The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 14

“And now, mademoiselle, what do you intend to do!” said Pierquin.

“Save the family,” she answered simply. “We own nearly thirteen hundred acres at Waignies. I intend to clear them, divide them into three farms, put up the necessary buildings, and then let them. I believe that in a few years, with patience and great economy, each of us,” motioning to her sister and brother, “will have a farm of over four-hundred acres, which may bring in, some day, a rental of nearly fifteen thousand francs. My brother Gabriel will have this house, and all that now stands in his name on the Grand-Livre, for his portion. We shall then be able to redeem our father’s property and return it to him free from all encumbrance, by devoting our incomes, each of us, to paying off his debts.”

“But, my dear cousin,” said the lawyer, amazed at Marguerite’s understanding of business and her cool judgment, “you will need at least two hundred thousand francs to clear the land, build your houses, and purchase cattle. Where will you get such a sum?”

“That is where my difficulties begin,” she said, looking alternately at Pierquin and de Solis; “I cannot ask it from my uncle, who has already spent much money for us and has given bonds as my father’s security.”

“You have friends!” cried Pierquin, suddenly perceiving that the demoiselles Claes were “four-hundred-thousand-franc girls,” after all.

Emmanuel de Solis looked tenderly at Marguerite. Pierquin, unfortunately for himself, was a notary still, even in the midst of his enthusiasm, and he promptly added —

“I will lend you these two hundred thousand francs.”

Marguerite and Emmanuel consulted each other with a glance which was a flash of light to Pierquin; Felicie colored highly, much gratified to find her cousin as generous as she desired him to be. She looked at her sister, who suddenly guessed the fact that during her absence the poor girl had allowed herself to be caught by Pierquin’s meaningless gallantries.

“You shall only pay me five per cent interest,” went on the lawyer, “and refund the money whenever it is convenient to do so; I will take a mortgage on your property. And don’t be uneasy; you shall only have the outlay on your improvements to pay; I will find you trustworthy farmers, and do all your business gratuitously, so as to help you like a good relation.”

Emmanuel made Marguerite a sign to refuse the offer, but she was too much occupied in studying the changes of her sister’s face to perceive it. After a slight pause, she looked at the notary with an amused smile, and answered of her own accord, to the great joy of Monsieur de Solis:—

“You are indeed a good relation — I expected nothing less of you; but an interest of five per cent would delay our release too long. I shall wait till my brother is of age, and then we will sell out what he has in the Funds.”

Pierquin bit his lip. Emmanuel smiled quietly.

“Felicie, my dear child, take Jean back to school; Martha will go with you,” said Marguerite to her sister. “Jean, my angel, be a good boy; don’t tear your clothes, for we shall not be rich enough to buy you as many new ones as we did. Good-bye, little one; study hard.”

Felicie carried off her brother.

“Cousin,” said Marguerite to Pierquin, “and you, monsieur,” she said to Monsieur de Solis, “I know you have been to see my father during my absence, and I thank you for that proof of friendship. You will not do less I am sure for two poor girls who will be in need of counsel. Let us understand each other. When I am at home I shall receive you both with the greatest of pleasure, but when Felicie is here alone with Josette and Martha, I need not tell you that she ought to see no one, not even an old friend or the most devoted of relatives. Under the circumstances in which we are placed, our conduct must be irreproachable. We are vowed to toil and solitude for a long, long time.”

There was silence for some minutes. Emmanuel, absorbed in contemplation of Marguerite’s head, seemed dumb. Pierquin did not know what to say. He took leave of his cousin with feelings of rage against himself; for he suddenly perceived that Marguerite loved Emmanuel, and that he, Pierquin, had just behaved like a fool.

“Pierquin, my friend,” he said, apostrophizing himself in the street, “if a man said you were an idiot he would tell the truth. What a fool I am! I’ve got twelve thousand francs a year outside of my business, without counting what I am to inherit from my uncle des Racquets, which is likely to double my fortune (not that I wish him dead, he is so economical), and I’ve had the madness to ask interest from Mademoiselle Claes! I know those two are jeering at me now! I mustn’t think of Marguerite any more. No. After all, Felicie is a sweet, gentle little creature, who will suit me much better. Marguerite’s character is iron; she would want to rule me — and — she would rule me. Come, come, let’s be generous; I wish I was not so much of a lawyer: am I never to get that harness off my back? Bless my soul! I’ll begin to fall in love with Felicie, and I won’t budge from that sentiment. She will have a farm of four hundred and thirty acres, which, sooner or later, will be worth twelve or fifteen thousand francs a year, for the soil about Waignies is excellent. Just let my old uncle des Racquets die, poor dear man, and I’ll sell my practice and be a man of leisure, with fifty — thou — sand — francs — a — year. My wife is a Claes, I’m allied to the great families. The deuce! we’ll see if those Courtevilles and Magalhens and Savaron de Savarus will refuse to come and dine with a Pierquin-Claes-Molina-Nourho. I shall be mayor of Douai; I’ll obtain the cross, and get to be deputy — in short, everything. Ha, ha! Pierquin, my boy, now keep yourself in hand; no more nonsense, because — yes, on my word of honor — Felicie — Mademoiselle Felicie Van Claes — loves you!”

When the lovers were left alone Emmanuel held out his hand to Marguerite, who did not refuse to put her right hand into it. They rose with one impulse and moved towards their bench in the garden; but as they reached the middle of the parlor, the lover could not resist his joy, and, in a voice that trembled with emotion, he said —

“I have three hundred thousand francs of yours.”

“What!” she cried, “did my poor mother entrust them to you? No? then where did you get them?”

“Oh, my Marguerite! all that is mine is yours. Was it not you who first said the word ‘ourselves’?”

“Dear Emmanuel!” she exclaimed, pressing the hand which still held hers; and then, instead of going into the garden, she threw herself into a low chair.

“It is for me to thank you,” he said, with the voice of love, “since you accept all.”

“Oh, my dear beloved one,” she cried, “this moment effaces many a grief and brings the happy future nearer. Yes, I accept your fortune,” she continued, with the smile of an angel upon her lips, “I know the way to make it mine.”

She looked up at the picture of Van Claes as if calling him to witness. The young man’s eyes followed those of Marguerite, and he did not notice that she took a ring from her finger until he heard the words:—

“From the depths of our greatest misery one comfort rises. My father’s indifference leaves me the free disposal of myself,” she said, holding out the ring. “Take it, Emmanuel. My mother valued you — she would have chosen you.”

The young man turned pale with emotion and fell on his knees beside her, offering in return a ring which he always wore.

“This is my mother’s wedding-ring,” he said, kissing it. “My Marguerite, am I to have no other pledge than this?”

She stooped a little till her forehead met his lips.

“Alas, dear love,” she said, greatly agitated, “are we not doing wrong? We have so long to wait!”

“My uncle used to say that adoration was the daily bread of patience — he spoke of Christians who love God. That is how I love you; I have long mingled my love for you with my love for Him. I am yours as I am His.”

They remained for a few moments in the power of this sweet enthusiasm. It was the calm, sincere effusion of a feeling which, like an overflowing spring, poured forth its superabundance in little wavelets. The events which separated these lovers produced a melancholy which only made their happiness the keener, giving it a sense of something sharp, like pain.

Felicie came back too soon. Emmanuel, inspired by that delightful tact of love which discerns all feelings, left the sisters alone — exchanging a look with Marguerite to let her know how much this discretion cost him, how hungry his soul was for that happiness so long desired, which had just been consecrated by the betrothal of their hearts.

“Come here, little sister,” said Marguerite, taking Felicie round the neck. Then, passing into the garden they sat down on the bench where generation after generation had confided to listening hearts their words of love, their sighs of grief, their meditations and their projects. In spite of her sister’s joyous tone and lively manner, Felicie experienced a sensation that was very like fear. Marguerite took her hand and felt it tremble.

“Mademoiselle Felicie,” said the elder, with her lips at her sister’s ear. “I read your soul. Pierquin has been here often in my absence, and he has said sweet words to you, and you have listened to them.” Felicie blushed. “Don’t defend yourself, my angel,” continued Marguerite, “it is so natural to love! Perhaps your dear nature will improve his; he is egotistical and self-interested, but for all that he is a good man, and his defects may even add to your happiness. He will love you as the best of his possessions; you will be a part of his business affairs. Forgive me this one word, dear love; you will soon correct the bad habit he has acquired of seeing money in everything, by teaching him the business of the heart.”

Felicie could only kiss her sister.

“Besides,” added Marguerite, “he has property; and his family belongs to the highest and the oldest bourgeoisie. But you don’t think I would oppose your happiness even if the conditions were less prosperous, do you?”

Felicie let fall the words, “Dear sister.”

“Yes, you may confide in me,” cried Marguerite, “sisters can surely tell each other their secrets.”

These words, so full of heartiness, opened the way to one of those delightful conversations in which young girls tell all. When Marguerite, expert in love, reached an understanding of the real state of Felicie’s heart, she wound up their talk by saying:—

“Well, dear child, let us make sure he truly loves you, and — then —”

“Ah!” cried Felicie, laughing, “leave me to my own devices; I have a model before my eyes.”

“Saucy child!” exclaimed Marguerite, kissing her.

Though Pierquin belonged to the class of men who regard marriage as the accomplishment of a social duty and the means of transmitting property, and though he was indifferent to which sister he should marry so long as both had the same name and the same dower, he did perceive that the two were, to use his own expression, “romantic and sentimental girls,” adjectives employed by commonplace people to ridicule the gifts which Nature sows with grudging hand along the furrows of humanity. The lawyer no doubt said to himself that he had better swim with the stream; and accordingly the next day he came to see Marguerite, and took her mysteriously into the little garden, where he began to talk sentiment — that being one of the clauses of the primal contract which, according to social usage, must precede the notarial contract.

“Dear cousin,” he said, “you and I have not always been of one mind as to the best means of bringing your affairs to a happy conclusion; but you do now, I am sure, admit that I have always been guided by a great desire to be useful to you. Well, yesterday I spoiled my offer by a fatal habit which the legal profession forces upon us — you understand me? My heart did not share in the folly. I have loved you well; but I have a certain perspicacity, legal perhaps, which obliges me to see that I do not please you. It is my own fault; another has been more successful than I. Well, I come now to tell you, like an honest man, that I sincerely love your sister Felicie. Treat me therefore as a brother; accept my purse, take what you will from it — the more you take the better you prove your regard for me. I am wholly at your service — WITHOUT INTEREST, you understand, neither at twelve nor at one quarter per cent. Let me be thought worthy of Felicie, that is all I ask. Forgive my defects; they come from business habits; my heart is good, and I would fling myself into the Scarpe sooner than not make my wife happy.”

“This is all satisfactory, cousin,” answered Marguerite; “but my sister’s choice depends upon herself and also on my father’s will.”

“I know that, my dear cousin,” said the lawyer, “but you are the mother of the whole family; and I have nothing more at heart than that you should judge me rightly.”

This conversation paints the mind of the honest notary. Later in life, Pierquin became celebrated by his reply to the commanding officer at Saint-Omer, who had invited him to be present at a military fete; the note ran as follows: “Monsieur Pierquin-Claes de Molina-Nourho, mayor of the city of Douai, chevalier of the Legion of honor, will have THAT of being present, etc.”

Marguerite accepted the lawyer’s offer only so far as it related to his professional services, so that she might not in any degree compromise either her own dignity as a woman, or her sister’s future, or her father’s authority.

The next day she confided Felicie to the care of Martha and Josette (who vowed themselves body and soul to their young mistress, and seconded all her economies), and started herself for Waignies, where she began operations, which were judiciously overlooked and directed by Pierquin. Devotion was now set down as a good speculation in the mind of that worthy man; his care and trouble were in fact an investment, and he had no wish to be niggardly in making it. First he contrived to save Marguerite the trouble of clearing the land and working the ground intended for the farms. He found three young men, sons of rich farmers, who were anxious to settle themselves in life, and he succeeded, through the prospect he held out to them of the fertility of the land, in making them take leases of the three farms on which the buildings were to be constructed. To gain possession of the farms rent-free for three years the tenants bound themselves to pay ten thousand francs a year the fourth year, twelve thousand the sixth year, and fifteen thousand for the remainder of the term; to drain the land, make the plantations, and purchase the cattle. While the buildings were being put up the farmers were to clear the land.

Four years after Balthazar Claes’s departure from his home Marguerite had almost recovered the property of her brothers and sister. Two hundred thousand francs, lent to her by Emmanuel, had sufficed to put up the farm buildings. Neither help nor counsel was withheld from the brave girl, whose conduct excited the admiration of the whole town. Marguerite superintended the buildings, and looked after her contracts and leases with the good sense, activity, and perseverance, which women know so well how to call up when they are actuated by a strong sentiment. By the fifth year she was able to apply thirty thousand francs from the rental of the farms, together with the income from the Funds standing in her brother’s name, and the proceeds of her father’s property, towards paying off the mortgages on that property, and repairing the devastation which her father’s passion had wrought in the old mansion of the Claes. This redemption went on more rapidly as the interest account decreased. Emmanuel de Solis persuaded Marguerite to take the remaining one hundred thousand francs of his uncle’s bequest, and by joining to it twenty thousand francs of his own savings, pay off in the third year of her management a large slice of the debts. This life of courage, privation, and endurance was never relaxed for five years; but all went well — everything prospered under the administration and influence of Marguerite Claes.

Gabriel, now holding an appointment under government as engineer in the department of Roads and Bridges, made a rapid fortune, aided by his great-uncle, in a canal which he was able to construct; moreover, he succeeded in pleasing his cousin Mademoiselle Conyncks, the idol of her father, and one of the richest heiresses in Flanders. In 1824 the whole Claes property was free, and the house in the rue de Paris had repaired its losses. Pierquin made a formal application to Balthazar for the hand of Felicie, and Monsieur de Solis did the same for that of Marguerite.

At the beginning of January, 1825, Marguerite and Monsieur Conyncks left Douai to bring home the exiled father, whose return was eagerly desired by all, and who had sent in his resignation that he might return to his family and crown their happiness by his presence. Marguerite had often expressed a regret at not being able to replace the pictures which had formerly adorned the gallery and the reception-rooms, before the day when her father would return as master of his house. In her absence Pierquin and Monsieur de Solis plotted with Felicie to prepare a surprise which should make the younger sister a sharer in the restoration of the House of Claes. The two bought a number of fine pictures, which they presented to Felicie to decorate the gallery. Monsieur Conyncks had thought of the same thing. Wishing to testify to Marguerite the satisfaction he had taken in her noble conduct and in the self-devotion with which she had fulfilled her mother’s dying mandate, he arranged that fifty of his fine pictures, among them several of those which Balthazar had formerly sold, should be brought to Douai in Marguerite’s absence, so that the Claes gallery might once more be complete.

During the years that had elapsed since Balthazar Claes left his home, Marguerite had visited her father several times, accompanied by her sister or by Jean. Each time she had found him more and more changed; but since her last visit old age had come upon Balthazar with alarming symptoms, the gravity of which was much increased by the parsimony with which he lived that he might spend the greater part of his salary in experiments the results of which forever disappointed him. Though he was only sixty-five years of age, he appeared to be eighty. His eyes were sunken in their orbits, his eyebrows had whitened, only a few hairs remained as a fringe around his skull; he allowed his beard to grow, and cut it off with scissors when its length annoyed him; he was bent like a field-laborer, and the condition of his clothes had reached a degree of wretchedness which his decrepitude now rendered hideous. Thought still animated that noble face, whose features were scarcely discernible under its wrinkles; but the fixity of the eyes, a certain desperation of manner, a restless uneasiness, were all diagnostics of insanity, or rather of many forms of insanity. Sometimes a flash of hope gave him the look of a monomaniac; at other times impatient anger at not seizing a secret which flitted before his eyes like a will o’ the wisp brought symptoms of madness into his face; or sudden bursts of maniacal laughter betrayed his irrationality: but during the greater part of the time, he was sunk in a state of complete depression which combined all the phases of insanity in the cold melancholy of an idiot. However fleeting and imperceptible these symptoms may have been to the eye of strangers, they were, unfortunately, only too plain to those who had known Balthazar Claes sublime in goodness, noble in heart, stately in person — a Claes of whom, alas, scarcely a vestige now remained.

Lemulquinier, grown old and wasted like his master with incessant toil, had not, like him, been subjected to the ravages of thought. The expression of the old valet’s face showed a singular mixture of anxiety and admiration for his master which might easily have misled an onlooker. Though he listened to Balthazar’s words with respect, and followed his every movement with tender solicitude, he took charge of the servant of science very much as a mother takes care of her child, and even seemed to protect him, because in the vulgar details of life, to which Balthazar gave no thought, he actually did protect him. These old men, wrapped in one idea, confident of the reality of their hope, stirred by the same breath, the one representing the shell, the other the soul of their mutual existence, formed a spectacle at once tender and distressing.

When Marguerite and Monsieur Conyncks arrived, they found Claes living at an inn. His successor had not been kept waiting, and was already in possession of his office.

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