The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 12

“Mademoiselle has made a pretty piece of work up yonder,” said Lemulquinier, coming down to the kitchen for his breakfast. “We were just going to put our hands on the great secret, we only wanted a scrap of July sun, for monsieur — ah, what a man! he’s almost in the shoes of the good God himself! — was almost within THAT,” he said to Josette, clicking his thumbnail against a front tooth, “of getting hold of the Absolute, when up she came, slam bang, screaming some nonsense about notes of hand.”

“Well, pay them yourself,” said Martha, “out of your wages.”

“Where’s the butter for my bread?” said Lemulquinier to the cook.

“Where’s the money to buy it?” she answered, sharply. “Come, old villain, if you make gold in that devil’s kitchen of yours, why don’t you make butter? ‘Twouldn’t be half so difficult, and you could sell it in the market for enough to make the pot boil. We all eat dry bread. The young ladies are satisfied with dry bread and nuts, and do you expect to be better fed than your masters? Mademoiselle won’t spend more than one hundred francs a month for the whole household. There’s only one dinner for all. If you want dainties you’ve got your furnaces upstairs where you fricassee pearls till there’s nothing else talked of in town. Get your roast chickens up there.”

Lemulquinier took his dry bread and went out.

“He will go and buy something to eat with his own money,” said Martha; “all the better — it is just so much saved. Isn’t he stingy, the old scarecrow!”

“Starve him! that’s the only way to manage him,” said Josette. “For a week past he hasn’t rubbed a single floor; I have to do his work, for he is always upstairs. He can very well afford to pay me for it with the present of a few herrings; if he brings any home, I shall lay hands on them, I can tell him that.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Martha, “I hear Mademoiselle Marguerite crying. Her wizard of a father would swallow the house at a gulp without asking a Christian blessing, the old sorcerer! In my country he’d be burned alive; but people here have no more religion than the Moors in Africa.”

Marguerite could scarcely stifle her sobs as she came through the gallery. She reached her room, took out her mother’s letter, and read as follows:—

My Child — If God so wills, my spirit will be within your heart when you read these words, the last I shall ever write; they are full of love for my dear ones, left at the mercy of a demon whom I have not been able to resist. When you read these words he will have taken your last crust, just as he took my life and squandered my love. You know, my darling, if I loved your father: I die loving him less, for I take precautions against him which I never could have practised while living. Yes, in the depths of my coffin I shall have kept a resource for the day when some terrible misfortune overtakes you. If when that day comes you are reduced to poverty, or if your honor is in question, my child, send for Monsieur de Solis, should he be living — if not, for his nephew, our good Emmanuel; they hold one hundred and seventy thousand francs which are yours and will enable you to live.

If nothing shall have subdued his passion; if his children prove no stronger barrier than my happiness has been, and cannot stop his criminal career — leave him, leave your father, that you may live. I could not forsake him; I was bound to him. You, Marguerite, you must save the family. I absolve you for all you may do to defend Gabriel and Jean and Felicie. Take courage; be the guardian angel of the Claes. Be firm — I dare not say be pitiless; but to repair the evil already done you must keep some means at hand. On the day when you read this letter, regard yourself as ruined already, for nothing will stay the fury of that passion which has torn all things from me.

My child, remember this: the truest love is to forget your heart. Even though you be forced to deceive your father, your dissimulation will be blessed; your actions, however blamable they may seem, will be heroic if taken to protect the family. The virtuous Monsieur de Solis tells me so; and no conscience was ever purer or more enlightened than his. I could never have had the courage to speak these words to you, even with my dying breath.

And yet, my daughter, be respectful, be kind in the dreadful struggle. Resist him, but love him; deny him gently. My hidden tears, my inward griefs will be known only when I am dead. Kiss my dear children in my name when the hour comes and you are called upon to protect them.

May God and the saints be with you!

Josephine.

To this letter was added an acknowledgment from the Messieurs de Solis, uncle and nephew, who thereby bound themselves to place the money entrusted to them by Madame Claes in the hands of whoever of her children should present the paper.

“Martha,” cried Marguerite to the duenna, who came quickly; “go to Monsieur Emmanuel de Solis, and ask him to come to me. — Noble, discreet heart! he never told me,” she thought; “though all my griefs and cares are his, he never told me!”

Emmanuel came before Martha could get back.

“You have kept a secret from me,” she said, showing him her mother’s letter.

Emmanuel bent his head.

“Marguerite, are you in great trouble?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered; “be my support — you, whom my mother calls ‘our good Emmanuel.’” She showed him the letter, unable to repress her joy in knowing that her mother approved her choice.

“My blood and my life were yours on the morrow of the day when I first saw you in the gallery,” he said; “but I scarcely dared to hope the time might come when you would accept them. If you know me well, you know my word is sacred. Forgive the absolute obedience I have paid to your mother’s wishes; it was not for me to judge her intentions.”

“You have saved us,” she said, interrupting him, and taking his arm to go down to the parlor.

After hearing from Emmanuel the origin of the money entrusted to him, Marguerite confided to him the terrible straits in which the family now found themselves.

“I must pay those notes at once,” said Emmanuel. “If Merkstus holds them all, you can at least save the interest. I will bring you the remaining seventy thousand francs. My poor uncle left me quite a large sum in ducats, which are easy to carry secretly.”

“Oh!” she said, “bring them at night; we can hide them when my father is asleep. If he knew that I had money, he might try to force it from me. Oh, Emmanuel, think what it is to distrust a father!” she said, weeping and resting her forehead against the young man’s heart.

This sad, confiding movement, with which the young girl asked protection, was the first expression of a love hitherto wrapped in melancholy and restrained within a sphere of grief: the heart, too full, was forced to overflow beneath the pressure of this new misery.

“What can we do; what will become of us? He sees nothing, he cares for nothing — neither for us nor for himself. I know not how he can live in that garret, where the air is stifling.”

“What can you expect of a man who calls incessantly, like Richard III., ‘My kingdom for a horse’?” said Emmanuel. “He is pitiless; and in that you must imitate him. Pay his notes; give him, if you will, your whole fortune; but that of your sister and of your brothers is neither yours nor his.”

“Give him my fortune?” she said, pressing her lover’s hand and looking at him with ardor in her eyes; “you advise it, you! — and Pierquin told a hundred lies to make me keep it!”

“Alas! I may be selfish in my own way,” he said. “Sometimes I long for you without fortune; you seem nearer to me then! At other times I want you rich and happy, and I feel how paltry it is to think that the poor grandeurs of wealth can separate us.”

“Dear, let us not speak of ourselves.”

“Ourselves!” he repeated, with rapture. Then, after a pause, he added: “The evil is great, but it is not irreparable.”

“It can be repaired only by us: the Claes family has now no head. To reach the stage of being neither father nor man, to have no consciousness of justice or injustice (for, in defiance of the laws, he has dissipated — he, so great, so noble, so upright — the property of the children he was bound to defend), oh, to what depths must he have fallen! My God! what is this thing he seeks?”

“Unfortunately, dear Marguerite, wrong as he is in his relation to his family, he is right scientifically. A score of men in Europe admire him for the very thing which others count as madness. But nevertheless you must, without scruple, refuse to let him take the property of his children. Great discoveries have always been accidental. If your father ever finds the solution of the problem, it will be when it costs him nothing; in a moment, perhaps, when he despairs of it.”

“My poor mother is happy,” said Marguerite; “she would have suffered a thousand deaths before she died: as it was, her first encounter with Science killed her. Alas! the strife is endless.”

“There is an end,” said Emmanuel. “When you have nothing left, Monsieur Claes can get no further credit; then he will stop.”

“Let him stop now, then,” cried Marguerite, “for we are without a penny!”

Monsieur de Solis went to buy up Claes’s notes and returned, bringing them to Marguerite. Balthazar, contrary to his custom, came down a few moments before dinner. For the first time in two years his daughter noticed the signs of a human grief upon his face: he was again a father, reason and judgment had overcome Science; he looked into the court-yard, then into the garden, and when he was certain he was alone with his daughter, he came up to her with a look of melancholy kindness.

“My child,” he said, taking her hand and pressing it with persuasive tenderness, “forgive your old father. Yes, Marguerite, I have done wrong. You spoke truly. So long as I have not FOUND I am a miserable wretch. I will go away from here. I cannot see Van Claes sold,” he went on, pointing to the martyr’s portrait. “He died for Liberty, I die for Science; he is venerated, I am hated.”

“Hated? oh, my father, no,” she cried, throwing herself on his breast; “we all adore you. Do we not, Felicie?” she said, turning to her sister who came in at the moment.

“What is the matter, dear father?” said his youngest daughter, taking his hand.

“I have ruined you.”

“Ah!” cried Felicie, “but our brothers will make our fortune. Jean is always at the head of his class.”

“See, father,” said Marguerite, leading Balthazar in a coaxing, filial way to the chimney-piece and taking some papers from beneath the clock, “here are your notes of hand; but do not sign any more, there is nothing left to pay them with —”

“Then you have money?” whispered Balthazar in her ear, when he recovered from his surprise.

His words and manner tortured the heroic girl; she saw the delirium of joy and hope in her father’s face as he looked about him to discover the gold.

“Father,” she said, “I have my own fortune.”

“Give it to me,” he said with a rapacious gesture; “I will return you a hundred-fold.”

“Yes, I will give it to you,” answered Marguerite, looking gravely at Balthazar, who did not know the meaning she put into her words.

“Ah, my dear daughter!” he cried, “you save my life. I have thought of a last experiment, after which nothing more is possible. If, this time, I do not find the Absolute, I must renounce the search. Come to my arms, my darling child; I will make you the happiest woman upon earth. You give me glory; you bring me back to happiness; you bestow the power to heap treasures upon my children — yes! I will load you with jewels, with wealth.”

He kissed his daughter’s forehead, took her hands and pressed them, and testified his joy by fondling caresses which to Marguerite seemed almost obsequious. During the dinner he thought only of her; he looked at her eagerly with the assiduous devotion displayed by a lover to his mistress: if she made a movement, he tried to divine her wish, and rose to fulfil it; he made her ashamed by the youthful eagerness of his attentions, which were painfully out of keeping with his premature old age. To all these cajoleries, Marguerite herself presented the contrast of actual distress, shown sometimes by a word of doubt, sometimes by a glance along the empty shelves of the sideboards in the dining-room.

“Well, well,” he said, following her eyes, “in six months we shall fill them again with gold, and marvellous things. You shall be like a queen. Bah! nature herself will belong to us, we shall rise above all created beings — through you, you my Marguerite! Margarita,” he said, smiling, “thy name is a prophecy. ‘Margarita’ means a pearl. Sterne says so somewhere. Did you ever read Sterne? Would you like to have a Sterne? it would amuse you.”

“A pearl, they say, is the result of a disease,” she answered; “we have suffered enough already.”

“Do not be sad; you will make the happiness of those you love; you shall be rich and all-powerful.”

“Mademoiselle has got such a good heart,” said Lemulquinier, whose seamed face stretched itself painfully into a smile.

For the rest of the evening Balthazar displayed to his daughters all the natural graces of his character and the charms of his conversation. Seductive as the serpent, his lips, his eyes, poured out a magnetic fluid; he put forth that power of genius, that gentleness of spirit, which once fascinated Josephine and now drew, as it were, his daughters into his heart. When Emmanuel de Solis came he found, for the first time in many months, the father and the children reunited. The young professor, in spite of his reserve, came under the influence of the scene; for Claes’s manners and conversation had recovered their former irresistible seduction!

Men of science, plunged though they be in abysses of thought and ceaselessly employed in studying the moral world, take notice, nevertheless, of the smallest details of the sphere in which they live. More out of date with their surroundings than really absent-minded, they are never in harmony with the life about them; they know and forget all; they prejudge the future in their own minds, prophesy to their own souls, know of an event before it happens, and yet they say nothing of all this. If, in the hush of meditation, they sometimes use their power to observe and recognize that which goes on around them, they are satisfied with having divined its meaning; their occupations hurry them on, and they frequently make false application of the knowledge they have acquired about the things of life. Sometimes they wake from their social apathy, or they drop from the world of thought to the world of life; at such times they come with well-stored memories, and are by no means strangers to what is happening.

Balthazar, who joined the perspicacity of the heart to that of the brain, knew his daughter’s whole past; he knew, or he had guessed, the history of the hidden love that united her with Emmanuel: he now showed this delicately, and sanctioned their affection by taking part in it. It was the sweetest flattery a father could bestow, and the lovers were unable to resist it. The evening passed delightfully — contrasting with the griefs which threatened the lives of these poor children. When Balthazar retired, after, as we may say, filling his family with light and bathing them with tenderness, Emmanuel de Solis, who had shown some embarrassment of manner, took from his pockets three thousand ducats in gold, the possession of which he had feared to betray. He placed them on the work-table, where Marguerite covered them with some linen she was mending; and then he went to his own house to fetch the rest of the money. When he returned, Felicie had gone to bed. Eleven o’clock struck; Martha, who sat up to undress her mistress, was still with Felicie.

“Where can we hide it?” said Marguerite, unable to resist the pleasure of playing with the gold ducats — a childish amusement which proved disastrous.

“I will lift this marble pedestal, which is hollow,” said Emmanuel; “you can slip in the packages, and the devil himself will not think of looking for them there.”

Just as Marguerite was making her last trip but one from the work-table to the pedestal, carrying the gold, she suddenly gave a piercing cry, and let fall the packages, the covers of which broke as they fell, and the coins were scattered about the room. Her father stood at the parlor door; the avidity of his eyes terrified her.

“What are you doing,” he said, looking first at his daughter, whose terror nailed her to the floor, and then at the young man, who had hastily sprung up — though his attitude beside the pedestal was sufficiently significant. The rattle of the gold upon the ground was horrible, the scattering of it prophetic.

“I could not be mistaken,” said Balthazar, sitting down; “I heard the sound of gold.”

He was not less agitated than the young people, whose hearts were beating so in unison that their throbs might be heard, like the ticking of a clock, amid the profound silence which suddenly settled on the parlor.

“Thank you, Monsieur de Solis,” said Marguerite, giving Emmanuel a glance which meant, “Come to my rescue and help me to save this money.”

“What gold is this?” resumed Balthazar, casting at Marguerite and Emmanuel a glance of terrible clear-sightedness.

“This gold belongs to Monsieur de Solis, who is kind enough to lend it to me that I may pay our debts honorably,” she answered.

Emmanuel colored and turned as though to leave the room: Balthazar caught him by the arm.

“Monsieur,” he said, “you must not escape my thanks.”

“Monsieur, you owe me none. This money belongs to Mademoiselle Marguerite, who borrows it from me on the security of her own property,” Emmanuel replied, looking at his mistress, who thanked him with an almost imperceptible movement of her eyelids.

“I shall not allow that,” said Claes, taking a pen and a sheet of paper from the table where Felicie did her writing, and turning to the astonished young people. “How much is it?” His eager passion made him more astute than the wiliest of rascally bailiffs: the sum was to be his. Marguerite and Monsieur de Solis hesitated.

“Let us count it,” he said.

“There are six thousand ducats,” said Emmanuel.

“Seventy thousand francs,” remarked Claes.

The glance which Marguerite threw at her lover gave him courage.

“Monsieur,” he said, “your note bears no value; pardon this purely technical term. I have to-day lent Mademoiselle Claes one hundred thousand francs to redeem your notes of hand which you had no means of paying: you are therefore unable to give me any security. These one hundred and seventy thousand francs belong to Mademoiselle Claes, who can dispose of them as she sees fit; but I have lent them on a pledge that she will sign a deed securing them to me on her share of the now denuded land of the forest of Waignies.”

Marguerite turned away her head that her lover might not see the tears that gathered in her eyes. She knew Emmanuel’s purity of soul. Brought up by his uncle to the practice of the sternest religious virtues, the young man had an especial horror of falsehood: after giving his heart and life to Marguerite Claes he now made her the sacrifice of his conscience.

“Adieu, monsieur,” said Balthazar, “I thought you had more confidence in a man who looked upon you with the eyes of a father.”

After exchanging a despairing look with Marguerite, Emmanuel was shown out by Martha, who closed and fastened the street-door.

The moment the father and daughter were alone Claes said —

“You love me, do you not?”

“Come to the point, father. You want this money: you cannot have it.”

She began to pick up the coins; her father silently helped her to gather them together and count the sum she had dropped; Marguerite allowed him to do so without manifesting the least distrust. When two thousand ducats were piled on the table, Balthazar said, with a desperate air —

“Marguerite, I must have that money.”

“If you take it, it will be robbery,” she replied coldly. “Hear me, father: better kill us at one blow than make us suffer a hundred deaths a day. Let it now be seen which of us must yield.”

“Do you mean to kill your father?”

“We avenge our mother,” she said, pointing to the spot where Madame Claes died.

“My daughter, if you knew the truth of the matter, you would not use those words to me. Listen, and I will endeavor to exlain the great problem — but no, you cannot comprehend me,” he cried in accents of despair. “Come, give me the money; believe for once in your father. Yes, I know I caused your mother pain: I have dissipated — to use the word of fools — my own fortune and injured yours; I know my children are sacrificed for a thing you call madness; but my angel, my darling, my love, my Marguerite, hear me! If I do not now succeed, I will give myself up to you; I will obey you as you are bound to obey me; I will do your will; you shall take charge of all my property; I will no longer be the guardian of my children; I pledge myself to lay down my authority. I swear by your mother’s memory!” he cried, shedding tears.

Marguerite turned away her head, unable to bear the sight. Claes, thinking she meant to yield, flung himself on his knees beside her.

“Marguerite, Marguerite! give it to me — give it!” he cried. “What are sixty thousand francs against eternal remorse? See, I shall die, this will kill me. Listen, my word is sacred. If I fail now I will abandon my labors; I will leave Flanders — France even, if you demand it; I will go away and toil like a day-laborer to recover, sou by sou, the fortunes I have lost, and restore to my children all that Science has taken from them.”

Marguerite tried to raise her father, but he persisted in remaining on his knees, and continued, still weeping:—

“Be tender and obedient for this last time! If I do not succeed, I will myself declare your hardness just. You shall call me a fool; you shall say I am a bad father; you may even tell me that I am ignorant and incapable. And when I hear you say those words I will kiss your hands. You may beat me, if you will, and when you strike I will bless you as the best of daughters, remembering that you have given me your blood.”

“If it were my blood, my life’s blood, I would give it to you,” she cried; “but can I let Science cut the throats of my brothers and sister? No. Cease, cease!” she said, wiping her tears and pushing aside her father’s caressing hands.

“Sixty thousand francs and two months,” he said, rising in anger; “that is all I want: but my daughter stands between me and fame and wealth. I curse you!” he went on; “you are no daughter of mine, you are not a woman, you have no heart, you will never be a mother or a wife! — Give it to me, let me take it, my little one, my precious child, I will love you forever,"— and he stretched his hand with a movement of hideous energy towards the gold.

“I am helpless against physical force; but God and the great Claes see us now,” she said, pointing to the picture.

“Try to live, if you can, with your father’s blood upon you,” cried Balthazar, looking at her with abhorrence. He rose, glanced round the room, and slowly left it. When he reached the door he turned as a beggar might have done and implored his daughter with a gesture, to which she replied by a negative motion of her head.

“Farewell, my daughter,” he said, gently, “may you live happy!”

When he had disappeared, Marguerite remained in a trance which separated her from earth; she was no longer in the parlor; she lost consciousness of physical existence; she had wings, and soared amid the immensities of the moral world, where Thought contracts the limits both of Time and Space, where a divine hand lifts the veil of the Future. It seemed to her that days elapsed between each footfall of her father as he went up the stairs; then a shudder of dread went over her as she heard him enter his chamber. Guided by a presentiment which flashed into her soul with the piercing keenness of lightning, she ran up the stairway, without light, without noise, with the velocity of an arrow, and saw her father with a pistol at his head.

“Take all!” she cried, springing towards him.

She fell into a chair. Balthazar, seeing her pallor, began to weep as old men weep; he became like a child, he kissed her brow, he spoke in disconnected words, he almost danced with joy, and tried to play with her as a lover with a mistress who has made him happy.

“Enough, father, enough,” she said; “remember your promise. If you do not succeed now, you pledge yourself to obey me?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, mother!” she cried, turning towards Madame Claes’s chamber, “YOU would have given him all — would you not?”

“Sleep in peace,” said Balthazar, “you are a good daughter.”

“Sleep!” she said, “the nights of my youth are gone; you have made me old, father, just as you slowly withered my mother’s heart.”

“Poor child, would I could re-assure you by explaining the effects of the glorious experiment I have now imagined! you would then comprehend the truth.”

“I comprehend our ruin,” she said, leaving him.

The next morning, being a holiday, Emmanuel de Solis brought Jean to spend the day.

“Well?” he said, approaching Marguerite anxiously.

“I yielded,” she replied.

“My dear life,” he said, with a gesture of melancholy joy, “if you had withstood him I should greatly have admired you; but weak and feeble, I adore you!”

“Poor, poor Emmanuel; what is left for us?”

“Leave the future to me,” cried the young man, with a radiant look; “we love each other, and all is well.”

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