The Alkahest

The Alkahest


How can you pay them? What will you live on? If Claes persists in sending for reagents, retorts, voltaic batteries, and other such playthings, what will become of you? Your whole property, except the house and furniture, has been dissipated in gas and carbon; yesterday he talked of mortgaging the house, and in answer to a remark of mine, he cried out, 'The devil!' It was the first sign of reason I have known him show for three years."Madame Claes pressed the notary's arm, and said in a tone of suffering, "Keep it secret."Overwhelmed by these plain words of startling clearness, the poor woman, pious as she was, could not pray; she sat still on her chair between her children, with her prayer-book open, but not turning its leaves; her mind was sunk in meditations as absorbing as those of her husband.The Spanish sense of honor, the Flemish integrity, resounded in her soul with a peal louder than any organ.The ruin of her children was accomplished! Between them and their father's honor she must no longer hesitate.The necessity of a coming struggle with her husband terrified her; in her eyes he was so great, so majestic, that the mere prospect of his anger made her tremble as at a vision of the divine wrath.She must now depart from the submission she had sacredly practised as a wife.The interests of her children compelled her to oppose, in his most cherished tastes, the man she idolized.Must she not daily force him back to common matters from the higher realms of Science; drag him forcibly from a smiling future and plunge him into a materialism hideous to artists and great men? To her, Balthazar Claes was a Titan of science, a man big with glory; he could only have forgotten her for the riches of a mighty hope.Then too, was he not profoundly wise? she had heard him talk with such good sense on every subject that he must be sincere when he declared he worked for the glory and prosperity of his family.His love for his wife and family was not only vast, it was infinite.That feeling could not be extinct;it was magnified, and reproduced in another form.

Noble, generous, timid as she was, she prepared herself to ring into the ears of this noble man the word and the sound of money, to show him the sores of poverty, and force him to hear cries of distress when he was listening only for the melodious voice of Fame.Perhaps his love for her would lessen! If she had had no children, she would bravely and joyously have welcomed the new destiny her husband was making for her.Women who are brought up in opulence are quick to feel the emptiness of material enjoyments; and when their hearts, more wearied than withered, have once learned the happiness of a constant interchange of real feelings, they feel no shrinking from reduced outward circumstances, provided they are still acceptable to the man who has loved them.Their wishes, their pleasures, are subordinated to the caprices of that other life outside of their own; to them the only dreadful future is to lose him.

At this moment, therefore, her children came between Pepita and her true life, just as Science had come between herself and Balthazar.And thus, when she reached home after vespers, and threw herself into the deep armchair before the window of the parlor, she sent away her children, directing them to keep perfectly quiet, and despatched a message to her husband, through Lemulquinier, saying that she wished to see him.But although the old valet did his best to make his master leave the laboratory, Balthazar scarcely heeded him.Madame Claes thus gained time for reflection.She sat thinking, paying no attention to the hour nor the light.The thought of owing thirty thousand francs that could not be paid renewed her past anguish and joined it to that of the present and the future.This influx of painful interests, ideas, and feelings overcame her, and she wept.

As Balthazar entered at last through the panelled door, the expression of his face seemed to her more dreadful, more absorbed, more distracted than she had yet seen it.When he made her no answer she was magnetized for a moment by the fixity of that blank look emptied of all expression, by the consuming ideas that issued as if distilled from that bald brow.Under the shock of this impression she wished to die.But when she heard the callous voice, uttering a scientific wish at the moment when her heart was breaking, her courage came back to her; she resolved to struggle with that awful power which had torn a lover from her arms, a father from her children, a fortune from their home, happiness from all.And yet she could not repress a trepidation which made her quiver; in all her life no such solemn scene as this had taken place.This dreadful moment--did it not virtually contain her future, and gather within it all the past?

Weak and timid persons, or those whose excessive sensibility magnifies the smallest difficulties of life, men who tremble involuntarily before the masters of their fate, can now, one and all, conceive the rush of thoughts that crowded into the brain of this woman, and the feelings under the weight of which her heart was crushed as her husband slowly crossed the room towards the garden-door.Most women know that agony of inward deliberation in which Madame Claes was writhing.Even one whose heart has been tried by nothing worse than the declaration to a husband of some extravagance, or a debt to a dress-maker, will understand how its pulses swell and quicken when the matter is one of life itself.

Honore De Balzac