The Devils of Loudun Page 33

If her directors took her seriously, it was either because they had their own, not too creditable reasons for believing in her extraordinary graces, or else because they were committed by temperament and Weltanschauung to this kind of illusion. How seriously, we may now ask, did she take herself? How seriously was she taken by her fellow nuns? We can only guess at the answers to these questions.

There must be times when, however word-perfect in their impressive rôles, the comedians of the spiritual life become uneasily conscious that something is not quite right, that perhaps, after all, God is not mocked and that even human beings may not (appalling thought!) be quite so dumb as one might be led to suppose.

This last truth seems to have dawned upon Sœur Jeanne at a fairly early stage in her long-drawn impersonation of St. Teresa. “God,” she writes, “very often permitted that things should happen to me at the hands of creatures, which gave me much pain.” Through the obscuring veils of this odd jargon we divine the ironic shrug with which Sister X received some specially eloquent discourse on the Spiritual Marriage, the hard-boiled comment made by Sister Y on Jeanne’s new trick, in church, of rolling up her eyes and pressing her hands, like some saint in a baroque picture, over a bosom wildly palpitating with extraordinary graces. We all imagine ourselves to be simultaneously clear-sighted and impenetrable; but, except when blinded by some infatuation, other people can see through us just as easily as we can see through them. The discovery of this fact is apt to be exceedingly disconcerting.

Fortunately for Sœur Jeanne—or perhaps very unfortunately—the first Prioress of the Loudun house was less perspicacious than those other creatures whose ironic scepticism had given her so much pain. Deeply impressed by her young pupil’s holy conversation and exemplary behaviour, the good mother had felt no hesitation in recommending Jeanne’s appointment as Prioress. And now the appointment had been made, and here she was—only twenty-five and the head of a house, the queen of a tiny empire, whose seventeen subjects were bound by Holy Obedience to take her orders and listen to her advice.

Now that victory had been won, now that the fruits of a long and arduous campaign were securely in her grasp, Sœur Jeanne felt that she was entitled to a holiday. She went on with her mystical reading, she continued, on occasion, to talk very learnedly about Christian perfection; but in the intervals she permitted herself—indeed, as Superior, she actually commanded herself—to take it easy. In the parlour, where she was now free to spend as much time as she liked, the new Prioress indulged in interminable conversations with her friends and acquaintances of the uncloistered world. Years later she piously expressed the wish that she might be permitted to set forth “all the faults I committed and caused to be committed in the course of conversations which were not strictly necessary; for then it would be seen how dangerous it is to expose young nuns with such facility at the grilles of their convent parlours, even though their talk may seem to be wholly spiritual.” Yes, even the most spiritual discourses, as the Prioress knew only too well, had a curious way of winding up as something very different. One started out with a series of edifying remarks about the devotion to St. Joseph, about meditation and the precise moment when it might be allowed to give place to the prayer of simple regard, about holy indifference and the practice of the presence of God—one started with these things and then, before one knew where one was or how precisely one had got there, one was discussing, yet again, the exploits of the fascinating and abominable M. Grandier.

“That shameless creature in the rue du Lion d’Or. . . . That young hussy who was M. Hervé’s housekeeper before he got married. . . . That cobbler’s daughter who was now in the service of Her Majesty, the Queen Mother, and who kept him posted about all that went on at court. . . . And his penitents. . . . One shudders to think. . . . Yes, in the sacristy, Reverend Mother, in the sacristy—not fifteen paces from the Blessed Sacrament. . . . And that poor little Trincant, seduced, you might say, under her father’s nose, in his own library. And now it was Mlle. de Brou. Yes, that prude, that precisian. So much attached to virginity that she would never marry. So devout that, when her mother died, she talked of turning Carmelite. Instead of which . . .”

Instead of which . . . In her own case, the Prioress reflected, there had been no ‘instead.’ A novice at nineteen, a nun when she was barely of age. And yet, after the death of her sisters and her two brothers, her parents had begged her to come home and get married and give them grandchildren. Why had she refused? Why, though she hated this dismal life between four walls, had she persisted in taking the final vows? Was it for the love of God, or out of dislike for her mother? Was it to spite M. de Coze or to please Jesus?

She thought with envy of Madeleine de Brou. No choleric father, no prying mother; plenty of money; and her own mistress, free to do as she pleased. And now she had Grandier.

Envy modulated into hatred and contempt.

This hypocrite, with her pale face like the face of a virgin martyr in a picture book! This soft-spoken dissembler, with her beads and her long prayers and her pocket edition of the Bishop of Geneva in red morocco! And all the time, under those black weeds, behind those downcast eyes, what a burning, what lechery! No better than that slut in the rue du Lion d’Or, no better than the cobbler’s daughter, or the little Trincant. And these at least had the excuse of being young or widowed; which was more than could be said for that old maid of thirty-five, with a figure like a maypole and no looks at all. Whereas she, the Prioress, was still in her twenties, and Sister Claire de Sazilly used to say that her face under its coif was like an angel’s peeping through a cloud. And what eyes! Everybody had always admired her eyes—even her mother, even her detestable old aunt, the Abbess. If only she could get him as far as the parlour! Then she would look at him through the grille—look at him fixedly, searchingly, with eyes that should reveal her soul in all its nakedness. Yes, in all its nakedness; for the grille was not the adjunct of modesty; it was in lieu of modesty. Restraint had been taken out of the mind and embodied in an iron lattice. Behind bars one could be shameless.

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