Honore de Balzac
Part 2 out of 4
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
At the doorway Josephine turned, and threw to her husband, who was
sitting near the chimney, one of those gay smiles with which a
sensitive woman whose soul comes at moments into her face, rendering
it beautiful, gives expression to irresistible hopes. Woman's greatest
charm lies in her constant appeal to the generosity of man by the
admission of a weakness which stirs his pride and wakens him to the
nobler sentiments. Is not such an avowal of weakness full of magical
seduction? When the rings of the portiere had slipped with a muffled
sound along the wooden rod, she turned towards Claes, and made as
though she would hide her physical defects by resting her hand upon a
chair and drawing herself gracefully forward. It was calling him to
help her. Balthazar, sunk for a moment in contemplation of the
olive-tinted head, which attracted and satisfied the eye as it stood out
in relief against the soft gray background, rose to take his wife in his
arms and carry her to her sofa. This was what she wanted.
"You promised me," she said, taking his hand which she held between
her own magnetic palms, "to tell me the secret of your researches.
Admit, dear friend, that I am worthy to know it, since I have had the
courage to study a science condemned by the Church that I might be
able to understand you. I am curious; hide nothing from me. Tell me
first how it happened, that you rose one morning anxious and
oppressed, when over night I had left you happy."
"Is it to hear me talk of chemistry that you have made yourself so
"Dear friend, a confidence which puts me in your inner heart is the
greatest of all pleasures for me; is it not a communion of souls which
gives birth to the highest happiness of earth? Your love comes back to
me not lessened, pure; I long to know what dream has had the power to
keep it from me so long. Yes, I am more jealous of a thought than of
all the women in the world. Love is vast, but it is not infinite,
while Science has depths unfathomed, to which I will not let you go
alone. I hate all that comes between us. If you win the glory for
which you strive, I must be unhappy; it will bring you joy, while I--I
alone--should be the giver of your happiness."
"No, my angel, it was not an idea, not a thought; it was a man that
first led me into this glorious path."
"A man!" she cried in terror.
"Do you remember, Pepita, the Polish officer who stayed with us in
"Do I remember him!" she exclaimed; "I am often annoyed because my
memory still recalls those eyes, like tongues of fire darting from
coals of hell, those hollows above the eyebrows, that broad skull
stripped of hair, the upturned moustache, the angular, worn face!
--What awful impassiveness in his bearing! Ah! surely if there had
been a room in any inn I would never have allowed him to sleep here."
"That Polish gentleman," resumed Balthazar, "was named Adam de
Wierzchownia. When you left us alone that evening in the parlor, we
happened by chance to speak of chemistry. Compelled by poverty to give
up the study of that science, he had become a soldier. It was, I
think, by means of a glass of sugared water that we recognized each
other as adepts. When I ordered Mulquinier to bring the sugar in
pieces, the captain gave a start of surprise. 'Have you studied
chemistry?' he asked. 'With Lavoisier,' I answered. 'You are happy in
being rich and free,' he cried; then from the depths of his bosom came
the sigh of a man,--one of those sighs which reveal a hell of anguish
hidden in the brain or in the heart, a something ardent, concentrated,
not to be expressed in words. He ended his sentence with a look that
startled me. After a pause, he told me that Poland being at her last
gasp he had taken refuge in Sweden. There he had sought consolation
for his country's fate in the study of chemistry, for which he had
always felt an irresistible vocation. 'And I see you recognize as I
do,' he added, 'that gum arabic, sugar, and starch, reduced to powder,
each yield a substance absolutely similar, with, when analyzed, the
same qualitative result.'
"He paused again; and then, after examining me with a searching eye,
he said confidentially, in a low voice, certain grave words whose
general meaning alone remains fixed on my memory; but he spoke with a
force of tone, with fervid inflections, with an energy of gesture,
which stirred my very vitals, and struck my imagination as the hammer
strikes the anvil. I will tell you briefly the arguments he used,
which were to me like the live coal laid by the Almighty upon Isaiah's
tongue; for my studies with Lavoisier enabled me to understand their
"'Monsieur,' he said, 'the parity of these three substances, in
appearance so distinct, led me to think that all the productions of
nature ought to have a single principle. The researches of modern
chemistry prove the truth of this law in the larger part of natural
effects. Chemistry divides creation into two distinct parts,--organic
nature, and inorganic nature. Organic nature, comprising as it does
all animal and vegetable creations which show an organization more or
less perfect,--or, to be more exact, a greater or lesser motive power,
which gives more or less sensibility,--is, undoubtedly, the more
important part of our earth. Now, analysis has reduced all the
products of this nature to four simple substances, namely: three
gases, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, and another simple substance,
non-metallic and solid, carbon. Inorganic nature, on the contrary, so
simple, devoid of movement and sensation, denied the power of growth
(too hastily accorded to it by Linnaeus), possesses fifty-three simple
substances, or elements, whose different combinations make its
products. Is it probable that means should be more numerous where a
lesser number of results are produced?
"'My master's opinion was that these fifty-three primary bodies have
one originating principle, acted upon in the past by some force the
knowledge of which has perished to-day, but which human genius ought
to rediscover. Well, then, suppose that this force does live and act
again; we have chemical unity. Organic and inorganic nature would
apparently then rest on four essential principles,--in fact, if we
could decompose nitrogen which we ought to consider a negation, we
should have but three. This brings us at once close upon the great
Ternary of the ancients and of the alchemists of the Middle Ages, whom
we do wrong to scorn. Modern chemistry is nothing more than that. It
is much, and yet little,--much, because the science has never recoiled
before difficulty; little, in comparison with what remains to be done.
Chance has served her well, my noble Science! Is not that tear of
crystallized pure carbon, the diamond, seemingly the last substance
possible to create? The old alchemists, who thought that gold was
decomposable and therefore creatable, shrank from the idea of
producing the diamond. Yet we have discovered the nature and the law
of its composition.
"'As for me,' he continued, 'I have gone farther still. An experiment
proved to me that the mysterious Ternary, which has occupied the human
mind from time immemorial, will not be found by physical analyses,
which lack direction to a fixed point. I will relate, in the first
place, the experiment itself.
"'Sow cress-seed (to take one among the many substances of organic
nature) in flour of brimstone (to take another simple substance).
Sprinkle the seed with distilled water, that no unknown element may
reach the product of the germination. The seed germinates, and sprouts
from a known environment, and feeds only on elements known by
analysis. Cut off the stalks from time to time, till you get a
sufficient quantity to produce after burning them enough ashes for the
experiment. Well, by analyzing those ashes, you will obtain silicic
acid, aluminium, phosphate and carbonate of lime, carbonate of
magnesia, the sulphate and carbonate of potassium, and oxide of iron,
precisely as if the cress had grown in ordinary earth, beside a brook.
Now, those elements did not exist in the brimstone, a simple substance
which served for soil to the cress, nor in the distilled water with
which the plant was nourished, whose composition was known. But since
they are no more to be found in the seed itself, we can explain their
presence in the plant only by assuming the existence of a primary
element common to all the substances contained in the cress, and also
to all those by which we environed it. Thus the air, the distilled
water, the brimstone, and the various elements which analysis finds in
the cress, namely, potash, lime, magnesia, aluminium, etc., should
have one common principle floating in the atmosphere like light of the
"'From this unimpeachable experiment,' he cried, 'I deduce the
existence of the Alkahest, the Absolute,--a substance common to all
created things, differentiated by one primary force. Such is the net
meaning and position of the problem of the Absolute, which appears to
me to be solvable. In it we find the mysterious Ternary, before whose
shrine humanity has knelt from the dawn of ages,--the primary matter,
the medium, the product. We find that terrible number THREE in all
things human. It governs religions, sciences, and laws.
"'It was at this point,' he went on, 'that poverty put an end to my
researches. You were the pupil of Lavoisier, you are rich, and master
of your own time, I will therefore tell you my conjectures. Listen to
the conclusions my personal experiments have led me to foresee. The
PRIME MATTER must be the common principle in the three gases and in
carbon. The MEDIUM must be the principle common to negative and
positive electricity. Proceed to the discovery of the proofs that will
establish those two truths; you will then find the explanation of all
"'Oh, monsieur!' he cried, striking his brow, 'when I know that I
carry here the last word of Creation, when intuitively I perceive the
Unconditioned, is it LIVING to be dragged hither and thither in the
ruck of men who fly at each other's throats at the word of command
without knowing what they are doing? My actual life is an inverted
dream. My body comes and goes and acts; it moves amid bullets, and
cannon, and men; it crosses Europe at the will of a power I obey and
yet despise. My soul has no consciousness of these acts; it is fixed,
immovable, plunged in one idea, rapt in that idea, the Search for the
Alkahest,--for that principle by which seeds that are absolutely
alike, growing in the same environments, produce, some a white, others
a yellow flower. The same phenomenon is seen in silkworms fed from the
same leaves, and apparently constituted exactly alike,--one produces
yellow silk, another white; and if we come to man himself, we find
that children often resemble neither father nor mother. The logical
deduction from this fact surely involves the explanation of all the
phenomena of nature.
"'Ah, what can be more in harmony with our ideas of God than to
believe that he created all things by the simplest method? The
Pythagorean worship of ONE, from which come all other numbers, and
which represented Primal Matter; that of the number TWO, the first
aggregation and the type of all the rest; that of the number THREE,
which throughout all time has symbolized God,--that is to say, Matter,
Force, and Product,--are they not an echo, lingering along the ages,
of some confused knowledge of the Absolute? Stahl, Becker, Paracelsus,
Agrippa, all the great Searchers into occult causes took the Great
Triad for their watchword,--in other words, the Ternary. Ignorant men
who despise alchemy, that transcendent chemistry, are not aware that
our work is only carrying onward the passionate researches of those
great men. Had I found the Absolute, the Unconditioned, I meant to
have grappled with Motion. Ah! while I am swallowing gunpowder and
leading men uselessly to their death, my former master is piling
discovery upon discovery! he is soaring towards the Absolute, while I
--I shall die like a dog in the trenches!'
"When this poor grand man recovered his composure, he said, in a
touching tone of brotherhood, 'If I see cause for a great experiment I
will bequeath it to you before I die.'--My Pepita," cried Balthazar,
taking his wife's hands, "tears of anguish rolled down his hollow
cheeks, as he cast into my soul the fiery arguments that Lavoisier had
timidly recognized without daring to follow them out--"
"Oh!" cried Madame Claes, unable to refrain from interrupting her
husband, "that man, passing one night under our roof, was able to
deprive us of your love, to destroy with a phrase, a word, the
happiness of a family! Oh, my dear Balthazar, did he make the sign of
the cross? did you examine him? The Tempter alone could have had that
flaming eye which sent forth the fire of Prometheus. Yes, none but the
devil could have torn you from me. From that day you have been neither
husband, nor father, nor master of your family."
"What!" exclaimed Balthazar, springing to his feet and casting a
piercing glance at his wife, "do you blame your husband for rising
above the level of other men that he may lay at your feet the divine
purple of his glory, as a paltry offering in exchange for the
treasures of your heart! Ah, my Pepita," he cried, "you do not know
what I have done. In these three years I have made giant strides--"
His face seemed to his wife at this moment more transfigured under the
fires of genius than she had ever seen it under the fires of love; and
she wept as she listened to him.
"I have combined chlorine and nitrogen; I have decomposed many
substances hitherto considered simple; I have discovered new metals.
Why!" he continued, noticing that his wife wept, "I have even
decomposed tears. Tears contain a little phosphate of lime, chloride
of sodium, mucin, and water."
He went on speaking, without observing the spasm of pain that
contracted Josephine's features; he was again astride of Science,
which bore him with outspread wings far away from material existence.
"This analysis, my dear," he went on, "is one of the most convincing
proofs of the theory of the Absolute. All life involves combustion.
According to the greater or the lesser activity of the fire on its
hearth is life more or less enduring. In like manner, the destruction
of mineral bodies is indefinitely retarded, because in their case
combustion is nominal, latent, or imperceptible. In like manner,
again, vegetables, which are constantly revived by combinations
producing dampness, live indefinitely; in fact, we still possess
certain vegetables which existed before the period of the last
cataclysm. But each time that nature has perfected an organism and
then, for some unknown reason, has introduced into it sensation,
instinct, or intelligence (three marked stages of the organic system),
these three agencies necessitate a combustion whose activity is in
direct proportion to the result obtained. Man, who represents the
highest point of intelligence, and who offers us the only organism by
which we arrive at a power that is semi-creative--namely, THOUGHT--is,
among all zoological creations, the one in which combustion is found
in its most intense degree; whose powerful effects may in fact be seen
to some extent in the phosphates, sulphates, and carbonates which a
man's body reveals to our analysis. May not these substances be traces
left within him of the passage of the electric fluid which is the
principle of all fertilization? Would not electricity manifest itself
by a greater variety of compounds in him than in any other animal?
Should not he have faculties above those of all other created beings
for the purpose of absorbing fuller portions of the Absolute
principle? and may he not assimilate that principle so as to produce,
in some more perfect mechanism, his force and his ideas? I think so.
Man is a retort. In my judgment, the brain of an idiot contains too
little phosphorous or other product of electro-magnetism, that of a
madman too much; the brain of an ordinary man has but little, while
that of a man of genius is saturated to its due degree. The man
constantly in love, the street-porter, the dancer, the large eater,
are the ones who disperse the force resulting from their electrical
apparatus. Consequently, our feelings--"
"Enough, Balthazar! you terrify me; you commit sacrilege. What, is my
"An ethereal matter disengaged, an emanation, the key of the Absolute.
Conceive if I--I, the first, should find it, find it, find it!"
As he uttered the words in three rising tones, the expression of his
face rose by degrees to inspiration. "I shall make metals," he cried;
"I shall make diamonds, I shall be a co-worker with Nature!"
"Will you be the happier?" she asked in despair. "Accursed science!
accursed demon! You forget, Claes, that you commit the sin of pride,
the sin of which Satan was guilty; you assume the attributes of God."
"Oh! oh! God!"
"He denies Him!" she cried, wringing her hands. "Claes, God wields a
power that you can never gain."
At this argument, which seemed to discredit his beloved Science, he
looked at his wife and trembled.
"What power?" he asked.
"Primal force--motion," she replied. "This is what I learn from the
books your mania has constrained me to read. Analyze fruits, flowers,
Malaga wine; you will discover, undoubtedly, that their substances
come, like those of your water-cress, from a medium that seems foreign
to them. You can, if need be, find them in nature; but when you have
them, can you combine them? can you make the flowers, the fruits, the
Malaga wine? Will you have grasped the inscrutable effects of the sun,
of the atmosphere of Spain? Ah! decomposing is not creating."
"If I discover the magistral force, I shall be able to create."
"Will nothing stop him?" cried Pepita. "Oh! my love, my love! it is
killed! I have lost him!"
She wept bitterly, and her eyes, illumined by grief and by the
sanctity of the feelings that flooded her soul, shone with greater
beauty than ever through her tears.
"Yes," she resumed in a broken voice, "you are dead to all. I see it
but too well. Science is more powerful within you than your own self;
it bears you to heights from which you will return no more to be the
companion of a poor woman. What joys can I still offer you? Ah! I
would fain believe, as a wretched consolation, that God has indeed
created you to make manifest his works, to chant his praises; that he
has put within your breast the irresistible power that has mastered
you-- But no; God is good; he would keep in your heart some thoughts
of the woman who adores you, of the children you are bound to protect.
It is the Evil One alone who is helping you to walk amid these
fathomless abysses, these clouds of outer darkness, where the light of
faith does not guide you,--nothing guides you but a terrible belief in
your own faculties! Were it otherwise, would you not have seen that
you have wasted nine hundred thousand francs in three years? Oh! do me
justice, you, my God on earth! I reproach you not; were we alone I
would bring you, on my knees, all I possess and say, 'Take it, fling
it into your furnace, turn it into smoke'; and I should laugh to see
it float away in vapor. Were you poor, I would beg without shame for
the coal to light your furnace. Oh! could my body yield your hateful
Alkahest, I would fling myself upon those fires with joy, since your
glory, your delight is in that unfound secret. But our children,
Claes, our children! what will become of them if you do not soon
discover this hellish thing? Do you know why Pierquin came to-day? He
came for thirty thousand francs, which you owe and cannot pay. I told
him that you had the money, so that I might spare you the
mortification of his questions; but to get it I must sell our family
She saw her husband's eyes grow moist, and she flung herself
despairingly at his feet, raising up to him her supplicating hands.
"My friend," she cried, "refrain awhile from these researches; let us
economize, let us save the money that may enable you to take them up
hereafter,--if, indeed, you cannot renounce this work. Oh! I do not
condemn it; I will heat your furnaces if you ask it; but I implore
you, do not reduce our children to beggary. Perhaps you cannot love
them, Science may have consumed your heart; but oh! do not bequeath
them a wretched life in place of the happiness you owe them.
Motherhood has sometimes been too weak a power in my heart; yes, I
have sometimes wished I were not a mother, that I might be closer to
your soul, your life! And now, to stifle my remorse, must I plead the
cause of my children before you, and not my own?"
Her hair fell loose and floated over her shoulders, her eyes shot
forth her feelings as though they had been arrows. She triumphed over
her rival. Balthazar lifted her, carried her to the sofa, and knelt at
"Have I caused you such grief?" he said, in the tone of a man waking
from a painful dream.
"My poor Claes! yes, and you will cause me more, in spite of
yourself," she said, passing her hand over his hair. "Sit here beside
me," she continued, pointing to the sofa. "Ah! I can forget it all
now, now that you come back to us; all can be repaired--but you will
not abandon me again? say that you will not! My noble husband, grant
me a woman's influence on your heart, that influence which is so
needful to the happiness of suffering artists, to the troubled minds
of great men. You may be harsh to me, angry with me if you will, but
let me check you a little for your good. I will never abuse the power
if you will grant it. Be famous, but be happy too. Do not love
Chemistry better than you love us. Hear me, we will be generous; we
will let Science share your heart; but oh! my Claes, be just; let us
have our half. Tell me, is not my disinterestedness sublime?"
She made him smile. With the marvellous art such women possess, she
carried the momentous question into the regions of pleasantry where
women reign. But though she seemed to laugh, her heart was violently
contracted and could not easily recover the quiet even action that was
habitual to it. And yet, as she saw in the eyes of Balthazar the
rebirth of a love which was once her glory, the full return of a power
she thought she had lost, she said to him with a smile:--
"Believe me, Balthazar, nature made us to feel; and though you may
wish us to be mere electrical machines, yet your gases and your
ethereal disengaged matters will never explain the gift we possess of
looking into futurity."
"Yes," he exclaimed, "by affinity. The power of vision which makes the
poet, the power of deduction which makes the man of science, are based
on invisible affinities, intangible, imponderable, which vulgar minds
class as moral phenomena, whereas they are physical effects. The
prophet sees and deduces. Unfortunately, such affinities are too rare
and too obscure to be subjected to analysis or observation."
"Is this," she said, giving him a kiss to drive away the Chemistry she
had so unfortunately reawakened, "what you call an affinity?"
"No; it is a compound; two substances that are equivalents are
neutral, they produce no reaction--"
"Oh! hush, hush," she cried, "you will make me die of grief. I can
never bear to see my rival in the transports of your love."
"But, my dear life, I think only of you. My work is for the glory of
my family. You are the basis of all my hopes."
"Ah, look me in the eyes!"
The scene had made her as beautiful as a young woman; of her whole
person Balthazar saw only her head, rising from a cloud of lace and
"Yes, I have done wrong to abandon you for Science," he said. "If I
fall back into thought and preoccupation, then, my Pepita, you must
drag me from them; I desire it."
She lowered her eyes and let him take her hand, her greatest beauty,
--a hand that was both strong and delicate.
"But I ask more," she said.
"You are so lovely, so delightful, you can obtain all," he answered.
"I wish to destroy that laboratory, and chain up Science," she said,
with fire in her eyes.
"So be it--let Chemistry go to the devil!"
"This moment effaces all!" she cried. "Make me suffer now, if you
Tears came to Balthazar's eyes, as he heard these words.
"You were right, love," he said. "I have seen you through a veil; I
have not understood you."
"If it concerned only me," she said, "willingly would I have suffered
in silence, never would I have raised my voice against my sovereign.
But your sons must be thought of, Claes. If you continue to dissipate
your property, no matter how glorious the object you have in view the
world will take little account of it, it will only blame you and
yours. But surely, it is enough for a man of your noble nature that
his wife has shown him a danger he did not perceive. We will talk of
this no more," she cried, with a smile and a glance of coquetry.
"To-night, my Claes, let us not be less than happy."
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Father," said Marguerite, to Monsieur Claes who was just then
descending the stairs, "can you let Mulquinier do an errand for us in
"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
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 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
"Ah! there is Monsieur Emmanuel," said Felicie.
"That good young man!" exclaimed Madame Claes; "I am glad to welcome
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
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."
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
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
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
The good people of Douai were not surprised that visitors were no
longer received at the House of Claes, and that Balthazar gave no more
fetes on the anniversary of his marriage. Madame Claes's state of
health seemed a sufficient reason for the change, and the payment of
her husband's debts put a stop to the current gossip; moreover, the
political vicissitudes to which Flanders was subjected, the war of the
Hundred-days, and the occupation of the Allied armies, put the chemist
and his researches completely out of people's minds. During those two
years Douai was so often on the point of being taken, it was so
constantly occupied either by the French or by the enemy, so many
foreigners came there, so many of the country-people sought refuge
within its walls, so many lives were in peril, so many catastrophes
occurred, that each man thought only of himself.
The Abbe de Solis and his nephew, and the two Pierquins, doctor and
lawyer, were the only persons who now visited Madame Claes; for whom
the winter of 1814-1815 was a long and dreary death-scene. Her husband
rarely came to see her. It is true that after dinner he remained some
hours in the parlor, near her bed; but as she no longer had the
strength to keep up a conversation, he merely said a few words,
invariably the same, sat down, spoke no more, and a dreary silence
settled down upon the room. The monotony of this existence was broken
only on the days when the Abbe de Solis and his nephew passed the
evening with Madame Claes.
While the abbe played backgammon with Balthazar, Marguerite talked
with Emmanuel by the bedside of her mother, who smiled at their
innocent joy, not allowing them to see how painful and yet how
soothing to her wounded spirit were the fresh breezes of their virgin
love, murmuring in fitful words from heart to heart. The inflection of
their voices, to them so full of charm, to her was heart-breaking; a
glance of mutual understanding surprised between the two threw her,
half-dead as she was, back to the young and happy past which gave such
bitterness to the present. Emmanuel and Marguerite with intuitive
delicacy of feeling repressed the sweet half-childish play of love,
lest it should hurt the saddened woman whose wounds they instinctively
No one has yet remarked that feelings have an existence of their own,
a nature which is developed by the circumstances that environ them,
and in which they are born; they bear a likeness to the places of
their growth, and keep the imprint of the ideas that influenced their
development. There are passions ardently conceived which remain
ardent, like that of Madame Claes for her husband: there are
sentiments on which all life has smiled; these retain their
spring-time gaiety, their harvest-time of joy, seasons that never fail
of laughter or of fetes; but there are other loves, framed in melancholy,
circled by distress, whose pleasures are painful, costly, burdened by
fears, poisoned by remorse, or blackened by despair. The love in the
heart of Marguerite and Emmanuel, as yet unknown to them for love, the
sentiment that budded into life beneath the gloomy arches of the
picture-gallery, beside the stern old abbe, in a still and silent
moment, that love so grave and so discreet, yet rich in tender depths,
in secret delights that were luscious to the taste as stolen grapes
snatched from a corner of the vineyard, wore in coming years the
sombre browns and grays that surrounded the hour of its birth.
Fearing to give expression to their feelings beside that bed of pain,
they unconsciously increased their happiness by a concentration which
deepened its imprint on their hearts. The devotion of the daughter,
shared by Emmanuel, happy in thus uniting himself with Marguerite and
becoming by anticipation the son of her mother, was their medium of
communication. Melancholy thanks from the lips of the young girl
supplanted the honeyed language of lovers; the sighing of their
hearts, surcharged with joy at some interchange of looks, was scarcely
distinguishable from the sighs wrung from them by the mother's
sufferings. Their happy little moments of indirect avowal, of
unuttered promises, of smothered effusion, were like the allegories of
Raphael painted on a black ground. Each felt a certainty that neither
avowed; they knew the sun was shining over them, but they could not
know what wind might chase away the clouds that gathered about their
heads. They doubted the future; fearing that pain would ever follow
them, they stayed timidly among the shadows of the twilight, not
daring to say to each other, "Shall we end our days together?"
The tenderness which Madame Claes now testified for her children nobly
concealed much that she endeavored to hide from herself. Her children
caused her neither fear nor passionate emotion: they were her
comforters, but they were not her life: she lived by them; she died
through Balthazar. However painful her husband's presence might be to
her, lost as he was for hours together in depths of thought from which
he looked at her without seeing her, it was only during those cruel
moments that she forgot her griefs. His indifference to the dying
woman would have seemed criminal to a stranger, but Madame Claes and
her daughters were accustomed to it; they knew his heart and they
forgave him. If, during the daytime, Josephine was seized by some
sudden illness, if she were worse and seemed near dying, Claes was the
only person in the house or in the town who remained ignorant of it.
Lemulquinier knew it, but neither the daughters, bound to silence by
their mother, nor Josephine herself let Balthazar know the danger of
the being he had once so passionately loved.
When his heavy step sounded in the gallery as he came to dinner,
Madame Claes was happy--she was about to see him! and she gathered up
her strength for that happiness. As he entered, the pallid face
blushed brightly and recovered for an instant the semblance of health.
Balthazar came to her bedside, took her hand, saw the misleading color
on her cheek, and to him she seemed well. When he asked, "My dear
wife, how are you to-day?" she answered, "Better, dear friend," and
made him think she would be up and recovered on the morrow. His
preoccupation was so great that he accepted this reply, and believed
the illness of which his wife was dying a mere indisposition. Dying to
the eyes of the world, in his alone she was living.
A complete separation between husband and wife was the result of this
year. Claes slept in a distant chamber, got up early in the morning,
and shut himself into his laboratory or his study. Seeing his wife
only in presence of his daughters or of the two or three friends who
came to visit them, he lost the habit of communicating with her. These
two beings, formerly accustomed to think as one, no longer, unless at
rare intervals, enjoyed those moments of communion, of passionate
unreserve which feed the life of the heart; and finally there came a
time when even these rare pleasures ceased. Physical suffering was now
a boon to the poor woman, helping her to endure the void of
separation, which might have killed her had she been truly living. Her
bodily pain became so great that there were times when she was joyful
in the thought that he whom she loved was not a witness of it. She lay
watching Balthazar in the evening hours, and knowing him happy in his
own way, she lived in the happiness she had procured for him,--a
shadowy joy, and yet it satisfied her. She no longer asked herself if
she were loved, she forced herself to believe it; and she glided over
that icy surface, not daring to rest her weight upon it lest it should
break and drown her soul in a gulf of awful nothingness.
No events stirred the calm of this existence; the malady that was
slowly consuming Madame Claes added to the household stillness, and in
this condition of passive gloom the House of Claes reached the first
weeks of the year 1816. Pierquin, the lawyer, was destined, at the
close of February, to strike the death-blow of the fragile woman who,
in the words of the Abbe de Solis, was well-nigh without sin.
"Madame," said Pierquin, seizing a moment when her daughters could not
hear the conversation, "Monsieur Claes has directed me to borrow three
hundred thousand francs on his property. You must do something to
protect the future of your children."
Madame Claes clasped her hands and raised her eyes to the ceiling;
then she thanked the notary with a sad smile and a kindly motion of
her head which affected him.
His words were the stab that killed her. During that day she had
yielded herself up to sad reflections which swelled her heart; she was
like the wayfarer walking beside a precipice who loses his balance and
a mere pebble rolls him to the depth of the abyss he had so long and
so courageously skirted. When the notary left her, Madame Claes told
Marguerite to bring writing materials; then she gathered up her
remaining strength to write her last wishes. Several times she paused
and looked at her daughter. The hour of confidence had come.
Marguerite's management of the household since her mother's illness
had amply fulfilled the dying woman's hopes that Madame Claes was able
to look upon the future of the family without absolute despair,
confident that she herself would live again in this strong and loving
angel. Both women felt, no doubt, that sad and mutual confidences must
now be made between them; the daughter looked at the mother, the
mother at the daughter, tears flowing from their eyes. Several times,
as Madame Claes rested from her writing, Marguerite said: "Mother?"
then she dropped as if choking; but the mother, occupied with her last
thoughts, did not ask the meaning of the interrogation. At last,
Madame Claes wished to seal the letter; Marguerite held the taper,
turning aside her head that she might not see the superscription.
"You can read it, my child," said the mother, in a heart-rending
The young girl read the words, "To my daughter Marguerite."
"We will talk to each other after I have rested awhile," said Madame
Claes, putting the letter under her pillow.
Then she fell back as if exhausted by the effort, and slept for
several hours. When she woke, her two daughters and her two sons were
kneeling by her bed and praying. It was Thursday. Gabriel and Jean had
been brought from school by Emmanuel de Solis, who for the last six
months was professor of history and philosophy.
"Dear children, we must part!" she cried. "You have never forsaken me,
never! and he who--"
"Monsieur Emmanuel," said Marguerite, seeing the pallor on her
mother's face, "go to my father, and tell him mamma is worse."
Young de Solis went to the door of the laboratory and persuaded
Lemulquinier to make Balthazar come and speak to him. On hearing of
the urgent request of the young man, Claes answered, "I will come."
"Emmanuel," said Madame Claes when he returned to her, "take my sons
away, and bring your uncle here. It is time to give me the last
sacraments, and I wish to receive them from his hand."
When she was alone with her daughters she made a sign to Marguerite,
who understood her and sent Felicie away.
"I have something to say to you myself, dear mamma," said Marguerite
who, not believing her mother so ill as she really was, increased the
wound Pierquin had given. "I have had no money for the household
expenses during the last ten days; I owe six months' wages to the
servants. Twice I have tried to ask my father for money, but did not
dare to do so. You don't know, perhaps, that all the pictures in the
gallery have been sold, and all the wines in the cellar?"
"He never told me!" exclaimed Madame Claes. "My God! thou callest me
to thyself in time! My poor children! what will become of them?"
She made a fervent prayer, which brought the fires of repentance to
"Marguerite," she resumed, drawing the letter from her pillow, "here
is a paper which you must not open or read until a time, after my
death, when some great disaster has overtaken you; when, in short, you
are without the means of living. My dear Marguerite, love your father,
but take care of your brothers and your sister. In a few days, in a
few hours perhaps, you will be the head of this household. Be
economical. Should you find yourself opposed to the wishes of your
father,--and it may so happen, because he has spent vast sums in
searching for a secret whose discovery is to bring glory and wealth to
his family, and he will no doubt need money, perhaps he may demand it
of you,--should that time come, treat him with the tenderness of a
daughter, strive to reconcile the interests of which you will be the
sole protector with the duty which you owe to a father, to a great man
who sacrificed his happiness and his life to the glory of his family;
he can only do wrong in act, his intentions are noble, his heart is
full of love; you will see him once more kind and affectionate--YOU!
Marguerite, it is my duty to say these words to you on the borders of
the grave. If you wish to soften the anguish of my death, promise me,
my child, to take my place beside your father; to cause him no grief;
never to reproach him; never to condemn him. Be a gentle, considerate
guardian of the home until--his work accomplished--he is again the
master of his family."
"I understand you, dear mother," said Marguerite, kissing the swollen
eyelids of the dying woman. "I will do as you wish."
"Do not marry, my darling, until Gabriel can succeed you in the
management of the property and the household. If you married, your
husband might not share your feelings, he might bring trouble into the
family and disturb your father's life."
Marguerite looked at her mother and said, "Have you nothing else to
say to me about my marriage?"
"Can you hesitate, my child?" cried the dying woman in alarm.
"No," the daughter answered; "I promise to obey you."
"Poor girl! I did not sacrifice myself for you," said the mother,
shedding hot tears. "Yet I ask you to sacrifice yourself for all.
Happiness makes us selfish. Be strong; preserve your own good sense to
guard others who as yet have none. Act so that your brothers and your
sister may not reproach my memory. Love your father, and do not oppose
She laid her head on her pillow and said no more; her strength was
gone; the inward struggle between the Wife and the Mother had been too
A few moments later the clergy came, preceded by the Abbe de Solis,
and the parlor was filled by the children and the household. When the
ceremony was about to begin, Madame Claes, awakened by her confessor,
looked about her and not seeing Balthazar said quickly,--
"Where is my husband?"
Those words--summing up, as it were, her life and her death--were
uttered in such lamentable tones that all present shuddered. Martha,
in spite of her great age, darted out of the room, ran up the
staircase and through the gallery, and knocked loudly on the door of
"Monsieur, madame is dying; they are waiting for you, to administer
the last sacraments," she cried with the violence of indignation.
"I am coming," answered Balthazar.
Lemulquinier came down a moment later, and said his master was
following him. Madame Claes's eyes never left the parlor door, but her
husband did not appear until the ceremony was over. When at last he
entered, Josephine colored and a few tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Were you trying to decompose nitrogen?" she said to him with an
angelic tenderness which made the spectators quiver.
"I have done it!" he cried joyfully; "Nitrogen contains oxygen and a
substance of the nature of imponderable matter, which is apparently
the principle of--"
A murmur of horror interrupted his words and brought him to his
"What did they tell me?" he demanded. "Are you worse? What is the
"This is the matter, monsieur," whispered the Abbe de Solis, indignant
at his conduct; "your wife is dying, and you have killed her."
Without waiting for an answer the abbe took the arm of his nephew and
went out followed by the family, who accompanied him to the
court-yard. Balthazar stood as if thunderstruck; he looked at his wife,
and a few tears dropped from his eyes.
"You are dying, and I have killed you!" he said. "What does he mean?"
"My husband," she answered, "I only lived in your love, and you have
taken my life away from me; but you knew not what you did."
"Leave us," said Claes to his children, who now re-entered the room.
"Have I for one moment ceased to love you?" he went on, sitting down
beside his wife, and taking her hands and kissing them.
"My friend, I do not blame you. You made me happy--too happy, for I
have not been able to bear the contrast between our early married
life, so full of joy, and these last days, so desolate, so empty, when
you are not yourself. The life of the heart, like the life of the
body, has its functions. For six years you have been dead to love, to
the family, to all that was once our happiness. I will not speak of
our early married days; such joys must cease in the after-time of
life, but they ripen into fruits which feed the soul,--confidence
unlimited, the tender habits of affection: you have torn those
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