The Hated Son, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 4. The Heir

In 1617, twenty and some years after the horrible night during which Etienne came into the world, the Duc d’Herouville, then seventy-six years old, broken, decrepit, almost dead, was sitting at sunset in an immense arm-chair, before the gothic window of his bedroom, at the place where his wife had so vainly implored, by the sounds of the horn wasted on the air, the help of men and heaven. You might have thought him a body resurrected from the grave. His once energetic face, stripped of its sinister aspect by old age and suffering, was ghastly in color, matching the long meshes of white hair which fell around his bald head, the yellow skull of which seemed softening. The warrior and the fanatic still shone in those yellow eyes, tempered now by religious sentiment. Devotion had cast a monastic tone upon the face, formerly so hard, but now marked with tints which softened its expression. The reflections of the setting sun colored with a faintly ruddy tinge the head, which, in spite of all infirmities, was still vigorous. The feeble body, wrapped in brown garments, gave, by its heavy attitude and the absence of all movement, a vivid impression of the monotonous existence, the terrible repose of this man once so active, so enterprising, so vindictive.

“Enough!” he said to his chaplain.

That venerable old man was reading aloud the Gospel, standing before the master in a respectful attitude. The duke, like an old menagerie lion which has reached a decrepitude that is still full of majesty, turned to another white-haired man and said, holding out a fleshless arm covered with sparse hairs, still sinewy, but without vigor:—

“Your turn now, bonesetter. How am I to-day?”

“Doing well, monseigneur; the fever has ceased. You will live many years yet.”

“I wish I could see Maximilien here,” continued the duke, with a smile of satisfaction. “My fine boy! He commands a company in the King’s Guard. The Marechal d’Ancre takes care of my lad, and our gracious Queen Marie thinks of allying him nobly, now that he is created Duc de Nivron. My race will be worthily continued. The lad performed prodigies of valor in the attack on —”

At this moment Bertrand entered, holding a letter in his hand.

“What is this?” said the old lord, eagerly.

“A despatch brought by a courier sent to you by the king,” replied Bertrand.

“The king, and not the queen-mother!” exclaimed the duke. “What is happening? Have the Huguenots taken arms again? Tete-Dieu!” cried the old man, rising to his feet and casting a flaming glance at his three companions, “I’ll arm my soldiers once more, and, with Maximilien at my side, Normandy shall —”

“Sit down, my good seigneur,” said Beauvouloir, uneasy at seeing the duke give way to an excitement that was dangerous to a convalescent.

“Read it, Maitre Corbineau,” said the old man, holding out the missive to his confessor.

These four personages formed a tableau full of instruction upon human life. The man-at-arms, the priest, and the physician, all three standing before their master, who was seated in his arm-chair, were casting pallid glances about them, each presenting one of those ideas which end by possessing the whole man on the verge of the tomb. Strongly illumined by a last ray of the setting sun, these silent men composed a picture of aged melancholy fertile in contrasts. The sombre and solemn chamber, where nothing had been changed in twenty-five years, made a frame for this poetic canvas, full of extinguished passions, saddened by death, tinctured by religion.

“The Marechal d’Ancre has been killed on the Pont du Louvre by order of the king, and — O God!”

“Go on!” cried the duke.

“Monsieur le Duc de Nivron —”

“Well?”

“Is dead!”

The duke dropped his head upon his breast with a great sigh, but was silent. At those words, at that sigh, the three old men looked at each other. It seemed to them as though the illustrious and opulent house of Herouville was disappearing before their eyes like a sinking ship.

“The Master above,” said the duke, casting a terrible glance at the heavens, “is ungrateful to me. He forgets the great deeds I have performed for his holy cause.”

“God has avenged himself!” said the priest, in a solemn voice.

“Put that man in the dungeon!” cried the duke.

“You can silence me far more easily than you can your conscience.”

The duke sank back in thought.

“My house to perish! My name to be extinct! I will marry! I will have a son!” he said, after a long pause.

Though the expression of despair on the duke’s face was truly awful, the bonesetter could not repress a smile. At that instant a song, fresh as the evening breeze, pure as the sky, equable as the color of the ocean, rose above the murmur of the waves, to cast its charm over Nature herself. The melancholy of that voice, the melody of its tones shed, as it were, a perfume rising to the soul; its harmony rose like a vapor filling the air; it poured a balm on sorrows, or rather it consoled them by expressing them. The voice mingled with the gurgle of the waves so perfectly that it seemed to rise from the bosom of the waters. That song was sweeter to the ears of those old men than the tenderest word of love on the lips of a young girl; it brought religious hope into their souls like a voice from heaven.

“What is that?” asked the duke.

“The little nightingale is singing,” said Bertrand; “all is not lost, either for him or for us.”

“What do you call a nightingale?”

“That is the name we have given to monseigneur’s eldest son,” replied Bertrand.

“My son!” cried the old man; “have I a son? — a son to bear my name and to perpetuate it!”

He rose to his feet and began to walk about the room with steps in turn precipitate and slow. Then he made an imperious gesture, sending every one away from him except the priest.

The next morning the duke, leaning on the arm of his old retainer Bertrand, walked along the shore and among the rocks looking for the son he had so long hated. He saw him from afar in a recess of the granite rocks, lying carelessly extended in the sun, his head on a tuft of mossy grass, his feet gracefully drawn up beneath him. So lying, Etienne was like a swallow at rest. As soon as the tall old man appeared upon the beach, the sound of his steps mingling faintly with the voice of the waves, the young man turned his head, gave the cry of a startled bird, and disappeared as if into the rock itself, like a mouse darting so quickly into its hole that we doubt if we have even seen it.

“Hey! tete-Dieu! where has he hid himself?” cried the duke, reaching the rock beside which his son had been lying.

“He is there,” replied Bertrand, pointing to a narrow crevice, the edges of which had been polished smooth by the repeated assaults of the high tide.

“Etienne, my beloved son!” called the old man.

The hated child made no reply. For hours the duke entreated, threatened, implored in turn, receiving no response. Sometimes he was silent, with his ear at the cleft of the rock, where even his enfeebled hearing could detect the beating of Etienne’s heart, the quick pulsations of which echoed from the sonorous roof of his rocky hiding-place.

“At least he lives!” said the old man, in a heartrending voice.

Towards the middle of the day, the father, reduced to despair, had recourse to prayer:—

“Etienne,” he said, “my dear Etienne, God has punished me for disowning you. He has deprived me of your brother. To-day you are my only child. I love you more than I love myself. I see the wrong I have done; I know that you have in your veins my blood with that of your mother, whose misery was my doing. Come to me; I will try to make you forget my cruelty; I will cherish you for all that I have lost. Etienne, you are the Duc de Nivron, and you will be, after me, the Duc d’Herouville, peer of France, knight of the Orders and of the Golden Fleece, captain of a hundred men-at-arms, grand-bailiff of Bessin, Governor of Normandy, lord of twenty-seven domains counting sixty-nine steeples, Marquis de Saint-Sever. You shall take to wife the daughter of a prince. Would you have me die of grief? Come! come to me! or here I kneel until I see you. Your old father prays you, he humbles himself before his child as before God himself.”

The hated son paid no heed to this language bristling with social ideas and vanities he did not comprehend; his soul remained under the impressions of unconquerable terror. He was silent, suffering great agony. Towards evening the old seigneur, after exhausting all formulas of language, all resources of entreaty, all repentant promises, was overcome by a sort of religious contrition. He knelt down upon the sand and made a vow:—

“I swear to build a chapel to Saint-Jean and Saint-Etienne, the patrons of my wife and son, and to found one hundred masses in honor of the Virgin, if God and the saints will restore to me the affection of my son, the Duc de Nivron, here present.”

He remained on his knees in deep humility with clasped hands, praying. Finding that his son, the hope of his name, still did not come to him, great tears rose in his eyes, dry so long, and rolled down his withered cheeks. At this moment, Etienne, hearing no further sounds, glided to the opening of his grotto like a young adder craving the sun. He saw the tears of the stricken old man, he recognized the signs of a true grief, and, seizing his father’s hand, he kissed him, saying in the voice of an angel:—

“Oh, mother! forgive me!”

In the fever of his happiness the old duke lifted his feeble offspring in his arms and carried him, trembling like an abducted girl, toward the castle. As he felt the palpitation of his son’s body he strove to reassure him, kissing him with all the caution he might have shown in touching a delicate flower; and speaking in the gentlest tones he had ever in his life used, in order to soothe him.

“God’s truth! you are like my poor Jeanne, dear child!” he said. “Teach me what would give you pleasure, and I will give you all you can desire. Grow strong! be well! I will show you how to ride a mare as pretty and gentle as yourself. Nothing shall ever thwart or trouble you. Tete-Dieu! all things bow to me as the reeds to the wind. I give you unlimited power. I bow to you myself as the god of the family.”

The father carried his son into the lordly chamber where the mother’s sad existence had been spent. Etienne turned away and leaned against the window from which his mother was wont to make him signals announcing the departure of his persecutor, who now, without his knowing why, had become his slave, like those gigantic genii which the power of a fairy places at the order of a young prince. That fairy was Feudality. Beholding once more the melancholy room where his eyes were accustomed to contemplate the ocean, tears came into those eyes; recollections of his long misery, mingled with melodious memories of the pleasures he had had in the only love that was granted to him, maternal love, all rushed together upon his heart and developed there, like a poem at once terrible and delicious. The emotions of this youth, accustomed to live in contemplations of ecstasy as others in the excitements of the world, resembled none of the habitual emotions of mankind.

“Will he live?” said the old man, amazed at the fragility of his heir, and holding his breath as he leaned over him.

“I can live only here,” replied Etienne, who had heard him, simply.

“Well, then, this room shall be yours, my child.”

“What is that noise?” asked the young man, hearing the retainers of the castle who were gathering in the guard-room, whither the duke had summoned them to present his son.

“Come!” said the father, taking him by the hand and leading him into the great hall.

At this epoch of our history, a duke and peer, with great possessions, holding public offices and the government of a province, lived the life of a prince; the cadets of his family did not revolt at serving him. He had his household guard and officers; the first lieutenant of his ordnance company was to him what, in our day, an aide-de-camp is to a marshal. A few years later, Cardinal de Richelieu had his body-guard. Several princes allied to the royal house — Guise, Conde, Nevers, and Vendome, etc. — had pages chosen among the sons of the best families — a last lingering custom of departed chivalry. The wealth of the Duc d’Herouville, and the antiquity of his Norman race indicated by his name (“herus villoe”), permitted him to imitate the magnificence of families who were in other respects his inferiors — those, for instance, of Epernon, Luynes, Balagny, d’O, Zamet, regarded as parvenus, but living, nevertheless, as princes. It was therefore an imposing spectacle for poor Etienne to see the assemblage of retainers of all kinds attached to the service of his father.

The duke seated himself on a chair of state placed under a “solium,” or dais of carved word, above a platform raised by several steps, from which, in certain provinces, the great seigneurs still delivered judgment on their vassals — a vestige of feudality which disappeared under the reign of Richelieu. These thrones, like the warden’s benches of the churches, have now become objects of collection as curiosities. When Etienne was placed beside his father on that raised platform, he shuddered at feeling himself the centre to which all eyes turned.

“Do not tremble,” said the duke, bending his bald head to his son’s ear; “these people are only our servants.”

Through the dusky light produced by the setting sun, the rays of which were reddening the leaded panes of the windows, Etienne saw the bailiff, the captain and lieutenant of the guard, with certain of their men-at-arms, the chaplain, the secretaries, the doctor, the majordomo, the ushers, the steward, the huntsmen, the game-keeper, the grooms, and the valets. Though all these people stood in respectful attitudes, induced by the terror the old man inspired in even the most important persons under his command, a low murmur, caused by curiosity and expectation, made itself heard. That sound oppressed the bosom of the young man, who felt for the first time in his life the influence of the heavy atmosphere produced by the breath of many persons in a closed hall. His senses, accustomed to the pure and wholesome air from the sea, were shocked with a rapidity that proved the super-sensitiveness of his organs. A horrible palpitation, due no doubt to some defect in the organization of his heart, shook him with reiterated blows when his father, showing himself to the assemblage like some majestic old lion, pronounced in a solemn voice the following brief address:—

“My friends, this is my son Etienne, my first-born son, my heir presumptive, the Duc de Nivron, to whom the king will no doubt grant the honors of his deceased brother. I present him to you that you may acknowledge him and obey him as myself. I warn you that if you, or any one in this province, over which I am governor, does aught to displease the young duke, or thwart him in any way whatsoever, it would be better, should it come to my knowledge, that that man had never been born. You hear me. Return now to your duties, and God guide you. The obsequies of my son Maximilien will take place here when his body arrives. The household will go into mourning eight days hence. Later, we shall celebrate the accession of my son Etienne here present.”

“Vive monseigneur! Long live the race of Herouville!” cried the people in a roar that shook the castle.

The valets brought in torches to illuminate the hall. That hurrah, the sudden lights, the sensations caused by his father’s speech, joined to those he was already feeling, overcame the young man, who fainted completely and fell into a chair, leaving his slender womanly hand in the broad palm of his father. As the duke, who had signed to the lieutenant of his company to come nearer, saying to him, “I am fortunate, Baron d’Artagnon, in being able to repair my loss; behold my son!” he felt an icy hand in his. Turning round, he looked at the new Duc de Nivron, and, thinking him dead, he uttered a cry of horror which appalled the assemblage.

Beauvouloir rushed to the platform, took the young man in his arms, and carried him away, saying to his master, “You have killed him by not preparing him for this ceremony.”

“He can never have a child if he is like that!” cried the duke, following Beauvouloir into the seignorial chamber, where the doctor laid the young heir upon the bed.

“Well, what think you?” asked the duke presently.

“It is not serious,” replied the old physician, showing Etienne, who was now revived by a cordial, a few drops of which he had given him on a bit of sugar, a new and precious substance which the apothecaries were selling for its weight in gold.

“Take this, old rascal!” said the duke, offering his purse to Beauvouloir, “and treat him like the son of a king! If he dies by your fault, I’ll burn you myself on a gridiron.”

“If you continue to be so violent, the Duc de Nivron will die by your own act,” said the doctor, roughly. “Leave him now; he will go to sleep.”

“Good-night, my love,” said the old man, kissing his son upon the forehead.

“Good-night, father,” replied the youth, whose voice made the father — thus named by Etienne for the first time — quiver.

The duke took Beauvouloir by the arm and led him to the next room, where, having pushed him into the recess of a window, he said:—

“Ah ca! old rascal, now we will understand each other.”

That term, a favorite sign of graciousness with the duke, made the doctor, no longer a mere bonesetter, smile.

“You know,” said the duke, continuing, “that I wish you no harm. You have twice delivered my poor Jeanne, you cured my son Maximilien of an illness, in short, you are a part of my household. Poor Maximilien! I will avenge him; I take upon myself to kill the man who killed him. The whole future of the house of Herouville is now in your hands. You alone can know if there is in that poor abortion the stuff that can breed a Herouville. You hear me. What think you?”

“His life on the seashore has been so chaste and so pure that nature is sounder in him than it would have been had he lived in your world. But so delicate a body is the very humble servant of the soul. Monseigneur Etienne must himself choose his wife; all things in him must be the work of nature and not of your will. He will love artlessly, and will accomplish by his heart’s desire that which you wish him to do for the sake of your name. But if you give your son a proud, ungainly woman of the world, a great lady, he will flee to his rocks. More than that; though sudden terror would surely kill him, I believe that any sudden emotion would be equally fatal. My advice therefore is to leave Etienne to choose for himself, at his own pleasure, the path of love. Listen to me, monseigneur; you are a great and powerful prince, but you understand nothing of such matters. Give me your entire confidence, your unlimited confidence, and you shall have a grandson.”

“If I obtain a grandson by any sorcery whatever, I shall have you ennobled. Yes, difficult as it may be, I’ll make an old rascal into a man of honor; you shall be Baron de Forcalier. Employ your magic, white or black, appeal to your witches’ sabbath or the novenas of the Church; what care I how ’tis done, provided my line male continues?”

“I know,” said Beauvouloir, “a whole chapter of sorcerers capable of destroying your hopes; they are none other than yourself, monseigneur. I know you. To-day you want male lineage at any price; to-morrow you will seek to have it on your own conditions; you will torment your son.”

“God preserve me from it!”

“Well, then, go away from here; go to court, where the death of the marechal and the emancipation of the king must have turned everything topsy turvy, and where you certainly have business, if only to obtain the marshal’s baton which was promised to you. Leave Monseigneur Etienne to me. But give me your word of honor as a gentleman to approve whatever I may do for him.”

The duke struck his hand into that of his physician as a sign of complete acceptance, and retired to his own apartments.

When the days of a high and mighty seigneur are numbered, the physician becomes a personage of importance in the household. It is, therefore, not surprising to see a former bonesetter so familiar with the Duc d’Herouville. Apart from the illegitimate ties which connected him, by marriage, to this great family and certainly militated in his favor, his sound good sense had so often been proved by the duke that the old man had now become his master’s most valued counsellor. Beauvouloir was the Coyctier of this Louis XI. Nevertheless, and no matter how valuable his knowledge might be, he never obtained over the government of Normandy, in whom was the ferocity of religious warfare, as much influence as feudality exercised over that rugged nature. For this reason the physician was confident that the prejudices of the noble would thwart the desires and the vows of the father.

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