She is a beautiful woman still, but pale and sorrowful. In spite of her income she lives on in the old house, and cold and sunless it bears a likeness to her own life. Spending little on herself, Mme. de Bonfons gives away large sums in succouring the unfortunate; but she is very lonely—without husband, children, or kindred. She dwells in the world, but is not of it.
* * * * *
"Old Goriot," or, to give it its French title, "Le Pere Goriot," is one of the series of novels to which Balzac gave the title of "The Comedy of Human Life." It is a comedy, mingled with lurid tragic touches, of society in the French capital in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The leading character in this story is, of course, Old Goriot, and the passion which dominates him is that of paternity. In the picture which Balzac draws of Parisian life, from the sordid boarding-house to the luxurious mansions of the gilded aristocracy in the days of the Bourbon Restoration, the author exhibits that tendency to over-description for which he was criticised by his contemporaries, and to dwell too much on petty details. It may be urged, however, that it is the cumulative effect of these minute touches that is necessary for the true realisation of character.
I.—In a Paris Boarding-House
Madame Vauquer, nee Conflans, is an elderly lady who for forty years past has kept a Parisian middle-class boarding-house, situated in the Rue Neuve Sainte-Genevieve, between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint Marcel. This pension, known under the name of the Maison Vauquer, receives men as well as women—young men and old; but hitherto scandal has never attacked the moral principles on which the respectable establishment has been conducted. Moreover, for more than thirty years, no young woman has been seen in the house; and if any young man ever lived there, it was because his family were able to make him only a very slender allowance. Nevertheless, in 1819, the date at which this drama begins, a poor young girl was found there.
The Maison Vauquer is of three stories, with attic chambers, and a tiny garden at the back. The ground floor consists of a parlour lighted by two windows looking upon the street. Nothing could be more depressing than this chamber, which is used as the sitting-room. It is furnished with chairs, the seats of which are covered with strips of alternate dull and shining horsehair stuff, while in the centre is a round table with a marble top. The room exhales a smell for which there is no name, in any language, except that of odour de pension. And yet, if you compare it with the dining-room which adjoins, you will find the sitting-room as elegant and as perfumed as a lady's boudoir. There misery reigns without a redeeming touch of poesie—poverty, penetrating, concentrated, rasping. This room appears at its best when at seven in the morning Madame Vauquer, preceded by her cat, enters it from her sleeping chamber. She wears a tulle cap, under which hangs awry a front of false hair; her gaping slippers flop as she walks across the room. Her features are oldish and flabby; from their midst springs a nose like the beak of a parrot. Her small fat hands, her person plump as a church rat, her bust too full and tremulous, are all in harmony with the room. About fifty years of age, Madame Vauquer looks as most women do who say that they have had misfortunes.
At the date when this story opens there were seven boarders in the house. The first floor contained the two best suites of rooms. Madame Vauquer occupied the small, and the other was let to Madame Couture, the widow of a paymaster in the army of the French Republic. She had with her a very young girl, named Victorine Taillefer. On the second floor, one apartment was tenanted by an old gentleman named Poiret; the other by a man of about forty years of age, who wore a black wig, dyed his whiskers, gave out that he was a retired merchant, and called himself Monsieur Vautrin. The third story was divided into four single rooms, of which one was occupied by an old maid named Mademoiselle Michonneau, and another by an aged manufacturer of vermicelli, who allowed himself to be called "Old Goriot." The two remaining rooms were allotted to a medical student known as Bianchon, and to a law student named Eugene de Rastignac. Above the third story were a loft where linen was dried, and two attic rooms, in one of which slept the man of all work, Christophe, and in the other the fat cook, Sylvie.
The desolate aspect of the interior of the establishment repeated itself in the shabby attire of the boarders. Mademoiselle Michonneau protected her weak eyes with a shabby green silk shade mounted on brass wire, which would have scared the Angel of Pity. Although the play of passions had ravished her features, she retained certain traces of a fine complexion, which suggested that the figure conserved some fragments of beauty. Poiret was a human automaton, who had earned a pension by mechanical labour as a government functionary.
Mademoiselle Victorine Taillefer was of a sickly paleness, like a girl in feeble health; but her grey-black eyes expressed the sweetness and resignation of a Christian. Her dress, simple and cheap, betrayed her youthful form. Happy, she might have been beautiful, for happiness imparts a poetic charm to women, as dress is the artifice of it. If love had ever given sparkle to her eyes, Victorine would have been able to hold her own with the fairest of her compeers. Her father believed he had reason to doubt his paternity, though she loved him with passionate tenderness; and after making her a yearly allowance of six hundred francs, he disinherited her in favour of his only son, who was to be the sole successor to his millions. Madame Couture was a distant relation of Victorine's mother, who had died in her arms, and she had brought up the orphan as her own daughter in a strictly pious fashion, taking her with rigid regularity to mass and confession.
Eugene de Rastignac, the eldest son of a poor baron of Angouleme, was a characteristic son of the South. His complexion was clear, hair black, eyes blue. His figure, manner, and habitual poses proved that he was a scion of a noble family, and that his early education had been based on aristocratic traditions. The connecting link between these two individuals and the other boarders was Vautrin—the man of forty, with the dyed whiskers. He was one of that sort of men who are familiarly described as "jolly good fellows." His face, furrowed with premature wrinkles, showed signs of hardness which belied his insinuating address. He was invariably obliging, with a breezy cheerfulness, though at times there was a steely expression in the eyes which inspired his fellow-boarders with a sense of fear. He knew or guessed the affairs of everybody in the house, but no one could divine his real business or his most inmost thoughts.
II.—The Beginnings of the Tragedy
Such a household ought to offer, and did present in miniature, the elements of a complete society. Among the inmates there was, as in the world at large, one poor discouraged creature—a butt on whom mocking pleasantries were rained. This patient sufferer was the old vermicelli maker, Goriot. Six years before, he had come to live at the Maison Vauquer, having, so he said, retired from business. He dressed handsomely, wore a gold watch, with thick gold chain and seals, flourished a gold snuff-box, and, when Madame Vauquer insinuated that he was a gallant, he smiled with the complacency of vanity tickled. Among the china and silver articles with which he decorated his sitting-room were a dish and porringer, on the cover of which were figures representing two doves billing and cooing.
"That," said Goriot, "is the present which my wife made to me on the first anniversary of our wedding-day. Poor dear, she bought it with the little savings she hoarded before our marriage. Look you, madame, I would rather scratch the ground with my nails for a living than part with that porringer. God be praised, however, I shall be able to drink my coffee out of this dish every morning during the rest of my days. I cannot complain. I have on the shelf, as the saying is, plenty of baked bread for a long time to come."
At the close of his first year Goriot began to practise little economies; at the end of the second he removed his rooms to the second floor, and did without a fire all the winter. This although, as Madame Vauquer's prying eyes had seen, Goriot's name appeared in the list of state funds for a sum representing an income of from eight to ten thousand francs. Henceforth she denounced him to the other paying-guests as an unprincipled old libertine, who lavished his enormous income from the funds on unknown youthful charmers. The boarders agreed; and when two young ladies in the most fashionable and costly attire visited him in succession in a semi-stealthy manner, their suspicions, as they believed, were confirmed. On one occasion, Sylvie followed Old Goriot and his beautiful visitor to a side street, and saw that there was a splendid carriage waiting and that she got into it. When challenged upon the point, the old man meekly declared that they were his daughters, though he never disclosed that their occasional visits were paid only to wheedle money from him.
The years passed, and with the gentleness of a broken spirit, beaten down to the docility of misery, Goriot curtailed his personal expenses, and again removed his lodgings; this time to the third floor. His dress turned shabbier; with each ascending grade his diamonds, gold snuff-box, and jewels disappeared. He grew thinner in person; his face, which had once the beaming roundness of a well-to-do middle-class gentleman, became furrowed with wrinkles. Lines appeared in his forehead, his jaws grew gaunt and sharp; and at the end of the fourth year he bore no longer the likeness of his former self. He was now a wan, worn-out septuagenarian—stupid, vacillating.
Eugene de Rastignac had ambitions, not only to win distinction as a lawyer, but also to play a part in the aristocratic society of Paris. He observed the influence which women exert upon society; and at his suggestion his aunt, Madame de Marcillac, who lived with his father in the old family chateau near Angouleme, and who had been at court in the days before the French Revolution, wrote to one of her great relatives, the Viscomtesse de Beauseant, one of the queens of Parisian society, asking her to give kindly recognition to her nephew. On the strength of that letter Eugene was invited to a ball at the mansion of the viscomtesse in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The viscomtesse became interested in him, especially as she was suffering from the desertion of the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, a Portuguese nobleman who had been long her lover, and stood sponsor for him in society. At the Faubourg, Eugene met the Duchesse de Langeais, from whom he learned the history of Old Goriot.
"During the Revolution," said the duchesse, "Goriot was a flour and vermicelli merchant, and, being president of his section, was behind the scenes. When a great scarcity of food was at hand he made his fortune by selling his goods for ten times what they cost him. He had but one passion; he loved his daughters, and by endowing each of them with a dot of eight hundred thousand francs, he married the eldest, Anastasie, to the Count de Restaud, and the youngest, Delphine, to the Baron de Nucingen, a rich German financier. During the Empire, his daughters sometimes asked their father to visit them; but after the Restoration the old man became an annoyance to his sons-in-law. He saw that his daughters were ashamed of him; he made the sacrifice which only a father can, and banished himself from their homes. There is," continued the duchesse, "something in these Goriot sisters even more shocking than their neglect of their father, for whose death they wish. I mean their rivalry to each other. Restaud is of ancient family; his wife has been adopted by his relatives and presented at court. But the rich sister, the beautiful Madame Delphine de Nucingen, is dying with envy, the victim of jealousy. She is a hundred leagues lower in society than her sister. They renounce each other as they both renounced their father. Madame de Nucingen would lap up all the mud between the Rue Saint-Lazare and the Rue de Crenelle to gain admission to my salon." What the duchesse did not reveal was that Anastasie had a lover, Count Maxime de Trailles, a gambler and a duellist. To pay the gambling losses of this unscrupulous lover, to the extent of two hundred thousand francs, the Countess de Restaud induced Old Goriot to sell out of the funds nearly all that remained of his great fortune, and give the proceeds to her.
Returning to his lodgings from a ball in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Eugene saw a light in Goriot's room; and, without being noticed, watched the old man laboriously twisting two pieces of silver plate—his precious dish and porringer—into one lump.
"He must be mad," thought the student.
"The poor child!" groaned Goriot.
The next morning Goriot visited a silversmith, and the Countess de Restaud received the money to redeem a note of hand which she had given to a moneylender on behalf of her lover.
"Old Goriot is sublime," muttered Eugene when he heard of the transaction.
Delphine de Nucingen also had an admirer, Count de Marsay, through whose influence she expected to be introduced into the exclusive aristocratic society to which even the great wealth of her husband and his German patent of nobility could not secure an entry. Apart from her social aspirations, Delphine was personally extravagant; and as the baron was miserly and only gave her a very scanty allowance, she visited the gambling dens of the Palais Royale to try and raise the money which she could no longer coax from her old father.
III.—A Temptation and a Murder
To be young, to thirst after a position in the world of fashion, to hunger for the smiles of beautiful women, to obtain an entry into the salons of the Faubourg, meant to Rastignac large expenditure. He wrote home asking for a loan of twelve hundred francs, which, he said, he must have at all costs. The Viscomtesse de Beauseant had taken him under her protection, and he was in a situation to make an immediate fortune. He must go into society, but had not a penny even to buy gloves. The loan would be returned tenfold.
The mother sold her jewels, the aunt her old laces, his sisters sacrificed their economies, and the twelve hundred francs were sent to Eugene. With this sum he launched into the gay life of a man of fashion, dressed extravagantly, and gambled recklessly. One day Vautrin arrived in high spirits, surprising Eugene conversing with Victorine. This was Vautrin's opportunity, for which he had been preparing. When Victorine retired, Vautrin pointed out how impossible it was to maintain a position in society as a law student, and if Eugene wished to get on quickly he must either be rich, or make believe to be so.
"In view of all the circumstances, therefore, I make a proposition to you," said Vautrin to Eugene, "which I think no man in your position should refuse. I wish to become a great planter in the Southern States of America, and need two hundred thousand francs. If I get you a dot of a million, will you give me two hundred thousand francs? Is twenty per cent, commission on such a transaction too much? You will secure the affection of a little wife. A few weeks after marriage you will seem distracted. Some night, between kisses, you can own a debt of two hundred thousand francs, and ask your darling to pay it. The farce is acted every day by young men of good family, and no amorous young wife will refuse the money to the man she adores. Moreover, you will not lose the money; you will easily get it back by judicious speculation!"
"But where can I find such a girl?" said Eugene.
"She is here, close at hand."
"But how can that be?"
"She loves you; already she thinks herself the little Baroness de Rastignac."
"She has not a penny!" cried Eugene in amazement.
"Ah, now we are coming to the point," said Vautrin.
Thereupon, Vautrin insinuated that if papa Taillefer lost his son through the interposition of a wise Providence, he would take back his pretty and amiable daughter, who would inherit his millions. To this end he, Vautrin, frankly volunteered to play the part of destiny. He had a friend, a colonel in the army of the Loire, who would pick a quarrel with Frederic, the young blackguard son who had never sent a five-franc piece to his poor sister, and then "to the shades"—making a pass as if with a sword.
"Silence, monsieur! I will hear no more."
"As you please, my beautiful boy! I thought you were stronger."
A few days after this scene, Mademoiselle Michonneau and Poiret were sitting on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes, when they were accosted by the chief of the detective force. He told them that the minister of police believed that a man calling himself Vautrin, who lived with them in the Maison Vauquer, was an escaped convict from Toulon galleys, Jacques Collin, but known by the nickname of Trompe-la-Mort, and one of the most dangerous criminals in all France. In order to obtain certainty as to the identity of Vautrin with Collin he offered a bribe of three thousand francs if mademoiselle would administer a potion in his coffee or wine, which would affect him as if he were stricken with apoplexy. During his insensibility they could easily discover whether Vautrin had the convict's brand on his shoulder. The pair accepted the bribe, and the plot succeeded. Vautrin was identified as Collin and arrested, just as a messenger came to announce that Frederic Taillefer had been killed in a duel, and Victorine was carried off with Madame Couture to her father's home, the sole heir to his millions. When he was being pinioned to be conveyed back to the galleys, Collin looked upon his late fellow boarders with fierce scorn. "Are you any better than we convicts are?" said he. "We have less infamy branded on our shoulders than you have in your hearts—you flabby members of a gangrened society. There is some virtue here," exclaimed he, striking his breast. "I have never betrayed anyone. As for you, you old female Judas," turning to Mademoiselle Michonneau, "look at these people. They regard me with terror, but their hearts turn with disgust even to glance at you. Pick up your ill-gotten gains and begone." As Jacques Collin disappeared from the Maison Vauquer, and from our story, Sylvie, the fat cook, exclaimed: "Well, he was a man all the same!"
Although the way was now clear for Rastignac to marry the enormously wealthy Victorine, he paid court instead to Delphine, the Baroness de Nucingen, and dined with her every night. Old Goriot was informed of the intrigue by the baroness's maid. He did not resent but rather encouraged the liaison, and spent his last ten thousand francs in furnishing a suite of apartments for the young couple, on condition that he was to be allowed to occupy an adjoining room, and see his daughter every day.
IV.—Old Goriot's Death-Bed
The Viscomtesse de Beauseant was broken-hearted when the marriage of her lover was accomplished, but to maintain a brave spirit in the face of society she gave a farewell ball before retiring to her country estate. Among those invited was the Countess de Restaud, who ordered a rich costume for the occasion, which, however, she was unable to pay for. Her husband, the count, insisted on her appearing at the ball and wearing the family diamonds, which she had pawned to discharge her lover's gambling debts, and which had been redeemed to save the family honour. Anastasie sent her maid to Old Goriot, who rose from a sick-bed, sold his last forks and spoons for six hundred francs, pledged his annuity for four hundred francs, and so raised a thousand, which enabled Anastasie to obtain the gown and shine at the ball. Through Rastignac's influence, Delphine, Baroness de Nucingen, received from the viscomtesse a ticket for the dance, and insisted on going, as Rastignac declared "even over the dead body of her father," to challenge her sister's social precedence at the supreme society function. The ball was the most brilliant of the Parisian season. Both Goriot's daughters satisfied their selfish ambitions and gave never a thought to their old parent in the wretched Maison Vauquer.
For Old Goriot was sick unto death. His garret was bare; the walls dripped with moisture; the floor was damp; the bed was comfortless, and the few faggots which made the handful of fire had been bought only by the money got from pawning Eugene's watch. Christophe, the man servant, was sent by Rastignac to tell the daughters of their father's condition.
"Tell them that I am not very well," said Old Goriot; "that I should like to see them, to kiss them before I die."
By and by, when the messenger had gone, the old man said: "I don't want to die. To die, my good Eugene, is—not to see them there, where I am going. How lonely I shall be! Hell, to a father, is to be without his children. Tell me, if I go to heaven, can I come back in spirit and hover near them? You saw them at the ball; they did not know that I was ill, did they?"
On the return of the messenger, Old Goriot was told that both his daughters refused to come and see him. Delphine was too tired and sleepy; Anastasie was discussing with her husband the future disposition of her marriage portion. Then alternately Goriot blamed his daughters and pardoned their unfilial and selfish behaviour.
"My daughters were my vice—my mistresses. Oh, they will come! Come, my darlings! A kiss, a last kiss, the viaticum of your father! I am justly punished; my children were good, and I have spoiled them; on my head be their sins. I alone am guilty; but guilty through love." Eugene tried to soothe the old man by saying that he would go himself to fetch his daughters; but Goriot kept muttering in his semi-delirium. "Here, Nasie! here Delphine, come to your father who has been so good to you, and who is dying! Are they coming? No? Am I to die like a dog? This is my reward; forsaken, abandoned! They are wicked; they are criminal. I hate them. I will rise from my coffin to curse them. Oh, this is horrible! Ah, it is my sons-in-law who keep them away from me!"
"My good Old Goriot," said Eugene, "be calm."
"Not to see them—it is the agony of death!"
"You shall see them."
"Ah! my angels!"
And with these feeble words, Old Goriot sank back on the pillow and breathed his last.
Anastasie did come to the death-chamber, but too late. "I could not escape soon enough," she said to Rastignac. The student smiled sadly, and Madame de Restaud took her father's hand and kissed it, saying, "Forgive me, my father."
Goriot had a pauper's funeral. The aristocratic sons-in-law refused to pay the expenses of the burial. These were scraped together with difficulty by Eugene de Rastignac, the law student, and Bianchon, the medical student, who had nursed him with loving tenderness to the last. At the graveside in Pere Lachaise, Eugene and Christophe were the only mourners; Bianchon's duties detained him at the hospital. When the body of Old Goriot was lowered into the earth, the clergy recited a short prayer—all that could be given for the student's money. The pall of night was falling; the mist struck a chill on Eugene's nerves, and when he took a last glance at the shell containing all that was mortal of his old friend, he buried the last tear of his young manhood—a tear drawn by a sacred emotion from a pure heart.
Eugene wandered to the most elevated part of the cemetery, whence he surveyed that portion of the city between the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides, where lives that world of fashion which he had hungered to penetrate. With bitterness he muttered: "Now there is relentless war between us." And as the first act of defiance which he had sworn against society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucingen!
* * * * *
The Magic Skin
In no other work is the special quality of Balzac's genius displayed so completely as in "La Peau de Chagrin," which we render as "The Magic Skin." Published in 1831, it is the earliest in date of his veritable masterpieces, and the finest in conception. There is no novel more soberly true to life than this strange fairy tale. His hero, the Marquis de Valentin, is a young aristocrat of the Byronic type. He rejects the simple joys and stern realities of human existence; he wants more than life can give. He gets what he wants. He obtains a magic skin which enables him to fulfil his every wish. But in so doing he uses up his vital powers. Such is the idea which makes this fantastic story a profound philosophical study.
I.—The Seal of Solomon
On a dull morning towards the end of October, 1830, a tall, pale, and rather handsome young man came to the Pont Royal, and leaned over the bridge, and gazed with wild and yet resolute eyes at the swirling waters below. Just as he was preparing to leap down, a ragged old woman passed by.
"Wretched weather for drowning oneself, isn't it?" she said, with a grin. "How cold and dirty the Seine looks!"
The young man turned and smiled at her in the delirium of his courage. Then, suddenly he shuddered. On a shed by the Tuileries he saw, written in large letters: "Help for the drowned." He foresaw the whole thing. A boat would put off to the rescue. If the rowers did not smash his skull in with their oars as he came to the surface, he would be taken to the shed and revived. If he were dead, a crowd would collect, newspaper men would come; his body would be recognised; and the Press would publish the news of the suicide of Raphael de Valentin. No! He would wait till nightfall, and then in a decent, private manner bequeath an unrecognizable corpse to a world that had disregarded his genius.
With the air of a wealthy man of leisure sauntering about the streets to kill time, the young marquis strolled down the Quai Voltaire, and followed the line of shops, looking listlessly at every window. But as he thought of the fate awaiting him at nightfall, men and houses swam in a mist before his eyes. To recover himself he entered a curiosity shop. "If you care to go through our galleries," said the red-haired shop-boy, "you will find something worth looking at."
Raphael climbed up a dark staircase lined with mummies, Indian idols, stuffed crocodiles, and goggle-eyed monsters. They all seemed to grin at him as he passed. Haunted by these strange shapes belonging to the borderland between life and death, he walked in a kind of dream through a series of long, dimly lighted galleries, in which was piled, in mad confusion, the work of every age and every clime. Here was a lovely statue by Michael Angelo, from which dangled the scalp of a Red Indian. There, cold and impassive, was the lord of the ancient world, the Emperor Augustus, with a modern air-pump sticking in his eye. The walls were hung with priceless pictures, which were half-hidden by grimacing skeletons, rude wooden idols with horrible features, tall suits of gleaming armour, and figures of Egyptian deities, with the bodies of men and heads of animals. The place was a kitchen of all the arts and religions and interests of mankind.
This extraordinary confusion was rendered still more bizarre by the dim cross-lights that played upon everything. Raphael's eyes grew weary with gazing, and his mind was oppressed by the spectacle of the ruined splendours of thousands of years of human life. A fever born of hunger and exhaustion possessed him. The pictures appeared to light up, the statues seemed to move. Everything danced and swayed around him. Then a horrible Chinese monster advanced upon him with menacing eyes from the other side of the room, and he swooned away in terror.
When he came to, his eyes were dazzled by a flood or radiance streaming from a circle of crimson light. Before him, holding a bright red lamp, was a frail, white-haired, extraordinary man, clad in a long robe of black velvet. His body was wasted by extreme old age. His skin was like wrinkled parchment, and his lips were so thin and colourless that it was hardly possible to discern on his ivory-white face the line made by his mouth. But his eyes were marvellous. They were calm, clear and searching, and they glowed with the light and freshness of youth.
"So you have been looking over my collection," the old man said. "Do you wish to buy anything?"
"Buy?" said Raphael, with a strange smile. "I am utterly penniless. I have been examining your treasures just to while away the time till I could drown myself quietly and secretly at night. You will not grudge this last pleasure to a poet and man of learning, will you?"
"Penniless?" said the old man. "But you do not want to die because you are penniless! A young, handsome, intellectual lad like you could pick up a living somehow. What is it? Some woman, eh? Now let me help——"
"I want no help or advice or consolation," said Raphael furiously.
"And I will give you none," said the old man. "But as you are resolved to die, will you do something for me. I want to get rid of this."
He held the lamp up the wall, and showed Raphael a piece of very old shagreen, about the size of a fox's skin.
"Ah!" said Raphael. "A wild ass's skin engraved with Sanscrit characters. Why, here's the mark that some of the Eastern races call the Seal of Solomon!"
"You are truly a man of learning," said the strange old merchant, his breath coming in quick pants through his nostrils. "No doubt you can read the inscription."
"I should translate it thus," said Raphael, fixing his eyes upon the skin.
POSSESSING ME THOU POSSESSEST EVERYTHING. YET I POSSESS THEE. SO GOD HAS WILLED IT. WISH, AND THY WISHES SHALL BE ACCOMPLISHED. BUT MEASURE THE WISHES ACCORDING TO THY LIFE. HERE IT IS. I SHALL SHRINK WITH EACH WISH, AND SO SHALL THY LIFE, WILT THOU TAKE ME? TAKE ME! GOD WILL HEAR THEE. AMEN.
"Is it a joke or a mystery?"
"I do not know," said the old man. "I have offered the magic skin to many men. They laughed at it; but none would take it. I am like them. I doubt its power, but will not put it to the test."
"What!" said Raphael. "You have never formed a wish all the time you had it?"
"No!" said the old man. "I have discovered the great secret of human life. Look! I am a hundred and two years old. Do you know why men die? Because they use up the energy of life by wishing to do things and doing them. I am content to know things. My days have been spent wandering quietly over all the earth in the calm acquisition of knowledge. All desire, all lust after power are dead within me. So this skin, which I picked up in India, has never shrunk an inch since it came into my possession."
"You have never lived!" cried Raphael, turning from the old man, and seizing the skin. "Yes, I will take you. Now for a test. I am starving. Set before me a splendid banquet. Let me have as guests all the wildest, gayest, wittiest minds of young France. And women? Oh, the prettiest, wickedest women of the town! Wine, wit and women!"
A roar of laughter came from the old man. It resounded in the ears of Raphael like the laughter of a fiend from hell.
"Do you think my floors are going to open, and tables, waiters, and guests pop up before your eyes?" he said. "No! Your first wish is mean and vulgar; but it will be fulfilled in a natural manner. You wanted to die, eh? Your suicide is only postponed."
Raphael put the skin in his pocket, and abruptly left, saying, "You have never lived. I wish you knew what love was."
He heard the old man groan strangely, but without listening to his reproaches he rushed out of the shop, and in the street ran full tilt up against three young men.
"Brute! Ass! Idiot! Why, it's Raphael!" they cried. "You must come. Talk about a Roman orgy I We've been all over Paris looking, for you. A gorgeous feed. And all the girls from the Opera! The ancient Romans aren't in it."
"One at a time," said Raphael. "Now, Emile, just tell me what are you all shouting about?"
"Do you know Taillefer, the wealthy banker?" said Emile. "He is founding a newspaper. All the talent of young France is to be enlisted. You're invited to the inaugural festival to-night at the Rue Joubert. The ballot girls of the Opera are coming. Oh, Taillefer's doing the thing in style!"
Arm linked in arm, the four friends made their way to Taillefer's mansion, and there, in a large room brilliantly set out, they were welcomed by all the younger men of note in Paris. For some time Raphael felt ill at ease. He was surprised by the natural manner in which his wish had suddenly been accomplished. He took the magic skin out of his pocket, and looked at it. Magic? What man could believe nowadays in magic? But, nevertheless, he marvelled at the accidents of human life.
II—A Fight Against Fate
Although the banquet which he had desired was now set before him, Raphael was still very moody. Deaf to the loud, wild merriment of his companions, he thought sadly of the misfortune which had driven him that morning to the brink of the grave. Many noblemen find it difficult to exist in Paris on an income of several thousand pounds. The young Marquis de Valentin had lived there very happily on L12 a year. In 1826, his father, who had lost his wealth and lands in the Revolution, had died, leaving him L40. Taking a garret in the Rue des Cordiers, he had set about earning his living with his pen, and for three years he had laboured at a great work on "The Theory of the Will." He never went into society, but found a pleasant distraction from his studies in educating the daughter of his landlady.
Pauline Gaudin was a charming and beautiful child; her father, a baron of the empire, and an officer in the Grand Army, had been taken prisoner by the Russians in 1812, and never heard of since. Raphael was moved by the grace and innocence of the lovely human flower, that grew from a bud into an opening blossom under his care. But as he was too poor to marry her, he never made love to her.
Then, in January, 1830, he met the Countess Foedora, a brilliant, wealthy woman of society, widowed at the age of thirty, and eager to shine and astonish and captivate. For her sake, Raphael had put aside his scholarly studies and engaged in money-making hack-work. But after keeping him dangling about her for some months, she had cast him off, and in his misery he had resolved to end his life. Now he had got the magic skin. What if it were true what the strange old man had said? Should he wish to win the heart of Foedora? No! She was a woman without a heart. He would have nothing to do with women. Still, this skin!
"Measure it! Measure it!" he cried, flinging it down on the table.
"Measure what?" said Emile. "Has Taillefer's wine got into your head already?"
Raphael told them of the curiosity shop.
"That can be easily tested," said Emile, taking the skin and drawing its outline on a napkin. "Now wish, and see if it shrinks."
"I wish for six million pounds!" said Raphael.
"Hurrah!" said Emile. "And while you're about it make us all millionaires."
Taillefer's notary, Cardot, who had been gazing at Raphael during the dinner, walked across the room to him.
"My dear marquis," he said, "I've been looking for you all the evening. Wasn't your mother a Miss O'Flaharty?"
"Yes, she was," said Raphael—"Barbara O'Flaharty."
"Well, you are the sole heir of Major O'Flaharty, who died last August at Calcutta, leaving a fortune of six millions."
"An incalculable fortune," said Emile. Raphael spread out the skin upon the napkin. He shuddered violently on seeing a slight margin between the pencil-line on the napkin and the edge of the skin.
"What's the matter?" said the notary. "He has got a fortune very cheaply."
"Hold him up," said some one. "The joy will kill him."
A ghostly whiteness spread over the face of the happy heir. He had seen Death! He stared at the shrunken skin and the merciless outline on the napkin, and a feeling of horror came over him. The whole world was his; he could have all things. But at what a cost!
"Do you wish for some asparagus, sir?" said, a waiter.
"I wish for nothing!" shrieked Raphael. And he fled from the banquet.
"So," he said, when he was at last alone, "in this enlightened age, when science has stripped the very stars of their secrets, here am I frightened out of my senses by an old piece of wild ass's skin. To-morrow I will have it examined by Planchette, and put an end to this mad fancy."
Planchette, the celebrated professor of mechanics, treated the thing as a joke.
"Come with me to Spieghalter," he said. "He has just built a new kind of hydraulic press which I designed."
Arrived there, Planchette asked Spieghalter to stretch the magic skin. "Our friend," he said, "doubts if we can do it."
"You see this crank?" said Spieghalter to Raphael, pointing to the new press. "Seven turns to it, and a solid steel bar would break into thousands of pieces."
"The very thing I want," said Raphael.
Planchette put the skin between the metal plates, and, proud of his new invention, he energetically twisted the crank.
"Lie flat all of you!" shouted Spieghalter. "We're dead men."
There was an explosion, and a jet of water spurted out with terrific force. Falling on a furnace it twisted up the mass of iron as if it had been paper. The hydraulic chamber of the press had given way.
"The skin is untouched," said Planchette. "There was a flaw in the press."
"No, no!" said Spieghalter. "My press was as sound as a bell. The devil's in your skin, sir. Take it away!"
Spieghalter seized the talisman, and flung it on an anvil, and furiously belaboured it with a heavy sledgehammer. He then pitched it in a furnace, and ordered his workmen to blow the coal into a fierce white heat. At the end of ten minutes he drew it out with a pair of tongs uninjured. With a cry of horror the workmen fled from the foundry.
"I now believe in the devil," said Spieghalter.
"And I believe in God," said Planchette.
Raphael departed in a hard, bitter rage. He was resolved to fight like a man against his strange fate. He would follow the example of the former owner of the magic skin, and give himself up to study and meditation, and live his life in the tranquil acquisition of knowledge, undisturbed by passion and desire, and lust for power, and dominion and glory. On receiving his vast inheritance, he bought a mansion in the Rue de Varenne, and engaged a crowd of intelligent, quiet servants to wait upon him.
But his first care had been to seek out his foster-father, Jonathan, the old and devoted servitor of his family. To him he confided his dreadful secret.
"You must stand between the world and me, Jonathan," he said. "Treat me as a baby. Never ask me for orders. See that the servants feed me, and tend me, and care for me in absolute silence. Above all things, never let anyone pester me. Never let me form a wish of any kind."
For some months, the eccentric Marquis de Valentin was the talk of Paris. He lived in monastic silence and seclusion, and Jonathan never permitted any of his friends to enter the mansion. But one morning his old tutor, Porriquet, called, and Jonathan thought he might cheer his young master. He could not ask Raphael: "Do you wish to see M. Porriquet?" But after some thought he found a way of putting the question: "M. Porriquet is here, my lord. Do you think he ought to enter?"
Raphael nodded. Porriquet was alarmed at the appearance of his pupil. He looked like a plant bleached by darkness. The fact was, Raphael had surrendered every right in life in order to live. He had despoiled his soul of all the romance that lies in a wish. The better to struggle with the cruel power that he had challenged, he had stifled his imagination. He did not allow himself even the pleasures of fancy, lest they should awaken some desire. He had become an automaton.
Porriquet, unfortunately, was now an irritating old proser. He had failed in life and wanted to air all his grievances. At the end of five minutes' talk Raphael was about to wish that he would depart, when he caught sight of the magic skin hanging in a frame, with a red line drawn around it. Suppressing, with a shudder, his secret desire, he patiently bore with the old man's prolixity. Porriquet wanted very much to ask him for money, but did not like to do so, and after complaining for quite an hour or more about things in general, he rose to depart.
"Perhaps," he said, as he turned to leave the room, "I shall hear of a headmastership of a good school."
"The very thing for you!" said Raphael. "I wish you could get it."
Then, with a sudden cry, he looked at the frame. There was a thin white edge between the skin and the red line.
"Go, you fool!" he shouted. "I have made you a headmaster. Why didn't you ask me for an annuity of a thousand pounds instead of using up ten years of my life on a silly wish? I could have won Foedora at the price! Conquered a kingdom!"
His lips were covered with froth, and there was a savage light in his eyes. Porriquet fled in terror. Then Raphael fell back in a chair, and wept.
"Oh, my precious life!" he sobbed. "No more kindly thoughts! No more friendship!"
III.—The Agony of Death
Raphael's condition had by now become so critical that a trip to Savoy was advised, and a few weeks later he was at Aix. One day, moving among the crowd of pleasure-seekers and invalids, a number of young men deliberately picked a quarrel with him, with the result that from one of them he received a challenge to fight a duel. Raphael did his utmost to persuade the other to apologise, even going to the extent of informing him of the terrible powers he possessed. Failing in his object, the fatal morning came round, and the unfortunate individual was shot through the heart. Not heeding the fallen man, Raphael hurriedly glanced at the skin to see what another man's life had cost him. The talisman had shrunk to the size of a small oak-leaf.
Seeing that his master was given over to a gloomy despair that verged upon madness, Jonathan resolved to distract his mind at all costs, and knowing that he was passionately fond of music, he engaged a box for him at the Opera. But Raphael was afraid above all things, of falling in love. Under the illimitable desire of passion the magic skin would shrivel up in an hour. So he used a strange, distorting opera-glass which made the loveliest face seem hideous.
With this he sat in his box, he surveyed the scene around him. Who was that old man over there, sitting beside a dancing-girl that Raphael had seen at Taillefer's? The owner of the curiosity shop! He had at last fallen in love, as Raphael had jestingly desired. No doubt the magic skin had shrunk under that wish before Raphael had measured it. A beautiful woman entered the theatre with a peer of France at her side. A murmur of admiration arose as she took her seat. She smiled at Raphael. In spite of the distorted image on his opera-glass, Raphael knew her. It was the Countess Foedora! In a single glance of intolerable scorn the man she had played false avenged himself. He did not waste an ill-wish on her. He merely took the glasses from his eyes, and answered her smile with a look of cold contempt. Everybody observed the sudden pallor of the countess; it was a public rejection.
The marquis turned at the sound of a beloved voice. Pauline was sitting in the box next to his. How beautiful she had grown! How maidenly she was still! Putting down his opera-glasses, Raphael talked to her of old times.
"You must come and see me to-morrow," said Pauline. "I have your great work on 'The Theory of the Will.' Don't you remember leaving it in the garret?"
"I was mad and blind then," said Raphael. "But I am cured at last."
"I wish Pauline to love me!" he kept repeating to himself all the way home. "I wish Pauline to love me!"
With a strange mixture of wild anguish and fierce joy, he looked at the magic skin to see what this vehement wish had cost him. Nothing! Not a sign of shrinkage could be discerned. The fact was that even the greatest talisman could not realise a desire which had long since been fulfilled. Pauline had loved Raphael from the time when they first met; while he had been priding himself on living on twelve pounds a year, she had been painting screens up to two or three o'clock every night, in order to buy him food and firing.
"Oh, my simple-minded darling," she said to him the next day, sitting on his lap and twining her arms about his neck, "you will never know what a pleasure it was for me to pay my handsome tutor for all his kindness. And wasn't I cunning? You never found me out."
"But I've found out now," said Raphael, "and I am going to punish you severely. Instead of marrying you in three months' time, as you suggest, I shall marry you at the end of this week."
Raphael was now the happiest man in Paris. Seeing that the magic skin had not shrunk with his last wish, he thought that the spell over his life was removed. And that morning he had thrown the talisman down a disused well in the garden.
At the end of the week, Pauline was sitting at breakfast with Raphael in the conservatory overlooking the garden. She was wearing a light dressing-gown; her long hair was all dishevelled, and her little, white, blue-veined feet peeped out of their velvet slippers. She gave a little cry of dismay, when the gardener appeared.
"I've just found this strange thing at the bottom of one of the wells," he said.
He gave Raphael the magic skin. It was now scarcely as large as a rose leaf.
"Leave me, Pauline! Leave me at once!" cried Raphael. "If you remain I shall die before your eyes."
"Die?" she said. "Die? You cannot. I love you—I love you!"
"Yes, die!" he exclaimed, showing her the little bit of skin. "Look, 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 "Eugenie 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 fete 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 Abbe 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 Abbe 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 Abbe 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 Abbe; "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 Abbe 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 abbe 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 was heavily in debt, and that he had been seeking the Absolute as industriously in Brittany as in the attic of the Maison Claes.
On his return, the old man brightened and became glad. The ancient home gave him joy. He embraced his children, looked around the happy house of his fathers, and exclaimed: "Ah, Josephine, if only you were here to admire our Marguerite!" The marriages of Marguerite and Felicie, the younger sister, were hurried forward. During the reading of the contracts Lemulquinier suddenly burst into the room, crying: "Monsieur! Monsieur!"
Claes whispered to his daughter that the servant had lent him all his savings—20,000 francs—and had doubtless come to claim them on learning that the master was once more a rich man. But Lemulquinier cried: "Monsieur! Monsieur!"
"Well?" demanded Claes.
In the trembling hand of the old servant lay a diamond. Claes rushed towards him.
"I went to the laboratory," began the servant—Claes looked up at him quickly, as though to say: "You were the first to go there!"—"and I found in the capsule we left behind us this diamond! The battery has done it without our help!"
"Forgive me!" cried Claes, turning to his children and his guests. "This will drive me mad! Cursed exile! God has worked in my laboratory, and I was not there to see! A miracle has taken place! I might have seen it—I have missed it for ever!" Suddenly he checked, and advancing to Marguerite, presented her with the diamond. "My angel," he said gently, "this belongs to you." Then, to the notary: "Let us proceed."
V.—Discovery of the Absolute
Happiness reigned in the Maison Claes, Balthazar conducted a few but inexpensive experiments, and surrendered himself more and more to the happiness of home life. It was as if the devil had been exorcised. The death of relatives presently carried Emmanuel and Marguerite to Spain, and their return was delayed by the birth of a child. When they did arrive in Flanders, one morning towards the end of September, they found the house in the Rue de Paris shut up, and a ring at the bell brought no one to open the door. A shopkeeper near at hand said that M. Claes had left the house with Lemulquinier about an hour ago. Emmanuel went in search of them, while a locksmith opened the door of the Maison Claes. The house was as if the Absolute in the form of fire had passed through all its rooms. Pictures, furniture, carpets, hangings, carvings—all were swept clean away. Marguerite wept as she looked about her, and forgave her father. She went downstairs to await his coming. How he must have suffered in this bare house! Fear filled her heart. Had his reason failed him? Should she see him enter—a tottering and enfeebled old man, broken by the sufferings which he had borne so proudly for science? As she waited, the past rose before her eyes—the long past of struggle against their enemy, the Absolute; the long past, when she was a child, and her mother had been now so joyous and now so sorrowful.
But she did not realise the calamity of her father's tragedy—a tragedy at once sublime and miserable. To the people of Douai he was not a scientific genius wrestling with Nature for her hidden mysteries, but a wicked old spendthrift, greedy like a miser for the Philosopher's Stone. Everybody in Douai, from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie to the people, knew all about old Claes, "the alchemist." His home was called the "Devil's House." People pointed at him, shouted after him in the street. Lemulquinier said that these were murmurs of applause for genius.
It happened that on this morning of Marguerite's return, Balthazar and Lemulquinier sat down on a bench in the Place Saint-Jacques to rest in the sun. Some children passing to school saw the two old men, talked about them, laughed together, and presently approached. One of them, who carried a basket, and was eating a piece of bread and butter, said to Lemulquinier: "Is it true you make diamonds and pearls?"
Lemulquinier patted the urchin's cheek.
"Yes, little fellow, it is true," he said. "Stick to your books, get knowledge, and perhaps we will give you some."
They began to crowd round, and became more daring.
"You should show respect to a great man," said Lemulquinier. At this the children laughed aloud, and began to shout: "Sorcerers! Old sorcerers!" Lemulquinier sprang up with his stick raised, and the children, beating a retreat, gathered up mud and stones. A workman, seeing Lemulquinier making for the children with a stick, came to their rescue with the dangerous cry: "Down with sorcerers!"
Thus emboldened, the children made a savage attack upon the two old men with a shower of stones. At this moment Emmanuel came upon the scene. He was too late. Claes had been suddenly jerked from the ideal world in which he theorised and toiled into the real world of men. The shock was too much for him; he sank into the arms of Lemulquinier, paralysed.
He lived in this condition for some time, expressing all his affection and gratitude to Marguerite by pressing her hand with his cold fingers. She refurnished the house, and surrounded him with comforts. His children were affectionate to him. They came and sat by his bedside, and took their meals in his room. His great happiness was listening to Emmanuel's reading of the newspapers.
One night he became very much worse, and the doctor was summoned in haste. The stricken man made violent efforts to speak. His lips trembled, but no sound issued. His eyes were on fire with the thoughts he could not utter. His face was haggard with agony. Drops of perspiration oozed out of his forehead. His hands twitched convulsively in the despair of his mind.
On the following morning his children saluted him with deepest and most lingering love, knowing that the last hour was at hand. His face did not light; he made none of his usual responses to their tender affection. Pierquin signalled to Emmanuel, and he broke the wrapper of the newspaper, and was about to read aloud in order to distract Claes, when his eyes were arrested by the heading:
DISCOVERY OF THE ABSOLUTE
In a low voice he read the intelligence to his wife. It narrated that a famous mathematician in Poland had made terms for selling the secret of the Absolute, which he had discovered. As Emmanuel ceased to read, Marguerite asked for the paper; but Claes had heard the almost whispered words.
Of a sudden the dying man lifted himself up on his elbows. To his frightened family his glance was like the flash of lightning. The fringe of hair above his forehead stood up; every line in his countenance quivered with excitement, a thrill of passion moved across his face and made it sublime.
He lifted a hand, which was clenched with excitement, and uttering the cry of Archimedes—"Eureka!"—fell back with the heaviness of a dead body, and expired with an agonised groan. His eyes, till the doctor closed them, expressed a frenzied despair. It was his agony that he could not bequeath to science the solution of the great riddle which was only revealed to him as the veil was rent asunder by the hand of Death.
* * * * *
History of the Caliph Vathek
William Beckford, son of the famous Lord Mayor, was born at Fonthill, Wiltshire, England, Sept. 29, 1759, and received his education at first from a private tutor, and then at Geneva. On coming of age, he inherited a million sterling and an annual income of L100,000, and three years later he married the fourth Earl of Aboyne's daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon, who died in May, 1786. In 1787 Beckford's romance, the "History of the Caliph Vathek," appeared in its original French, an English translation of the work having been published "anonymously and surreptitiously" in 1784. "Vathek" was written by Beckford in 1781 or 1782 at a single sitting of three days and two nights. Beckford was a great traveller and a great connoisseur and collector both of pictures and of books; and, apart from "Vathek" and some volumes of travels, he is best known for having secluded himself for twenty years in the magnificent residence which he built in Fonthill. He died on May 2, 1844.
I.—Vathek and the Magic Sabres
Vathek, ninth caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun al Raschid. From an early accession to the throne, and the talents he possessed to adorn it, his subjects were induced to expect that his reign would be long and happy. His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger.
Being much addicted to the pleasures of the table, he sought by his affability to procure agreeable companions; and he succeeded the better as his generosity was unbounded, and his indulgences were unrestrained; for he was by no means scrupulous, nor did he think, with the caliph Omar Ben Abdalaziz, that it was necessary to make a hell of this world to enjoy paradise in the next. He surpassed in magnificence all his predecessors. The palace of Alkoremmi, which his father, Motassem, had erected on the hill of Pied Horses, and which commanded the whole city of Samarah was, in his idea, far too scanty. He added, therefore, five wings, or rather other palaces, which he destined for the particular gratification of each of his senses.
But the unquiet and impetuous disposition of the caliph would not allow him to rest there; he had studied so much for amusement in the lifetime of his father as to acquire a great deal of knowledge, though not a sufficiency to satisfy himself—for he wished to know everything, even sciences that did not exist. He was fond of engaging in disputes with the learned and with the orthodox, but liked them not to push their opposition with warmth; he stopped with presents the mouths of those whose mouths could be stopped, while others, whom his liberality was unable to subdue, he sent to prison to cool their blood, a remedy that often succeeded.
The great prophet Mohammed, whose vicars the caliphs are, beheld with indignation from his abode in the seventh heaven the irreligious conduct of such a vice-regent.
"Let us leave him to himself," said he to the genii, who are always ready to receive his commands. "Let us see to what lengths his folly and impiety will carry him. If he run into excess we shall know how to chastise him. Assist him, therefore, to complete the tower which, in imitation of Nimrod, he hath begun, not, like that great warrior, to escape being drowned, but from the insolent curiosity of penetrating the secrets of heaven; he will not divine the fate that awaits him."
The genii obeyed, and when the workmen had raised their structures a cubit in the daytime, two cubits more were added in the night. Vathek fancied that even invisible matter showed a forwardness to subserve his designs, and his pride arrived at its height when, having ascended for the first time the eleven thousand stairs of his tower, he cast his eyes below and beheld men not larger than pismires, mountains than shells, and cities than beehives. He now passed most of his nights on the summit of his tower, till he became an adept in the mysteries of astrology, and imagined that the planets had disclosed to him the most marvellous adventures which were to be accomplished by an extraordinary personage from a country altogether unknown.
Prompted by motives of curiosity, he had always been courteous to strangers, but from this instant he redoubled his attention, and ordered it to be announced by sound of trumpet through all the streets of Samarah that no one of his subjects, on pain of displeasure, should either lodge or detain a traveller, but forthwith bring him to the palace.
Not long after this there arrived in the city a hideous man who to Vathek's view displayed slippers which enabled the feet to walk, knives that cut without a motion of the hand, and sabres which dealt the blow at the person they were wished to strike, the whole enriched with gems that were hitherto unknown. The sabres, whose blades emitted a dazzling radiance, fixed more than all the caliph's attention, who promised himself to decipher at his leisure the uncouth characters engraven on their sides. Without, therefore, demanding their price, he ordered all the coined gold to be brought from his treasury, and commanded the merchant to take what he pleased. The stranger complied with modesty and silence; but, having maintained an obstinate silence on all the points on which the caliph questioned him, he was committed to prison, from which he was found the next day to have vanished, leaving his keepers dead.
Vathek was at first enraged, but having been comforted by his mother, the Princess Carathis, who was a Greek and an adept in all the sciences and systems of her country, he issued, at her suggestion, a proclamation promising the liberality for which he was renowned to whoever should decipher the characters on the sabres, and eventually had the gratification of meeting with an old man, who read them as follows: "We were made where everything good is made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful, and deserving the sight of the first potentate on earth." Unfortunately, however, when the old man was ordered the next morning to re-read the inscription, he was then found to interpret it as denouncing: "Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant." "And woe to thee!" cried the caliph, in a burst of indignation, and telling him to take his reward and begone.
II.—The Caliph's Strange Adventures
It was not long before Vathek discovered abundant reason for regretting his precipitation. He plainly perceived that the characters on the sabres changed every day; and the anxiety caused by his failure to decipher them, or to read anything from the stars, brought on a fever, which deprived him of his appetite, and tormented him with an absolutely insatiable thirst. From this distress he was at length delivered by a meeting with the stranger, who cured him by giving him to drink of a phial of red and yellow mixture. But when this insolent person, at a banquet given in his honour, burst into shouts of laughter on being asked to declare of what drugs the salutary liquor had been compounded, and from what place the sabres had come, Vathek kicked him from the steps, and, repeating the blow, persisted with such assiduity as incited all present to follow his example. The stranger collected into a ball, rolled out of the palace, followed by Vathek, the court, and the whole city, and, after passing through all the public places, rolled onwards to the Plain of Catoul, traversed the valley at the foot of the mountain of the Four Fountains, and bounded into the chasm formed there by the continual fall of the waters.
Vathek would have followed the perfidious giaour had not an invisible agency arrested his progress and that of the multitude; and he was so much struck by the whole circumstance that he ordered his tents to be pitched on the very edge of the precipice. After keeping several vigils there, he was accosted one night by the voice of the giaour, who amid the darkness caused by a total eclipse of the moon and the stars, offered to bring him to the palace of subterranean fire, where he should behold the treasures which the stars had promised him, and the talismans that control the world, if he would abjure Mohammed, adore the terrestrial influences, and satiate the stranger's thirst with the blood of fifty of the most beautiful Samarahite boys.
The unhappy caliph lavished his promises in the utmost profusion, and by arranging for the celebration near the chasm of some juvenile sports, which were not concluded till twilight, was able to make the direful libation. As the boys came up one by one to receive their prizes, he pushed them into the gulf, the dreadful device being executed with so much dexterity that the boy who was approaching him remained unconscious of the fate of his forerunner.
The popular tumult roused by this atrocity having been appeased by the princess, who possessed the most consummate skill in the art of persuasion, there was offered on the tower a burnt sacrifice to the infernal deities, the main ingredients of which were mummies, rhinoceros' horns, oil of the most venomous serpents, various aromatic woods, and one hundred and forty of the caliph's most faithful subjects. These preliminaries having been settled, a parchment was discovered, in which Vathek was thanked for his burnt offering, and told to set forth with a magnificent retinue for Istakar, where he would receive the diadem of Gian Ben Gian, the talismans of Soliman, and the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans. But he was warned not to enter any dwelling on his route.
Vathek and the cavalcade set out, and for three days all went well. But on the fourth a storm burst upon them, the frightful roar of wild beasts resounded at a distance, and they soon perceived in the forest glaring eyes that could only belong to devils or tigers. Fire destroyed their provisions, and they would have starved had not two dwarfs, who dwelt as hermits on the top of some rocks, received divine intimation of their plight and revealed it to their emir, Fakreddin. The dwarfs were entertained, caressed, and seated with great ceremony on little cushions of state. But they clambered up the sides of the caliph's seat, and, placing themselves each on one of his shoulders, began to whisper prayers in his ears; and his patience was almost exhausted when the acclamations of the troops announced the approach of Fakreddin. He hastened to their assistance, but being punctiliously religious and likewise a great dealer in compliments, he made an harangue five times more prolix and insipid than his harbingers had already delivered.
At length, however, all got in motion, and they descended from the heights to the valley by the large steps which the emir had cut in the rocks, and reached a building of hewn stone overspread by palm-trees and crowned with nine domes. Beneath one of these domes the caliph was entertained with excellent sherbet, with sweetbreads stewed in milk of almonds, and other delicacies of which he was amazingly fond.
But, unfortunately, the sight of the emir's young daughter tempted the prophet's vice-regent to violate the rites of hospitality. Vathek fell violently in love with Nouronihar, who was sprightly as an antelope and full of wanton gaiety; and though she was contracted to her cousin and dearly beloved companion Gulchenrouz, he demanded her hand from Fakreddin, who, rather than force his daughter to break her affiances, presented his sabre to Vathek. "Strike your unhappy host," he said. "He has lived long enough if he sees the prophet's vice-regent violate the rites of hospitality." Nouronihar fell down in a swoon, and of this swoon the emir took advantage to carry out a scheme which should deliver him from his difficulties. He gave out that both the children had died from the effect of the caliph's glances, and, having administered to them a narcotic powder that would give them the appearance of death for three days, had them conveyed away to the shores of a desolate lake, where, attended by the dwarfs, they were put upon a meagre diet and told that they were in the other world, expiating the little faults of which their love was the cause.
But Nouronihar, remembering a dream in which she was told that she was destined to be the caliph's wife, and thereby to possess the carbuncle of Giamsched, and the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans, indulged doubts on the mode of her being, and scarcely could believe that she was dead. She rose one morning while all were asleep, and having wandered some distance from the lake, discovered that she knew the district.
This fact, and a meeting with Vathek, convinced her that she was alive, and, submitting to the caliph's embraces, she consented to become his bride, and to go with him to the subterranean palace.