The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 5

As Marguerite left the room, Madame Claes glanced at the children through the windows of her chamber, which looked on the garden, and saw that they were watching one of those insects with shining wings spotted with gold, commonly called “darning-needles.”

“Be good, my darlings,” she said, raising the lower sash of the window and leaving it up to air the room. Then she knocked gently on the door of communication, to assure herself that Balthazar had not fallen into abstraction. He opened it, and seeing him half-dressed, she said in joyous tones:—

“You won’t leave me long with Pierquin, will you? Come as soon as you can.”

Her step was so light as she descended that a listener would never have supposed her lame.

“When monsieur carried madame upstairs,” said the old valet, whom she met on the staircase, “he tore this bit out of her dress, and he broke the jaw of that griffin; I’m sure I don’t know who can put it on again. There’s our staircase ruined — and it used to be so handsome!”

“Never mind, my poor Mulquinier; don’t have it mended at all — it is not a misfortune,” said his mistress.

“What can have happened?” thought Lemulquinier; “why isn’t it a misfortune, I should like to know? has the master found the Absolute?”

“Good-evening, Monsieur Pierquin,” said Madame Claes, opening the parlor door.

The notary rushed forward to give her his arm; as she never took any but that of her husband she thanked him with a smile and said —

“Have you come for the thirty thousand francs?”

“Yes, madame; when I reached home I found a letter of advice from Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville, who have drawn six letters of exchange upon Monsieur Claes for five thousand francs each.”

“Well, say nothing to Balthazar to-day,” she replied. “Stay and dine with us. If he happens to ask why you came, find some plausible pretext, I entreat you. Give me the letter. I will speak to him myself about it. All is well,” she added, noticing the lawyer’s surprise. “In a few months my husband will probably pay off all the sums he has borrowed.”

Hearing these words, which were said in a low voice, the notary looked at Mademoiselle Claes, who was entering the room from the garden followed by Gabriel and Felicie, and remarked —

“I have never seen Mademoiselle Marguerite as pretty as she is at this moment.”

Madame Claes, who was sitting in her armchair with little Jean upon her lap, raised her head and looked at her daughter, and then at the notary, with a pretended air of indifference.

Pierquin was a man of middle height, neither stout nor thin, with vulgar good looks, a face that expressed vexation rather than melancholy, and a pensive habit in which there was more of indecision than thought. People called him a misanthrope, but he was too eager after his own interests, and too extortionate towards others to have set up a genuine divorce from the world. His indifferent demeanor, his affected silence, his habitual custom of looking, as it were, into the void, seemed to indicate depth of character, while in fact they merely concealed the shallow insignificance of a notary busied exclusively with earthly interests; though he was still young enough to feel envy. To marry into the family of Claes would have been to him an object of extreme desire, if an instinct of avarice had not underlain it. He could seem generous, but for all that he was a keen reckoner. And thus, without explaining to himself the motive for his change of manner, his behavior was harsh, peremptory, and surly, like that of an ordinary business man, when he thought the Claes were ruined; accommodating, affectionate, and almost servile, when he saw reason to believe in a happy issue to his cousin’s labors. Sometimes he beheld an infanta in Margeurite Claes, to whom no provincial notary might aspire; then he regarded her as any poor girl too happy if he deigned to make her his wife. He was a true provincial, and a Fleming; without malevolence, not devoid of devotion and kindheartedness, but led by a naive selfishness which rendered all his better qualities incomplete, while certain absurdities of manner spoiled his personal appearance.

Madame Claes recollected the curt tone in which the notary had spoken to her that afternoon in the porch of the church, and she took note of the change which her present reply had wrought in his demeanor; she guessed its meaning and tried to read her daughter’s mind by a penetrating glance, seeking to discover if she thought of her cousin; but the young girl’s manner showed complete indifference.

After a few moments spent in general conversation on the current topics of the day, the master of the house came down from his bedroom, where his wife had heard with inexpressible delight the creaking sound of his boots as he trod the floor. The step was that of a young and active man, and foretold so complete a transformation, that the mere expectation of his appearance made Madame Claes quiver as he descended the stairs. Balthazar entered, dressed in the fashion of the period. He wore highly polished top-boots, which allowed the upper part of the white silk stockings to appear, blue kerseymere small-clothes with gold buttons, a flowered white waistcoat, and a blue frock-coat. He had trimmed his beard, combed and perfumed his hair, pared his nails, and washed his hands, all with such care that he was scarcely recognizable to those who had seen him lately. Instead of an old man almost decrepit, his children, his wife, and the notary saw a Balthazar Claes who was forty years old, and whose courteous and affable presence was full of its former attractions. The weariness and suffering betrayed by the thin face and the clinging of the skin to the bones, had in themselves a sort of charm.

“Good-evening, Pierquin,” said Monsieur Claes.

Once more a husband and a father, he took his youngest child from his wife’s lap and tossed him in the air.

“See that little fellow!” he exclaimed to the notary. “Doesn’t such a pretty creature make you long to marry? Take my word for it, my dear Pierquin, family happiness consoles a man for everything. Up, up!” he cried, tossing Jean into the air; “down, down! up! down!”

The child laughed with all his heart as he went alternately to the ceiling and down to the carpet. The mother turned away her eyes that she might not betray the emotion which the simple play caused her — simple apparently, but to her a domestic revolution.

“Let me see how you can walk,” said Balthazar, putting his son on the floor and throwing himself on a sofa near his wife.

The child ran to its father, attracted by the glitter of the gold buttons which fastened the breeches just above the slashed tops of his boots.

“You are a darling!” cried Balthazar, kissing him; “you are a Claes, you walk straight. Well, Gabriel, how is Pere Morillon?” he said to his eldest son, taking him by the ear and twisting it. “Are you struggling valiantly with your themes and your construing? have you taken sharp hold of mathematics?”

Then he rose, and went up to the notary with the affectionate courtesy that characterized him.

“My dear Pierquin,” he said, “perhaps you have something to say to me.” He took his arm to lead him to the garden, adding, “Come and see my tulips.”

Madame Claes looked at her husband as he left the room, unable to repress the joy she felt in seeing him once more so young, so affable, so truly himself. She rose, took her daughter round the waist and kissed her, exclaiming:—

“My dear Marguerite, my darling child! I love you better than ever to-day.”

“It is long since I have seen my father so kind,” answered the young girl.

Lemulquinier announced dinner. To prevent Pierquin from offering her his arm, Madame Claes took that of her husband and led the way into the next room, the whole family following.

The dining-room, whose ceiling was supported by beams and decorated with paintings cleaned and restored every year, was furnished with tall oaken side-boards and buffets, on whose shelves stood many a curious piece of family china. The walls were hung with violet leather, on which designs of game and other hunting objects were stamped in gold. Carefully arranged here and there above the shelves, shone the brilliant plumage of strange birds, and the lustre of rare shells. The chairs, which evidently had not been changed since the beginning of the sixteenth century, showed the square shape with twisted columns and the low back covered with a fringed stuff, common to that period, and glorified by Raphael in his picture of the Madonna della Sedia. The wood of these chairs was now black, but the gilt nails shone as if new, and the stuff, carefully renewed from time to time, was of an admirable shade of red.

The whole life of Flanders with its Spanish innovations was in this room. The decanters and flasks on the dinner-table, with their graceful antique lines and swelling curves, had an air of respectability. The glasses were those old goblets with stems and feet which may be seen in the pictures of the Dutch or Flemish school. The dinner-service of faience, decorated with raised colored figures, in the manner of Bernard Palissy, came from the English manufactory of Wedgwood. The silver-ware was massive, with square sides and designs in high relief — genuine family plate, whose pieces, in every variety of form, fashion, and chasing, showed the beginnings of prosperity and the progress towards fortune of the Claes family. The napkins were fringed, a fashion altogether Spanish; and as for the linen, it will readily be supposed that the Claes’s household made it a point of honor to possess the best.

All this service of the table, silver, linen, and glass, were for the daily use of the family. The front house, where the social entertainments were given, had its own especial luxury, whose marvels, being reserved for great occasions, wore an air of dignity often lost to things which are, as it were, made common by daily use. Here, in the home quarter, everything bore the impress of patriarchal use and simplicity. And — for a final and delightful detail — a vine grew outside the house between the windows, whose tendrilled branches twined about the casements.

“You are faithful to the old traditions, madame,” said Pierquin, as he received a plate of that celebrated thyme soup in which the Dutch and Flemish cooks put little force-meat balls and dice of fried bread. “This is the Sunday soup of our forefathers. Your house and that of my uncle des Racquets are the only ones where we still find this historic soup of the Netherlands. Ah! pardon me, old Monsieur Savaron de Savarus of Tournai makes it a matter of pride to keep up the custom; but everywhere else old Flanders is disappearing. Now-a-days everything is changing; furniture is made from Greek models; wherever you go you see helmets, lances, shields, and bows and arrows! Everybody is rebuilding his house, selling his old furniture, melting up his silver dishes, or exchanging them for Sevres porcelain — which does not compare with either old Dresden or with Chinese ware. Oh! as for me, I’m Flemish to the core; my heart actually bleeds to see the coppersmiths buying up our beautiful inlaid furniture for the mere value of the wood and the metal. The fact is, society wants to change its skin. Everything is being sacrificed, even the old methods of art. When people insist on going so fast, nothing is conscientiously done. During my last visit to Paris I was taken to see the pictures in the Louvre. On my word of honor, they are mere screen-painting — no depth, no atmosphere; the painters were actually afraid to put colors on their canvas. And it is they who talk of overturning our ancient school of art! Ah, bah! —”

“Our old masters,” replied Balthazar, “studied the combination of colors and their endurance by submitting them to the action of sun and rain. You are right enough, however; the material resources of art are less cultivated in these days than formerly.”

Madame Claes was not listening to the conversation. The notary’s remark that porcelain dinner-services were now the fashion, gave her the brilliant idea of selling a quantity of heavy silver-ware which she had inherited from her brother — hoping to be able thus to pay off the thirty thousand francs which her husband owed.

“Ha! ha!” Balthazar was saying to Pierquin when Madame Claes’s mind returned to the conversation, “so they are discussing my work in Douai, are they?”

“Yes,” replied the notary, “every one is asking what it is you spend so much money on. Only yesterday I heard the chief-justice deploring that a man like you should be searching for the Philosopher’s stone. I ventured to reply that you were too wise not to know that such a scheme was attempting the impossible, too much of a Christian to take God’s work out of his hands; and, like every other Claes, too good a business man to spend your money for such befooling quackeries. Still, I admit that I share the regret people feel at your absence from society. You might as well not live here at all. Really, madame, you would have been delighted had you heard the praises showered on Monsieur Claes and on you.”

“You acted like a faithful friend in repelling imputations whose least evil is to make me ridiculous,” said Balthazar. “Ha! so they think me ruined? Well, my dear Pierquin, two months hence I shall give a fete in honor of my wedding-day whose magnificence will get me back the respect my dear townsmen bestow on wealth.”

Madame Claes colored deeply. For two years the anniversary had been forgotten. Like madmen whose faculties shine at times with unwonted brilliancy, Balthazar was never more gracious and delightful in his tenderness than at this moment. He was full of attention to his children, and his conversation had the charms of grace, and wit, and pertinence. This return of fatherly feeling, so long absent, was certainly the truest fete he could give his wife, for whom his looks and words expressed once more that unbroken sympathy of heart for heart which reveals to each a delicious oneness of sentiment.

Old Lemulquinier seemed to renew his youth; he came and went about the table with unusual liveliness, caused by the accomplishment of his secret hopes. The sudden change in his master’s ways was even more significant to him than to Madame Claes. Where the family saw happiness he saw fortune. While helping Balthazar in his experiments he had come to share his beliefs. Whether he really understood the drift of his master’s researches from certain exclamations which escaped the chemist when expected results disappointed him, or whether the innate tendency of mankind towards imitation made him adopt the ideas of the man in whose atmosphere he lived, certain it is that Lemulquinier had conceived for his master a superstitious feeling that was a mixture of terror, admiration, and selfishness. The laboratory was to him what a lottery-office is to the masses — organized hope. Every night he went to bed saying to himself, “To-morrow we may float in gold”; and every morning he woke with a faith as firm as that of the night before.

His name proved that his origin was wholly Flemish. In former days the lower classes were known by some name or nickname derived from their trades, their surroundings, their physical conformation, or their moral qualities. This name became the patronymic of the burgher family which each established as soon as he obtained his freedom. Sellers of linen thread were called in Flanders, “mulquiniers”; and that no doubt was the trade of the particular ancestor of the old valet who passed from a state of serfdom to one of burgher dignity, until some unknown misfortune had again reduced his present descendant to the condition of a serf, with the addition of wages. The whole history of Flanders and its linen-trade was epitomized in this old man, often called, by way of euphony, Mulquinier. He was not without originality, either of character or appearance. His face was triangular in shape, broad and long, and seamed by small-pox which had left innumerable white and shining patches that gave him a fantastic appearance. He was tall and thin; his whole demeanor solemn and mysterious; and his small eyes, yellow as the wig which was smoothly plastered on his head, cast none but oblique glances.

The old valet’s outward man was in keeping with the feeling of curiosity which he everywhere inspired. His position as assistant to his master, the depositary of a secret jealously guarded and about which he maintained a rigid silence, invested him with a species of charm. The denizens of the rue de Paris watched him pass with an interest mingled with awe; to all their questions he returned sibylline answers big with mysterious treasures. Proud of being necessary to his master, he assumed an annoying authority over his companions, employing it to further his own interests and compel a submission which made him virtually the ruler of the house. Contrary to the custom of Flemish servants, who are deeply attached to the families whom they serve, Mulquinier cared only for Balthazar. If any trouble befell Madame Claes, or any joyful event happened to the family, he ate his bread and butter and drank his beer as phlegmatically as ever.

Dinner over, Madame Claes proposed that coffee should be served in the garden, by the bed of tulips which adorned the centre of it. The earthenware pots in which the bulbs were grown (the name of each flower being engraved on slate labels) were sunk in the ground and so arranged as to form a pyramid, at the summit of which rose a certain dragon’s -head tulip which Balthazar alone possessed. This flower, named “tulipa Claesiana,” combined the seven colors; and the curved edges of each petal looked as though they were gilt. Balthazar’s father, who had frequently refused ten thousand florins for this treasure, took such precautions against the theft of a single seed that he kept the plant always in the parlor and often spent whole days in contemplating it. The stem was enormous, erect, firm, and admirably green; the proportions of the plant were in harmony with the proportions of the flower, whose seven colors were distinguishable from each other with the clearly defined brilliancy which formerly gave such fabulous value to these dazzling plants.

“Here you have at least thirty or forty thousand francs’ worth of tulips,” said the notary, looking alternately at Madame Claes and at the many-colored pyramid. The former was too enthusiastic over the beauty of the flowers, which the setting sun was just then transforming into jewels, to observe the meaning of the notary’s words.

“What good do they do you?” continued Pierquin, addressing Balthazar; “you ought to sell them.”

“Bah! am I in want of money?” replied Claes, in the tone of a man to whom forty thousand francs was a matter of no consequence.

There was a moment’s silence, during which the children made many exclamations.

“See this one, mamma!”

“Oh! here’s a beauty!”

“Tell me the name of that one!”

“What a gulf for human reason to sound!” cried Balthazar, raising his hands and clasping them with a gesture of despair. “A compound of hydrogen and oxygen gives off, according to their relative proportions, under the same conditions and by the same principle, these manifold colors, each of which constitutes a distinct result.”

His wife heard the words of his proposition, but it was uttered so rapidly that she did not seize its exact meaning; and Balthazar, as if remembering that she had studied his favorite science, made her a mysterious sign, saying —

“You do not yet understand me, but you will.”

Then he apparently fell back into the absorbed meditation now habitual to him.

“No, I am sure you do not understand him,” said Pierquin, taking his coffee from Marguerite’s hand. “The Ethiopian can’t change his skin, nor the leopard his spots,” he whispered to Madame Claes. “Have the goodness to remonstrate with him later; the devil himself couldn’t draw him out of his cogitation now; he is in it for to-day, at any rate.”

So saying, he bade good-bye to Claes, who pretended not to hear him, kissed little Jean in his mother’s arms, and retired with a low bow.

When the street-door clanged behind him, Balthazar caught his wife round the waist, and put an end to the uneasiness his feigned reverie was causing her by whispering in her ear —

“I knew how to get rid of him.”

Madame Claes turned her face to her husband, not ashamed to let him see the tears of happiness that filled her eyes: then she rested her forehead against his shoulder and let little Jean slide to the floor.

“Let us go back into the parlor,” she said, after a pause.

Balthazar was exuberantly gay throughout the evening. He invented games for the children, and played with such zest himself that he did not notice two or three short absences made by his wife. About half-past nine, when Jean had gone to bed, Marguerite returned to the parlor after helping her sister Felicie to undress, and found her mother seated in the deep armchair, and her father holding his wife’s hand as he talked to her. The young girl feared to disturb them, and was about to retire without speaking, when Madame Claes caught sight of her, and said:—

“Come in, Marguerite; come here, dear child.” She drew her down, kissed her tenderly on the forehead, and said, “Carry your book into your own room; but do not sit up too late.”

“Good-night, my darling daughter,” said Balthazar.

Marguerite kissed her father and mother and went away. Husband and wife remained alone for some minutes without speaking, watching the last glimmer of the twilight as it faded from the trees in the garden, whose outlines were scarcely discernible through the gathering darkness. When night had almost fallen, Balthazar said to his wife in a voice of emotion —

“Let us go upstairs.”

Long before English manners and customs had consecrated the wife’s chamber as a sacred spot, that of a Flemish woman was impenetrable. The good housewives of the Low Countries did not make it a symbol of virtue. It was to them a habit contracted from childhood, a domestic superstition, rendering the bedroom a delightful sanctuary of tender feelings, where simplicity blended with all that was most sweet and sacred in social life. Any woman in Madame Claes’s position would have wished to gather about her the elegances of life, but Josephine had done so with exquisite taste, knowing well how great an influence the aspect of our surroundings exerts upon the feelings of others. To a pretty creature it would have been mere luxury, to her it was a necessity. No one better understood the meaning of the saying, “A pretty woman is self-created,"— a maxim which guided every action of Napoleon’s first wife, and often made her false; whereas Madame Claes was ever natural and true.

Though Balthazar knew his wife’s chamber well, his forgetfulness of material things had lately been so complete that he felt a thrill of soft emotion when he entered it, as though he saw it for the first time. The proud gaiety of a triumphant woman glowed in the splendid colors of the tulips which rose from the long throats of Chinese vases judiciously placed about the room, and sparkled in the profusion of lights whose effect can only be compared to a joyous burst of martial music. The gleam of the wax candles cast a mellow sheen on the coverings of pearl-gray silk, whose monotony was relieved by touches of gold, soberly distributed here and there on a few ornaments, and by the varied colors of the tulips, which were like sheaves of precious stones. The secret of this choice arrangement — it was he, ever he! Josephine could not tell him in words more eloquent that he was now and ever the mainspring of her joys and woes.

The aspect of that chamber put the soul deliciously at ease, cast out sad thoughts, and left a sense of pure and equable happiness. The silken coverings, brought from China, gave forth a soothing perfume that penetrated the system without fatiguing it. The curtains, carefully drawn, betrayed a desire for solitude, a jealous intention of guarding the sound of every word, of hiding every look of the reconquered husband. Madame Claes, wearing a dressing-robe of muslin, which was trimmed by a long pelerine with falls of lace that came about her throat, and adorned with her beautiful black hair, which was exquisitely glossy and fell on either side of her forehead like a raven’s wing, went to draw the tapestry portiere that hung before the door and allowed no sound to penetrate the chamber from without.

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