The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 15

Through all the preoccupations of science, the desire to see his native town, his house, his family, agitated Balthazar’s mind. His daughter’s letters had told him of the happy family events; he dreamed of crowning his career by a series of experiments that must lead to the solution of the great Problem, and he awaited Marguerite’s arrival with extreme impatience.

The daughter threw herself into her father’s arms and wept for joy. This time she came to seek a recompense for years of pain, and pardon for the exercise of her domestic authority. She seemed to herself criminal, like those great men who violate the liberties of the people for the safety of the nation. But she shuddered as she now contemplated her father and saw the change which had taken place in him since her last visit. Monsieur Conyncks shared the secret alarm of his niece, and insisted on taking Balthazar as soon as possible to Douai, where the influence of his native place might restore him to health and reason amid the happiness of a recovered domestic life.

After the first transports of the heart were over — which were far warmer on Balthazar’s part than Marguerite had expected — he showed a singular state of feeling towards his daughter. He expressed regret at receiving her in a miserable inn, inquired her tastes and wishes, and asked what she would have to eat, with the eagerness of a lover; his manner was even that of a culprit seeking to propitiate a judge.

Marguerite knew her father so well that she guessed the motive of this solicitude; she felt sure he had contracted debts in the town which he wished to pay before his departure. She observed him carefully for a time, and saw the human heart in all its nakedness. Balthazar had dwindled from his true self. The consciousness of his abasement, and the isolation of his life in the pursuit of science made him timid and childish in all matters not connected with his favorite occupations. His daughter awed him; the remembrance of her past devotion, of the energy she had displayed, of the powers he had allowed her to take away from him, of the wealth now at her command, and the indefinable feelings that had preyed upon him ever since the day when he had abdicated a paternity he had long neglected — all these things affected his mind towards her, and increased her importance in his eyes. Conyncks was nothing to him beside Marguerite; he saw only his daughter, he thought only of her, and seemed to fear her, as certain weak husbands fear a superior woman who rules them. When he raised his eyes and looked at her, Marguerite noticed with distress an expression of fear, like that of a child detected in a fault. The noble girl was unable to reconcile the majestic and terrible expression of that bald head, denuded by science and by toil, with the puerile smile, the eager servility exhibited on the lips and countenance of the old man. She suffered from the contrast of that greatness to that littleness, and resolved to use her utmost influence to restore her father’s sense of dignity before the solemn day on which he was to reappear in the bosom of his family. Her first step when they were alone was to ask him —

“Do you owe anything here?”

Balthazar colored, and replied with an embarrassed air:—

“I don’t know, but Lemulquinier can tell you. That worthy fellow knows more about my affairs than I do myself.”

Marguerite rang for the valet: when he came she studied, almost involuntarily, the faces of the two old men.

“What does monsieur want?” asked Lemulquinier.

Marguerite, who was all pride and dignity, felt an oppression at her heart as she perceived from the tone and manner of the servant that some mortifying familiarity had grown up between her father and the companion of his labors.

“My father cannot make out the account of what he owes in this place without you,” she said.

“Monsieur,” began Lemulquinier, “owes —”

At these words Balthazar made a sign to his valet which Marguerite intercepted; it humiliated her.

“Tell me all that my father owes,” she said.

“Monsieur owes, here, about three thousand francs to an apothecary who is a wholesale dealer in drugs; he has supplied us with pearl-ash and lead, and zinc and the reagents —”

“Is that all?” asked Marguerite.

Again Balthazar made a sign to Lemulquinier, who replied, as if under a spell —

“Yes, mademoiselle.”

“Very good,” she said, “I will give them to you.”

Balthazar kissed her joyously and said —

“You are an angel, my child.”

He breathed at his ease and glanced at her with eyes that were less sad; and yet, in spite of this apparent joy, Marguerite easily detected the signs of deep anxiety upon his face, and felt certain that the three thousand francs represented only the pressing debts of his laboratory.

“Be frank with me, father,” she said, letting him seat her on his knee; “you owe more than that. Tell me all, and come back to your home without an element of fear in the midst of the general joy.”

“My dear Marguerite,” he said, taking her hands and kissing them with a grace that seemed a memory of her youth, “you would scold me —”

“No,” she said.

“Truly?” he asked, giving way to childish expressions of delight. “Can I tell you all? will you pay —”

“Yes,” she said, repressing the tears which came into her eyes.

“Well, I owe — oh! I dare not —”

“Tell me, father.”

“It is a great deal.”

She clasped her hands, with a gesture of despair.

“I owe thirty thousand francs to Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville.”

“Thirty thousand francs,” she said, “is just the sum I have laid by. I am glad to give it to you,” she added, respectfully kissing his brow.

He rose, took his daughter in his arms, and whirled about the room, dancing her as though she were an infant; then he placed her in the chair where she had been sitting, and exclaimed:—

“My darling child! my treasure of love! I was half-dead: the Chiffrevilles have written me three threatening letters; they were about to sue me — me, who would have made their fortune!”

“Father,” said Marguerite in accents of despair, “are you still searching?”

“Yes, still searching,” he said, with the smile of a madman, “and I shall FIND. If you could only understand the point we have reached —”

“We? who are we?”

“I mean Mulquinier: he has understood me, he loves me. Poor fellow! he is devoted to me.”

Conyncks entered at the moment and interrupted the conversation. Marguerite made a sign to her father to say no more, fearing lest he should lower himself in her uncle’s eyes. She was frightened at the ravages thought had made in that noble mind, absorbed in searching for the solution of a problem that was perhaps insoluble. Balthazar, who saw and knew nothing outside of his furnaces, seemed not to realize the liberation of his fortune.

On the morrow they started for Flanders. During the journey Marguerite gained some confused light upon the position in which Lemulquinier and her father stood to each other. The valet had acquired an ascendancy over his master such as common men without education are able to obtain over great minds to whom they feel themselves necessary; such men, taking advantage of concession after concession, aim at complete dominion with the persistency that comes of a fixed idea. In this case the master had contracted for the man the sort of affection that grows out of habit, like that of a workman for his creative tool, or an Arab for the horse that gives him freedom. Marguerite studied the signs of this tyranny, resolving to withdraw her father from its humiliating yoke if it were real.

They stopped several days in Paris on the way home, to enable Marguerite to pay off her father’s debts and request the manufacturers of chemical products to send nothing to Douai without first informing her of any orders given by Claes. She persuaded her father to change his style of dress and buy clothes that were suitable to a man of his station. This corporal restoration gave Balthazar a certain physical dignity which augured well for a change in his ideas; and Marguerite, joyous in the thought of all the surprises that awaited her father when he entered his own house, started for Douai.

Nine miles from the town Balthazar was met by Felicie on horseback, escorted by her two brothers, Emmanuel, Pierquin, and some of the nearest friends of the three families. The journey had necessarily diverted the chemist’s mind from its habitual thoughts; the aspect of his own Flanders acted on his heart; when, therefore, he saw the joyous company of his family and friends gathering about him his emotion was so keen that the tears came to his eyes, his voice trembled, his eyelids reddened, and he held his children in so passionate an embrace, seeming unable to release them, that the spectators of the scene were moved to tears.

When at last he saw the House of Claes he turned pale, and sprang from the carriage with the agility of a young man; he breathed the air of the court-yard with delight, and looked about him at the smallest details with a pleasure that could express itself only in gestures: he drew himself erect, and his whole countenance renewed its youth. The tears came into his eyes when he entered the parlor and noticed the care with which his daughter had replaced the old silver candelabra that he formerly had sold — a visible sign that all the other disasters had been repaired. Breakfast was served in the dining-room, whose sideboards and shelves were covered with curios and silver-ware not less valuable than the treasures that formerly stood there. Though the family meal lasted a long time, it was still too short for the narratives which Balthazar exacted from each of his children. The reaction of his moral being caused by this return to his home wedded him once more to family happiness, and he was again a father. His manners recovered their former dignity. At first the delight of recovering possession kept him from dwelling on the means by which the recovery had been brought about. His joy therefore was full and unalloyed.

Breakfast over, the four children, the father and Pierquin went into the parlor, where Balthazar saw with some uneasiness a number of legal papers which the notary’s clerk had laid upon a table, by which he was standing as if to assist his chief. The children all sat down, and Balthazar, astonished, remained standing before the fireplace.

“This,” said Pierquin, “is the guardianship account which Monsieur Claes renders to his children. It is not very amusing,” he added, laughing after the manner of notaries who generally assume a lively tone in speaking of serious matters, “but I must really oblige you to listen to it.”

Though the phrase was natural enough under the circumstances, Monsieur Claes, whose conscience recalled his past life, felt it to be a reproach, and his brow clouded.

The clerk began the reading. Balthazar’s amazement increased as little by little the statement unfolded the facts. In the first place, the fortune of his wife at the time of her decease was declared to have been sixteen hundred thousand francs or thereabouts; and the summing up of the account showed clearly that the portion of each child was intact and as well-invested as if the best and wisest father had controlled it. In consequence of this the House of Claes was free from all lien, Balthazar was master of it; moreover, his rural property was likewise released from encumbrance. When all the papers connected with these matters were signed, Pierquin presented the receipts for the repayment of the moneys formerly borrowed, and releases of the various liens on the estates.

Balthazar, conscious that he had recovered the honor of his manhood, the life of a father, the dignity of a citizen, fell into a chair, and looked about for Marguerite; but she, with the distinctive delicacy of her sex, had left the room during the reading of the papers, as if to see that all the arrangements for the fete were properly prepared. Each member of the family understood the old man’s wish when the failing humid eyes sought for the daughter — who was seen by all present, with the eyes of the soul, as an angel of strength and light within the house. Gabriel went to find her. Hearing her step, Balthazar ran to clasp her in his arms.

“Father,” she said, at the foot of the stairs, where the old man caught her and strained her to his breast, “I implore you not to lessen your sacred authority. Thank me before the family for carrying out your wishes, and be the sole author of the good that has been done here.”

Balthazar lifted his eyes to heaven, then looked at his daughter, folded his arms, and said, after a pause, during which his face recovered an expression his children had not seen upon it for ten long years —

“Pepita, why are you not here to praise our child!”

He strained Marguerite to him, unable to utter another word, and went back to the parlor.

“My children,” he said, with the nobility of demeanor that in former days had made him so imposing, “we all owe gratitude and thanks to my daughter Marguerite for the wisdom and courage with which she has fulfilled my intentions and carried out my plans, when I, too absorbed by my labors, gave the reins of our domestic government into her hands.”

“Ah, now!” cried Pierquin, looking at the clock, “we must read the marriage contracts. But they are not my affair, for the law forbids me to draw up such deeds between my relations and myself. Monsieur Raparlier is coming.”

The friends of the family, invited to the dinner given to celebrate Claes’s return and the signing of the marriage contracts, now began to arrive; and their servants brought in the wedding-presents. The company quickly assembled, and the scene was imposing as much from the quality of the persons present as from the elegance of the toilettes. The three families, thus united through the happiness of their children, seemed to vie with each other in contributing to the splendor of the occasion. The parlor was soon filled with the charming gifts that are made to bridal couples. Gold shimmered and glistened; silks and satins, cashmere shawls, necklaces, jewels, afforded as much delight to those who gave as to those who received; enjoyment that was almost childlike shone on every face, and the mere value of the magnificent presents was lost sight of by the spectators — who often busy themselves in estimating it out of curiosity.

The ceremonial forms used for generations in the Claes family for solemnities of this nature now began. The parents alone were seated, all present stood before them at a little distance. To the left of the parlor on the garden side were Gabriel and Mademoiselle Conyncks, next to them stood Monsieur de Solis and Marguerite, and farther on, Felicie and Pierquin. Balthazar and Monsieur Conyncks, the only persons who were seated, occupied two armchairs beside the notary who, for this occasion, had taken Pierquin’s duty. Jean stood behind his father. A score of ladies elegantly dressed, and a few men chosen from among the nearest relatives of the Pierquins, the Conyncks, and the Claes, the mayor of Douai, who was to marry the couples, the twelve witnesses chosen from among the nearest friends of the three families, all, even the curate of Saint-Pierre, remained standing and formed an imposing circle at the end of the parlor next the court-yard. This homage paid by the whole assembly to Paternity, which at such a moment shines with almost regal majesty, gave to the scene a certain antique character. It was the only moment for sixteen long years when Balthazar forgot the Alkahest.

Monsieur Raparlier went up to Marguerite and her sister and asked if all the persons invited to the ceremony and to the dinner had arrived; on receiving an affirmative reply, he returned to his station and took up the marriage contract between Marguerite and Monsieur de Solis, which was the first to be read, when suddenly the door of the parlor opened and Lemulquinier entered, his face flaming.

“Monsieur! monsieur!” he cried.

Balthazar flung a look of despair at Marguerite, then, making her a sign, he drew her into the garden. The whole assembly were conscious of a shock.

“I dared not tell you, my child,” said the father, “but since you have done so much, you will save me, I know, from this last trouble. Lemulquinier lent me all his savings — the fruit of twenty years’ economy — for my last experiment, which failed. He has come no doubt, finding that I am once more rich, to insist on having them back. Ah! my angel, give them to him; you owe him your father; he alone consoled me in my troubles, he alone has had faith in me — without him I should have died.”

“Monsieur! monsieur!” cried Lemulquinier.

“What is it?” said Balthazar, turning round.

“A diamond!”

Claes sprang into the parlor and saw the stone in the hands of the old valet, who whispered in his ear —

“I have been to the laboratory.”

The chemist, forgetting everything about him, cast a terrible look on the old Fleming which meant, “You went before me to the laboratory!”

“Yes,” continued Lemulquinier, “I found the diamond in the china capsule which communicated with the battery which we left to work, monsieur — and see!” he added, showing a white diamond of octahedral form, whose brilliancy drew the astonished gaze of all present.

“My children, my friends,” said Balthazar, “forgive my old servant, forgive me! This event will drive me mad. The chance work of seven years has produced — without me — a discovery I have sought for sixteen years. How? My God, I know not — yes, I left sulphide of carbon under the influence of a Voltaic pile, whose action ought to have been watched from day to day. During my absence the power of God has worked in my laboratory, but I was not there to note its progressive effects! Is it not awful? Oh, cursed exile! cursed chance! Alas! had I watched that slow, that sudden — what can I call it? — crystallization, transformation, in short that miracle, then, then my children would have been richer still. Though this result is not the solution of the Problem which I seek, the first rays of my glory would have shone from that diamond upon my native country, and this hour, which our satisfied affections have made so happy, would have glowed with the sunlight of Science.”

Every one kept silence in the presence of such a man. The disconnected words wrung from him by his anguish were too sincere not to be sublime.

Suddenly, Balthazar drove back his despair into the depths of his own being, and cast upon the assembly a majestic look which affected the souls of all; he took the diamond and offered it to Marguerite, saying —

“It is thine, my angel.”

Then he dismissed Lemulquinier with a gesture, and motioned to the notary, saying, “Go on.”

The two words sent a shudder of emotion through the company such as Talma in certain roles produced among his auditors. Balthazar, as he reseated himself, said in a low voice —

“To-day I must be a father only.”

Marguerite hearing the words went up to him and caught his hand and kissed it respectfully.

“No man was ever greater,” said Emmanuel, when his bride returned to him; “no man was ever so mighty; another would have gone mad.”

After the three contracts were read and signed, the company hastened to question Balthazar as to the manner in which the diamond had been formed; but he could tell them nothing about so strange an accident. He looked through the window at his garret and pointed to it with an angry gesture.

“Yes, the awful power resulting from a movement of fiery matter which no doubt produces metals, diamonds,” he said, “was manifested there for one moment, by one chance.”

“That chance was of course some natural effect,” whispered a guest belonging to the class of people who are ready with an explanation of everything. “At any rate, it is something saved out of all he has wasted.”

“Let us forget it,” said Balthazar, addressing his friends; “I beg you to say no more about it to-day.”

Marguerite took her father’s arm to lead the way to the reception-rooms of the front house, where a sumptuous fete had been prepared. As he entered the gallery, followed by his guests, he beheld it filled with pictures and garnished with choice flowers.

“Pictures!” he exclaimed, “pictures! — and some of the old ones!”

He stopped short; his brow clouded; for a moment grief overcame him; he felt the weight of his wrong-doing as the vista of his humiliation came before his eyes.

“It is all your own, father,” said Marguerite, guessing the feelings that oppressed his soul.

“Angel, whom the spirits in heaven watch and praise,” he cried, “how many times have you given life to your father?”

“Then keep no cloud upon your brow, nor the least sad thought in your heart,” she said, “and you will reward me beyond my hopes. I have been thinking of Lemulquinier, my darling father; the few words you said a little while ago have made me value him; perhaps I have been unjust to him; he ought to remain your humble friend. Emmanuel has laid by nearly sixty thousand francs which he has economized, and we will give them to Lemulquinier. After serving you so well the man ought to be made comfortable for his remaining years. Do not be uneasy about us. Monsieur de Solis and I intend to lead a quiet, peaceful life — a life without luxury; we can well afford to lend you that money until you are able to return it.”

“Ah, my daughter! never forsake me; continue to be thy father’s providence.”

When they entered the reception-rooms Balthazar found them restored and furnished as elegantly as in former days. The guests presently descended to the dining-room on the ground-floor by the grand staircase, on every step of which were rare plants and flowering shrubs. A silver service of exquisite workmanship, the gift of Gabriel to his father, attracted all eyes to a luxury which was surprising to the inhabitants of a town where such luxury is traditional. The servants of Monsieur Conyncks and of Pierquin, as well as those of the Claes household, were assembled to serve the repast. Seeing himself once more at the head of that table, surrounded by friends and relatives and happy faces beaming with heartfelt joy, Balthazar, behind whose chair stood Lemulquinier, was overcome by emotions so deep and so imposing that all present kept silence, as men are silent before great sorrows or great joys.

“Dear children,” he cried, “you have killed the fatted calf to welcome home the prodigal father.”

These words, in which the father judged himself (and perhaps prevented others from judging him more severely), were spoken so nobly that all present shed tears; they were the last expression of sadness, however, and the general happiness soon took on the merry, animated character of a family fete.

Immediately after dinner the principal people of the city began to arrive for the ball, which proved worthy of the almost classic splendor of the restored House of Claes. The three marriages followed this happy day, and gave occasion to many fetes, and balls, and dinners, which involved Balthazar for some months in the vortex of social life. His eldest son and his wife removed to an estate near Cambrai belonging to Monsieur Conyncks, who was unwilling to separate from his daughter. Madame Pierquin also left her father’s house to do the honors of a fine mansion which Pierquin had built, and where he desired to live in all the dignity of rank; for his practise was sold, and his uncle des Racquets had died and left him a large property scraped together by slow economy. Jean went to Paris to finish his education, and Monsieur and Madame de Solis alone remained with their father in the House de Claes. Balthazar made over to them the family home in the rear house, and took up his own abode on the second floor of the front building.

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