Honore de Balzac
Part 2 out of 6
became a second Jussieu, cultivated flowers, and compiled and
published "The Flora of Piedmont," in Latin, a labor of ten years.
"I'll master De Marsay some of these days!" thought the crushed poet;
"after all, Canning and Chateaubriand are both in politics."
Canalis would gladly have brought forth some great political poem, but
he was afraid of the French press, whose criticisms are savage upon
any writer who takes four alexandrines to express one idea. Of all the
poets of our day only three, Hugo, Theophile Gautier, and De Vigny,
have been able to win the double glory of poet and prose-writer, like
Racine and Voltaire, Moliere, and Rabelais,--a rare distinction in the
literature of France, which ought to give a man a right to the
crowning title of poet.
So then, the bard of the faubourg Saint-Germain was doing a wise thing
in trying to house his little chariot under the protecting roof of the
present government. When he became president of the court of Claims at
the foreign office, he stood in need of a secretary,--a friend who
could take his place in various ways; cook up his interests with
publishers, see to his glory in the newspapers, help him if need be in
politics,--in short, a cat's paw and satellite. In Paris many men of
celebrity in art, science, and literature have one or more train-
bearers, captains of the guard, chamberlains as it were, who live in
the sunshine of their presence,--aides-de-camp entrusted with delicate
missions, allowing themselves to be compromised if necessary; workers
round the pedestal of the idol; not exactly his servants, nor yet his
equals; bold in his defence, first in the breach, covering all
retreats, busy with his business, and devoted to him just so long as
their illusions last, or until the moment when they have got all they
wanted. Some of these satellites perceive the ingratitude of their
great man; others feel that they are simply made tools of; many weary
of the life; very few remain contented with that sweet equality of
feeling and sentiment which is the only reward that should be looked
for in an intimacy with a superior man,--a reward that contented Ali
when Mohammed raised him to himself.
Many of these men, misled by vanity, think themselves quite as capable
as their patron. Pure devotion, such as Modeste conceived it, without
money and without price, and more especially without hope, is rare.
Nevertheless there are Mennevals to be found, more perhaps in Paris
than elsewhere, men who value a life in the background with its
peaceful toil; these are the wandering Benedictines of our social
world, which offers them no other monastery. These brave, meek hearts
live, by their actions and in their hidden lives, the poetry that
poets utter. They are poets themselves in soul, in tenderness, in
their lonely vigils and meditations,--as truly poets as others of the
name on paper, who fatten in the fields of literature at so much a
verse; like Lord Byron, like all who live, alas, by ink, the
Hippocrene water of to-day, for want of a better.
Attracted by the fame of Canalis, also by the prospect of political
interest, and advised thereto by Madame d'Espard, who acted in the
matter for the Duchesse de Chaulieu, a young lawyer of the court of
Claims became secretary and confidential friend of the poet, who
welcomed and petted him very much as a broker caresses his first
dabbler in the funds. The beginning of this companionship bore a very
fair resemblance to friendship. The young man had already held the
same relation to a minister, who went out of office in 1827, taking
care before he did so to appoint his young secretary to a place in the
foreign office. Ernest de La Briere, then about twenty-seven years of
age, was decorated with the Legion of honor but was without other
means than his salary; he was accustomed to the management of business
and had learned a good deal of life during his four years in a
minister's cabinet. Kindly, amiable, and over-modest, with a heart
full of pure and sound feelings, he was averse to putting himself in
the foreground. He loved his country, and wished to serve her, but
notoriety abashed him. To him the place of secretary to a Napoleon was
far more desirable than that of the minister himself. As soon as he
became the friend and secretary of Canalis he did a great amount of
labor for him, but by the end of eighteen months he had learned to
understand the barrenness of a nature that was poetic through literary
expression only. The truth of the old proverb, "The cowl doesn't make
the monk," is eminently shown in literature. It is extremely rare to
find among literary men a nature and a talent that are in perfect
accord. The faculties are not the man himself. This disconnection,
whose phenomena are amazing, proceeds from an unexplored, possibly an
unexplorable mystery. The brain and its products of all kinds (for in
art the hand of man is a continuation of his brain) are a world apart,
which flourishes beneath the cranium in absolute independence of
sentiments, feelings, and all that is called virtue, the virtue of
citizens, fathers, and private life. This, however true, is not
absolutely so; nothing is absolutely true of man. It is certain that a
debauched man will dissipate his talent, that a drunkard will waste it
in libations; while, on the other hand, no man can give himself talent
by wholesome living: nevertheless, it is all but proved that Virgil,
the painter of love, never loved a Dido, and that Rousseau, the model
citizen, had enough pride to had furnished forth an aristocracy. On
the other hand Raphael and Michael Angelo do present the glorious
conjunction of genius with the lines of character. Talent in men is
therefore, in all moral points, very much what beauty is in women,--
simply a promise. Let us, therefore, doubly admire the man in whom
both heart and character equal the perfection of his genius.
When Ernest discovered within his poet an ambitious egoist, the worst
species of egoist (for there are some amiable forms of the vice), he
felt a delicacy in leaving him. Honest natures cannot easily break the
ties that bind them, especially if they have tied them voluntarily.
The secretary was therefore still living in domestic relations with
the poet when Modeste's letter arrived,--in such relations, be it
said, as involved a perpetual sacrifice of his feelings. La Briere
admitted the frankness with which Canalis had laid himself bare before
him. Moreover, the defects of the man, who will always be considered a
great poet during his lifetime and flattered as Martmontel was
flattered, were only the wrong side of his brilliant qualities.
Without his vanity and his magniloquence it is possible that he might
never have acquired the sonorous elocution which is so useful and even
necessary an instrument in political life. His cold-bloodedness
touched at certain points on rectitude and loyalty; his ostentation
had a lining of generosity. Results, we must remember, are to the
profit of society; motives concern God.
But after the arrival of Modeste's letter Ernest deceived himself no
longer as to Canalis. The pair had just finished breakfast and were
talking together in the poet's study, which was on the ground-floor of
a house standing back in a court-yard, and looked into a garden.
"There!" exclaimed Canalis, "I was telling Madame de Chaulieu the
other day that I ought to bring out another poem; I knew admiration
was running short, for I have had no anonymous letters for a long
"Is it from an unknown woman?"
"Unknown? yes!--a D'Este, in Havre; evidently a feigned name."
Canalis passed the letter to La Briere. The little poem, with all its
hidden enthusiasms, in short, poor Modeste's heart, was disdainfully
handed over, with the gesture of a spoiled dandy.
"It is a fine thing," said the lawyer, "to have the power to attract
such feelings; to force a poor woman to step out of the habits which
nature, education, and the world dictate to her, to break through
conventions. What privileges genius wins! A letter such as this,
written by a young girl--a genuine young girl--without hidden
meanings, with real enthusiasm--"
"Well, what?" said Canalis.
"Why, a man might suffer as much as Tasso and yet feel recompensed,"
cried La Briere.
"So he might, my dear fellow, by a first letter of that kind, and even
a second; but how about the thirtieth? And suppose you find out that
these young enthusiasts are little jades? Or imagine a poet rushing
along the brilliant path in search of her, and finding at the end of
it an old Englishwoman sitting on a mile-stone and offering you her
hand! Or suppose this post-office angel should really be a rather ugly
girl in quest of a husband? Ah, my boy! the effervescence then goes
"I begin to perceive," said La Briere, smiling, "that there is
something poisonous in glory, as there is in certain dazzling
"And then," resumed Canalis, "all these women, even when they are
simple-minded, have ideals, and you can't satisfy them. They never say
to themselves that a poet is a vain man, as I am accused of being;
they can't conceive what it is for an author to be at the mercy of a
feverish excitement, which makes him disagreeable and capricious; they
want him always grand, noble; it never occurs to them that genius is a
disease, or that Nathan lives with Florine; that D'Arthez is too fat,
and Joseph Bridau is too thin; that Beranger limps, and that their own
particular deity may have the snuffles! A Lucien de Rubempre, poet and
cupid, is a phoenix. And why should I go in search of compliments only
to pull the string of a shower-bath of horrid looks from some
"Then the true poet," said La Briere, "ought to remain hidden, like
God, in the centre of his worlds, and be only seen in his own
"Glory would cost too dear in that case," answered Canalis. "There is
some good in life. As for that letter," he added, taking a cup of tea,
"I assure you that when a noble and beautiful woman loves a poet she
does not hide in the corner boxes, like a duchess in love with an
actor; she feels that her beauty, her fortune, her name are protection
enough, and she dares to say openly, like an epic poem: 'I am the
nymph Calypso, enamored of Telemachus.' Mystery and feigned names are
the resources of little minds. For my part I no longer answer masks--"
"I should love a woman who came to seek me," cried La Briere. "To all
you say I reply, my dear Canalis, that it cannot be an ordinary girl
who aspires to a distinguished man; such a girl has too little trust,
too much vanity; she is too faint-hearted. Only a star, a--"
"--princess!" cried Canalis, bursting into a shout of laughter; "only
a princess can descend to him. My dear fellow, that doesn't happen
once in a hundred years. Such a love is like that flower that blossoms
every century. Princesses, let me tell you, if they are young, rich,
and beautiful, have something else to think of; they are surrounded
like rare plants by a hedge of fools, well-bred idiots as hollow as
elder-bushes! My dream, alas! the crystal of my dream, garlanded from
hence to the Correze with roses--ah! I cannot speak of it--it is in
fragments at my feet, and has long been so. No, no, all anonymous
letters are begging letters; and what sort of begging? Write yourself
to that young woman, if you suppose her young and pretty, and you'll
find out. There is nothing like experience. As for me, I can't
reasonably be expected to love every woman; Apollo, at any rate he of
Belvedere, is a delicate consumptive who must take care of his
"But when a woman writes to you in this way her excuse must certainly
be in her consciousness that she is able to eclipse in tenderness and
beauty every other woman," said Ernest, "and I should think you might
feel some curiosity--"
"Ah," said Canalis, "permit me, my juvenile friend, to abide by the
beautiful duchess who is all my joy."
"You are right, you are right!" cried Ernest. However, the young
secretary read and re-read Modeste's letter, striving to guess the
mind of its hidden writer.
"There is not the least fine-writing here," he said, "she does not
even talk of your genius; she speaks to your heart. In your place I
should feel tempted by this fragrance of modesty,--this proposed
"Then, sign it!" cried Canalis, laughing; "answer the letter and go to
the end of the adventure yourself. You shall tell me the results three
months hence--if the affair lasts so long."
Four days later Modeste received the following letter, written on
extremely fine paper, protected by two envelopes, and sealed with the
arms of Canalis.
Mademoiselle,--The admiration for fine works (allowing that my
books are such) implies something so lofty and sincere as to
protect you from all light jesting, and to justify before the
sternest judge the step you have taken in writing to me.
But first I must thank you for the pleasure which such proofs of
sympathy afford, even though we may not merit them,--for the maker
of verses and the true poet are equally certain of the intrinsic
worth of their writings,--so readily does self-esteem lend itself
to praise. The best proof of friendship that I can give to an
unknown lady in exchange for a faith which allays the sting of
criticism, is to share with her the harvest of my own experience,
even at the risk of dispelling her most vivid illusions.
Mademoiselle, the noblest adornment of a young girl is the flower
of a pure and saintly and irreproachable life. Are you alone in
the world? If you are, there is no need to say more. But if you
have a family, a father or a mother, think of all the sorrow that
might come to them from such a letter as yours addressed to a poet
of whom you know nothing personally. All writers are not angels;
they have many defects. Some are frivolous, heedless, foppish,
ambitious, dissipated; and, believe me, no matter how imposing
innocence may be, how chivalrous a poet is, you will meet with
many a degenerate troubadour in Paris ready to cultivate your
affection only to betray it. By such a man your letter would be
interpreted otherwise than it is by me. He would see a thought
that is not in it, which you, in your innocence, have not
suspected. There are as many natures as there are writers. I am
deeply flattered that you have judged me capable of understanding
you; but had you, perchance, fallen upon a hypocrite, a scoffer,
one whose books may be melancholy but whose life is a perpetual
carnival, you would have found as the result of your generous
imprudence an evil-minded man, the frequenter of green-rooms,
perhaps a hero of some gay resort. In the bower of clematis where
you dream of poets, can you smell the odor of the cigar which
drives all poetry from the manuscript?
But let us look still further. How could the dreamy, solitary life
you lead, doubtless by the sea-shore, interest a poet, whose
mission it is to imagine all, and to paint all? What reality can
equal imagination? The young girls of the poets are so ideal that
no living daughter of Eve can compete with them. And now tell me,
what will you gain,--you, a young girl, brought up to be the
virtuous mother of a family,--if you learn to comprehend the
terrible agitations of a poet's life in this dreadful capital,
which may be defined by one sentence,--the hell in which men love.
If the desire to brighten the monotonous existence of a young girl
thirsting for knowledge has led you to take your pen in hand and
write to me, has not the step itself the appearance of
degradation? What meaning am I to give to your letter? Are you one
of a rejected caste, and do you seek a friend far away from you?
Or, are you afflicted with personal ugliness, yet feeling within
you a noble soul which can give and receive a confidence? Alas,
alas, the conclusion to be drawn is grievous. You have said too
much, or too little; you have gone too far, or not far enough.
Either let us drop this correspondence, or, if you continue it,
tell me more than in the letter you have now written me.
But, mademoiselle, if you are young, if you are beautiful, if you
have a home, a family, if in your heart you have the precious
ointment, the spikenard, to pour out, as did Magdalene on the feet
of Jesus, let yourself be won by a man worthy of you; become what
every pure young girl should be,--a good woman, the virtuous
mother of a family. A poet is the saddest conquest that a girl can
make; he is full of vanity, full of angles that will sharply wound
a woman's proper pride, and kill a tenderness which has no
experience of life. The wife of a poet should love him long before
she marries him; she must train herself to the charity of angels,
to their forbearance, to all the virtues of motherhood. Such
qualities, mademoiselle, are but germs in a young girl.
Hear the whole truth,--do I not owe it to you in return for your
intoxicating flattery? If it is a glorious thing to marry a great
renown, remember also that you must soon discover a superior man
to be, in all that makes a man, like other men. He therefore
poorly realizes the hopes that attach to him as a phoenix. He
becomes like a woman whose beauty is over-praised, and of whom we
say: "I thought her far more lovely." She has not warranted the
portrait painted by the fairy to whom I owe your letter,--the
fairy whose name is Imagination.
Believe me, the qualities of the mind live and thrive only in a
sphere invisible, not in daily life; the wife of a poet bears the
burden; she sees the jewels manufactured, but she never wears
them. If the glory of the position fascinates you, hear me now
when I tell you that its pleasures are soon at an end. You will
suffer when you find so many asperities in a nature which, from a
distance, you thought equable, and such coldness at the shining
summit. Moreover, as women never set their feet within the world
of real difficulties, they cease to appreciate what they once
admired as soon as they think they see the inner mechanism of it.
I close with a last thought, in which there is no disguised
entreaty; it is the counsel of a friend. The exchange of souls can
take place only between persons who are resolved to hide nothing
from each other. Would you show yourself for such as you are to an
unknown man? I dare not follow out the consequences of that idea.
Deign to accept, mademoiselle, the homage which we owe to all
women, even those who are disguised and masked.
So this was the letter she had worn between her flesh and her corset
above her palpitating heart throughout one whole day! For this she had
postponed the reading until the midnight hour when the household
slept, waiting for the solemn silence with the eager anxiety of an
imagination on fire! For this she had blessed the poet by
anticipation, reading a thousand letters ere she opened one,--fancying
all things, except this drop of cold water falling upon the vaporous
forms of her illusion, and dissolving them as prussic acid dissolves
life. What could she do but hide herself in her bed, blow out her
candle, bury her face in the sheets and weep?
All this happened during the first days of July. But Modeste presently
got up, walked across the room and opened the window. She wanted air.
The fragrance of the flowers came to her with the peculiar freshness
of the odors of the night. The sea, lighted by the moon, sparkled like
a mirror. A nightingale was singing in a tree. "Ah, there is the
poet!" thought Modeste, whose anger subsided at once. Bitter
reflections chased each other through her mind. She was cut to the
quick; she wished to re-read the letter, and lit a candle; she studied
the sentences so carefully studied when written; and ended by hearing
the wheezing voice of the outer world.
"He is right, and I am wrong," she said to herself. "But who could
ever believe that under the starry mantle of a poet I should find
nothing but one of Moliere's old men?"
When a woman or young girl is taken in the act, "flagrante delicto,"
she conceives a deadly hatred to the witness, the author, or the
object of her fault. And so the true, the single-minded, the untamed
and untamable Modeste conceived within her soul an unquenchable desire
to get the better of that righteous spirit, to drive him into some
fatal inconsistency, and so return him blow for blow. This girl, this
child, as we may call her, so pure, whose head alone had been
misguided,--partly by her reading, partly by her sister's sorrows, and
more perhaps by the dangerous meditations of her solitary life,--was
suddenly caught by a ray of sunshine flickering across her face. She
had been standing for three hours on the shores of the vast sea of
Doubt. Nights like these are never forgotten. Modeste walked straight
to her little Chinese table, a gift from her father, and wrote a
letter dictated by the infernal spirit of vengeance which palpitates
in the hearts of young girls.
BLADE TO BLADE
To Monsieur de Canalis:
Monsieur,--You are certainly a great poet, and you are something
more,--an honest man. After showing such loyal frankness to a
young girl who was stepping to the verge of an abyss, have you
enough left to answer without hypocrisy or evasion the following
Would you have written the letter I now hold in answer to mine,--
would your ideas, your language have been the same,--had some one
whispered in your ear (what may prove true), Mademoiselle O.
d'Este M. has six millions and does intend to have a dunce for a
Admit the supposition for a moment. Be with me what you are with
yourself; fear nothing. I am wiser than my twenty years; nothing
that is frank can hurt you in my mind. When I have read your
confidence, if you deign to make it, you shall receive from me an
answer to your first letter.
Having admired your talent, often so sublime, permit me to do
homage to your delicacy and your integrity, which force me to
Your humble servant,
O. d'Este M.
When Ernest de La Briere had held this letter in his hands for some
little time he went to walk along the boulevards, tossed in mind like
a tiny vessel by a tempest when the wind is blowing from all points of
the compass. Most young men, specially true Parisians, would have
settled the matter in a single phrase, "The girl is a little hussy."
But for a youth whose soul was noble and true, this attempt to put
him, as it were, upon his oath, this appeal to truth, had the power to
awaken the three judges hidden in the conscience of every man. Honor,
Truth, and Justice, getting on their feet, cried out in their several
"Ah, my dear Ernest," said Truth, "you never would have read that
lesson to a rich heiress. No, my boy; you would have gone in hot haste
to Havre to find out if the girl were handsome, and you would have
been very unhappy indeed at her preference for genius; and if you
could have tripped up your friend and supplanted him in her
affections, Mademoiselle d'Este would have been a divinity."
"What?" cried Justice, "are you not always bemoaning yourselves, you
penniless men of wit and capacity, that rich girls marry beings whom
you wouldn't take as your servants? You rail against the materialism
of the century which hastens to join wealth to wealth, and never
marries some fine young man with brains and no money to a rich girl.
What an outcry you make about it; and yet here is a young woman who
revolts against that very spirit of the age, and behold! the poet
replies with a blow at her heart!"
"Rich or poor, young or old, ugly or handsome, the girl is right; she
has sense and judgment, she has tripped you over into the slough of
self-interest and lets you know it," cried Honor. "She deserves an
answer, a sincere and loyal and frank answer, and, above all, the
honest expression of your thought. Examine yourself! sound your heart
and purge it of its meannesses. What would Moliere's Alceste say?"
And La Briere, having started from the boulevard Poissoniere, walked
so slowly, absorbed in these reflections, that he was more than an
hour in reaching the boulevard des Capucines. Then he followed the
quays, which led him to the Cour des Comptes, situated in that time
close to the Saint-Chapelle. Instead of beginning on the accounts as
he should have done, he remained at the mercy of his perplexities.
"One thing is evident," he said to himself; "she hasn't six millions;
but that's not the point--"
Six days later, Modeste received the following letter:
Mademoiselle,--You are not a D'Este. The name is a feigned one to
conceal your own. Do I owe the revelations which you solicit to a
person who is untruthful about herself? Question for question: Are
you of an illustrious family? or a noble family? or a middle-class
family? Undoubtedly ethics and morality cannot change; they are
one: but obligations vary in the different states of life. Just as
the sun lights up a scene diversely and produces differences which
we admire, so morality conforms social duty to rank, to position.
The peccadillo of a soldier is a crime in a general, and vice-
versa. Observances are not alike in all cases. They are not the
same for the gleaner in the field, for the girl who sews at
fifteen sous a day, for the daughter of a petty shopkeeper, for
the young bourgoise, for the child of a rich merchant, for the
heiress of a noble family, for a daughter of the house of Este. A
king must not stoop to pick up a piece of gold, but a laborer
ought to retrace his steps to find ten sous; though both are
equally bound to obey the laws of economy. A daughter of Este, who
is worth six millions, has the right to wear a broad-brimmed hat
and plume, to flourish her whip, press the flanks of her barb, and
ride like an amazon decked in gold lace, with a lackey behind her,
into the presence of a poet and say: "I love poetry; and I would
fain expiate Leonora's cruelty to Tasso!" but a daughter of the
people would cover herself with ridicule by imitating her. To what
class do you belong? Answer sincerely, and I will answer the
question you have put to me.
As I have not the honor of knowing you personally, and yet am
bound to you, in a measure, by the ties of poetic communion, I am
unwilling to offer any commonplace compliments. Perhaps you have
already won a malicious victory by thus embarrassing a maker of
The young man was certainly not wanting in the sort of shrewdness
which is permissible to a man of honor. By return courier he received
To Monsieur de Canalis,--You grow more and more sensible, my dear
poet. My father is a count. The chief glory of our house was a
cardinal, in the days when cardinals walked the earth by the side
of kings. I am the last of our family, which ends in me; but I
have the necessary quarterings to make my entry into any court or
chapter-house in Europe. We are quite the equals of the Canalis.
You will be so kind as to excuse me from sending you our arms.
Endeavor to answer me as truthfully as I have now answered you. I
await your response to know if I can then sign myself as I do now,
Your servant, O. d'Este M.
"The little mischief! how she abuses her privileges," cried La Briere;
"but isn't she frank!"
No young man can be four years private secretary to a cabinet
minister, and live in Paris and observe the carrying on of many
intrigues, with perfect impunity; in fact, the purest soul is more or
less intoxicated by the heady atmosphere of the imperial city. Happy
in the thought that he was not Canalis, our young secretary engaged a
place in the mail-coach for Havre, after writing a letter in which he
announced that the promised answer would be sent a few days later,--
excusing the delay on the ground of the importance of the confession
and the pressure of his duties at the ministry.
He took care to get from the director-general of the post-office a
note to the postmaster at Havre, requesting secrecy and attention to
his wishes. Ernest was thus enabled to see Francoise Cochet when she
came for the letters, and to follow her without exciting observation.
Guided by her, he reached Ingouville and saw Modeste Mignon at the
window of the Chalet.
"Well, Francoise?" he heard the young girl say, to which the maid
"Yes, mademoiselle, I have one."
Struck by the girl's great beauty, Ernest retraced his steps and asked
a man on the street the name of the owner of that magnificent estate.
"That?" said the man, nodding to the villa.
"Yes, my friend."
"Oh, that belongs to Monsieur Vilquin, the richest shipping merchant
in Havre, so rich he doesn't know what he is worth."
"There is no Cardinal Vilquin that I know of in history," thought
Ernest, as he walked back to Havre for the night mail to Paris.
Naturally he questioned the postmaster about the Vilquin family, and
learned that it possessed an enormous fortune. Monsieur Vilquin had a
son and two daughters, one of whom was married to Monsieur Althor,
junior. Prudence kept La Briere from seeming anxious about the
Vilquins; the postmaster was already looking at him slyly.
"Is there there any one staying with them at the present moment," he
asked, "besides the family?"
"The d'Herouville family is there just now. They do talk of a marriage
between the young duke and the remaining Mademoiselle Vilquin."
"Ha!" thought Ernest; "there was a celebrated Cardinal d'Herouville
under the Valois, and a terrible marshal whom they made a duke in the
time of Henri IV."
Ernest returned to Paris having seen enough of Modeste to dream of
her, and to think that, whether she were rich or whether she were
poor, if she had a noble soul he would like to make her Madame de La
Briere; and so thinking, he resolved to continue the correspondence.
Ah! you poor women of France, try to remain hidden if you can; try to
weave the least little romance about your lives in the midst of a
civilization which posts in the public streets the hours when the
coaches arrive and depart; which counts all letters and stamps them
twice over, first with the hour when they are thrown into the boxes,
and next with that of their delivery; which numbers the houses, prints
the tax of every tenant on a metal register at the doors (after
verifying its particulars), and will soon possess one vast register of
every inch of its territory down to the smallest parcel of land, and
the most insignificant features of it,--a giant work ordained by a
giant. Try, imprudent young ladies, to escape not only the eye of the
police, but the incessant chatter which takes place in a country town
about the veriest trifles,--how many dishes the prefect has at his
dessert, how many slices of melon are left at the door of some small
householder,--which strains its ear to catch the chink of the gold a
thrifty man lays by, and spends its evenings in calculating the
incomes of the village and the town and the department. It was mere
chance that enabled Modeste to escape discovery through Ernest's
reconnoitring expedition,--a step which he already regretted; but what
Parisian can allow himself to be the dupe of a little country girl?
Incapable of being duped! that horrid maxim is the dissolvent of all
noble sentiments in man.
We can readily guess the struggle of feeling to which this honest
young fellow fell a prey when we read the letter that he now indited,
in which every stroke of the flail which scourged his conscience will
be found to have left its trace.
This is what Modeste read a few days later, as she sat by her window
on a fine summer's day:--
Mademoiselle,--Without hypocrisy or evasion, YES, if I had been
certain that you possessed an immense fortune I should have acted
differently. Why? I have searched for the reason; here it is. We
have within us an inborn feeling, inordinately developed by social
life, which drives us to the pursuit and to the possession of
happiness. Most men confound happiness with the means that lead to
it; money in their eyes is the chief element of happiness. I
should, therefore, have endeavored to win you, prompted by that
social sentiment which has in all ages made wealth a religion. At
least, I think I should. It is not to be expected of a man still
young that he can have the wisdom to substitute sound sense for
the pleasure of the senses; within sight of a prey the brutal
instincts hidden in the heart of man drive him on. Instead of that
lesson, I should have sent you compliments and flatteries. Should
I have kept my own esteem in so doing? I doubt it. Mademoiselle,
in such a case success brings absolution; but happiness? That is
another thing. Should I have distrusted my wife had I won her in
that way? Most assuredly I should. Your advance on me would sooner
or later have come between us. Your husband, however grand your
fancy may make him, would have ended by reproaching you for having
abased him. You, yourself, might have come, sooner or later, to
despise him. The strong man forgives, but the poet whines. Such,
mademoiselle, is the answer which my honesty compels me to make to
And now, listen to me. You have the triumph of forcing me to
reflect deeply,--first on you, whom I do not sufficiently know;
next, on myself, of whom I knew too little. You have had the power
to stir up many of the evil thoughts which crouched in my heart,
as in all hearts; but from them something good and generous has
come forth, and I salute you with my most fervent benedictions,
just as at sea we salute the lighthouse which shows the rocks on
which we were about to perish. Here is my confession, for I would
not lose your esteem nor my own for all the treasures of earth.
I wished to know who you are. I have just returned from Havre,
where I saw Francoise Cochet, and followed her to Ingouville. You
are as beautiful as the woman of a poet's dream; but I do not know
if you are Mademoiselle Vilquin concealed under Mademoiselle
d'Herouville, or Mademoiselle d'Herouville hidden under
Mademoiselle Vilquin. Though all is fair in war, I blushed at such
spying and stopped short in my inquiries. You have roused my
curiosity; forgive me for being somewhat of a woman; it is, I
believe, the privilege of a poet.
Now that I have laid bare my heart and allowed you to read it, you
will believe in the sincerity of what I am about to add. Though
the glimpse I had of you was all too rapid, it has sufficed to
modify my opinion of your conduct. You are a poet and a poem, even
more than you are a woman. Yes, there is in you something more
precious than beauty; you are the beautiful Ideal of art, of
fancy. The step you took, blamable as it would be in an ordinary
young girl, allotted to an every-day destiny, has another aspect
if endowed with the nature which I now attribute to you. Among the
crowd of beings flung by fate into the social life of this planet
to make up a generation there are exceptional souls. If your
letter is the outcome of long poetic reveries on the fate which
conventions bring to women, if, constrained by the impulse of a
lofty and intelligent mind, you have wished to understand the life
of a man to whom you attribute the gift of genius, to the end that
you may create a friendship withdrawn from the ordinary relations
of life, with a soul in communion with your own, disregarding thus
the ordinary trammels of your sex,--then, assuredly, you are an
exception. The law which rightly limits the actions of the crowd
is too limited for you. But in that case, the remark in my first
letter returns in greater force,--you have done too much or not
Accept once more my thanks for the service you have rendered me,
that of compelling me to sound my heart. You have corrected in me
the false idea, only too common in France, that marriage should be
a means of fortune. While I struggled with my conscience a sacred
voice spoke to me. I swore solemnly to make my fortune myself, and
not be led by motives of cupidity in choosing the companion of my
life. I have also reproached myself for the blamable curiosity you
have excited in me. You have not six millions. There is no
concealment possible in Havre for a young lady who possesses such
a fortune; you would be discovered at once by the pack of hounds
of great families whom I see in Paris on the hunt after heiresses,
and who have already sent one, the grand equerry, the young duke,
among the Vilquins. Therefore, believe me, the sentiments I have
now expressed are fixed in my mind as a rule of life, from which I
have abstracted all influences of romance or of actual fact. Prove
to me, therefore, that you have one of those souls which may be
forgiven for its disobedience to the common law, by perceiving and
comprehending the spirit of this letter as you did that of my
first letter. If you are destined to a middle-class life, obey the
iron law which holds society together. Lifted in mind above other
women, I admire you; but if you seek to obey an impulse which you
ought to repress, I pity you. The all-wise moral of that great
domestic epic "Clarissa Harlowe" is that legitimate and honorable
love led the poor victim to her ruin because it was conceived,
developed, and pursued beyond the boundaries of family restraint.
The family, however cruel and even foolish it may be, is in the
right against the Lovelaces. The family is Society. Believe me,
the glory of a young girl, of a woman, must always be that of
repressing her most ardent impulses within the narrow sphere of
conventions. If I had a daughter able to become a Madame de Stael
I should wish her dead at fifteen. Can you imagine a daughter of
yours flaunting on the stage of fame, exhibiting herself to win
the plaudits of a crowd, and not suffer anguish at the thought? No
matter to what heights a woman can rise by the inward poetry of
her soul, she must sacrifice the outer signs of superiority on the
altar of her home. Her impulse, her genius, her aspirations toward
Good, the whole poem of a young girl's being, should belong to the
man she accepts and the children whom she brings into the world. I
think I perceive in you a secret desire to widen the narrow circle
of the life to which all women are condemned, and to put love and
passion into marriage. Ah! it is a lovely dream! it is not
impossible; it is difficult, but if realized, may it not be to the
despair of souls--forgive me the hackneyed word--"incompris"?
If you seek a platonic friendship it will be to your sorrow in
after years. If your letter was a jest, discontinue it. Perhaps
this little romance is to end here--is it? It has not been without
fruit. My sense of duty is aroused, and you, on your side, will
have learned something of Society. Turn your thoughts to real
life; throw the enthusiasms you have culled from literature into
the virtues of your sex.
Adieu, mademoiselle. Do me the honor to grant me your esteem.
Having seen you, or one whom I believe to be you, I have known
that your letter was simply natural; a flower so lovely turns to
the sun--of poetry. Yes, love poetry as you love flowers, music,
the grandeur of the sea, the beauties of nature; love them as an
adornment of the soul, but remember what I have had the honor of
telling you as to the nature of poets. Be cautious not to marry,
as you say, a dunce, but seek the partner whom God has made for
you. There are souls, believe me, who are fit to appreciate you,
and to make you happy. If I were rich, if you were poor, I would
lay my heart and my fortunes at your feet; for I believe your soul
to be full of riches and of loyalty; to you I could confide my
life and my honor in absolute security.
Once more, adieu, adieu, fairest daughter of Eve the fair.
The reading of this letter, swallowed like a drop of water in the
desert, lifted the mountain which weighed heavily on Modeste's heart:
then she saw the mistake she had made in arranging her plan, and
repaired it by giving Francoise some envelopes directed to herself, in
which the maid could put the letters which came from Paris and drop
them again into the box. Modeste resolved to receive the postman
herself on the steps of the Chalet at the hour when he made his
As to the feelings that this reply, in which the noble heart of poor
La Briere beat beneath the brilliant phantom of Canalis, excited in
Modeste, they were as multifarious and confused as the waves which
rushed to die along the shore while with her eyes fixed on the wide
ocean she gave herself up to the joy of having (if we dare say so)
harpooned an angelic soul in the Parisian Gulf, of having divined that
hearts of price might still be found in harmony with genius, and,
above all, for having followed the magic voice of intuition.
A vast interest was now about to animate her life. The wires of her
cage were broken: the bolts and bars of the pretty Chalet--where were
they? Her thoughts took wings.
"Oh, father!" she cried, looking out to the horizon. "Come back and
make us rich and happy."
The answer which Ernest de La Briere received some five days later
will tell the reader more than any elaborate disquisition of ours.
THE POWER OF THE UNSEEN
To Monsieur de Canalis:
My friend,--Suffer me to give you that name,--you have delighted
me; I would not have you other than you are in this letter, the
first--oh, may it not be the last! Who but a poet could have
excused and understood a young girl so delicately?
I wish to speak with the sincerity that dictated the first lines
of your letter. And first, let me say that most fortunately you do
not know me. I can joyfully assure you than I am neither that
hideous Mademoiselle Vilquin nor the very noble and withered
Mademoiselle d'Herouville who floats between twenty and forty
years of age, unable to decide on a satisfactory date. The
Cardinal d'Herouville flourished in the history of the Church at
least a century before the cardinal of whom we boast as our only
family glory,--for I take no account of lieutenant-generals, and
abbes who write trumpery little verses.
Moreover, I do not live in the magnificent villa Vilquin; there is
not in my veins, thank God, the ten-millionth of a drop of that
chilly blood which flows behind a counter. I come on one side from
Germany, on the other from the south of France; my mind has a
Teutonic love of reverie, my blood the vivacity of Provence. I am
noble on my father's and on my mother's side. On my mother's I
derive from every page of the Almanach de Gotha. In short, my
precautions are well taken. It is not in any man's power, nor even
in the power of the law, to unmask my incognito. I shall remain
As to my person and as to my "belongings," as the Normans say,
make yourself easy. I am at least as handsome as the little girl
(ignorantly happy) on whom your eyes chanced to light during your
visit to Havre; and I do not call myself poverty-stricken,
although ten sons of peers may not accompany me on my walks. I
have seen the humiliating comedy of the heiress sought for her
millions played on my account. In short, make no attempt, even on
a wager, to reach me. Alas! though free as air, I am watched and
guarded,--by myself, in the first place, and secondly, by people
of nerve and courage who would not hesitate to put a knife in your
heart if you tried to penetrate my retreat. I do not say this to
excite your courage or stimulate your curiosity; I believe I have
no need of such incentives to interest you and attach you to me.
I will now reply to the second edition, considerably enlarged, of
your first sermon.
Will you have a confession? I said to myself when I saw you so
distrustful, and mistaking me for Corinne (whose improvisations
bore me dreadfully), that in all probability dozes of Muses had
already led you, rashly curious, into their valleys, and begged
you to taste the fruits of their boarding-school Parnassus. Oh!
you are perfectly safe with me, my friend; I may love poetry, but
I have no little verses in my pocket-book, and my stockings are,
and will remain, immaculately white. You shall not be pestered
with the "Flowers of my Heart" in one or more volumes. And,
finally, should it ever happen that I say to you the word "Come!"
you will not find--you know it now--an old maid, no, nor a poor
and ugly one.
Ah! my friend, if you only knew how I regret that you came to
Havre! You have lowered the charm of what you call my romance. God
alone knew the treasure I was reserving for the man noble enough,
and trusting enough, and perspicacious enough to come--having
faith in my letters, having penetrated step by step into the
depths of my heart--to come to our first meeting with the
simplicity of a child: for that was what I dreamed to be the
innocence of a man of genius. And now you have spoiled my
treasure! But I forgive you; you live in Paris and, as you say,
there is always a man within a poet.
Because I tell you this will you think me some little girl who
cultivates a garden-full of illusions? You, who are witty and
wise, have you not guessed that when Mademoiselle d'Este received
your pedantic lesson she said to herself: "No, dear poet, my first
letter was not the pebble which a vagabond child flings about the
highway to frighten the owner of the adjacent fruit-trees, but a
net carefully and prudently thrown by a fisherman seated on a rock
above the sea, hoping and expecting a miraculous draught."
All that you say so beautifully about the family has my approval.
The man who is able to please me, and of whom I believe myself
worthy, will have my heart and my life,--with the consent of my
parents, for I will neither grieve them, nor take them unawares:
happily, I am certain of reigning over them; and, besides, they
are wholly without prejudice. Indeed, in every way, I feel myself
protected against any delusions in my dream. I have built the
fortress with my own hands, and I have let it be fortified by the
boundless devotion of those who watch over me as if I were a
treasure,--not that I am unable to defend myself in the open, if
need be; for, let me say, circumstances have furnished me with
armor of proof on which is engraved the word "Disdain." I have the
deepest horror of all that is calculating,--of all that is not
pure, disinterested, and wholly noble. I worship the beautiful,
the ideal, without being romantic; though I HAVE been, in my heart
of hearts, in my dreams. But I recognize the truth of the various
things, just even to vulgarity, which you have written me about
Society and social life.
For the time being we are, and we can only be, two friends. Why
seek an unseen friend? you ask. Your person may be unknown to me,
but your mind, your heart I KNOW; they please me, and I feel an
infinitude of thoughts within my soul which need a man of genius
for their confidant. I do not wish the poem of my heart to be
wasted; I would have it known to you as it is to God. What a
precious thing is a true comrade, one to whom we can tell all! You
will surely not reject the unpublished leaflets of a young girl's
thoughts when they fly to you like the pretty insects fluttering
to the sun? I am sure you have never before met with this good
fortune of the soul,--the honest confidences of an honest girl.
Listen to her prattle; accept the music that she sings to you in
her own heart. Later, if our souls are sisters, if our characters
warrant the attempt, a white-haired old serving-man shall await
you by the wayside and lead you to the cottage, the villa, the
castle, the palace--I don't know yet what sort of bower it will
be, nor what its color, nor whether this conclusion will ever be
possible; but you will admit, will you not? that it is poetic, and
that Mademoiselle d'Este has a complying disposition. Has she not
left you free? Has she gone with jealous feet to watch you in the
salons of Paris? Has she imposed upon you the labors of some high
emprise, such as paladins sought voluntarily in the olden time?
No, she asks a perfectly spiritual and mystic alliance. Come to me
when you are unhappy, wounded, weary. Tell me all, hide nothing; I
have balms for all your ills. I am twenty years of age, dear
friend, but I have the sense of fifty, and unfortunately I have
known through the experience of another all the horrors and the
delights of love. I know what baseness the human heart can
contain, what infamy; yet I myself am an honest girl. No, I have
no illusions; but I have something better, something real,--I have
beliefs and a religion. See! I open the ball of our confidences.
Whoever I marry--provided I choose him for myself--may sleep in
peace or go to the East Indies sure that he will find me on his
return working at the tapestry which I began before he left me;
and in every stitch he shall read a verse of the poem of which he
has been the hero. Yes, I have resolved within my heart never to
follow my husband where he does not wish me to go. I will be the
divinity of his hearth. That is my religion of humanity. But why
should I not test and choose the man to whom I am to be like the
life to the body? Is a man ever impeded by life? What can that
woman be who thwarts the man she loves?--an illness, a disease,
not life. By life, I mean that joyous health which makes each hour
But to return to your letter, which will always be precious to me.
Yes, jesting apart, it contains that which I desired, an
expression of prosaic sentiments which are as necessary to family
life as air to the lungs; and without which no happiness is
possible. To act as an honest man, to think as a poet, to love as
women love, that is what I longed for in my friend, and it is now
no longer a chimera.
Adieu, my friend. I am poor at this moment. That is one of the
reasons why I cling to my concealment, my mask, my impregnable
fortress. I have read your last verses in the "Revue,"--ah! with
what delight, now that I am initiated in the austere loftiness of
your secret soul.
Will it make you unhappy to know that a young girl prays for you;
that you are her solitary thought,--without a rival except in her
father and mother? Can there be any reason why you should reject
these pages full of you, written for you, seen by no eye but
yours? Send me their counterpart. I am so little of a woman yet
that your confidences--provided they are full and true--will
suffice for the happiness of your
O. d'Este M.
"Good heavens! can I be in love already?" cried the young secretary,
when he perceived that he had held the above letter in his hands more
than an hour after reading it. "What shall I do? She thinks she is
writing to the great poet! Can I continue the deception? Is she a
woman of forty, or a girl of twenty?"
Ernest was now fascinated by the great gulf of the unseen. The unseen
is the obscurity of infinitude, and nothing is more alluring. In that
sombre vastness fires flash, and furrow and color the abyss with
fancies like those of Martin. For a busy man like Canalis, an
adventure of this kind is swept away like a harebell by a mountain
torrent, but in the more unoccupied life of the young secretary, this
charming girl, whom his imagination persistently connected with the
blonde beauty at the window, fastened upon his heart, and did as much
mischief in his regulated life as a fox in a poultry-yard. La Briere
allowed himself to be preoccupied by this mysterious correspondent;
and he answered her last letter with another, a pretentious and
carefully studied epistle, in which, however, passion begins to reveal
itself through pique.
Mademoiselle,--Is it quite loyal in you to enthrone yourself in
the heart of a poor poet with a latent intention of abandoning him
if he is not exactly what you wish, leaving him to endless
regrets,--showing him for a moment an image of perfection, were it
only assumed, and at any rate giving him a foretaste of happiness?
I was very short-sighted in soliciting this letter, in which you
have begun to unfold the elegant fabric of your thoughts. A man
can easily become enamored with a mysterious unknown who combines
such fearlessness with such originality, so much imagination with
so much feeling. Who would not wish to know you after reading your
first confidence? It requires a strong effort on my part to retain
my senses in thinking of you, for you combine all that can trouble
the head or the heart of man. I therefore make the most of the
little self-possession you have left me to offer you my humble
Do you really believe, mademoiselle, that letters, more or less
true in relation to the life of the writers, more or less
insincere,--for those which we write to each other are the
expressions of the moment at which we pen them, and not of the
general tenor of our lives,--do you believe, I say, that beautiful
as they may be, they can at all replace the representation that we
could make of ourselves to each other by the revelations of daily
intercourse? Man is dual. There is a life invisible, that of the
heart, to which letters may suffice; and there is a life material,
to which more importance is, alas, attached than you are aware of
at your age. These two existences must, however, be made to
harmonize in the ideal which you cherish; and this, I may remark
in passing, is very rare.
The pure, spontaneous, disinterested homage of a solitary soul
which is both educated and chaste, is one of those celestial
flowers whose color and fragrance console for every grief, for
every wound, for every betrayal which makes up the life of a
literary man; and I thank you with an impulse equal to your own.
But after this poetical exchange of my griefs for the pearls of
your charity, what next? what do you expect? I have neither the
genius nor the splendid position of Lord Byron; above all, I have
not the halo of his fictitious damnation and his false social
woes. But what could you have hoped from him in like
circumstances? His friendship? Well, he who ought to have felt
only pride was eaten up by vanity of every kind,--sickly,
irritable vanity which discouraged friendship. I, a thousand-fold
more insignificant than he, may I not have discordances of
character, and make friendship a burden heavy indeed to bear? In
exchange for your reveries, what will you gain? The
dissatisfaction of a life which will not be wholly yours. The
compact is madness. Let me tell you why. In the first place, your
projected poem is a plagiarism. A young German girl, who was not,
like you, semi-German, but altogether so, adored Goethe with the
rash intoxication of girlhood. She made him her friend, her
religion, her god, knowing at the same time that he was married.
Madame Goethe, a worthy German woman, lent herself to this worship
with a sly good-nature which did not cure Bettina. But what was
the end of it all? The young ecstatic married a man who was
younger and handsomer than Goethe. Now, between ourselves, let us
admit that a young girl who should make herself the handmaid of a
man of genius, his equal through comprehension, and should piously
worship him till death, like one of those divine figures sketched
by the masters on the shutters of their mystic shrines, and who,
when Germany lost him, should have retired to some solitude away
from men, like the friend of Lord Bolingbroke,--let us admit, I
say, that the young girl would have lived forever, inlaid in the
glory of the poet as Mary Magdalene in the cross and triumph of
our Lord. If that is sublime, what say you to the reverse of the
picture? As I am neither Goethe nor Lord Byron, the colossi of
poetry and egotism, but simply the author of a few esteemed
verses, I cannot expect the honors of a cult. Neither am I
disposed to be a martyr. I have ambition, and I have a heart; I am
still young and I have my career to make. See me for what I am.
The bounty of the king and the protection of his ministers give me
sufficient means of living. I have the outward bearing of a very
ordinary man. I go to the soirees in Paris like any other empty-
headed fop; and if I drive, the wheels of my carriage do not roll
on the solid ground, absolutely indispensable in these days, of
property invested in the funds. But if I am not rich, neither do I
have the reliefs and consolations of life in a garret, the toil
uncomprehended, the fame in penury, which belong to men who are
worth far more than I,--D'Arthez, for instance.
Ah! what prosaic conclusions will your young enthusiasm find to
these enchanting visions. Let us stop here. If I have had the
happiness of seeming to you a terrestrial paragon, you have been
to me a thing of light and a beacon, like those stars that shine
for a moment and disappear. May nothing ever tarnish this episode
of our lives. Were we to continue it I might love you; I might
conceive one of those mad passions which rend all obstacles, which
light fires in the heart whose violence is greater than their
duration. And suppose I succeeded in pleasing you? we should end
our tale in the common vulgar way,--marriage, a household,
children, Belise and Henriette Chrysale together!--could it be?
THE MARRIAGE OF SOULS
To Monsieur de Canalis:
My Friend,--Your letter gives me as much pain as pleasure. But
perhaps some day we shall find nothing but pleasure in writing to
each other. Understand me thoroughly. The soul speaks to God and
asks him for many things; he is mute. I seek to obtain in you the
answers that God does not make to me. Cannot the friendship of
Mademoiselle de Gournay and Montaigne be revived in us? Do you not
remember the household of Sismonde de Sismondi in Geneva? The most
lovely home ever known, as I have been told; something like that
of the Marquis de Pescaire and his wife,--happy to old age. Ah!
friend, is it impossible that two hearts, two harps, should exist
as in a symphony, answering each other from a distance, vibrating
with delicious melody in unison? Man alone of all creation is in
himself the harp, the musician, and the listener. Do you think to
find me uneasy and jealous like ordinary women? I know that you go
into the world and meet the handsomest and the wittiest women in
Paris. May I not suppose that some one of those mermaids has
deigned to clasp you in her cold and scaly arms, and that she has
inspired the answer whose prosaic opinions sadden me? There is
something in life more beautiful than the garlands of Parisian
coquetry; there grows a flower far up those Alpine peaks called
men of genius, the glory of humanity, which they fertilize with
the dews their lofty heads draw from the skies. I seek to
cultivate that flower and make it bloom; for its wild yet gentle
fragrance can never fail,--it is eternal.
Do me the honor to believe that there is nothing low or
commonplace in me. Were I Bettina, for I know to whom you allude,
I should never have become Madame von Arnim; and had I been one of
Lord Byron's many loves, I should be at this moment in a cloister.
You have touched me to the quick. You do not know me, but you
shall know me. I feel within me something that is sublime, of
which I dare speak without vanity. God has put into my soul the
roots of that Alpine flower born on the summits of which I speak,
and I cannot plant it in an earthen pot upon my window-sill and
see it die. No, that glorious flower-cup, single in its beauty,
intoxicating in its fragrance, shall not be dragged through the
vulgarities of life! it is yours--yours, before any eye has
blighted it, yours forever! Yes, my poet, to you belong my
thoughts,--all, those that are secret, those that are gayest; my
heart is yours without reserve and with its infinite affection. If
you should personally not please me, I shall never marry. I can
live in the life of the heart, I can exist on your mind, your
sentiments; they please me, and I will always be what I am, your
friend. Yours is a noble moral nature; I have recognized it, I
have appreciated it, and that suffices me. In that is all my
future. Do not laugh at a young and pretty handmaiden who shrinks
not from the thought of being some day the old companion of a
poet,--a sort of mother perhaps, or a housekeeper; the guide of
his judgment and a source of his wealth. This handmaiden--so
devoted, so precious to the lives of such as you--is Friendship,
pure, disinterested friendship, to whom you will tell all, who
listens and sometimes shakes her head; who knits by the light of
the lamp and waits to be present when the poet returns home soaked
with rain, or vexed in mind. Such shall be my destiny if I do not
find that of a happy wife attached forever to her husband; I smile
alike at the thought of either fate. Do you believe France will be
any the worse if Mademoiselle d'Este does not give it two or three
sons, and never becomes a Madame Vilquin-something-or-other? As
for me, I shall never be an old maid. I shall make myself a
mother, by taking care of others and by my secret co-operation in
the existence of a great man, to whom also I shall carry all my
thoughts and all my earthly efforts.
I have the deepest horror of commonplaceness. If I am free, if I
am rich (and I know that I am young and pretty), I will never
belong to any ninny just because he is the son of a peer of
France, nor to a merchant who could ruin himself and me in a day,
nor to a handsome creature who would be a sort of woman in the
household, nor to a man of any kind who would make me blush twenty
times a day for being his. Make yourself easy on that point. My
father adores my wishes; he will never oppose them. If I please my
poet, and he pleases me, the glorious structure of our love shall
be built so high as to be inaccessible to any kind of misfortune.
I am an eaglet; and you will see it in my eyes.
I shall not repeat what I have already said, but I will put its
substance in the least possible number of words, and confess to
you that I should be the happiest of women if I were imprisoned by
love as I am now imprisoned by the wish and will of a father. Ah!
my friend, may we bring to a real end the romance that has come to
us through the first exercise of my will: listen to its
A young girl with a lively imagination, locked up in a tower, is
weary with longing to run loose in the park where her eyes only
are allowed to rove. She invents a way to loosen her bars; she
jumps from the casement; she scales the park wall; she frolics
along the neighbor's sward--it is the Everlasting comedy. Well,
that young girl is my soul, the neighbor's park is your genius. Is
it not all very natural? Was there ever a neighbor that did not
complain that unknown feet broke down his trellises? I leave it to
my poet to answer.
But does the lofty reasoner after the fashion of Moliere want
still better reasons? Well, here they are. My dear Geronte,
marriages are usually made in defiance of common-sense. Parents
make inquiries about a young man. If the Leander--who is supplied
by some friend, or caught in a ball-room--is not a thief, and has
no visible rent in his reputation, if he has the necessary
fortune, if he comes from a college or a law-school and so fulfils
the popular ideas of education, and if he wears his clothes with a
gentlemanly air, he is allowed to meet the young lady, whose
mother has ordered her to guard her tongue, to let no sign of her
heart or soul appear on her face, which must wear the smile of a
danseuse finishing a pirouette. These commands are coupled with
instructions as to the danger of revealing her real character, and
the additional advice of not seeming alarmingly well educated. If
the settlements have all been agreed upon, the parents are good-
natured enough to let the pair see each other for a few moments;
they are allowed to talk or walk together, but always without the
slightest freedom, and knowing that they are bound by rigid rules.
The man is as much dressed up in soul as he is in body, and so is
the young girl. This pitiable comedy, mixed with bouquets, jewels,
and theatre-parties is called "paying your addresses." It revolts
me: I desire that actual marriage shall be the result of a
previous and long marriage of souls. A young girl, a woman, has
throughout her life only this one moment when reflection, second
sight, and experience are necessary to her. She plays her liberty,
her happiness, and she is not allowed to throw the dice; she risks
her all, and is forced to be a mere spectator. I have the right,
the will, the power to make my own unhappiness, and I use them, as
did my mother, who, won by beauty and led by instinct, married the
most generous, the most liberal, the most loving of men. I know
that you are free, a poet, and noble-looking. Be sure that I
should not have chosen one of your brothers in Apollo who was
already married. If my mother was won by beauty, which is perhaps
the spirit of form, why should I not be attracted by the spirit
and the form united? Shall I not know you better by studying you
in this correspondence than I could through the vulgar experience
of "receiving your addresses"? This is the question, as Hamlet
But my proceedings, dear Chrysale, have at least the merit of not
binding us personally. I know that love has its illusions, and
every illusion its to-morrow. That is why there are so many
partings among lovers vowed to each other for life. The proof of
love lies in two things,--suffering and happiness. When, after
passing through these double trials of life two beings have shown
each other their defects as well as their good qualities, when
they have really observed each other's character, then they may go
to their grave hand in hand. My dear Argante, who told you that
our little drama thus begun was to have no future? In any case
shall we not have enjoyed the pleasures of our correspondence?
I await your orders, monseigneur, and I am with all my heart,
O. d'Este M.
To Mademoiselle O. d'Este M.,--You are a witch, a spirit, and I
love you! Is that what you desire of me, most original of girls?
Perhaps you are only seeking to amuse your provincial leisure with
the follies which are you able to make a poet commit. If so, you
have done a bad deed. Your two letters have enough of the spirit
of mischief in them to force this doubt into the mind of a
Parisian. But I am no longer master of myself; my life, my future
depend on the answer you will make me. Tell me if the certainty of
an unbounded affection, oblivious of all social conventions, will
touch you,--if you will suffer me to seek you. There is anxiety
enough and uncertainty enough in the question as to whether I can
personally please you. If your reply is favorable I change my
life, I bid adieu to all the irksome pleasures which we have the
folly to call happiness. Happiness, my dear and beautiful unknown,
is what you dream it to be,--a fusion of feelings, a perfect
accordance of souls, the imprint of a noble ideal (such as God
does permit us to form in this low world) upon the trivial round
of daily life whose habits we must needs obey, a constancy of
heart more precious far than what we call fidelity. Can we say
that we make sacrifices when the end in view is our eternal good,
the dream of poets, the dream of maidens, the poem which, at the
entrance of life when thought essays its wings, each noble
intellect has pondered and caressed only to see it shivered to
fragments on some stone of stumbling as hard as it is vulgar?--for
to the great majority of men, the foot of reality steps instantly
on that mysterious egg so seldom hatched.
I cannot speak to you any more of myself; not of my past life, nor
of my character, nor of an affection almost maternal on one side,
filial on mine, which you have already seriously changed--an
effect upon my life which must explain my use of the word
"sacrifice." You have already rendered me forgetful, if not
ungrateful; does that satisfy you? Oh, speak! Say to me one word,
and I will love you till my eyes close in death, as the Marquis de
Pescaire loved his wife, as Romeo loved Juliet, and faithfully.
Our life will be, for me at least, that "felicity untroubled"
which Dante made the very element of his Paradiso,--a poem far
superior to his Inferno. Strange, it is not myself that I doubt in
the long reverie through which, like you, I follow the windings of
a dreamed existence; it is you. Yes, dear, I feel within me the
power to love, and to love endlessly,--to march to the grave with
gentle slowness and a smiling eye, with my beloved on my arm, and
with never a cloud upon the sunshine of our souls. Yes, I dare to
face our mutual old age, to see ourselves with whitening heads,
like the venerable historian of Italy, inspired always with the
same affection but transformed in soul by our life's seasons. Hear
me, I can no longer be your friend only. Though Chrysale, Geronte,
and Argante re-live, you say, in me, I am not yet old enough to
drink from the cup held to my lips by the sweet hands of a veiled
woman without a passionate desire to tear off the domino and the
mask and see the face. Either write me no more, or give me hope.
Let me see you, or let me go. Must I bid you adieu? Will you
permit me to sign myself,
To Monsieur de Canalis,--What flattery! with what rapidity is the
grave Anselme transformed into a handsome Leander! To what must I
attribute such a change? to this black which I put upon this
white? to these ideas which are to the flowers of my soul what a
rose drawn in charcoal is to the roses in the garden? Or is it to
a recollection of the young girl whom you took for me, and who is
personally as like me as a waiting-woman is like her mistress?
Have we changed roles? Have I the sense? have you the fancy? But a
truce with jesting.
Your letter has made me know the elating pleasures of the soul;
the first that I have known outside of my family affections. What,
says a poet, are the ties of blood which are so strong in ordinary
minds, compared to those divinely forged within us by mysterious
sympathies? Let me thank you--no, we must not thank each other for
such things--but God bless you for the happiness you have given
me; be happy in the joy you have shed into my soul. You explain to
me some of the apparent injustices in social life. There is
something, I know not what, so dazzling, so virile in glory, that
it belongs only to man; God forbids us women to wear its halo, but
he makes love our portion, giving us the tenderness which soothes
the brow scorched by his lightnings. I have felt my mission, and
you have now confirmed it.
Sometimes, my friend, I rise in the morning in a state of
inexpressible sweetness; a sort of peace, tender and divine, gives
me an idea of heaven. My first thought is then like a benediction.
I call these mornings my little German wakings, in opposition to
my Southern sunsets, full of heroic deeds, battles, Roman fetes
and ardent poems. Well, after reading your letter, so full of
feverish impatience, I felt in my heart all the freshness of my
celestial wakings, when I love the air about me and all nature,
and fancy that I am destined to die for one I love. One of your
poems, "The Maiden's Song," paints these delicious moments, when
gaiety is tender, when aspiration is a need; it is one of my
favorites. Do you want me to put all my flatteries into one?--well
then, I think you worthy to be ME!
Your letter, though short, enables me to read within you. Yes, I
have guessed your tumultuous struggles, your piqued curiosity,
your projects; but I do not yet know you well enough to satisfy
your wishes. Hear me, dear; the mystery in which I am shrouded
allows me to use that word, which lets you see to the bottom of my
heart. Hear me: if we once meet, adieu to our mutual
comprehension! Will you make a compact with me? Was the first
disadvantageous to you? But remember it won you my esteem, and it
is a great deal, my friend, to gain an admiration lined throughout
with esteem. Here is the compact: write me your life in a few
words; then tell me what you do in Paris, day by day, with no
reservations, and as if you were talking to some old friend. Well,
having done that, I will take a step myself--I will see you, I
promise you that. And it is a great deal.
This, dear, is no intrigue, no adventure; no gallantry, as you men
say, can come of it, I warn you frankly. It involves my life, and
more than that,--something that causes me remorse for the many
thoughts that fly to you in flocks--it involves my father's and my
mother's life. I adore them, and my choice must please them; they
must find a son in you.
Tell me, to what extent can the superb spirits of your kind, to
whom God has given the wings of his angels, without always adding
their amiability,--how far can they bend under a family yoke, and
put up with its little miseries? That is a text I have meditated
upon. Ah! though I said to my heart before I came to you, Forward!
Onward! it did not tremble and palpitate any the less on the way;
and I did not conceal from myself the stoniness of the path nor
the Alpine difficulties I had to encounter. I thought of all in my
long, long meditations. Do I not know that eminent men like you
have known the love they have inspired quite as well as that which
they themselves have felt; that they have had many romances in
their lives,--you particularly, who send forth those airy visions
of your soul that women rush to buy? Yet still I cried to myself,
"Onward!" because I have studied, more than you give me credit
for, the geography of the great summits of humanity, which you
tell me are so cold. Did you not say that Goethe and Byron were
the colossi of egoism and poetry? Ah, my friend, there you shared
a mistake into which superficial minds are apt to fall; but in you
perhaps it came from generosity, false modesty, or the desire to
escape from me. Vulgar minds may mistake the effect of toil for
the development of personal character, but you must not. Neither
Lord Byron, nor Goethe, nor Walter Scott, nor Cuvier, nor any
inventor, belongs to himself, he is the slave of his idea. And
this mysterious power is more jealous than a woman; it sucks their
blood, it makes them live, it makes them die for its sake. The
visible developments of their hidden existence do seem, in their
results, like egotism; but who shall dare to say that the man who
has abnegated self to give pleasure, instruction, or grandeur to
his epoch, is an egoist? Is a mother selfish when she immolates
all things to her child? Well, the detractors of genius do not
perceive its fecund maternity, that is all. The life of a poet is
so perpetual a sacrifice that he needs a gigantic organization to
bear even the ordinary pleasures of life. Therefore, into what
sorrows may he not fall when, like Moliere, he wishes to live the
life of feeling in its most poignant crises; to me, remembering
his personal life, Moliere's comedy is horrible.
The generosity of genius seems to me half divine; and I place you
in this noble family of alleged egoists. Ah! if I had found self-
interest, ambition, a seared nature where I now can see my best
loved flowers of the soul, you know not what long anguish I should
have had to bear. I met with disappointment before I was sixteen.
What would have become of me had I learned at twenty that fame is
a lie, that he whose books express the feelings hidden in my heart
was incapable of feeling them himself? Oh! my friend, do you know
what would have become of me? Shall I take you into the recesses
of my soul? I should have gone to my father and said, "Bring me
the son-in-law whom you desire; my will abdicates,--marry me to
whom you please." And the man might have been a notary, banker,
miser, fool, dullard, wearisome as a rainy day, common as the
usher of a school, a manufacturer, or some brave soldier without
two ideas,--he would have had a resigned and attentive servant in
me. But what an awful suicide! never could my soul have expanded
in the life-giving rays of a beloved sun. No murmur should have
revealed to my father, or my mother, or my children the suicide of
the creature who at this instant is shaking her fetters, casting
lightnings from her eyes, and flying towards you with eager wing.
See, she is there, at the angle of your desk, like Polyhymnia,
breathing the air of your presence, and glancing about her with a
curious eye. Sometimes in the fields where my husband would have
taken me to walk, I should have wept, apart and secretly, at sight
of a glorious morning; and in my heart, or hidden in a bureau-
drawer, I might have kept some treasure, the comfort of poor girls
ill-used by love, sad, poetic souls,--but ah! I have YOU, I
believe in YOU, my friend. That belief straightens all my thoughts
and fancies, even the most fantastic, and sometimes--see how far
my frankness leads me--I wish I were in the middle of the book we
are just beginning; such persistency do I feel in my sentiments,
such strength in my heart to love, such constancy sustained by
reason, such heroism for the duties for which I was created,--if
indeed love can ever be transmuted into duty.
If you were able to follow me to the exquisite retreat where I
fancy ourselves happy, if you knew my plans and projects, the
dreadful word "folly!" might escape you, and I should be cruelly
punished for sending poetry to a poet. Yes, I wish to be a spring
of waters inexhaustible as a fertile land for the twenty years
that nature allows me to shine. I want to drive away satiety by
charm. I mean to be courageous for my friend as most women are for
the world. I wish to vary happiness. I wish to put intelligence
into tenderness, and to give piquancy to fidelity. I am filled
with ambition to kill the rivals of the past, to conjure away all
outside griefs by a wife's gentleness, by her proud abnegation, to
take a lifelong care of the nest,--such as birds can only take for
a few weeks.
Tell me, do you now think me to blame for my first letter? The
mysterious wind of will drove me to you, as the tempest brings the
little rose-tree to the pollard window. In your letter, which I
hold here upon my heart, you cried out, like your ancestor when he
departed for the Crusades, "God wills it."
Ah! but you will cry out, "What a chatterbox!" All the people
round me say, on the contrary, "Mademoiselle is very taciturn."
O. d'Este M.
WHAT COMES OF CORRESPONDENCE
The foregoing letters seemed very original to the persons from whom
the author of the "Comedy of Human Life" obtained them; but their
interest in this duel, this crossing of pens between two minds, may
not be shared. For every hundred readers, eighty might weary of the
battle. The respect due to the majority in every nation under a
constitutional government, leads us, therefore, to suppress eleven
other letters exchanged between Ernest and Modeste during the month of
September. If, later on, some flattering majority should arise to
claim them, let us hope that we can then find means to insert them in
their proper place.
Urged by a mind that seemed as aggressive as the heart was lovable,
the truly chivalrous feelings of the poor secretary gave themselves
free play in these suppressed letters, which seem, perhaps, more
beautiful than they really are, because the imagination is charmed by
a sense of the communion of two free souls. Ernest's whole life was
now wrapped up in these sweet scraps of paper; they were to him what
banknotes are to a miser; while in Modeste's soul a deep love took the
place of her delight in agitating a glorious life, and being, in spite
of distance, its mainspring. Ernest's heart was the complement of
Canalis's glory. Alas! it often takes two men to make a perfect lover,
just as in literature we compose a type by collecting the
peculiarities of several similar characters. How many a time a woman
has been heard to say in her own salon after close and intimate
"Such a one is my ideal as to soul, and I love the other who is only a
dream of the senses."
The last letter written by Modeste, which here follows, gives us a
glimpse of the enchanted isle to which the meanderings of this
correspondence had led the two lovers.
To Monsieur de Canalis,--Be at Havre next Sunday; go to church;
after the morning service, walk once or twice round the nave, and
go out without speaking to any one; but wear a white rose in your
button-hole. Then return to Paris, where you shall receive an
answer. I warn you that this answer will not be what you wish;
for, as I told you, the future is not yet mine. But should I not
indeed be mad and foolish to say yes without having seen you? When
I have seen you I can say no without wounding you; I can make sure
that you shall not see me.
This letter had been sent off the evening before the day when the
abortive struggle between Dumay and Modeste had taken place. The happy
girl was impatiently awaiting Sunday, when her eyes were to vindicate
or condemn her heart and her actions,--a solemn moment in the life of
any woman, and which three months of close communion of souls now
rendered as romantic as the most imaginative maiden could have wished.
Every one, except the mother, had taken this torpor of expectation for
the calm of innocence. No matter how firmly family laws and religious
precepts may bind, there will always be the Clarissas and the Julies,
whose souls like flowing cups o'erlap the brim under some spiritual
pressure. Modeste was glorious in the savage energy with which she
repressed her exuberant youthful happiness and remained demurely
quiet. Let us say frankly that the memory of her sister was more
potent upon her than any social conventions; her will was iron in the
resolve to bring no grief upon her father and her mother. But what
tumultuous heavings were within her breast! no wonder that a mother
On the following day Modeste and Madame Dumay took Madame Mignon about
mid-day to a seat in the sun among the flowers. The blind woman turned
her wan and blighted face toward the ocean; she inhaled the odors of
the sea and took the hand of her daughter who remained beside her. The
mother hesitated between forgiveness and remonstrance ere she put the
important question; for she comprehended the girl's love and
recognized, as the pretended Canalis had done, that Modeste was
exceptional in nature.
"God grant that your father return in time! If he delays much longer
he will find none but you to love him. Modeste, promise me once more
never to leave him," she said in a fond maternal tone.
Modeste lifted her mother's hands to her lips and kissed them gently,
replying: "Need I say it again?"
"Ah, my child! I did this thing myself. I left my father to follow my
husband; and yet my father was all alone; I was all the child he had.
Is that why God has so punished me? What I ask of you is to marry as
your father wishes, to cherish him in your heart, not to sacrifice him
to your own happiness, but to make him the centre of your home. Before
losing my sight, I wrote him all my wishes, and I know he will execute
them. I enjoined him to keep his property intact and in his own hands;
not that I distrust you, my Modeste, for a moment, but who can be sure
of a son-in-law? Ah! my daughter, look at me; was I reasonable? One
glance of the eye decided my life. Beauty, so often deceitful, in my
case spoke true; but even were it the same with you, my poor child,
swear to me that you will let your father inquire into the character,
the habits, the heart, and the previous life of the man you
distinguish with your love--if, by chance, there is such a man."
"I will never marry without the consent of my father," answered
"You see, my darling," said Madame Mignon after a long pause, "that if
I am dying by inches through Bettina's wrong-doing, your father would
not survive yours, no, not for a moment. I know him; he would put a
pistol to his head,--there could be no life, no happiness on earth for
Modeste walked a few steps away from her mother, but immediately came
"Why did you leave me?" demanded Madame Mignon.
"You made me cry, mamma," answered Modeste.
"Ah, my little darling, kiss me. You love no one here? you have no
lover, have you?" she asked, holding Modeste on her lap, heart to
"No, my dear mamma," said the little Jesuit.
"Can you swear it?"
"Oh, yes!" cried Modeste.
Madame Mignon said no more; but she still doubted.
"At least, if you do choose your husband, you will tell your father?"
"I promised that to my sister, and to you, mother. What evil do you
think I could commit while I wear that ring upon my finger and read
those words: 'Think of Bettina?' Poor sister!"
At these words a truce of silence came between the pair; the mother's
blighted eyes rained tears which Modeste could not check, though she
threw herself upon her knees, and cried: "Forgive me! oh, forgive me,
At this instant the excellent Dumay was coming up the hill of
Ingouville on the double-quick,--a fact quite abnormal in the present
life of the cashier.
Three letters had brought ruin to the Mignons; a single letter now
restored their fortunes. Dumay had received from a sea-captain just
arrived from the China Seas the following letter containing the first
news of his patron and friend, Charles Mignon:--
To Monsieur Jean Dumay:
My Dear Dumay,--I shall quickly follow, barring the chances of the
voyage, the vessel which carries this letter. In fact, I should
have taken it, but I did not wish to leave my own ship to which I
I told you that no new was to be good news. But the first words of
this letter ought to make you a happy man. I have made seven
millions at the least. I am bringing back a large part of it in
indigo, one third in safe London securities, and another third in
good solid gold. Your remittances helped me to make the sum I had
settled in my own mind much sooner than I expected. I wanted two
millions for my daughters and a competence for myself.
I have been engaged in the opium trade with the largest houses in
Canton, all ten times richer than ever I was. You have no idea, in
Europe, what these rich East India merchants are. I went to Asia
Minor and purchased opium at low prices, and from thence to Canton
where I delivered my cargoes to the companies who control the
trade. My last expedition was to the Philippine Islands where I
exchanged opium for indigo of the first quality. In fact, I may
have half a million more than I stated, for I reckoned the indigo
at what it cost me. I have always been well in health; not the
slightest illness. That is the result of working for one's
children. Since the second year I have owned a pretty little brig
of seven hundred tons, called the "Mignon." She is built of oak,
double-planked, and copper-fastened; and all the interior fittings
were done to suit me. She is, in fact, an additional piece of
A sea-life and the active habits required by my business have kept
me in good health. To tell you all this is the same as telling it
to my two daughters and my dear wife. I trust that the wretched
man who took away my Bettina deserted her when he heard of my
ruin; and that I shall find the poor lost lamb at the Chalet. My
three dear women and my Dumay! All four of you have been ever
present in my thoughts for the last three years. You are a rich
man, now, Dumay. Your share, outside of my own fortune, amounts to
five hundred and sixty thousand francs, for which I send you
herewith a check, which can only be paid to you in person by the
Mongenods, who have been duly advised from New York.
A few short months, and I shall see you all again, and all well, I
trust. My dear Dumay, if I write this letter to you it is because
I am anxious to keep my fortune a secret for the present. I
therefore leave to you the happiness of preparing my dear angels
for my return. I have had enough of commerce; and I am resolved to
leave Havre. My intention is to buy back the estate of La Bastie,
and to entail it, so as to establish an estate yielding at least a
hundred thousand francs a year, and then to ask the king to grant
that one of my sons-in-law may succeed to my name and title. You
know, my poor Dumay, what a terrible misfortune overtook us
through the fatal reputation of a large fortune,--my daughter's
honor was lost. I have therefore resolved that the amount of my
present fortune shall not be known. I shall not disembark at
Havre, but at Marseilles. I shall sell my indigo, and negotiate
for the purchase of La Bastie through the house of Mongenod in
Paris. I shall put my funds in the Bank of France and return to
the Chalet giving out that I have a considerable fortune in
merchandise. My daughters will be supposed to have two or three
hundred thousand francs. To choose which of my sons-in-law is
worthy to succeed to my title and estates and to live with us, is
now the object of my life; but both of them must be, like you and
me, honest, loyal, and firm men, and absolutely honorable.
My dear old fellow, I have never doubted you for a moment. We have
gone through wars and commerce together and now we will undertake
agriculture; you shall be my bailiff. You will like that, will you
not? And so, old friend, I leave it to your discretion to tell
what you think best to my wife and daughters; I rely upon your
prudence. In four years great changes may have taken place in
Adieu, my old Dumay. Say to my daughters and to my wife that I
have never failed to kiss them in my thoughts morning and evening
since I left them. The second check for forty thousand francs
herewith enclosed is for my wife and children.
Till we meet.--Your colonel and friend,
"Your father is coming," said Madame Mignon to her daughter.
"What makes you think so, mamma?" asked Modeste.
"Nothing else could make Dumay hurry himself."
"Victory! victory!" cried the lieutenant as soon as he reached the
garden gate. "Madame, the colonel has not been ill a moment; he is
coming back--coming back on the 'Mignon,' a fine ship of his own,
which together with its cargo is worth, he tells me, eight or nine
hundred thousand francs. But he requires secrecy from all of us; his
heart is still wrung by the misfortunes of our dear departed girl."
"He has still to learn her death," said Madame Mignon.
"He attributes her disaster, and I think he is right, to the rapacity
of young men after great fortunes. My poor colonel expects to find the
lost sheep here. Let us be happy among ourselves but say nothing to
any one, not even to Latournelle, if that is possible. Mademoiselle,"
he whispered in Modeste's ear, "write to your father and tell him of
his loss and also the terrible results on your mother's health and
eyesight; prepare him for the shock he has to meet. I will engage to
get the letter into his hands before he reaches Havre, for he will
have to pass through Paris on his way. Write him a long letter; you
have plenty of time. I will take the letter on Monday; Monday I shall
probably go to Paris."
Modeste was so afraid that Canalis and Dumay would meet that she
started hastily for the house to write to her poet and put off the
"Mademoiselle," said Dumay, in a very humble manner and barring
Modeste's way, "may your father find his daughter with no other
feelings in her heart than those she had for him and for her mother
before he was obliged to leave her."
"I have sworn to myself, to my sister, and to my mother to be the joy,
the consolation, and the glory of my father, and I SHALL KEEP MY
OATH!" replied Modeste with a haughty and disdainful glance at Dumay.
"Do not trouble my delight in the thought of my father's return with
insulting suspicions. You cannot prevent a girl's heart from beating--
you don't want me to be a mummy, do you?" she said. "My hand belongs
to my family, but my heart is my own. If I love any one, my father and
my mother will know it. Does that satisfy you, monsieur?"
"Thank you, mademoiselle; you restore me to life," said Dumay, "but
you might still call me Dumay, even when you box my ears!"
"Swear to me," said her mother, "that you have not engaged a word or a
look with any young man."
"I can swear that, my dear mother," said Modeste, laughing, and
looking at Dumay who was watching her and smiling to himself like a
"She must be false indeed if you are right," cried Dumay, when Modeste
had left them and gone into the house.
"My daughter Modeste may have faults," said her mother, "but falsehood
is not one of them; she is incapable of saying what is not true."
"Well! then let us feel easy," continued Dumay, "and believe that
misfortune has closed his account with us."
"God grant it!" answered Madame Mignon. "You will see HIM, Dumay; but
I shall only hear him. There is much of sadness in my joy."
A DECLARATION OF LOVE,--SET TO MUSIC
At this moment Modeste, happy as she was in the return of her father,
was, nevertheless, pacing her room disconsolate as Perrette on seeing
her eggs broken. She had hoped her father would bring back a much
larger fortune than Dumay had mentioned. Nothing could satisfy her
new-found ambition on behalf of her poet less than at least half the
six millions she had talked of in her second letter. Trebly agitated
by her two joys and the grief caused by her comparative poverty, she
seated herself at the piano, that confidant of so many young girls,
who tell out their wishes and provocations on the keys, expressing
them by the notes and tones of their music. Dumay was talking with his
wife in the garden under the windows, telling her the secret of their
own wealth, and questioning her as to her desires and her intentions.
Madame Dumay had, like her husband, no other family than the Mignons.
Husband and wife agreed, therefore, to go and live in Provence, if the
Comte de La Bastie really meant to live in Provence, and to leave
their money to whichever of Modeste's children might need it most.
"Listen to Modeste," said Madame Mignon, addressing them. "None but a
girl in love can compose such airs without having studied music."
Houses may burn, fortunes be engulfed, fathers return from distant
lands, empires may crumble away, the cholera may ravage cities, but a
maiden's love wings its way as nature pursues hers, or that alarming
acid which chemistry has lately discovered, and which will presently
eat through the globe, if nothing stops it.
Modeste, under the inspiration of her present situation, was putting
to music certain stanzas which we are compelled to quote here--albeit
they are printed in the second volume of the edition Dauriat had
mentioned--because, in order to adapt them to her music, which had the
inexpressible charm of sentiment so admired in great singers, Modeste
had taken liberties with the lines in a manner that may astonish the
admirers of a poet so famous for the correctness, sometimes too
precise, of his measures.
THE MAIDEN'S SONG
Hear, arise! the lark is shaking
Sunlit wings that heavenward rise;
Sleep no more; the violet, waking,
Wafts her incense to the skies.
Flowers revived, their eyes unclosing,
See themselves in drops of dew
In each calyx-cup reposing,--
Pearls of a day their mirror true.
Breeze divine, the god of roses,
Passed by night to bless their bloom;
See! for him each bud uncloses,
Glows, and yields its rich perfume.
Then arise! the lark is shaking
Sunlit wings that heavenward rise;
Nought is sleeping--Heart, awaking,
Lift thine incense to the skies.
"It is very pretty," said Madame Dumay. "Modeste is a musician, and
that's the whole of it."
"The devil is in her!" cried the cashier, into whose heart the
suspicion of the mother forced its way and made him shiver.
"She loves," persisted Madame Mignon.
By succeeding, through the undeniable testimony of the song, in making
the cashier a sharer in her belief as to the state of Modeste's heart,
Madame Mignon destroyed the happiness the return and the prosperity of
his master had brought him. The poor Breton went down the hill to
Havre and to his desk in Gobenheim's counting-room with a heavy heart;
then, before returning to dinner, he went to see Latournelle, to tell
his fears, and beg once more for the notary's advice and assistance.
"Yes, my dear friend," said Dumay, when they parted on the steps of
the notary's door, "I now agree with madame; she loves,--yes, I am
sure of it; and the devil knows the rest. I am dishonored."
"Don't make yourself unhappy, Dumay," answered the little notary.
"Among us all we can surely get the better of the little puss; sooner
or later, every girl in love betrays herself,--you may be sure of
that. But we will talk about it this evening."
Thus it happened that all those devoted to the Mignon family were
fully as disquieted and uncertain as they were before the old soldier
tried the experiment which he expected would be so decisive. The ill-
success of his past efforts so stimulated Dumay's sense of duty, that
he determined not to go to Paris to see after his own fortune as
announced by his patron, until he had guessed the riddle of Modeste's
heart. These friends, to whom feelings were more precious than
interests, well knew that unless the daughter were pure and innocent,
the father would die of grief when he came to know the death of
Bettina and the blindness of his wife. The distress of poor Dumay made
such an impression on the Latournelles that they even forgot their
parting with Exupere, whom they had sent off that morning to Paris.
During dinner, while the three were alone, Monsieur and Madame
Latournelle and Butscha turned the problem over and over in their
minds, and discussed every aspect of it.
"If Modeste loved any one in Havre she would have shown some fear
yesterday," said Madame Latournelle; "her lover, therefore, lives
"She swore to her mother this morning," said the notary, "in presence
of Dumay, that she had not exchanged a look or a word with any living
"Then she loves after my fashion!" exclaimed Butscha.
"And how is that, my poor lad?" asked Madame Latournelle.
"Madame," said the little cripple, "I love alone and afar--oh! as far
as from here to the stars."
"How do you manage it, you silly fellow?" said Madame Latournelle,
"Ah, madame!" said Butscha, "what you call my hump is the socket of my
"So that is the explanation of your seal, is it?" cried the notary.
Butscha's seal was a star, and under it the words "Fulgens, sequar,"--
"Shining One, I follow thee,"--the motto of the house of
"A beautiful woman may feel as distrustful as the ugliest," said
Butscha, as if speaking to himself; "Modeste is clever enough to fear
she may be loved only for her beauty."
Hunchbacks are extraordinary creations, due entirely to society for,
according to Nature's plan, feeble or aborted beings ought to perish.
The curvature or distortion of the spinal column creates in these
outwardly deformed subjects as it were a storage-battery, where the
nerve currents accumulate more abundantly than under normal
conditions,--where they develop, and whence they are emitted, so to
say, in lightning flashes, to energize the interior being. From this,
forces result which are sometimes brought to light by magnetism,
though they are far more frequently lost in the vague spaces of the
spiritual world. It is rare to find a deformed person who is not
gifted with some special faculty,--a whimsical or sparkling gaiety
perhaps, an utter malignity, or an almost sublime goodness. Like
instruments which the hand of art can never fully waken, these beings,
highly privileged though they know it not, live within themselves, as
Butscha lived, provided their natural forces so magnificently
concentrated have not been spent in the struggle they have been forced
to maintain, against tremendous odds, to keep alive. This explains
many superstitions, the popular legends of gnomes, frightful dwarfs,
deformed fairies,--all that race of bottles, as Rabelais called them,
containing elixirs and precious balms.
Butscha, therefore, had very nearly found the key to the puzzle. With
all the anxious solicitude of a hopeless lover, a vassal ever ready to
die,--like the soldiers alone and abandoned in the snows of Russia,
who still cried out, "Long live the Emperor,"--he meditated how to
capture Modeste's secret for his own private knowledge. So thinking,
he followed his patrons to the Chalet that evening, with a cloud of
care upon his brow: for he knew it was most important to hide from all
these watchful eyes and ears the net, whatever it might be, in which
he should entrap his lady. It would have to be, he thought, by some
intercepted glance, some sudden start or quiver, as when a surgeon
lays his finger on a hidden sore. That evening Gobenheim did not
appear, and Butscha was Dumay's partner against Monsieur and Madame
Latournelle. During the few moment's of Modeste's absence, about nine
o'clock, to prepare for her mother's bedtime, Madame Mignon and her
friends spoke openly to one another; but the poor clerk, depressed by
the conviction of Modeste's love, which had now seized upon him as
upon the rest, seemed as remote from the discussion as Gobenheim had
been the night before.
"Well, what's the matter with you, Butscha?" cried Madame Latournelle;
"one would really think you hadn't a friend in the world."
Tears shone in the eyes of the poor fellow, who was the son of a
Swedish sailor, and whose mother was dead.
"I have no one in the world but you," he answered with a troubled
voice; "and your compassion is so much a part of your religion that I
can never lose it--and I will never deserve to lose it."
This answer struck the sensitive chord of true delicacy in the minds
of all present.
"We love you, Monsieur Butscha," said Madame Mignon, with much feeling
in her voice.
"I've six hundred thousand francs of my own, this day," cried Dumay,
"and you shall be a notary and the successor of Latournelle."
The American wife took the hand of the poor hunchback and pressed it.
"What! you have six hundred thousand francs!" exclaimed Latournelle,
pricking up his ears as Dumay let fall the words; "and you allow these
ladies to live as they do! Modeste ought to have a fine horse; and why
doesn't she continue to take lessons in music, and painting, and--"
"Why, he has only had the money a few hours!" cried the little wife.
"Hush!" murmured Madame Mignon.
While these words were exchanged, Butscha's august mistress turned
towards him, preparing to make a speech:--
"My son," she said, "you are so surrounded by true affection that I
never thought how my thoughtless use of that familiar phrase might be
construed; but you must thank me for my little blunder, because it has
served to show you what friends your noble qualities have won."
"Then you must have news from Monsieur Mignon," resumed the notary.
"He is on his way home," said Madame Mignon; "but let us keep the
secret to ourselves. When my husband learns how faithful Butscha has
been to us, how he has shown us the warmest and the most disinterested
friendship when others have given us the cold shoulder, he will not
let you alone provide for him, Dumay. And so, my friend," she added,
turning her blind face toward Butscha; "you can begin at once to
negotiate with Latournelle."
"He's of legal age, twenty-five and a half years. As for me, it will
be paying a debt, my boy, to make the purchase easy for you," said the
Butscha was kissing Madame Mignon's hand, and his face was wet with
tears as Modeste opened the door of the salon.
"What are you doing to my Black Dwarf?" she demanded. "Who is making
"Ah! Mademoiselle Mignon, do we luckless fellows, cradled in
misfortune, ever weep for grief? They have just shown me as much
affection as I could feel for them if they were indeed my own
relations. I'm to be a notary; I shall be rich. Ha! ha! the poor
Butscha may become the rich Butscha. You don't know what audacity
there is in this abortion," he cried.
With that he gave himself a resounding blow on the cavity of his chest
and took up a position before the fireplace, after casting a glance at
Modeste, which slipped like a ray of light between his heavy
half-closed eyelids. He perceived, in this unexpected incident, a
chance of interrogating the heart of his sovereign. Dumay thought for
a moment that the clerk dared to aspire to Modeste, and he exchanged a
rapid glance with the others, who understood him, and began to eye the
little man with a species of terror mingled with curiosity.
"I, too, have my dreams," said Butscha, not taking his eyes from
The young girl lowered her eyelids with a movement that was a
revelation to the young man.
"You love romance," he said, addressing her. "Let me, in this moment
of happiness, tell you mine; and you shall tell me in return whether
the conclusion of the tale I have invented for my life is possible. To
me wealth would bring greater happiness than to other men; for the
highest happiness I can imagine would be to enrich the one I loved.
You, mademoiselle, who know so many things, tell me if it is possible
for a man to make himself beloved independently of his person, be it
handsome or ugly, and for his spirit only?"
Modeste raised her eyes and looked at Butscha. It was a piercing and
questioning glance; for she shared Dumay's suspicion of Butscha's
"Let me be rich, and I will seek some beautiful poor girl, abandoned
like myself, who has suffered, who knows what misery is. I will write
to her and console her, and be her guardian spirit; she shall read my
heart, my soul; she shall possess by double wealth, my two wealths,--
my gold, delicately offered, and my thought robed in all the splendor
which the accident of birth has denied to my grotesque body. But I
myself shall remain hidden like the cause that science seeks. God
himself may not be glorious to the eye. Well, naturally, the maiden
will be curious; she will wish to see me; but I shall tell her that I
am a monster of ugliness; I shall picture myself hideous."
At these words Modeste gave Butscha a glance that looked him through
and through. If she had said aloud, "What do you know of my love?" she
could not have been more explicit.
"If I have the honor of being loved for the poem of my heart, if some
day such love may make a woman think me only slightly deformed, I ask
you, mademoiselle, shall I not be happier than the handsomest of men,
--as happy as a man of genius beloved by some celestial being like
Back to Full Books