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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Alkahest - Chapter 16
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The Alkahest - Chapter 16 Post by :automate Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :December 2010 Read :2072

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The Alkahest - Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
his bed.

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

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

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

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

-The End-
"The Alkahest", a fiction by Honore de Balzac


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
Cesar Birotteau
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
Cesar Birotteau

Savaron de Savarus
The Quest of the Absolute
Albert Savarus

Savarus, Albert Savaron de
The Quest of the Absolute
Albert Savarus

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