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.
The mother’s love
For several days the count remained assiduously beside his wife, showing her attentions to which self-interest imparted a sort of tenderness. The countess saw, however, that she alone was the object of these attentions. The hatred of the father for his son showed itself in every detail; he abstained from looking at him or touching him; he would rise abruptly and leave the room if the child cried; in short, he seemed to endure it living only through the hope of seeing it die. But even this self-restraint was galling to the count. The day on which he saw that the mother’s intelligent eye perceived, without fully comprehending, the danger that threatened her son, he announced his departure on the morning after the mass for her churching was solemnized, under pretext of rallying his forces to the support of the king.
Such were the circumstances which preceded and accompanied the birth of Etienne d’Herouville. If the count had no other reason for wishing the death of this disowned son poor Etienne would still have been the object of his aversion. In his eyes the misfortune of a rickety, sickly constitution was a flagrant offence to his self-love as a father. If he execrated handsome men, he also detested weakly ones, in whom mental capacity took the place of physical strength. To please him a man should be ugly in face, tall, robust, and ignorant. Etienne, whose debility would bow him, as it were, to the sedentary occupations of knowledge, was certain to find in his father a natural enemy. His struggle with that colossus began therefore from his cradle, and his sole support against that cruel antagonist was the heart of his mother whose love increased, by a tender law of nature, as perils threatened him.