The Hands of Charles the Bold(From Things that Happen when Reading Rilke)
Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, is a man of granite, implacable, heavy on all who have to put up with him, prone to bouts of temper after which he sulks in his tent until the world come to him to abase themselves. He is expected to become the next King of France, and reign long. Neither is to be, and nobody could have predicted the reason. Although there is a giveaway. He is unique in the history of the dukes of France in that he never wore gloves.
His destiny is literally in his hands. They are his Achilles heel, sword of Damocles and Gordian knot rolled into one. Blood pumps into them as others might blush or have a rush to the brain. Clenched, the knuckles resemble the heads of madmen ranting. Living with his hands is a full time job. The tumescence could surge up at any moment. Wearing gloves or hiding them in his pockets proves self- defeating. The heat generated by the blood makes them unbearable. But he learns to use them as a distraction when laying into courtiers and soldiers, or anyone at home or abroad who opposes him. He waves his hands around as though testing the air, cracking the knuckles, shearing the nails with a horn-handled filigree knife, whose blade is designed for slivering meat, and finally placing them on any object or surface that is cooling, a silver platter or the glass of a cold drink. Others think he’s playing with his hands. But it’s no game.
This indomitable, ox-like man, intrepid in battle and at the negotiation table, is quite simply afraid of his hands. He has nightmares that they are tearing him to pieces. His perpetual crouch comes from the fear that they might spring on him when his guard is down. The pretence of being in control of his hands takes all his formidable will and guile to camouflage. Moreover, the blood that surges into them is half-Portuguese, a brutal people, almost a match for the Burgundians. But nobody guesses his fatal weakness. He is in the hands of his hands.
His father, Philip the Good, discovered early Charles’s talent for war. In his adolescence he led troops to glorious victories. As a boy, Charles dilated in battle. Now he contracts like a boa constrictor before a whiplash. That his hands are to the fore in his cold calculated killings nobody doubts. Only the enemy gives it a second thought, and then it’s usually too late. In hand-to-hand conflict efficiency in dispatching anything that comes at him inspires his men. On-hand tactics realise his strategic skills, drawing to his side wavering nobles and, indeed, merchant backers. ‘Charles the Bold has everything in hand.’ But his dark secret is that it’s the other way round. His hands have him in hand.
He avoids women in case his hands get jealous. This is not rational, but neither is the source of their power over him. Hands are his curse, or rather the brute blood in them. Terrible, tumid fingers have him in their vice-grip. Once, despondent at this enslavement, he revolted and got drunk, craving the escape of an animal sleep. As his hands share the same blood with the rest of him, they blacked out too. And he woke up with his fingertips aching. He experiments with potions that are known to steady the hands and put them in their place. These freeze the blood, and all his extremities suffer and, not only do they cause chilblains and ingrown toenails, but his famed blood lust deserts him, weakening his hand in battle.
He sticks then to flattering the hands with diamond rings and always wearing sleeves with the finest Flemish lace. This only serves to tighten their grip on him. They see it as a weakness. And play on it. During parleys he keeps his hands happy by giving them free reign to tap the table and make people nervous. He knows they are well capable of embarrassing him, bursting out and going for someone’s throat. They hold back as their diplomatic side tells them that fear augments their power.
War is Charles’s life. Half of France is a vulgar fraction. He wants it all, and a bit of Holland too. At the front, he lines his tent with carpets and tapestries soft to the touch to keep on the right side of his hands. Silver shields hang on the walls to cool their ardour. He seeks to impress them with the prestige of untold wealth. But his hands are well aware that pillaging in the wake of massacres is his main source of revenue,
and it’s fool’s gold.
The hands know Charles inside out, the when and how and what of his power and glory. He is their extension. Pathetic ruses to please them, and make them behave, only adds distrust to their contempt. He doesn’t appreciate his own driving force, and show them proper respect. There could never be true complicity. Fear is all, his fear. They know that like all men of war he’s living on borrowed time, and that, despite his prowess in battle, he would never be King of France, for it depended on them. The hands, sooner rather than later, would have enough, and cut off relations.
On the Feast of the Epiphany in a snowbound Loire valley Charles’s winning ways abandon him. Before the battle, in a rare moment of introspection, he looks at himself in a mirror and sees a fist rear up behind his back. It resembles a head, and twisting around shows its face, the face of an enemy, spitting blood. Against it his own face is a pale reflection of the red-blooded warrior that all the world sees. Swiss mercenaries with horned head-dresses rout his troops. He couldn’t get his hands on them.
His father waits for Charles in Nancy, but he isn’t amongst the stragglers. The loss of his son is unthinkable, and any minute he expects a knock on the door, and voila, c’est Charles, with a broken sword in his hand. When a page boy is brought before him, claiming he saw Charles fall, Philip the Good has no recourse but to sent out a search party. The page, slender as a girl, and as beautiful, acts as a guide.
Nobody believes that their leader could be other than alive and wounded, out there in the frozen wastes. But the search party show no urgency. All are strangely passive, easily distracted. Stopping to admire the sunset from the battlefield thick with bodies. The snow has turned red. Only Charles’s Fool seems animated, as though he knows what he is doing. He jumps around making bad jokes. ‘Damn the dead, they’re useless’, he chortles, kicking over the remains of a soldier. An old woman is in the party. How she got there is a mystery. Keening to herself, making the sign of the cross, she has assumed the worst and taken on the role of the dedicated mourner.
The page leads them to a hollow with twelve bodies. In a frenzy of sleet the identification begins, starting with the feet. It isn’t just that taking off the boots is easier than looking the dead in the face. Charles’ ingrown toenails were notorious. Doctors operated on them and, when they grew back, blamed poor circulation, though they sometimes spouted blood. The Fool kneels down, overcome by the unlacing, and cries out, ‘Forgive us, My Lord, for looking at your blemishes and not your perfections’.
The old woman silently weeps over a corpse face down in the snow and an arm behind its back without a hand. They turn over the rigid corpse. Tatters of Charles’s cloak cling to it. The head is split from ear to ear, and there’s no face to speak of, eaten by wolves or dogs. The mouth is clotted with blood. The severed hand could not be found, but the other one clutches a razor-sharp filigree file stuck in the chest. When pressed the old woman described how she recognised the Duke. ‘A large hand gaped at me through splayed fingers’.