The Hated Son, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 6. Love

Before starting for Paris, the Duc d’Herouville had forbidden the castle servants under heavy pains and penalties to go upon the shore where Etienne had passed his life, unless the Duc de Nivron took any of them with him. This order, suggested by Beauvouloir, who had shown the duke the wisdom of leaving Etienne master of his solitude, guaranteed to Gabrielle and her attendants the inviolability of the little domain, outside of which he forbade them to go without his permission.

Etienne had remained during these two days shut up in the old seignorial bedroom under the spell of his tenderest memories. In that bed his mother had slept; her thoughts had been confided to the furnishings of that room; she had used them; her eyes had often wandered among those draperies; how often she had gone to that window to call with a cry, a sign, her poor disowned child, now master of the chateau. Alone in that room, whither he had last come secretly, brought by Beauvouloir to kiss his dying mother, he fancied that she lived again; he spoke to her, he listened to her, he drank from that spring that never faileth, and from which have flowed so many songs like the “Super flumina Babylonis.”

The day after Beauvouloir’s return he went to see his young master and blamed him gently for shutting himself up in a single room, pointing out to him the danger of leading a prison life in place of his former free life in the open air.

“But this air is vast,” replied Etienne. “The spirit of my mother is in it.”

The physician prevailed, however, by the gentle influence of affection, in making Etienne promise that he would go out every day, either on the seashore, or in the fields and meadows which were still unknown to him. In spite of this, Etienne, absorbed in his memories, remained yet another day at his window watching the sea, which offered him from that point of view aspects so various that never, as he believed, had he seen it so beautiful. He mingled his contemplations with readings in Petrarch, one of his most favorite authors — him whose poesy went nearest to the young man’s heart through the constancy and the unity of his love. Etienne had not within him the stuff for several passions. He could love but once, and in one way only. If that love, like all that is a unit, were intense, it must also be calm in its expression, sweet and pure like the sonnets of the Italian poet.

At sunset this child of solitude began to sing, in the marvellous voice which had entered suddenly, like a hope, into the dullest of all ears to music — those of his father. He expressed his melancholy by varying the same air, which he repeated, again and again, like the nightingale. This air, attributed to the late King Henri IV., was not the so-called air of “Gabrielle,” but something far superior as art, as melody, as the expression of infinite tenderness. The admirers of those ancient tunes will recognize the words, composed by the great king to this air, which were taken, probably, from some folk-song to which his cradle had been rocked among the mountains of Bearn.

“Dawn, approach,

I pray thee;

It gladdens me to see thee;

The maiden

Whom I love

Is rosy, rosy like thee;

The rose itself,

Dew-laden,

Has not her freshness;

Ermine has not

Her pureness;

Lilies have not

Her whiteness.”

After naively revealing the thought of his heart in song, Etienne contemplated the sea, saying to himself: “There is my bride; the only love for me!” Then he sang too other lines of the canzonet —

“She is fair

Beyond compare,”—

repeating it to express the imploring poesy which abounds in the heart of a timid young man, brave only when alone. Dreams were in that undulating song, sung, resung, interrupted, renewed, and hushed at last in a final modulation, the tones of which died away like the lingering vibrations of a bell.

At this moment a voice, which he fancied was that of a siren rising from the sea, a woman’s voice, repeated the air he had sung, but with all the hesitations of a person to whom music is revealed for the first time. He recognized the stammering of a heart born into the poesy of harmony. Etienne, to whom long study of his own voice had taught the language of sounds, in which the soul finds resources greater than speech to express its thoughts, could divine the timid amazement that attended these attempts. With what religious and subtile admiration had that unknown being listened to him! The stillness of the atmosphere enabled him to hear every sound, and he quivered at the distant rustle of the folds of a gown. He was amazed — he, whom all emotions produced by terror sent to the verge of death — to feel within him the healing, balsamic sensation which his mother’s coming had formerly brought to him.

“Come, Gabrielle, my child,” said the voice of Beauvouloir, “I forbade you to stay upon the seashore after sundown; you must come in, my daughter.”

“Gabrielle,” said Etienne to himself. “Oh! the pretty name!”

Beauvouloir presently came to him, rousing his young master from one of those meditations which resemble dreams. It was night, and the moon was rising.

“Monseigneur,” said the physician, “you have not been out to-day, and it is not wise of you.”

“And I,” replied Etienne, “can I go on the seashore after sundown?”

The double meaning of this speech, full of the gentle playfulness of a first desire, made the old man smile.

“You have a daughter, Beauvouloir.”

“Yes, monseigneur — the child of my old age; my darling child. Monseigneur, the duke, your father, charged me so earnestly to watch your precious health that, not being able to go to Forcalier, where she was, I have brought her here, to my great regret. In order to conceal her from all eyes, I have placed her in the house monseigneur used to occupy. She is so delicate I fear everything, even a sudden sentiment or emotion. I have never taught her anything; knowledge would kill her.”

“She knows nothing!” cried Etienne, surprised.

“She has all the talents of a good housewife, but she has lived as the plants live. Ignorance, monseigneur, is as sacred a thing as knowledge. Knowledge and ignorance are only two ways of living, for the human creature. Both preserve the soul and envelop it; knowledge is your existence, but ignorance will save my daughter’s life. Pearls well-hidden escape the diver, and live happy. I can only compare my Gabrielle to a pearl; her skin has the pearl’s translucence, her soul its softness, and until this day Forcalier has been her fostering shell.”

“Come with me,” said Etienne, throwing on a cloak. “I want to walk on the seashore, the air is so soft.”

Beauvouloir and his master walked in silence until they reached a spot where a line of light, coming from between the shutters of a fisherman’s house, had furrowed the sea with a golden rivulet.

“I know not how to express,” said Etienne, addressing his companion, “the sensations that light, cast upon the water, excites in me. I have often watched it streaming from the windows of that room,” he added, pointing back to his mother’s chamber, “until it was extinguished.”

“Delicate as Gabrielle is,” said Beauvouloir, gaily, “she can come and walk with us; the night is warm, and the air has no dampness. I will fetch her; but be prudent, monseigneur.”

Etienne was too timid to propose to accompany Beauvouloir into the house; besides, he was in that torpid state into which we are plunged by the influx of ideas and sensations which give birth to the dawn of passion. Conscious of more freedom in being alone, he cried out, looking at the sea now gleaming in the moonlight —

“The Ocean has passed into my soul!”

The sight of the lovely living statuette which was now advancing towards him, silvered by the moon and wrapped in its light, redoubled the palpitations of his heart, but without causing him to suffer.

“My child,” said Beauvouloir, “this is monseigneur.”

In a moment poor Etienne longed for his father’s colossal figure; he would fain have seemed strong, not puny. All the vanities of love and manhood came into his heart like so many arrows, and he remained in gloomy silence, measuring for the first time the extent of his imperfections. Embarrassed by the salutation of the young girl, he returned it awkwardly, and stayed beside Beauvouloir, with whom he talked as they paced along the shore; presently, however, Gabrielle’s timid and deprecating countenance emboldened him, and he dared to address her. The incident of the song was the result of mere chance. Beauvouloir had intentionally made no preparations; he thought, wisely, that between two beings in whom solitude had left pure hearts, love would arise in all its simplicity. The repetition of the air by Gabrielle was a ready text on which to begin a conversation.

During this promenade Etienne was conscious of that bodily buoyancy which all men have felt at the moment when a first love transports their vital principle into another being. He offered to teach Gabrielle to sing. The poor lad was so glad to show himself to this young girl invested with some slight superiority that he trembled with pleasure when she accepted his offer. At that moment the moonlight fell full upon her, and enabled Etienne to note the points of her resemblance to his mother, the late duchess. Like Jeanne de Saint-Savin, Beauvouloir’s daughter was slender and delicate; in her, as in the duchess, sadness and suffering conveyed a mysterious charm. She had that nobility of manner peculiar to souls on whom the ways of the world have had no influence, and in whom all is noble because all is natural. But in Gabrielle’s veins there was also the blood of “la belle Romaine,” which had flowed there from two generations, giving to this young girl the passionate heart of a courtesan in an absolutely pure soul; hence the enthusiasm that sometimes reddened her cheek, sanctified her brow, and made her exhale her soul like a flash of light, and communicated the sparkle of flame to all her motions. Beauvouloir shuddered when he noticed this phenomenon, which we may call in these days the phosphorescence of thought; the old physician of that period regarded it as the precursor of death.

Hidden beside her father, Gabrielle endeavored to see Etienne at her ease, and her looks expressed as much curiosity as pleasure, as much kindliness as innocent daring. Etienne detected her in stretching her neck around Beauvouloir with the movement of a timid bird looking out of its nest. To her the young man seemed not feeble, but delicate; she found him so like herself that nothing alarmed her in this sovereign lord. Etienne’s sickly complexion, his beautiful hands, his languid smile, his hair parted in the middle into two straight bands, ending in curls on the lace of his large flat collar, his noble brow, furrowed with youthful wrinkles — all these contrasts of luxury and weakness, power and pettiness, pleased her; perhaps they gratified the instinct of maternal protection, which is the germ of love; perhaps, also, they stimulated the need that every woman feels to find distinctive signs in the man she is prompted to love. New ideas, new sensations were rising in each with a force, with an abundance that enlarged their souls; both remained silent and overcome, for sentiments are least demonstrative when most real and deep. All durable love begins by dreamy meditation. It was suitable that these two beings should first see each other in the softer light of the moon, that love and its splendors might not dazzle them too suddenly; it was well that they met by the shores of the Ocean — vast image of the vastness of their feelings. They parted filled with one another, fearing, each, to have failed to please.

From his window Etienne watched the lights of the house where Gabrielle was. During that hour of hope mingled with fear, the young poet found fresh meanings in Petrarch’s sonnets. He had now seen Laura, a delicate, delightful figure, pure and glowing like a sunray, intelligent as an angel, feeble as a woman. His twenty years of study found their meaning, he understood the mystic marriage of all beauties; he perceived how much of womanhood there was in the poems he adored; in short, he had so long loved unconsciously that his whole past now blended with the emotions of this glorious night. Gabrielle’s resemblance to his mother seemed to him an order divinely given. He did not betray his love for the one in loving the other; this new love continued HER maternity. He contemplated that young girl, asleep in the cottage, with the same feelings his mother had felt for him when he was there. Here, again, was a similitude which bound this present to the past. On the clouds of memory the saddened face of his mother appeared to him; he saw once more her feeble smile, he heard her gentle voice; she bowed her head and wept. The lights in the cottage were extinguished. Etienne sang once more the pretty canzonet, with a new expression, a new meaning. From afar Gabrielle again replied. The young girl, too, was making her first voyage into the charmed land of amorous ecstasy. That echoed answer filled with joy the young man’s heart; the blood flowing in his veins gave him a strength he never yet had felt, love made him powerful. Feeble beings alone know the voluptuous joy of that new creation entering their life. The poor, the suffering, the ill-used, have joys ineffable; small things to them are worlds. Etienne was bound by many a tie to the dwellers in the City of Sorrows. His recent accession to grandeur had caused him terror only; love now shed within him the balm that created strength; he loved Love.

The next day Etienne rose early to hasten to his old house, where Gabrielle, stirred by curiosity and an impatience she did not acknowledge to herself, had already curled her hair and put on her prettiest costume. Both were full of the eager desire to see each other again — mutually fearing the results of the interview. As for Etienne, he had chosen his finest lace, his best-embroidered mantle, his violet-velvet breeches; in short, those handsome habiliments which we connect in all memoirs of the time with the pallid face of Louis XIII., a face oppressed with pain in the midst of grandeur, like that of Etienne. Clothes were certainly not the only point of resemblance between the king and the subject. Many other sensibilities were in Etienne as in Louis XIII. — chastity, melancholy, vague but real sufferings, chivalrous timidities, the fear of not being able to express a feeling in all its purity, the dread of too quickly approaching happiness, which all great souls desire to delay, the sense of the burden of power, that tendency to obedience which is found in natures indifferent to material interests, but full of love for what a noble religious genius has called the “astral.”

Though wholly inexpert in the ways of the world, Gabrielle was conscious that the daughter of a doctor, the humble inhabitant of Forcalier, was cast at too great a distance from Monseigneur Etienne, Duc de Nivron and heir to the house of Herouville, to allow them to be equal; she had as yet no conception of the ennobling of love. The naive creature thought with no ambition of a place where every other girl would have longed to seat herself; she saw the obstacles only. Loving, without as yet knowing what it was to love, she only felt herself distant from her pleasure, and longed to get nearer to it, as a child longs for the golden grapes hanging high above its head. To a girl whose emotions were stirred at the sight of a flower, and who had unconsciously foreseen love in the chants of the liturgy, how sweet and how strong must have been the feelings inspired in her breast the previous night by the sight of the young seigneur’s feebleness, which seemed to reassure her own. But during the night Etienne had been magnified to her mind; she had made him a hope, a power; she had placed him so high that now she despaired of ever reaching him.

“Will you permit me to sometimes enter your domain?” asked the duke, lowing his eyes.

Seeing Etienne so timid, so humble — for he, on his part, had magnified Beauvouloir’s daughter — Gabrielle was embarrassed with the sceptre he placed in her hands; and yet she was profoundly touched and flattered by such submission. Women alone know what seduction the respect of their master and lover has for them. Nevertheless, she feared to deceive herself, and, curious like the first woman, she wanted to know all.

“I thought you promised yesterday to teach me music,” she answered, hoping that music might be made a pretext for their meetings.

If the poor child had known what Etienne’s life really was, she would have spared him that doubt. To him his word was the echo of his mind, and Gabrielle’s little speech caused him infinite pain. He had come with his heart full, fearing some cloud upon his daylight, and he met a doubt. His joy was extinguished; back into his desert he plunged, no longer finding there the flowers with which he had embellished it. With that prescience of sorrows which characterizes the angel charged to soften them — who is, no doubt, the Charity of heaven — Gabrielle instantly divined the pain she had caused. She was so vividly aware of her fault that she prayed for the power of God to lay bare her soul to Etienne, for she knew the cruel pang a reproach or a stern look was capable of causing; and she artlessly betrayed to him these clouds as they rose in her soul — the golden swathings of her dawning love. One tear which escaped her eyes turned Etienne’s pain to pleasure, and he inwardly accused himself of tyranny. It was fortunate for both that in the very beginning of their love they should thus come to know the diapason of their hearts; they avoided henceforth a thousand shocks which might have wounded them.

Etienne, impatient to entrench himself behind an occupation, led Gabrielle to a table before the little window at which he himself had suffered so long, and where he was henceforth to admire a flower more dainty than all he had hitherto studied. Then he opened a book over which they bent their heads till their hair touched and mingled.

These two beings, so strong in heart, so weak in body, but embellished by all the graces of suffering, were a touching sight. Gabrielle was ignorant of coquetry; a look was given the instant it was asked for, the soft rays from the eyes of each never ceasing to mingle, unless from modesty. The young girl took the joy of telling Etienne what pleasure his voice gave her as she listened to his song; she forgot the meaning of his words when he explained to her the position of the notes or their value; she listened to HIM, leaving melody for the instrument, the idea for the form; ingenuous flattery! the first that true love meets. Gabrielle thought Etienne handsome; she would have liked to stroke the velvet of his mantle, to touch the lace of his broad collar. As for Etienne he was transformed under the creative glance of those earnest eyes; they infused into his being a fruitful sap, which sparkled in his eyes, shone on his brow, remade him inwardly, so that he did not suffer from this new play of his faculties; on the contrary they were strengthened by it. Happiness is the mother’s milk of a new life.

As nothing came to distract them from each other, they stayed together not only this day but all days; for they belonged to one another from the first hour, passing the sceptre from one to the other and playing with themselves as children play with life. Sitting, happy and content, upon the golden sands, they told each other their past, painful for him, but rich in dreams; dreamy for her, but full of painful pleasure.

“I never had a mother,” said Gabrielle, “but my father has been good as God himself.”

“I never had a father,” said the hated son, “but my mother was all of heaven to me.”

Etienne related his youth, his love for his mother, his taste for flowers. Gabrielle exclaimed at his last words. Questioned why, she blushed and avoided answering; then when a shadow passed across that brow which death seemed to graze with its pinion, across that visible soul where the young man’s slightest emotions showed, she answered:—

“Because I too love flowers.”

To believe ourselves linked far back in the past by community of tastes, is not that a declaration of love such as virgins know how to give? Love desires to seem old; it is a coquetry of youth.

Etienne brought flowers on the morrow, ordering his people to find rare ones, as his mother had done in earlier days for him. Who knows the depths to which the roots of a feeling reach in the soul of a solitary being thus returning to the traditions of mother-love in order to bestow upon a woman the same caressing devotion with which his mother had charmed his life? To him, what grandeur in these nothings wherein were blended his only two affections. Flowers and music thus became the language of their love. Gabrielle replied to Etienne’s gifts by nosegays of her own — nosegays which told the wise old doctor that his ignorant daughter already knew enough. The material ignorance of these two lovers was like a dark background on which the faintest lines of their all-spiritual intercourse were traced with exquisite delicacy, like the red, pure outlines of Etruscan figures. Their slightest words brought a flood of ideas, because each was the fruit of their long meditations. Incapable of boldly looking forward, each beginning seemed to them an end. Though absolutely free, they were imprisoned in their own simplicity, which would have been disheartening had either given a meaning to their confused desires. They were poets and poem both. Music, the most sensual of arts for loving souls, was the interpreter of their ideas; they took delight in repeating the same harmony, letting their passion flow through those fine sheets of sound in which their souls could vibrate without obstacle.

Many loves proceed through opposition; through struggles and reconciliations, the vulgar struggle of mind and matter. But the first wing-beat of true love sends it far beyond such struggles. Where all is of the same essence, two natures are no longer to be distinguished; like genius in its highest expression, such love can sustain itself in the brightest light; it grows beneath the light, it needs no shade to bring it into relief. Gabrielle, because she was a woman, Etienne, because he had suffered much and meditated much, passed quickly through the regions occupied by common passions and went beyond it. Like all enfeebled natures, they were quickly penetrated by Faith, by that celestial glow which doubles strength by doubling the soul. For them their sun was always at its meridian. Soon they had that divine belief in themselves which allows of neither jealousy nor torment; abnegation was ever ready, admiration constant.

Under these conditions, love could have no pain. Equal in their feebleness, strong in their union, if the noble had some superiority of knowledge and some conventional grandeur, the daughter of the physician eclipsed all that by her beauty, by the loftiness of her sentiments, by the delicacy she gave to their enjoyments. Thus these two white doves flew with one wing beneath their pure blue heaven; Etienne loved, he was loved, the present was serene, the future cloudless; he was sovereign lord; the castle was his, the sea belonged to both of them; no vexing thought troubled the harmonious concert of their canticle; virginity of mind and senses enlarged for them the world, their thoughts rose in their minds without effort; desire, the satisfactions of which are doomed to blast so much, desire, that evil of terrestrial love, had not as yet attacked them. Like two zephyrs swaying on the same willow-branch, they needed nothing more than the joy of looking at each other in the mirror of the limpid waters; immensity sufficed them; they admired their Ocean, without one thought of gliding on it in the white-winged bark with ropes of flowers, sailed by Hope.

Love has its moment when it suffices to itself, when it is happy in merely being. During this springtime, when all is budding, the lover sometimes hides from the beloved woman, in order to enjoy her more, to see her better; but Etienne and Gabrielle plunged together into all the delights of that infantine period. Sometimes they were two sisters in the grace of their confidences, sometimes two brothers in the boldness of their questionings. Usually love demands a slave and a god, but these two realized the dream of Plato — they were but one being deified. They protected each other. Caresses came slowly, one by one, but chaste as the merry play — so graceful, so coquettish — of young animals. The sentiment which induced them to express their souls in song led them to love by the manifold transformations of the same happiness. Their joys caused them neither wakefulness nor delirium. It was the infancy of pleasure developing within them, unaware of the beautiful red flowers which were to crown its shoots. They gave themselves to each other, ignorant of all danger; they cast their whole being into a word, into a look, into a kiss, into the long, long pressure of their clasping hands. They praised each other’s beauties ingenuously, spending treasures of language on these secret idylls, inventing soft exaggerations and more diminutives than the ancient muse of Tibullus, or the poesies of Italy. On their lips and in their hearts love flowed ever, like the liquid fringes of the sea upon the sands of the shore — all alike, all dissimilar. Joyous, eternal fidelity!

If we must count by days, the time thus spent was five months only; if we may count by the innumerable sensations, thoughts, dreams, glances, opening flowers, realized hopes, unceasing joys, speeches interrupted, renewed, abandoned, frolic laughter, bare feet dabbling in the sea, hunts, childlike, for shells, kisses, surprises, clasping hands — call it a lifetime; death will justify the word. There are existences that are ever gloomy, lived under ashen skies; but suppose a glorious day, when the sun of heaven glows in the azure air — such was the May of their love, during which Etienne had suspended all his griefs — griefs which had passed into the heart of Gabrielle, who, in turn, had fastened all her joys to come on those of her lord. Etienne had had but one sorrow in his life — the death of his mother; he was to have but one love — Gabrielle.

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