Part 1 out of 4
Produced by John Bickers, and Dagny
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Madame Josephine Delannoy nee Doumerc.
Madame, may God grant that this, my book, may live longer than I,
for then the gratitude which I owe to you, and which I hope will
equal your almost maternal kindness to me, would last beyond the
limits prescribed for human affection. This sublime privilege of
prolonging life in our hearts for a time by the life of the work
we leave behind us would be (if we could only be sure of gaining
it at last) a reward indeed for all the labor undertaken by those
who aspire to such an immortality.
Yet again I say--May God grant it!
(THE HOUSE OF CLAES)
There is a house at Douai in the rue de Paris, whose aspect, interior
arrangements, and details have preserved, to a greater degree than
those of other domiciles, the characteristics of the old Flemish
buildings, so naively adapted to the patriarchal manners and customs
of that excellent land. Before describing this house it may be well,
in the interest of other writers, to explain the necessity for such
didactic preliminaries,--since they have roused a protest from certain
ignorant and voracious readers who want emotions without undergoing
the generating process, the flower without the seed, the child without
gestation. Is Art supposed to have higher powers than Nature?
The events of human existence, whether public or private, are so
closely allied to architecture that the majority of observers can
reconstruct nations and individuals, in their habits and ways of life,
from the remains of public monuments or the relics of a home.
Archaeology is to social nature what comparative anatomy is to
organized nature. A mosaic tells the tale of a society, as the
skeleton of an ichthyosaurus opens up a creative epoch. All things are
linked together, and all are therefore deducible. Causes suggest
effects, effects lead back to causes. Science resuscitates even the
warts of the past ages.
Hence the keen interest inspired by an architectural description,
provided the imagination of the writer does not distort essential
facts. The mind is enabled by rigid deduction to link it with the
past; and to man, the past is singularly like the future; tell him
what has been, and you seldom fail to show him what will be. It is
rare indeed that the picture of a locality where lives are lived does
not recall to some their dawning hopes, to others their wasted faith.
The comparison between a present which disappoints man's secret wishes
and a future which may realize them, is an inexhaustible source of
sadness or of placid content.
Thus, it is almost impossible not to feel a certain tender sensibility
over a picture of Flemish life, if the accessories are clearly given.
Why so? Perhaps, among other forms of existence, it offers the best
conclusion to man's uncertainties. It has its social festivities, its
family ties, and the easy affluence which proves the stability of its
comfortable well-being; it does not lack repose amounting almost to
beatitude; but, above all, it expresses the calm monotony of a frankly
sensuous happiness, where enjoyment stifles desire by anticipating it.
Whatever value a passionate soul may attach to the tumultuous life of
feeling, it never sees without emotion the symbols of this Flemish
nature, where the throbbings of the heart are so well regulated that
superficial minds deny the heart's existence. The crowd prefers the
abnormal force which overflows to that which moves with steady
persistence. The world has neither time nor patience to realize the
immense power concealed beneath an appearance of uniformity.
Therefore, to impress this multitude carried away on the current of
existence, passion, like a great artist, is compelled to go beyond the
mark, to exaggerate, as did Michael Angelo, Bianca Capello,
Mademoiselle de la Valliere, Beethoven, and Paganini. Far-seeing minds
alone disapprove such excess, and respect only the energy represented
by a finished execution whose perfect quiet charms superior men. The
life of this essentially thrifty people amply fulfils the conditions
of happiness which the masses desire as the lot of the average
A refined materialism is stamped on all the habits of Flemish life.
English comfort is harsh in tone and arid in color; whereas the
old-fashioned Flemish interiors rejoice the eye with their mellow tints,
and the feelings with their genuine heartiness. There, work implies no
weariness, and the pipe is a happy adaptation of Neapolitan
"far-niente." Thence comes the peaceful sentiment in Art (its most
essential condition), patience, and the element which renders its
creations durable, namely, conscience. Indeed, the Flemish character
lies in the two words, patience and conscience; words which seem at
first to exclude the richness of poetic light and shade, and to make
the manners and customs of the country as flat as its vast plains, as
cold as its foggy skies. And yet it is not so. Civilization has
brought her power to bear, and has modified all things, even the
effects of climate. If we observe attentively the productions of
various parts of the globe, we are surprised to find that the
prevailing tints from the temperate zones are gray or fawn, while the
more brilliant colors belong to the products of the hotter climates.
The manners and customs of a country must naturally conform to this
law of nature.
Flanders, which in former times was essentially dun-colored and
monotonous in tint, learned the means of irradiating its smoky
atmosphere through its political vicissitudes, which brought it under
the successive dominion of Burgundy, Spain, and France, and threw it
into fraternal relations with Germany and Holland. From Spain it
acquired the luxury of scarlet dyes and shimmering satins, tapestries
of vigorous design, plumes, mandolins, and courtly bearing. In
exchange for its linen and its laces, it brought from Venice that
fairy glass-ware in which wine sparkles and seems the mellower. From
Austria it learned the ponderous diplomacy which, to use a popular
saying, takes three steps backward to one forward; while its trade
with India poured into it the grotesque designs of China and the
marvels of Japan.
And yet, in spite of its patience in gathering such treasures, its
tenacity in parting with no possession once gained, its endurance of
all things, Flanders was considered nothing more than the general
storehouse of Europe, until the day when the discovery of tobacco
brought into one smoky outline the scattered features of its national
physiognomy. Thenceforth, and notwithstanding the parcelling out of
their territory, the Flemings became a people homogeneous through
their pipes and beer.[*]
[*] Flanders was parcelled into three divisions; of which Eastern
Flanders, capital Ghent, and Western Flanders, capital Bruges, are
two provinces of Belgium. French Flanders, capital Lille, is the
Departement du Nord of France. Douai, about twenty miles from
Lille, is the chief town of the arrondissement du Nord.
After assimilating, by constant sober regulation of conduct, the
products and the ideas of its masters and its neighbors, this country
of Flanders, by nature so tame and devoid of poetry, worked out for
itself an original existence, with characteristic manners and customs
which bear no signs of servile imitation. Art stripped off its
ideality and produced form alone. We may seek in vain for plastic
grace, the swing of comedy, dramatic action, musical genius, or the
bold flight of ode and epic. On the other hand, the people are fertile
in discoveries, and trained to scientific discussions which demand
time and the midnight oil. All things bear the ear-mark of temporal
enjoyment. There men look exclusively to the thing that is: their
thoughts are so scrupulously bent on supplying the wants of this life
that they have never risen, in any direction, above the level of this
present earth. The sole idea they have ever conceived of the future is
that of a thrifty, prosaic statecraft: their revolutionary vigor came
from a domestic desire to live as they liked, with their elbows on the
table, and to take their ease under the projecting roofs of their own
The consciousness of well-being and the spirit of independence which
comes of prosperity begot in Flanders, sooner than elsewhere, that
craving for liberty which, later, permeated all Europe. Thus the
compactness of their ideas, and the tenacity which education grafted
on their nature made the Flemish people a formidable body of men in
the defence of their rights. Among them nothing is half-done,--neither
houses, furniture, dikes, husbandry, nor revolutions; and they hold a
monopoly of all that they undertake. The manufacture of linen, and
that of lace, a work of patient agriculture and still more patient
industry, are hereditary like their family fortunes. If we were asked
to show in human form the purest specimen of solid stability, we could
do no better than point to a portrait of some old burgomaster,
capable, as was proved again and again, of dying in a commonplace way,
and without the incitements of glory, for the welfare of his
Yet we shall find a tender and poetic side to this patriarchal life,
which will come naturally to the surface in the description of an
ancient house which, at the period when this history begins, was one
of the last in Douai to preserve the old-time characteristics of
Of all the towns in the Departement du Nord, Douai is, alas, the most
modernized: there the innovating spirit has made the greatest strides,
and the love of social progress is the most diffused. There the old
buildings are daily disappearing, and the manners and customs of a
venerable past are being rapidly obliterated. Parisian ideas and
fashions and modes of life now rule the day, and soon nothing will be
left of that ancient Flemish life but the warmth of its hospitality,
its traditional Spanish courtesy, and the wealth and cleanliness of
Holland. Mansions of white stone are replacing the old brick
buildings, and the cosy comfort of Batavian interiors is fast yielding
before the capricious elegance of Parisian novelties.
The house in which the events of this history occurred stands at about
the middle of the rue de Paris, and has been known at Douai for more
than two centuries as the House of Claes. The Van Claes were formerly
one of the great families of craftsmen to whom, in various lines of
production, the Netherlands owed a commercial supremacy which it has
never lost. For a long period of time the Claes lived at Ghent, and
were, from generation to generation, the syndics of the powerful Guild
of Weavers. When the great city revolted under Charles V., who tried
to suppress its privileges, the head of the Claes family was so deeply
compromised in the rebellion that, foreseeing a catastrophe and bound
to share the fate of his associates, he secretly sent wife, children,
and property to France before the Emperor invested the town. The
syndic's forebodings were justified. Together with other burghers who
were excluded from the capitulation, he was hanged as a rebel, though
he was, in reality, the defender of the liberties of Ghent.
The death of Claes and his associates bore fruit. Their needless
execution cost the King of Spain the greater part of his possessions
in the Netherlands. Of all the seed sown in the earth, the blood of
martyrs gives the quickest harvest. When Philip the Second, who
punished revolt through two generations, stretched his iron sceptre
over Douai, the Claes preserved their great wealth by allying
themselves in marriage with the very noble family of Molina, whose
elder branch, then poor, thus became rich enough to buy the county of
Nourho which they had long held titularly in the kingdom of Leon.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, after vicissitudes which
are of no interest to our present purpose, the family of Claes was
represented at Douai in the person of Monsieur Balthazar Claes-Molina,
Comte de Nourho, who preferred to be called simply Balthazar Claes. Of
the immense fortune amassed by his ancestors, who had kept in motion
over a thousand looms, there remained to him some fifteen thousand
francs a year from landed property in the arrondissement of Douai, and
the house in the rue de Paris, whose furniture in itself was a
fortune. As to the family possessions in Leon, they had been in
litigation between the Molinas of Douai and the branch of the family
which remained in Spain. The Molinas of Leon won the domain and
assumed the title of Comtes de Nourho, though the Claes alone had a
legal right to it. But the pride of a Belgian burgher was superior to
the haughty arrogance of Castile: after the civil rights were
instituted, Balthazar Claes cast aside the ragged robes of his Spanish
nobility for his more illustrious descent from the Ghent martyr.
The patriotic sentiment was so strongly developed in the families
exiled under Charles V. that, to the very close of the eighteenth
century, the Claes remained faithful to the manners and customs and
traditions of their ancestors. They married into none but the purest
burgher families, and required a certain number of aldermen and
burgomasters in the pedigree of every bride-elect before admitting her
to the family. They sought their wives in Bruges or Ghent, in Liege or
in Holland; so that the time-honored domestic customs might be
perpetuated around their hearthstones. This social group became more
and more restricted, until, at the close of the last century, it
mustered only some seven or eight families of the parliamentary
nobility, whose manners and flowing robes of office and magisterial
gravity (partly Spanish) harmonized well with the habits of their
The inhabitants of Douai held the family in a religious esteem that
was well-nigh superstition. The sturdy honesty, the untainted loyalty
of the Claes, their unfailing decorum of manners and conduct, made
them the objects of a reverence which found expression in the name,
--the House of Claes. The whole spirit of ancient Flanders breathed in
that mansion, which afforded to the lovers of burgher antiquities a
type of the modest houses which the wealthy craftsmen of the Middle
Ages constructed for their homes.
The chief ornament of the facade was an oaken door, in two sections,
studded with nails driven in the pattern of a quineunx, in the centre
of which the Claes pride had carved a pair of shuttles. The recess of
the doorway, which was built of freestone, was topped by a pointed
arch bearing a little shrine surmounted by a cross, in which was a
statuette of Sainte-Genevieve plying her distaff. Though time had left
its mark upon the delicate workmanship of portal and shrine, the
extreme care taken of it by the servants of the house allowed the
passers-by to note all its details.
The casing of the door, formed by fluted pilasters, was dark gray in
color, and so highly polished that it shone as if varnished. On either
side of the doorway, on the ground-floor, were two windows, which
resembled all the other windows of the house. The casing of white
stone ended below the sill in a richly carved shell, and rose above
the window in an arch, supported at its apex by the head-piece of a
cross, which divided the glass sashes in four unequal parts; for the
transversal bar, placed at the height of that in a Latin cross, made
the lower sashes of the window nearly double the height of the upper,
the latter rounding at the sides into the arch. The coping of the arch
was ornamented with three rows of brick, placed one above the other,
the bricks alternately projecting or retreating to the depth of an
inch, giving the effect of a Greek moulding. The glass panes, which
were small and diamond-shaped, were set in very slender leading,
painted red. The walls of the house, of brick jointed with white
mortar, were braced at regular distances, and at the angles of the
house, by stone courses.
The first floor was pierced by five windows, the second by three,
while the attic had only one large circular opening in five divisions,
surrounded by a freestone moulding and placed in the centre of the
triangular pediment defined by the gable-roof, like the rose-window of
a cathedral. At the peak was a vane in the shape of a weaver's shuttle
threaded with flax. Both sides of the large triangular pediment which
formed the wall of the gable were dentelled squarely into something
like steps, as low down as the string-course of the upper floor, where
the rain from the roof fell to right and left of the house through the
jaws of a fantastic gargoyle. A freestone foundation projected like a
step at the base of the house; and on either side of the entrance,
between the two windows, was a trap-door, clamped by heavy iron bands,
through which the cellars were entered,--a last vestige of ancient
From the time the house was built, this facade had been carefully
cleaned twice a year. If a little mortar fell from between the bricks,
the crack was instantly filled up. The sashes, the sills, the copings,
were dusted oftener than the most precious sculptures in the Louvre.
The front of the house bore no signs of decay; notwithstanding the
deepened color which age had given to the bricks, it was as well
preserved as a choice old picture, or some rare book cherished by an
amateur, which would be ever new were it not for the blistering of our
climate and the effect of gases, whose pernicious breath threatens our
The cloudy skies and humid atmosphere of Flanders, and the shadows
produced by the narrowness of the street, sometimes diminished the
brilliancy which the old house derived from its cleanliness; moreover,
the very care bestowed upon it made it rather sad and chilling to the
eye. A poet might have wished some leafage about the shrine, a little
moss in the crevices of the freestone, a break in the even courses of
the brick; he would have longed for a swallow to build her nest in the
red coping that roofed the arches of the windows. The precise and
immaculate air of this facade, a little worn by perpetual rubbing,
gave the house a tone of severe propriety and estimable decency which
would have driven a romanticist out of the neighborhood, had he
happened to take lodgings over the way.
When a visitor had pulled the braided iron wire bell-cord which hung
from the top of the pilaster of the doorway, and the servant-woman,
coming from within, had admitted him through the side of the
double-door in which was a small grated loop-hole, that half of the
door escaped from her hand and swung back by its own weight with a
solemn, ponderous sound that echoed along the roof of a wide paved
archway and through the depths of the house, as though the door had
been of iron. This archway, painted to resemble marble, always clean
and daily sprinkled with fresh sand, led into a large court-yard paved
with smooth square stones of a greenish color. On the left were the
linen-rooms, kitchens, and servants' hall; to the right, the wood-house,
coal-house, and offices, whose doors, walls, and windows were
decorated with designs kept exquisitely clean. The daylight, threading
its way between four red walls chequered with white lines, caught rosy
tints and reflections which gave a mysterious grace and fantastic
appearance to faces, and even to trifling details.
A second house, exactly like the building on the street, and called in
Flanders the "back-quarter," stood at the farther end of the
court-yard, and was used exclusively as the family dwelling. The first
room on the ground-floor was a parlor, lighted by two windows on the
court-yard, and two more looking out upon a garden which was of the same
size as the house. Two glass doors, placed exactly opposite to each
other, led at one end of the room to the garden, at the other to the
court-yard, and were in line with the archway and the street door; so
that a visitor entering the latter could see through to the greenery
which draped the lower end of the garden. The front building, which
was reserved for receptions and the lodging-rooms of guests, held many
objects of art and accumulated wealth, but none of them equalled in
the eyes of a Claes, nor indeed in the judgment of a connoisseur, the
treasures contained in the parlor, where for over two centuries the
family life had glided on.
The Claes who died for the liberties of Ghent, and who might in these
days be thought a mere ordinary craftsman if the historian omitted to
say that he possessed over forty thousand silver marks, obtained by
the manufacture of sail-cloth for the all-powerful Venetian navy,
--this Claes had a friend in the famous sculptor in wood, Van Huysum of
Bruges. The artist had dipped many a time into the purse of the rich
craftsman. Some time before the rebellion of the men of Ghent, Van
Huysum, grown rich himself, had secretly carved for his friend a
wall-decoration in ebony, representing the chief scenes in the life of
Van Artevelde,--that brewer of Ghent who, for a brief hour, was King of
Flanders. This wall-covering, of which there were no less than sixty
panels, contained about fourteen hundred principal figures, and was
held to be Van Huysum's masterpiece. The officer appointed to guard
the burghers whom Charles V. determined to hang when he re-entered his
native town, proposed, it is said, to Van Claes to let him escape if
he would give him Van Huysum's great work; but the weaver had already
despatched it to Douai.
The parlor, whose walls were entirely panelled with this carving,
which Van Huysum, out of regard for the martyr's memory, came to Douai
to frame in wood painted in lapis-lazuli with threads of gold, is
therefore the most complete work of this master, whose least carvings
now sell for nearly their weight in gold. Hanging over the fire-place,
Van Claes the martyr, painted by Titian in his robes as president of
the Court of Parchons, still seemed the head of the family, who
venerated him as their greatest man. The chimney-piece, originally in
stone with a very high mantle-shelf, had been made over in marble
during the last century; on it now stood an old clock and two
candlesticks with five twisted branches, in bad taste, but of solid
silver. The four windows were draped by wide curtains of red damask
with a flowered black design, lined with white silk; the furniture,
covered with the same material, had been renovated in the time of
Louis XIV. The floor, evidently modern, was laid in large squares of
white wood bordered with strips of oak. The ceiling, formed of many
oval panels, in each of which Van Huysum had carved a grotesque mask,
had been respected and allowed to keep the brown tones of the native
In the four corners of this parlor were truncated columns, supporting
candelabra exactly like those on the mantle-shelf; and a round table
stood in the middle of the room. Along the walls card-tables were
symmetrically placed. On two gilded consoles with marble slabs there
stood, at the period when this history begins, two glass globes filled
with water, in which, above a bed of sand and shells, red and gold and
silver fish were swimming about. The room was both brilliant and
sombre. The ceiling necessarily absorbed the light and reflected none.
Although on the garden side all was bright and glowing, and the
sunshine danced upon the ebony carvings, the windows on the court-yard
admitted so little light that the gold threads in the lapis-lazuli
scarcely glittered on the opposite wall. This parlor, which could be
gorgeous on a fine day, was usually, under the Flemish skies, filled
with soft shadows and melancholy russet tones, like those shed by the
sun on the tree-tops of the forests in autumn.
It is unnecessary to continue this description of the House of Claes,
in other parts of which many scenes of this history will occur: at
present, it is enough to make known its general arrangement.
Towards the end of August, 1812, on a Sunday evening after vespers, a
woman was sitting in a deep armchair placed before one of the windows
looking out upon the garden. The sun's rays fell obliquely upon the
house and athwart the parlor, breaking into fantastic lights on the
carved panellings of the wall, and wrapping the woman in a crimson
halo projected through the damask curtains which draped the window.
Even an ordinary painter, had he sketched this woman at this
particular moment, would assuredly have produced a striking picture of
a head that was full of pain and melancholy. The attitude of the body,
and that of the feet stretched out before her, showed the prostration
of one who loses consciousness of physical being in the concentration
of powers absorbed in a fixed idea: she was following its gleams in
the far future, just as sometimes on the shores of the sea, we gaze at
a ray of sunlight which pierces the clouds and draws a luminous line
to the horizon.
The hands of this woman hung nerveless outside the arms of her chair,
and her head, as if too heavy to hold up, lay back upon its cushions.
A dress of white cambric, very full and flowing, hindered any judgment
as to the proportions of her figure, and the bust was concealed by the
folds of a scarf crossed on the bosom and negligently knotted. If the
light had not thrown into relief her face, which she seemed to show in
preference to the rest of her person, it would still have been
impossible to escape riveting the attention exclusively upon it. Its
expression of stupefaction, which was cold and rigid despite hot tears
that were rolling from her eyes, would have struck the most
thoughtless mind. Nothing is more terrible to behold than excessive
grief that is rarely allowed to break forth, of which traces were left
on this woman's face like lava congealed about a crater. She might
have been a dying mother compelled to leave her children in abysmal
depths of wretchedness, unable to bequeath them to any human
The countenance of this lady, then about forty years of age and not
nearly so far from handsome as she had been in her youth, bore none of
the characteristics of a Flemish woman. Her thick black hair fell in
heavy curls upon her shoulders and about her cheeks. The forehead,
very prominent, and narrow at the temples, was yellow in tint, but
beneath it sparkled two black eyes that were capable of emitting
flames. Her face, altogether Spanish, dark skinned, with little color
and pitted by the small-pox, attracted the eye by the beauty of its
oval, whose outline, though slightly impaired by time, preserved a
finished elegance and dignity, and regained at times its full
perfection when some effort of the soul restored its pristine purity.
The most noticeable feature in this strong face was the nose, aquiline
as the beak of an eagle, and so sharply curved at the middle as to
give the idea of an interior malformation; yet there was an air of
indescribable delicacy about it, and the partition between the
nostrils was so thin that a rosy light shone through it. Though the
lips, which were large and curved, betrayed the pride of noble birth,
their expression was one of kindliness and natural courtesy.
The beauty of this vigorous yet feminine face might indeed be
questioned, but the face itself commanded attention. Short, deformed,
and lame, this woman remained all the longer unmarried because the
world obstinately refused to credit her with gifts of mind. Yet there
were men who were deeply stirred by the passionate ardor of that face
and its tokens of ineffable tenderness, and who remained under a charm
that was seemingly irreconcilable with such personal defects.
She was very like her grandfather, the Duke of Casa-Real, a grandee of
Spain. At this moment, when we first see her, the charm which in
earlier days despotically grasped the soul of poets and lovers of
poesy now emanated from that head with greater vigor than at any
former period of her life, spending itself, as it were, upon the void,
and expressing a nature of all-powerful fascination over men, though
it was at the same time powerless over destiny.
When her eyes turned from the glass globes, where they were gazing at
the fish they saw not, she raised them with a despairing action, as if
to invoke the skies. Her sufferings seemed of a kind that are told to
God alone. The silence was unbroken save for the chirp of crickets and
the shrill whirr of a few locusts, coming from the little garden then
hotter than an oven, and the dull sound of silver and plates, and the
moving of chairs in the adjoining room, where a servant was preparing
to serve the dinner.
At this moment, the distressed woman roused herself from her
abstraction and listened attentively; she took her handkerchief, wiped
away her tears, attempted to smile, and so resolutely effaced the
expression of pain that was stamped on every feature that she
presently seemed in the state of happy indifference which comes with a
life exempt from care. Whether it were that the habit of living in
this house to which infirmities confined her enabled her to perceive
certain natural effects that are imperceptible to the senses of
others, but which persons under the influence of excessive feeling are
keen to discover, or whether Nature, in compensation for her physical
defects, had given her more delicate sensations than better organized
beings,--it is certain that this woman had heard the steps of a man in
a gallery built above the kitchens and the servants' hall, by which
the front house communicated with the "back-quarter." The steps grew
more distinct. Soon, without possessing the power of this ardent
creature to abolish space and meet her other self, even a stranger
would have heard the foot-fall of a man upon the staircase which led
down from the gallery to the parlor.
The sound of that step would have startled the most heedless being
into thought; it was impossible to hear it coolly. A precipitate,
headlong step produces fear. When a man springs forward and cries,
"Fire!" his feet speak as loudly as his voice. If this be so, then a
contrary gait ought not to cause less powerful emotion. The slow
approach, the dragging step of the coming man might have irritated an
unreflecting spectator; but an observer, or a nervous person, would
undoubtedly have felt something akin to terror at the measured tread
of feet that seemed devoid of life, and under which the stairs creaked
loudly, as though two iron weights were striking them alternately. The
mind recognized at once either the heavy, undecided step of an old man
or the majestic tread of a great thinker bearing the worlds with him.
When the man had reached the lowest stair, and had planted both feet
upon the tiled floor with a hesitating, uncertain movement, he stood
still for a moment on the wide landing which led on one side to the
servants' hall, and on the other to the parlor through a door
concealed in the panelling of that room,--as was another door, leading
from the parlor to the dining-room. At this moment a slight shudder,
like the sensation caused by an electric spark, shook the woman seated
in the armchair; then a soft smile brightened her lips, and her face,
moved by the expectation of a pleasure, shone like that of an Italian
Madonna. She suddenly gained strength to drive her terrors back into
the depths of her heart. Then she turned her face to the panel of the
wall which she knew was about to open, and which in fact was now
pushed in with such brusque violence that the poor woman herself
seemed jarred by the shock.
Balthazar Claes suddenly appeared, made a few steps forward, did not
look at the woman, or if he looked at her did not see her, and stood
erect in the middle of the parlor, leaning his half-bowed head on his
right hand. A sharp pang to which the woman could not accustom
herself, although it was daily renewed, wrung her heart, dispelled her
smile, contracted the sallow forehead between the eyebrows, indenting
that line which the frequent expression of excessive feeling scores so
deeply; her eyes filled with tears, but she wiped them quickly as she
looked at Balthazar.
It was impossible not to be deeply impressed by this head of the
family of Claes. When young, he must have resembled the noble family
martyr who had threatened to be another Artevelde to Charles V.; but
as he stood there at this moment, he seemed over sixty years of age,
though he was only fifty; and this premature old age had destroyed the
honorable likeness. His tall figure was slightly bent,--either because
his labors, whatever they were, obliged him to stoop, or that the
spinal column was curved by the weight of his head. He had a broad
chest and square shoulders, but the lower parts of his body were lank
and wasted, though nervous; and this discrepancy in a physical
organization evidently once perfect puzzled the mind which endeavored
to explain this anomalous figure by some possible singularities of the
His thick blond hair, ill cared-for, fell over his shoulders in the
Dutch fashion, and its very disorder was in keeping with the general
eccentricity of his person. His broad brow showed certain
protuberances which Gall identifies with poetic genius. His clear and
full blue eyes had the brusque vivacity which may be noticed in
searchers for occult causes. The nose, probably perfect in early life,
was now elongated, and the nostrils seemed to have gradually opened
wider from an involuntary tension of the olfactory muscles. The
cheek-bones were very prominent, which made the cheeks themselves,
already withered, seem more sunken; his mouth, full of sweetness, was
squeezed in between the nose and a short chin, which projected sharply.
The shape of the face, however, was long rather than oval, and the
scientific doctrine which sees in every human face a likeness to an
animal would have found its confirmation in that of Balthazar Claes,
which bore a strong resemblance to a horse's head. The skin clung
closely to the bones, as though some inward fire were incessantly
drying its juices. Sometimes, when he gazed into space, as if to see
the realization of his hopes, it almost seemed as though the flames
that devoured his soul were issuing from his nostrils.
The inspired feelings that animate great men shone forth on the pale
face furrowed with wrinkles, on the brow haggard with care like that
of an old monarch, but above all they gleamed in the sparkling eye,
whose fires were fed by chastity imposed by the tyranny of ideas and
by the inward consecration of a great intellect. The cavernous eyes
seemed to have sunk in their orbits through midnight vigils and the
terrible reaction of hopes destroyed, yet ceaselessly reborn. The
zealous fanaticism inspired by an art or a science was evident in this
man; it betrayed itself in the strange, persistent abstraction of his
mind expressed by his dress and bearing, which were in keeping with
the anomalous peculiarities of his person.
His large, hairy hands were dirty, and the nails, which were very
long, had deep black lines at their extremities. His shoes were not
cleaned and the shoe-strings were missing. Of all that Flemish
household, the master alone took the strange liberty of being
slovenly. His black cloth trousers were covered with stains, his
waistcoat was unbuttoned, his cravat awry, his greenish coat ripped at
the seams,--completing an array of signs, great and small, which in
any other man would have betokened a poverty begotten of vice, but
which in Balthazar Claes was the negligence of genius.
Vice and Genius too often produce the same effects; and this misleads
the common mind. What is genius but a long excess which squanders time
and wealth and physical powers, and leads more rapidly to a hospital
than the worst of passions? Men even seem to have more respect for
vices than for genius, since to the latter they refuse credit. The
profits accruing from the hidden labors of the brain are so remote
that the social world fears to square accounts with the man of
learning in his lifetime, preferring to get rid of its obligations by
not forgiving his misfortunes or his poverty.
If, in spite of this inveterate forgetfulness of the present,
Balthazar Claes had abandoned his mysterious abstractions, if some
sweet and companionable meaning had revisited that thoughtful
countenance, if the fixed eyes had lost their rigid strain and shone
with feeling, if he had ever looked humanly about him and returned to
the real life of common things, it would indeed have been difficult
not to do involuntary homage to the winning beauty of his face and the
gracious soul that would then have shone from it. As it was, all who
looked at him regretted that the man belonged no more to the world at
large, and said to one another: "He must have been very handsome in
his youth." A vulgar error! Never was Balthazar Claes's appearance
more poetic than at this moment. Lavater, had he seen him, would fain
have studied that head so full of patience, of Flemish loyalty, and
pure morality,--where all was broad and noble, and passion seemed calm
because it was strong.
The conduct of this man could not be otherwise than pure; his word was
sacred, his friendships seemed undeviating, his self-devotedness
complete: and yet the will to employ those qualities in patriotic
service, for the world or for the family, was directed, fatally,
elsewhere. This citizen, bound to guard the welfare of a household, to
manage property, to guide his children towards a noble future, was
living outside the line of his duty and his affections, in communion
with an attendant spirit. A priest might have thought him inspired by
the word of God; an artist would have hailed him as a great master; an
enthusiast would have taken him for a seer of the Swedenborgian faith.
At the present moment, the dilapidated, uncouth, and ruined clothes
that he wore contrasted strangely with the graceful elegance of the
woman who was sadly admiring him. Deformed persons who have intellect,
or nobility of soul, show an exquisite taste in their apparel. Either
they dress simply, convinced that their charm is wholly moral, or they
make others forget their imperfections by an elegance of detail which
diverts the eye and occupies the mind. Not only did this woman possess
a noble soul, but she loved Balthazar Claes with that instinct of the
woman which gives a foretaste of the communion of angels. Brought up
in one of the most illustrious families of Belgium, she would have
learned good taste had she not possessed it; and now, taught by the
desire of constantly pleasing the man she loved, she knew how to
clothe herself admirably, and without producing incongruity between
her elegance and the defects of her conformation. The bust, however,
was defective in the shoulders only, one of which was noticeably much
larger than the other.
She looked out of the window into the court-yard, then towards the
garden, as if to make sure she was alone with Balthazar, and presently
said, in a gentle voice and with a look full of a Flemish woman's
submissiveness,--for between these two love had long since driven out
the pride of her Spanish nature:--
"Balthazar, are you so very busy? this is the thirty-third Sunday
since you have been to mass or vespers."
Claes did not answer; his wife bowed her head, clasped her hands, and
waited: she knew that his silence meant neither contempt nor
indifference, only a tyrannous preoccupation. Balthazar was one of
those beings who preserve deep in their souls and after long years all
their youthful delicacy of feeling; he would have thought it criminal
to wound by so much as a word a woman weighed down by the sense of
physical disfigurement. No man knew better than he that a look, a
word, suffices to blot out years of happiness, and is the more cruel
because it contrasts with the unfailing tenderness of the past: our
nature leads us to suffer more from one discord in our happiness than
pleasure coming in the midst of trouble can bring us joy.
Presently Balthazar appeared to waken; he looked quickly about him,
"Vespers? Ah, yes! the children are at vespers."
He made a few steps forward, and looked into the garden, where
magnificent tulips were growing on all sides; then he suddenly stopped
short as if brought up against a wall, and cried out,--
"Why should they not combine within a given time?"
"Is he going mad?" thought the wife, much terrified.
To give greater interest to the present scene, which was called forth
by the situation of their affairs, it is absolutely necessary to
glance back at the past lives of Balthazar Claes and the granddaughter
of the Duke of Casa-Real.
Towards the year 1783, Monsieur Balthazar Claes-Molina de Nourho, then
twenty-two years of age, was what is called in France a fine man. He
came to finish his education in Paris, where he acquired excellent
manners in the society of Madame d'Egmont, Count Horn, the Prince of
Aremberg, the Spanish ambassador, Helvetius, and other Frenchmen
originally from Belgium, or coming lately thence, whose birth or
wealth won them admittance among the great seigneurs who at that time
gave the tone to social life. Young Claes found several relations and
friends ready to launch him into the great world at the very moment
when that world was about to fall. Like other young men, he was at
first more attracted by glory and science than by the vanities of
life. He frequented the society of scientific men, particularly
Lavoisier, who at that time was better known to the world for his
enormous fortune as a "fermier-general" than for his discoveries in
chemistry,--though later the great chemist was to eclipse the man of
Balthazar grew enamored of the science which Lavoisier cultivated, and
became his devoted disciple; but he was young, and handsome as
Helvetius, and before long the Parisian women taught him to distil wit
and love exclusively. Though he had studied chemistry with such ardor
that Lavoisier commended him, he deserted science and his master for
those mistresses of fashion and good taste from whom young men take
finishing lessons in knowledge of life, and learn the usages of good
society, which in Europe forms, as it were, one family.
The intoxicating dream of social success lasted but a short time.
Balthazar left Paris, weary of a hollow existence which suited neither
his ardent soul nor his loving heart. Domestic life, so calm, so
tender, which the very name of Flanders recalled to him, seemed far
more fitted to his character and to the aspirations of his heart. No
gilded Parisian salon had effaced from his mind the harmonies of the
panelled parlor and the little garden where his happy childhood had
slipped away. A man must needs be without a home to remain in Paris,
--Paris, the city of cosmopolitans, of men who wed the world, and
clasp her with the arms of Science, Art, or Power.
The son of Flanders came back to Douai, like La Fontaine's pigeon to
its nest; he wept with joy as he re-entered the town on the day of the
Gayant procession,--Gayant, the superstitious luck of Douai, the glory
of Flemish traditions, introduced there at the time the Claes family
had emigrated from Ghent. The death of Balthazar's father and mother
had left the old mansion deserted, and the young man was occupied for
a time in settling its affairs. His first grief over, he wished to
marry; he needed the domestic happiness whose every religious aspect
had fastened upon his mind. He even followed the family custom of
seeking a wife in Ghent, or at Bruges, or Antwerp; but it happened
that no woman whom he met there suited him. Undoubtedly, he had
certain peculiar ideas as to marriage; from his youth he had been
accused of never following the beaten track.
One day, at the house of a relation in Ghent, he heard a young lady,
then living in Brussels, spoken of in a manner which gave rise to a
long discussion. Some said that the beauty of Mademoiselle de Temninck
was destroyed by the imperfections of her figure; others declared that
she was perfect in spite of her defects. Balthazar's old cousin, at
whose house the discussion took place, assured his guests that,
handsome or not, she had a soul that would make him marry her were he
a marrying man; and he told how she had lately renounced her share of
her parents' property to enable her brother to make a marriage worthy
of his name; thus preferring his happiness to her own, and sacrificing
her future to his interests,--for it was not to be supposed that
Mademoiselle de Temninck would marry late in life and without property
when, young and wealthy, she had met with no aspirant.
A few days later, Balthazar Claes made the acquaintance of
Mademoiselle de Temninck; with whom he fell deeply in love. At first,
Josephine de Temninck thought herself the object of a mere caprice,
and refused to listen to Monsieur Claes; but passion is contagious;
and to a poor girl who was lame and ill-made, the sense of inspiring
love in a young and handsome man carries with it such strong seduction
that she finally consented to allow him to woo her.
It would need a volume to paint the love of a young girl humbly
submissive to the verdict of a world that calls her plain, while she
feels within herself the irresistible charm which comes of sensibility
and true feeling. It involves fierce jealousy of happiness, freaks of
cruel vengeance against some fancied rival who wins a glance,
--emotions, terrors, unknown to the majority of women, and which ought,
therefore, to be more than indicated. The doubt, the dramatic doubt of
love, is the keynote of this analysis, where certain souls will find
once more the lost, but unforgotten, poetry of their early struggles;
the passionate exaltations of the heart which the face must not
betray; the fear that we may not be understood, and the boundless joy
of being so; the hesitations of the soul which recoils upon itself,
and the magnetic propulsions which give to the eyes an infinitude of
shades; the promptings to suicide caused by a word, dispelled by an
intonation; trembling glances which veil an inward daring; sudden
desires to speak and act that are paralyzed by their own violence; the
secret eloquence of common phrases spoken in a quivering voice; the
mysterious workings of that pristine modesty of soul and that divine
discernment which lead to hidden generosities, and give so exquisite a
flavor to silent devotion; in short, all the loveliness of young love,
and the weaknesses of its power.
Mademoiselle Josephine de Temninck was coquettish from nobility of
soul. The sense of her obvious imperfections made her as difficult to
win as the handsomest of women. The fear of some day displeasing the
eye roused her pride, destroyed her trustfulness, and gave her the
courage to hide in the depths of her heart that dawning happiness
which other women delight in making known by their manners,--wearing
it proudly, like a coronet. The more love urged her towards Balthazar,
the less she dared to express her feelings. The glance, the gesture,
the question and answer as it were of a pretty woman, so flattering to
the man she loves, would they not be in her case mere humiliating
speculation? A beautiful woman can be her natural self,--the world
overlooks her little follies or her clumsiness; whereas a single
criticising glance checks the noblest expression on the lips of an
ugly woman, adds to the ill-grace of her gesture, gives timidity to
her eyes and awkwardness to her whole bearing. She knows too well that
to her alone the world condones no faults; she is denied the right to
repair them; indeed, the chance to do so is never given. This
necessity of being perfect and on her guard at every moment, must
surely chill her faculties and numb their exercise? Such a woman can
exist only in an atmosphere of angelic forbearance. Where are the
hearts from which forbearance comes with no alloy of bitter and
These thoughts, to which the codes of social life had accustomed her,
and the sort of consideration more wounding than insult shown to her
by the world,--a consideration which increases a misfortune by making
it apparent,--oppressed Mademoiselle de Temninck with a constant sense
of embarrassment, which drove back into her soul its happiest
expression, and chilled and stiffened her attitudes, her speech, her
looks. Loving and beloved, she dared to be eloquent or beautiful only
when alone. Unhappy and oppressed in the broad daylight of life, she
might have been enchanting could she have expanded in the shadow.
Often, to test the love thus offered to her, and at the risk of losing
it, she refused to wear the draperies that concealed some portion of
her defects, and her Spanish eyes grew entrancing when they saw that
Balthazar thought her beautiful as before.
Nevertheless, even so, distrust soiled the rare moments when she
yielded herself to happiness. She asked herself if Claes were not
seeking a domestic slave,--one who would necessarily keep the house?
whether he had himself no secret imperfection which obliged him to be
satisfied with a poor, deformed girl? Such perpetual misgivings gave a
priceless value to the few short hours during which she trusted the
sincerity and the permanence of a love which was to avenge her on the
world. Sometimes she provoked hazardous discussions, and probed the
inner consciousness of her lover by exaggerating her defects. At such
times she often wrung from Balthazar truths that were far from
flattering; but she loved the embarrassment into which he fell when
she had led him to say that what he loved in a woman was a noble soul
and the devotion which made each day of life a constant happiness; and
that after a few years of married life the handsomest of women was no
more to a husband than the ugliest. After gathering up what there was
of truth in all such paradoxes tending to reduce the value of beauty,
Balthazar would suddenly perceive the ungraciousness of his remarks,
and show the goodness of his heart by the delicate transitions of
thought with which he proved to Mademoiselle de Temninck that she was
perfect in his eyes.
The spirit of devotion which, it may be, is the crown of love in a
woman, was not lacking in this young girl, who had always despaired of
being loved; at first, the prospect of a struggle in which feeling and
sentiment would triumph over actual beauty tempted her; then, she
fancied a grandeur in giving herself to a man in whose love she did
not believe; finally, she was forced to admit that happiness, however
short its duration might be, was too precious to resign.
Such hesitations, such struggles, giving the charm and the
unexpectedness of passion to this noble creature, inspired Balthazar
with a love that was well-nigh chivalric.
The marriage took place at the beginning of the year 1795. Husband and
wife came to Douai that the first days of their union might be spent
in the patriarchal house of the Claes,--the treasures of which were
increased by those of Mademoiselle de Temninck, who brought with her
several fine pictures of Murillo and Velasquez, the diamonds of her
mother, and the magnificent wedding-gifts, made to her by her brother,
the Duke of Casa-Real.
Few women were ever happier than Madame Claes. Her happiness lasted
for fifteen years without a cloud, diffusing itself like a vivid light
into every nook and detail of her life. Most men have inequalities of
character which produce discord, and deprive their households of the
harmony which is the ideal of a home; the majority are blemished with
some littleness or meanness, and meanness of any kind begets
bickering. One man is honorable and diligent, but hard and crabbed;
another kindly, but obstinate; this one loves his wife, yet his will
is arbitrary and uncertain; that other, preoccupied by ambition, pays
off his affections as he would a debt, bestows the luxuries of wealth
but deprives the daily life of happiness,--in short, the average man
of social life is essentially incomplete, without being signally to
blame. Men of talent are as variable as barometers; genius alone is
For this reason unalloyed happiness is found at the two extremes of
the moral scale. The good-natured fool and the man of genius alone are
capable--the one through weakness, the other by strength--of that
equanimity of temper, that unvarying gentleness, which soften the
asperities of daily life. In the one, it is indifference or stolidity;
in the other, indulgence and a portion of the divine thought of which
he is the interpreter, and which needs to be consistent alike in
principle and application. Both natures are equally simple; but in one
there is vacancy, in the other depth. This is why clever women are
disposed to take dull men as the small change for great ones.
Balthazar Claes carried his greatness into the lesser things of life.
He delighted in considering conjugal love as a magnificent work; and
like all men of lofty aims who can bear nothing imperfect, he wished
to develop all its beauties. His powers of mind enlivened the calm of
happiness, his noble nature marked his attentions with the charm of
grace. Though he shared the philosophical tenets of the eighteenth
century, he installed a chaplain in his home until 1801 (in spite of
the risk he ran from the revolutionary decrees), so that he might not
thwart the Spanish fanaticism which his wife had sucked in with her
mother's milk: later, when public worship was restored in France, he
accompanied her to mass every Sunday. His passion never ceased to be
that of a lover. The protecting power, which women like so much, was
never exercised by this husband, lest to that wife it might seem pity.
He treated her with exquisite flattery as an equal, and sometimes
mutinied against her, as men will, as though to brave the supremacy of
a pretty woman. His lips wore a smile of happiness, his speech was
ever tender; he loved his Josephine for herself and for himself, with
an ardor that crowned with perpetual praise the qualities and the
loveliness of a wife.
Fidelity, often the result of social principle, religious duty, or
self-interest on the part of a husband, was in this case involuntary,
and not without the sweet flatteries of the spring-time of love. Duty
was the only marriage obligation unknown to these lovers, whose love
was equal; for Balthazar Claes found the complete and lasting
realization of his hopes in Mademoiselle de Temninck; his heart was
satisfied but not wearied, the man within him was ever happy.
Not only did the daughter of Casa-Real derive from her Spanish blood
the intuition of that science which varies pleasure and makes it
infinite, but she possessed the spirit of unbounded self-devotion,
which is the genius of her sex as grace is that of beauty. Her love
was a blind fanaticism which, at a nod, would have sent her joyously
to her death. Balthazar's own delicacy had exalted the generous
emotions of his wife, and inspired her with an imperious need of
giving more than she received. This mutual exchange of happiness which
each lavished upon the other, put the mainspring of her life visibly
outside of her personality, and filled her words, her looks, her
actions, with an ever-growing love. Gratitude fertilized and varied
the life of each heart; and the certainty of being all in all to one
another excluded the paltry things of existence, while it magnified
the smallest accessories.
The deformed woman whom her husband thinks straight, the lame woman
whom he would not have otherwise, the old woman who seems ever young
--are they not the happiest creatures of the feminine world? Can human
passion go beyond it? The glory of a woman is to be adored for a
defect. To forget that a lame woman does not walk straight may be the
glamour of a moment, but to love her because she is lame is the
deification of her defects. In the gospel of womanhood it is written:
"Blessed are the imperfect, for theirs is the kingdom of Love." If
this be so, surely beauty is a misfortune; that fugitive flower counts
for too much in the feeling that a woman inspires; often she is loved
for her beauty as another is married for her money. But the love
inspired or bestowed by a woman disinherited of the frail advantages
pursued by the sons of Adam, is true love, the mysterious passion, the
ardent embrace of souls, a sentiment for which the day of
disenchantment never comes. That woman has charms unknown to the
world, from whose jurisdiction she withdraws herself: she is beautiful
with a meaning; her glory lies in making her imperfections forgotten,
and thus she constantly succeeds in doing so.
The celebrated attachments of history were nearly all inspired by
women in whom the vulgar mind would have found defects,--Cleopatra,
Jeanne de Naples, Diane de Poitiers, Mademoiselle de la Valliere,
Madame de Pompadour; in fact, the majority of the women whom love has
rendered famous were not without infirmities and imperfections, while
the greater number of those whose beauty is cited as perfect came to
some tragic end of love.
This apparent singularity must have a cause. It may be that man lives
more by sentiment than by sense; perhaps the physical charm of beauty
is limited, while the moral charm of a woman without beauty is
infinite. Is not this the moral of the fable on which the Arabian
Nights are based? An ugly wife of Henry VIII. might have defied the
axe, and subdued to herself the inconstancy of her master.
By a strange chance, not inexplicable, however, in a girl of Spanish
origin, Madame Claes was uneducated. She knew how to read and write,
but up to the age of twenty, at which time her parents withdrew her
from a convent, she had read none but ascetic books. On her first
entrance into the world, she was eager for pleasure and learned only
the flimsy art of dress; she was, moreover, so deeply conscious of her
ignorance that she dared not join in conversation; for which reason
she was supposed to have little mind. Yet, the mystical education of a
convent had one good result; it left her feelings in full force and
her natural powers of mind uninjured. Stupid and plain as an heiress
in the eyes of the world, she became intellectual and beautiful to her
husband. During the first years of their married life, Balthazar
endeavored to give her at least the knowledge that she needed to
appear to advantage in good society: but he was doubtless too late,
she had no memory but that of the heart. Josephine never forgot
anything that Claes told her relating to themselves; she remembered
the most trifling circumstances of their happy life; but of her
evening studies nothing remained to her on the morrow.
This ignorance might have caused much discord between husband and
wife, but Madame Claes's understanding of the passion of love was so
simple and ingenuous, she loved her husband so religiously, so
sacredly, and the thought of preserving her happiness made her so
adroit, that she managed always to seem to understand him, and it was
seldom indeed that her ignorance was evident. Moreover, when two
persons love one another so well that each day seems for them the
beginning of their passion, phenomena arise out of this teeming
happiness which change all the conditions of life. It resembles
childhood, careless of all that is not laughter, joy, and merriment.
Then, when life is in full activity, when its hearths glow, man lets
the fire burn without thought or discussion, without considering
either the means or the end.
No daughter of Eve ever more truly understood the calling of a wife
than Madame Claes. She had all the submission of a Flemish woman, but
her Spanish pride gave it a higher flavor. Her bearing was imposing;
she knew how to command respect by a look which expressed her sense of
birth and dignity: but she trembled before Claes; she held him so
high, so near to God, carrying to him every act of her life, every
thought of her heart, that her love was not without a certain
respectful fear which made it keener. She proudly assumed all the
habits of a Flemish bourgeoisie, and put her self-love into making the
home life liberally happy,--preserving every detail of the house in
scrupulous cleanliness, possessing nothing that did not serve the
purposes of true comfort, supplying her table with the choicest food,
and putting everything within those walls into harmony with the life
of her heart.
The pair had two sons and two daughters. The eldest, Marguerite, was
born in 1796. The last child was a boy, now three years old, named
Jean-Balthazar. The maternal sentiment in Madame Claes was almost
equal to her love for her husband; and there rose in her soul,
especially during the last days of her life, a terrible struggle
between those nearly balanced feelings, of which the one became, as it
were, an enemy of the other. The tears and the terror that marked her
face at the moment when this tale of a domestic drama then lowering
over the quiet house begins, were caused by the fear of having
sacrificed her children to her husband.
In 1805, Madame Claes's brother died without children. The Spanish law
does not allow a sister to succeed to territorial possessions, which
follow the title; but the duke had left her in his will about sixty
thousand ducats, and this sum the heirs of the collateral branch did
not seek to retain. Though the feeling which united her to Balthazar
Claes was such that no thought of personal interest could ever sully
it, Josephine felt a certain pleasure in possessing a fortune equal to
that of her husband, and was happy in giving something to one who had
so nobly given everything to her. Thus, a mere chance turned a
marriage which worldly minds had declared foolish, into an excellent
alliance, seen from the standpoint of material interests. The use to
which this sum of money should be put became, however, somewhat
difficult to determine.
The House of Claes was so richly supplied with furniture, pictures,
and objects of art of priceless value, that it was difficult to add
anything worthy of what was already there. The tastes of the family
through long periods of time had accumulated these treasures. One
generation followed the quest of noble pictures, leaving behind it the
necessity of completing a collection still unfinished; and thus the
taste became hereditary in the family. The hundred pictures which
adorned the gallery leading from the family building to the
reception-rooms on the first floor of the front house, as well as some
fifty others placed about the salons, were the product of the patient
researches of three centuries. Among them were choice specimens of
Rubens, Ruysdael, Vandyke, Terburg, Gerard Dow, Teniers, Mieris, Paul
Potter, Wouvermans, Rembrandt, Hobbema, Cranach, and Holbein. French
and Italian pictures were in a minority, but all were authentic and
Another generation had fancied Chinese and Japanese porcelains: this
Claes was eager after rare furniture, that one for silver-ware; in
fact, each and all had their mania, their passion,--a trait which
belongs in a striking degree to the Flemish character. The father of
Balthazar, a last relic of the once famous Dutch society, left behind
him the finest known collection of tulips.
Besides these hereditary riches, which represented an enormous
capital, and were the choice ornament of the venerable house,--a house
that was simple as a shell outside but, like a shell, adorned within
by pearls of price and glowing with rich color,--Balthazar Claes
possessed a country-house on the plain of Orchies, not far from Douai.
Instead of basing his expenses, as Frenchmen do, upon his revenues, he
followed the old Dutch custom of spending only a fourth of his income.
Twelve hundred ducats a year put his costs of living at a level with
those of the richest men of the place. The promulgation of the Civil
Code proved the wisdom of this course. Compelling, as it did, the
equal division of property, the Title of Succession would some day
leave each child with limited means, and disperse the treasures of the
Claes collection. Balthazar, therefore, in concert with Madame Claes,
invested his wife's property so as to secure to each child a fortune
eventually equal to his own. The house of Claes still maintained its
moderate scale of living, and bought woodlands somewhat the worse for
wars that had laid waste the country, but which in ten years' time, if
well-preserved, would return an enormous value.
The upper ranks of society in Douai, which Monsieur Claes frequented,
appreciated so justly the noble character and qualities of his wife
that, by tacit consent she was released from those social duties to
which the provinces cling so tenaciously. During the winter season,
when she lived in town, she seldom went into society; society came to
her. She received every Wednesday, and gave three grand dinners every
month. Her friends felt that she was more at ease in her own house;
where, indeed, her passion for her husband and the care she bestowed
on the education of her children tended to keep her.
Such had been, up to the year 1809, the general course of this
household, which had nothing in common with the ordinary run of
conventional ideas, though the outward life of these two persons,
secretly full of love and joy, was like that of other people.
Balthazar Claes's passion for his wife, which she had known how to
perpetuate, seemed, to use his own expression, to spend its inborn
vigor and fidelity on the cultivation of happiness, which was far
better than the cultivation of tulips (though to that he had always
had a leaning), and dispensed him from the duty of following a mania
like his ancestors.
At the close of this year, the mind and the manners of Balthazar Claes
underwent a fatal change,--a change which began so gradually that at
first Madame Claes did not think it necessary to inquire the cause.
One night her husband went to bed with a mind so preoccupied that she
felt it incumbent on her to respect his mood. Her womanly delicacy and
her submissive habits always led her to wait for Balthazar's
confidence; which, indeed, was assured to her by so constant an
affection that she had never had the slightest opening for jealousy.
Though certain of obtaining an answer whenever she should make the
inquiry, she still retained enough of the earlier impressions of her
life to dread a refusal. Besides, the moral malady of her husband had
its phases, and only came by slow degrees to the intolerable point at
which it destroyed the happiness of the family.
However occupied Balthazar Claes might be, he continued for several
months cheerful, affectionate, and ready to talk; the change in his
character showed itself only by frequent periods of absent-mindedness.
Madame Claes long hoped to hear from her husband himself the nature of
the secret employment in which he was engaged; perhaps, she thought,
he would reveal it when it developed some useful result; many men are
led by pride to conceal the nature of their efforts, and only make
them known at the moment of success. When the day of triumph came,
surely domestic happiness would return, more vivid than ever when
Balthazar became aware of this chasm in the life of love, which his
heart would surely disavow. Josephine knew her husband well enough to
be certain that he would never forgive himself for having made his
Pepita less than happy during several months.
She kept silence therefore, and felt a sort of joy in thus suffering
by him for him: her passion had a tinge of that Spanish piety which
allows no separation between religion and love, and believes in no
sentiment without suffering. She waited for the return of her
husband's affection, saying daily to herself, "To-morrow it may come,"
--treating her happiness as though it were an absent friend.
During this stage of her secret distress, she conceived her last
child. Horrible crisis, which revealed a future of anguish! In the
midst of her husband's abstractions love showed itself on this
occasion an abstraction even greater than the rest. Her woman's pride,
hurt for the first time, made her sound the depths of the unknown
abyss which separated her from the Claes of earlier days. From that
time Balthazar's condition grew rapidly worse. The man formerly so
wrapped up in his domestic happiness, who played for hours with his
children on the parlor carpet or round the garden paths, who seemed
able to exist only in the light of his Pepita's dark eyes, did not
even perceive her pregnancy, seldom shared the family life, and even
forgot his own.
The longer Madame Claes postponed inquiring into the cause of his
preoccupation the less she dared to do so. At the very idea, her blood
ran cold and her voice grew faint. At last the thought occurred to her
that she had ceased to please her husband, and then indeed she was
seriously alarmed. That fear now filled her mind, drove her to
despair, then to feverish excitement, and became the text of many an
hour of melancholy reverie. She defended Balthazar at her own expense,
calling herself old and ugly; then she imagined a generous though
humiliating consideration for her in this secret occupation by which
he secured to her a negative fidelity; and she resolved to give him
back his independence by allowing one of those unspoken divorces which
make the happiness of many a marriage.
Before bidding farewell to conjugal life, Madame Claes made some
attempt to read her husband's heart, and found it closed. Little by
little, she saw him become indifferent to all that he had formerly
loved; he neglected his tulips, he cared no longer for his children.
There could be no doubt that he was given over to some passion that
was not of the heart, but which, to a woman's mind, is not less
withering. His love was dormant, not lost: this might be a
consolation, but the misfortune remained the same.
The continuance of such a state of things is explained by one word,
--hope, the secret of all conjugal situations. It so happened that
whenever the poor woman reached a depth of despair which gave her
courage to question her husband, she met with a few brief moments of
happiness when she was able to feel that if Balthazar was indeed in
the clutch of some devilish power, he was permitted, sometimes at
least, to return to himself. At such moments, when her heaven
brightened, she was too eager to enjoy its happiness to trouble him
with importunate questions: later, when she endeavored to speak to
him, he would suddenly escape, leave her abruptly, or drop into the
gulf of meditation from which no word of hers could drag him.
Before long the reaction of the moral upon the physical condition
began its ravages,--at first imperceptibly, except to the eyes of a
loving woman following the secret thought of a husband through all its
manifestations. Often she could scarcely restrain her tears when she
saw him, after dinner, sink into an armchair by the corner of the
fireplace, and remain there, gloomy and abstracted. She noted with
terror the slow changes which deteriorated that face, once, to her
eyes, sublime through love: the life of the soul was retreating from
it; the structure remained, but the spirit was gone. Sometimes the
eyes were glassy, and seemed as if they had turned their gaze and were
looking inward. When the children had gone to bed, and the silence and
solitude oppressed her, Pepita would say, "My friend, are you ill?"
and Balthazar would make no answer; or if he answered, he would come
to himself with a quiver, like a man snatched suddenly from sleep, and
utter a "No" so harsh and grating that it fell like a stone on the
palpitating heart of his wife.
Though she tried to hide this strange state of things from her
friends, Madame Claes was obliged sometimes to allude to it. The
social world of Douai, in accordance with the custom of provincial
towns, had made Balthazar's aberrations a topic of conversation, and
many persons were aware of certain details that were still unknown to
Madame Claes. Disregarding the reticence which politeness demanded, a
few friends expressed to her so much anxiety on the subject that she
found herself compelled to defend her husband's peculiarities.
"Monsieur Claes," she said, "has undertaken a work which wholly
absorbs him; its success will eventually redound not only to the honor
of the family but to that of his country."
This mysterious explanation was too flattering to the ambition of a
town whose local patriotism and desire for glory exceed those of other
places, not to be readily accepted, and it produced on all minds a
reaction in favor of Balthazar.
The supposition of his wife was, to a certain extent, well-founded.
Several artificers of various trades had long been at work in the
garret of the front house, where Balthazar went early every morning.
After remaining, at first, for several hours, an absence to which his
wife and household grew gradually accustomed, he ended by being there
all day. But--unexpected shock!--Madame Claes learned through the
humiliating medium of some women friends, who showed surprise at her
ignorance, that her husband constantly imported instruments of
physical science, valuable materials, books, machinery, etc., from
Paris, and was on the highroad to ruin in search of the Philosopher's
Stone. She ought, so her kind friends added, to think of her children,
and her own future; it was criminal not to use her influence to draw
Monsieur Claes from the fatal path on which he had entered.
Though Madame Claes, with the tone and manner of a great lady,
silenced these absurd speeches, she was inwardly terrified in spite of
her apparent confidence, and she resolved to break through her present
system of silence and resignation. She brought about one of those
little scenes in which husband and wife are on an equal footing; less
timid at such a moment, she dared to ask Balthazar the reason for his
change, the motive of his constant seclusion. The Flemish husband
frowned, and replied:--
"My dear, you could not understand it."
Soon after, however, Josephine insisted on being told the secret,
gently complaining that she was not allowed to share all the thoughts
of one whose life she shared.
"Very well, since it interests you so much," said Balthazar, taking
his wife upon his knee and caressing her black hair, "I will tell you
that I have returned to the study of chemistry, and I am the happiest
man on earth."
Two years after the winter when Monsieur Claes returned to chemistry,
the aspect of his house was changed. Whether it were that society was
affronted by his perpetual absent-mindedness and chose to think itself
in the way, or that Madame Claes's secret anxieties made her less
agreeable than before, certain it is that she no longer saw any but
her intimate friends. Balthazar went nowhere, shut himself up in his
laboratory all day, sometimes stayed there all night, and only
appeared in the bosom of his family at dinner-time.
After the second year he no longer passed the summer at his
country-house, and his wife was unwilling to live there alone. Sometimes
he went to walk and did not return till the following day, leaving
Madame Claes a prey to mortal anxiety during the night. After causing a
fruitless search for him through the town, whose gates, like those of
other fortified places, were closed at night, it was impossible to
send into the country, and the unhappy woman could only wait and
suffer till morning. Balthazar, who had forgotten the hour at which
the gates closed, would come tranquilly home next day, quite unmindful
of the tortures his absence had inflicted on his family; and the
happiness of getting him back proved as dangerous an excitement of
feeling to his wife as her fears of the preceding night. She kept
silence and dared not question him, for when she did so on the
occasion of his first absence, he answered with an air of surprise:--
"Well, what of it? Can I not take a walk?"
Passions never deceive. Madame Claes's anxieties corroborated the
rumors she had taken so much pains to deny. The experience of her
youth had taught her to understand the polite pity of the world.
Resolved not to undergo it a second time, she withdrew more and more
into the privacy of her own house, now deserted by society and even by
her nearest friends.
Among these many causes of distress, the negligence and disorder of
Balthazar's dress, so degrading to a man of his station, was not the
least bitter to a woman accustomed to the exquisite nicety of Flemish
life. At first Josephine endeavored, in concert with Balthazar's
valet, Lemulquinier, to repair the daily devastation of his clothing,
but even that she was soon forced to give up. The very day when
Balthazar, unaware of the substitution, put on new clothes in place of
those that were stained, torn, or full of holes, he made rags of them.
The poor wife, whose perfect happiness had lasted fifteen years,
during which time her jealousy had never once been roused, was
apparently and suddenly nothing in the heart where she had lately
reigned. Spanish by race, the feelings of a Spanish woman rose within
her when she discovered her rival in a Science that allured her
husband from her: torments of jealousy preyed upon her heart and
renewed her love. What could she do against Science? Should she combat
that tyrannous, unyielding, growing power? Could she kill an invisible
rival? Could a woman, limited by nature, contend with an Idea whose
delights are infinite, whose attractions are ever new? How make head
against the fascination of ideas that spring the fresher and the
lovelier out of difficulty, and entice a man so far from this world
that he forgets even his dearest loves?
At last one day, in spite of Balthazar's strict orders, Madame Claes
resolved to follow him, to shut herself up in the garret where his
life was spent, and struggle hand to hand against her rival by sharing
her husband's labors during the long hours he gave to that terrible
mistress. She determined to slip secretly into the mysterious
laboratory of seduction, and obtain the right to be there always.
Lemulquinier alone had that right, and she meant to share it with him;
but to prevent his witnessing the contention with her husband which
she feared at the outset, she waited for an opportunity when the valet
should be out of the way. For a while she studied the goings and
comings of the man with angry impatience; did he not know that which
was denied to her--all that her husband hid from her, all that she
dared not inquire into? Even a servant was preferred to a wife!
The day came; she approached the place, trembling, yet almost happy.
For the first time in her life she encountered Balthazar's anger. She
had hardly opened the door before he sprang upon her, seized her,
threw her roughly on the staircase, so that she narrowly escaped
rolling to the bottom.
"God be praised! you are still alive!" he cried, raising her.
A glass vessel had broken into fragments over Madame Claes, who saw
her husband standing by her, pale, terrified, and almost livid.
"My dear, I forbade you to come here," he said, sitting down on the
stairs, as though prostrated. "The saints have saved your life! By
what chance was it that my eyes were on the door when you opened it?
We have just escaped death."
"Then I might have been happy!" she exclaimed.
"My experiment has failed," continued Balthazar. "You alone could I
forgive for that terrible disappointment. I was about to decompose
nitrogen. Go back to your own affairs."
Balthazar re-entered the laboratory and closed the door.
"Decompose nitrogen!" said the poor woman as she re-entered her
chamber, and burst into tears.
The phrase was unintelligible to her. Men, trained by education to
have a general conception of everything, have no idea how distressing
it is for a woman to be unable to comprehend the thought of the man
she loves. More forbearing than we, these divine creatures do not let
us know when the language of their souls is not understood by us; they
shrink from letting us feel the superiority of their feelings, and
hide their pain as gladly as they silence their wishes: but, having
higher ambitions in love than men, they desire to wed not only the
heart of a husband, but his mind.
To Madame Claes the sense of knowing nothing of a science which
absorbed her husband filled her with a vexation as keen as the beauty
of a rival might have caused. The struggle of woman against woman
gives to her who loves the most the advantage of loving best; but a
mortification like this only proved Madame Claes's powerlessness and
humiliated the feelings by which she lived. She was ignorant; and she
had reached a point where her ignorance parted her from her husband.
Worse than all, last and keenest torture, he was risking his life, he
was often in danger--near her, yet far away, and she might not share,
nor even know, his peril. Her position became, like hell, a moral
prison from which there was no issue, in which there was no hope.
Madame Claes resolved to know at least the outward attractions of this
fatal science, and she began secretly to study chemistry in the books.
From this time the family became, as it were, cloistered.
Such were the successive changes brought by this dire misfortune upon
the family of Claes, before it reached the species of atrophy in which
we find it at the moment when this history begins.
The situation grew daily more complicated. Like all passionate women,
Madame Claes was disinterested. Those who truly love know that
considerations of money count for little in matters of feeling and are
reluctantly associated with them. Nevertheless, Josephine did not hear
without distress that her husband had borrowed three hundred thousand
francs upon his property. The apparent authenticity of the
transaction, the rumors and conjectures spread through the town,
forced Madame Claes, naturally much alarmed, to question her husband's
notary and, disregarding her pride, to reveal to him her secret
anxieties or let him guess them, and even ask her the humiliating
"How is it that Monsieur Claes has not told you of this?"
Happily, the notary was almost a relation,--in this wise: The
grandfather of Monsieur Claes had married a Pierquin of Antwerp, of
the same family as the Pierquins of Douai. Since the marriage the
latter, though strangers to the Claes, claimed them as cousins.
Monsieur Pierquin, a young man twenty-six years of age, who had just
succeeded to his father's practice, was the only person who now had
access to the House of Claes.
Madame Balthazar had lived for several months in such complete
solitude that the notary was obliged not only to confirm the rumor of
the disasters, but to give her further particulars, which were now
well known throughout the town. He told her that it was probably that
her husband owed considerable sums of money to the house which
furnished him with chemicals. That house, after making inquiries as to
the fortune and credit of Monsieur Claes, accepted all his orders and
sent the supplies without hesitation, notwithstanding the heavy sums
of money which became due. Madame Claes requested Pierquin to obtain
the bill for all the chemicals that had been furnished to her husband.
Two months later, Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville, manufacturers of
chemical products, sent in a schedule of accounts rendered, which
amounted to over one hundred thousand francs. Madame Claes and
Pierquin studied the document with an ever-increasing surprise. Though
some articles, entered in commercial and scientific terms, were
unintelligible to them, they were frightened to see entries of
precious metals and diamonds of all kinds, though in small quantities.
The large sum total of the debt was explained by the multiplicity of
the articles, by the precautions needed in transporting some of them,
more especially valuable machinery, by the exorbitant price of certain
rare chemicals, and finally by the cost of instruments made to order
after the designs of Monsieur Claes himself.
The notary had made inquiries, in his client's interest, as to
Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville, and found that their known
integrity was sufficient guarantee as to the honesty of their
operations with Monsieur Claes, to whom, moreover, they frequently
sent information of results obtained by chemists in Paris, for the
purpose of sparing him expense. Madame Claes begged the notary to keep
the nature of these purchases from the knowledge of the people of
Douai, lest they should declare the whole thing a mania; but Pierquin
replied that he had already delayed to the very last moment the
notarial deeds which the importance of the sum borrowed necessitated,
in order not to lessen the respect in which Monsieur Claes was held.
He then revealed the full extent of the evil, telling her plainly that
if she could not find means to prevent her husband from thus madly
making way with his property, in six months the patrimonial fortune of
the Claes would be mortgaged to its full value. As for himself, he
said, the remonstrances he had already made to his cousin, with all
the consideration due to a man so justly respected, had been wholly
unavailing. Balthazar had replied, once for all, that he was working
for the fame and the fortune of his family.
Thus, to the tortures of the heart which Madame Claes had borne for
two years--one following the other with cumulative suffering--was now
added a dreadful and ceaseless fear which made the future terrifying.
Women have presentiments whose accuracy is often marvellous. Why do
they fear so much more than they hope in matters that concern the
interests of this life? Why is their faith given only to religious
ideas of a future existence? Why do they so ably foresee the
catastrophes of fortune and the crises of fate? Perhaps the sentiment
which unites them to the men they love gives them a sense by which
they weigh force, measure faculties, understand tastes, passions,
vices, virtues. The perpetual study of these causes in the midst of
which they live gives them, no doubt, the fatal power of foreseeing
effects in all possible relations of earthly life. What they see of
the present enables them to judge of the future with an intuitive
ability explained by the perfection of their nervous system, which
allows them to seize the lightest indications of thought and feeling.
Their whole being vibrates in communion with great moral convulsions.
Either they feel, or they see.
Now, although separated from her husband for over two years, Madame
Claes foresaw the loss of their property. She fully understood the
deliberate ardor, the well-considered, inalterable steadfastness of
Balthazar; if it were indeed true that he was seeking to make gold, he
was capable of throwing his last crust into the crucible with absolute
indifference. But what was he really seeking? Up to this time maternal
feeling and conjugal love had been so mingled in the heart of this
woman that the children, equally beloved by husband and wife, had
never come between them. Suddenly she found herself at times more
mother than wife, though hitherto she had been more wife than mother.
However ready she had been to sacrifice her fortune and even her
children to the man who had chosen her, loved her, adored her, and to
whom she was still the only woman in the world, the remorse she felt
for the weakness of her maternal love threw her into terrible
alternations of feeling. As a wife, she suffered in heart; as a
mother, through her children; as a Christian, for all.
She kept silence, and hid the cruel struggle in her soul. Her husband,
sole arbiter of the family fate, was the master by whose will it must
be guided; he was responsible to God only. Besides, could she reproach
him for the use he now made of his fortune, after the disinterestedness
he had shown to her for many happy years? Was she to judge his
purposes? And yet her conscience, in keeping with the spirit of the
law, told her that parents were the depositaries and guardians of
property, and possessed no right to alienate the material welfare
of the children. To escape replying to such stern questions she
preferred to shut her eyes, like one who refuses to see the abyss into
whose depths he knows he is about to fall.
For more than six months her husband had given her no money for the
household expenses. She sold secretly, in Paris, the handsome diamond
ornaments her brother had given her on her marriage, and placed the
family on a footing of the strictest economy. She sent away the
governess of her children, and even the nurse of little Jean. Formerly
the luxury of carriages and horses was unknown among the burgher
families, so simple were they in their habits, so proud in their
feelings; no provision for that modern innovation had therefore been
made at the House of Claes, and Balthazar was obliged to have his
stable and coach-house in a building opposite to his own house: his
present occupations allowed him no time to superintend that portion of
his establishment, which belongs exclusively to men. Madame Claes
suppressed the whole expense of equipages and servants, which her
present isolation from the world rendered unnecessary, and she did so
without pretending to conceal the retrenchment under any pretext. So
far, facts had contradicted her assertions, and silence for the future
was more becoming: indeed the change in the family mode of living
called for no explanation in a country where, as in Flanders, any one
who lives up to his income is considered a madman.
And yet, as her eldest daughter, Marguerite, approached her sixteenth
birthday, Madame Claes longed to procure for her a good marriage, and
to place her in society in a manner suitable to a daughter of the
Molinas, the Van Ostron-Temnincks, and the Casa-Reals. A few days
before the one on which this story opens, the money derived from the
sale of the diamonds had been exhausted. On the very day, at three
o'clock in the afternoon, as Madame Claes was taking her children to
vespers, she met Pierquin, who was on his way to see her, and who
turned and accompanied her to the church, talking in a low voice of
"My dear cousin," he said, "unless I fail in the friendship which
binds me to your family, I cannot conceal from you the peril of your
position, nor refrain from begging you to speak to your husband. Who
but you can hold him back from the gulf into which he is plunging? The
rents from the mortgaged estates are not enough to pay the interest on
the sums he has borrowed. If he cuts the wood on them he destroys your
last chance of safety in the future. My cousin Balthazar owes at this
moment thirty thousand francs to the house of Protez and Chiffreville.
How can you pay them? What will you live on? If Claes persists in
sending for reagents, retorts, voltaic batteries, and other such
playthings, what will become of you? Your whole property, except the
house and furniture, has been dissipated in gas and carbon; yesterday
he talked of mortgaging the house, and in answer to a remark of mine,
he cried out, 'The devil!' It was the first sign of reason I have
known him show for three years."
Madame Claes pressed the notary's arm, and said in a tone of
suffering, "Keep it secret."
Overwhelmed by these plain words of startling clearness, the poor
woman, pious as she was, could not pray; she sat still on her chair
between her children, with her prayer-book open, but not turning its
leaves; her mind was sunk in meditations as absorbing as those of her
husband. The Spanish sense of honor, the Flemish integrity, resounded
in her soul with a peal louder than any organ. The ruin of her
children was accomplished! Between them and their father's honor she
must no longer hesitate. The necessity of a coming struggle with her
husband terrified her; in her eyes he was so great, so majestic, that
the mere prospect of his anger made her tremble as at a vision of the
divine wrath. She must now depart from the submission she had sacredly
practised as a wife. The interests of her children compelled her to
oppose, in his most cherished tastes, the man she idolized. Must she
not daily force him back to common matters from the higher realms of
Science; drag him forcibly from a smiling future and plunge him into a
materialism hideous to artists and great men? To her, Balthazar Claes
was a Titan of science, a man big with glory; he could only have
forgotten her for the riches of a mighty hope. Then too, was he not
profoundly wise? she had heard him talk with such good sense on every
subject that he must be sincere when he declared he worked for the
glory and prosperity of his family. His love for his wife and family
was not only vast, it was infinite. That feeling could not be extinct;
it was magnified, and reproduced in another form.
Noble, generous, timid as she was, she prepared herself to ring into
the ears of this noble man the word and the sound of money, to show
him the sores of poverty, and force him to hear cries of distress when
he was listening only for the melodious voice of Fame. Perhaps his
love for her would lessen! If she had had no children, she would
bravely and joyously have welcomed the new destiny her husband was
making for her. Women who are brought up in opulence are quick to feel
the emptiness of material enjoyments; and when their hearts, more
wearied than withered, have once learned the happiness of a constant
interchange of real feelings, they feel no shrinking from reduced
outward circumstances, provided they are still acceptable to the man
who has loved them. Their wishes, their pleasures, are subordinated to
the caprices of that other life outside of their own; to them the only
dreadful future is to lose him.
At this moment, therefore, her children came between Pepita and her
true life, just as Science had come between herself and Balthazar. And
thus, when she reached home after vespers, and threw herself into the
deep armchair before the window of the parlor, she sent away her
children, directing them to keep perfectly quiet, and despatched a
message to her husband, through Lemulquinier, saying that she wished
to see him. But although the old valet did his best to make his master
leave the laboratory, Balthazar scarcely heeded him. Madame Claes thus
gained time for reflection. She sat thinking, paying no attention to
the hour nor the light. The thought of owing thirty thousand francs
that could not be paid renewed her past anguish and joined it to that
of the present and the future. This influx of painful interests,
ideas, and feelings overcame her, and she wept.
As Balthazar entered at last through the panelled door, the expression
of his face seemed to her more dreadful, more absorbed, more
distracted than she had yet seen it. When he made her no answer she
was magnetized for a moment by the fixity of that blank look emptied
of all expression, by the consuming ideas that issued as if distilled
from that bald brow. Under the shock of this impression she wished to
die. But when she heard the callous voice, uttering a scientific wish
at the moment when her heart was breaking, her courage came back to
her; she resolved to struggle with that awful power which had torn a
lover from her arms, a father from her children, a fortune from their
home, happiness from all. And yet she could not repress a trepidation
which made her quiver; in all her life no such solemn scene as this
had taken place. This dreadful moment--did it not virtually contain
her future, and gather within it all the past?
Weak and timid persons, or those whose excessive sensibility magnifies
the smallest difficulties of life, men who tremble involuntarily
before the masters of their fate, can now, one and all, conceive the
rush of thoughts that crowded into the brain of this woman, and the
feelings under the weight of which her heart was crushed as her
husband slowly crossed the room towards the garden-door. Most women
know that agony of inward deliberation in which Madame Claes was
writhing. Even one whose heart has been tried by nothing worse than
the declaration to a husband of some extravagance, or a debt to a
dress-maker, will understand how its pulses swell and quicken when the
matter is one of life itself.
A beautiful or graceful woman might have thrown herself at her
husband's feet, might have called to her aid the attitudes of grief;
but to Madame Claes the sense of physical defects only added to her
fears. When she saw Balthazar about to leave the room, her impulse was
to spring towards him; then a cruel thought restrained her--she should
stand before him! would she not seem ridiculous in the eyes of a man
no longer under the glamour of love--who might see true? She resolved
to avoid all dangerous chances at so solemn a moment, and remained
seated, saying in a clear voice,
He turned mechanically and coughed; then, paying no attention to his
wife, he walked to one of the little square boxes that are placed at
intervals along the wainscoting of every room in Holland and Belgium,
and spat in it. This man, who took no thought of other persons, never
forgot the inveterate habit of using those boxes. To poor Josephine,
unable to find a reason for this singularity, the constant care which
her husband took of the furniture caused her at all times an
unspeakable pang, but at this moment the pain was so violent that it
put her beside herself and made her exclaim in a tone of impatience,
which expressed her wounded feelings,--
"Monsieur, I am speaking to you!"
"What does that mean?" answered Balthazar, turning quickly, and
casting a look of reviving intelligence upon his wife, which fell upon
her like a thunderbolt.
"Forgive me, my friend," she said, turning pale. She tried to rise and
put out her hand to him, but her strength gave way and she fell back.
"I am dying!" she cried in a voice choked by sobs.
At the sight Balthazar had, like all abstracted persons, a vivid
reaction of mind; and he divined, so to speak, the secret cause of
this attack. Taking Madame Claes at once in his arms, he opened the
door upon the little antechamber, and ran so rapidly up the ancient
wooden staircase that his wife's dress having caught on the jaws of
one of the griffins that supported the balustrade, a whole breadth was
torn off with a loud noise. He kicked in the door of the vestibule
between their chambers, but the door of Josephine's bedroom was
He gently placed her on a chair, saying to himself, "My God! the key,
where is the key?"
"Thank you, dear friend," said Madame Claes, opening her eyes. "This
is the first time for a long, long while that I have been so near your
"Good God!" cried Claes, "the key!--here come the servants."
Josephine signed to him to take a key that hung from a ribbon at her
waist. After opening the door, Balthazar laid his wife on a sofa, and
left the room to stop the frightened servants from coming up by giving
them orders to serve the dinner; then he went back to Madame Claes.
"What is it, my dear life?" he said, sitting down beside her, and
taking her hand and kissing it.
"Nothing--now," she answered. "I suffer no longer. Only, I would I had
the power of God to pour all the gold of the world at thy feet."
"Why gold?" he asked. He took her in his arms, pressed her to him and
kissed her once more upon the forehead. "Do you not give me the
greatest of all riches in loving me as you do love me, my dear and
"Oh! my Balthazar, will you not drive away the anguish of our lives as
your voice now drives out the misery of my heart? At last, at last, I
see that you are still the same."
"What anguish do you speak of, dear?"
"My friend, we are ruined."
"Ruined!" he repeated. Then, with a smile, he stroked her hand,
holding it within his own, and said in his tender voice, so long
unheard: "To-morrow, dear love, our wealth may perhaps be limitless.
Yesterday, in searching for a far more important secret, I think I
found the means of crystallizing carbon, the substance of the diamond.
Oh, my dear wife! in a few days' time you will forgive me all my
forgetfulness--I am forgetful sometimes, am I not? Was I not harsh to
you just now? Be indulgent for a man who never ceases to think of you,
whose toils are full of you--of us."
"Enough, enough!" she said, "let us talk of it all to-night, dear
friend. I suffered from too much grief, and now I suffer from too much
"To-night," he resumed; "yes, willingly: we will talk of it. If I fall
into meditation, remind me of this promise. To-night I desire to leave
my work, my researches, and return to family joys, to the delights of
the heart--Pepita, I need them, I thirst for them!"
"You will tell me what it is you seek, Balthazar?"
"Poor child, you cannot understand it."
"You think so? Ah! my friend, listen; for nearly four months I have
studied chemistry that I might talk of it with you. I have read
Fourcroy, Lavoisier, Chaptal, Nollet, Rouelle, Berthollet, Gay-Lussac,
Spallanzani, Leuwenhoek, Galvani, Volta,--in fact, all the books about
the science you worship. You can tell me your secrets, I shall
"Oh! you are indeed an angel," cried Balthazar, falling at her feet,
and shedding tears of tender feeling that made her quiver. "Yes, we
will understand each other in all things."
"Ah!" she cried, "I would throw myself into those hellish fires which
heat your furnaces to hear these words from your lips and to see you
thus." Then, hearing her daughter's step in the anteroom, she sprang
quickly forward. "What is it, Marguerite?" she said to her eldest
"My dear mother, Monsieur Pierquin has just come. If he stays to
dinner we need some table-linen; you forgot to give it out this
Madame Claes drew from her pocket a bunch of small keys and gave them
to the young girl, pointing to the mahogany closets which lined the
ante-chamber as she said:
"My daughter, take a set of the Graindorge linen; it is on your
"Since my dear Balthazar comes back to me, let the return be
complete," she said, re-entering her chamber with a soft and arch
expression on her face. "My friend, go into your own room; do me the
kindness to dress for dinner, Pierquin will be with us. Come, take off
this ragged clothing; see those stains! Is it muratic or sulphuric
acid which left these yellow edges to the holes? Make yourself young
again,--I will send you Mulquinier as soon as I have changed my
Balthazar attempted to pass through the door of communication,
forgetting that it was locked on his side. He went out through the
"Marguerite, put the linen on a chair, and come and help me dress; I
don't want Martha," said Madame Claes, calling her daughter.
Balthazar had caught Marguerite and turned her towards him with a
joyous action, exclaiming: "Good-evening, my child; how pretty you are
in your muslin gown and that pink sash!" Then he kissed her forehead
and pressed her hand.
"Mamma, papa has kissed me!" cried Marguerite, running into her
mother's room. "He seems so joyous, so happy!"
"My child, your father is a great man; for three years he has toiled
for the fame and fortune of his family: he thinks he has attained the
object of his search. This day is a festival for us all."
"My dear mamma," replied Marguerite, "we shall not be alone in our
joy, for the servants have been so grieved to see him unlike himself.
Oh! put on another sash, this is faded."
"So be it; but make haste, I want to speak to Pierquin. Where is he?"
"In the parlor, playing with Jean."
"Where are Gabriel and Felicie?"
"I hear them in the garden."
"Run down quickly and see that they do not pick the tulips; your
father has not seen them in flower this year, and he may take a fancy
to look at them after dinner. Tell Mulquinier to go up and assist your
father in dressing."
As Marguerite left the room, Madame Claes glanced at the children
through the windows of her chamber, which looked on the garden, and
saw that they were watching one of those insects with shining wings
spotted with gold, commonly called "darning-needles."
"Be good, my darlings," she said, raising the lower sash of the window
and leaving it up to air the room. Then she knocked gently on the door
of communication, to assure herself that Balthazar had not fallen into
abstraction. He opened it, and seeing him half-dressed, she said in
"You won't leave me long with Pierquin, will you? Come as soon as you
Her step was so light as she descended that a listener would never
have supposed her lame.
"When monsieur carried madame upstairs," said the old valet, whom she
met on the staircase, "he tore this bit out of her dress, and he broke
the jaw of that griffin; I'm sure I don't know who can put it on
again. There's our staircase ruined--and it used to be so handsome!"
"Never mind, my poor Mulquinier; don't have it mended at all--it is
not a misfortune," said his mistress.
"What can have happened?" thought Lemulquinier; "why isn't it a
misfortune, I should like to know? has the master found the Absolute?"
"Good-evening, Monsieur Pierquin," said Madame Claes, opening the
The notary rushed forward to give her his arm; as she never took any
but that of her husband she thanked him with a smile and said,--
"Have you come for the thirty thousand francs?"
"Yes, madame; when I reached home I found a letter of advice from
Messieurs Protez and Chiffreville, who have drawn six letters of
exchange upon Monsieur Claes for five thousand francs each."
"Well, say nothing to Balthazar to-day," she replied. "Stay and dine
with us. If he happens to ask why you came, find some plausible
pretext, I entreat you. Give me the letter. I will speak to him myself
about it. All is well," she added, noticing the lawyer's surprise. "In
a few months my husband will probably pay off all the sums he has
Hearing these words, which were said in a low voice, the notary looked
at Mademoiselle Claes, who was entering the room from the garden
followed by Gabriel and Felicie, and remarked,--
"I have never seen Mademoiselle Marguerite as pretty as she is at this
Madame Claes, who was sitting in her armchair with little Jean upon
her lap, raised her head and looked at her daughter, and then at the
notary, with a pretended air of indifference.
Pierquin was a man of middle height, neither stout nor thin, with
vulgar good looks, a face that expressed vexation rather than
melancholy, and a pensive habit in which there was more of indecision
than thought. People called him a misanthrope, but he was too eager
after his own interests, and too extortionate towards others to have
set up a genuine divorce from the world. His indifferent demeanor, his
affected silence, his habitual custom of looking, as it were, into the
void, seemed to indicate depth of character, while in fact they merely
concealed the shallow insignificance of a notary busied exclusively
with earthly interests; though he was still young enough to feel envy.
To marry into the family of Claes would have been to him an object of
extreme desire, if an instinct of avarice had not underlain it. He
could seem generous, but for all that he was a keen reckoner. And
thus, without explaining to himself the motive for his change of
manner, his behavior was harsh, peremptory, and surly, like that of an
ordinary business man, when he thought the Claes were ruined;
accommodating, affectionate, and almost servile, when he saw reason to
believe in a happy issue to his cousin's labors. Sometimes he beheld
an infanta in Margeurite Claes, to whom no provincial notary might
aspire; then he regarded her as any poor girl too happy if he deigned
to make her his wife. He was a true provincial, and a Fleming; without
malevolence, not devoid of devotion and kindheartedness, but led by a
naive selfishness which rendered all his better qualities incomplete,
while certain absurdities of manner spoiled his personal appearance.
Madame Claes recollected the curt tone in which the notary had spoken
to her that afternoon in the porch of the church, and she took note of
the change which her present reply had wrought in his demeanor; she
guessed its meaning and tried to read her daughter's mind by a
penetrating glance, seeking to discover if she thought of her cousin;
but the young girl's manner showed complete indifference.
After a few moments spent in general conversation on the current
topics of the day, the master of the house came down from his bedroom,
where his wife had heard with inexpressible delight the creaking sound
of his boots as he trod the floor. The step was that of a young and
active man, and foretold so complete a transformation, that the mere
expectation of his appearance made Madame Claes quiver as he descended
the stairs. Balthazar entered, dressed in the fashion of the period.
He wore highly polished top-boots, which allowed the upper part of the
white silk stockings to appear, blue kerseymere small-clothes with
gold buttons, a flowered white waistcoat, and a blue frock-coat. He
had trimmed his beard, combed and perfumed his hair, pared his nails,
and washed his hands, all with such care that he was scarcely
recognizable to those who had seen him lately. Instead of an old man
almost decrepit, his children, his wife, and the notary saw a
Balthazar Claes who was forty years old, and whose courteous and
affable presence was full of its former attractions. The weariness and
suffering betrayed by the thin face and the clinging of the skin to
the bones, had in themselves a sort of charm.
"Good-evening, Pierquin," said Monsieur Claes.
Once more a husband and a father, he took his youngest child from his
wife's lap and tossed him in the air.
"See that little fellow!" he exclaimed to the notary. "Doesn't such a
pretty creature make you long to marry? Take my word for it, my dear
Pierquin, family happiness consoles a man for everything. Up, up!" he
cried, tossing Jean into the air; "down, down! up! down!"
The child laughed with all his heart as he went alternately to the
ceiling and down to the carpet. The mother turned away her eyes that
she might not betray the emotion which the simple play caused her,
--simple apparently, but to her a domestic revolution.
"Let me see how you can walk," said Balthazar, putting his son on the
floor and throwing himself on a sofa near his wife.
The child ran to its father, attracted by the glitter of the gold
buttons which fastened the breeches just above the slashed tops of his
"You are a darling!" cried Balthazar, kissing him; "you are a Claes,
you walk straight. Well, Gabriel, how is Pere Morillon?" he said to
his eldest son, taking him by the ear and twisting it. "Are you
struggling valiantly with your themes and your construing? have you
taken sharp hold of mathematics?"
Then he rose, and went up to the notary with the affectionate courtesy
that characterized him.
"My dear Pierquin," he said, "perhaps you have something to say to
me." He took his arm to lead him to the garden, adding, "Come and see
Madame Claes looked at her husband as he left the room, unable to
repress the joy she felt in seeing him once more so young, so affable,
so truly himself. She rose, took her daughter round the waist and
kissed her, exclaiming:--
"My dear Marguerite, my darling child! I love you better than ever
"It is long since I have seen my father so kind," answered the young
Lemulquinier announced dinner. To prevent Pierquin from offering her
his arm, Madame Claes took that of her husband and led the way into
the next room, the whole family following.
The dining-room, whose ceiling was supported by beams and decorated
with paintings cleaned and restored every year, was furnished with