The Hated Son, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 2. The Bonesetter

The terror of that apparition and hasty removal stopped for a moment the physical sufferings of the countess, and so enabled her to cast a furtive glance at the actors in this mysterious scene. She did not recognize Bertrand, who was there disguised and masked as carefully as his master. After lighting in haste some candles, the light of which mingled with the first rays of the sun which were reddening the window panes, the old servitor had gone to the embrasure of a window and stood leaning against a corner of it. There, with his face towards the wall, he seemed to be estimating its thickness, keeping his body in such absolute immobility that he might have been taken for a statue. In the middle of the room the countess beheld a short, stout man, apparently out of breath and stupefied, whose eyes were blindfolded and his features so distorted with terror that it was impossible to guess at their natural expression.

“God’s death! you scamp,” said the count, giving him back his eyesight by a rough movement which threw upon the man’s neck the bandage that had been upon his eyes. “I warn you not to look at anything but the wretched woman on whom you are now to exercise your skill; if you do, I’ll fling you into the river that flows beneath those windows, with a collar round your neck weighing a hundred pounds!”

With that, he pulled down upon the breast of his stupefied hearer the cravat with which his eyes had been bandaged.

“Examine first if this can be a miscarriage,” he continued; “in which case your life will answer to me for the mother’s; but, if the child is living, you are to bring it to me.”

So saying, the count seized the poor operator by the body and placed him before the countess, then he went himself to the depths of a bay-window and began to drum with his fingers upon the panes, casting glances alternately on his serving-man, on the bed, and at the ocean, as if he were pledging to the expected child a cradle in the waves.

The man whom, with outrageous violence, the count and Bertrand had snatched from his bed and fastened to the crupper of the latter’s horse, was a personage whose individuality may serve to characterize the period — a man, moreover, whose influence was destined to make itself felt in the house of Herouville.

Never in any age were the nobles so little informed as to natural science, and never was judicial astrology held in greater honor; for at no period in history was there a greater general desire to know the future. This ignorance and this curiosity had led to the utmost confusion in human knowledge; all things were still mere personal experience; the nomenclatures of theory did not exist; printing was done at enormous cost; scientific communication had little or no facility; the Church persecuted science and all research which was based on the analysis of natural phenomena. Persecution begat mystery. So, to the people as well as to the nobles, physician and alchemist, mathematician and astronomer, astrologer and necromancer were six attributes, all meeting in the single person of the physician. In those days a superior physician was supposed to be cultivating magic; while curing his patient he was drawing their horoscopes. Princes protected the men of genius who were willing to reveal the future; they lodged them in their palaces and pensioned them. The famous Cornelius Agrippa, who came to France to become the physician of Henri II., would not consent, as Nostradamus did, to predict the future, and for this reason he was dismissed by Catherine de’ Medici, who replaced him with Cosmo Ruggiero. The men of science, who were superior to their times, were therefore seldom appreciated; they simply inspired an ignorant fear of occult sciences and their results.

Without being precisely one of the famous mathematicians, the man whom the count had brought enjoyed in Normandy the equivocal reputation which attached to a physician who was known to do mysterious works. He belonged to the class of sorcerers who are still called in parts of France “bonesetters.” This name belonged to certain untutored geniuses who, without apparent study, but by means of hereditary knowledge and the effect of long practice, the observations of which accumulated in the family, were bonesetters; that is, they mended broken limbs and cured both men and beasts of certain maladies, possessing secrets said to be marvellous for the treatment of serious cases. But not only had Maitre Antoine Beauvouloir (the name of the present bonesetter) a father and grandfather who were famous practitioners, from whom he inherited important traditions, he was also learned in medicine, and was given to the study of natural science. The country people saw his study full of books and other strange things which gave to his successes a coloring of magic. Without passing strictly for a sorcerer, Antoine Beauvouloir impressed the populace through a circumference of a hundred miles with respect akin to terror, and (what was far more really dangerous for himself) he held in his power many secrets of life and death which concerned the noble families of that region. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was celebrated for his skill in confinements and miscarriages. In those days of unbridled disorder, crimes were so frequent and passions so violent that the higher nobility often found itself compelled to initiate Maitre Antoine Beauvouloir into secrets both shameful and terrible. His discretion, so essential to his safety, was absolute; consequently his clients paid him well, and his hereditary practice greatly increased. Always on the road, sometimes roused in the dead of night, as on this occasion by the count, sometimes obliged to spend several days with certain great ladies, he had never married; in fact, his reputation had hindered certain young women from accepting him. Incapable of finding consolation in the practice of his profession, which gave him such power over feminine weakness, the poor bonesetter felt himself born for the joys of family and yet was unable to obtain them.

The good man’s excellent heart was concealed by a misleading appearance of joviality in keeping with his puffy cheeks and rotund figure, the vivacity of his fat little body, and the frankness of his speech. He was anxious to marry that he might have a daughter who should transfer his property to some poor noble; he did not like his station as bonesetter and wished to rescue his family name from the position in which the prejudices of the times had placed it. He himself took willingly enough to the feasts and jovialities which usually followed his principal operations. The habit of being on such occasions the most important personage in the company, had added to his natural gaiety a sufficient dose of serious vanity. His impertinences were usually well received in crucial moments when it often pleased him to perform his operations with a certain slow majesty. He was, in other respects, as inquisitive as a nightingale, as greedy as a hound, and as garrulous as all diplomatists who talk incessantly and betray no secrets. In spite of these defects developed in him by the endless adventures into which his profession led him, Antoine Beauvouloir was held to be the least bad man in Normandy. Though he belonged to the small number of minds who are superior to their epoch, the strong good sense of a Norman countryman warned him to conceal the ideas he acquired and the truths he from time to time discovered.

As soon as he found himself placed by the count in presence of a woman in childbirth, the bonesetter recovered his presence of mind. He felt the pulse of the masked lady; not that he gave it a single thought, but under cover of that medical action he could reflect, and he did reflect on his own situation. In none of the shameful and criminal intrigues in which superior force had compelled him to act as a blind instrument, had precautions been taken with such mystery as in this case. Though his death had often been threatened as a means of assuring the secrecy of enterprises in which he had taken part against his will, his life had never been so endangered as at that moment. He resolved, before all things, to find out who it was who now employed him, and to discover the actual extent of his danger, in order to save, if possible, his own little person.

“What is the trouble?” he said to the countess in a low voice, as he placed her in a manner to receive his help.

“Do not give him the child —”

“Speak loud!” cried the count in thundering tones which prevented Beauvouloir from hearing the last word uttered by the countess. “If not,” added the count who was careful to disguise his voice, “say your ‘In manus.’”

“Complain aloud,” said the leech to the lady; “cry! scream! Jarnidieu! that man has a necklace that won’t fit you any better than me. Courage, my little lady!”

“Touch her lightly!” cried the count.

“Monsieur is jealous,” said the operator in a shrill voice, fortunately drowned by the countess’s cries.

For Maitre Beauvouloir’s safety Nature was merciful. It was more a miscarriage than a regular birth, and the child was so puny that it caused little suffering to the mother.

“Holy Virgin!” cried the bonesetter, “it isn’t a miscarriage, after all!”

The count made the floor shake as he stamped with rage. The countess pinched Beauvouloir.

“Ah! I see!” he said to himself. “It ought to be a premature birth, ought it?” he whispered to the countess, who replied with an affirmative sign, as if that gesture were the only language in which to express her thoughts.

“It is not all clear to me yet,” thought the bonesetter.

Like all men in constant practice, he recognized at once a woman in her first trouble as he called it. Though the modest inexperience of certain gestures showed him the virgin ignorance of the countess, the mischievous operator exclaimed:—

“Madame is delivered as if she knew all about it!”

The count then said, with a calmness more terrifying than his anger:—

“Give me the child.”

“Don’t give it him, for the love of God!” cried the mother, whose almost savage cry awoke in the heart of the little man a courageous pity which attached him, more than he knew himself, to the helpless infant rejected by his father.

“The child is not yet born; you are counting your chicken before it is hatched,” he said, coldly, hiding the infant.

Surprised to hear no cries, he examined the child, thinking it dead. The count, seeing the deception, sprang upon him with one bound.

“God of heaven! will you give it to me?” he cried, snatching the hapless victim which uttered feeble cries.

“Take care; the child is deformed and almost lifeless; it is a seven months’ child,” said Beauvouloir clinging to the count’s arm. Then, with a strength given to him by the excitement of his pity, he clung to the father’s fingers, whispering in a broken voice: “Spare yourself a crime, the child cannot live.”

“Wretch!” replied the count, from whose hands the bonesetter had wrenched the child, “who told you that I wished to kill my son? Could I not caress it?”

“Wait till he is eighteen years old to caress him in that way,” replied Beauvouloir, recovering the sense of his importance. “But,” he added, thinking of his own safety, for he had recognized the Comte d’Herouville, who in his rage had forgotten to disguise his voice, “have him baptized at once and do not speak of his danger to the mother, or you will kill her.”

The gesture of satisfaction which escaped the count when the child’s death was prophesied, suggested this speech to the bonesetter as the best means of saving the child at the moment. Beauvouloir now hastened to carry the infant back to its mother who had fainted, and he pointed to her condition reprovingly, to warn the count of the results of his violence. The countess had heard all; for in many of the great crises of life the human organs acquire an otherwise unknown delicacy. But the cries of the child, laid beside her on the bed, restored her to life as if by magic; she fancied she heard the voices of angels, when, under cover of the whimperings of the babe, the bonesetter said in her ear:—

“Take care of him, and he’ll live a hundred years. Beauvouloir knows what he is talking about.”

A celestial sigh, a silent pressure of the hand were the reward of the leech, who had looked to see, before yielding the frail little creature to its mother’s embrace, whether that of the father had done no harm to its puny organization. The half-crazed motion with which the mother hid her son beside her and the threatening glance she cast upon the count through the eye-holes of her mask, made Beauvouloir shudder.

“She will die if she loses that child too soon,” he said to the count.

During the latter part of this scene the lord of Herouville seemed to hear and see nothing. Rigid, and as if absorbed in meditation, he stood by the window drumming on its panes. But he turned at the last words uttered by the bonesetter, with an almost frenzied motion, and came to him with uplifted dagger.

“Miserable clown!” he cried, giving him the opprobrious name by which the Royalists insulted the Leaguers. “Impudent scoundrel! your science which makes you the accomplice of men who steal inheritances is all that prevents me from depriving Normandy of her sorcerer.”

So saying, and to Beauvouloir’s great satisfaction, the count replaced the dagger in its sheath.

“Could you not,” continued the count, “find yourself for once in your life in the honorable company of a noble and his wife, without suspecting them of the base crimes and trickery of your own kind? Kill my son! take him from his mother! Where did you get such crazy ideas? Am I a madman? Why do you attempt to frighten me about the life of that vigorous child? Fool! I defy your silly talk — but remember this, since you are here, your miserable life shall answer for that of the mother and the child.”

The bonesetter was puzzled by this sudden change in the count’s intentions. This show of tenderness for the infant alarmed him far more than the impatient cruelty and savage indifference hitherto manifested by the count, whose tone in pronouncing the last words seemed to Beauvouloir to point to some better scheme for reaching his infernal ends. The shrewd practitioner turned this idea over in his mind until a light struck him.

“I have it!” he said to himself. “This great and good noble does not want to make himself odious to his wife; he’ll trust to the vials of the apothecary. I must warn the lady to see to the food and medicine of her babe.”

As he turned toward the bed, the count who had opened a closet, stopped him with an imperious gesture, holding out a purse. Beauvouloir saw within its red silk meshes a quantity of gold, which the count now flung to him contemptuously.

“Though you make me out a villain I am not released from the obligation of paying you like a lord. I shall not ask you to be discreet. This man here,” (pointing to Bertrand) “will explain to you that there are rivers and trees everywhere for miserable wretches who chatter of me.”

So saying the count advanced slowly to the bonesetter, pushed a chair noisily toward him, as if to invite him to sit down, as he did himself by the bedside; then he said to his wife in a specious voice:—

“Well, my pretty one, so we have a son; this is a joyful thing for us. Do you suffer much?”

“No,” murmured the countess.

The evident surprise of the mother, and the tardy demonstrations of pleasure on the part of the father, convinced Beauvouloir that there was some incident behind all this which escaped his penetration. He persisted in his suspicion, and rested his hand on that of the young wife, less to watch her condition than to convey to her some advice.

“The skin is good, I fear nothing for madame. The milk fever will come, of course; but you need not be alarmed; that is nothing.”

At this point the wily bonesetter paused, and pressed the hand of the countess to make her attentive to his words.

“If you wish to avoid all anxiety about your son, madame,” he continued, “never leave him; suckle him yourself, and beware of the drugs of apothecaries. The mother’s breast is the remedy for all the ills of infancy. I have seen many births of seven months’ children, but I never saw any so little painful as this. But that is not surprising; the child is so small. You could put him in a wooden shoe! I am certain he doesn’t weight more than sixteen ounces. Milk, milk, milk. Keep him always on your breast and you will save him.”

These last words were accompanied by a significant pressure of the fingers. Disregarding the yellow flames flashing from the eyeholes of the count’s mask, Beauvouloir uttered these words with the serious imperturbability of a man who intends to earn his money.

“Ho! ho! bonesetter, you are leaving your old felt hat behind you,” said Bertrand, as the two left the bedroom together.

The reasons of the sudden mercy which the count had shown to his son were to be found in a notary’s office. At the moment when Beauvouloir arrested his murderous hand avarice and the Legal Custom of Normandy rose up before him. Those mighty powers stiffened his fingers and silenced the passion of his hatred. One cried out to him, “The property of your wife cannot belong to the house of Herouville except through a male child.” The other pointed to a dying countess and her fortune claimed by the collateral heirs of the Saint-Savins. Both advised him to leave to nature the extinction of that hated child, and to wait the birth of a second son who might be healthy and vigorous before getting rid of his wife and first-born. He saw neither wife nor child; he saw the estates only, and hatred was softened by ambition. The mother, who knew his nature, was even more surprised than the bonesetter, and she still retained her instinctive fears, showing them at times openly, for the courage of mothers seemed suddenly to have doubled her strength.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51