The Alkahest, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 7

On the morrow of this evening so eventful for the Claes family, Balthazar, from whom Josephine had doubtless obtained some promise as to the cessation of his researches, remained in the parlor, and did not enter his laboratory. The succeeding day the household prepared to move into the country, where they stayed for more than two months, only returning to town in time to prepare for the fete which Claes determined to give, as in former years, to commemorate his wedding-day. He now began by degrees to obtain proof of the disorder which his experiments and his indifference had brought into his business affairs.

Madame Claes, far from irritating the wound by remarking on it, continually found remedies for the evil that was done. Of the seven servants who customarily served the family, there now remained only Lemulquinier, Josette the cook, and an old waiting-woman, named Martha, who had never left her mistress since the latter left her convent. It was of course impossible to give a fete to the whole society of Douai with so few servants, but Madame Claes overcame all difficulties by proposing to send to Paris for a cook, to train the gardener’s son as a waiter, and to borrow Pierquin’s manservant. Thus the pinched circumstances of the family passed unnoticed by the community.

During the twenty days of preparation for the fete, Madame Claes was cleverly able to outwit her husband’s listlessness. She commissioned him to select the rarest plants and flowers to decorate the grand staircase, the gallery, and the salons; then she sent him to Dunkerque to order one of those monstrous fish which are the glory of the burgher tables in the northern departments. A fete like that the Claes were about to give is a serious affair, involving thought and care and active correspondence, in a land where traditions of hospitality put the family honor so much at stake that to servants as well as masters a grand dinner is like a victory won over the guests. Oysters arrived from Ostend, grouse were imported from Scotland, fruits came from Paris; in short, not the smallest accessory was lacking to the hereditary luxury.

A ball at the House of Claes had an importance of its own. The government of the department was then at Douai, and the anniversary fete of the Claes usually opened the winter season and set the fashion to the neighborhood. For fifteen years, Balthazar had endeavored to make it a distinguished occasion, and had succeeded so well that the fete was talked of throughout a circumference of sixty miles, and the toilettes, the guests, the smallest details, the novelties exhibited, and the events that took place, were discussed far and wide. These preparations now prevented Claes from thinking, for the time being, of the Alkahest. Since his return to social life and domestic bliss, the servant of science had recovered his self-love as a man, as a Fleming, as the master of a household, and he now took pleasure in the thought of surprising the whole country. He resolved to give a special character to this ball by some exquisite novelty; and he chose, among all other caprices of luxury, the loveliest, the richest, and the most fleeting — he turned the old mansion into a fairy bower of rare plants and flowers, and prepared choice bouquets for all the ladies.

The other details of the fete were in keeping with this unheard-of luxury, and nothing seemed likely to mar the effect. But the Twenty-ninth Bulletin and the news of the terrible disasters of the grand army in Russia, and at the passage of the Beresina, were made known on the afternoon of the appointed day. A sincere and profound grief was felt in Douai, and those who were present at the fete, moved by a natural feeling of patriotism, unanimously declined to dance.

Among the letters which arrived that day in Douai, was one for Balthazar from Monsieur de Wierzchownia, then in Dresden and dying, he wrote, from wounds received in one of the late engagements. He remembered his promise, and desired to bequeath to his former host several ideas on the subject of the Absolute, which had come to him since the period of their meeting. The letter plunged Claes into a reverie which apparently did honor to his patriotism; but his wife was not misled by it. To her, this festal day brought a double mourning: and the ball, during which the House of Claes shone with departing lustre, was sombre and sad in spite of its magnificence, and the many choice treasures gathered by the hands of six generations, which the people of Douai now beheld for the last time.

Marguerite Claes, just sixteen, was the queen of the day, and on this occasion her parents presented her to society. She attracted all eyes by the extreme simplicity and candor of her air and manner, and especially by the harmony of her form and countenance with the characteristics of her home. She was the embodiment of the Flemish girl whom the painters of that country loved to represent — the head perfectly rounded and full, chestnut hair parted in the middle and laid smoothly on the brow, gray eyes with a mixture of green, handsome arms, natural stoutness which did not detract from her beauty, a timid air, and yet, on the high square brow an expression of firmness, hidden at present under an apparent calmness and docility. Without being sad or melancholy, she seemed to have little natural enjoyment. Reflectiveness, order, a sense of duty, the three chief expressions of Flemish nature, were the characteristics of a face that seemed cold at first sight, but to which the eye was recalled by a certain grace of outline and a placid pride which seemed the pledges of domestic happiness. By one of those freaks which physiologists have not yet explained, she bore no likeness to either father or mother, but was the living image of her maternal great-grandmother, a Conyncks of Bruges, whose portrait, religiously preserved, bore witness to the resemblance.

The supper gave some life to the ball. If the military disasters forbade the delights of dancing, every one felt that they need not exclude the pleasures of the table. The true patriots, however, retired early; only the more indifferent remained, together with a few card players and the intimate friends of the family. Little by little the brilliantly lighted house, to which all the notabilities of Douai had flocked, sank into silence, and by one o’clock in the morning the great gallery was deserted, the lights were extinguished in one salon after another, and the court-yard, lately so bustling and brilliant, grew dark and gloomy — prophetic image of the future that lay before the family. When the Claes returned to their own appartement, Balthazar gave his wife the letter he had received from the Polish officer: Josephine returned it with a mournful gesture; she foresaw the coming doom.

From that day forth, Balthazar made no attempt to disguise the weariness and the depression that assailed him. In the mornings, after the family breakfast, he played for awhile in the parlor with little Jean, and talked to his daughters, who were busy with their sewing, or embroidery or lace-work; but he soon wearied of the play and of the talk, and seemed at last to get through with them as a duty. When his wife came down again after dressing, she always found him sitting in an easy-chair looking blankly at Marguerite and Felicie, quite undisturbed by the rattle of their bobbins. When the newspaper was brought in, he read it slowly like a retired merchant at a loss how to kill the time. Then he would get up, look at the sky through the window panes, go back to his chair and mend the fire drearily, as though he were deprived of all consciousness of his own movements by the tyranny of ideas.

Madame Claes keenly regretted her defects of education and memory. It was difficult for her to sustain an interesting conversation for any length of time; perhaps this is always difficult between two persons who have said everything to each other, and are forced to seek for subjects of interest outside the life of the heart, or the life of material existence. The life of the heart has its own moments of expansion which need some stimulus to bring them forth; discussions of material life cannot long occupy superior minds accustomed to decide promptly; and the mere gossip of society is intolerable to loving natures. Consequently, two isolated beings who know each other thoroughly ought to seek their enjoyments in the higher regions of thought; for it is impossible to satisfy with paltry things the immensity of the relation between them. Moreover, when a man has accustomed himself to deal with great subjects, he becomes unamusable, unless he preserves in the depths of his heart a certain guileless simplicity and unconstraint which often make great geniuses such charming children; but the childhood of the heart is a rare human phenomenon among those whose mission it is to see all, know all, and comprehend all.

During these first months, Madame Claes worked her way through this critical situation, by unwearying efforts, which love or necessity suggested to her. She tried to learn backgammon, which she had never been able to play, but now, from an impetus easy to understand, she ended by mastering it. Then she interested Balthazar in the education of his daughters, and asked him to direct their studies. All such resources were, however, soon exhausted. There came a time when Josephine’s relation to Balthazar was like that of Madame de Maintenon to Louis XIV.; she had to amuse the unamusable, but without the pomps of power or the wiles of a court which could play comedies like the sham embassies from the King of Siam and the Shah of Persia. After wasting the revenues of France, Louis XIV., no longer young or successful, was reduced to the expedients of a family heir to raise the money he needed; in the midst of his grandeur he felt his impotence, and the royal nurse who had rocked the cradles of his children was often at her wit’s end to rock his, or soothe the monarch now suffering from his misuse of men and things, of life and God. Claes, on the contrary, suffered from too much power. Stifling in the clutch of a single thought, he dreamed of the pomps of Science, of treasures for the human race, of glory for himself. He suffered as artists suffer in the grip of poverty, as Samson suffered beneath the pillars of the temple. The result was the same for the two sovereigns; though the intellectual monarch was crushed by his inward force, the other by his weakness.

What could Pepita do, singly, against this species of scientific nostalgia? After employing every means that family life afforded her, she called society to the rescue, and gave two “cafes” every week. Cafes at Douai took the place of teas. A cafe was an assemblage which, during a whole evening, the guests sipped the delicious wines and liqueurs which overflow the cellars of that ever-blessed land, ate the Flemish dainties and took their “cafe noir” or their “cafe au lait frappe,” while the women sang ballads, discussed each other’s toilettes, and related the gossip of the day. It was a living picture by Mieris or Terburg, without the pointed gray hats, the scarlet plumes, or the beautiful costumes of the sixteenth century. And yet, Balthazar’s efforts to play the part of host, his constrained courtesy, his forced animation, left him the next day in a state of languor which showed but too plainly the depths of the inward ill.

These continual fetes, weak remedies for the real evil, only increased it. Like branches which caught him as he rolled down the precipice, they retarded Claes’s fall, but in the end he fell the heavier. Though he never spoke of his former occupations, never showed the least regret for the promise he had given not to renew his researches, he grew to have the melancholy motions, the feeble voice, the depression of a sick person. The ennui that possessed him showed at times in the very manner with which he picked up the tongs and built fantastic pyramids in the fire with bits of coal, utterly unconscious of what he was doing. When night came he was evidently relieved; sleep no doubt released him from the importunities of thought: the next day he rose wearily to encounter another day — seeming to measure time as the tired traveller measures the desert he is forced to cross.

If Madame Claes knew the cause of this languor she endeavored not to see the extent of its ravages. Full of courage against the sufferings of the mind, she was helpless against the generous impulses of the heart. She dared not question Balthazar when she saw him listening to the laughter of little Jean or the chatter of his girls, with the air of a man absorbed in secret thoughts; but she shuddered when she saw him shake off his melancholy and try, with generous intent, to seem cheerful, that he might not distress others. The little coquetries of the father with his daughters, or his games with little Jean, moistened the eyes of the poor wife, who often left the room to hide the feelings that heroic effort caused her — a heroism the cost of which is well understood by women, a generosity that well-nigh breaks their heart. At such times Madame Claes longed to say, “Kill me, and do what you will!”

Little by little Balthazar’s eyes lost their fire and took the glaucous opaque tint which overspreads the eyes of old men. His attentions to his wife, his manner of speaking, his whole bearing, grew heavy and inert. These symptoms became more marked towards the end of April, terrifying Madame Claes, to whom the sight was now intolerable, and who had all along reproached herself a thousand times while she admired the Flemish loyalty which kept her husband faithful to his promise.

At last, one day when Balthazar seemed more depressed than ever, she hesitated no longer; she resolved to sacrifice everything and bring him back to life.

“Dear friend,” she said, “I release you from your promise.”

Balthazar looked at her in amazement.

“You are thinking of your researches, are you not?” she continued.

He answered by a gesture of startling eagerness. Far from remonstrating, Madame Claes, who had had leisure to sound the abyss into which they were about to fall together, took his hand and pressed it, smiling.

“Thank you,” she said; “now I am sure of my power. You sacrificed more than your life to me. In future, be the sacrifices mine. Though I have sold some of my diamonds, enough are left, with those my brother gave me, to get the necessary money for your experiments. I intended those jewels for my daughters, but your glory shall sparkle in their stead; and, besides, you will some day replace them with other and finer diamonds.”

The joy that suddenly lighted her husband’s face was like a death-knell to the wife: she saw, with anguish, that the man’s passion was stronger than himself. Claes had faith in his work which enabled him to walk without faltering on a path which, to his wife, was the edge of a precipice. For him faith, for her doubt — for her the heavier burden: does not the woman ever suffer for the two? At this moment she chose to believe in his success, that she might justify to herself her connivance in the probable wreck of their fortunes.

“The love of all my life can be no recompense for your devotion, Pepita,” said Claes, deeply moved.

He had scarcely uttered the words when Marguerite and Felicie entered the room and wished him good-morning. Madame Claes lowered her eyes and remained for a moment speechless in presence of her children, whose future she had just sacrificed to a delusion; her husband, on the contrary, took them on his knees, and talked to them gaily, delighted to give vent to the joy that choked him.

From this day Madame Claes shared the impassioned life of her husband. The future of her children, their father’s credit, were two motives as powerful to her as glory and science were to Claes. After the diamonds were sold in Paris, and the purchase of chemicals was again begun, the unhappy woman never knew another hour’s peace of mind. The demon of Science and the frenzy of research which consumed her husband now agitated her own mind; she lived in a state of continual expectation, and sat half-lifeless for days together in the deep armchair, paralyzed by the very violence of her wishes, which, finding no food, like those of Balthazar, in the daily hopes of the laboratory, tormented her spirit and aggravated her doubts and fears. Sometimes, blaming herself for compliance with a passion whose object was futile and condemned by the Church, she would rise, go to the window on the courtyard and gaze with terror at the chimney of the laboratory. If the smoke were rising, an expression of despair came into her face, a conflict of thoughts and feelings raged in her heart and mind. She beheld her children’s future fleeing in that smoke, but — was she not saving their father’s life? was it not her first duty to make him happy? This last thought calmed her for a moment.

She obtained the right to enter the laboratory and remain there; but even this melancholy satisfaction was soon renounced. Her sufferings were too keen when she saw that Balthazar took no notice of her, or seemed at times annoyed by her presence; in that fatal place she went through paroxysms of jealous impatience, angry desires to destroy the building — a living death of untold miseries. Lemulquinier became to her a species of barometer: if she heard him whistle as he laid the breakfast-table or the dinner-table, she guessed that Balthazar’s experiments were satisfactory, and there were prospects of a coming success; if, on the other hand, the man were morose and gloomy, she looked at him and trembled — Balthazar must surely be dissatisfied. Mistress and valet ended by understanding each other, notwithstanding the proud reserve of the one and the reluctant submission of the other.

Feeble and defenceless against the terrible prostrations of thought, the poor woman at last gave way under the alternations of hope and despair which increased the distress of the loving wife, and the anxieties of the mother trembling for her children. She now practised the doleful silence which formerly chilled her heart, not observing the gloom that pervaded the house, where whole days went by in that melancholy parlor without a smile, often without a word. Led by sad maternal foresight, she trained her daughters to household work, and tried to make them skilful in womanly employments, that they might have the means of living if destitution came. The outward calm of this quiet home covered terrible agitations. Towards the end of the summer Balthazar had used the money derived from the diamonds, and was twenty thousand francs in debt to Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville.

In August, 1813, about a year after the scene with which this history begins, although Claes had made a few valuable experiments, for which, unfortunately, he cared but little, his efforts had been without result as to the real object of his researches. There came a day when he ended the whole series of experiments, and the sense of his impotence crushed him; the certainty of having fruitlessly wasted enormous sums of money drove him to despair. It was a frightful catastrophe. He left the garret, descended slowly to the parlor, and threw himself into a chair in the midst of his children, remaining motionless for some minutes as though dead, making no answer to the questions his wife pressed upon him. Tears came at last to his relief, and he rushed to his own chamber that no one might witness his despair.

Josephine followed him and drew him into her own room, where, alone with her, Balthazar gave vent to his anguish. These tears of a man, these broken words of the hopeless toiler, these bitter regrets of the husband and father, did Madame Claes more harm than all her past sufferings. The victim consoled the executioner. When Balthazar said to her in a tone of dreadful conviction: “I am a wretch; I have gambled away the lives of my children, and your life; you can have no happiness unless I kill myself,"— the words struck home to her heart; she knew her husband’s nature enough to fear he might at once act out the despairing wish: an inward convulsion, disturbing the very sources of life itself, seized her, and was all the more dangerous because she controlled its violent effects beneath a deceptive calm of manner.

“My friend,” she said, “I have consulted, not Pierquin, whose friendship does not hinder him from feeling some secret satisfaction at our ruin, but an old man who has been as good to me as a father. The Abbe de Solis, my confessor, has shown me how we can still save ourselves from ruin. He came to see the pictures. The value of those in the gallery is enough to pay the sums you have borrowed on your property, and also all that you owe to Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville, who have no doubt an account against you.”

Claes made an affirmative sign and bowed his head, the hair of which was now white.

“Monsieur de Solis knows the Happe and Duncker families of Amsterdam; they have a mania for pictures, and are anxious, like all parvenus, to display a luxury which ought to belong only to the old families: he thinks they will pay the full value of ours. By this means we can recover our independence, and out of the purchase money, which will amount to over one hundred thousand ducats, you will have enough to continue the experiments. Your daughters and I will be content with very little; we can fill up the empty frames with other pictures in course of time and by economy; meantime you will be happy.”

Balthazar raised his head and looked at his wife with a joy that was mingled with fear. Their roles were changed. The wife was the protector of the husband. He, so tender, he, whose heart was so at one with his Pepita’s, now held her in his arms without perceiving the horrible convulsion that made her palpitate, and even shook her hair and her lips with a nervous shudder.

“I dared not tell you,” he said, “that between me and the Unconditioned, the Absolute, scarcely a hair’s breadth intervenes. To gasify metals, I only need to find the means of submitting them to intense heat in some centre where the pressure of the atmosphere is nil — in short, in a vacuum.”

Madame Claes could not endure the egotism of this reply. She expected a passionate acknowledgment of her sacrifices — she received a problem in chemistry! The poor woman left her husband abruptly and returned to the parlor, where she fell into a chair between her frightened daughters, and burst into tears. Marguerite and Felicie took her hands, kneeling one on each side of her, not knowing the cause of her grief, and asking at intervals, “Mother, what is it?”

“My poor children, I am dying; I feel it.”

The answer struck home to Marguerite’s heart; she saw, for the first time on her mother’s face, the signs of that peculiar pallor which only comes on olive-tinted skins.

“Martha, Martha!” cried Felicie, “come quickly; mamma wants you.”

The old duenna ran in from the kitchen, and as soon as she saw the livid hue of the dusky skin usually high-colored, she cried out in Spanish —

“Body of Christ! madame is dying!”

Then she rushed precipitately back, told Josette to heat water for a footbath, and returned to the parlor.

“Don’t alarm Monsieur Claes; say nothing to him, Martha,” said her mistress. “My poor dear girls,” she added, pressing Marguerite and Felicie to her heart with a despairing action; “I wish I could live long enough to see you married and happy. Martha,” she continued, “tell Lemulquinier to go to Monsieur de Solis and ask him in my name to come here.”

The shock of this attack extended to the kitchen. Josette and Martha, both devoted to Madame Claes and her daughters, felt the blow in their own affections. Martha’s dreadful announcement — “Madame is dying; monsieur must have killed her; get ready a mustard-bath,"— forced certain exclamations from Josette, which she launched at Lemulquinier. He, cold and impassive, went on eating at the corner of a table before one of the windows of the kitchen, where all was kept as clean as the boudoir of a fine lady.

“I knew how it would end,” said Josette, glancing at the valet and mounting a stool to take down a copper kettle that shone like gold. “There’s no mother could stand quietly by and see a father amusing himself by chopping up a fortune like his into sausage-meat.”

Josette, whose head was covered by a round cap with crimped borders, which made it look like a German nut-cracker, cast a sour look at Lemulquinier, which the greenish tinge of her prominent little eyes made almost venomous. The old valet shrugged his shoulders with a motion worthy of Mirobeau when irritated; then he filled his large mouth with bread and butter sprinkled with chopped onion.

“Instead of thwarting monsieur, madame ought to give him more money,” he said; “and then we should soon be rich enough to swim in gold. There’s not the thickness of a farthing between us and —”

“Well, you’ve got twenty thousand francs laid by; why don’t you give ’em to monsieur? he’s your master, and if you are so sure of his doings —”

“You don’t know anything about them, Josette. Mind your pots and pans, and heat the water,” remarked the old Fleming, interrupting the cook.

“I know enough to know there used to be several thousand ounces of silver-ware about this house which you and your master have melted up; and if you are allowed to have your way, you’ll make ducks and drakes of everything till there’s nothing left.”

“And monsieur,” added Martha, entering the kitchen, “will kill madame, just to get rid of a woman who restrains him and won’t let him swallow up everything he’s got. He’s possessed by the devil; anybody can see that. You don’t risk your soul in helping him, Mulquinier, because you haven’t got any; look at you! sitting there like a bit of ice when we are all in such distress; the young ladies are crying like two Magdalens. Go and fetch Monsieur l’Abbe de Solis.”

“I’ve got something to do for monsieur. He told me to put the laboratory in order,” said the valet. “Besides, it’s too far — go yourself.”

“Just hear the brute!” cried Martha. “Pray who is to give madame her foot-bath? do you want her to die? she has got a rush of blood to the head.”

“Mulquinier,” said Marguerite, coming into the servants’ hall, which adjoined the kitchen, “on your way back from Monsieur de Solis, call at Dr. Pierquin’s house and ask him to come here at once.”

“Ha! you’ve got to go now,” said Josette.

“Mademoiselle, monsieur told me to put the laboratory in order,” said Lemulquinier, facing the two women and looking them down, with a despotic air.

“Father,” said Marguerite, to Monsieur Claes who was just then descending the stairs, “can you let Mulquinier do an errand for us in town?”

“Now you’re forced to go, you old barbarian!” cried Martha, as she heard Monsieur Claes put Mulquinier at his daughter’s bidding.

The lack of good-will and devotion shown by the old valet for the family whom he served was a fruitful cause of quarrel between the two women and Lemulquinier, whose cold-heartedness had the effect of increasing the loyal attachment of Josette and the old duenna.

This dispute, apparently so paltry, was destined to influence the future of the Claes family when, at a later period, they needed succor in misfortune.

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