The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 13

Several months went by in perfect tranquillity. Monsieur de Solis made Marguerite see that her petty economies would never produce a fortune, and he advised her to live more at ease, by taking all that remained of the sum which Madame Claes had entrusted to him for the comfort and well-being of the household.

During these months Marguerite fell a prey to the anxieties which beset her mother under like circumstances. However incredulous she might be, she had come to hope in her father’s genius. By an inexplicable phenomenon, many people have hope when they have no faith. Hope is the flower of Desire, faith is the fruit of Certainty. Marguerite said to herself, “If my father succeeds, we shall be happy.” Claes and Lemulquinier alone said: “We shall succeed.” Unhappily, from day to day the Searcher’s face grew sadder. Sometimes, when he came to dinner he dared not look at his daughter; at other times he glanced at her in triumph. Marguerite employed her evenings in making young de Solis explain to her many legal points and difficulties. At last her masculine education was completed; she was evidently preparing herself to execute the plan she had resolved upon if her father were again vanquished in his duel with the Unknown (X).

About the beginning of July, Balthazar spend a whole day sitting on a bench in the garden, plunged in gloomy meditation. He gazed at the mound now bare of tulips, at the windows of his wife’s chamber; he shuddered, no doubt, as he thought of all that his search had cost him: his movements betrayed that his thoughts were busy outside of Science. Marguerite brought her sewing and sat beside him for a while before dinner.

“You have not succeeded, father?”

“No, my child.”

“Ah!” said Marguerite, in a gentle voice. “I will not say one word of reproach; we are both equally guilty. I only claim the fulfilment of your promise; it is surely sacred to you — you are a Claes. Your children will surround you with love and filial respect; but you now belong to me; you owe me obedience. Do not be uneasy; my reign will be gentle, and I will endeavor to bring it quickly to an end. Father, I am going to leave you for a month; I shall be busy with your affairs; for,” she said, kissing him on his brow, “you are now my child. I take Martha with me; to-morrow Felicie will manage the household. The poor child is only seventeen, and she will not know how to resist you; therefore be generous, do not ask her for money; she has only enough for the barest necessaries of the household. Take courage: renounce your labors and your thoughts for three or four years. The great problem may ripen towards discovery; by that time I shall have gathered the money that is necessary to solve it — and you will solve it. Tell me, father, your queen is clement, is she not?”

“Then all is not lost?” said the old man.

“No, not if you keep your word.”

“I will obey you, my daughter,” answered Claes, with deep emotion.

The next day, Monsieur Conyncks of Cambrai came to fetch his great-niece. He was in a travelling-carriage, and would only remain long enough for Marguerite and Martha to make their last arrangements. Monsieur Claes received his cousin with courtesy, but he was obviously sad and humiliated. Old Conyncks guessed his thoughts, and said with blunt frankness while they were breakfasting:—

“I have some of your pictures, cousin; I have a taste for pictures — a ruinous passion, but we all have our manias.”

“Dear uncle!” exclaimed Marguerite.

“The world declares that you are ruined, cousin; but the treasure of a Claes is there,” said Conyncks, tapping his forehead, “and here,” striking his heart; “don’t you think so? I count upon you: and for that reason, having a few spare ducats in my wallet, I put them to use in your service.”

“Ah!” cried Balthazar, “I will repay you with treasures —”

“The only treasures we possess in Flanders are patience and labor,” replied Conyncks, sternly. “Our ancestor has those words engraved upon his brow,” he said, pointing to the portrait of Van Claes.

Marguerite kissed her father and bade him good-bye, gave her last directions to Josette and to Felicie, and started with Monsieur Conyncks for Paris. The great-uncle was a widower with one child, a daughter twelve years old, and he was possessed of an immense fortune. It was not impossible that he would take a wife; consequently, the good people of Douai believed that Mademoiselle Claes would marry her great-uncle. The rumor of this marriage reached Pierquin, and brought him back in hot haste to the House of Claes.

Great changes had taken place in the ideas of that clever speculator. For the last two years society in Douai had been divided into hostile camps. The nobility formed one circle, the bourgeoisie another; the latter naturally inimical to the former. This sudden separation took place, as a matter of fact, all over France, and divided the country into two warring nations, whose jealous squabbles, always augmenting, were among the chief reasons why the revolution of July, 1830, was accepted in the provinces. Between these social camps, the one ultra-monarchical, the other ultra-liberal, were a number of functionaries of various kinds, admitted, according to their importance, to one or the other of these circles, and who, at the moment of the fall of the legitimate power, were neutral. At the beginning of the struggle between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, the royalist “cafes” displayed an unheard-of splendor, and eclipsed the liberal “cafes” so brilliantly that these gastronomic fetes were said to have cost the lives of some of their frequenters who, like ill-cast cannon, were unable to withstand such practice. The two societies naturally became exclusive.

Pierquin, though rich for a provincial lawyer, was excluded from aristocratic circles and driven back upon the bourgeoisie. His self-love must have suffered from the successive rebuffs which he received when he felt himself insensibly set aside by people with whom he had rubbed shoulders up to the time of this social change. He had now reached his fortieth year, the last epoch at which a man who intends to marry can think of a young wife. The matches to which he was able to aspire were all among the bourgeoisie, but ambition prompted him to enter the upper circle by means of some creditable alliance.

The isolation in which the Claes family were now living had hitherto kept them aloof from these social changes. Though Claes belonged to the old aristocracy of the province, his preoccupation of mind prevented him from sharing the class antipathies thus created. However poor a daughter of the Claes might be, she would bring to a husband the dower of social vanity so eagerly desired by all parvenus. Pierquin therefore returned to his allegiance, with the secret intention of making the necessary sacrifices to conclude a marriage which should realize all his ambitions. He kept company with Balthazar and Felicie during Marguerite’s absence; but in so doing he discovered, rather late in the day, a formidable competitor in Emmanuel de Solis. The property of the deceased abbe was thought to be considerable, and to the eyes of a man who calculated all the affairs of life in figures, the young heir seemed more powerful through his money than through the seductions of the heart — as to which Pierquin never made himself uneasy. In his mind the abbe’s fortune restored the de Solis name to all its pristine value. Gold and nobility of birth were two orbs which reflected lustre on one another and doubled the illumination.

The sincere affection which the young professor testified for Felicie, whom he treated as a sister, excited Pierquin’s spirit of emulation. He tried to eclipse Emmanuel by mingling a fashionable jargon and sundry expressions of superficial gallantry with anxious elegies and business airs which sat more naturally on his countenance. When he declared himself disenchanted with the world he looked at Felicie, as if to let her know that she alone could reconcile him with life. Felicie, who received for the first time in her life the compliments of a man, listened to this language, always sweet however deceptive; she took emptiness for depth, and needing an object on which to fix the vague emotions of her heart, she allowed the lawyer to occupy her mind. Envious perhaps, though quite unconsciously, of the loving attentions with which Emmanuel surrounded her sister, she doubtless wished to be, like Marguerite, the object of the thoughts and cares of a man.

Pierquin readily perceived the preference which Felicie accorded him over Emmanuel, and to him it was a reason why he should persist in his attentions; so that in the end he went further than he at first intended. Emmanuel watched the beginning of this passion, false perhaps in the lawyer, artless in Felicie, whose future was at stake. Soon, little colloquies followed, a few words said in a low voice behind Emmanuel’s back, trifling deceptions which give to a look or a word a meaning whose insidious sweetness may be the cause of innocent mistakes. Relying on his intimacy with Felicie, Pierquin tried to discover the secret of Marguerite’s journey, and to know if it were really a question of her marriage, and whether he must renounce all hope; but, notwithstanding his clumsy cleverness in questioning them, neither Balthazar nor Felicie could give him any light, for the good reason that they were in the dark themselves: Marguerite in taking the reins of power seemed to have followed its maxims and kept silence as to her projects.

The gloomy sadness of Balthazar and his great depression made it difficult to get through the evenings. Though Emmanuel succeeded in making him play backgammon, the chemist’s mind was never present; during most of the time this man, so great in intellect, seemed simply stupid. Shorn of his expectations, ashamed of having squandered three fortunes, a gambler without money, he bent beneath the weight of ruin, beneath the burden of hopes that were betrayed rather than annihilated. This man of genius, gagged by dire necessity and upbraiding himself, was a tragic spectacle, fit to touch the hearts of the most unfeeling of men. Even Pierquin could not enter without respect the presence of that caged lion, whose eyes, full of baffled power, now calmed by sadness and faded from excess of light, seemed to proffer a prayer for charity which the mouth dared not utter. Sometimes a lightning flash crossed that withered face, whose fires revived at the conception of a new experiment; then, as he looked about the parlor, Balthazar’s eyes would fasten on the spot where his wife had died, a film of tears rolled like hot grains of sand across the arid pupils of his eyes, which thought had made immense, and his head fell forward on his breast. Like a Titan he had lifted the world, and the world fell on his breast and crushed him.

This gigantic grief, so manfully controlled, affected Pierquin and Emmanuel powerfully, and each felt moved at times to offer this man the necessary money to renew his search — so contagious are the convictions of genius! Both understood how it was that Madame Claes and Marguerite had flung their all into this gulf; but reason promptly checked the impulse of their hearts, and their emotion was spent in efforts at consolation which still further embittered the anguish of the doomed Titan.

Claes never spoke of his eldest daughter, and showed no interest in her departure nor any anxiety as to her silence in not writing either to him or to Felicie. When de Solis or Pierquin asked for news of her he seemed annoyed. Did he suspect that Marguerite was working against him? Was he humiliated at having resigned the majestic rights of paternity to his own child? Had he come to love her less because she was now the father, he the child? Perhaps there were many of these reasons, many of these inexpressible feelings which float like vapors through the soul, in the mute disgrace which he laid upon Marguerite. However great may be the great men of earth, be they known or unknown, fortunate or unfortunate in their endeavors, all have likenesses which belong to human nature. By a double misfortune they suffer through their greatness not less than through their defects; and perhaps Balthazar needed to grow accustomed to the pangs of wounded vanity. The life he was leading, the evenings when these four persons met together in Marguerite’s absence, were full of sadness and vague, uneasy apprehensions. The days were barren like a parched-up soil; where, nevertheless, a few flowers grew, a few rare consolations, though without Marguerite, the soul, the hope, the strength of the family, the atmosphere seemed misty.

Two months went by in this way, during which Balthazar awaited the return of his daughter. Marguerite was brought back to Douai by her uncle who remained at the house instead of returning to Cambrai, no doubt to lend the weight of his authority to some coup d’etat planned by his niece. Marguerite’s return was made a family fete. Pierquin and Monsieur de Solis were invited to dinner by Felicie and Balthazar. When the travelling-carriage stopped before the house, the four went to meet it with demonstrations of joy. Marguerite seemed happy to see her home once more, and her eyes filled with tears as she crossed the court-yard to reach the parlor. When embracing her father she colored like a guilty wife who is unable to dissimulate; but her face recovered its serenity as she looked at Emmanuel, from whom she seemed to gather strength to complete a work she had secretly undertaken.

Notwithstanding the gaiety which animated all present during the dinner, father and daughter watched each other with distrust and curiosity. Balthazar asked his daughter no questions as to her stay in Paris, doubtless to preserve his parental dignity. Emmanuel de Solis imitated his reserve; but Pierquin, accustomed to be told all family secrets, said to Marguerite, concealing his curiosity under a show of liveliness:—

“Well, my dear cousin, you have seen Paris and the theatres —”

“I have seen little of Paris,” she said; “I did not go there for amusement. The days went by sadly, I was so impatient to see Douai once more.”

“Yes, if I had not been angry about it she would not have gone to the Opera; and even there she was uneasy,” said Monsieur Conyncks.

It was a painful evening; every one was embarrassed and smiled vaguely with the artificial gaiety which hides such real anxieties. Marguerite and Balthazar were a prey to cruel, latent fears which reacted on the rest. As the hours passed, the bearing of the father and daughter grew more and more constrained. Sometimes Marguerite tried to smile, but her motions, her looks, the tones of her voice betrayed a keen anxiety. Messieurs Conyncks and de Solis seemed to know the meaning of the secret feelings which agitated the noble girl, and they appeared to encourage her by expressive glances. Balthazar, hurt at being kept from a knowledge of the steps that had been taken on his behalf, withdrew little by little from his children and friends, and pointedly kept silence. Marguerite would no doubt soon disclose what she had decided upon for his future.

To a great man, to a father, the situation was intolerable. At his age a man no longer dissimulates in his own family; he became more and more thoughtful, serious, and grieved as the hour approached when he would be forced to meet his civil death. This evening covered one of those crises in the inner life of man which can only be expressed by imagery. The thunderclouds were gathering in the sky, people were laughing in the fields; all felt the heat and knew the storm was coming, but they held up their heads and continued on their way. Monsieur Conyncks was the first to leave the room, conducted by Balthazar to his chamber. During the latter’s absence Pierquin and Monsieur de Solis went away. Marguerite bade the notary good-night with much affection; she said nothing to Emmanuel, but she pressed his hand and gave him a tearful glance. She sent Felicie away, and when Claes returned to the parlor he found his daughter alone.

“My kind father,” she said in a trembling voice, “nothing could have made me leave home but the serious position in which we found ourselves; but now, after much anxiety, after surmounting the greatest difficulties, I return with some chances of deliverance for all of us. Thanks to your name, and to my uncle’s influence, and to the support of Monsieur de Solis, we have obtained for you an appointment under government as receiver of customs in Bretagne; the place is worth, they say, eighteen to twenty thousand francs a year. Our uncle has given bonds as your security. Here is the nomination,” she added, drawing a paper from her bag. “Your life in Douai, in this house, during the coming years of privation and sacrifice would be intolerable to you. Our father must be placed in a situation at least equal to that in which he has always lived. I ask nothing from the salary you will receive from this appointment; employ it as you see fit. I will only beg you to remember that we have not a penny of income, and that we must live on what Gabriel can give us out of his. The town shall know nothing of our inner life. If you were still to live in this house you would be an obstacle to the means my sister and I are about to employ to restore comfort and ease to the home. Have I abused the authority you gave me by putting you in a position to remake your own fortune? In a few years, if you so will, you can easily become the receiver-general.”

“In other words, Marguerite,” said Balthazar, gently, “you turn me out of my own house.”

“I do not deserve that bitter reproach,” replied the daughter, quelling the tumultuous beatings of her heart. “You will come back to us in a manner becoming to your dignity. Besides, father, I have your promise. You are bound to obey me. My uncle has stayed here that he might himself accompany you to Bretagne, and not leave you to make the journey alone.”

“I shall not go,” said Balthazar, rising; “I need no help from any one to restore my property and pay what I owe to my children.”

“It would be better, certainly,” replied Marguerite, calmly. “But now I ask you to reflect on our respective situations, which I will explain in a few words. If you stay in this house your children will leave it, so that you may remain its master.”

“Marguerite!” cried Balthazar.

“In that case,” she said, continuing her words without taking notice of her father’s anger, “it will be necessary to notify the minister of your refusal, if you decide not to accept this honorable and lucrative post, which, in spite of our many efforts, we should never have obtained but for certain thousand-franc notes my uncle slipped into the glove of a lady.”

“My children leave me!” he exclaimed.

“You must leave us or we must leave you,” she said. “If I were your only child, I should do as my mother did, without murmuring against my fate; but my brothers and sister shall not perish beside you with hunger and despair. I promised it to her who died there,” she said, pointing to the place where her mother’s bed had stood. “We have hidden our troubles from you; we have suffered in silence; our strength is gone. My father, we are not on the edge of an abyss, we are at the bottom of it. Courage is not sufficient to drag us out of it; our efforts must not be incessantly brought to nought by the caprices of a passion.”

“My dear children,” cried Balthazar, seizing Marguerite’s hand, “I will help you, I will work, I—”

“Here is the means,” she answered, showing him the official letter.

“But, my darling, the means you offer me are too slow; you make me lose the fruits of ten years’ work, and the enormous sums of money which my laboratory represents. There,” he said, pointing towards the garret, “are our real resources.”

Marguerite walked towards the door, saying:—

“Father, you must choose.”

“Ah! my daughter, you are very hard,” he replied, sitting down in an armchair and allowing her to leave him.

The next morning, on coming downstairs, Marguerite learned from Lemulquinier that Monsieur Claes had gone out. This simple announcement turned her pale; her face was so painfully significant that the old valet remarked hastily:—

“Don’t be troubled, mademoiselle; monsieur said he would be back at eleven o’clock to breakfast. He didn’t go to bed all night. At two in the morning he was still standing in the parlor, looking through the window at the laboratory. I was waiting up in the kitchen; I saw him; he wept; he is in trouble. Here’s the famous month of July when the sun is able to enrich us all, and if you only would —”

“Enough,” said Marguerite, divining the thoughts that must have assailed her father’s mind.

A phenomenon which often takes possession of persons leading sedentary lives had seized upon Balthazar; his life depended, so to speak, on the places with which it was identified; his thought was so wedded to his laboratory and to the house he lived in that both were indispensable to him — just as the Bourse becomes a necessity to a stock-gambler, to whom the public holidays are so much lost time. Here were his hopes; here the heavens contained the only atmosphere in which his lungs could breathe the breath of life. This alliance of places and things with men, which is so powerful in feeble natures, becomes almost tyrannical in men of science and students. To leave his house was, for Balthazar, to renounce Science, to abandon the Problem — it was death.

Marguerite was a prey to anxiety until the breakfast hour. The former scene in which Balthazar had meant to kill himself came back to her memory, and she feared some tragic end to the desperate situation in which her father was placed. She came and went restlessly about the parlor, and quivered every time the bell or the street-door sounded.

At last Balthazar returned. As he crossed the courtyard Marguerite studied his face anxiously and could see nothing but an expression of stormy grief. When he entered the parlor she went towards him to bid him good-morning; he caught her affectionately round the waist, pressed her to his heart, kissed her brow, and whispered —

“I have been to get my passport.”

The tones of his voice, his resigned look, his feeble movements, crushed the poor girl’s heart; she turned away her head to conceal her tears, and then, unable to repress them, she went into the garden to weep at her ease. During breakfast, Balthazar showed the cheerfulness of a man who had come to a decision.

“So we are to start for Bretagne, uncle,” he said to Monsieur Conyncks. “I have always wished to go there.”

“It is a place where one can live cheaply,” replied the old man.

“Is our father going away?” cried Felicie.

Monsieur de Solis entered, bringing Jean.

“You must leave him with me to-day,” said Balthazar, putting his son beside him. “I am going away to-morrow, and I want to bid him good-bye.”

Emmanuel glanced at Marguerite, who held down her head. It was a gloomy day for the family; every one was sad, and tried to repress both thoughts and tears. This was not an absence, it was an exile. All instinctively felt the humiliation of the father in thus publicly declaring his ruin by accepting an office and leaving his family, at Balthazar’s age. At this crisis he was great, while Marguerite was firm; he seemed to accept nobly the punishment of faults which the tyrannous power of genius had forced him to commit. When the evening was over, and father and daughter were again alone, Balthazar, who throughout the day had shown himself tender and affectionate as in the first years of his fatherhood, held out his hand and said to Marguerite with a tenderness that was mingled with despair —

“Are you satisfied with your father?”

“You are worthy of HIM,” said Marguerite, pointing to the portrait of Van Claes.

The next morning Balthazar, followed by Lemulquinier, went up to the laboratory, as if to bid farewell to the hopes he had so fondly cherished, and which in that scene of his toil were living things to him. Master and man looked at each other sadly as they entered the garret they were about to leave, perhaps forever. Balthazar gazed at the various instruments over which his thoughts so long had brooded; each was connected with some experiment or some research. He sadly ordered Lemulquinier to evaporate the gases and the dangerous acids, and to separate all substances which might produce explosions. While taking these precautions, he gave way to bitter regrets, like those uttered by a condemned man before going to the scaffold.

“Here,” he said, stopping before a china capsule in which two wires of a voltaic pile were dipped, “is an experiment whose results ought to be watched. If it succeeds — dreadful thought! — my children will have driven from their home a father who could fling diamonds at their feet. In a combination of carbon and sulphur,” he went on, speaking to himself, “carbon plays the part of an electro-positive substance; the crystallization ought to begin at the negative pole; and in case of decomposition, the carbon would crop into crystals —”

“Ah! is that how it would be?” said Lemulquinier, contemplating his master with admiration.

“Now here,” continued Balthazar, after a pause, “the combination is subject to the influence of the galvanic battery, which may act —”

“If monsieur wishes, I can increase its force.”

“No, no; leave it as it is. Perfect stillness and time are the conditions of crystallization —”

“Confound it, it takes time enough, that crystallization,” cried the old valet impatiently.

“If the temperature goes down, the sulphide of carbon will crystallize,” said Balthazar, continuing to give forth shreds of indistinct thoughts which were parts of a complete conception in his own mind; “but if the battery works under certain conditions of which I am ignorant — it must be watched carefully — it is quite possible that — Ah! what am I thinking of? It is no longer a question of chemistry, my friend; we are to keep accounts in Bretagne.”

Claes rushed precipitately from the laboratory, and went downstairs to take a last breakfast with his family, at which Pierquin and Monsieur de Solis were present. Balthazar, hastening to end the agony Science had imposed upon him, bade his children farewell and got into the carriage with his uncle, all the family accompanying him to the threshold. There, as Marguerite strained her father to her breast with a despairing pressure, he whispered in her ear, “You are a good girl; I bear you no ill-will”; then she darted through the court-yard into the parlor, and flung herself on her knees upon the spot where her mother had died, and prayed to God to give her strength to accomplish the hard task that lay before her. She was already strengthened by an inward voice, sounding in her heart the encouragement of angels and the gratitude of her mother, when her sister, her brother, Emmanuel, and Pierquin came in, after watching the carriage until it disappeared.

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