The Devils of Loudun Page 11

She concentrated all her attention on the Latin.

Turpe senex miles, turpe senilis amor.1

But a moment later she was overwhelmed by a vague but violent longing. In her imagination memories of inchoate pleasures found themselves suddenly associated with those all-seeing eyes, those white yet hairy hands. The printed page swam before her eyes; she hesitated, stammered. “The filthy old soldier,” she brought out at last. He gave her a little rap over the knuckles with his ruler and told her she was lucky not to be a boy; for if a boy had made that kind of blunder, he would have felt obliged to take decidedly sterner measures. He flourished the ruler. Most decidedly sterner. She looked at him, then quickly turned away. The blood rushed into her cheeks.

Already firmly established in the prosaic and disillusioned contentment of a happy marriage, Françoise brought back to her sister first-hand reports from the matrimonial front. Philippe listened with interest, but knew that, where she herself was concerned, everything would always be quite different. The day-dream prolonged itself, was elaborated into greater and ever greater detail. At one moment she was living at the parsonage as his housekeeper. At another he had been elevated to the see of Poitiers and there was an underground passage between the episcopal palace and her house in the suburbs. Alternatively she had inherited a hundred thousand crowns, whereupon he left the Church and they passed their time between the court and their estate in the country.

But always, sooner or later, she had to wake up again to the dismal realization that she was Philippe Trincant and he, M. le Curé; that even if he loved her (and she had no reason for supposing that he did) he could never say so; and that even if he were to say so, it would always be her duty to stop her ears. But meanwhile what happiness it was, over her seam, her book, her embroidery frame, to imagine the impossible! And then the excruciating joy of hearing his knock, his step, his voice! The delicious ordeal, the heavenly purgatory of sitting with him in her father’s library, translating Ovid, deliberately making mistakes so that he would threaten to whip her, listening to that rich sonorous voice as it talked of the Cardinal, of the rebellious Protestants, of the war in Germany, of the Jesuits’ position on prevenient Grace, of his own prospects for preferment. If only matters could go on like this for ever! But it was like asking (just because the end of a madrigal is so beautiful, just because the evening light turns everything it touches into something else, something incomparably lovelier) it was like asking for a lifetime of summer sunsets, for dying falls in perpetuity. With a part of her mind she knew that she was deceiving herself; but for a few blissful weeks she was able, by closing the eyes of her reason, to believe that life had come to a halt in Paradise and would never resume its march. It was as though the gulf between phantasy and the actual had been abolished. Real life and her day-dreams were momentarily the same. Her imaginings were no longer the consoling denial of the facts; the facts had identified themselves with her imaginings. It was a bliss, she felt, without sin, because so eventless, so completely inward; a bliss like that of heaven, a bliss to which she could give herself wholeheartedly, without fear or self-reproach. And the more completely she abandoned herself to it, the intenser it became until at last she found it impossible to keep it to herself. One day she spoke of it in the confessional—guardedly, of course, without hinting, as she imagined, that it was the confessor himself who was the cause of these emotions.

Confession succeeded confession. The parson listened attentively, and every now and then put a question which proved to her how far he was from suspecting the truth, how completely he had been taken in by her innocent deception. Gaining courage, Philippe told him everything, everything in the most intimate detail. Her happiness at this time seemed to have passed the limits of the possible and was a kind of enduring paroxysm, an exquisite frenzy which she could renew at will, could go on renewing for ever. For ever, for ever. And then the day came when she made her slip of the tongue, when, instead of ‘him,’ she said ‘you,’ and then tried to withdraw the word, became confused and, under his questioning, burst into tears and confessed the truth.

“At last,” Grandier said to himself, “at last!”

And now it was all plain sailing—just a matter of carefully graduated words and gestures, of a tenderness modulating by insensible degrees from the professionally Christian to the Petrarchian, and from the Petrarchian to the all too human and the self-transcendently animal. Descent is always easy, and in this case there would be plenty of casuistry to lubricate the slide, and, after the bottom had been reached, all the absolution a girl could ask for.

A few months later there was an embarkation in form. Frankly, it was a little disappointing. Why couldn’t he have been content with the widow?

For Philippe, meanwhile, eventless and inner bliss had given place to the frightening reality of passion avowed and reciprocated, to the long-drawn torments of moral struggle, to prayers for strength, to vows that she would never yield, and at last, in a kind of despair, as though she were throwing herself over a cliff, to surrender. Surrender had brought with it none of the things she had imagined it would bring. Instead, it had brought the revelation, in her archangel, of a demented brute and the discovery, in the depths of her own mind and body, at first of the predestined victim, the suffering and therefore happy martyr, and then, suddenly, apocalyptically, of an alien no less unlike herself than that ferocious embodiment of passion had been unlike the eloquent preacher, the witty and exquisitely polished humanist with whom originally she had fallen in love. But falling in love, as she now perceived, was not the same as loving. It was as an imagination that one fell in love, and what one fell in love with was only an abstraction. When one loved, one loved a complete existence and loved it with one’s whole being, with the soul and every fibre of the body, with the self and this other, this new-found alien beneath, beyond and within the self. She was all love and only love. Nothing but love existed—nothing.

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