The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 16

Marguerite continued to keep watch over her father’s material comfort, aided in the sweet task by Emmanuel. The noble girl received from the hands of love that most envied of all garlands, the wreath that happiness entwines and constancy keeps ever fresh. No couple ever afforded a better illustration of the complete, acknowledged, spotless felicity which all women cherish in their dreams. The union of two beings so courageous in the trials of life, who had loved each other through years with so sacred an affection, drew forth the respectful admiration of the whole community. Monsieur de Solis, who had long held an appointment as inspector-general of the University, resigned those functions to enjoy his happiness more freely, and remained at Douai where every one did such homage to his character and attainments that his name was proposed as candidate for the Electoral college whenever he should reach the required age. Marguerite, who had shown herself so strong in adversity, became in prosperity a sweet and tender woman.

Throughout the following year Claes was grave and preoccupied; and yet, though he made a few inexpensive experiments for which his ordinary income sufficed, he seemed to neglect his laboratory. Marguerite restored all the old customs of the House of Claes, and gave a family fete every month in honor of her father, at which the Pierquins and the Conyncks were present; and she also received the upper ranks of society one day in the week at a “cafe” which became celebrated. Though frequently absent-minded, Claes took part in all these assemblages and became, to please his daughter, so willingly a man of the world that the family were able to believe he had renounced his search for the solution of the great problem.

Three years went by. In 1828 family affairs called Emmanuel de Solis to Spain. Although there were three numerous branches between himself and the inheritance of the house of Solis, yellow fever, old age, barrenness, and other caprices of fortune, combined to make him the last lineal descendant of the family and heir to the titles and estates of his ancient house. Moreover, by one of those curious chances which seem impossible except in a book, the house of Solis had acquired the territory and titles of the Comtes de Nourho. Marguerite did not wish to separate from her husband, who was to stay in Spain long enough to settle his affairs, and she was, moreover, curious to see the castle of Casa-Real where her mother had passed her childhood, and the city of Granada, the cradle of the de Solis family. She left Douai, consigning the care of the house to Martha, Josette, and Lemulquinier. Balthazar, to whom Marguerite had proposed a journey into Spain, declined to accompany her on the ground of his advanced age; but certain experiments which he had long meditated, and to which he now trusted for the realization of his hopes were the real reason of his refusal.

The Comte and Comtesse de Solis y Nourho were detained in Spain longer than they intended. Marguerite gave birth to a son. It was not until the middle of 1830 that they reached Cadiz, intending to embark for Italy on their way back to France. There, however, they received a letter from Felicie conveying disastrous news. Within a few months, their father had completely ruined himself. Gabriel and Pierquin were obliged to pay Lemulquinier a monthly stipend for the bare necessaries of the household. The old valet had again sacrificed his little property to his master. Balthazar was no longer willing to see any one, and would not even admit his children to the house. Martha and Josette were dead. The coachman, the cook, and the other servants had long been dismissed; the horses and carriages were sold. Though Lemulquinier maintained the utmost secrecy as to his master’s proceedings, it was believed that the thousand francs supplied by Gabriel and Pierquin were spent chiefly on experiments. The small amount of provisions which the old valet purchased in the town seemed to show that the two old men contented themselves with the barest necessaries. To prevent the sale of the House of Claes, Gabriel and Pierquin were paying the interest of the sums which their father had again borrowed on it. None of his children had the slightest influence upon the old man, who at seventy years of age displayed extraordinary energy in bending everything to his will, even in matters that were trivial. Gabriel, Conyncks, and Pierquin had decided not to pay off his debts.

This letter changed all Marguerite’s travelling plans, and she immediately took the shortest road to Douai. Her new fortune and her past savings enabled her to pay off Balthazar’s debts; but she wished to do more, she wished to obey her mother’s last injunction and save him from sinking dishonored to the grave. She alone could exercise enough ascendancy over the old man to keep him from completing the work of ruin, at an age when no fruitful toil could be expected from his enfeebled faculties. But she was also anxious to control him without wounding his susceptibilities — not wishing to imitate the children of Sophocles, in case her father neared the scientific result for which he had sacrificed so much.

Monsieur and Madame de Solis reached Flanders in the last days of September, 1831, and arrived at Douai during the morning. Marguerite ordered the coachman to drive to the house in the rue de Paris, which they found closed. The bell was loudly rung, but no one answered. A shopkeeper left his door-step, to which he had been attracted by the noise of the carriages; others were at their windows to enjoy a sight of the return of the de Solis family to whom all were attached, enticed also by a vague curiosity as to what would happen in that house on Marguerite’s return to it. The shopkeeper told Monsieur de Solis’s valet that old Claes had gone out an hour before, and that Monsieur Lemulquinier was no doubt taking him to walk on the ramparts.

Marguerite sent for a locksmith to force the door — glad to escape a scene in case her father, as Felicie had written, should refuse to admit her into the house. Meantime Emmanuel went to meet the old man and prepare him for the arrival of his daughter, despatching a servant to notify Monsieur and Madame Pierquin.

When the door was opened, Marguerite went directly to the parlor. Horror overcame her and she trembled when she saw the walls as bare as if a fire had swept over them. The glorious carved panellings of Van Huysum and the portrait of the great Claes had been sold. The dining-room was empty: there was nothing in it but two straw chairs and a common deal table, on which Marguerite, terrified, saw two plates, two bowls, two forks and spoons, and the remains of a salt herring which Claes and his servant had evidently just eaten. In a moment she had flown through her father’s portion of the house, every room of which exhibited the same desolation as the parlor and dining-room. The idea of the Alkahest had swept like a conflagration through the building. Her father’s bedroom had a bed, one chair, and one table, on which stood a miserable pewter candlestick with a tallow candle burned almost to the socket. The house was so completely stripped that not so much as a curtain remained at the windows. Every object of the smallest value — everything, even the kitchen utensils, had been sold.

Moved by that feeling of curiosity which never entirely leaves us even in moments of misfortune, Marguerite entered Lemulquinier’s chamber and found it as bare as that of his master. In a half-opened table-drawer she found a pawnbroker’s ticket for the old servant’s watch which he had pledged some days before. She ran to the laboratory and found it filled with scientific instruments, the same as ever. Then she returned to her own appartement and ordered the door to be broken open — her father had respected it!

Marguerite burst into tears and forgave her father all. In the midst of his devastating fury he had stopped short, restrained by paternal feeling and the gratitude he owed to his daughter! This proof of tenderness, coming to her at a moment when despair had reached its climax, brought about in Marguerite’s soul one of those moral reactions against which the coldest hearts are powerless. She returned to the parlor to wait her father’s arrival, in a state of anxiety that was cruelly aggravated by doubt and uncertainty. In what condition was she about to see him? Ruined, decrepit, suffering, enfeebled by the fasts his pride compelled him to undergo? Would he have his reason? Tears flowed unconsciously from her eyes as she looked about the desecrated sanctuary. The images of her whole life, her past efforts, her useless precautions, her childhood, her mother happy and unhappy — all, even her little Joseph smiling on that scene of desolation, all were parts of a poem of unutterable melancholy.

Marguerite foresaw an approaching misfortune, yet she little expected the catastrophe that was to close her father’s life — that life at once so grand and yet so miserable.

The condition of Monsieur Claes was no secret in the community. To the lasting shame of men, there were not in all Douai two hearts generous enough to do honor to the perseverance of this man of genius. In the eyes of the world Balthazar was a man to be condemned, a bad father who had squandered six fortunes, millions, who was actually seeking the philosopher’s stone in the nineteenth century, this enlightened century, this sceptical century, this century! — etc. They calumniated his purposes and branded him with the name of “alchemist,” casting up to him in mockery that he was trying to make gold. Ah! what eulogies are uttered on this great century of ours, in which, as in all others, genius is smothered under an indifference as brutal a that of the gate in which Dante died, and Tasso and Cervantes and “tutti quanti.” The people are as backward as kings in understanding the creations of genius.

These opinions on the subject of Balthazar Claes filtered, little by little, from the upper society of Douai to the bourgeoisie, and from the bourgeoisie to the lower classes. The old chemist excited pity among persons of his own rank, satirical curiosity among the others — two sentiments big with contempt and with the “vae victis” with which the masses assail a man of genius when they see him in misfortune. Persons often stopped before the House of Claes to show each other the rose window of the garret where so much gold and so much coal had been consumed in smoke. When Balthazar passed along the streets they pointed to him with their fingers; often, on catching sight of him, a mocking jest or a word of pity would escape the lips of a working-man or some mere child. But Lemulquinier was careful to tell his master it was homage; he could deceive him with impunity, for though the old man’s eyes retained the sublime clearness which results from the habit of living among great thoughts, his sense of hearing was enfeebled.

To most of the peasantry, and to all vulgar and superstitious minds, Balthazar Claes was a sorcerer. The noble old mansion, once named by common consent “the House of Claes,” was now called in the suburbs and the country districts “the Devil’s House.” Every outward sign, even the face of Lemulquinier, confirmed the ridiculous beliefs that were current about Balthazar. When the old servant went to market to purchase the few provisions necessary for their subsistence, picking out the cheapest he could find, insults were flung in as make-weights — just as butchers slip bones into their customers’ meat — and he was fortunate, poor creature, if some superstitious market-woman did not refuse to sell him his meagre pittance lest she be damned by contact with an imp of hell.

Thus the feelings of the whole town of Douai were hostile to the grand old man and to his attendant. The neglected state of their clothes added to this repulsion; they went about clothed like paupers who have seen better days, and who strive to keep a decent appearance and are ashamed to beg. It was probable that sooner or later Balthazar would be insulted in the streets. Pierquin, feeling how degrading to the family any public insult would be, had for some time past sent two or three of his own servants to follow the old man whenever he went out, and keep him in sight at a little distance, for the purpose of protecting him if necessary — the revolution of July not having contributed to make the citizens respectful.

By one of those fatalities which can never be explained, Claes and Lemulquinier had gone out early in the morning, thus evading the secret guardianship of Monsieur and Madame Pierquin. On their way back from the ramparts they sat down to sun themselves on a bench in the place Saint-Jacques, an open space crossed by children on their way to school. Catching sight from a distance of the defenceless old men, whose faces brightened as they sat basking in the sun, a crowd of boys began to talk of them. Generally, children’s chatter ends in laughter; on this occasion the laughter led to jokes of which they did not know the cruelty. Seven or eight of the first-comers stood at a little distance, and examined the strange old faces with smothered laughter and remarks which attracted Lemulquinier’s attention.

“Hi! do you see that one with a head as smooth as my knee?”


“Well, he was born a Wise Man.”

“My papa says he makes gold,” said another.

The youngest of the troop, who had his basket full of provisions and was devouring a slice of bread and butter, advanced to the bench and said boldly to Lemulquinier —

“Monsieur, is it true you make pearls and diamonds?”

“Yes, my little man,” replied the valet, smiling and tapping him on the cheek; “we will give you some of you study well.”

“Ah! monsieur, give me some, too,” was the general exclamation.

The boys all rushed together like a flock of birds, and surrounded the old men. Balthazar, absorbed in meditation from which he was drawn by these sudden cries, made a gesture of amazement which caused a general shout of laughter.

“Come, come, boys; be respectful to a great man,” said Lemulquinier.

“Hi, the old harlequin!” cried the lads; “the old sorcerer! you are sorcerers! sorcerers! sorcerers!”

Lemulquinier sprang to his feet and threatened the crowd with his cane; they all ran to a little distance, picking up stones and mud. A workman who was eating his breakfast near by, seeing Lemulquinier brandish his cane to drive the boys away, thought he had struck them, and took their part, crying out —

“Down with the sorcerers!”

The boys, feeling themselves encouraged, flung their missiles at the old men, just as the Comte de Solis, accompanied by Pierquin’s servants, appeared at the farther end of the square. The latter were too late, however, to save the old man and his valet from being pelted with mud. The shock was given. Balthazar, whose faculties had been preserved by a chastity of spirit natural to students absorbed in a quest of discovery that annihilates all passions, now suddenly divined, by the phenomenon of introsusception, the true meaning of the scene: his decrepit body could not sustain the frightful reaction he underwent in his feelings, and he fell, struck with paralysis, into the arms of Lemulquinier, who brought him to his home on a shutter, attended by his sons-in-law and their servants. No power could prevent the population of Douai from following the body of the old man to the door of his house, where Felicie and her children, Jean, Marguerite, and Gabriel, whom his sister had sent for, were waiting to receive him.

The arrival of the old man gave rise to a frightful scene; he struggled less against the assaults of death than against the horror of seeing that his children had entered the house and penetrated the secret of his impoverished life. A bed was at once made up in the parlor and every care bestowed upon the stricken man, whose condition, towards evening, allowed hopes that his life might be preserved. The paralysis, though skilfully treated, kept him for some time in a state of semi-childhood; and when by degrees it relaxed, the tongue was found to be especially affected, perhaps because the old man’s anger had concentrated all his forces upon it at the moment when he was about to apostrophize the children.

This incident roused a general indignation throughout the town. By a law, up to that time unknown, which guides the affects of the masses, this event brought back all hearts to Monsieur Claes. He became once more a great man; he excited the admiration and received the good-will that a few hours earlier were denied to him. Men praised his patience, his strength of will, his courage, his genius. The authorities wished to arrest all those who had a share in dealing him this blow. Too late — the evil was done! The Claes family were the first to beg that the matter might be allowed to drop.

Marguerite ordered furniture to be brought into the parlor, and the denuded walls to be hung with silk; and when, a few days after his seizure, the old father recovered his faculties and found himself once more in a luxurious room surrounded by all that makes life easy, he tried to express his belief that his daughter Marguerite had returned. At that moment she entered the room. When Balthazar caught sight of her he colored, and his eyes grew moist, though the tears did not fall. He was able to press his daughter’s hand with his cold fingers, putting into that pressure all the thoughts, all the feelings he no longer had the power to utter. There was something holy and solemn in that farewell of the brain which still lived, of the heart which gratitude revived. Worn out by fruitless efforts, exhausted in the long struggle with the gigantic problem, desperate perhaps at the oblivion which awaited his memory, this giant among men was about to die. His children surrounded him with respectful affection; his dying eyes were cheered with images of plenty and the touching picture of his prosperous and noble family. His every look — by which alone he could manifest his feelings — was unchangeably affectionate; his eyes acquired such variety of expression that they had, as it were, a language of light, easy to comprehend.

Marguerite paid her father’s debts, and restored a modern splendor to the House of Claes which removed all outward signs of decay. She never left the old man’s bedside, endeavoring to divine his every thought and accomplish his slightest wish.

Some months went by with those alternations of better and worse which attend the struggle of life and death in old people; every morning his children came to him and spent the day in the parlor, dining by his bedside and only leaving him when he went to sleep for the night. The occupation which gave him most pleasure, among the many with which his family sought to enliven him, was the reading of newspapers, to which the political events then occurring gave great interest. Monsieur Claes listened attentively as Monsieur de Solis read them aloud beside his bed.

Towards the close of the year 1832, Balthazar passed an extremely critical night, during which Monsieur Pierquin, the doctor, was summoned by the nurse, who was greatly alarmed at the sudden change which took place in the patient. For the rest of the night the doctor remained to watch him, fearing he might at any moment expire in the throes of inward convulsion, whose effects were like those of a last agony.

The old man made incredible efforts to shake off the bonds of his paralysis; he tried to speak and moved his tongue, unable to make a sound; his flaming eyes emitted thoughts; his drawn features expressed an untold agony; his fingers writhed in desperation; the sweat stood out in drops upon his brow. In the morning when his children came to his bedside and kissed him with an affection which the sense of coming death made day by day more ardent and more eager, he showed none of his usual satisfaction at these signs of their tenderness. Emmanuel, instigated by the doctor, hastened to open the newspaper to try if the usual reading might not relieve the inward crisis in which Balthazar was evidently struggling. As he unfolded the sheet he saw the words, “DISCOVERY OF THE ABSOLUTE,"— which startled him, and he read a paragraph to Marguerite concerning a sale made by a celebrated Polish mathematician of the secret of the Absolute. Though Emmanuel read in a low voice, and Marguerite signed to him to omit the passage, Balthazar heard it.

Suddenly the dying man raised himself by his wrists and cast on his frightened children a look which struck like lightning; the hairs that fringed the bald head stirred, the wrinkles quivered, the features were illumined with spiritual fires, a breath passed across that face and rendered it sublime; he raised a hand, clenched in fury, and uttered with a piercing cry the famous word of Archimedes, “EUREKA!"— I have found.

He fell back upon his bed with the dull sound of an inert body, and died, uttering an awful moan — his convulsed eyes expressing to the last, when the doctor closed them, the regret of not bequeathing to Science the secret of an Enigma whose veil was rent away — too late! — by the fleshless fingers of Death.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51