The Devils of Loudun Page 14

From this time forth the apothecary’s shop became the regular meeting-place and headquarters of a cabal, whose single aim was to be revenged on Urbain Grandier. The leading spirits in this conspiracy were the Public Prosecutor, his nephew, Canon Mignon, the Lieutenant Criminel, and his father-in-law, Mesmin de Silly, Mannoury the surgeon, and M. Adam himself, whose position as pill-maker, tooth-drawer and clyster-giver to the community provided him with unrivalled opportunities for the collection of information.

Thus, from Mme. Chauvin, the notary’s wife, he had learned (in strictest confidence, while he made up a vermifuge for her little Théophile) that the parson had just invested eight hundred livres in a first mortgage. The rascal was growing rich.

And here was a piece of bad news. From M. d’Armagnac’s second footman’s sister-in-law, who had a female complaint and was a regular customer for dried mugwort, the apothecary had heard that Grandier was to dine next day at the castle. At this the Public Prosecutor frowned, the Lieutenant Criminel swore and shook his head. D’Armagnac was not merely the Governor; he was one of the King’s favourites. That such a man should be the parson’s friend and protector was indeed deplorable.

There was a long and gloomy silence, broken at last by Canon Mignon, who declared that their only hope lay in a good scandal. Somehow or other they would have to arrange to catch him flagrante delicto. What about the vintner’s widow?

Sadly the apothecary had to admit that, in that quarter, he had nothing to report that was at all satisfactory. The window herself knew how to keep her mouth shut, her maid had proved incorruptible, and when, the other night, he had tried to peep through a chink in the shutters, someone had leaned out of an upper window with a brimming chamber pot. . . .

Time passed. With a serene and majestic impudence, the parson went about his business and his pleasures as usual. And soon the strangest rumours began to reach the apothecary’s ears. The parson was spending more and more of his time with the town’s most distinguished prude and dévote, Mlle. de Brou.

Madeleine was the second of the three daughters of René de Brou, a man of substantial fortune and noble birth, related to all the best families of the province. Her two sisters were married, one to a physician, the other to a country gentleman; but at thirty Madeleine was still unwed and fancy free. Suitors had not been lacking; but she had rejected every offer, preferring to stay at home, look after her aging parents and think her own thoughts. She was one of those quiet and enigmatic young women, who repress strong emotions under a grave aloofness of manner. Esteemed by her elders, she had few friends among her contemporaries and juniors, who regarded her as a prig and, because she did not take pleasure in their loud amusements, a spoil-sport. Besides she was altogether too pious. Religion was all very well; but it should never be allowed to invade the sanctities of private life. And when it came to frequent communion, confessing every other day and kneeling for hours, as Madeleine used to do, in front of the image of Our Lady—well, that was really too much of a good thing. They left her alone. It was precisely what Madeleine wanted them to do.

Then her father died. And a little later her mother developed a cancer. During her long and painful illness, Grandier had found time, in the intervals between Philippe Trincant and the vintner’s widow, to visit the poor lady and bring her the consolations of religion. On her death-bed Mme. de Brou recommended her daughter to his pastoral care. The parson promised to guard Madeleine’s material and spiritual interests as though they were his own. In his peculiar fashion he was to keep that promise.

Madeleine’s first thought, after her mother’s death, was to sever all her worldly ties and enter religion. But when she consulted her spiritual director, she found that he was against the plan. Outside the cloister, Grandier insisted, she could do more good than within. Among the Ursulines or the Carmelites, she would be hiding her light under a bushel. Her place was here, at Loudun; her vocation, to give a shining example of wisdom to all those foolish virgins whose thought was only of perishable vanities. He spoke eloquently and there was a divine unction in his words. His eyes were bright, his whole face seemed to shine with an inner fire of zeal and inspiration. He looked, Madeleine thought, like an apostle, like an angel. Everything he said was true, axiomatically, self-evidently.

She went on living in the old house; but it seemed very dark now, very empty, and she took to spending a great part of each day with her friend (almost her only friend), Françoise Grandier, who lived with her brother at the parsonage. Sometimes—what could be more natural?—Urbain would join them as they sat there, stitching for the poor or richly embroidering for Our Lady or one of the saints; and suddenly the world would seem brighter and so full of a divine significance that she felt her soul overflowing with happiness.

This time Grandier fell into his own trap. His strategy—the old familiar strategy of the professional seducer—had called for coolness in the face of a deliberately kindled fire, for a detached sensuality pitting itself against passion and exploiting the infinities of love for its own strictly limited purposes. But as the campaign advanced, something went wrong—or rather something went right. For the first time in his life Grandier found himself in love; in love not merely with the prospect of future sensualities, not merely with an innocence which it would be fun to corrupt, a social superiority whose humiliation would be his triumph, but with a woman recognized as a person and loved for what she actually was. The rake underwent a conversion to monogamy. It was a great step forward—but a step forward which a priest of the Roman Church could not take without involving himself in endless difficulties, ethical and theological, ecclesiastical and social. It was in order to get clear of some of these difficulties that Grandier wrote the little treatise on the celibacy of the clergy, to which reference was made in an earlier chapter. Nobody likes to think of himself as immoral and heretical; but at the same time nobody likes to renounce a course of action dictated by powerful impulses, especially when these impulses are recognized as being in their nature good, as tending towards a higher and more abundant life. Hence all the curious literature of rationalization and justification—rationalization of impulse or intuition in terms of whatever philosophy happens, at the given time and place, to be fashionable, justification of unorthodox actions by reference to the current moral code, reinterpreted to fit the particular occasion. Grandier’s treatise is a characteristic specimen of this touching and often exceedingly odd branch of apologetics. He loves Madeleine de Brou and knows that this love of his is something intrinsically good; but according to the by-laws of the organization to which he belongs, even this intrinsically good love is bad. He must therefore find some argument to prove that the by-laws do not mean what they say or that he himself did not mean what he said when he agreed, under oath, to abide by them. For a clever man, nothing is easier than to find arguments that will convince him that he is doing right when he is doing what he wants to do. For Grandier the arguments in his treatise seemed irrefragably convincing. What is somewhat more remarkable, they seemed irrefragably convincing to Madeleine. Religious almost to scrupulosity, virtuous not only on principle, but by habit and temperament, she regarded the rules of the Church as so many categorical imperatives and would have died rather than sin against chastity. But she was in love—for the first time and with a passion the more violent for having taken possession of a nature so inward, so long and so consistently held in check. The heart had its reasons, and when Grandier argued that the vow of celibacy was not binding and that a priest might marry, she believed him. If she became his wife, she would be allowed to love him—indeed, it would be her duty to love him. Ergo—for logic is irresistible—the ethics and theology of her lover’s treatise were beyond reproach. And so it came to pass that one midnight, in the empty, echoing church, Grandier fulfilled his promise to Mme. de Brou by going through a ceremony of marriage with the orphan she had left to his care. As priest he asked himself whether he took this woman to be his wedded wife, and as bridegroom he answered in the affirmative, he slipped the ring upon her finger. As priest he invoked a blessing, and as groom he knelt to receive it. It was a fantastic ceremony; but in defiance of law and custom, of Church and State, they chose to believe in its validity. Loving one another, they knew that, in the sight of God, they were truly married.1

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