The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 10

Society practises none of the virtues it demands from individuals: every hour it commits crimes, but the crimes are committed in words; it paves the way for evil actions with a jest; it degrades nobility of soul by ridicule; it jeers at sons who mourn their fathers, anathematizes those who do not mourn them enough, and finds diversion (the hypocrite!) in weighing the dead bodies before they are cold.

The evening of the day on which Madame Claes died, her friends cast a few flowers upon her memory in the intervals of their games of whist, doing homage to her noble qualities as they sorted their hearts and spades. Then, after a few lachrymal phrases — the fi, fo, fum of collective grief, uttered in precisely the same tone, and with neither more nor less of feeling, at all hours and in every town in France — they proceeded to estimate the value of her property. Pierquin was the first to observe that the death of this excellent woman was a mercy, for her husband had made her unhappy; and it was even more fortunate for her children: she was unable while living to refuse her money to the husband she adored; but now that she was dead, Claes was debarred from touching it. Thereupon all present calculated the fortune of that poor Madame Claes, wondered how much she had laid by (had she, in fact, laid by anything?), made an inventory of her jewels, rummaged in her wardrobe, peeped into her drawers, while the afflicted family were still weeping and praying around her death-bed.

Pierquin, with an appraising eye, stated that Madame Claes’s possessions in her own right — to use the notarial phrase — might still be recovered, and ought to amount to nearly a million and a half of francs; basing this estimate partly on the forest of Waignies — whose timber, counting the full-grown trees, the saplings, the primeval growths, and the recent plantations, had immensely increased in value during the last twelve years — and partly on Balthazar’s own property, of which enough remained to “cover” the claims of his children, if the liquidation of their mother’s fortune did not yield sufficient to release him. Mademoiselle Claes was still, in Pierquin’s slang, “a four-hundred-thousand-franc girl.” “But,” he added, “if she doesn’t marry — a step which would of course separate her interests and permit us to sell the forest and auction, and so realize the property of the minor children and reinvest it where the father can’t lay hands on it — Claes is likely to ruin them all.”

Thereupon, everybody looked about for some eligible young man worthy to win the hand of Mademoiselle Claes; but none of them paid the lawyer the compliment of suggesting that he might be the man. Pierquin, however, found so many good reasons to reject the suggested matches as unworthy of Marguerite’s position, that the confabulators glanced at each other and smiled, and took malicious pleasure in prolonging this truly provincial method of annoyance. Pierquin had already decided that Madame Claes’s death would have a favorable effect upon his suit, and he began mentally to cut up the body in his own interests.

“That good woman,” he said to himself as he went home to bed, “was as proud as a peacock; she would never gave given me her daughter. Hey, hey! why couldn’t I manage matters now so as to marry the girl? Pere Claes is drunk on carbon, and takes no care of his children. If, after convincing Marguerite that she must marry to save the property of her brothers and sister, I were to ask him for his daughter, he will be glad to get rid of a girl who is likely to thwart him.”

He went to sleep anticipating the charms of the marriage contract, and reflecting on the advantages of the step and the guarantees afforded for his happiness in the person he proposed to marry. In all the provinces there was certainly not a better brought-up or more delicately lovely young girl than Mademoiselle Claes. Her modesty, her grace, were like those of the pretty flower Emmanuel had feared to name lest he should betray the secret of his heart. Her sentiments were lofty, her principles religious, she would undoubtedly make him a faithful wife: moreover, she not only flattered the vanity which influences every man more or less in the choice of a wife, but she gratified his pride by the high consideration which her family, doubly ennobled, enjoyed in Flanders — a consideration which her husband of course would share.

The next day Pierquin extracted from his strong-box several thousand-franc notes, which he offered with great friendliness to Balthazar, so as to relieve him of pecuniary annoyance in the midst of his grief. Touched by this delicate attention, Balthazar would, he thought, praise his goodness and his personal qualities to Marguerite. In this he was mistaken. Monsieur Claes and his daughter thought it was a very natural action, and their sorrow was too absorbing to let them even think of the lawyer.

Balthazar’s despair was indeed so great that persons who were disposed to blame his conduct could not do otherwise than forgive him — less on account of the Science which might have excused him, than for the remorse which could not undo his deeds. Society is satisfied by appearances: it takes what it gives, without considering the intrinsic worth of the article. To the world real suffering is a show, a species of enjoyment, which inclines it to absolve even a criminal; in its thirst for emotions it acquits without judging the man who raises a laugh, or he who makes it weep, making no inquiry into their methods.

Marguerite was just nineteen when her father put her in charge of the household; and her brothers and sister, whom Madame Claes in her last moments exhorted to obey their elder sister, accepted her authority with docility. Her mourning attire heightened the dewy whiteness of her skin, just as the sadness of her expression threw into relief the gentleness and patience of her manner. From the first she gave proofs of feminine courage, of inalterable serenity, like that of angels appointed to shed peace on suffering hearts by a touch of their waving palms. But although she trained herself, through a premature perception of duty, to hide her personal grief, it was none the less bitter; her calm exterior was not in keeping with the deep trouble of her thoughts, and she was destined to undergo, too early in life, those terrible outbursts of feeling which no heart is wholly able to subdue: her father was to hold her incessantly under the pressure of natural youthful generosity on the one hand, and the dictates of imperious duty on the other. The cares which came upon her the very day of her mother’s death threw her into a struggle with the interests of life at an age when young girls are thinking only of its pleasures. Dreadful discipline of suffering, which is never lacking to angelic natures!

The love which rests on money or on vanity is the most persevering of passions. Pierquin resolved to win the heiress without delay. A few days after Madame Claes’s death he took occasion to speak to Marguerite, and began operations with a cleverness which might have succeeded if love had not given her the power of clear insight and saved her from mistaking appearances that were all the more specious because Pierquin displayed his natural kindheartedness — the kindliness of a notary who thinks himself loving while he protects a client’s money. Relying on his rather distant relationship and his constant habit of managing the business and sharing the secrets of the Claes family, sure of the esteem and friendship of the father, greatly assisted by the careless inattention of that servant of science who took no thought for the marriage of his daughter, and not suspecting that Marguerite could prefer another — Pierquin unguardedly enabled her to form a judgment on a suit in which there was no passion except that of self-interest, always odious to a young soul, and which he was not clever enough to conceal. It was he who on this occasion was naively above-board, it was she who dissimulated — simply because he thought he was dealing with a defenceless girl, and wholly misconceived the privileges of weakness.

“My dear cousin,” he said to Marguerite, with whom he was walking about the paths of the little garden, “you know my heart, you understand how truly I desire to respect the painful feelings which absorb you at this moment. I have too sensitive a nature for a lawyer; I live by my heart only, I am forced to spend my time on the interests of others when I would fain let myself enjoy the sweet emotions which make life happy. I suffer deeply in being obliged to talk to you of subjects so discordant with your state of mind, but it is necessary. I have thought much about you during the last few days. It is evident that through a fatal delusion the fortune of your brothers and sister and your own are in jeopardy. Do you wish to save your family from complete ruin?”

“What must I do?” she asked, half-frightened by his words.

“Marry,” answered Pierquin.

“I shall not marry,” she said.

“Yes, you will marry,” replied the notary, “when you have soberly thought over the critical position in which you are placed.”

“How can my marriage save —”

“Ah! I knew you would consider it, my dear cousin,” he exclaimed, interrupting her. “Marriage will emancipate you.”

“Why should I be emancipated?” asked Marguerite.

“Because marriage will put you at once into possession of your property, my dear little cousin,” said the lawyer in a tone of triumph. “If you marry you take your share of your mother’s property. To give it to you, the whole property must be liquidated; to do that, it becomes necessary to sell the forest of Waignies. That done, the proceeds will be capitalized, and your father, as guardian, will be compelled to invest the fortune of his children in such a way that Chemistry can’t get hold of it.”

“And if I do not marry, what will happen?” she asked.

“Well,” said the notary, “your father will manage your estate as he pleases. If he returns to making gold, he will probably sell the timber of the forest of Waignies and leave his children as naked as the little Saint Johns. The forest is now worth about fourteen hundred thousand francs; but from one day to another you are not sure your father won’t cut it down, and then your thirteen hundred acres are not worth three hundred thousand francs. Isn’t it better to avoid this almost certain danger by at once compelling the division of property on your marriage? If the forest is sold now, while Chemistry has gone to sleep, your father will put the proceeds into the Grand-Livre. The Funds are at 59; those dear children will get nearly five thousand francs a year for every fifty thousand francs: and, inasmuch as the property of minors cannot be sold out, your brothers and sister will find their fortunes doubled in value by the time they come of age. Whereas, in the other case — faith, no one knows what may happen: your father has already impaired your mother’s property; we shall find out the deficit when we come to make the inventory. If he is in debt to her estate, you will take a mortgage on his, and in that way something may be recovered —”

“For shame!” said Marguerite. “It would be an outrage on my father. It is not so long since my mother uttered her last words that I have forgotten them. My father is incapable of robbing his children,” she continued, giving way to tears of distress. “You misunderstand him, Monsieur Pierquin.”

“But, my dear cousin, if your father gets back to chemistry —”

“We are ruined; is that what you mean?”

“Yes, utterly ruined. Believe me, Marguerite,” he said, taking her hand which he placed upon his heart, “I should fail of my duty if I did not persist in this matter. Your interests alone —”

“Monsieur,” said Marguerite, coldly withdrawing her hand, “the true interests of my family require me not to marry. My mother thought so.”

“Cousin,” he cried, with the earnestness of a man who sees a fortune escaping him, “you commit suicide; you fling your mother’s property into a gulf. Well, I will prove the devotion I feel for you: you know not how I love you. I have admired you from the day of that last ball, three years ago; you were enchanting. Trust the voice of love when it speaks to you of your own interests, Marguerite.” He paused. “Yes, we must call a family council and emancipate you — without consulting you,” he added.

“But what is it to be emancipated?”

“It is to enjoy your own rights.”

“If I can be emancipated without being married, why do you want me to marry? and whom should I marry?”

Pierquin tried to look tenderly at his cousin, but the expression contrasted so strongly with his hard eyes, usually fixed on money, that Marguerite discovered the self-interest in his improvised tenderness.

“You would marry the person who — pleases you — the most,” he said. “A husband is indispensable, were it only as a matter of business. You are now entering upon a struggle with your father; can you resist him all alone?”

“Yes, monsieur; I shall know how to protect my brothers and sister when the time comes.”

“Pshaw! the obstinate creature,” thought Pierquin. “No, you will not resist him,” he said aloud.

“Let us end the subject,” she said.

“Adieu, cousin, I shall endeavor to serve you in spite of yourself; I will prove my love by protecting you against your will from a disaster which all the town foresees.”

“I thank you for the interest you take in me,” she answered; “but I entreat you to propose nothing and to undertake nothing which may give pain to my father.”

Marguerite stood thoughtfully watching Pierquin as he departed; she compared his metallic voice, his manners, flexible as a steel spring, his glance, servile rather than tender, with the mute melodious poetry in which Emmanuel’s sentiments were wrapped. No matter what may be said, or what may be done, there exists a wonderful magnetism whose effects never deceive. The tones of the voice, the glance, the passionate gestures of a lover may be imitated; a young girl can be deluded by a clever comedian; but to succeed, the man must be alone in the field. If the young girl has another soul beside her whose pulses vibrate in unison with hers, she is able to distinguish the expressions of a true love. Emmanuel, like Marguerite, felt the influence of the chords which, from the time of their first meeting had gathered ominously about their heads, hiding from their eyes the blue skies of love. His feeling for the Elect of his heart was an idolatry which the total absence of hope rendered gentle and mysterious in its manifestations. Socially too far removed from Mademoiselle Claes by his want of fortune, with nothing but a noble name to offer her, he saw no chance of ever being her husband. Yet he had always hoped for certain encouragements which Marguerite refused to give before the failing eyes of her dying mother. Both equally pure, they had never said to one another a word of love. Their joys were solitary joys tasted by each alone. They trembled apart, though together they quivered beneath the rays of the same hope. They seemed to fear themselves, conscious that each only too surely belonged to the other. Emmanuel trembled lest he should touch the hand of the sovereign to whom he had made a shrine of his heart; a chance contact would have roused hopes that were too ardent, he could not then have mastered the force of his passion. And yet, while neither bestowed the vast, though trivial, the innocent and yet all-meaning signs of love that even timid lovers allow themselves, they were so firmly fixed in each other’s hearts that both were ready to make the greatest sacrifices, which were, indeed, the only pleasures their love could expect to taste.

Since Madame Claes’s death this hidden love was shrouded in mourning. The tints of the sphere in which it lived, dark and dim from the first, were now black; the few lights were veiled by tears. Marguerite’s reserve changed to coldness; she remembered the promise exacted by her mother. With more freedom of action, she nevertheless became more distant. Emmanuel shared his beloved’s grief, comprehending that the slightest word or wish of love at such a time transgressed the laws of the heart. Their love was therefore more concealed than it had ever been. These tender souls sounded the same note: held apart by grief, as formerly by the timidities of youth and by respect for the sufferings of the mother, they clung to the magnificent language of the eyes, the mute eloquence of devoted actions, the constant unison of thoughts — divine harmonies of youth, the first steps of a love still in its infancy. Emmanuel came every morning to inquire for Claes and Marguerite, but he never entered the dining-room, where the family now sat, unless to bring a letter from Gabriel or when Balthazar invited him to come in. His first glance at the young girl contained a thousand sympathetic thoughts; it told her that he suffered under these conventional restraints, that he never left her, he was always with her, he shared her grief. He shed the tears of his own pain into the soul of his dear one by a look that was marred by no selfish reservation. His good heart lived so completely in the present, he clung so firmly to a happiness which he believed to be fugitive, that Marguerite sometimes reproached herself for not generously holding out her hand and saying, “Let us at least be friends.”

Pierquin continued his suit with an obstinacy which is the unreflecting patience of fools. He judged Marguerite by the ordinary rules of the multitude when judging of women. He believed that the words marriage, freedom, fortune, which he had put into her mind, would geminate and flower into wishes by which he could profit; he imagined that her coldness was mere dissimulation. But surround her as he would with gallant attentions, he could not hide the despotic ways of a man accustomed to manage the private affairs of many families with a high hand. He discoursed to her in those platitudes of consolation common to his profession, which crawl like snails over the suffering mind, leaving behind them a trail of barren words which profane its sanctity. His tenderness was mere wheedling. He dropped his feigned melancholy at the door when he put on his overshoes, or took his umbrella. He used the tone his long intimacy authorized as an instrument to work himself still further into the bosom of the family, and bring Marguerite to a marriage which the whole town was beginning to foresee. The true, devoted, respectful love formed a striking contrast to its selfish, calculating semblance. Each man’s conduct was homogenous: one feigned a passion and seized every advantage to gain the prize; the other hid his love and trembled lest he should betray his devotion.

Some time after the death of her mother, and, as it happened, on the same day, Marguerite was enabled to compare the only two men of whom she had any opportunity of judging; for the social solitude to which she was condemned kept her from seeing life and gave no access to those who might think of her in marriage. One day after breakfast, a fine morning in April, Emmanuel called at the house just as Monsieur Claes was going out. The aspect of his own house was so unendurable to Balthazar that he spent part of every day in walking about the ramparts. Emmanuel made a motion as if to follow him, then he hesitated, seemed to gather up his courage, looked at Marguerite and remained. The young girl felt sure that he wished to speak with her, and asked him to go into the garden; then she sent Felicie to Martha, who was sewing in the antechamber on the upper floor, and seated herself on a garden-seat in full view of her sister and the old duenna.

“Monsieur Claes is as much absorbed by grief as he once was by science,” began the young man, watching Balthazar as he slowly crossed the court-yard. “Every one in Douai pities him; he moves like a man who has lost all consciousness of life; he stops without a purpose, he gazes without seeing anything.”

“Every sorrow has its own expression,” said Marguerite, checking her tears. “What is it you wish to say to me?” she added after a pause, coldly and with dignity.

“Mademoiselle,” answered Emmanuel in a voice of feeling, “I scarcely know if I have the right to speak to you as I am about to do. Think only of my desire to be of service to you, and give me the right of a teacher to be interested in the future of a pupil. Your brother Gabriel is over fifteen; he is in the second class; it is now necessary to direct his studies in the line of whatever future career he may take up. It is for your father to decide what that career shall be: if he gives the matter no thought, the injury to Gabriel would be serious. But then, again, would it not mortify your father if you showed him that he is neglecting his son’s interests? Under these circumstances, could you not yourself consult Gabriel as to his tastes, and help him to choose a career, so that later, if his father should think of making him a public officer, an administrator, a soldier, he might be prepared with some special training? I do not suppose that either you or Monsieur Claes would wish to bring Gabriel up in idleness.”

“Oh, no!” said Marguerite; “when my mother taught us to make lace, and took such pains with our drawing and music and embroidery, she often said we must be prepared for whatever might happen to us. Gabriel ought to have a thorough education and a personal value. But tell me, what career is best for a man to choose?”

“Mademoiselle,” said Emmanuel, trembling with pleasure, “Gabriel is at the head of his class in mathematics; if he would like to enter the Ecole Polytechnique, he could there acquire the practical knowledge which will fit him for any career. When he leaves the Ecole he can choose the path in life for which he feels the strongest bias. Thus, without compromising his future, you will have saved a great deal of time. Men who leave the Ecole with honors are sought after on all sides; the school turns out statesmen, diplomats, men of science, engineers, generals, sailors, magistrates, manufacturers, and bankers. There is nothing extraordinary in the son of a rich or noble family preparing himself to enter it. If Gabriel decides on this course I shall ask you to — will you grant my request? Say yes!”

“What is it?”

“Let me be his tutor,” he answered, trembling.

Marguerite looked at Monsieur de Solis; then she took his hand, and said, “Yes”— and paused, adding presently in a broken voice:—

“How much I value the delicacy which makes you offer me a thing I can accept from you. In all that you have said I see how much you have thought for us. I thank you.”

Though the words were simply said, Emmanuel turned away his head not to show the tears that the delight of being useful to her brought to his eyes.

“I will bring both boys to see you,” he said, when he was a little calmer; “to-morrow is a holiday.”

He rose and bowed to Marguerite, who followed him into the house; when he had crossed the court-yard he turned and saw her still at the door of the dining-room, from which she made him a friendly sign.

After dinner Pierquin came to see Monsieur Claes, and sat down between father and daughter on the very bench in the garden where Emmanuel had sat that morning.

“My dear cousin,” he said to Balthazar, “I have come to-night to talk to you on business. It is now forty-two days since the decease of your wife.”

“I keep no account of time,” said Balthazar, wiping away the tears that came at the word “decease.”

“Oh, monsieur!” cried Marguerite, looking at the lawyer, “how can you?”

“But, my dear Marguerite, we notaries are obliged to consider the limits of time appointed by law. This is a matter which concerns you and your co-heirs. Monsieur Claes has none but minor children, and he must make an inventory of his property within forty-five days of his wife’s decease, so as to render in his accounts at the end of that time. It is necessary to know the value of his property before deciding whether to accept it as sufficient security, or whether we must fall back on the legal rights of minors.”

Marguerite rose.

“Do not go away, my dear cousin,” continued Pierquin; “my words concern you — you and your father both. You know how truly I share your grief, but to-day you must give your attention to legal details. If you do not, every one of you will get into serious difficulties. I am only doing my duty as the family lawyer.”

“He is right,” said Claes.

“The time expires in two days,” resumed Pierquin; “and I must begin the inventory to-morrow, if only to postpone the payment of the legacy-tax which the public treasurer will come here and demand. Treasurers have no hearts; they don’t trouble themselves about feelings; they fasten their claws upon us at all seasons. Therefore for the next two days my clerk and I will be here from ten till four with Monsieur Raparlier, the public appraiser. After we get through the town property we shall go into the country. As for the forest of Waignies, we shall be obliged to hold a consultation about that. Now let us turn to another matter. We must call a family council and appoint a guardian to protect the interests of the minor children. Monsieur Conyncks of Bruges is your nearest relative; but he has now become a Belgian. You ought,” continued Pierquin, addressing Balthazar, “to write to him on this matter; you can then find out if he has any intention of settling in France, where he has a fine property. Perhaps you could persuade him and his daughter to move into French Flanders. If he refuses, then I must see about making up the council with the other near relatives.”

“What is the use of an inventory?” asked Marguerite.

“To put on record the value and the claims of the property, its debts and its assets. When that is all clearly scheduled, the family council, acting on behalf of the minors, makes such dispositions as it sees fit.”

“Pierquin,” said Claes, rising from the bench, “do all that is necessary to protect the rights of my children; but spare us the distress of selling the things that belonged to my dear —” he was unable to continue; but he spoke with so noble an air and in a tone of such deep feeling that Marguerite took her father’s hand and kissed it.

“To-morrow, then,” said Pierquin.

“Come to breakfast,” said Claes; then he seemed to gather his scattered senses together and exclaimed: “But in my marriage contract, which was drawn under the laws of Hainault, I released my wife from the obligation of making an inventory, in order that she might not be annoyed by it: it is very probable that I was equally released —”

“Oh, what happiness!” cried Marguerite. “It would have been so distressing to us.”

“Well, I will look into your marriage contract to-morrow,” said the notary, rather confused.

“Then you did not know of this?” said Marguerite.

This remark closed the interview; the lawyer was far too much confused to continue it after the young girl’s comment.

“The devil is in it!” he said to himself as he crossed the court-yard. “That man’s wandering memory comes back to him in the nick of time — just when he needed it to hinder us from taking precautions against him! I have cracked my brains to save the property of those children. I meant to proceed regularly and come to an understanding with old Conyncks, and here’s the end of it! I shall lose ground with Marguerite, for she will certainly ask her father why I wanted an inventory of the property, which she now sees was not necessary; and Claes will tell her that notaries have a passion for writing documents, that we are lawyers above all, above cousins or friends or relatives, and all such stuff as that.”

He slammed the street door violently, railing at clients who ruin themselves by sensitiveness.

Balthazar was right. No inventory could be made. Nothing, therefore, was done to settle the relation of the father to the children in the matter of property.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31