The Hated Son, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 7. The Crushed Pearl

The coarse rivalry of an ambitious man hastened the destruction of this honeyed life. The Duc d’Herouville, an old warrior in wiles and policy, had no sooner passed his word to his physician than he was conscious of the voice of distrust. The Baron d’Artagnon, lieutenant of his company of men-at-arms, possessed his utmost confidence. The baron was a man after the duke’s own heart — a species of butcher, built for strength, tall, virile in face, cold and harsh, brave in the service of the throne, rude in his manners, with an iron will in action, but supple in manoeuvres, withal an ambitious noble, possessing the honor of a soldier and the wiles of a politician. He had the hand his face demanded — large and hairy like that of a guerrilla; his manners were brusque, his speech concise. The duke, in departing, gave to this man the duty of watching and reporting to him the conduct of Beauvouloir toward the new heir-presumptive.

In spite of the secrecy which surrounded Gabrielle, it was difficult to long deceive the commander of a company. He heard the singing of two voices; he saw the lights at night in the dwelling on the seashore; he guessed that Etienne’s orders, repeated constantly, for flowers concerned a woman; he discovered Gabrielle’s nurse making her way on foot to Forcalier, carrying linen or clothes, and bringing back with her the work-frame and other articles needed by a young lady. The spy then watched the cottage, saw the physician’s daughter, and fell in love with her. Beauvouloir he knew was rich. The duke would be furious at the man’s audacity. On those foundations the Baron d’Artagnon erected the edifice of his fortunes. The duke, on learning that his son was falling in love, would, of course, instantly endeavor to detach him from the girl; what better way than to force her son into a marriage with a noble like himself, giving his son to the daughter of some great house, the heiress of large estates. The baron himself had no property. The scheme was excellent, and might have succeeded with other natures than those of Etienne and Gabrielle; with them failure was certain.

During his stay in Paris the duke had avenged the death of Maximilien by killing his son’s adversary, and he had planned for Etienne an alliance with the heiress of a branch of the house of Grandlieu — a tall and disdainful beauty, who was flattered by the prospect of some day bearing the title of Duchesse d’Herouville. The duke expected to oblige his son to marry her. On learning from d’Artagnon that Etienne was in love with the daughter of a miserable physician, he was only the more determined to carry out the marriage. What could such a man comprehend of love — he who had let his own wife die beside him without understanding a single sigh of her heart? Never, perhaps, in his life had he felt such violent anger as when the last despatch of the baron told him with what rapidity Beauvouloir’s plans were advancing — the baron attributing them wholly to the bonesetter’s ambition. The duke ordered out his equipages and started for Rouen, bringing with him the Comtesse de Grandlieu, her sister the Marquise de Noirmoutier, and Mademoiselle de Grandlieu, under pretext of showing them the province of Normandy.

A few days before his arrival a rumor was spread about the country — by what means no one seemed to know — of the passion of the young Duc de Nivron for Gabrielle Beauvouloir. People in Rouen spoke of it to the Duc d’Herouville in the midst of a banquet given to celebrate his return to the province; for the guests were glad to deliver a blow to the despot of Normandy. This announcement excited the anger of the governor to the highest pitch. He wrote to the baron to keep his coming to Herouville a close secret, giving him certain orders to avert what he considered to be an evil.

It was under these circumstances that Etienne and Gabrielle unrolled their thread through the labyrinth of love, where both, not seeking to leave it, thought to dwell. One day they had remained from morn to evening near the window where so many events had taken place. The hours, filled at first with gentle talk, had ended in meditative silence. They began to feel within them the wish for complete possession; and presently they reached the point of confiding to each other their confused ideas, the reflections of two beautiful, pure souls. During these still, serene hours, Etienne’s eyes would sometimes fill with tears as he held the hand of Gabrielle to his lips. Like his mother, but at this moment happier in his love than she had been in hers, the hated son looked down upon the sea, at that hour golden on the shore, black on the horizon, and slashed here and there with those silvery caps which betoken a coming storm. Gabrielle, conforming to her friend’s action, looked at the sight and was silent. A single look, one of those by which two souls support each other, sufficed to communicate their thoughts. Each loved with that love so divinely like unto itself at every instant of its eternity that it is not conscious of devotion or sacrifice or exaction, it fears neither deceptions nor delay. But Etienne and Gabrielle were in absolute ignorance of satisfactions, a desire for which was stirring in their souls.

When the first faint tints of twilight drew a veil athwart the sea, and the hush was interrupted only by the soughing of the flux and reflux on the shore, Etienne rose; Gabrielle followed his motion with a vague fear, for he had dropped her hand. He took her in one of his arms, pressing her to him with a movement of tender cohesion, and she, comprehending his desire, made him feel the weight of her body enough to give him the certainty that she was all his, but not enough to be a burden on him. The lover laid his head heavily on the shoulder of his friend, his lips touched the heaving bosom, his hair flowed over the white shoulders and caressed her throat. The girl, ingenuously loving, bent her head aside to give more place for his head, passing her arm about his neck to gain support. Thus they remained till nightfall without uttering a word. The crickets sang in their holes, and the lovers listened to that music as if to employ their senses on one sense only. Certainly they could only in that hour be compared to angels who, with their feet on earth, await the moment to take flight to heaven. They had fulfilled the noble dream of Plato’s mystic genius, the dream of all who seek a meaning in humanity; they formed but one soul, they were, indeed, that mysterious Pearl destined to adorn the brow of a star as yet unknown, but the hope of all!

“Will you take me home?” said Gabrielle, the first to break the exquisite silence.

“Why should we part?” replied Etienne.

“We ought to be together always,” she said.

“Stay with me.”

“Yes.”

The heavy step of Beauvouloir sounded in the adjoining room. The doctor had seen these children at the window locked in each other’s arms, but he found them separated. The purest love demands its mystery.

“This is not right, my child,” he said to Gabrielle, “to stay so late, and have no lights.”

“Why wrong?” she said; “you know we love each other, and he is master of the castle.”

“My children,” said Beauvouloir, “if you love each other, your happiness requires that you should marry and pass your lives together; but your marriage depends on the will of monseigneur the duke —”

“My father has promised to gratify all my wishes,” cried Etienne eagerly, interrupting Beauvouloir.

“Write to him, monseigneur,” replied the doctor, “and give me your letter that I may enclose it with one which I, myself, have just written. Bertrand is to start at once and put these despatches into monseigneur’s own hand. I have learned to-night that he is now in Rouen; he has brought the heiress of the house of Grandlieu with him, not, as I think, solely for himself. If I listened to my presentiments, I should take Gabrielle away from here this very night.”

“Separate us?” cried Etienne, half fainting with distress and leaning on his love.

“Father!”

“Gabrielle,” said the physician, holding out to her a smelling-bottle which he took from a table signing to her to make Etienne inhale its contents — “Gabrielle, my knowledge of science tells me that Nature destined you for each other. I meant to prepare monseigneur the duke for a marriage which will certainly offend his ideas, but the devil has already prejudiced him against it. Etienne is Duc de Nivron, and you, my child, are the daughter of a poor doctor.”

“My father swore to contradict me in nothing,” said Etienne, calmly.

“He swore to me also to consent to all I might do in finding you a wife,” replied the doctor; “but suppose that he does not keep his promises?”

Etienne sat down, as if overcome.

“The sea was dark to-night,” he said, after a moment’s silence.

“If you could ride a horse, monseigneur,” said Beauvouloir, “I should tell you to fly with Gabrielle this very evening. I know you both, and I know that any other marriage would be fatal to you. The duke would certainly fling me into a dungeon and leave me there for the rest of my days when he heard of your flight; and I should die joyfully if my death secured your happiness. But alas! to mount a horse would risk your life and that of Gabrielle. We must face your father’s anger here.”

“Here!” repeated Etienne.

“We have been betrayed by some one in the chateau who has stirred your father’s wrath against us,” continued Beauvouloir.

“Let us throw ourselves together into the sea,” said Etienne to Gabrielle, leaning down to the ear of the young girl who was kneeling beside him.

She bowed her head, smiling. Beauvouloir divined all.

“Monseigneur,” he said, “your mind and your knowledge can make you eloquent, and the force of your love may be irresistible. Declare it to monseigneur the duke; you will thus confirm my letter. All is not lost, I think. I love my daughter as well as you love her, and I shall defend her.”

Etienne shook his head.

“The sea was very dark to-night,” he repeated.

“It was like a sheet of gold at our feet,” said Gabrielle in a voice of melody.

Etienne ordered lights, and sat down at a table to write to his father. On one side of him knelt Gabrielle, silent, watching the words he wrote, but not reading them; she read all on Etienne’s forehead. On his other side stood old Beauvouloir, whose jovial countenance was deeply sad — sad as that gloomy chamber where Etienne’s mother died. A secret voice cried to the doctor, “The fate of his mother awaits him!”

When the letter was written, Etienne held it out to the old man, who hastened to give it to Bertrand. The old retainer’s horse was waiting in the courtyard, saddled; the man himself was ready. He started, and met the duke twelve miles from Herouville.

“Come with me to the gate of the courtyard,” said Gabrielle to her friend when they were alone.

The pair passed through the cardinal’s library, and went down through the tower, in which was a door, the key of which Etienne had given to Gabrielle. Stupefied by the dread of coming evil, the poor youth left in the tower the torch he had brought to light the steps of his beloved, and continued with her toward the cottage. A few steps from the little garden, which formed a sort of flowery courtyard to the humble habitation, the lovers stopped. Emboldened by the vague alarm which oppressed them, they gave each other, in the shades of night, in the silence, that first kiss in which the senses and the soul unite, and cause a revealing joy. Etienne comprehended love in its dual expression, and Gabrielle fled lest she should be drawn by that love — whither she knew not.

At the moment when the Duc de Nivron reascended the staircase to the castle, after closing the door of the tower, a cry of horror, uttered by Gabrielle, echoed in his ears with the sharpness of a flash of lightning which burns the eyes. Etienne ran through the apartments of the chateau, down the grand staircase, and along the beach towards Gabrielle’s house, where he saw lights.

When Gabrielle, quitting her lover, had entered the little garden, she saw, by the gleam of a torch which lighted her nurse’s spinning-wheel, the figure of a man sitting in the chair of that excellent woman. At the sound of her steps the man arose and came toward her; this had frightened her, and she gave the cry. The presence and aspect of the Baron d’Artagnon amply justified the fear thus inspired in the young girl’s breast.

“Are you the daughter of Beauvouloir, monseigneur’s physician?” asked the baron when Gabrielle’s first alarm had subsided.

“Yes, monsieur.”

“I have matters of the utmost importance to confide to you. I am the Baron d’Artagnon, lieutenant of the company of men-at-arms commanded by Monseigneur the Duc d’Herouville.”

Gabrielle, under the circumstances in which she and her lover stood, was struck by these words, and by the frank tone with which the soldier said them.

“Your nurse is here; she may overhear us. Come this way,” said the baron.

He left the garden, and Gabrielle followed him to the beach behind the house.

“Fear nothing!” said the baron.

That speech would have frightened any one less ignorant than Gabrielle; but a simple young girl who loves never thinks herself in peril.

“Dear child,” said the baron, endeavoring to give a honeyed tone to his voice, “you and your father are on the verge of an abyss into which you will fall to-morrow. I cannot see your danger without warning you. Monseigneur is furious against your father and against you; he suspects you of having seduced his son, and he would rather see him dead than see him marry you; so much for his son. As for your father, this is the decision monseigneur has made about him. Nine years ago your father was implicated in a criminal affair. The matter related to the secretion of a child of rank at the time of its birth which he attended. Monseigneur, knowing that your father was innocent, guaranteed him from prosecution by the parliament; but now he intends to have him arrested and delivered up to justice to be tried for the crime. Your father will be broken on the wheel; though perhaps, in view of some services he has done to his master, he may obtain the favor of being hanged. I do not know what course monseigneur has decided on for you; but I do know that you can save Monseigneur de Nivron from his father’s anger, and your father from the horrible death which awaits him, and also save yourself.”

“What must I do?” said Gabrielle.

“Throw yourself at monseigneur’s feet, and tell him that his son loves you against your will, and say that you do not love him. In proof of this, offer to marry any man whom the duke himself may select as your husband. He is generous; he will dower you handsomely.”

“I can do all except deny my love.”

“But if that alone can save your father, yourself, and Monseigneur de Nivron?”

“Etienne,” she replied, “would die of it, and so should I.”

“Monseigneur de Nivron will be unhappy at losing you, but he will live for the honor of his house; you will resign yourself to be the wife of a baron only, instead of being a duchess, and your father will live out his days,” said the practical man.

At this moment Etienne reached the house. He did not see Gabrielle, and he uttered a piercing cry.

“He is here!” cried the young girl; “let me go now and comfort him.”

“I shall come for your answer to-morrow,” said the baron.

“I will consult my father,” she replied.

“You will not see him again. I have received orders to arrest him and send him in chains, under escort, to Rouen,” said d’Artagnon, leaving Gabrielle dumb with terror.

The young girl sprang to the house, and found Etienne horrified by the silence of the nurse in answer to his question, “Where is she?”

“I am here!” cried the young girl, whose voice was icy, her step heavy, her color gone.

“What has happened?” he said. “I heard you cry.”

“Yes, I hurt my foot against —”

“No, love,” replied Etienne, interrupting her. “I heard the steps of a man.”

“Etienne, we must have offended God; let us kneel down and pray. I will tell you afterwards.”

Etienne and Gabrielle knelt down at the prie-dieu, and the nurse recited her rosary.

“O God!” prayed the girl, with a fervor which carried her beyond terrestrial space, “if we have not sinned against thy divine commandments, if we have not offended the Church, not yet the king, we, who are one and the same being, in whom love shines with the light that thou hast given to the pearl of the sea, be merciful unto us, and let us not be parted either in this world or in that which is to come.”

“Mother!” added Etienne, “who art in heaven, obtain from the Virgin that if we cannot — Gabrielle and I— be happy here below we may at least die together, and without suffering. Call us, and we will go to thee.”

Then, having recited their evening prayers, Gabrielle related her interview with Baron d’Artagnon.

“Gabrielle,” said the young man, gathering strength from his despair, “I shall know how to resist my father.”

He kissed her on the forehead, but not again upon the lips. Then he returned to the castle, resolved to face the terrible man who had weighed so fearfully on his life. He did not know that Gabrielle’s house would be surrounded and guarded by soldiers the moment that he quitted it.

The next day he was struck down with grief when, on going to see her, he found her a prisoner. But Gabrielle sent her nurse to tell him she would die sooner than be false to him; and, moreover, that she knew a way to deceive the guards, and would soon take refuge in the cardinal’s library, where no one would suspect her presence, though she did not as yet know when she could accomplish it. Etienne on that returned to his room, where all the forces of his heart were spent in the dreadful suspense of waiting.

At three o’clock on the afternoon of that day the equipages of the duke and suite entered the courtyard of the castle. Madame la Comtesse de Grandlieu, leaning on the arm of her daughter, the duke and Marquise de Noirmoutier mounted the grand staircase in silence, for the stern brow of the master had awed the servants. Though Baron d’Artagnon now knew that Gabrielle had evaded his guards, he assured the duke she was a prisoner, for he trembled lest his own private scheme should fail if the duke were angered by this flight. Those two terrible faces — his and the duke’s — wore a fierce expression that was ill-disguised by an air of gallantry imposed by the occasion. The duke had already sent to his son, ordering him to be present in the salon. When the company entered it, d’Artagnon saw by the downcast look on Etienne’s face that as yet he did not know of Gabrielle’s escape.

“This is my son,” said the old duke, taking Etienne by the hand and presenting him to the ladies.

Etienne bowed without uttering a word. The countess and Mademoiselle de Grandlieu exchanged a look which the old man intercepted.

“Your daughter will be ill-matched — is that your thought?” he said in a low voice.

“I think quite the contrary, my dear duke,” replied the mother, smiling.

The Marquise de Noirmoutier, who accompanied her sister, laughed significantly. That laugh stabbed Etienne to the heart; already the sight of the tall lady had terrified him.

“Well, Monsieur le duc,” said the duke in a low voice and assuming a lively air, “have I not found you a handsome wife? What do you say to that slip of a girl, my cherub?”

The old duke never doubted his son’s obedience; Etienne, to him, was the son of his mother, of the same dough, docile to his kneading.

“Let him have a child and die,” thought the old man; “little I care.”

“Father,” said the young man, in a gentle voice, “I do not understand you.”

“Come into your own room, I have a few words to say to you,” replied the duke, leading the way into the state bedroom.

Etienne followed his father. The three ladies, stirred with a curiosity that was shared by Baron d’Artagnon, walked about the great salon in a manner to group themselves finally near the door of the bedroom, which the duke had left partially open.

“Dear Benjamin,” said the duke, softening his voice, “I have selected that tall and handsome young lady as your wife; she is heiress to the estates of the younger branch of the house of Grandlieu, a fine old family of Bretagne. Therefore make yourself agreeable; remember all the love-making you have read of in your books, and learn to make pretty speeches.”

“Father, is it not the first duty of a nobleman to keep his word?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, on the day when I forgave you the death of my mother, dying here through her marriage with you, did you not promise me never to thwart my wishes? ‘I will obey you as the family god,’ were the words you said to me. I ask nothing of you, I simply demand my freedom in a matter which concerns my life and myself only — namely, my marriage.”

“I understood,” replied the old man, all the blood in his body rushing into his face, “that you would not oppose the continuation of our noble race.”

“You made no condition,” said Etienne. “I do not know what love has to do with race; but this I know, I love the daughter of your old friend Beauvouloir, and the granddaughter of your friend La Belle Romaine.”

“She is dead,” replied the old colossus, with an air both savage and jeering, which told only too plainly his intention of making away with her.

A moment of deep silence followed.

The duke saw, through the half-opened door, the three ladies and d’Artagnon. At that crucial moment Etienne, whose sense of hearing was acute, heard in the cardinal’s library poor Gabrielle’s voice, singing, to let her lover know she was there —

“Ermine hath not

Her pureness;

The lily not her whiteness.”

The hated son, whom his father’s horrible speech had flung into a gulf of death, returned to the surface of life at the sound of that voice. Though the emotion of terror thus rapidly cast off had already in that instant, broken his heart, he gathered up his strength, looked his father in the face for the first time in his life, gave scorn for scorn, and said, in tones of hatred:—

“A nobleman ought not to lie.”

Then with one bound he sprang to the door of the library and cried:—

“Gabrielle!”

Suddenly the gentle creature appeared among the shadows, like the lily among its leaves, trembling before those mocking women thus informed of Etienne’s love. As the clouds that bear the thunder project upon the heavens, so the old duke, reaching a degree of anger that defies description, stood out upon the brilliant background produced by the rich clothing of those courtly dames. Between the destruction of his son and a mesalliance, every other father would have hesitated, but in this uncontrollable old man ferocity was the power which had so far solved the difficulties of life for him; he drew his sword in all cases, as the only remedy that he knew for the gordian knots of life. Under present circumstances, when the convulsion of his ideas had reached its height, the nature of the man came uppermost. Twice detected in flagrant falsehood by the being he abhorred, the son he cursed, cursing him more than ever in this supreme moment when that son’s despised, and to him most despicable, weakness triumphed over his own omnipotence, infallible till then, the father and the man ceased to exist, the tiger issued from its lair. Casting at the angels before him — the sweetest pair that ever set their feet on earth — a murderous look of hatred —

“Die, then, both of you!” he cried. “You, vile abortion, the proof of my shame — and you,” he said to Gabrielle, “miserable strumpet with the viper tongue, who has poisoned my house.”

These words struck home to the hearts of the two children the terror that already surcharged them. At the moment when Etienne saw the huge hand of his father raising a weapon upon Gabrielle he died, and Gabrielle fell dead in striving to retain him.

The old man left them, and closed the door violently, saying to Mademoiselle de Grandlieu:—

“I will marry you myself!”

“You are young and gallant enough to have a fine new lineage,” whispered the countess in the ear of the old man, who had served under seven kings of France.

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