Honore de Balzac
Part 4 out of 4
laughing in the fields; all felt the heat and knew the storm was
coming, but they held up their heads and continued on their way.
Monsieur Conyncks was the first to leave the room, conducted by
Balthazar to his chamber. During the latter's absence Pierquin and
Monsieur de Solis went away. Marguerite bade the notary good-night
with much affection; she said nothing to Emmanuel, but she pressed his
hand and gave him a tearful glance. She sent Felicie away, and when
Claes returned to the parlor he found his daughter alone.
"My kind father," she said in a trembling voice, "nothing could have
made me leave home but the serious position in which we found
ourselves; but now, after much anxiety, after surmounting the greatest
difficulties, I return with some chances of deliverance for all of us.
Thanks to your name, and to my uncle's influence, and to the support
of Monsieur de Solis, we have obtained for you an appointment under
government as receiver of customs in Bretagne; the place is worth,
they say, eighteen to twenty thousand francs a year. Our uncle has
given bonds as your security. Here is the nomination," she added,
drawing a paper from her bag. "Your life in Douai, in this house,
during the coming years of privation and sacrifice would be
intolerable to you. Our father must be placed in a situation at least
equal to that in which he has always lived. I ask nothing from the
salary you will receive from this appointment; employ it as you see
fit. I will only beg you to remember that we have not a penny of
income, and that we must live on what Gabriel can give us out of his.
The town shall know nothing of our inner life. If you were still to
live in this house you would be an obstacle to the means my sister and
I are about to employ to restore comfort and ease to the home. Have I
abused the authority you gave me by putting you in a position to
remake your own fortune? In a few years, if you so will, you can
easily become the receiver-general."
"In other words, Marguerite," said Balthazar, gently, "you turn me out
of my own house."
"I do not deserve that bitter reproach," replied the daughter,
quelling the tumultuous beatings of her heart. "You will come back to
us in a manner becoming to your dignity. Besides, father, I have your
promise. You are bound to obey me. My uncle has stayed here that he
might himself accompany you to Bretagne, and not leave you to make the
"I shall not go," said Balthazar, rising; "I need no help from any one
to restore my property and pay what I owe to my children."
"It would be better, certainly," replied Marguerite, calmly. "But now
I ask you to reflect on our respective situations, which I will
explain in a few words. If you stay in this house your children will
leave it, so that you may remain its master."
"Marguerite!" cried Balthazar.
"In that case," she said, continuing her words without taking notice
of her father's anger, "it will be necessary to notify the minister of
your refusal, if you decide not to accept this honorable and lucrative
post, which, in spite of our many efforts, we should never have
obtained but for certain thousand-franc notes my uncle slipped into
the glove of a lady."
"My children leave me!" he exclaimed.
"You must leave us or we must leave you," she said. "If I were your
only child, I should do as my mother did, without murmuring against my
fate; but my brothers and sister shall not perish beside you with
hunger and despair. I promised it to her who died there," she said,
pointing to the place where her mother's bed had stood. "We have
hidden our troubles from you; we have suffered in silence; our
strength is gone. My father, we are not on the edge of an abyss, we
are at the bottom of it. Courage is not sufficient to drag us out of
it; our efforts must not be incessantly brought to nought by the
caprices of a passion."
"My dear children," cried Balthazar, seizing Marguerite's hand, "I
will help you, I will work, I--"
"Here is the means," she answered, showing him the official letter.
"But, my darling, the means you offer me are too slow; you make me
lose the fruits of ten years' work, and the enormous sums of money
which my laboratory represents. There," he said, pointing towards the
garret, "are our real resources."
Marguerite walked towards the door, saying:--
"Father, you must choose."
"Ah! my daughter, you are very hard," he replied, sitting down in an
armchair and allowing her to leave him.
The next morning, on coming downstairs, Marguerite learned from
Lemulquinier that Monsieur Claes had gone out. This simple
announcement turned her pale; her face was so painfully significant
that the old valet remarked hastily:--
"Don't be troubled, mademoiselle; monsieur said he would be back at
eleven o'clock to breakfast. He didn't go to bed all night. At two in
the morning he was still standing in the parlor, looking through the
window at the laboratory. I was waiting up in the kitchen; I saw him;
he wept; he is in trouble. Here's the famous month of July when the
sun is able to enrich us all, and if you only would--"
"Enough," said Marguerite, divining the thoughts that must have
assailed her father's mind.
A phenomenon which often takes possession of persons leading sedentary
lives had seized upon Balthazar; his life depended, so to speak, on
the places with which it was identified; his thought was so wedded to
his laboratory and to the house he lived in that both were
indispensable to him,--just as the Bourse becomes a necessity to a
stock-gambler, to whom the public holidays are so much lost time. Here
were his hopes; here the heavens contained the only atmosphere in
which his lungs could breathe the breath of life. This alliance of
places and things with men, which is so powerful in feeble natures,
becomes almost tyrannical in men of science and students. To leave his
house was, for Balthazar, to renounce Science, to abandon the Problem,
--it was death.
Marguerite was a prey to anxiety until the breakfast hour. The former
scene in which Balthazar had meant to kill himself came back to her
memory, and she feared some tragic end to the desperate situation in
which her father was placed. She came and went restlessly about the
parlor, and quivered every time the bell or the street-door sounded.
At last Balthazar returned. As he crossed the courtyard Marguerite
studied his face anxiously and could see nothing but an expression of
stormy grief. When he entered the parlor she went towards him to bid
him good-morning; he caught her affectionately round the waist,
pressed her to his heart, kissed her brow, and whispered,--
"I have been to get my passport."
The tones of his voice, his resigned look, his feeble movements,
crushed the poor girl's heart; she turned away her head to conceal her
tears, and then, unable to repress them, she went into the garden to
weep at her ease. During breakfast, Balthazar showed the cheerfulness
of a man who had come to a decision.
"So we are to start for Bretagne, uncle," he said to Monsieur
Conyncks. "I have always wished to go there."
"It is a place where one can live cheaply," replied the old man.
"Is our father going away?" cried Felicie.
Monsieur de Solis entered, bringing Jean.
"You must leave him with me to-day," said Balthazar, putting his son
beside him. "I am going away to-morrow, and I want to bid him
Emmanuel glanced at Marguerite, who held down her head. It was a
gloomy day for the family; every one was sad, and tried to repress
both thoughts and tears. This was not an absence, it was an exile. All
instinctively felt the humiliation of the father in thus publicly
declaring his ruin by accepting an office and leaving his family, at
Balthazar's age. At this crisis he was great, while Marguerite was
firm; he seemed to accept nobly the punishment of faults which the
tyrannous power of genius had forced him to commit. When the evening
was over, and father and daughter were again alone, Balthazar, who
throughout the day had shown himself tender and affectionate as in the
first years of his fatherhood, held out his hand and said to
Marguerite with a tenderness that was mingled with despair,--
"Are you satisfied with your father?"
"You are worthy of HIM," said Marguerite, pointing to the portrait of
The next morning Balthazar, followed by Lemulquinier, went up to the
laboratory, as if to bid farewell to the hopes he had so fondly
cherished, and which in that scene of his toil were living things to
him. Master and man looked at each other sadly as they entered the
garret they were about to leave, perhaps forever. Balthazar gazed at
the various instruments over which his thoughts so long had brooded;
each was connected with some experiment or some research. He sadly
ordered Lemulquinier to evaporate the gases and the dangerous acids,
and to separate all substances which might produce explosions. While
taking these precautions, he gave way to bitter regrets, like those
uttered by a condemned man before going to the scaffold.
"Here," he said, stopping before a china capsule in which two wires of
a voltaic pile were dipped, "is an experiment whose results ought to
be watched. If it succeeds--dreadful thought!--my children will have
driven from their home a father who could fling diamonds at their
feet. In a combination of carbon and sulphur," he went on, speaking to
himself, "carbon plays the part of an electro-positive substance; the
crystallization ought to begin at the negative pole; and in case of
decomposition, the carbon would crop into crystals--"
"Ah! is that how it would be?" said Lemulquinier, contemplating his
master with admiration.
"Now here," continued Balthazar, after a pause, "the combination is
subject to the influence of the galvanic battery, which may act--"
"If monsieur wishes, I can increase its force."
"No, no; leave it as it is. Perfect stillness and time are the
conditions of crystallization--"
"Confound it, it takes time enough, that crystallization," cried the
old valet impatiently.
"If the temperature goes down, the sulphide of carbon will
crystallize," said Balthazar, continuing to give forth shreds of
indistinct thoughts which were parts of a complete conception in his
own mind; "but if the battery works under certain conditions of which
I am ignorant--it must be watched carefully--it is quite possible
that-- Ah! what am I thinking of? It is no longer a question of
chemistry, my friend; we are to keep accounts in Bretagne."
Claes rushed precipitately from the laboratory, and went downstairs to
take a last breakfast with his family, at which Pierquin and Monsieur
de Solis were present. Balthazar, hastening to end the agony Science
had imposed upon him, bade his children farewell and got into the
carriage with his uncle, all the family accompanying him to the
threshold. There, as Marguerite strained her father to her breast with
a despairing pressure, he whispered in her ear, "You are a good girl;
I bear you no ill-will"; then she darted through the court-yard into
the parlor, and flung herself on her knees upon the spot where her
mother had died, and prayed to God to give her strength to accomplish
the hard task that lay before her. She was already strengthened by an
inward voice, sounding in her heart the encouragement of angels and
the gratitude of her mother, when her sister, her brother, Emmanuel,
and Pierquin came in, after watching the carriage until it
"And now, mademoiselle, what do you intend to do!" said Pierquin.
"Save the family," she answered simply. "We own nearly thirteen
hundred acres at Waignies. I intend to clear them, divide them into
three farms, put up the necessary buildings, and then let them. I
believe that in a few years, with patience and great economy, each of
us," motioning to her sister and brother, "will have a farm of over
four-hundred acres, which may bring in, some day, a rental of nearly
fifteen thousand francs. My brother Gabriel will have this house, and
all that now stands in his name on the Grand-Livre, for his portion.
We shall then be able to redeem our father's property and return it to
him free from all encumbrance, by devoting our incomes, each of us, to
paying off his debts."
"But, my dear cousin," said the lawyer, amazed at Marguerite's
understanding of business and her cool judgment, "you will need at
least two hundred thousand francs to clear the land, build your
houses, and purchase cattle. Where will you get such a sum?"
"That is where my difficulties begin," she said, looking alternately
at Pierquin and de Solis; "I cannot ask it from my uncle, who has
already spent much money for us and has given bonds as my father's
"You have friends!" cried Pierquin, suddenly perceiving that the
demoiselles Claes were "four-hundred-thousand-franc girls," after all.
Emmanuel de Solis looked tenderly at Marguerite. Pierquin,
unfortunately for himself, was a notary still, even in the midst of
his enthusiasm, and he promptly added,--
"I will lend you these two hundred thousand francs."
Marguerite and Emmanuel consulted each other with a glance which was a
flash of light to Pierquin; Felicie colored highly, much gratified to
find her cousin as generous as she desired him to be. She looked at
her sister, who suddenly guessed the fact that during her absence the
poor girl had allowed herself to be caught by Pierquin's meaningless
"You shall only pay me five per cent interest," went on the lawyer,
"and refund the money whenever it is convenient to do so; I will take
a mortgage on your property. And don't be uneasy; you shall only have
the outlay on your improvements to pay; I will find you trustworthy
farmers, and do all your business gratuitously, so as to help you like
a good relation."
Emmanuel made Marguerite a sign to refuse the offer, but she was too
much occupied in studying the changes of her sister's face to perceive
it. After a slight pause, she looked at the notary with an amused
smile, and answered of her own accord, to the great joy of Monsieur de
"You are indeed a good relation,--I expected nothing less of you; but
an interest of five per cent would delay our release too long. I shall
wait till my brother is of age, and then we will sell out what he has
in the Funds."
Pierquin bit his lip. Emmanuel smiled quietly.
"Felicie, my dear child, take Jean back to school; Martha will go with
you," said Marguerite to her sister. "Jean, my angel, be a good boy;
don't tear your clothes, for we shall not be rich enough to buy you as
many new ones as we did. Good-bye, little one; study hard."
Felicie carried off her brother.
"Cousin," said Marguerite to Pierquin, "and you, monsieur," she said
to Monsieur de Solis, "I know you have been to see my father during my
absence, and I thank you for that proof of friendship. You will not do
less I am sure for two poor girls who will be in need of counsel. Let
us understand each other. When I am at home I shall receive you both
with the greatest of pleasure, but when Felicie is here alone with
Josette and Martha, I need not tell you that she ought to see no one,
not even an old friend or the most devoted of relatives. Under the
circumstances in which we are placed, our conduct must be
irreproachable. We are vowed to toil and solitude for a long, long
There was silence for some minutes. Emmanuel, absorbed in
contemplation of Marguerite's head, seemed dumb. Pierquin did not know
what to say. He took leave of his cousin with feelings of rage against
himself; for he suddenly perceived that Marguerite loved Emmanuel, and
that he, Pierquin, had just behaved like a fool.
"Pierquin, my friend," he said, apostrophizing himself in the street,
"if a man said you were an idiot he would tell the truth. What a fool
I am! I've got twelve thousand francs a year outside of my business,
without counting what I am to inherit from my uncle des Racquets,
which is likely to double my fortune (not that I wish him dead, he is
so economical), and I've had the madness to ask interest from
Mademoiselle Claes! I know those two are jeering at me now! I mustn't
think of Marguerite any more. No. After all, Felicie is a sweet,
gentle little creature, who will suit me much better. Marguerite's
character is iron; she would want to rule me--and--she would rule me.
Come, come, let's be generous; I wish I was not so much of a lawyer:
am I never to get that harness off my back? Bless my soul! I'll begin
to fall in love with Felicie, and I won't budge from that sentiment.
She will have a farm of four hundred and thirty acres, which, sooner
or later, will be worth twelve or fifteen thousand francs a year, for
the soil about Waignies is excellent. Just let my old uncle des
Racquets die, poor dear man, and I'll sell my practice and be a man of
leisure, with fifty--thou--sand--francs--a--year. My wife is a Claes,
I'm allied to the great families. The deuce! we'll see if those
Courtevilles and Magalhens and Savaron de Savarus will refuse to come
and dine with a Pierquin-Claes-Molina-Nourho. I shall be mayor of
Douai; I'll obtain the cross, and get to be deputy--in short,
everything. Ha, ha! Pierquin, my boy, now keep yourself in hand;
no more nonsense, because--yes, on my word of honor--Felicie
--Mademoiselle Felicie Van Claes--loves you!"
When the lovers were left alone Emmanuel held out his hand to
Marguerite, who did not refuse to put her right hand into it. They
rose with one impulse and moved towards their bench in the garden; but
as they reached the middle of the parlor, the lover could not resist
his joy, and, in a voice that trembled with emotion, he said,--
"I have three hundred thousand francs of yours."
"What!" she cried, "did my poor mother entrust them to you? No? then
where did you get them?"
"Oh, my Marguerite! all that is mine is yours. Was it not you who
first said the word 'ourselves'?"
"Dear Emmanuel!" she exclaimed, pressing the hand which still held
hers; and then, instead of going into the garden, she threw herself
into a low chair.
"It is for me to thank you," he said, with the voice of love, "since
you accept all."
"Oh, my dear beloved one," she cried, "this moment effaces many a
grief and brings the happy future nearer. Yes, I accept your fortune,"
she continued, with the smile of an angel upon her lips, "I know the
way to make it mine."
She looked up at the picture of Van Claes as if calling him to
witness. The young man's eyes followed those of Marguerite, and he did
not notice that she took a ring from her finger until he heard the
"From the depths of our greatest misery one comfort rises. My father's
indifference leaves me the free disposal of myself," she said, holding
out the ring. "Take it, Emmanuel. My mother valued you--she would have
The young man turned pale with emotion and fell on his knees beside
her, offering in return a ring which he always wore.
"This is my mother's wedding-ring," he said, kissing it. "My
Marguerite, am I to have no other pledge than this?"
She stooped a little till her forehead met his lips.
"Alas, dear love," she said, greatly agitated, "are we not doing
wrong? We have so long to wait!"
"My uncle used to say that adoration was the daily bread of patience,
--he spoke of Christians who love God. That is how I love you; I have
long mingled my love for you with my love for Him. I am yours as I am
They remained for a few moments in the power of this sweet enthusiasm.
It was the calm, sincere effusion of a feeling which, like an
overflowing spring, poured forth its superabundance in little
wavelets. The events which separated these lovers produced a
melancholy which only made their happiness the keener, giving it a
sense of something sharp, like pain.
Felicie came back too soon. Emmanuel, inspired by that delightful
tact of love which discerns all feelings, left the sisters alone,
--exchanging a look with Marguerite to let her know how much this
discretion cost him, how hungry his soul was for that happiness so
long desired, which had just been consecrated by the betrothal of
"Come here, little sister," said Marguerite, taking Felicie round the
neck. Then, passing into the garden they sat down on the bench where
generation after generation had confided to listening hearts their
words of love, their sighs of grief, their meditations and their
projects. In spite of her sister's joyous tone and lively manner,
Felicie experienced a sensation that was very like fear. Marguerite
took her hand and felt it tremble.
"Mademoiselle Felicie," said the elder, with her lips at her sister's
ear. "I read your soul. Pierquin has been here often in my absence,
and he has said sweet words to you, and you have listened to them."
Felicie blushed. "Don't defend yourself, my angel," continued
Marguerite, "it is so natural to love! Perhaps your dear nature will
improve his; he is egotistical and self-interested, but for all that
he is a good man, and his defects may even add to your happiness. He
will love you as the best of his possessions; you will be a part of
his business affairs. Forgive me this one word, dear love; you will
soon correct the bad habit he has acquired of seeing money in
everything, by teaching him the business of the heart."
Felicie could only kiss her sister.
"Besides," added Marguerite, "he has property; and his family belongs
to the highest and the oldest bourgeoisie. But you don't think I would
oppose your happiness even if the conditions were less prosperous, do
Felicie let fall the words, "Dear sister."
"Yes, you may confide in me," cried Marguerite, "sisters can surely
tell each other their secrets."
These words, so full of heartiness, opened the way to one of those
delightful conversations in which young girls tell all. When
Marguerite, expert in love, reached an understanding of the real state
of Felicie's heart, she wound up their talk by saying:--
"Well, dear child, let us make sure he truly loves you, and--then--"
"Ah!" cried Felicie, laughing, "leave me to my own devices; I have a
model before my eyes."
"Saucy child!" exclaimed Marguerite, kissing her.
Though Pierquin belonged to the class of men who regard marriage as
the accomplishment of a social duty and the means of transmitting
property, and though he was indifferent to which sister he should
marry so long as both had the same name and the same dower, he did
perceive that the two were, to use his own expression, "romantic and
sentimental girls," adjectives employed by commonplace people to
ridicule the gifts which Nature sows with grudging hand along the
furrows of humanity. The lawyer no doubt said to himself that he had
better swim with the stream; and accordingly the next day he came to
see Marguerite, and took her mysteriously into the little garden,
where he began to talk sentiment,--that being one of the clauses of
the primal contract which, according to social usage, must precede the
"Dear cousin," he said, "you and I have not always been of one mind as
to the best means of bringing your affairs to a happy conclusion; but
you do now, I am sure, admit that I have always been guided by a great
desire to be useful to you. Well, yesterday I spoiled my offer by a
fatal habit which the legal profession forces upon us--you understand
me? My heart did not share in the folly. I have loved you well; but I
have a certain perspicacity, legal perhaps, which obliges me to see
that I do not please you. It is my own fault; another has been more
successful than I. Well, I come now to tell you, like an honest man,
that I sincerely love your sister Felicie. Treat me therefore as a
brother; accept my purse, take what you will from it,--the more you
take the better you prove your regard for me. I am wholly at your
service--WITHOUT INTEREST, you understand, neither at twelve nor at
one quarter per cent. Let me be thought worthy of Felicie, that is all
I ask. Forgive my defects; they come from business habits; my heart is
good, and I would fling myself into the Scarpe sooner than not make my
"This is all satisfactory, cousin," answered Marguerite; "but my
sister's choice depends upon herself and also on my father's will."
"I know that, my dear cousin," said the lawyer, "but you are the
mother of the whole family; and I have nothing more at heart than that
you should judge me rightly."
This conversation paints the mind of the honest notary. Later in life,
Pierquin became celebrated by his reply to the commanding officer at
Saint-Omer, who had invited him to be present at a military fete; the
note ran as follows: "Monsieur Pierquin-Claes de Molina-Nourho, mayor
of the city of Douai, chevalier of the Legion of honor, will have THAT
of being present, etc."
Marguerite accepted the lawyer's offer only so far as it related to
his professional services, so that she might not in any degree
compromise either her own dignity as a woman, or her sister's future,
or her father's authority.
The next day she confided Felicie to the care of Martha and Josette
(who vowed themselves body and soul to their young mistress, and
seconded all her economies), and started herself for Waignies, where
she began operations, which were judiciously overlooked and directed
by Pierquin. Devotion was now set down as a good speculation in the
mind of that worthy man; his care and trouble were in fact an
investment, and he had no wish to be niggardly in making it. First he
contrived to save Marguerite the trouble of clearing the land and
working the ground intended for the farms. He found three young men,
sons of rich farmers, who were anxious to settle themselves in life,
and he succeeded, through the prospect he held out to them of the
fertility of the land, in making them take leases of the three farms
on which the buildings were to be constructed. To gain possession of
the farms rent-free for three years the tenants bound themselves to
pay ten thousand francs a year the fourth year, twelve thousand the
sixth year, and fifteen thousand for the remainder of the term; to
drain the land, make the plantations, and purchase the cattle. While
the buildings were being put up the farmers were to clear the land.
Four years after Balthazar Claes's departure from his home Marguerite
had almost recovered the property of her brothers and sister. Two
hundred thousand francs, lent to her by Emmanuel, had sufficed to put
up the farm buildings. Neither help nor counsel was withheld from the
brave girl, whose conduct excited the admiration of the whole town.
Marguerite superintended the buildings, and looked after her contracts
and leases with the good sense, activity, and perseverance, which
women know so well how to call up when they are actuated by a strong
sentiment. By the fifth year she was able to apply thirty thousand
francs from the rental of the farms, together with the income from the
Funds standing in her brother's name, and the proceeds of her father's
property, towards paying off the mortgages on that property, and
repairing the devastation which her father's passion had wrought in
the old mansion of the Claes. This redemption went on more rapidly as
the interest account decreased. Emmanuel de Solis persuaded Marguerite
to take the remaining one hundred thousand francs of his uncle's
bequest, and by joining to it twenty thousand francs of his own
savings, pay off in the third year of her management a large slice of
the debts. This life of courage, privation, and endurance was never
relaxed for five years; but all went well,--everything prospered under
the administration and influence of Marguerite Claes.
Gabriel, now holding an appointment under government as engineer in
the department of Roads and Bridges, made a rapid fortune, aided by
his great-uncle, in a canal which he was able to construct; moreover,
he succeeded in pleasing his cousin Mademoiselle Conyncks, the idol of
her father, and one of the richest heiresses in Flanders. In 1824 the
whole Claes property was free, and the house in the rue de Paris had
repaired its losses. Pierquin made a formal application to Balthazar
for the hand of Felicie, and Monsieur de Solis did the same for that
At the beginning of January, 1825, Marguerite and Monsieur Conyncks
left Douai to bring home the exiled father, whose return was eagerly
desired by all, and who had sent in his resignation that he might
return to his family and crown their happiness by his presence.
Marguerite had often expressed a regret at not being able to replace
the pictures which had formerly adorned the gallery and the
reception-rooms, before the day when her father would return as master
of his house. In her absence Pierquin and Monsieur de Solis plotted with
Felicie to prepare a surprise which should make the younger sister a
sharer in the restoration of the House of Claes. The two bought a
number of fine pictures, which they presented to Felicie to decorate
the gallery. Monsieur Conyncks had thought of the same thing. Wishing
to testify to Marguerite the satisfaction he had taken in her noble
conduct and in the self-devotion with which she had fulfilled her
mother's dying mandate, he arranged that fifty of his fine pictures,
among them several of those which Balthazar had formerly sold, should
be brought to Douai in Marguerite's absence, so that the Claes gallery
might once more be complete.
During the years that had elapsed since Balthazar Claes left his home,
Marguerite had visited her father several times, accompanied by her
sister or by Jean. Each time she had found him more and more changed;
but since her last visit old age had come upon Balthazar with alarming
symptoms, the gravity of which was much increased by the parsimony
with which he lived that he might spend the greater part of his salary
in experiments the results of which forever disappointed him. Though
he was only sixty-five years of age, he appeared to be eighty. His
eyes were sunken in their orbits, his eyebrows had whitened, only a
few hairs remained as a fringe around his skull; he allowed his beard
to grow, and cut it off with scissors when its length annoyed him; he
was bent like a field-laborer, and the condition of his clothes had
reached a degree of wretchedness which his decrepitude now rendered
hideous. Thought still animated that noble face, whose features were
scarcely discernible under its wrinkles; but the fixity of the eyes, a
certain desperation of manner, a restless uneasiness, were all
diagnostics of insanity, or rather of many forms of insanity.
Sometimes a flash of hope gave him the look of a monomaniac; at other
times impatient anger at not seizing a secret which flitted before his
eyes like a will o' the wisp brought symptoms of madness into his
face; or sudden bursts of maniacal laughter betrayed his
irrationality: but during the greater part of the time, he was sunk in
a state of complete depression which combined all the phases of
insanity in the cold melancholy of an idiot. However fleeting and
imperceptible these symptoms may have been to the eye of strangers,
they were, unfortunately, only too plain to those who had known
Balthazar Claes sublime in goodness, noble in heart, stately in
person,--a Claes of whom, alas, scarcely a vestige now remained.
Lemulquinier, grown old and wasted like his master with incessant
toil, had not, like him, been subjected to the ravages of thought. The
expression of the old valet's face showed a singular mixture of
anxiety and admiration for his master which might easily have misled
an onlooker. Though he listened to Balthazar's words with respect, and
followed his every movement with tender solicitude, he took charge of
the servant of science very much as a mother takes care of her child,
and even seemed to protect him, because in the vulgar details of life,
to which Balthazar gave no thought, he actually did protect him. These
old men, wrapped in one idea, confident of the reality of their hope,
stirred by the same breath, the one representing the shell, the other
the soul of their mutual existence, formed a spectacle at once tender
When Marguerite and Monsieur Conyncks arrived, they found Claes living
at an inn. His successor had not been kept waiting, and was already in
possession of his office.
Through all the preoccupations of science, the desire to see his
native town, his house, his family, agitated Balthazar's mind. His
daughter's letters had told him of the happy family events; he dreamed
of crowning his career by a series of experiments that must lead to
the solution of the great Problem, and he awaited Marguerite's arrival
with extreme impatience.
The daughter threw herself into her father's arms and wept for joy.
This time she came to seek a recompense for years of pain, and pardon
for the exercise of her domestic authority. She seemed to herself
criminal, like those great men who violate the liberties of the people
for the safety of the nation. But she shuddered as she now
contemplated her father and saw the change which had taken place in
him since her last visit. Monsieur Conyncks shared the secret alarm of
his niece, and insisted on taking Balthazar as soon as possible to
Douai, where the influence of his native place might restore him to
health and reason amid the happiness of a recovered domestic life.
After the first transports of the heart were over,--which were far
warmer on Balthazar's part than Marguerite had expected,--he showed a
singular state of feeling towards his daughter. He expressed regret at
receiving her in a miserable inn, inquired her tastes and wishes, and
asked what she would have to eat, with the eagerness of a lover; his
manner was even that of a culprit seeking to propitiate a judge.
Marguerite knew her father so well that she guessed the motive of this
solicitude; she felt sure he had contracted debts in the town which he
wished to pay before his departure. She observed him carefully for a
time, and saw the human heart in all its nakedness. Balthazar had
dwindled from his true self. The consciousness of his abasement, and
the isolation of his life in the pursuit of science made him timid and
childish in all matters not connected with his favorite occupations.
His daughter awed him; the remembrance of her past devotion, of the
energy she had displayed, of the powers he had allowed her to take
away from him, of the wealth now at her command, and the indefinable
feelings that had preyed upon him ever since the day when he had
abdicated a paternity he had long neglected,--all these things
affected his mind towards her, and increased her importance in his
eyes. Conyncks was nothing to him beside Marguerite; he saw only his
daughter, he thought only of her, and seemed to fear her, as certain
weak husbands fear a superior woman who rules them. When he raised his
eyes and looked at her, Marguerite noticed with distress an expression
of fear, like that of a child detected in a fault. The noble girl was
unable to reconcile the majestic and terrible expression of that bald
head, denuded by science and by toil, with the puerile smile, the
eager servility exhibited on the lips and countenance of the old man.
She suffered from the contrast of that greatness to that littleness,
and resolved to use her utmost influence to restore her father's sense
of dignity before the solemn day on which he was to reappear in the
bosom of his family. Her first step when they were alone was to ask
"Do you owe anything here?"
Balthazar colored, and replied with an embarrassed air:--
"I don't know, but Lemulquinier can tell you. That worthy fellow knows
more about my affairs than I do myself."
Marguerite rang for the valet: when he came she studied, almost
involuntarily, the faces of the two old men.
"What does monsieur want?" asked Lemulquinier.
Marguerite, who was all pride and dignity, felt an oppression at her
heart as she perceived from the tone and manner of the servant that
some mortifying familiarity had grown up between her father and the
companion of his labors.
"My father cannot make out the account of what he owes in this place
without you," she said.
"Monsieur," began Lemulquinier, "owes--"
At these words Balthazar made a sign to his valet which Marguerite
intercepted; it humiliated her.
"Tell me all that my father owes," she said.
"Monsieur owes, here, about three thousand francs to an apothecary who
is a wholesale dealer in drugs; he has supplied us with pearl-ash and
lead, and zinc and the reagents--"
"Is that all?" asked Marguerite.
Again Balthazar made a sign to Lemulquinier, who replied, as if under
"Very good," she said, "I will give them to you."
Balthazar kissed her joyously and said,--
"You are an angel, my child."
He breathed at his ease and glanced at her with eyes that were less
sad; and yet, in spite of this apparent joy, Marguerite easily
detected the signs of deep anxiety upon his face, and felt certain
that the three thousand francs represented only the pressing debts of
"Be frank with me, father," she said, letting him seat her on his
knee; "you owe more than that. Tell me all, and come back to your home
without an element of fear in the midst of the general joy."
"My dear Marguerite," he said, taking her hands and kissing them with
a grace that seemed a memory of her youth, "you would scold me--"
"No," she said.
"Truly?" he asked, giving way to childish expressions of delight. "Can
I tell you all? will you pay--"
"Yes," she said, repressing the tears which came into her eyes.
"Well, I owe--oh! I dare not--"
"Tell me, father."
"It is a great deal."
She clasped her hands, with a gesture of despair.
"I owe thirty thousand francs to Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville."
"Thirty thousand francs," she said, "is just the sum I have laid by. I
am glad to give it to you," she added, respectfully kissing his brow.
He rose, took his daughter in his arms, and whirled about the room,
dancing her as though she were an infant; then he placed her in the
chair where she had been sitting, and exclaimed:--
"My darling child! my treasure of love! I was half-dead: the
Chiffrevilles have written me three threatening letters; they were
about to sue me,--me, who would have made their fortune!"
"Father," said Marguerite in accents of despair, "are you still
"Yes, still searching," he said, with the smile of a madman, "and I
shall FIND. If you could only understand the point we have reached--"
"We? who are we?"
"I mean Mulquinier: he has understood me, he loves me. Poor fellow! he
is devoted to me."
Conyncks entered at the moment and interrupted the conversation.
Marguerite made a sign to her father to say no more, fearing lest he
should lower himself in her uncle's eyes. She was frightened at the
ravages thought had made in that noble mind, absorbed in searching for
the solution of a problem that was perhaps insoluble. Balthazar, who
saw and knew nothing outside of his furnaces, seemed not to realize
the liberation of his fortune.
On the morrow they started for Flanders. During the journey Marguerite
gained some confused light upon the position in which Lemulquinier and
her father stood to each other. The valet had acquired an ascendancy
over his master such as common men without education are able to
obtain over great minds to whom they feel themselves necessary; such
men, taking advantage of concession after concession, aim at complete
dominion with the persistency that comes of a fixed idea. In this case
the master had contracted for the man the sort of affection that grows
out of habit, like that of a workman for his creative tool, or an Arab
for the horse that gives him freedom. Marguerite studied the signs of
this tyranny, resolving to withdraw her father from its humiliating
yoke if it were real.
They stopped several days in Paris on the way home, to enable
Marguerite to pay off her father's debts and request the manufacturers
of chemical products to send nothing to Douai without first informing
her of any orders given by Claes. She persuaded her father to change
his style of dress and buy clothes that were suitable to a man of his
station. This corporal restoration gave Balthazar a certain physical
dignity which augured well for a change in his ideas; and Marguerite,
joyous in the thought of all the surprises that awaited her father
when he entered his own house, started for Douai.
Nine miles from the town Balthazar was met by Felicie on horseback,
escorted by her two brothers, Emmanuel, Pierquin, and some of the
nearest friends of the three families. The journey had necessarily
diverted the chemist's mind from its habitual thoughts; the aspect of
his own Flanders acted on his heart; when, therefore, he saw the
joyous company of his family and friends gathering about him his
emotion was so keen that the tears came to his eyes, his voice
trembled, his eyelids reddened, and he held his children in so
passionate an embrace, seeming unable to release them, that the
spectators of the scene were moved to tears.
When at last he saw the House of Claes he turned pale, and sprang from
the carriage with the agility of a young man; he breathed the air of
the court-yard with delight, and looked about him at the smallest
details with a pleasure that could express itself only in gestures: he
drew himself erect, and his whole countenance renewed its youth. The
tears came into his eyes when he entered the parlor and noticed the
care with which his daughter had replaced the old silver candelabra
that he formerly had sold,--a visible sign that all the other
disasters had been repaired. Breakfast was served in the dining-room,
whose sideboards and shelves were covered with curios and silver-ware
not less valuable than the treasures that formerly stood there. Though
the family meal lasted a long time, it was still too short for the
narratives which Balthazar exacted from each of his children. The
reaction of his moral being caused by this return to his home wedded
him once more to family happiness, and he was again a father. His
manners recovered their former dignity. At first the delight of
recovering possession kept him from dwelling on the means by which the
recovery had been brought about. His joy therefore was full and
Breakfast over, the four children, the father and Pierquin went into
the parlor, where Balthazar saw with some uneasiness a number of legal
papers which the notary's clerk had laid upon a table, by which he was
standing as if to assist his chief. The children all sat down, and
Balthazar, astonished, remained standing before the fireplace.
"This," said Pierquin, "is the guardianship account which Monsieur
Claes renders to his children. It is not very amusing," he added,
laughing after the manner of notaries who generally assume a lively
tone in speaking of serious matters, "but I must really oblige you to
listen to it."
Though the phrase was natural enough under the circumstances, Monsieur
Claes, whose conscience recalled his past life, felt it to be a
reproach, and his brow clouded.
The clerk began the reading. Balthazar's amazement increased as little
by little the statement unfolded the facts. In the first place, the
fortune of his wife at the time of her decease was declared to have
been sixteen hundred thousand francs or thereabouts; and the summing
up of the account showed clearly that the portion of each child was
intact and as well-invested as if the best and wisest father had
controlled it. In consequence of this the House of Claes was free from
all lien, Balthazar was master of it; moreover, his rural property was
likewise released from encumbrance. When all the papers connected with
these matters were signed, Pierquin presented the receipts for the
repayment of the moneys formerly borrowed, and releases of the various
liens on the estates.
Balthazar, conscious that he had recovered the honor of his manhood,
the life of a father, the dignity of a citizen, fell into a chair, and
looked about for Marguerite; but she, with the distinctive delicacy of
her sex, had left the room during the reading of the papers, as if to
see that all the arrangements for the fete were properly prepared.
Each member of the family understood the old man's wish when the
failing humid eyes sought for the daughter,--who was seen by all
present, with the eyes of the soul, as an angel of strength and light
within the house. Gabriel went to find her. Hearing her step,
Balthazar ran to clasp her in his arms.
"Father," she said, at the foot of the stairs, where the old man
caught her and strained her to his breast, "I implore you not to
lessen your sacred authority. Thank me before the family for carrying
out your wishes, and be the sole author of the good that has been done
Balthazar lifted his eyes to heaven, then looked at his daughter,
folded his arms, and said, after a pause, during which his face
recovered an expression his children had not seen upon it for ten long
"Pepita, why are you not here to praise our child!"
He strained Marguerite to him, unable to utter another word, and went
back to the parlor.
"My children," he said, with the nobility of demeanor that in former
days had made him so imposing, "we all owe gratitude and thanks to my
daughter Marguerite for the wisdom and courage with which she has
fulfilled my intentions and carried out my plans, when I, too absorbed
by my labors, gave the reins of our domestic government into her
"Ah, now!" cried Pierquin, looking at the clock, "we must read the
marriage contracts. But they are not my affair, for the law forbids me
to draw up such deeds between my relations and myself. Monsieur
Raparlier is coming."
The friends of the family, invited to the dinner given to celebrate
Claes's return and the signing of the marriage contracts, now began to
arrive; and their servants brought in the wedding-presents. The
company quickly assembled, and the scene was imposing as much from the
quality of the persons present as from the elegance of the toilettes.
The three families, thus united through the happiness of their
children, seemed to vie with each other in contributing to the
splendor of the occasion. The parlor was soon filled with the charming
gifts that are made to bridal couples. Gold shimmered and glistened;
silks and satins, cashmere shawls, necklaces, jewels, afforded as much
delight to those who gave as to those who received; enjoyment that was
almost childlike shone on every face, and the mere value of the
magnificent presents was lost sight of by the spectators,--who often
busy themselves in estimating it out of curiosity.
The ceremonial forms used for generations in the Claes family for
solemnities of this nature now began. The parents alone were seated,
all present stood before them at a little distance. To the left of the
parlor on the garden side were Gabriel and Mademoiselle Conyncks, next
to them stood Monsieur de Solis and Marguerite, and farther on,
Felicie and Pierquin. Balthazar and Monsieur Conyncks, the only
persons who were seated, occupied two armchairs beside the notary who,
for this occasion, had taken Pierquin's duty. Jean stood behind his
father. A score of ladies elegantly dressed, and a few men chosen from
among the nearest relatives of the Pierquins, the Conyncks, and the
Claes, the mayor of Douai, who was to marry the couples, the twelve
witnesses chosen from among the nearest friends of the three families,
all, even the curate of Saint-Pierre, remained standing and formed an
imposing circle at the end of the parlor next the court-yard. This
homage paid by the whole assembly to Paternity, which at such a moment
shines with almost regal majesty, gave to the scene a certain antique
character. It was the only moment for sixteen long years when
Balthazar forgot the Alkahest.
Monsieur Raparlier went up to Marguerite and her sister and asked if
all the persons invited to the ceremony and to the dinner had arrived;
on receiving an affirmative reply, he returned to his station and took
up the marriage contract between Marguerite and Monsieur de Solis,
which was the first to be read, when suddenly the door of the parlor
opened and Lemulquinier entered, his face flaming.
"Monsieur! monsieur!" he cried.
Balthazar flung a look of despair at Marguerite, then, making her a
sign, he drew her into the garden. The whole assembly were conscious
of a shock.
"I dared not tell you, my child," said the father, "but since you have
done so much, you will save me, I know, from this last trouble.
Lemulquinier lent me all his savings--the fruit of twenty years'
economy--for my last experiment, which failed. He has come no doubt,
finding that I am once more rich, to insist on having them back. Ah!
my angel, give them to him; you owe him your father; he alone consoled
me in my troubles, he alone has had faith in me,--without him I should
"Monsieur! monsieur!" cried Lemulquinier.
"What is it?" said Balthazar, turning round.
Claes sprang into the parlor and saw the stone in the hands of the old
valet, who whispered in his ear,--
"I have been to the laboratory."
The chemist, forgetting everything about him, cast a terrible look on
the old Fleming which meant, "You went before me to the laboratory!"
"Yes," continued Lemulquinier, "I found the diamond in the china
capsule which communicated with the battery which we left to work,
monsieur--and see!" he added, showing a white diamond of octahedral
form, whose brilliancy drew the astonished gaze of all present.
"My children, my friends," said Balthazar, "forgive my old servant,
forgive me! This event will drive me mad. The chance work of seven
years has produced--without me--a discovery I have sought for sixteen
years. How? My God, I know not--yes, I left sulphide of carbon under
the influence of a Voltaic pile, whose action ought to have been
watched from day to day. During my absence the power of God has worked
in my laboratory, but I was not there to note its progressive effects!
Is it not awful? Oh, cursed exile! cursed chance! Alas! had I watched
that slow, that sudden--what can I call it?--crystallization,
transformation, in short that miracle, then, then my children would
have been richer still. Though this result is not the solution of the
Problem which I seek, the first rays of my glory would have shone from
that diamond upon my native country, and this hour, which our
satisfied affections have made so happy, would have glowed with the
sunlight of Science."
Every one kept silence in the presence of such a man. The disconnected
words wrung from him by his anguish were too sincere not to be
Suddenly, Balthazar drove back his despair into the depths of his own
being, and cast upon the assembly a majestic look which affected the
souls of all; he took the diamond and offered it to Marguerite,
"It is thine, my angel."
Then he dismissed Lemulquinier with a gesture, and motioned to the
notary, saying, "Go on."
The two words sent a shudder of emotion through the company such as
Talma in certain roles produced among his auditors. Balthazar, as he
reseated himself, said in a low voice,--
"To-day I must be a father only."
Marguerite hearing the words went up to him and caught his hand and
kissed it respectfully.
"No man was ever greater," said Emmanuel, when his bride returned to
him; "no man was ever so mighty; another would have gone mad."
After the three contracts were read and signed, the company hastened
to question Balthazar as to the manner in which the diamond had been
formed; but he could tell them nothing about so strange an accident.
He looked through the window at his garret and pointed to it with an
"Yes, the awful power resulting from a movement of fiery matter which
no doubt produces metals, diamonds," he said, "was manifested there
for one moment, by one chance."
"That chance was of course some natural effect," whispered a guest
belonging to the class of people who are ready with an explanation of
everything. "At any rate, it is something saved out of all he has
"Let us forget it," said Balthazar, addressing his friends; "I beg you
to say no more about it to-day."
Marguerite took her father's arm to lead the way to the
reception-rooms of the front house, where a sumptuous fete had been
prepared. As he entered the gallery, followed by his guests, he beheld
it filled with pictures and garnished with choice flowers.
"Pictures!" he exclaimed, "pictures!--and some of the old ones!"
He stopped short; his brow clouded; for a moment grief overcame him;
he felt the weight of his wrong-doing as the vista of his humiliation
came before his eyes.
"It is all your own, father," said Marguerite, guessing the feelings
that oppressed his soul.
"Angel, whom the spirits in heaven watch and praise," he cried, "how
many times have you given life to your father?"
"Then keep no cloud upon your brow, nor the least sad thought in your
heart," she said, "and you will reward me beyond my hopes. I have been
thinking of Lemulquinier, my darling father; the few words you said a
little while ago have made me value him; perhaps I have been unjust to
him; he ought to remain your humble friend. Emmanuel has laid by
nearly sixty thousand francs which he has economized, and we will give
them to Lemulquinier. After serving you so well the man ought to be
made comfortable for his remaining years. Do not be uneasy about us.
Monsieur de Solis and I intend to lead a quiet, peaceful life,--a life
without luxury; we can well afford to lend you that money until you
are able to return it."
"Ah, my daughter! never forsake me; continue to be thy father's
When they entered the reception-rooms Balthazar found them restored
and furnished as elegantly as in former days. The guests presently
descended to the dining-room on the ground-floor by the grand
staircase, on every step of which were rare plants and flowering
shrubs. A silver service of exquisite workmanship, the gift of Gabriel
to his father, attracted all eyes to a luxury which was surprising to
the inhabitants of a town where such luxury is traditional. The
servants of Monsieur Conyncks and of Pierquin, as well as those of the
Claes household, were assembled to serve the repast. Seeing himself
once more at the head of that table, surrounded by friends and
relatives and happy faces beaming with heartfelt joy, Balthazar,
behind whose chair stood Lemulquinier, was overcome by emotions so
deep and so imposing that all present kept silence, as men are silent
before great sorrows or great joys.
"Dear children," he cried, "you have killed the fatted calf to welcome
home the prodigal father."
These words, in which the father judged himself (and perhaps prevented
others from judging him more severely), were spoken so nobly that all
present shed tears; they were the last expression of sadness, however,
and the general happiness soon took on the merry, animated character
of a family fete.
Immediately after dinner the principal people of the city began to
arrive for the ball, which proved worthy of the almost classic
splendor of the restored House of Claes. The three marriages followed
this happy day, and gave occasion to many fetes, and balls, and
dinners, which involved Balthazar for some months in the vortex of
social life. His eldest son and his wife removed to an estate near
Cambrai belonging to Monsieur Conyncks, who was unwilling to separate
from his daughter. Madame Pierquin also left her father's house to do
the honors of a fine mansion which Pierquin had built, and where he
desired to live in all the dignity of rank; for his practise was sold,
and his uncle des Racquets had died and left him a large property
scraped together by slow economy. Jean went to Paris to finish his
education, and Monsieur and Madame de Solis alone remained with their
father in the House de Claes. Balthazar made over to them the family
home in the rear house, and took up his own abode on the second floor
of the front building.
Marguerite continued to keep watch over her father's material comfort,
aided in the sweet task by Emmanuel. The noble girl received from the
hands of love that most envied of all garlands, the wreath that
happiness entwines and constancy keeps ever fresh. No couple ever
afforded a better illustration of the complete, acknowledged, spotless
felicity which all women cherish in their dreams. The union of two
beings so courageous in the trials of life, who had loved each other
through years with so sacred an affection, drew forth the respectful
admiration of the whole community. Monsieur de Solis, who had long
held an appointment as inspector-general of the University, resigned
those functions to enjoy his happiness more freely, and remained at
Douai where every one did such homage to his character and attainments
that his name was proposed as candidate for the Electoral college
whenever he should reach the required age. Marguerite, who had shown
herself so strong in adversity, became in prosperity a sweet and
Throughout the following year Claes was grave and preoccupied; and
yet, though he made a few inexpensive experiments for which his
ordinary income sufficed, he seemed to neglect his laboratory.
Marguerite restored all the old customs of the House of Claes, and
gave a family fete every month in honor of her father, at which the
Pierquins and the Conyncks were present; and she also received the
upper ranks of society one day in the week at a "cafe" which became
celebrated. Though frequently absent-minded, Claes took part in all
these assemblages and became, to please his daughter, so willingly a
man of the world that the family were able to believe he had renounced
his search for the solution of the great problem.
Three years went by. In 1828 family affairs called Emmanuel de Solis
to Spain. Although there were three numerous branches between himself
and the inheritance of the house of Solis, yellow fever, old age,
barrenness, and other caprices of fortune, combined to make him the
last lineal descendant of the family and heir to the titles and
estates of his ancient house. Moreover, by one of those curious
chances which seem impossible except in a book, the house of Solis had
acquired the territory and titles of the Comtes de Nourho. Marguerite
did not wish to separate from her husband, who was to stay in Spain
long enough to settle his affairs, and she was, moreover, curious to
see the castle of Casa-Real where her mother had passed her childhood,
and the city of Granada, the cradle of the de Solis family. She left
Douai, consigning the care of the house to Martha, Josette, and
Lemulquinier. Balthazar, to whom Marguerite had proposed a journey
into Spain, declined to accompany her on the ground of his advanced
age; but certain experiments which he had long meditated, and to which
he now trusted for the realization of his hopes were the real reason
of his refusal.
The Comte and Comtesse de Solis y Nourho were detained in Spain longer
than they intended. Marguerite gave birth to a son. It was not until
the middle of 1830 that they reached Cadiz, intending to embark for
Italy on their way back to France. There, however, they received a
letter from Felicie conveying disastrous news. Within a few months,
their father had completely ruined himself. Gabriel and Pierquin were
obliged to pay Lemulquinier a monthly stipend for the bare necessaries
of the household. The old valet had again sacrificed his little
property to his master. Balthazar was no longer willing to see any
one, and would not even admit his children to the house. Martha and
Josette were dead. The coachman, the cook, and the other servants had
long been dismissed; the horses and carriages were sold. Though
Lemulquinier maintained the utmost secrecy as to his master's
proceedings, it was believed that the thousand francs supplied by
Gabriel and Pierquin were spent chiefly on experiments. The small
amount of provisions which the old valet purchased in the town seemed
to show that the two old men contented themselves with the barest
necessaries. To prevent the sale of the House of Claes, Gabriel and
Pierquin were paying the interest of the sums which their father had
again borrowed on it. None of his children had the slightest influence
upon the old man, who at seventy years of age displayed extraordinary
energy in bending everything to his will, even in matters that were
trivial. Gabriel, Conyncks, and Pierquin had decided not to pay off
This letter changed all Marguerite's travelling plans, and she
immediately took the shortest road to Douai. Her new fortune and her
past savings enabled her to pay off Balthazar's debts; but she wished
to do more, she wished to obey her mother's last injunction and save
him from sinking dishonored to the grave. She alone could exercise
enough ascendancy over the old man to keep him from completing the
work of ruin, at an age when no fruitful toil could be expected from
his enfeebled faculties. But she was also anxious to control him
without wounding his susceptibilities,--not wishing to imitate the
children of Sophocles, in case her father neared the scientific result
for which he had sacrificed so much.
Monsieur and Madame de Solis reached Flanders in the last days of
September, 1831, and arrived at Douai during the morning. Marguerite
ordered the coachman to drive to the house in the rue de Paris, which
they found closed. The bell was loudly rung, but no one answered. A
shopkeeper left his door-step, to which he had been attracted by the
noise of the carriages; others were at their windows to enjoy a sight
of the return of the de Solis family to whom all were attached,
enticed also by a vague curiosity as to what would happen in that
house on Marguerite's return to it. The shopkeeper told Monsieur de
Solis's valet that old Claes had gone out an hour before, and that
Monsieur Lemulquinier was no doubt taking him to walk on the ramparts.
Marguerite sent for a locksmith to force the door,--glad to escape a
scene in case her father, as Felicie had written, should refuse to
admit her into the house. Meantime Emmanuel went to meet the old man
and prepare him for the arrival of his daughter, despatching a servant
to notify Monsieur and Madame Pierquin.
When the door was opened, Marguerite went directly to the parlor.
Horror overcame her and she trembled when she saw the walls as bare as
if a fire had swept over them. The glorious carved panellings of
Van Huysum and the portrait of the great Claes had been sold. The
dining-room was empty: there was nothing in it but two straw chairs and
a common deal table, on which Marguerite, terrified, saw two plates, two
bowls, two forks and spoons, and the remains of a salt herring which
Claes and his servant had evidently just eaten. In a moment she had
flown through her father's portion of the house, every room of which
exhibited the same desolation as the parlor and dining-room. The idea
of the Alkahest had swept like a conflagration through the building.
Her father's bedroom had a bed, one chair, and one table, on which
stood a miserable pewter candlestick with a tallow candle burned
almost to the socket. The house was so completely stripped that not so
much as a curtain remained at the windows. Every object of the
smallest value,--everything, even the kitchen utensils, had been sold.
Moved by that feeling of curiosity which never entirely leaves us even
in moments of misfortune, Marguerite entered Lemulquinier's chamber
and found it as bare as that of his master. In a half-opened
table-drawer she found a pawnbroker's ticket for the old servant's
watch which he had pledged some days before. She ran to the laboratory
and found it filled with scientific instruments, the same as ever. Then
she returned to her own appartement and ordered the door to be broken
open--her father had respected it!
Marguerite burst into tears and forgave her father all. In the midst
of his devastating fury he had stopped short, restrained by paternal
feeling and the gratitude he owed to his daughter! This proof of
tenderness, coming to her at a moment when despair had reached its
climax, brought about in Marguerite's soul one of those moral
reactions against which the coldest hearts are powerless. She returned
to the parlor to wait her father's arrival, in a state of anxiety that
was cruelly aggravated by doubt and uncertainty. In what condition was
she about to see him? Ruined, decrepit, suffering, enfeebled by the
fasts his pride compelled him to undergo? Would he have his reason?
Tears flowed unconsciously from her eyes as she looked about the
desecrated sanctuary. The images of her whole life, her past efforts,
her useless precautions, her childhood, her mother happy and unhappy,
--all, even her little Joseph smiling on that scene of desolation, all
were parts of a poem of unutterable melancholy.
Marguerite foresaw an approaching misfortune, yet she little expected
the catastrophe that was to close her father's life,--that life at
once so grand and yet so miserable.
The condition of Monsieur Claes was no secret in the community. To the
lasting shame of men, there were not in all Douai two hearts generous
enough to do honor to the perseverance of this man of genius. In the
eyes of the world Balthazar was a man to be condemned, a bad father
who had squandered six fortunes, millions, who was actually seeking
the philosopher's stone in the nineteenth century, this enlightened
century, this sceptical century, this century!--etc. They calumniated
his purposes and branded him with the name of "alchemist," casting up
to him in mockery that he was trying to make gold. Ah! what eulogies
are uttered on this great century of ours, in which, as in all others,
genius is smothered under an indifference as brutal a that of the gate
in which Dante died, and Tasso and Cervantes and "tutti quanti." The
people are as backward as kings in understanding the creations of
These opinions on the subject of Balthazar Claes filtered, little by
little, from the upper society of Douai to the bourgeoisie, and from
the bourgeoisie to the lower classes. The old chemist excited pity
among persons of his own rank, satirical curiosity among the others,
--two sentiments big with contempt and with the "vae victis" with which
the masses assail a man of genius when they see him in misfortune.
Persons often stopped before the House of Claes to show each other the
rose window of the garret where so much gold and so much coal had been
consumed in smoke. When Balthazar passed along the streets they
pointed to him with their fingers; often, on catching sight of him, a
mocking jest or a word of pity would escape the lips of a working-man
or some mere child. But Lemulquinier was careful to tell his master it
was homage; he could deceive him with impunity, for though the old
man's eyes retained the sublime clearness which results from the habit
of living among great thoughts, his sense of hearing was enfeebled.
To most of the peasantry, and to all vulgar and superstitious minds,
Balthazar Claes was a sorcerer. The noble old mansion, once named by
common consent "the House of Claes," was now called in the suburbs and
the country districts "the Devil's House." Every outward sign, even
the face of Lemulquinier, confirmed the ridiculous beliefs that were
current about Balthazar. When the old servant went to market to
purchase the few provisions necessary for their subsistence, picking
out the cheapest he could find, insults were flung in as make-weights,
--just as butchers slip bones into their customers' meat,--and he was
fortunate, poor creature, if some superstitious market-woman did not
refuse to sell him his meagre pittance lest she be damned by contact
with an imp of hell.
Thus the feelings of the whole town of Douai were hostile to the grand
old man and to his attendant. The neglected state of their clothes
added to this repulsion; they went about clothed like paupers who have
seen better days, and who strive to keep a decent appearance and are
ashamed to beg. It was probable that sooner or later Balthazar would
be insulted in the streets. Pierquin, feeling how degrading to the
family any public insult would be, had for some time past sent two or
three of his own servants to follow the old man whenever he went out,
and keep him in sight at a little distance, for the purpose of
protecting him if necessary,--the revolution of July not having
contributed to make the citizens respectful.
By one of those fatalities which can never be explained, Claes and
Lemulquinier had gone out early in the morning, thus evading the
secret guardianship of Monsieur and Madame Pierquin. On their way back
from the ramparts they sat down to sun themselves on a bench in the
place Saint-Jacques, an open space crossed by children on their way to
school. Catching sight from a distance of the defenceless old men,
whose faces brightened as they sat basking in the sun, a crowd of boys
began to talk of them. Generally, children's chatter ends in laughter;
on this occasion the laughter led to jokes of which they did not know
the cruelty. Seven or eight of the first-comers stood at a little
distance, and examined the strange old faces with smothered laughter
and remarks which attracted Lemulquinier's attention.
"Hi! do you see that one with a head as smooth as my knee?"
"Well, he was born a Wise Man."
"My papa says he makes gold," said another.
The youngest of the troop, who had his basket full of provisions and
was devouring a slice of bread and butter, advanced to the bench and
said boldly to Lemulquinier,--
"Monsieur, is it true you make pearls and diamonds?"
"Yes, my little man," replied the valet, smiling and tapping him on
the cheek; "we will give you some of you study well."
"Ah! monsieur, give me some, too," was the general exclamation.
The boys all rushed together like a flock of birds, and surrounded the
old men. Balthazar, absorbed in meditation from which he was drawn by
these sudden cries, made a gesture of amazement which caused a general
shout of laughter.
"Come, come, boys; be respectful to a great man," said Lemulquinier.
"Hi, the old harlequin!" cried the lads; "the old sorcerer! you are
sorcerers! sorcerers! sorcerers!"
Lemulquinier sprang to his feet and threatened the crowd with his
cane; they all ran to a little distance, picking up stones and mud. A
workman who was eating his breakfast near by, seeing Lemulquinier
brandish his cane to drive the boys away, thought he had struck them,
and took their part, crying out,--
"Down with the sorcerers!"
The boys, feeling themselves encouraged, flung their missiles at the
old men, just as the Comte de Solis, accompanied by Pierquin's
servants, appeared at the farther end of the square. The latter were
too late, however, to save the old man and his valet from being pelted
with mud. The shock was given. Balthazar, whose faculties had been
preserved by a chastity of spirit natural to students absorbed in a
quest of discovery that annihilates all passions, now suddenly
divined, by the phenomenon of introsusception, the true meaning of the
scene: his decrepit body could not sustain the frightful reaction he
underwent in his feelings, and he fell, struck with paralysis, into
the arms of Lemulquinier, who brought him to his home on a shutter,
attended by his sons-in-law and their servants. No power could prevent
the population of Douai from following the body of the old man to the
door of his house, where Felicie and her children, Jean, Marguerite,
and Gabriel, whom his sister had sent for, were waiting to receive
The arrival of the old man gave rise to a frightful scene; he
struggled less against the assaults of death than against the horror
of seeing that his children had entered the house and penetrated the
secret of his impoverished life. A bed was at once made up in the
parlor and every care bestowed upon the stricken man, whose condition,
towards evening, allowed hopes that his life might be preserved. The
paralysis, though skilfully treated, kept him for some time in a state
of semi-childhood; and when by degrees it relaxed, the tongue was
found to be especially affected, perhaps because the old man's anger
had concentrated all his forces upon it at the moment when he was
about to apostrophize the children.
This incident roused a general indignation throughout the town. By a
law, up to that time unknown, which guides the affects of the masses,
this event brought back all hearts to Monsieur Claes. He became once
more a great man; he excited the admiration and received the good-will
that a few hours earlier were denied to him. Men praised his patience,
his strength of will, his courage, his genius. The authorities wished
to arrest all those who had a share in dealing him this blow. Too
late,--the evil was done! The Claes family were the first to beg that
the matter might be allowed to drop.
Marguerite ordered furniture to be brought into the parlor, and the
denuded walls to be hung with silk; and when, a few days after his
seizure, the old father recovered his faculties and found himself once
more in a luxurious room surrounded by all that makes life easy, he
tried to express his belief that his daughter Marguerite had returned.
At that moment she entered the room. When Balthazar caught sight of
her he colored, and his eyes grew moist, though the tears did not
fall. He was able to press his daughter's hand with his cold fingers,
putting into that pressure all the thoughts, all the feelings he no
longer had the power to utter. There was something holy and solemn in
that farewell of the brain which still lived, of the heart which
gratitude revived. Worn out by fruitless efforts, exhausted in the
long struggle with the gigantic problem, desperate perhaps at the
oblivion which awaited his memory, this giant among men was about to
die. His children surrounded him with respectful affection; his dying
eyes were cheered with images of plenty and the touching picture of
his prosperous and noble family. His every look--by which alone he
could manifest his feelings--was unchangeably affectionate; his eyes
acquired such variety of expression that they had, as it were, a
language of light, easy to comprehend.
Marguerite paid her father's debts, and restored a modern splendor to
the House of Claes which removed all outward signs of decay. She never
left the old man's bedside, endeavoring to divine his every thought
and accomplish his slightest wish.
Some months went by with those alternations of better and worse which
attend the struggle of life and death in old people; every morning his
children came to him and spent the day in the parlor, dining by his
bedside and only leaving him when he went to sleep for the night. The
occupation which gave him most pleasure, among the many with which his
family sought to enliven him, was the reading of newspapers, to which
the political events then occurring gave great interest. Monsieur
Claes listened attentively as Monsieur de Solis read them aloud beside
Towards the close of the year 1832, Balthazar passed an extremely
critical night, during which Monsieur Pierquin, the doctor, was
summoned by the nurse, who was greatly alarmed at the sudden change
which took place in the patient. For the rest of the night the doctor
remained to watch him, fearing he might at any moment expire in the
throes of inward convulsion, whose effects were like those of a last
The old man made incredible efforts to shake off the bonds of his
paralysis; he tried to speak and moved his tongue, unable to make a
sound; his flaming eyes emitted thoughts; his drawn features expressed
an untold agony; his fingers writhed in desperation; the sweat stood
out in drops upon his brow. In the morning when his children came to
his bedside and kissed him with an affection which the sense of coming
death made day by day more ardent and more eager, he showed none of
his usual satisfaction at these signs of their tenderness. Emmanuel,
instigated by the doctor, hastened to open the newspaper to try if the
usual reading might not relieve the inward crisis in which Balthazar
was evidently struggling. As he unfolded the sheet he saw the words,
"DISCOVERY OF THE ABSOLUTE,"--which startled him, and he read a
paragraph to Marguerite concerning a sale made by a celebrated Polish
mathematician of the secret of the Absolute. Though Emmanuel read in a
low voice, and Marguerite signed to him to omit the passage, Balthazar
Suddenly the dying man raised himself by his wrists and cast on his
frightened children a look which struck like lightning; the hairs that
fringed the bald head stirred, the wrinkles quivered, the features
were illumined with spiritual fires, a breath passed across that face
and rendered it sublime; he raised a hand, clenched in fury, and
uttered with a piercing cry the famous word of Archimedes, "EUREKA!"
--I have found.
He fell back upon his bed with the dull sound of an inert body, and
died, uttering an awful moan,--his convulsed eyes expressing to the
last, when the doctor closed them, the regret of not bequeathing to
Science the secret of an Enigma whose veil was rent away,--too late!
--by the fleshless fingers of Death.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Note: The Alkahest is also known as The Quest of the Absolute and is
referred to by that title when mentioned in other addendums.
Casa-Real, Duc de
The Quest of the Absolute
A Marriage Settlement
Chiffreville, Monsieur and Madame
The Quest of the Absolute
Claes, Josephine de Temninck, Madame
The Quest of the Absolute
A Marriage Settlement
Protez and Chiffreville
The Quest of the Absolute
Savaron de Savarus
The Quest of the Absolute
Savarus, Albert Savaron de
The Quest of the Absolute
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