worth all these precautions?
You have seen the cage; behold the bird! Just twenty years of age, slender and delicate as the sirens which English designers invent for their “Books of Beauty,” Modeste was, like her mother before her, the captivating embodiment of a grace too little understood in France, where we choose to call it sentimentality, but which among German women is the poetry of the heart coming to the surface of the being and spending itself–in affectations if the owner is silly, in divine charms of manner if she is “spirituelle” and intelligent. Remarkable for her pale golden hair, Modeste belonged to the type of woman called, perhaps in memory of Eve, the celestial blonde; whose satiny skin is like a silk paper applied to the flesh, shuddering at the winter of a cold look, expanding in the sunshine of a loving glance,– teaching the hand to be jealous of the eye. Beneath her hair, which was soft and feathery and worn in many curls, the brow, which might have been traced by a compass so pure was its modelling, shone forth discreet, calm to placidity, and yet luminous with thought: when and where could another be found so transparently clear or more exquisitely smooth? It seemed, like a pearl, to have its orient. The eyes, of a blue verging on gray and limpid as the eyes of a child, had all the mischief, all the innocence of childhood, and they harmonized well with the arch of the eyebrows, faintly indicated by lines like those made with a brush on Chinese faces. This candor of the soul was still further evidenced around the eyes, in their corners, and about the temples, by pearly tints threaded with blue, the special privilege of these delicate complexions. The face, whose oval Raphael so often gave to his Madonnas, was remarkable for the sober and virginal tone of the cheeks, soft as a Bengal rose, upon which the long lashes of the diaphanous eyelids cast shadows that were mingled with light. The throat, bending as she worked, too delicate perhaps, and of milky whiteness, recalled those vanishing lines that Leonardo loved. A few little blemishes here and there, like the patches of the eighteenth century, proved that Modeste was indeed a child of earth, and not a creation dreamed of in Italy by the angelic school. Her lips, delicate yet full, were slightly mocking and somewhat sensuous; the waist, which was supple and yet not fragile, had no terrors for maternity, like those of girls who seek beauty by the fatal pressure of a corset. Steel and dimity and lacings defined but did not create the serpentine lines of the elegant figure, graceful as that of a young poplar swaying in the wind.
A pearl-gray dress with crimson trimmings, made with a long waist, modestly outlined the bust and covered the shoulders, still rather thin, with a chemisette which left nothing to view but the first curves of the throat where it joined the shoulders. From the aspect of the young girl’s face, at once ethereal and intelligent, where the delicacy of a Greek nose with its rosy nostrils and firm modelling marked something positive and defined; where the poetry enthroned upon an almost mystic brow seemed belied at times by the pleasure-loving expression of the mouth; where candor claimed the depths profound and varied of the eye, and disputed them with a spirit of irony that was trained and educated,–from all these signs an observer would have felt that this young girl, with the keen, alert ear that waked at every sound, with a nostril open to catch the fragrance of the celestial flower of the Ideal, was destined to be the battle-ground of a struggle between the poesies of the dawn and the labors of the day; between fancy and reality, the spirit and the life. Modeste was a pure young girl, inquisitive after knowledge, understanding her destiny, and filled with chastity,–the Virgin of Spain rather than the Madonna of Raphael.
She raised her head when she heard Dumay say to Exupere, “Come here, young man.” Seeing them together in the corner of the salon she supposed they were talking of some commission in Paris. Then she looked at the friends who surrounded her, as if surprised by their silence, and exclaimed in her natural manner, “Why are you not playing?”–with a glance at the green table which the imposing Madame Latournelle called the “altar.”
“Yes, let us play,” said Dumay, having sent off Exupere.
“Sit there, Butscha,” said Madame Latournelle, separating the head- clerk from the group around Madame Mignon and her daughter by the whole width of the table.
“And you, come over here,” said Dumay to his wife, making her sit close by him.
Madame Dumay, a little American about thirty-six years of age, wiped her eyes furtively; she adored Modeste, and feared a catastrophe.
“You are not very lively this evening,” remarked Modeste.
“We are playing,” said Gobenheim, sorting his cards.
No matter how interesting this situation may appear, it can be made still more so by explaining Dumay’s position towards Modeste. If the brevity of this explanation makes it seem rather dry, the reader must pardon its dryness in view of our desire to get through with these preliminaries as speedily as possible, and the necessity of relating the main circumstances which govern all dramas.
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-in-law 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 to-morrow, 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.
A SIMPLE STORY
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:–
BETTINA CAROLINE MIGNON
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–“
“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.
THE PROBLEM STILL UNSOLVED
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 to-morrow,” 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.
A MAIDEN’S FIRST ROMANCE
To this period of Modeste’s eager rage for reading succeeded the exercise of a strange faculty given to vigorous imaginations,–the power, namely, of making herself an actor in a dream-existence; of representing to her own mind the things desired, with so vivid a conception that they seemed actually to attain reality; in short, to enjoy by thought,–to live out her years within her mind; to marry; to grow old; to attend her own funeral like Charles V.; to play within herself the comedy of life and, if need be, that of death. Modeste was indeed playing, but all alone, the comedy of Love. She fancied herself adored to the summit of her wishes in many an imagined phase of social life. Sometimes as the heroine of a dark romance, she loved the executioner, or the wretch who ended her days upon the scaffold, or, like her sister, some Parisian youth without a penny, whose struggles were all beneath a garret-roof. Sometimes she was Ninon, scorning men amid continual fetes; or some applauded actress, or gay adventuress, exhausting in her own behalf the luck of Gil Blas, or the triumphs of Pasta, Malibran, and Florine. Then, weary of the horrors and excitements, she returned to actual life. She married a notary, she ate the plain brown bread of honest everyday life, she saw herself a Madame Latournelle; she accepted a painful existence, she bore all the trials of a struggle with fortune. After that she went back to the romances: she was loved for her beauty; a son of a peer of France, an eccentric, artistic young man, divined her heart, recognized the star which the genius of a De Stael had planted on her brow. Her father returned, possessing millions. With his permission, she put her various lovers to certain tests (always carefully guarding her own independence); she owned a magnificent estate and castle, servants, horses, carriages, the choicest of everything that luxury could bestow, and kept her suitors uncertain until she was forty years old, at which age she made her choice.
This edition of the Arabian Nights in a single copy lasted nearly a year, and taught Modeste the sense of satiety through thought. She held her life too often in her hand, she said to herself philosophically and with too real a bitterness, too seriously, and too often, “Well, what is it, after all?” not to have plunged to her waist in the deep disgust which all men of genius feel when they try to complete by intense toil the work to which they have devoted themselves. Her youth and her rich nature alone kept Modeste at this period of her life from seeking to enter a cloister. But this sense of satiety cast her, saturated as she still was with Catholic spirituality, into the love of Good, the infinite of heaven. She conceived of charity, service to others, as the true occupation of life; but she cowered in the gloomy dreariness of finding in it no food for the fancy that lay crouching in her heart like an insect at the bottom of a calyx. Meanwhile she sat tranquilly sewing garments for the children of the poor, and listening abstractedly to the grumblings of Monsieur Latournelle when Dumay held the thirteenth card or drew out his last trump.
Her religious faith drove Modeste for a time into a singular track of thought. She imagined that if she became sinless (speaking ecclesiastically) she would attain to such a condition of sanctity that God would hear her and accomplish her desires. “Faith,” she thought, “can move mountains; Christ has said so. The Saviour led his apostle upon the waters of the lake Tiberias; and I, all I ask of God is a husband to love me; that is easier than walking upon the sea.” She fasted through the next Lent, and did not commit a single sin; then she said to herself that on a certain day coming out of church she should meet a handsome young man who was worthy of her, whom her mother would accept, and who would fall madly in love with her. When the day came on which she had, as it were, summoned God to send her an angel, she was persistently followed by a rather disgusting beggar; moreover, it rained heavily, and not a single young man was in the streets. On another occasion she went to walk on the jetty to see the English travellers land; but each Englishman had an Englishwoman, nearly as handsome as Modeste herself, who saw no one at all resembling a wandering Childe Harold. Tears overcame her, as she sat down like Marius on the ruins of her imagination. But on the day when she subpoenaed God for the third time she firmly believed that the Elect of her dreams was within the church, hiding, perhaps out of delicacy, behind one of the pillars, round all of which she dragged Madame Latournelle on a tour of inspection. After this failure, she deposed the Deity from omnipotence. Many were her conversations with the imaginary lover, for whom she invented questions and answers, bestowing upon him a great deal of wit and intelligence.
The high ambitions of her heart hidden within these romances were the real explanation of the prudent conduct which the good people who watched over Modeste so much admired; they might have brought her any number of young Althors or Vilquins, and she would never have stooped to such clowns. She wanted, purely and simply, a man of genius,– talent she cared little for; just as a lawyer is of no account to a girl who aims for an ambassador. Her only desire for wealth was to cast it at the feet of her idol. Indeed, the golden background of these visions was far less rich than the treasury of her own heart, filled with womanly delicacy; for its dominant desire was to make some Tasso, some Milton, a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Murat, a Christopher Columbus happy.
Commonplace miseries did not seriously touch this youthful soul, who longed to extinguish the fires of the martyrs ignored and rejected in their own day. Sometimes she imagined balms of Gilead, soothing melodies which might have allayed the savage misanthropy of Rousseau. Or she fancied herself the wife of Lord Byron; guessing intuitively his contempt for the real, she made herself as fantastic as the poetry of Manfred, and provided for his scepticism by making him a Catholic. Modeste attributed Moliere’s melancholy to the women of the seventeenth century. “Why is there not some one woman,” she asked herself, “loving, beautiful, and rich, ready to stand beside each man of genius and be his slave, like Lara, the mysterious page?” She had, as the reader perceives, fully understood “il pianto,” which the English poet chanted by the mouth of his Gulmare. Modeste greatly admired the behavior of the young Englishwoman who offered herself to Crebillon, the son, who married her. The story of Sterne and Eliza Draper was her life and her happiness for several months. She made herself ideally the heroine of a like romance, and many a time she rehearsed in imagination the sublime role of Eliza. The sensibility so charmingly expressed in that delightful correspondence filled her eyes with tears which, it is said, were lacking in those of the wittiest of English writers.
Modeste existed for some time on a comprehension, not only of the works, but of the characters of her favorite authors,–Goldsmith, the author of Obermann, Charles Nodier, Maturin. The poorest and the most suffering among them were her deities; she guessed their trials, initiated herself into a destitution where the thoughts of genius brooded, and poured upon it the treasures of her heart; she fancied herself the giver of material comfort to these great men, martyrs to their own faculty. This noble compassion, this intuition of the struggles of toilers, this worship of genius, are among the choicest perceptions that flutter through the souls of women. They are, in the first place, a secret between the woman and God, for they are hidden; in them there is nothing striking, nothing that gratifies the vanity, –that powerful auxiliary to all action among the French.
Out of this third period of the development of her ideas, there came to Modeste a passionate desire to penetrate to the heart of one of these abnormal beings; to understand the working of the thoughts and the hidden griefs of genius,–to know not only what it wanted but what it was. At the period when this story begins, these vagaries of fancy, these excursions of her soul into the void, these feelers put forth into the darkness of the future, the impatience of an ungiven love to find its goal, the nobility of all her thoughts of life, the decision of her mind to suffer in a sphere of higher things rather than flounder in the marshes of provincial life like her mother, the pledge she had made to herself never to fail in conduct, but to respect her father’s hearth and bring it happiness,–all this world of feeling and sentiment had lately come to a climax and taken shape. Modeste wished to be the friend and companion of a poet, an artist, a man in some way superior to the crowd of men. But she intended to choose him,–not to give him her heart, her life, her infinite tenderness freed from the trammels of passion, until she had carefully and deeply studied him.
She began this pretty romance by simply enjoying it. Profound tranquillity settled down upon her soul. Her cheeks took on a soft color; and she became the beautiful and noble image of Germany, such as we have lately seen her, the glory of the Chalet, the pride of Madame Latournelle and the Dumays. Modeste was living a double existence. She performed with humble, loving care all the minute duties of the homely life at the Chalet, using them as a rein to guide the poetry of her ideal life, like the Carthusian monks who labor methodically on material things to leave their souls the freer to develop in prayer. All great minds have bound themselves to some form of mechanical toil to obtain greater mastery of thought. Spinosa ground glasses for spectacles; Bayle counted the tiles on the roof; Montesquieu gardened. The body being thus subdued, the soul could spread its wings in all security.
Madame Mignon, reading her daughter’s soul, was therefore right. Modeste loved; she loved with that rare platonic love, so little understood, the first illusion of a young girl, the most delicate of all sentiments, a very dainty of the heart. She drank deep draughts from the chalice of the unknown, the vague, the visionary. She admired the blue plumage of the bird that sings afar in the paradise of young girls, which no hand can touch, no gun can cover, as it flits across the sight; she loved those magic colors, like sparkling jewels dazzling to the eye, which youth can see, and never sees again when Reality, the hideous hag, appears with witnesses accompanied by the mayor. To live the very poetry of love and not to see the lover–ah, what sweet intoxication! what visionary rapture! a chimera with flowing man and outspread wings!
The following is the puerile and even silly event which decided the future life of this young girl.
Modeste happened to see in a bookseller’s window a lithographic portrait of one of her favorites, Canalis. We all know what lies such pictures tell,–being as they are the result of a shameless speculation, which seizes upon the personality of celebrated individuals as if their faces were public property.
In this instance Canalis, sketched in a Byronic pose, was offering to public admiration his dark locks floating in the breeze, a bare throat, and the unfathomable brow which every bard ought to possess. Victor Hugo’s forehead will make more persons shave their heads than the number of incipient marshals ever killed by the glory of Napoleon. This portrait of Canalis (poetic through mercantile necessity) caught Modeste’s eye. The day on which it caught her eye one of Arthez’s best books happened to be published. We are compelled to admit, though it may be to Modeste’s injury, that she hesitated long between the illustrious poet and the illustrious prose-writer. Which of these celebrated men was free?–that was the question.
Modeste began by securing the co-operation of Francoise Cochet, a maid taken from Havre and brought back again by poor Bettina, whom Madame Mignon and Madame Dumay now employed by the day, and who lived in Havre. Modeste took her to her own room and assured her that she would never cause her parents any grief, never pass the bounds of a young girl’s propriety, and that as to Francoise herself she would be well provided for after the return of Monsieur Mignon, on condition that she would do a certain service and keep it an inviolable secret. What was it? Why, a nothing–perfectly innocent. All that Modeste wanted of her accomplice was to put certain letters into the post at Havre and to bring some back which would be directed to herself, Francoise Cochet. The treaty concluded, Modeste wrote a polite note to Dauriat, publisher of the poems of Canalis, asking, in the interest of that great poet, for some particulars about him, among others if he were married. She requested the publisher to address his answer to Mademoiselle Francoise, “poste restante,” Havre.
Dauriat, incapable of taking the epistle seriously, wrote a reply in presence of four or five journalists who happened to be in his office at the time, each of whom added his particular stroke of wit to the production.
Mademoiselle,–Canalis (Baron of), Constant Cys Melchior, member of the French Academy, born in 1800, at Canalis (Correze), five feet four inches in height, of good standing, vaccinated, spotless birth, has given a substitute to the conscription, enjoys perfect health, owns a small patrimonial estate in the Correze, and wishes to marry, but the lady must be rich.
He beareth per pale, gules an axe or, sable three escallops argent, surmounted by a baron’s coronet; supporters, two larches, vert. Motto: “Or et fer” (no allusion to Ophir or auriferous).
The original Canalis, who went to the Holy Land with the First Crusade, is cited in the chronicles of Auvergne as being armed with an axe on account of the family indigence, which to this day weighs heavily on the race. This noble baron, famous for discomfiting a vast number of infidels, died, without “or” or “fer,” as naked as a worm, near Jerusalem, on the plains of Ascalon, ambulances not being then invented.
The chateau of Canalis (the domain yields a few chestnuts) consists of two dismantled towers, united by a piece of wall covered by a fine ivy, and is taxed at twenty-two francs.
The undersigned (publisher) calls attention to the fact that he pays ten thousand francs for every volume of poetry written by Monsieur de Canalis, who does not give his shells, or his nuts either, for nothing.
The chanticler of the Correze lives in the rue de Paradis- Poissoniere, number 29, which is a highly suitable location for a poet of the angelic school. Letters must be POST-PAID.
Noble dames of the faubourg Saint-Germain are said to take the path to Paradise and protect its god. The king, Charles X., thinks so highly of this great poet as to believe him capable of governing the country; he has lately made him officer of the Legion of honor, and (what pays him better) president of the court of Claims at the foreign office. These functions do not hinder this great genius from drawing an annuity out of the fund for the encouragement of the arts and belles letters.
The last edition of the works of Canalis, printed on vellum, royal 8vo, from the press of Didot, with illustrations by Bixiou, Joseph Bridau, Schinner, Sommervieux, etc., is in five volumes, price, nine francs post-paid.
This letter fell like a cobble-stone on a tulip. A poet, secretary of claims, getting a stipend in a public office, drawing an annuity, seeking a decoration, adored by the women of the faubourg Saint- Germain–was that the muddy minstrel lingering along the quays, sad, dreamy, worn with toil, and re-entering his garret fraught with poetry? However, Modeste perceived the irony of the envious bookseller, who dared to say, “I invented Canalis; I made Nathan!” Besides, she re-read her hero’s poems,–verses extremely seductive, insincere, and hypocritical, which require a word of analysis, were it only to explain her infatuation.
Canalis may be distinguished from Lamartine, chief of the angelic school, by a wheedling tone like that of a sick-nurse, a treacherous sweetness, and a delightful correctness of diction. If the chief with his strident cry is an eagle, Canalis, rose and white, is a flamingo. In him women find the friend they seek, their interpreter, a being who understands them, who explains them to themselves, and a safe confidant. The wide margins given by Didot to the last edition were crowded with Modeste’s pencilled sentiments, expressing her sympathy with this tender and dreamy spirit. Canalis does not possess the gift of life; he cannot breathe existence into his creations; but he knows how to calm vague sufferings like those which assailed Modeste. He speaks to young girls in their own language; he can allay the anguish of a bleeding wound and lull the moans, even the sobs of woe. His gift lies not in stirring words, nor in the remedy of strong emotions, he contents himself with saying in harmonious tones which compel belief, “I suffer with you; I understand you; come with me; let us weep together beside the brook, beneath the willows.” And they follow him! They listen to his empty and sonorous poetry like infants to a nurse’s lullaby. Canalis, like Nodier, enchants the reader by an artlessness which is genuine in the prose writer and artificial in the poet, by his tact, his smile, the shedding of his rose-leaves, in short by his infantile philosophy. He imitates so well the language of our early youth that he leads us back to the prairie-land of our illusions. We can be pitiless to the eagles, requiring from them the quality of the diamond, incorruptible perfection; but as for Canalis, we take him for what he is and let the rest go. He seems a good fellow; the affectations of the angelic school have answered his purpose and succeeded, just as a woman succeeds when she plays the ingenue cleverly, and simulates surprise, youth, innocence betrayed, in short, the wounded angel.
Modeste, recovering her first impression, renewed her confidence in that soul, in that countenance as ravishing as the face of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre. She paid no further attention to the publisher. And so, about the beginning of the month of August she wrote the following letter to this Dorat of the sacristy, who still ranks as a star of the modern Pleiades.
To Monsieur de Canalis,–Many a time, monsieur, I have wished to write to you; and why? Surely you guess why,–to tell you how much I admire your genius. Yes, I feel the need of expressing to you the admiration of a poor country girl, lonely in her little corner, whose only happiness is to read your thoughts. I have read Rene, and I come to you. Sadness leads to reverie. How many other women are sending you the homage of their secret thoughts? What chance have I for notice among so many? This paper, filled with my soul,–can it be more to you than the perfumed letters which already beset you. I come to you with less grace than others, for I wish to remain unknown and yet to receive your entire confidence –as though you had long known me.
Answer my letter and be friendly with me. I cannot promise to make myself known to you, though I do not positively say I will not some day do so.
What shall I add? Read between the lines of this letter, monsieur, the great effort which I am making: permit me to offer you my hand,–that of a friend, ah! a true friend.
Your servant, O. d’Este M.
P.S.–If you do me the favor to answer this letter address your reply, if you please, to Mademoiselle F. Cochet, “poste restante,” Havre.
A POET OF THE ANGELIC SCHOOL
All young girls, romantic or otherwise, can imagine the impatience in which Modeste lived for the next few days. The air was full of tongues of fire. The trees were like a plumage. She was not conscious of a body; she hovered in space, the earth melted away under her feet. Full of admiration for the post-office, she followed her little sheet of paper on its way; she was happy, as we all are happy at twenty years of age, in the first exercise of our will. She was possessed, as in the middle ages. She made pictures in her mind of the poet’s abode, of his study; she saw him unsealing her letter; and then followed myriads of suppositions.
After sketching the poetry we cannot do less than give the profile of the poet. Canalis is a short, spare man, with an air of good-breeding, a dark-complexioned, moon-shaped face, and a rather mean head like that of a man who has more vanity than pride. He loves luxury, rank, and splendor. Money is of more importance to him than to most men. Proud of his birth, even more than of his talent, he destroys the value of his ancestors by making too much of them in the present day, –after all, the Canalis are not Navarreins, nor Cadignans, nor Grandlieus. Nature, however, helps him out in his pretensions. He has those eyes of Eastern effulgence which we demand in a poet, a delicate charm of manner, and a vibrant voice; yet a taint of natural charlatanism destroys the effect of nearly all these advantages; he is a born comedian. If he puts forward his well-shaped foot, it is because the attitude has become a habit; if he uses exclamatory terms they are part of himself; if he poses with high dramatic action he has made that deportment his second nature. Such defects as these are not incompatible with a general benevolence and a certain quality of errant and purely ideal chivalry, which distinguishes the paladin from the knight. Canalis has not devotion enough for a Don Quixote, but he has too much elevation of thought not to put himself on the nobler side of questions and things. His poetry, which takes the town by storm on all profitable occasions, really injures the man as a poet; for he is not without mind, but his talent prevents him from developing it; he is overweighted by his reputation, and is always aiming to make himself appear greater than he has the credit of being. Thus, as often happens, the man is entirely out of keeping with the products of his thought. The author of these naive, caressing, tender little lyrics, these calm idylls pure and cold as the surface of a lake, these verses so essentially feminine, is an ambitious little creature in a tightly buttoned frock-coat, with the air of a diplomat seeking political influence, smelling of the musk of aristocracy, full of pretension, thirsting for money, already spoiled by success in two directions, and wearing the double wreath of myrtle and of laurel. A government situation worth eight thousand francs, three thousand francs’ annuity from the literary fund, two thousand from the Academy, three thousand more from the paternal estate (less the taxes and the cost of keeping it in order),–a total fixed income of fifteen thousand francs, plus the ten thousand bought in, one year with another, by his poetry; in all twenty-five thousand francs,–this for Modeste’s hero was so precarious and insufficient an income that he usually spent five or six thousand francs more every year; but the king’s privy purse and the secret funds of the foreign office had hitherto supplied the deficit. He wrote a hymn for the king’s coronation which earned him a whole silver service,–having refused a sum of money on the ground that a Canalis owed his duty to his sovereign.
But about this time Canalis had, as the journalists say, exhausted his budget. He felt himself unable to invent any new form of poetry; his lyre did not have seven strings, it had one; and having played on that one string so long, the public allowed him no other alternative but to hang himself with it, or to hold his tongue. De Marsay, who did not like Canalis, made a remark whose poisoned shaft touched the poet to the quick of his vanity. “Canalis,” he said, “always reminds me of that brave man whom Frederic the Great called up and commended after a battle because his trumpet had never ceased tooting its one little tune.” Canalis’s ambition was to enter political life, and he made capital of a journey he had taken to Madrid as secretary to the embassy of the Duc de Chaulieu, though it was really made, according to Parisian gossip, in the capacity of “attache to the duchess.” How many times a sarcasm or a single speech has decided the whole course of a man’s life. Colla, the late president of the Cisalpine republic, and the best lawyer in Piedmont, was told by a friend when he was forty years of age that he knew nothing of botany. He was piqued,