Modeste Mignon/Chapter I

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Modeste Mignon by Honore de Balzac
Chapter I: THE CHALET

At the beginning of October, 1829, Monsieur Simon Babylas Latournelle, notary, was walking up from Havre to Ingouville, arm in arm with his son and accompanied by his wife, at whose side the head clerk of the lawyer's office, a little hunchback named Jean Butscha, trotted along like a page. When these four personages (two of whom came the same way every evening) reached the elbow of the road where it turns back upon itself like those called in Italy "cornice," the notary looked about to see if any one could overhear him either from the terrace above or the path beneath, and when he spoke he lowered his voice as a further precaution.

"Exupere," he said to his son, "you must try to carry out intelligently a little manoeuvre which I shall explain to you, but you are not to ask the meaning of it; and if you guess the meaning I command you to toss it into that Styx which every lawyer and every man who expects to have a hand in the government of his country is bound to keep within him for the secrets of others. After you have paid your respects and compliments to Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon, to Monsieur and Madame Dumay, and to Monsieur Gobenheim if he is at the Chalet, and as soon as quiet is restored, Monsieur Dumay will take you aside; you are then to look attentively at Mademoiselle Modeste (yes, I am willing to allow it) during the whole time he is speaking to you. My worthy friend will ask you to go out and take a walk; at the end of an hour, that is, about nine o'clock, you are to come back in a great hurry; try to puff as if you were out of breath, and whisper in Monsieur Dumay's ear, quite low, but so that Mademoiselle Modeste is sure to overhear you, these words: 'The young man has come.'"

Exupere was to start the next morning for Paris to begin the study of law. This impending departure had induced Latournelle to propose him to his friend Dumay as an accomplice in the important conspiracy which these directions indicate.

"Is Mademoiselle Modeste suspected of having a lover?" asked Butscha in a timid voice of Madame Latournelle.

"Hush, Butscha," she replied, taking her husband's arm.

Madame Latournelle, the daughter of a clerk of the supreme court, feels that her birth authorizes her to claim issue from a parliamentary family. This conviction explains why the lady, who is somewhat blotched as to complexion, endeavors to assume in her own person the majesty of a court whose decrees are recorded in her father's pothooks. She takes snuff, holds herself as stiff as a ramrod, poses for a person of consideration, and resembles nothing so much as a mummy brought momentarily to life by galvanism. She tries to give high-bred tones to her sharp voice, and succeeds no better in doing that than in hiding her general lack of breeding. Her social usefulness seems, however, incontestable when we glance at the flower-bedecked cap she wears, at the false front frizzling around her forehead, at the gowns of her choice; for how could shopkeepers dispose of those products if there were no Madame Latournelle? All these absurdities of the worthy woman, who is truly pious and charitable, might have passed unnoticed, if nature, amusing herself as she often does by turning out these ludicrous creations, had not endowed her with the height of a drum-major, and thus held up to view the comicalities of her provincial nature. She has never been out of Havre; she believes in the infallibility of Havre; she proclaims herself Norman to the very tips of her fingers; she venerates her father, and adores her husband.

Little Latournelle was bold enough to marry this lady after she had attained the anti-matrimonial age of thirty-three, and what is more, he had a son by her. As he could have got the sixty thousand francs of her "dot" in several other ways, the public assigned his uncommon intrepidity to a desire to escape an invasion of the Minotaur, against whom his personal qualifications would have insufficiently protected him had he rashly dared his fate by bringing home a young and pretty wife. The fact was, however, that the notary recognized the really fine qualities of Mademoiselle Agnes (she was called Agnes) and reflected to himself that a woman's beauty is soon past and gone to a husband. As to the insignificant youth on whom the clerk of the court bestowed in baptism his Norman name of "Exupere," Madame Latournelle is still so surprised at becoming his mother, at the age of thirty-five years and seven months, that she would still provide him, if it were necessary, with her breast and her milk,—an hyperbole which alone can fully express her impassioned maternity. "How handsome he is, that son of mine!" she says to her little friend Modeste, as they walk to church, with the beautiful Exupere in front of them. "He is like you," Modeste Mignon answers, very much as she might have said, "What horrid weather!" This silhouette of Madame Latournelle is quite important as an accessory, inasmuch as for three years she has been the chaperone of the young girl against whom the notary and his friend Dumay are now plotting to set up what we have called, in the "Physiologie du Mariage," a "mouse-trap."

As for Latournelle, imagine a worthy little fellow as sly as the purest honor and uprightness would allow him to be,—a man whom any stranger would take for a rascal at sight of his queer physiognomy, to which, however, the inhabitants of Havre were well accustomed. His eyesight, said to be weak, obliged the worthy man to wear green goggles for the protection of his eyes, which were constantly inflamed. The arch of each eyebrow, defined by a thin down of hair, surrounded the tortoise-shell rim of the glasses and made a couple of circles as it were, slightly apart. If you have never observed on the human face the effect produced by these circumferences placed one within the other, and separated by a hollow space or line, you can hardly imagine how perplexing such a face will be to you, especially if pale, hollow-cheeked, and terminating in a pointed chin like that of Mephistopheles,—a type which painters give to cats. This double resemblance was observable on the face of Babylas Latournelle. Above the atrocious green spectacles rose a bald crown, all the more crafty in expression because a wig, seemingly endowed with motion, let the white hairs show on all sides of it as it meandered crookedly across the forehead. An observer taking note of this excellent Norman, clothed in black and mounted on his two legs like a beetle on a couple of pins, and knowing him to be one of the most trustworthy of men, would have sought, without finding it, for the reason of such physical misrepresentation.

Jean Butscha, a natural son abandoned by his parents and taken care of by the clerk of the court and his daughter, and now, through sheer hard work, head-clerk to the notary, fed and lodged by his master, who gave him a salary of nine hundred francs, almost a dwarf, and with no semblance of youth,—Jean Butscha made Modeste his idol, and would willingly have given his life for hers. The poor fellow, whose eyes were hollowed beneath their heavy lids like the touch-holes of a cannon, whose head overweighted his body, with its shock of crisp hair, and whose face was pock-marked, had lived under pitying eyes from the time he was seven years of age. Is not that enough to explain his whole being? Silent, self-contained, pious, exemplary in conduct, he went his way over that vast tract of country named on the map of the heart Love-without-Hope, the sublime and arid steppes of Desire. Modeste had christened this grotesque little being her "Black Dwarf." The nickname sent him to the pages of Walter Scott's novel, and he one day said to Modeste: "Will you accept a rose against the evil day from your mysterious dwarf?" Modeste instantly sent the soul of her adorer to its humble mud-cabin with a terrible glance, such as young girls bestow on the men who cannot please them. Butscha's conception of himself was lowly, and, like the wife of his master, he had never been out of Havre.

Perhaps it will be well, for the sake of those who have never seen that city, to say a few words as to the present destination of the Latournelle family,—the head clerk being included in the latter term. Ingouville is to Havre what Montmartre is to Paris,—a high hill at the foot of which the city lies; with this difference, that the hill and the city are surrounded by the sea and the Seine, that Havre is helplessly circumscribed by enclosing fortifications, and, in short, that the mouth of the river, the harbor, and the docks present a very different aspect from the fifty thousand houses of Paris. At the foot of Montmartre an ocean of slate roofs lies in motionless blue billows; at Ingouville the sea is like the same roofs stirred by the wind. This eminence, or line of hills, which coasts the Seine from Rouen to the seashore, leaving a margin of valley land more or less narrow between itself and the river, and containing in its cities, its ravines, its vales, its meadows, veritable treasures of the picturesque, became of enormous value in and about Ingouville, after the year 1816, the period at which the prosperity of Havre began. This township has become since that time the Auteuil, the Ville-d'Avray, the Montmorency, in short, the suburban residence of the merchants of Havre. Here they build their houses on terraces around its ampitheatre of hills, and breathe the sea air laden with the fragrance of their splendid gardens. Here these bold speculators cast off the burden of their counting-rooms and the atmosphere of their city houses, which are built closely together without open spaces, often without court-yards,—a vice of construction with the increasing population of Havre, the inflexible line of the fortifications, and the enlargement of the docks has forced upon them. The result is, weariness of heart in Havre, cheerfulness and joy at Ingouville. The law of social development has forced up the suburb of Graville like a mushroom. It is to-day more extensive than Havre itself, which lies at the foot of its slopes like a serpent.

At the crest of the hill Ingouville has but one street, and (as in all such situations) the houses which overlook the river have an immense advantage over those on the other side of the road, whose view they obstruct, and which present the effect of standing on tip-toe to look over the opposing roofs. However, there exist here, as elsewhere, certain servitudes. Some houses standing at the summit have a finer position or possess legal rights of view which compel their opposite neighbors to keep their buildings down to a required height. Moreover, the openings cut in the capricious rock by roads which follow its declensions and make the ampitheatre habitable, give vistas through which some estates can see the city, or the river, or the sea. Instead of rising to an actual peak, the hill ends abruptly in a cliff. At the end of the street which follows the line of the summit, ravines appear in which a few villages are clustered (Sainte-Adresse and two or three other Saint-somethings) together with several creeks which murmur and flow with the tides of the sea. These half-deserted slopes of Ingouville form a striking contrast to the terraces of fine villas which overlook the valley of the Seine. Is the wind on this side too strong for vegetation? Do the merchants shrink from the cost of terracing it? However this may be, the traveller approaching Havre on a steamer is surprised to find a barren coast and tangled gorges to the west of Ingouville, like a beggar in rags beside a perfumed and sumptuously apparelled rich man.

In 1829 one of the last houses looking toward the sea, and which in all probability stands about the centre of the Ingouville to-day, was called, and perhaps is still called, "the Chalet." Originally it was a porter's lodge with a trim little garden in front of it. The owner of the villa to which it belonged,—a mansion with park, gardens, aviaries, hot-houses, and lawns—took a fancy to put the little dwelling more in keeping with the splendor of his own abode, and he reconstructed it on the model of an ornamental cottage. He divided this cottage from his own lawn, which was bordered and set with flower-beds and formed the terrace of his villa, by a low wall along which he planted a concealing hedge. Behind the cottage (called, in spite of all his efforts to prevent it, the Chalet) were the orchards and kitchen gardens of the villa. The Chalet, without cows or dairy, is separated from the roadway by a wooden fence whose palings are hidden under a luxuriant hedge. On the other side of the road the opposite house, subject to a legal privilege, has a similar hedge and paling, so as to leave an unobstructed view of Havre to the Chalet.

This little dwelling was the torment of the present proprietor of the villa, Monsieur Vilquin; and here is the why and the wherefore. The original creator of the villa, whose sumptuous details cry aloud, "Behold our millions!" extended his park far into the country for the purpose, as he averred, of getting his gardeners out of his pockets; and so, when the Chalet was finished, none but a friend could be allowed to inhabit it. Monsieur Mignon, the next owner of the property, was very much attached to his cashier, Dumay, and the following history will prove that the attachment was mutual; to him therefore he offered the little dwelling. Dumay, a stickler for legal methods, insisted on signing a lease for three hundred francs for twelve years, and Monsieur Mignon willingly agreed, remarking,—

"My dear Dumay, remember, you have now bound yourself to live with me for twelve years."

In consequence of certain events which will presently be related, the estates of Monsieur Mignon, formerly the richest merchant in Havre, were sold to Vilquin, one of his business competitors. In his joy at getting possession of the celebrated villa Mignon, the latter forgot to demand the cancelling of the lease. Dumay, anxious not to hinder the sale, would have signed anything Vilquin required, but the sale once made, he held to his lease like a vengeance. And there he remained, in Vilquin's pocket as it were; at the heart of Vilquin's family life, observing Vilquin, irritating Vilquin,—in short, the gadfly of all the Vilquins. Every morning, when he looked out of his window, Vilquin felt a violent shock of annoyance as his eye lighted on the little gem of a building, the Chalet, which had cost sixty thousand francs and sparkled like a ruby in the sun. That comparison is very nearly exact. The architect has constructed the cottage of brilliant red brick pointed with white. The window-frames are painted of a lively green, the woodwork is brown verging on yellow. The roof overhangs by several feet. A pretty gallery, with open-worked balustrade, surmounts the lower floor and projects at the centre of the facade into a veranda with glass sides. The ground-floor has a charming salon and a dining-room, separated from each other by the landing of a staircase built of wood, designed and decorated with elegant simplicity. The kitchen is behind the dining-room, and the corresponding room back of the salon, formerly a study, is now the bedroom of Monsieur and Madame Dumay. On the upper floor the architect has managed to get two large bedrooms, each with a dressing-room, to which the veranda serves as a salon; and above this floor, under the eaves, which are tipped together like a couple of cards, are two servants' rooms with mansard roofs, each lighted by a circular window and tolerably spacious.

Vilquin has been petty enough to build a high wall on the side toward the orchard and kitchen garden; and in consequence of this piece of spite, the few square feet which the lease secured to the Chalet resembled a Parisian garden. The out-buildings, painted in keeping with the cottage, stood with their backs to the wall of the adjoining property.

The interior of this charming dwelling harmonized with its exterior. The salon, floored entirely with iron-wood, was painted in a style that suggested the beauties of Chinese lacquer. On black panels edged with gold, birds of every color, foliage of impossible greens, and fantastic oriental designs glowed and shimmered. The dining-room was entirely sheathed in Northern woods carved and cut in open-work like the beautiful Russian chalets. The little antechamber formed by the landing and the well of the staircase was painted in old oak to represent Gothic ornament. The bedrooms, hung with chintz, were charming in their costly simplicity. The study, where the cashier and his wife now slept, was panelled from top to bottom, on the walls and ceiling, like the cabin of a steamboat. These luxuries of his predecessor excited Vilquin's wrath. He would fain have lodged his daughter and her husband in the cottage. This desire, well known to Dumay, will presently serve to illustrate the Breton obstinacy of the latter.

The entrance to the Chalet is by a little trellised iron door, the uprights of which, ending in lance-heads, show for a few inches above the fence and its hedge. The little garden, about as wide as the more pretentious lawn, was just now filled with flowers, roses, and dahlias of the choicest kind, and many rare products of the hot-houses, for (another Vilquinard grievance) the elegant little hot-house, a very whim of a hot-house, a hot-house representing dignity and style, belonged to the Chalet, and separated, or if you prefer, united it to the villa Vilquin. Dumay consoled himself for the toils of business in taking care of this hot-house, whose exotic treasures were one of Modeste's joys. The billiard-room of the villa Vilquin, a species of gallery, formerly communicated through an immense aviary with this hot-house. But after the building of the wall which deprived him of a view into the orchards, Dumay bricked up the door of communication. "Wall for wall!" he said.

In 1827 Vilquin offered Dumay a salary of six thousand francs, and ten thousand more as indemnity, if he would give up the lease. The cashier refused; though he had but three thousand francs from Gobenheim, a former clerk of his master. Dumay was a Breton transplanted by fate into Normandy. Imagine therefore the hatred conceived for the tenants of the Chalet by the Norman Vilquin, a man worth three millions! What criminal leze-million on the part of a cashier, to hold up to the eyes of such a man the impotence of his wealth! Vilquin, whose desperation in the matter made him the talk of Havre, had just proposed to give Dumay a pretty house of his own, and had again been refused. Havre itself began to grow uneasy at the man's obstinacy, and a good many persons explained it by the phrase, "Dumay is a Breton." As for the cashier, he thought Madame and Mademoiselle Mignon would be ill-lodged elsewhere. His two idols now inhabited a temple worthy of them; the sumptuous little cottage gave them a home, where these dethroned royalties could keep the semblance of majesty about them,—a species of dignity usually denied to those who have seen better days.

Perhaps as the story goes on, the reader will not regret having learned in advance a few particulars as to the home and the habitual companions of Modeste Mignon, for, at her age, people and things have as much influence upon the future life as a person's own character,—indeed, character often receives ineffaceable impressions from its surroundings.