The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 6

At the doorway Josephine turned, and threw to her husband, who was sitting near the chimney, one of those gay smiles with which a sensitive woman whose soul comes at moments into her face, rendering it beautiful, gives expression to irresistible hopes. Woman’s greatest charm lies in her constant appeal to the generosity of man by the admission of a weakness which stirs his pride and wakens him to the nobler sentiments. Is not such an avowal of weakness full of magical seduction? When the rings of the portiere had slipped with a muffled sound along the wooden rod, she turned towards Claes, and made as though she would hide her physical defects by resting her hand upon a chair and drawing herself gracefully forward. It was calling him to help her. Balthazar, sunk for a moment in contemplation of the olive-tinted head, which attracted and satisfied the eye as it stood out in relief against the soft gray background, rose to take his wife in his arms and carry her to her sofa. This was what she wanted.

“You promised me,” she said, taking his hand which she held between her own magnetic palms, “to tell me the secret of your researches. Admit, dear friend, that I am worthy to know it, since I have had the courage to study a science condemned by the Church that I might be able to understand you. I am curious; hide nothing from me. Tell me first how it happened, that you rose one morning anxious and oppressed, when over night I had left you happy.”

“Is it to hear me talk of chemistry that you have made yourself so coquettishly delightful?”

“Dear friend, a confidence which puts me in your inner heart is the greatest of all pleasures for me; is it not a communion of souls which gives birth to the highest happiness of earth? Your love comes back to me not lessened, pure; I long to know what dream has had the power to keep it from me so long. Yes, I am more jealous of a thought than of all the women in the world. Love is vast, but it is not infinite, while Science has depths unfathomed, to which I will not let you go alone. I hate all that comes between us. If you win the glory for which you strive, I must be unhappy; it will bring you joy, while I— I alone — should be the giver of your happiness.”

“No, my angel, it was not an idea, not a thought; it was a man that first led me into this glorious path.”

“A man!” she cried in terror.

“Do you remember, Pepita, the Polish officer who stayed with us in 1809?”

“Do I remember him!” she exclaimed; “I am often annoyed because my memory still recalls those eyes, like tongues of fire darting from coals of hell, those hollows above the eyebrows, that broad skull stripped of hair, the upturned moustache, the angular, worn face! — What awful impassiveness in his bearing! Ah! surely if there had been a room in any inn I would never have allowed him to sleep here.”

“That Polish gentleman,” resumed Balthazar, “was named Adam de Wierzchownia. When you left us alone that evening in the parlor, we happened by chance to speak of chemistry. Compelled by poverty to give up the study of that science, he had become a soldier. It was, I think, by means of a glass of sugared water that we recognized each other as adepts. When I ordered Mulquinier to bring the sugar in pieces, the captain gave a start of surprise. ‘Have you studied chemistry?’ he asked. ‘With Lavoisier,’ I answered. ‘You are happy in being rich and free,’ he cried; then from the depths of his bosom came the sigh of a man — one of those sighs which reveal a hell of anguish hidden in the brain or in the heart, a something ardent, concentrated, not to be expressed in words. He ended his sentence with a look that startled me. After a pause, he told me that Poland being at her last gasp he had taken refuge in Sweden. There he had sought consolation for his country’s fate in the study of chemistry, for which he had always felt an irresistible vocation. ‘And I see you recognize as I do,’ he added, ‘that gum arabic, sugar, and starch, reduced to powder, each yield a substance absolutely similar, with, when analyzed, the same qualitative result.’

“He paused again; and then, after examining me with a searching eye, he said confidentially, in a low voice, certain grave words whose general meaning alone remains fixed on my memory; but he spoke with a force of tone, with fervid inflections, with an energy of gesture, which stirred my very vitals, and struck my imagination as the hammer strikes the anvil. I will tell you briefly the arguments he used, which were to me like the live coal laid by the Almighty upon Isaiah’s tongue; for my studies with Lavoisier enabled me to understand their full bearing.

“‘Monsieur,’ he said, ‘the parity of these three substances, in appearance so distinct, led me to think that all the productions of nature ought to have a single principle. The researches of modern chemistry prove the truth of this law in the larger part of natural effects. Chemistry divides creation into two distinct parts — organic nature, and inorganic nature. Organic nature, comprising as it does all animal and vegetable creations which show an organization more or less perfect — or, to be more exact, a greater or lesser motive power, which gives more or less sensibility — is, undoubtedly, the more important part of our earth. Now, analysis has reduced all the products of this nature to four simple substances, namely: three gases, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, and another simple substance, non-metallic and solid, carbon. Inorganic nature, on the contrary, so simple, devoid of movement and sensation, denied the power of growth (too hastily accorded to it by Linnaeus), possesses fifty-three simple substances, or elements, whose different combinations make its products. Is it probable that means should be more numerous where a lesser number of results are produced?

“‘My master’s opinion was that these fifty-three primary bodies have one originating principle, acted upon in the past by some force the knowledge of which has perished to-day, but which human genius ought to rediscover. Well, then, suppose that this force does live and act again; we have chemical unity. Organic and inorganic nature would apparently then rest on four essential principles — in fact, if we could decompose nitrogen which we ought to consider a negation, we should have but three. This brings us at once close upon the great Ternary of the ancients and of the alchemists of the Middle Ages, whom we do wrong to scorn. Modern chemistry is nothing more than that. It is much, and yet little — much, because the science has never recoiled before difficulty; little, in comparison with what remains to be done. Chance has served her well, my noble Science! Is not that tear of crystallized pure carbon, the diamond, seemingly the last substance possible to create? The old alchemists, who thought that gold was decomposable and therefore creatable, shrank from the idea of producing the diamond. Yet we have discovered the nature and the law of its composition.

“‘As for me,’ he continued, ‘I have gone farther still. An experiment proved to me that the mysterious Ternary, which has occupied the human mind from time immemorial, will not be found by physical analyses, which lack direction to a fixed point. I will relate, in the first place, the experiment itself.

“‘Sow cress-seed (to take one among the many substances of organic nature) in flour of brimstone (to take another simple substance). Sprinkle the seed with distilled water, that no unknown element may reach the product of the germination. The seed germinates, and sprouts from a known environment, and feeds only on elements known by analysis. Cut off the stalks from time to time, till you get a sufficient quantity to produce after burning them enough ashes for the experiment. Well, by analyzing those ashes, you will obtain silicic acid, aluminium, phosphate and carbonate of lime, carbonate of magnesia, the sulphate and carbonate of potassium, and oxide of iron, precisely as if the cress had grown in ordinary earth, beside a brook. Now, those elements did not exist in the brimstone, a simple substance which served for soil to the cress, nor in the distilled water with which the plant was nourished, whose composition was known. But since they are no more to be found in the seed itself, we can explain their presence in the plant only by assuming the existence of a primary element common to all the substances contained in the cress, and also to all those by which we environed it. Thus the air, the distilled water, the brimstone, and the various elements which analysis finds in the cress, namely, potash, lime, magnesia, aluminium, etc., should have one common principle floating in the atmosphere like light of the sun.

“‘From this unimpeachable experiment,’ he cried, ‘I deduce the existence of the Alkahest, the Absolute — a substance common to all created things, differentiated by one primary force. Such is the net meaning and position of the problem of the Absolute, which appears to me to be solvable. In it we find the mysterious Ternary, before whose shrine humanity has knelt from the dawn of ages — the primary matter, the medium, the product. We find that terrible number THREE in all things human. It governs religions, sciences, and laws.

“‘It was at this point,’ he went on, ‘that poverty put an end to my researches. You were the pupil of Lavoisier, you are rich, and master of your own time, I will therefore tell you my conjectures. Listen to the conclusions my personal experiments have led me to foresee. The PRIME MATTER must be the common principle in the three gases and in carbon. The MEDIUM must be the principle common to negative and positive electricity. Proceed to the discovery of the proofs that will establish those two truths; you will then find the explanation of all phenomenal existence.

“‘Oh, monsieur!’ he cried, striking his brow, ‘when I know that I carry here the last word of Creation, when intuitively I perceive the Unconditioned, is it LIVING to be dragged hither and thither in the ruck of men who fly at each other’s throats at the word of command without knowing what they are doing? My actual life is an inverted dream. My body comes and goes and acts; it moves amid bullets, and cannon, and men; it crosses Europe at the will of a power I obey and yet despise. My soul has no consciousness of these acts; it is fixed, immovable, plunged in one idea, rapt in that idea, the Search for the Alkahest — for that principle by which seeds that are absolutely alike, growing in the same environments, produce, some a white, others a yellow flower. The same phenomenon is seen in silkworms fed from the same leaves, and apparently constituted exactly alike — one produces yellow silk, another white; and if we come to man himself, we find that children often resemble neither father nor mother. The logical deduction from this fact surely involves the explanation of all the phenomena of nature.

“‘Ah, what can be more in harmony with our ideas of God than to believe that he created all things by the simplest method? The Pythagorean worship of ONE, from which come all other numbers, and which represented Primal Matter; that of the number TWO, the first aggregation and the type of all the rest; that of the number THREE, which throughout all time has symbolized God — that is to say, Matter, Force, and Product — are they not an echo, lingering along the ages, of some confused knowledge of the Absolute? Stahl, Becker, Paracelsus, Agrippa, all the great Searchers into occult causes took the Great Triad for their watchword — in other words, the Ternary. Ignorant men who despise alchemy, that transcendent chemistry, are not aware that our work is only carrying onward the passionate researches of those great men. Had I found the Absolute, the Unconditioned, I meant to have grappled with Motion. Ah! while I am swallowing gunpowder and leading men uselessly to their death, my former master is piling discovery upon discovery! he is soaring towards the Absolute, while I— I shall die like a dog in the trenches!’

“When this poor grand man recovered his composure, he said, in a touching tone of brotherhood, ‘If I see cause for a great experiment I will bequeath it to you before I die.’— My Pepita,” cried Balthazar, taking his wife’s hands, “tears of anguish rolled down his hollow cheeks, as he cast into my soul the fiery arguments that Lavoisier had timidly recognized without daring to follow them out —”

“Oh!” cried Madame Claes, unable to refrain from interrupting her husband, “that man, passing one night under our roof, was able to deprive us of your love, to destroy with a phrase, a word, the happiness of a family! Oh, my dear Balthazar, did he make the sign of the cross? did you examine him? The Tempter alone could have had that flaming eye which sent forth the fire of Prometheus. Yes, none but the devil could have torn you from me. From that day you have been neither husband, nor father, nor master of your family.”

“What!” exclaimed Balthazar, springing to his feet and casting a piercing glance at his wife, “do you blame your husband for rising above the level of other men that he may lay at your feet the divine purple of his glory, as a paltry offering in exchange for the treasures of your heart! Ah, my Pepita,” he cried, “you do not know what I have done. In these three years I have made giant strides —”

His face seemed to his wife at this moment more transfigured under the fires of genius than she had ever seen it under the fires of love; and she wept as she listened to him.

“I have combined chlorine and nitrogen; I have decomposed many substances hitherto considered simple; I have discovered new metals. Why!” he continued, noticing that his wife wept, “I have even decomposed tears. Tears contain a little phosphate of lime, chloride of sodium, mucin, and water.”

He went on speaking, without observing the spasm of pain that contracted Josephine’s features; he was again astride of Science, which bore him with outspread wings far away from material existence.

“This analysis, my dear,” he went on, “is one of the most convincing proofs of the theory of the Absolute. All life involves combustion. According to the greater or the lesser activity of the fire on its hearth is life more or less enduring. In like manner, the destruction of mineral bodies is indefinitely retarded, because in their case combustion is nominal, latent, or imperceptible. In like manner, again, vegetables, which are constantly revived by combinations producing dampness, live indefinitely; in fact, we still possess certain vegetables which existed before the period of the last cataclysm. But each time that nature has perfected an organism and then, for some unknown reason, has introduced into it sensation, instinct, or intelligence (three marked stages of the organic system), these three agencies necessitate a combustion whose activity is in direct proportion to the result obtained. Man, who represents the highest point of intelligence, and who offers us the only organism by which we arrive at a power that is semi-creative — namely, THOUGHT— is, among all zoological creations, the one in which combustion is found in its most intense degree; whose powerful effects may in fact be seen to some extent in the phosphates, sulphates, and carbonates which a man’s body reveals to our analysis. May not these substances be traces left within him of the passage of the electric fluid which is the principle of all fertilization? Would not electricity manifest itself by a greater variety of compounds in him than in any other animal? Should not he have faculties above those of all other created beings for the purpose of absorbing fuller portions of the Absolute principle? and may he not assimilate that principle so as to produce, in some more perfect mechanism, his force and his ideas? I think so. Man is a retort. In my judgment, the brain of an idiot contains too little phosphorous or other product of electro-magnetism, that of a madman too much; the brain of an ordinary man has but little, while that of a man of genius is saturated to its due degree. The man constantly in love, the street-porter, the dancer, the large eater, are the ones who disperse the force resulting from their electrical apparatus. Consequently, our feelings —”

“Enough, Balthazar! you terrify me; you commit sacrilege. What, is my love —”

“An ethereal matter disengaged, an emanation, the key of the Absolute. Conceive if I— I, the first, should find it, find it, find it!”

As he uttered the words in three rising tones, the expression of his face rose by degrees to inspiration. “I shall make metals,” he cried; “I shall make diamonds, I shall be a co-worker with Nature!”

“Will you be the happier?” she asked in despair. “Accursed science! accursed demon! You forget, Claes, that you commit the sin of pride, the sin of which Satan was guilty; you assume the attributes of God.”

“Oh! oh! God!”

“He denies Him!” she cried, wringing her hands. “Claes, God wields a power that you can never gain.”

At this argument, which seemed to discredit his beloved Science, he looked at his wife and trembled.

“What power?” he asked.

“Primal force — motion,” she replied. “This is what I learn from the books your mania has constrained me to read. Analyze fruits, flowers, Malaga wine; you will discover, undoubtedly, that their substances come, like those of your water-cress, from a medium that seems foreign to them. You can, if need be, find them in nature; but when you have them, can you combine them? can you make the flowers, the fruits, the Malaga wine? Will you have grasped the inscrutable effects of the sun, of the atmosphere of Spain? Ah! decomposing is not creating.”

“If I discover the magistral force, I shall be able to create.”

“Will nothing stop him?” cried Pepita. “Oh! my love, my love! it is killed! I have lost him!”

She wept bitterly, and her eyes, illumined by grief and by the sanctity of the feelings that flooded her soul, shone with greater beauty than ever through her tears.

“Yes,” she resumed in a broken voice, “you are dead to all. I see it but too well. Science is more powerful within you than your own self; it bears you to heights from which you will return no more to be the companion of a poor woman. What joys can I still offer you? Ah! I would fain believe, as a wretched consolation, that God has indeed created you to make manifest his works, to chant his praises; that he has put within your breast the irresistible power that has mastered you — But no; God is good; he would keep in your heart some thoughts of the woman who adores you, of the children you are bound to protect. It is the Evil One alone who is helping you to walk amid these fathomless abysses, these clouds of outer darkness, where the light of faith does not guide you — nothing guides you but a terrible belief in your own faculties! Were it otherwise, would you not have seen that you have wasted nine hundred thousand francs in three years? Oh! do me justice, you, my God on earth! I reproach you not; were we alone I would bring you, on my knees, all I possess and say, ‘Take it, fling it into your furnace, turn it into smoke’; and I should laugh to see it float away in vapor. Were you poor, I would beg without shame for the coal to light your furnace. Oh! could my body yield your hateful Alkahest, I would fling myself upon those fires with joy, since your glory, your delight is in that unfound secret. But our children, Claes, our children! what will become of them if you do not soon discover this hellish thing? Do you know why Pierquin came to-day? He came for thirty thousand francs, which you owe and cannot pay. I told him that you had the money, so that I might spare you the mortification of his questions; but to get it I must sell our family silver.”

She saw her husband’s eyes grow moist, and she flung herself despairingly at his feet, raising up to him her supplicating hands.

“My friend,” she cried, “refrain awhile from these researches; let us economize, let us save the money that may enable you to take them up hereafter — if, indeed, you cannot renounce this work. Oh! I do not condemn it; I will heat your furnaces if you ask it; but I implore you, do not reduce our children to beggary. Perhaps you cannot love them, Science may have consumed your heart; but oh! do not bequeath them a wretched life in place of the happiness you owe them. Motherhood has sometimes been too weak a power in my heart; yes, I have sometimes wished I were not a mother, that I might be closer to your soul, your life! And now, to stifle my remorse, must I plead the cause of my children before you, and not my own?”

Her hair fell loose and floated over her shoulders, her eyes shot forth her feelings as though they had been arrows. She triumphed over her rival. Balthazar lifted her, carried her to the sofa, and knelt at her feet.

“Have I caused you such grief?” he said, in the tone of a man waking from a painful dream.

“My poor Claes! yes, and you will cause me more, in spite of yourself,” she said, passing her hand over his hair. “Sit here beside me,” she continued, pointing to the sofa. “Ah! I can forget it all now, now that you come back to us; all can be repaired — but you will not abandon me again? say that you will not! My noble husband, grant me a woman’s influence on your heart, that influence which is so needful to the happiness of suffering artists, to the troubled minds of great men. You may be harsh to me, angry with me if you will, but let me check you a little for your good. I will never abuse the power if you will grant it. Be famous, but be happy too. Do not love Chemistry better than you love us. Hear me, we will be generous; we will let Science share your heart; but oh! my Claes, be just; let us have our half. Tell me, is not my disinterestedness sublime?”

She made him smile. With the marvellous art such women possess, she carried the momentous question into the regions of pleasantry where women reign. But though she seemed to laugh, her heart was violently contracted and could not easily recover the quiet even action that was habitual to it. And yet, as she saw in the eyes of Balthazar the rebirth of a love which was once her glory, the full return of a power she thought she had lost, she said to him with a smile:—

“Believe me, Balthazar, nature made us to feel; and though you may wish us to be mere electrical machines, yet your gases and your ethereal disengaged matters will never explain the gift we possess of looking into futurity.”

“Yes,” he exclaimed, “by affinity. The power of vision which makes the poet, the power of deduction which makes the man of science, are based on invisible affinities, intangible, imponderable, which vulgar minds class as moral phenomena, whereas they are physical effects. The prophet sees and deduces. Unfortunately, such affinities are too rare and too obscure to be subjected to analysis or observation.”

“Is this,” she said, giving him a kiss to drive away the Chemistry she had so unfortunately reawakened, “what you call an affinity?”

“No; it is a compound; two substances that are equivalents are neutral, they produce no reaction —”

“Oh! hush, hush,” she cried, “you will make me die of grief. I can never bear to see my rival in the transports of your love.”

“But, my dear life, I think only of you. My work is for the glory of my family. You are the basis of all my hopes.”

“Ah, look me in the eyes!”

The scene had made her as beautiful as a young woman; of her whole person Balthazar saw only her head, rising from a cloud of lace and muslin.

“Yes, I have done wrong to abandon you for Science,” he said. “If I fall back into thought and preoccupation, then, my Pepita, you must drag me from them; I desire it.”

She lowered her eyes and let him take her hand, her greatest beauty — a hand that was both strong and delicate.

“But I ask more,” she said.

“You are so lovely, so delightful, you can obtain all,” he answered.

“I wish to destroy that laboratory, and chain up Science,” she said, with fire in her eyes.

“So be it — let Chemistry go to the devil!”

“This moment effaces all!” she cried. “Make me suffer now, if you will.”

Tears came to Balthazar’s eyes, as he heard these words.

“You were right, love,” he said. “I have seen you through a veil; I have not understood you.”

“If it concerned only me,” she said, “willingly would I have suffered in silence, never would I have raised my voice against my sovereign. But your sons must be thought of, Claes. If you continue to dissipate your property, no matter how glorious the object you have in view the world will take little account of it, it will only blame you and yours. But surely, it is enough for a man of your noble nature that his wife has shown him a danger he did not perceive. We will talk of this no more,” she cried, with a smile and a glance of coquetry. “To-night, my Claes, let us not be less than happy.”

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