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dearest. This is a talisman which represents the length of my life, and
accomplishes my wishes. You see how little is left."

Pauline thought he had suddenly grown mad. She bent over him, and took
up the magic skin. As Raphael saw her, beautiful with love and terror,
he lost all control over his desires. To possess her again, and die on
her breast!

"Come to me Pauline!" he said.

She felt the skin tickling her hand as it rapidly shrivelled up. She
rushed into the bedroom, and closed the door.

"Pauline! Pauline!" cried the dying man, stumbling after her. "I love
you! I want you! I wish to die for you!"

With extraordinary strength - the last outburst of life - he tore the door
off the hinges, and saw Pauline in agony on a sofa. She had stabbed
herself.

"If I die, he will live!" she was crying.

Raphael staggered across the room, and fell into the arms of beautiful
Pauline, dead.

* * * * *




The Quest of the Absolute

"La Recherche de l'Absolu" was published in 1834, with a
touching dedication to Madame Josephine Delannoy: "Madame, may
it please God that this, my book, may live when I am dead,
that the gratitude which is due from me to you, and which
equals, I trust, your motherlike generosity to me, may hope to
endure beyond the limits set to human love." The novel became
a part of the "Human Comedy" in 1845. The struggle of
Balthazar Claes in his quest for the Absolute, his disregard
of all else save his work, and the heroic devotion of
Josephine and Marguerite, are characteristic features of
Balzac's art; the sordidness of life and the mad passion for
the unattainable are admirably relieved, as in "Eugénie
Grandet" and "Old Goriot," by a certain nobility and purity of
motive. The novel is generally acknowledged one of Balzac's
masterpieces, both in vigour of portraiture and minuteness of
detail. Perhaps no one was ever better fitted to depict the
ruin wrought by a fixed idea than Balzac himself, who wasted
much of his laborious life in struggling to discover a short
cut to wealth.


_I. - Claes, the Alchemist_


In Douai, situated in the Rue de Paris, there is a house which stands
out from all the rest in the city by reason of its purely Flemish
character. In all its details, this tall and handsome house expresses
the manners of the domesticated people of the Low Countries. The name of
the house for some two centuries has been Maison Claes, after the great
family of craftsmen who occupied it. These Van Claes had amassed
fortunes, played a part in politics, and had suffered many vicissitudes
in the course of history without losing their place in the mighty
bourgeois world of commerce. They were substantial people, princes of
trade.

At the end of the eighteenth century the representative of this ancient
and affluent family was Balthazar Claes, a tall and handsome young man,
who after some years' residence in Paris, where he saw the fashionable
world and made acquaintance with many of the great savants, including
Lavoisier the chemist, returned to his home in Douai, and set himself to
find a wife.

It was on a visit to a relation in Ghent that he heard gossip concerning
a young lady living in Brussels, which made him curious to see so
interesting a person. Rumour had two tales to tell of this Mlle.
Josephine Temninck. She was beautiful, but she was deformed. Could
deformity be triumphed over by beauty of face? A relative of Claes
thought that it could, and maintained this opinion against the opposite
camp. This relative spoke of Mlle. Temninck's character, telling how the
sweet girl had surrendered her share of the family estate that her
younger brother might make a great marriage, and how she had quite
resigned herself, even on the threshold of her life, to the idea of
spinsterhood and narrow means.

Claes sought out this noble soul. He found her inexpressibly beautiful,
and the malformation of one of her shoulders appeared as nothing in his
eyes. He lost his heart to Josephine, and made passionate love to her.
Distracted by such adoration, the beautiful cripple was now lifted to
dizzy heights of joy and now plunged into abysmal depths of despair. She
had deemed herself irreparably plain; in the eyes of a charming young
man, she found herself beautiful. But, could such love endure through
life? To be loved was delicious, but to be deceived after so surprising
a release from solitude would be terrible.

Conscious of her deformity, intimidated by the future, she became in the
purity of her soul a coquette. She dissimulated her feelings, became
exacting, and hid from her lover the passion of joy which was consuming
her; indeed, she only revealed her true self after marriage had shown
her the steadfast nobility of her husband's character, when she could no
longer doubt of his affection. He loved her with fidelity and ardour.
She realised all his ideals, and no consideration of duty entered into
their passionate affection. She was Spanish, and had the secret of charm
in her variety of attraction; ill-educated though she was, like most
daughters of Spanish noblemen, she was engaging and bewildering in the
force of her own nature and the religion of her absorbing love. In
society she was dull; for her husband alone she was enchanting. No
couple could have been happier.

They had four children, two boys and two girls; the eldest a girl named
Marguerite.

Fourteen years after their marriage, in the year 1809, a change appeared
in Balthazar, but so gradually that Mme. Claes did not at first question
it. He became thoughtful, reflective, silent, preoccupied. When
Josephine Claes noticed this change, it was too late for her to ask
questions; she waited for Balthazar to speak. She began to fear.
Balthazar, whose whole heaven had lain in the happiness of the family
life, who had loved to play with his children, to attend to his tulips,
to sun himself in the dark eyes of Josephine, seemed now to forget the
existence of them all. He was indifferent to everything.

People who questioned her were put off with the brave story that
Balthazar had a great work in hand, which would bring fame one day to
his native town. Josephine's hazard was founded on truth. Workmen had
been engaged for some time in the garret of the house, and there Claes
spent the greater part of his time. But the poor lady was to learn the
full truth from the neighbours she had attempted to hoodwink. They asked
her if she meant to see herself and her children ruined, adding that her
husband was spending a fortune on scientific instruments, machinery,
books, and materials in a search for the Philosopher's Stone.

Humiliated that the neighbours should know more than she did, and
terrified by the prospect in front of her, Josephine at last spoke to
her husband.

"My dear," he said, "you would not understand what I am about. I am
studying chemistry, and I am perfectly happy."

Things went from bad to worse. Claes became more taciturn and more
invisible to his family. He was slovenly in dress and untidy in his
habits. Only his servant Lemulquinier, or Mulquinier, as he was often
called, was allowed to enter the attic and share his master's secrets.
Mme. Claes had a rival. It was science.

One day she went to the garret, but Claes repulsed her with wrath and
roughness.

"My experiment is absolutely spoilt," he cried vehemently. "In another
minute I might have resolved nitrogen."


_II. - The Riddle of Existence_


Josephine consulted Claes's notary, M. Pierquin, a young man and a
relative of the family. He looked into matters, and found that Claes
owed a hundred thousand francs to a firm of chemists in Paris. He warned
Josephine that ruin was certain if this state of things continued.
Hitherto she had loved husband more than children; now the mother was
roused in her, and for her children's sakes she determined to act. She
had sold her diamonds to provide for the housekeeping, since for six
months Claes had given her nothing; she had sent away the governess; she
had economised in a hundred directions. Now she must act against her
husband. But her children came between her and her true life, since her
true life was Balthazar's. She loved him with a sublime passion which
could sacrifice everything except her children.

One Sunday, after vespers, in 1812, she sent for her husband, and
awaited him at a window of one of the lower rooms, which looked on the
garden. Tears were in her eyes. As she sat there, suddenly over her head
sounded the footsteps of Claes, making her start. No one could have
heard that slow and dragging step unmoved. One wondered if it were a
living thing.

He entered the apartment, thin, round-shouldered, with disordered long
hair, his cravat awry, his clothes stained and torn.

"Are you so absorbed in your work, Balthazar?" said Josephine. "It is
thirty-three Sundays since you have been either to vespers or mass."

"Vespers?" he questioned, vaguely. Then added: "Ah, the children have
been to church," and walked to the window and looked at the tulips. As
he stood there, he said to himself: "But yes, why shouldn't they combine
in a given time?"

His poor wife asked herself in despair, "Is he going mad?" Then, rousing
herself, she called him by his name. Without paying heed to her he
coughed and went to one of the spittoons beside the wainscot.

"Monsieur, I speak to you!"

"What of that?" he demanded, turning swiftly. She became deadly white.

"Forgive me, dear," she whispered, and cried: "Ah, this is killing me!"

Tears in her eyes roused Claes out of his reverie. He took her into his
arms, pushed open a door, and sprang lightly up the staircase. Finding
the door of her apartment locked, he laid her gently in an armchair.

"Thank you, dear," she murmured. "I have not been so near your heart for
a long time."

Her loveliness postponed disaster. Enamoured by her beauty, rescued to
humanity, Claes returned for a brief interval to the family life, and
was adorable to his wife, charming to his children. When they were alone
together, Josephine questioned him as to his secret work, telling him
that she had begun to study chemistry in order that she might share his
life. Touched by this devotion, Claes declared his secret. A Polish
officer had come to their house in 1809, and had discussed chemistry
with Claes. The result of the conversations had set Claes to search for
the single element out of which all things are perhaps composed. The
Polish officer had confided certain secrets to him, saying: "You are a
disciple of Lavoisier; you are wealthy, you are free; I will give you my
idea. The Primitive Element must be common to oxygen, hydrogen,
nitrogen, and carbon. Force must be the common principle of positive and
negative electricity. Demonstrate these two hypotheses, and you will
hold in your hands the First Cause, the solution of the great riddle of
existence."

As Claes rattled away, Josephine suddenly exclaimed, against her will:
"So it was this man, who spent but one night with us, that stole your
love from me and your children! Did he make the Sign of the Cross? Did
you observe him closely? He was Satan! Only the devil could have stolen
you from me. Ever since his visit you have ceased to be father and
husband."

"Do you rebuke me," Balthazar asked, "for being superior to common men?"

And he poured out a tale of his achievements. In the height of his
passion for her Josephine had never seen his face so shining with
enthusiasm as it was now. Tears came into her eyes.

"I have combined chlorine and nitrogen," he rhapsodised; "I have
analysed endless substances. I have analysed tears! Tears are nothing
more than phosphate of lime, chloride of sodium, mucus, and water."

He ran on till she cried upon him to stop.

"You horrify me," she said, "with your blasphemies. What my love is - - "

"Spiritualised matter, given off," replied Claes; "the secret, no doubt,
of the Absolute. If I am the first to find it out! Think of it! I will
make metals and diamonds. What Nature does I will do."

"You trespass on God!" Josephine exclaimed impatiently. "You deny God!
Ah, God has a force which you will never exercise!"

"What is that?" he demanded.

"Motion. Analysis is one thing, creation is another," she said. Her
pleadings were successful. Balthazar abandoned his researches, and the
family removed to the country. He was awakened by his wife's love to the
knowledge that he had brought his fortune to the verge of ruin. He
promised to abandon his experiments. As some amends, he threw himself
into preparations for a great ball at the Maison Claes in honour of his
wedding day. The festivity was saddened by the news of disaster to the
Grand Army at Beresina. One of the letters that arrived that day was
from the Polish officer, dying of his wounds, who sent Claes, as a
legacy, some of his ideas for discovering the Absolute. No one danced;
the fête was gloomy; only Marguerite shone like a lovely flower on the
anxious company. When the guests departed, Balthazar showed Josephine
the letter from the Pole. She did everything a woman could do to
distract his thoughts. She made the home life enchanting. She
entertained. She introduced the movement of the world into the great
house. In vain. Her husband's _ennui_ was terrible to behold. "I release
you from your promise," she said to him one day.

Balthazar returned with Lemulquinier to the attic, and the experiments
began anew. He was quite happy again.

A year passed; the Absolute was undiscovered. Once more ruin haunted the
state room of the Maison Claes. Josephine's confessor, the Abbé de
Solis, who had sold her jewels, now suggested selling some of the
Flemish pictures. Josephine explained the situation to her husband.

"What do you think?" he cried. "I am within an ace of finding the
Absolute. I have only to discover - "

Josephine broke down. She left her husband, and retired downstairs to
her children. The servants were summoned. Madame Claes looked like
death. Everybody was alarmed. Lemulquinier was told to go for the
priest. He said he had monsieur's orders to see to in the laboratory.


_III. - The Passing of Josephine_


It was the beginning of the end for Josephine. As she lay dying, she saw
judgment in the eyes of Marguerite - judgment on Balthazar. Her last days
were sorrowed by the thought that the children would condemn their
father. Balthazar came sometimes to sit with her, but he appeared to be
unaware of her situation. He was charming to the younger children, but
he was dead to the true condition of his wife.

One thing gave her peace. The Abbé de Solis brought his nephew to the
house, and this young man, Emmanuel, who was good and noble, evidently
created a favourable impression on Marguerite. The dying mother watched
the progress of this love story with affectionate satisfaction. It was
all she had to light her way to the grave. Pierquin told her that
Balthazar had ordered him to raise three hundred thousand francs on his
estate. She saw that ruin could not be averted; she lay at death's door,
deserted by the husband she still worshipped, thinking of the children
she had sacrificed. The noble character of Marguerite cheered her last
hours. In that child, she would live on and be a providence to the
family.

One day she wrote a letter, addressed and sealed it, and showed it to
Marguerite. It was addressed: "To my daughter, Marguerite." She placed
it under her pillow, said she would rest, and presently fell into a deep
slumber. When she awoke, all her children were kneeling round her in
prayer, and with them was Emmanuel.

"The hour has come, dear children," she said gently, "when we must say
farewell. You are all here" - she looked about her - "and he..."
Marguerite sent Emmanuel for her father, and Balthazar's answer to the
summons was, "I am coming."

When Emmanuel returned, Madame Claes sent him for his uncle the priest,
bidding him take the two boys with him; then she turned to her
daughters. "God is taking me," she said. "What will become of you? When
I am gone, Marguerite, if you are ever in need of food, read this letter
which I have addressed to you. Love your father, but shield your sister
and your brothers. It may be your duty to withstand him. He will want
money; he will ask you for it. Do not forget your duty to your father,
but remember your duty to your sister and brothers. Your father would
not injure his children of set purpose. He is noble, he is good. He is
full of love for you. He is a great man working at a great task. Fill my
place. Do not cause him grief by reproaches; never judge him; be,
between him and those in your charge, a gentle mediator."

One of the servants had to go and bang on the laboratory door for Claes.
"Madame is dying!" cried the indignant old body. "They are waiting for
you to administer the last sacrament."

"I'll be there in a minute," answered Claes. When he entered the room,
the Abbé de Solis and the children were kneeling round the mother's bed.
His wife's face flushed at his entrance. With a loving smile, she asked:
"Were you on the point of resolving nitrogen?"

"I have done it!" he answered, with triumph; "nitrogen is made up of
oxygen and - - - " He stopped, checked by a murmur, which roused him from
his dream. "What did they say?" he asked. "Are you really worse? What
has happened?"

"This has happened," said the Abbé; "your wife is dying, and you have
killed her."

Priest and children withdrew.

"What does he mean?" asked Claes.

"Dearest," she answered, "your love was my life; I could not live
without it."

He took her hand, and kissed it.

"When have I not loved you?" he asked.

She refused to utter a reproach. For her children's sake she told the
narrative of his six years' search for the Absolute, which had destroyed
her life and swallowed up two million francs, making him see the horror
of their desolation. "Have pity, have pity," she cried, "on our
children!"

Claes shouted for Lemulquinier, and bade him go instantly to the
laboratory and smash everything. "I abandon science for ever!" he cried.

"Too late!" sighed the dying woman; then she cried, "Marguerite!"

The child came from the doorway, horrified by the stricken face of her
mother. Once again the loved name was repeated, "Marguerite!" loudly, as
though to fix in her mind the charge laid upon her soul. It was the last
word uttered by Josephine. As the soul passed, Balthazar, from the foot
of the bed, looked up to the pillows where Marguerite was sitting, and
their eyes met. The father trembled.

In the sorrow of bereavement Marguerite discovered that she possessed
two friends - Pierquin the notary, and Emmanuel de Solis. Pierquin
thought it would be a suitable thing to save the wreckage of the estate
and marry the beautiful Marguerite, whose family was doubly noble.
Emmanuel offered to prepare Marguerite's brothers for college, with a
tact and a charm which declared a fine nature. Pierquin was a man of
business turned lover. Emmanuel was a lover turned by misfortune into a
man of action.


_IV. - The Hour of Darkness_


For some considerable time Balthazar avoided experimental chemistry, and
confined himself to theoretical speculations. He took long walks on the
ramparts; was gloomy, restless, and preoccupied at home. Marguerite
endeavoured to distract his thoughts. One day the old servant, Martha,
said to her: "All is over with us; master is on the road to hell again!"
And she pointed to clouds of smoke issuing from the laboratory chimney.
Marguerite lived as carefully as a nun; all expenses were cut down. She
denied herself ordinary comforts to prepare for the crash. Thanks to
Emmanuel, the boys were now advancing in their studies, and their future
was at least unclouded. But Balthazar had developed the gambler's
recklessness. He sold a forest; he mortgaged his house and silver; he
had no more food than a nigger who sells his wife for a glass of brandy
in the morning, and weeps over his loss at night. Once Marguerite spoke
to her father. She acknowledged that he was master, that his children
would obey him at all costs; but he must know that they scarcely had
bread in the house.

"Bread!" he cried; "no bread in the house of a Claes! Where is all our
property, then?"

She told him how he had sold everything.

"Then, how do we live?"

She held up her needle.

Time went on, and fresh debts hammered at the door of the Maison Claes.
At last Marguerite was obliged to face her father, and charge him with
madness.

"Madness!" he cried, firing up and springing to his feet. There was
something so majestic and commanding in his attitude that made
Marguerite tremble at his feet. "Your mother would never have used that
word; she always attached due importance to my scientific researches."

She could not bear his reproaches, and fled from him. She felt that the
time had come, for they were now on the verge of beggary, to break the
seal of her mother's letter. That letter expressed the most divine love,
praying that God would permit her spirit to be with Marguerite while she
read the words of this last message; and it told her that the Abbé
Solis, if living, or his nephew, held for her a sum of a hundred and
seventy thousand francs, and on this sum she must live, and leave her
father if he refused to abandon his researches. "I could never have said
these words," Josephine had written; "not even on the brink of the
grave." And she entreated her child to be reverent in withstanding her
father, and if resistance was inevitable to resist him on her knees. The
abbé was dead, but Emmanuel held the money. In their discussions about
the management of this sum, the two young people drew closer together.
The poor father, brought to ruin, confessed his madness, and uttered the
terrible despair of a beaten scientist. To comfort him, Marguerite said
that his debts would be paid with her money. His face lit up. "You have
money! Give it to me; I will make you rich." Once more the madness
returned.

Emmanuel came with three thousand ducats in his pockets. They were
hiding them in the hollow column of a pedestal, when, looking up,
Marguerite saw her father observing them. "I heard gold," he said,
advancing. To save her, Emmanuel lied. He sinned against his conscience
for her sake. The money, he said belonged to him, and he had lent it to
Marguerite. When he was gone, Claes said: "I must have that money."

"If you take it," answered Marguerite, "you will be a thief."

He knelt to her; she would not relent. He caressed her; she called God
to look down upon them if he stole the money. He rose, bade her a
sorrowful farewell, and left the room. Something warned her; she hurried
after him, to find him with a pistol at his head. "Take all I possess,"
she cried. Embracing her, he promised that if he failed this time he
would deliver himself into her hands.

Time passed and the Absolute was not discovered. A wealthy cousin of
Claes, M. Conyncks, came to Douai in his travelling carriage, and soon
after he and Marguerite journeyed to Paris. When she returned, it was to
announce that, through M. Conynck's influence, Balthazar had been
appointed receiver of taxes in Brittany, and must set out at once to
take up the appointment.

"You drive me out of my own house!" he exclaimed, with anger. At first
he refused to go, furious and indignant; but she persisted, and he had
to surrender. He went with Lemulquinier to his laboratory for the last
time. The two old men were very sad as they released the gases and
evaporated acids.

"Ah, look," said Claes, pausing before a capsule connected with the
wires of a battery; "if only we could watch out the end of this
experiment! Carbon and sulphur. Crystallisation should take place; the
carbon might certainly result in a crystal ..."

While Claes was in exile, fortune came to the family. The son Gabriel,
assisted by M. Conyncks, had made a large sum of money as the engineer
of a canal. Emmanuel de Solis had given Marguerite the fortune he
inherited from ancestors in Spain. Pierquin, who had turned his
attention to Marguerite's younger sister, had proved himself kind to the
family. Once again the Maison Claes was in prosperity, with pictures on
its walls, and with handsome furniture in its state apartments.

When Conyncks and Marguerite went to fetch the father, they found him
old and broken. The child was greatly touched by his appearance, and
questioned him alone. She discovered that instead of saving money, he


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Online LibraryVariousThe World's Greatest Books — Volume 01 — Fiction → online text (page 18 of 26)