The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 8

Balthazar was again so absorbed that he did not notice Josephine’s condition. He took Jean upon his knee and trotted him mechanically, pondering, no doubt, the problem he now had the means of solving. He saw them bring the footbath to his wife, who was still in the parlor, too weak to rise from the low chair in which she was lying; he gazed abstractedly at his daughters now attending on their mother, without inquiring the cause of their tender solicitude. When Marguerite or Jean attempted to speak aloud, Madame Claes hushed them and pointed to Balthazar. Such a scene was of a nature to make a young girl think; and Marguerite, placed as she was between her father and mother, was old enough and sensible enough to weigh their conduct.

There comes a moment in the private life of every family when the children, voluntarily or involuntarily, judge their parents. Madame Claes foresaw the dangers of that moment. Her love for Balthazar impelled her to justify in Marguerite’s eyes conduct that might, to the upright mind of a girl of sixteen, seem faulty in a father. The very respect which she showed at this moment for her husband, making herself and her condition of no account that nothing might disturb his meditation, impressed her children with a sort of awe of the paternal majesty. Such self-devotion, however infectious it might be, only increased Marguerite’s admiration for her mother, to whom she was more particularly bound by the close intimacy of their daily lives. This feeling was based on the intuitive perception of sufferings whose causes naturally occupied the young girl’s mind. No human power could have hindered some chance word dropped by Martha, or by Josette, from enlightening her as to the real reasons for the condition of her home during the last four years. Notwithstanding Madame Claes’s reserve, Marguerite discovered slowly, thread by thread, the clue to the domestic drama. She was soon to be her mother’s active confidante, and later, under other circumstances, a formidable judge.

Madame Claes’s watchful care now centred upon her eldest daughter, to whom she endeavored to communicate her own self-devotion towards Balthazar. The firmness and sound judgment which she recognized in the young girl made her tremble at the thought of a possible struggle between father and daughter whenever her own death should make the latter mistress of the household. The poor woman had reached a point where she dreaded the consequences of her death far more than death itself. Her tender solicitude for Balthazar showed itself in the resolution she had this day taken. By freeing his property from encumbrance she secured his independence, and prevented all future disputes by separating his interests from those of her children. She hoped to see him happy until she closed her eyes on earth, and she studied to transmit the tenderness of her own heart to Marguerite, trusting that his daughter might continue to be to him an angel of love, while exercising over the family a protecting and conservative authority. Might she not thus shed the light of her love upon her dear ones from beyond the grave? Nevertheless, she was not willing to lower the father in the eyes of his daughter by initiating her into the secret dangers of his scientific passion before it became necessary to do so. She studied Marguerite’s soul and character, seeking to discover if the girl’s own nature would lead her to be a mother to her brothers and her sister, and a tender, gentle helpmeet to her father.

Madame Claes’s last days were thus embittered by fears and mental disquietudes which she dared not confide to others. Conscious that the recent scene had struck her death-blow, she turned her thoughts wholly to the future. Balthazar, meanwhile, now permanently unfitted for the care of property or the interests of domestic life, thought only of the Absolute.

The heavy silence that reigned in the parlor was broken only by the monotonous beating of Balthazar’s foot, which he continued to trot, wholly unaware that Jean had slid from his knee. Marguerite, who was sitting beside her mother and watching the changes on that pallid, convulsed face, turned now and again to her father, wondering at his indifference. Presently the street-door clanged, and the family saw the Abbe de Solis leaning on the arm of his nephew and slowly crossing the court-yard.

“Ah! there is Monsieur Emmanuel,” said Felicie.

“That good young man!” exclaimed Madame Claes; “I am glad to welcome him.”

Marguerite blushed at the praise that escaped her mother’s lips. For the last two days a remembrance of the young man had stirred mysterious feelings in her heart, and wakened in her mind thoughts that had lain dormant. During the visit made by the Abbe de Solis to Madame Claes on the occasion of his examining the pictures, there happened certain of those imperceptible events which wield so great an influence upon life; and their results were sufficiently important to necessitate a brief sketch of the two personages now first introduced into the history of this family.

It was a matter of principle with Madame Claes to perform the duties of her religion privately. Her confessor, who was almost unknown in the family, now entered the house for the second time only; but there, as elsewhere, every one was impressed with a sort of tender admiration at the aspect of the uncle and his nephew.

The Abbe de Solis was an octogenarian, with silvery hair, and a withered face from which the vitality seemed to have retreated to the eyes. He walked with difficulty, for one of his shrunken legs ended in a painfully deformed foot, which was cased in a species of velvet bag, and obliged him to use a crutch when the arm of his nephew was not at hand. His bent figure and decrepit body conveyed the impression of a delicate, suffering nature, governed by a will of iron and the spirit of religious purity. This Spanish priest, who was remarkable for his vast learning, his sincere piety, and a wide knowledge of men and things, had been successively a Dominican friar, the “grand penitencier” of Toledo, and the vicar-general of the archbishopric of Malines. If the French Revolution had not intervened, the influence of the Casa-Real family would have made him one of the highest dignitaries of the Church; but the grief he felt for the death of the young duke, Madame Claes’s brother, who had been his pupil, turned him from active life, and he now devoted himself to the education of his nephew, who was made an orphan at an early age.

After the conquest of Belgium, the Abbe de Solis settled at Douai to be near Madame Claes. From his youth up he had professed an enthusiasm for Saint Theresa which, together with the natural bent of his mind, led him to the mystical time of Christianity. Finding in Flanders, where Mademoiselle Bourignon and the writings of the Quietists and Illuminati made the greatest number of proselytes, a flock of Catholics devoted to those ideas, he remained there — all the more willingly because he was looked up to as a patriarch by this particular communion, which continued to follow the doctrines of the Mystics notwithstanding the censures of the Church upon Fenelon and Madame Guyon. His morals were rigid, his life exemplary, and he was believed to have visions. In spite of his own detachment from the things of life, his affection for his nephew made him careful of the young man’s interests. When a work of charity was to be done, the old abbe put the faithful of his flock under contribution before having recourse to his own means; and his patriarchal authority was so well established, his motives so pure, his discernment so rarely at fault, that every one was ready to answer his appeal. To give an idea of the contrast between the uncle and the nephew, we may compare the old man to a willow on the borders of a stream, hollowed to a skeleton and barely alive, and the young man to a sweet-brier clustering with roses, whose erect and graceful stems spring up about the hoary trunk of the old tree as if they would support it.

Emmanuel de Solis, rigidly brought up by his uncle, who kept him at his side as a mother keeps her daughter, was full of delicate sensibility, of half-dreamy innocence — those fleeting flowers of youth which bloom perennially in souls that are nourished on religious principles. The old priest had checked all sensuous emotions in his pupil, preparing him for the trials of life by constant study and a discipline that was almost cloisteral. Such an education, which would launch the youth unstained upon the world and render him happy, provided he were fortunate in his earliest affections, had endowed him with a purity of spirit which gave to his person something of the charm that surrounds a maiden. His modest eyes, veiling a strong and courageous soul, sent forth a light that vibrated in the soul as the tones of a crystal bell sound their undulations on the ear. His face, though regular, was expressive, and charmed the eye with its clear-cut outline, the harmony of its lines, and the perfect repose which came of a heart at peace. All was harmonious. His black hair, his brown eyes and eyebrows, heightened the effect of a white skin and a brilliant color. His voice was such as might have been expected from his beautiful face; and something feminine in his movements accorded well with the melody of its tones and with the tender brightness of his eyes. He seemed unaware of the charm he exercised by his modest silence, the half-melancholy reserve of his manner, and the respectful attentions he paid to his uncle.

Those who saw the young man as he watched the uncertain steps of the old abbe, and altered his own to suit their devious course, looking for obstructions that might trip his uncle’s feet and guiding him to a smoother way, could not fail to recognize in Emmanuel de Solis the generous nature which makes the human being a divine creation. There was something noble in the love that never criticised his uncle, in the obedience that never cavilled at the old man’s orders; it seemed as though there were prophecy in the gracious name his godmother had given him. When the abbe gave proof of his Dominican despotism, in their own home or in the presence of others, Emmanuel would sometimes lift his head with so much dignity, as if to assert his metal should any other man assail him, that men of honor were moved at the sight like artists before a glorious picture; for noble sentiments ring as loudly in the soul from living incarnations as from the imagery of art.

Emmanuel had accompanied his uncle when the latter came to examine the pictures of the House of Claes. Hearing from Martha that the Abbe de Solis was in the gallery, Marguerite, anxious to see so celebrated a man, invented an excuse to join her mother and gratify her curiosity. Entering hastily, with the heedless gaiety young girls assume at times to hide their wishes, she encountered near the old abbe, clothed in black and looking decrepit and cadaverous, the fresh, delightful face of a young man. The naive glances of the youthful pair expressed their mutual astonishment. Marguerite and Emmanuel had no doubt seen each other in their dreams. Both lowered their eyes and raised them again with one impulse; each, by the action, made the same avowal. Marguerite took her mother’s arm, and spoke to her to cover her confusion and find shelter under the maternal wing, turning her neck with a swan-like motion to keep sight of Emmanuel, who still supported his uncle on his arm. The light was cleverly arranged to give due value to the pictures, and the half-obscurity of the gallery encouraged those furtive glances which are the joy of timid natures. Neither went so far, even in thought, as the first note of love; yet both felt the mysterious trouble which stirs the heart, and is jealously kept secret in our youth from fastidiousness or modesty.

The first impression which forces a sensibility hitherto suppressed to overflow its borders, is followed in all young people by the same half-stupefied amazement which the first sounds of music produce upon a child. Some children laugh and think; others do not laugh till they have thought; but those whose hearts are called to live by poetry or love, listen stilly and hear the melody with a look where pleasure flames already, and the search for the infinite begins. If, from an irresistible feeling, we love the places where our childhood first perceived the beauties of harmony, if we remember with delight the musician, and even the instrument, that taught them to us, how much more shall we love the being who reveals to us the music of life? The first heart in which we draw the breath of love — is it not our home, our native land? Marguerite and Emmanuel were, each to each, that Voice of music which wakes a sense, that hand which lifts the misty veil, and reveals the distant shores bathed in the fires of noonday.

When Madame Claes paused before a picture by Guido representing an angel, Marguerite bent forward to see the impression it made upon Emmanuel, and Emmanuel looked at Marguerite to compare the mute thought on the canvas with the living thought beside him. This involuntary and delightful homage was understood and treasured. The old abbe gravely praised the picture, and Madame Claes answered him, but the youth and the maiden were silent.

Such was their first meeting: the mysterious light of the picture gallery, the stillness of the old house, the presence of their elders, all contributed to trace upon their hearts the delicate lines of this vaporous mirage. The many confused thoughts that surged in Marguerite’s mind grew calm and lay like a limpid ocean traversed by a luminous ray when Emmanuel murmured a few farewell words to Madame Claes. That voice, whose fresh and mellow tone sent nameless delights into her heart, completed the revelation that had come to her — a revelation which Emmanuel, were he able, should cherish to his own profit; for it often happens that the man whom destiny employs to waken love in the heart of a young girl is ignorant of his work and leaves it unfinished. Marguerite bowed confusedly; her true farewell was in the glance which seemed unwilling to lose so pure and lovely a vision. Like a child she wanted her melody. Their parting took place at the foot of the old staircase near the parlor; and when Marguerite re-entered the room she watched the uncle and the nephew till the street-door closed upon them.

Madame Claes had been so occupied with the serious matters which caused her conference with the abbe that she did not on this occasion observe her daughter’s manner. When Monsieur de Solis came again to the house on the occasion of her illness, she was too violently agitated to notice the color that rushed into Marguerite’s face and betrayed the tumult of a virgin heart conscious of its first joy. By the time the old abbe was announced, Marguerite had taken up her sewing and appeared to give it such attention that she bowed to the uncle and nephew without looking at them. Monsieur Claes mechanically returned their salutation and left the room with the air of a man called away by his occupations. The good Dominican sat down beside Madame Claes and looked at her with one of those searching glances by which he penetrated the minds of others; the sight of Monsieur Claes and his wife was enough to make him aware of a catastrophe.

“My children,” said the mother, “go into the garden; Marguerite, show Emmanuel your father’s tulips.”

Marguerite, half abashed, took Felicie’s arm and looked at the young man, who blushed and caught up little Jean to cover his confusion. When all four were in the garden, Felicie and Jean ran to the other side, leaving Marguerite, who, conscious that she was alone with young de Solis, led him to the pyramid of tulips, arranged precisely in the same manner year after year by Lemulquinier.

“Do you love tulips?” asked Marguerite, after standing for a moment in deep silence — a silence Emmanuel seemed little disposed to break.

“Mademoiselle, these flowers are beautiful, but to love them we must perhaps have a taste of them, and know how to understand their beauties. They dazzle me. Constant study in the gloomy little chamber in which I live, close to my uncle, makes me prefer those flowers that are softer to the eye.”

Saying these words he glanced at Marguerite; but the look, full as it was of confused desires, contained no allusion to the lily whiteness, the sweet serenity, the tender coloring which made her face a flower.

“Do you work very hard?” she asked, leading him to a wooden seat with a back, painted green. “Here,” she continued, “the tulips are not so close; they will not tire your eyes. Yes, you are right, those colors are dazzling; they give pain.”

“Do I work hard?” replied the young man after a short silence, as he smoothed the gravel with his foot. “Yes; I work at many things. My uncle wished to make me a priest.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Marguerite, naively.

“I resisted; I felt no vocation for it. But it required great courage to oppose my uncle’s wishes. He is so good, he loves me so much! Quite recently he bought a substitute to save me from the conscription — me, a poor orphan!”

“What do you mean to be?” asked Marguerite; then, immediately checking herself as though she would unsay the words, she added with a pretty gesture, “I beg your pardon; you must think me very inquisitive.”

“Oh, mademoiselle,” said Emmanuel, looking at her with tender admiration, “except my uncle, no one ever asked me that question. I am studying to be a teacher. I cannot do otherwise; I am not rich. If I were principal of a college-school in Flanders I should earn enough to live moderately, and I might marry some single woman whom I could love. That is the life I look forward to. Perhaps that is why I prefer a daisy in the meadows to these splendid tulips, whose purple and gold and rubies and amethysts betoken a life of luxury, just as the daisy is emblematic of a sweet and patriarchal life — the life of a poor teacher like me.”

“I have always called the daisies marguerites,” she said.

Emmanuel colored deeply and sought an answer from the sand at his feet. Embarrassed to choose among the thoughts that came to him, which he feared were silly, and disconcerted by his delay in answering, he said at last, “I dared not pronounce your name”— then he paused.

“A teacher?” she said.

“Mademoiselle, I shall be a teacher only as a means of living: I shall undertake great works which will make me nobly useful. I have a strong taste for historical researches.”

“Ah!”

That “ah!” so full of secret thoughts added to his confusion; he gave a foolish laugh and said:—

“You make me talk of myself when I ought only to speak of you.”

“My mother and your uncle must have finished their conversation, I think,” said Marguerite, looking into the parlor through the windows.

“Your mother seems to me greatly changed,” said Emmanuel.

“She suffers, but she will not tell us the cause of her sufferings; and we can only try to share them with her.”

Madame Claes had, in fact, just ended a delicate consultation which involved a case of conscience the Abbe de Solis alone could decide. Foreseeing the utter ruin of the family, she wished to retain, unknown to Balthazar who paid no attention to his business affairs, part of the price of the pictures which Monsieur de Solis had undertaken to sell in Holland, intending to hold it secretly in reserve against the day when poverty should overtake her children. With much deliberation, and after weighing every circumstance, the old Dominican approved the act as one of prudence. He took his leave to prepare at once for the sale, which he engaged to make secretly, so as not to injure Monsieur Claes in the estimation of others.

The next day Monsieur de Solis despatched his nephew, armed with letters of introduction, to Amsterdam, where Emmanuel, delighted to do a service to the Claes family, succeeded in selling all the pictures in the gallery to the noted bankers Happe and Duncker for the ostensible sum of eighty-five thousand Dutch ducats and fifteen thousand more which were paid over secretly to Madame Claes. The pictures were so well known that nothing was needed to complete the sale but an answer from Balthazar to the letter which Messieurs Happe and Duncker addressed to him. Emmanuel de Solis was commissioned by Claes to receive the price of the pictures, which were thereupon packed and sent away secretly, to conceal the sale from the people of Douai.

Towards the end of September, Balthazar paid off all the sums that he had borrowed, released his property from encumbrance, and resumed his chemical researches; but the House of Claes was deprived of its noblest ornament. Blinded by his passion, the master showed no regret; he felt so sure of repairing the loss that in selling the pictures he reserved the right of redemption. In Josephine’s eyes a hundred pictures were as nothing compared to domestic happiness and the satisfaction of her husband’s mind; moreover, she refilled the gallery with other paintings taken from the reception-rooms, and to conceal the gaps which these left in the front house, she changed the arrangement of the furniture.

When Balthazar’s debts were all paid he had about two hundred thousand francs with which to carry on his experiments. The Abbe de Solis and his nephew took charge secretly of the fifteen thousand ducats reserved by Madame Claes. To increase that sum, the abbe sold the Dutch ducats, to which the events of the Continental war had given a commercial value. One hundred and sixty-five thousand francs were buried in the cellar of the house in which the abbe and his nephew resided.

Madame Claes had the melancholy happiness of seeing her husband incessantly busy and satisfied for nearly eight months. But the shock he had lately given her was too severe; she sank into a state of languor and debility which steadily increased. Balthazar was now so completely absorbed in science that neither the reverses which had overtaken France, nor the first fall of Napoleon, nor the return of the Bourbons, drew him from his laboratory; he was neither husband, father, nor citizen — solely chemist.

Towards the close of 1814 Madame Claes declined so rapidly that she was no longer able to leave her bed. Unwilling to vegetate in her own chamber, the scene of so much happiness, where the memory of vanished joys forced involuntary comparisons with the present and depressed her, she moved into the parlor. The doctors encouraged this wish by declaring the room more airy, more cheerful, and therefore better suited to her condition. The bed in which the unfortunate woman ended her life was placed between the fireplace and a window looking on the garden. There she passed her last days, sacredly occupied in training the souls of her young daughters, striving to leave within them the fire of her own. Conjugal love, deprived of its manifestations, allowed maternal love to have its way. The mother now seemed the more delightful because her motherhood had blossomed late. Like all generous persons, she passed through sensitive phases of feeling that she mistook for remorse. Believing that she had defrauded her children of the tenderness that should have been theirs, she sought to redeem those imaginary wrongs; bestowing attentions and tender cares which made her precious to them; she longed to make her children live, as it were, within her heart; to shelter them beneath her feeble wings; to cherish them enough in the few remaining days to redeem the time during which she had neglected them. The sufferings of her mind gave to her words and her caresses a glowing warmth that issued from her soul. Her eyes caressed her children, her voice with its yearning intonations touched their hearts, her hand showered blessings on their heads.

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