Copyright
Honoré de Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 45) online

. (page 1 of 19)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 45) → online text (page 1 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


THE LIBRARY

OF

THE UNIVERSITY
OF CALIFORNIA

LOS ANGELES



tie i3al?ac

LA COMEDIE HUMAINE

VOLUME XLV



EDITION DEFINITIVE

OF WHICH THERE ARE PRINTED ON IMPERIAL JAPAN
PAPER ONE THOUSAND COPIES

No. 333



2If)e J^uman fflotw&g

PHILOSOPHIC
AND ANALYTIC STUDIES

VOLUME V



VA



IN THE LABORATORY



Weary of waiting, Marguerite went up to the
laboratory.
*********

Lemulquinier , who was engaged in turning the
disc, the machine being mounted on a movable axis,
so as to keep the lens always perpendicular to the
sun's rays, rose, his face black with dust, and said:



e tor BaUac NOW FOR THE

FIRST TV ME CO M PL E TEL Y
TRANSLATED /A -TO ENGLISH
THE 'HF ABSOLUTE BY

' 'RNHAM >VES



YA

&tfr /. r THINGS BY XAVIER LE SUE UK AND

^.THAttnuKR nRHints AFTER
/ 4/NTINCS By ADRIEN MO RE A U



PRINTED 5 BY

GEORGE HAKK/E 6- SON

PHILADELPHIA



IN THE LABORATORY



Weary of waiting, Marguerite went up to the
laboratory.
*********

Lemulquinicr , who was engaged in turning the
disc, the machine being mounted on a movable axis,
so as to keep the lens always perpendicular to the
suns rays, rose, his face black witJi dust, and said:



J^onort tie Balzac

FIRST TIME COMPLETELY
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH
THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE BY
G. BURNHAM IVES



WITH EIGHT ETCHINGS BY XAl'IER LE SUEUR AND

CHARLES-THEODORE DEBLOIS, AFTER

PAINTINGS BY ADRIEN MO RE A U



IN ONE VOLUME



PRINTED ONLY FOR SUBSCRIBERS BY

GEORGE BARRIE & SON

PHILADELPHIA



COPYRIGHT, 1899, BY GEORGE BARRIE 4 SON



Library



V, ytT



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE



651037



TO MADAME JOSEPHINE DEL ANNOY, NEE DO U MERC

I pray God, Madame, that this book may have a
longer life than mine! the gratitude which I have
vowed to you, and which, I trust, will equal your
almost maternal affection for me, will in that case
exist beyond the limits ordained for our sentiments.
That sublime privilege of extending thus by the life
of our works the life of our hearts, if one could
ever be assured of it, would be a sufficient consola-
tion for all the trouble it costs those whose ambition
it is to win it. I will say again, therefore: may God
grant it !

DE BALZAC.



There exists at Douai, on Rue de Paris, a house
whose external aspect, interior arrangements, and
details of construction have retained, to a greater
degree than those of other buildings, the peculiari-
ties of the old Flemish architecture, so naively ap-
propriate to the patriarchal manners of that excellent
country; but, before describing it, it will be advis-
able, perhaps, in the interest of authors generally,
to demonstrate the necessity of these didactic pre-
liminaries, against which certain ignorant and greedy
persons protest who seek emotion without under-
going its generative principles, the flower without
the seed, the child without gestation. Is Art to be
considered more powerful than Nature?

The events of human life, public as well as private,
are so closely connected with architecture, that most
observers are able to reconstruct nations or individ-
uals with entire accuracy, in respect to their habits,
from the remains of their public monuments or by
examining their domestic relics. Archaeology is to
social nature what comparative anatomy is to organic
nature. A mosaic discloses a whole social epoch,
just as the skeleton of an ichthyosaurus implies a
whole creation. In both directions everything can
be logically deducted, everything forms a link in the
chain. Causes foreshadow effects, just as each effect
enables us to go back to its cause. Thus the scholar
(5)



6 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

re-creates even the little excrescences of bygone
ages. Doubtless this explains the extraordinary
interest aroused by an architectural description,
when the author's fancy does not distort its ele-
ments; for everyone can connect it with the past by
rigid deductions, and to man the past bears a singular
resemblance to the future: to tell him what has been
is almost always equivalent to telling him what will
be. Moreover, it seldom happens that a description
of places where men have passed their lives does not
remind each one who reads it either of his broken
vows or of his budding hopes. The comparison
between a present which disappoints one's secret
wishes and a future which may gratify them is an
inexhaustible source of melancholy or of placid sat-
isfaction. So it is that it is almost impossible to
avoid a sort of emotion in presence of a painting of
Flemish life when its accessories are faithfully de-
picted. Why? Perhaps because it is, of the dif-
ferent forms of existence, the one that puts an end
most satisfactorily to man's uncertainties. It cannot
be dissociated from all the national festivities, all the
family ties, a sleek air of comfort which attests con-
stant prosperity; but it expresses above all else the
tranquil monotony of a frankly sensual happiness,
in which enjoyment stifles desire by always antici-
pating it.

Whatever value the passionate man may attach
to the turmoil of sentiments, he never witnesses
without emotion the images of that social nature
where the pulsations of the heart are so carefully



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 7

regulated that superficial people reproach it with
coldness. The multitude generally prefers the ab-
normal force which overflows to the regular force
applied with persistency. The multitude has neither
the time nor the patience to understand the immense
power concealed beneath an appearance of uniform-
ity. So that, to impress that multitude, borne on
by the current of life, passion, like the great artist,
has no other resource than to go beyond the goal, as
Michel Angelo did, and Bianca Capello, Mademoiselle
de la Valliere, Beethoven, and Paganini. Only the
great reasoners understand that one should never
pass one's goal, and respect only the potentiality
that is evidenced by a perfect achievement which
imparts to every work the profound tranquillity
whose charm impresses men of superior mould. Now,
the manner of life adopted by that essentially eco-
nomical people supplies all the conditions of felicity
of which the masses dream as essential to the exist-
ence of the modest middle-class citizen.

The most refined materialism is imprinted upon
all the Flemish habits. English comfort is marked
by harsh, unpleasant tones; whereas, in Flanders,
the old interiors rejoice the eye with soothing colors,
with genuine homeliness; they suggest work with-
out fatigue; the pipe denotes a happy application
of the Neapolitan/ar niente; a placid understanding of
art is indicated as well, its most essential element,
patience, and that which makes its creations lasting,
conscientiousness; the Flemish character is described
in those two words, patience and conscientiousness,



8 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

which would seem to exclude the fruitful shades of
poesy, and to make the manners of that country
as flat and uninteresting as its vast plains, as cold as
its foggy sky. Nevertheless, nothing of the sort is
true. Civilization has exhibited its power there by
modifying everything, even the effects of the cli-
mate. If we observe carefully the products of the
different countries of the globe, we are first of all
surprised to see that the different shades of gray and
fawn-color are especially prevalent in the products
of the temperate zones, while the most brilliant
colors distinguish those of the hot countries. Morals
must necessarily conform to that natural law. Flan-
ders, which was formerly an essentially sombre
country, given over to monotony of coloring, found
a method of injecting brilliancy into its smoky at-
mosphere through the political vicissitudes which
subjected it successively to the Burgundians, the
Spaniards, and the French, and compelled its people
to make common cause with the Germans and the
Dutch. From their Spanish associations they re-
tained the rich shades of scarlet, glossy satins, showy
carpets, feathers, mandolins, and courteous manners.
From Venice they received, in exchange for their
linen and laces, the fanciful glassware wherein the
wine sparkles and seems to taste better. From
Austria they derived that ponderous diplomacy
which, according to a popular saying, takes three
steps in a bushel measure. Trade with the Indies
caused an influx of the grotesque inventions of
China and the marvels of Japan. And yet, despite



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 9

its patience in retaining whatever it acquires, in
letting nothing go, in enduring everything, Flanders
could hardly be looked upon except as the general
warehouse of Europe down to the period when the
discovery of tobacco welded together the scattered
national features with smoke. Since then, notwith-
standing the clipping of its territory, the Flemish
people has existed through the pipe and beer.

After assimilating, by means of the never-failing
economy of its conduct, the treasures and the ideas
of its masters and its neighbors, that country, natu-
rally so dull and devoid of poesy, shaped for itself
an original mode of life and characteristic manners,
without seeming to incur the reproach of servility.
Art stripped off all idealism to reproduce form alone.
Do not look to that country, therefore, for poetry in
plaster, nor for vigorous comedy, nor for dramatic
action, nor for the bold flights of the epic or the ode,
nor for musical genius; but it is fertile in discoveries,
in learned discussions which require both time and
the midnight oil. Everything there bears the stamp
of temporal enjoyment. Men see exclusively what
is, their mind adapts its attitude so scrupulously to
promote the necessities of life, that it has never
overstepped the limits of reality in any work. The
only idea of the future as conceived by that people
was a species of economy in politics, their revolu-
tionary strength is due to the domestic desire to
have the elbows free at table, and complete absence
of restraint under the overhanging roofs of their
steedes. The sentiment of well-being and the spirit



10 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

of independence, to which wealth gives birth, en-
gendered there sooner than elsewhere the necessity
for liberty, which later assailed all Europe. In like
manner, the constancy of their ideas and the tenacity
which education implants in the Flemings made them
formerly a race to be feared when they were defend-
ing their rights. With them nothing is done by
halves, neither their houses nor their furniture, nor
their dikes nor their farming, nor their revolutions.
So that they retain a monopoly in whatever they un-
dertake. The manufacture of lace, a task requiring
patient labor in the fields and more patient manu-
facturing skill, and the making of linen, are heredi-
tary among them, like their patrimonial fortunes.
If one were called upon to depict constancy in its
purest human form, perhaps one could do no better
than to take the portrait of a worthy burgomaster of
the Low Countries, capable, as so many of them
have proved to be, of dying modestly and without
ostentation for the good of his guild. But the grate-
ful poetic charm of that patriarchal existence will
naturally come to light in a description of one of the
last houses in Douai which still retained its charac-
teristics at the time when this story begins.

Of all the towns in the department of the Nord,
Douai is, alas! the one that has become most mod-
ernized, where the thirst for innovation has made
the most rapid strides, where the love of social prog-
ress has spread most widely. There the old build-
ings are disappearing day by day, the old manners
and customs dying out. The tone, the styles, the



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE II

manners, of Paris are in the ascendant; and ere
long the people of Douai will have naught remaining
of the old Flemish life save the hospitable cordiality,
the Spanish courtesy, the wealth and the cleanliness
of Holland. White stone mansions will soon have
replaced the brick houses. The substantial Dutch
architecture will have yielded to the varying ele-
gance of French novelties.

The house in which the incidents of this tale oc-
curred is situated almost in the middle of Rue de
Paris, and has been known in Douai for more than
two hundred years as " Claes House." The Van
Claes were formerly one of the most illustrious
families of mechanics to whom the Low Countries
owed the commercial supremacy in several products
which they have always retained. For a long time,
the Claes were, generation after generation, leaders
of the powerful guild of weavers in the city of Ghent.
At the time of the revolt of that great city against
Charles V., who endeavored to suppress its privi-
leges, the wealthiest of the Claes was so deeply in-
volved that, foreseeing a catastrophe and compelled
to share the fate of his companions, he secretly sent
away his wife, his children, and his treasure, and
placed them under French protection, before the Em-
peror's troops had invested the city. The syndic's
previsions were fulfilled. He, with several other
burghers, was excepted from the capitulation and
hanged as a rebel, whereas he was in reality the
defender of the independence of Ghent. The deaths
of Claes and his companions bore fruit. At a later



12 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

date, those useless executions cost the King of Spain
the greater part of his possessions in the Low Coun-
tries. Of all the seeds entrusted to the earth, the
blood shed by martyrs produces the speediest crop.
When Philip 11., who punished the revolt to the
second generation, extended his iron sceptre over
Douai, the Claes preserved their great wealth, ally-
ing themselves with the very noble family of Molina,
whose elder branch, at that time impoverished, be-
came wealthy enough to be in a position to redeem
the comte of Nourho, in the Kingdom of Leon, of
which it was only titular possessor.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, after
many vicissitudes which it would be in nowise inter-
esting to describe, the family of Claes was repre-
sented, in the branch settled at Douai, by Monsieur
Balthazar Claes-Molina, Count of Nourho, who chose
to call himself plain Balthazar Claes. Of the vast
fortune amassed by his ancestors, who had practised
innumerable trades, Balthazar still possessed about
fifteen thousand francs a year in real estate in the
arrondissement of Douai, in addition to the house on
Rue de Paris, the furniture in which was worth a
fortune.

As for the property in the Kingdom of Leon, that
had been the subject of a lawsuit between the Molinas
of Flanders and that branch of the family which had
remained in Spain. The Molinas of Leon secured
the estates, and assumed the title of counts of
Nourho, although the Claes alone had the right to
bear it; but the vanity of the Belgian bourgeoisie



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 13

was superior to Cas'tilian pride. And so, when the
etat civil was instituted, Balthazar laid aside the rags
of his Spanish nobility in favor of his eminent station
as a burgher of Ghent. The sentiment of patriotism
is so firmly rooted in exiled families that, even in the
last years of the eighteenth century, the Claes were
still faithful to their traditions, their manners, and
customs. They formed alliances only with families
of the purest burgher blood: a woman must be able
to point to a certain number of sheriffs or burgo-
masters among her kindred to be admitted into their
family. Indeed, they went to Bruges, Ghent, or
Liege, or into Holland for their wives, in order to per-
petuate the customs of their domestic life. Toward
the close of the last century, their social circle, having
grown constantly smaller and smaller, was reduced
to seven or eight families of parliamentary nobility,
whose morals, whose togas with their ample folds,
and whose half-Spanish, magisterial gravity were in
harmony with their habits. The people of the town
entertained a sort of religious respect for the family,
who were to them a predilection, so to speak. The
never-failing uprightness, the stainless honor of the
Claes, their invariable decorum, made them the sub-
ject of a superstition as inveterate as that of the
feast of Gayant, and well expressed by the name
" Claes House." The spirit of old Flanders breathed
in that dwelling, which presented to admirers of bour-
geois antiquities a typical example of the unpreten-
tious houses which wealthy burghers of the Middle
Ages built for themselves.



14 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

The principal ornament of the facade was an oaken
folding-door, trimmed with nails arranged in quin-
cunxes, in the centre of which the Claes had proudly
caused to be carved two shuttles joined together.
The door-frame was of sandstone and was capped
by a pointed arch from which was suspended a small
lantern surmounted by a cross, in which could be
seen a statuette of Sainte Genevieve spinning. Al-
though time had cast its darkening tinge upon the
delicate handiwork of the doorway and the lantern,
the extreme care bestowed upon them by the ser-
vants of the house enabled the passer-by to grasp all
their details. For instance, the door-post, composed
of a group of small pillars, preserved a deep-gray
color, and shone so that one might think it had been
varnished. On each side of the door, on the ground-
floor, were two windows like all those in the house.
The white stone frame ended under the sill in a shell
richly carved, and above, in two arches, separated
by the upright of the cross which divided the window
into four unequal parts, for the cross-piece, being
placed at the requisite height to represent a cross,
made the two lower parts almost twice as large
as the upper ones, which were rounded at the top by
the arched frames. The twofold arch was embel-
lished by three rows of bricks, each protruding be-
yond the last, the alternate bricks in each row being
set forward about an inch, making a sort of fret-
work. The panes, which were small and diamond-
shaped, were set in extremely slender iron bars,
painted red. The walls, of brick pointed with white



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 15

mortar, were supported at intervals and at the cor-
ners by courses of stone. There were five windows
on the first floor, only three on the second, and the
attic was lighted by a large round opening with five
compartments, with a frame of sandstone, set in
the centre of the triangular pediment formed by the
gable, like the rose-window over the grand portal
of a cathedral. On the ridge-pole, by way of
weathercock, was a distaff with its supply of flax.
The two sides of the great triangle formed by the
wall of the gable were cut by something like steps
as far as the coping of the first floor, where, on both
sides of the house, the rain-water fell from the open
jaws of a fantastic gargoyle. At the lower part of
the wall was a course of sandstone in imitation of a
step. Finally, and this was the last trace of the
ancient customs, on each side of the door, between
the two windows, was a wooden trap-door, strength-
ened by stout iron bands, which gave access to the
cellar.

Ever since it was built, that facade had been care-
fully cleaned twice a year. If a little mortar were
lacking in a joint, the hole was at once filled. The
windows, the sills, the stonework, everything was
dusted more thoroughly than the most valuable
statues are dusted in Paris. So that that house-
front showed no trace of deterioration. Notwith-
standing the dark color of the bricks, due to their
age, they were as well preserved as it is possible
for an old picture to be, or an old book, dear to the
heart of a collector, which would be always new



16 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

were they not subjected, in our bell-glass atmos-
phere, to the influence of gases whose malignant
qualities threaten our own well-being.

The cloudy skies, the damp atmosphere of Flan-
ders, and the shadows due to the narrowness of the
street very often deprived that house of the polish
which it borrowed from its labored cleanliness, and
which made it cold and depressing to the eye. A
poet would have loved to see a blade or two of grass
in the cracks of the lantern, or moss on the jutting
sandstone, he would have wished that those rows of
bricks were cracked, that a swallow had built his
nest under the window arches, in the triple row
of red pigeon-holes which embellished them. In
truth, the high finish, the super-cleanly aspect of
that facade, half-worn by rubbing, gave it a sedately
genteel and respectable look, which would certainly
have caused a lover of the romantic to change his
quarters if he had lived opposite.

When a visitor had pulled the twisted iron cord of
the bell which hung by the door-post, and the ser-
vant had opened that leaf of the door in the centre of
which was a little wicket, it slipped at once from her
hand, by reason of its great weight, and flew back,
echoing under the arches of a spacious flagged gal-
lery and through the inmost recesses of the house
with a solemn, heavy sound as if it were of bronze.
That gallery, painted in imitation of marble, always
cool and with a layer of fine sand on the floor, led to
a great square interior courtyard, paved with large
glazed tiles of a greenish color. At the left were



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 17

the laundry, the kitchens, the servants' quarters;
at the right, the wood-shed, the coal-bins, and the
offices, the doors, windows, and walls of the latter
embellished with architectural designs which were
always exquisitely clean. The light, sifted between
four red walls striped with lines of white, acquired
a pink tinge which gave to men's faces and to the
most trivial details a mysterious charm and fantastic
appearance.

A second house exactly like the one on the street,
and known in Flanders by the name of quartier de
derriere, stood at the other end of the courtyard and
was used solely as the dwelling of the family. On
the ground-floor, the first room was a parlor lighted
by two windows on the courtyard side, and by two
others looking on a garden whose width corresponded
to that of the house. Two glass doors, on opposite
sides of the room, led to the courtyard and garden,
respectively, and were on a line with the street-door,
so that a stranger, on entering from the street, could
see the whole property from end to end, to the foliage
at the rear of the garden. The building in front,
intended for receptions, with the guest-rooms on the
second floor, undoubtedly contained many objects of
art and the accumulated treasures of years; but in
the eyes of the Claes, as well as in the opinion of
connoisseurs, nothing could compare with the treas-
ures which adorned that room in which the life of
the family had been lived for two centuries. The
Claes who laid down his life in the cause of the
liberties of Ghent, the artisan of whom we should



18 THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE

conceive an inadequate idea if the historian should
omit to say that he possessed nearly forty thou-
sand silver marks, amassed in the manufacture of
sail-cloth for the all-powerful Venetian navy, that
Claes had for a friend the famous wood-carver
Van Huysium of Bruges. Many a time the artist
had had recourse to the artisan's purse. Some time
previous to the revolt of the people of Ghent, Van
Huysium, having become rich, had secretly carved
for his friend a solid ebony wainscoting, whereon
were represented the principal scenes in the life of
Arteveld, the brewer, who was for an instant King
of Flanders. That wainscoting, composed of sixty
panels, contained about fourteen hundred principal
figures, and was considered Van Huysium's great-
est work. The captain to whom was entrusted the
duty of guarding the burghers whom Charles V.
had decided to have hanged on the day of his entry
into his natal city, proposed to Van Claes, it is said,
to allow him to escape, if he would give him Van
Huysium's masterpiece. But the weaver had already
sent it to France.

The parlor, being wainscoted entirely with those
panels, which, out of respect for the shades of the
martyr, Van Huysium himself had framed in wood
painted in ultramarine mingled with threads of gold,
was, therefore, the most perfect work of that mas-
ter whose least important works are sold to-day for
almost their weight in gold. About the fireplace,
Van Claes, painted by Titian in his costume of pres-
ident of the court of the Parchons, seemed still to



THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE 19

lead that family, who looked with veneration upon
him as their great man. The fireplace, originally of


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac, now for the first time completely translated into English.. (Volume 45) → online text (page 1 of 19)