The Devils of Loudun Page 34

But, alas, the opportunity for shamelessness never presented itself. The parson had no reasons, either professional or personal, for visiting the convent. He was not the nuns’ director, he had no relatives among their pupils. His lawsuits and his parochial duties left him no leisure for mindless chatter, or talk about perfection, and his mistresses left him no appetite for new and hazardous ‘embarkations.’ Month succeeded month, year followed year, and the Prioress had still found no occasion for the deployment of those irresistible eyes of hers; so far as she was concerned, Grandier remained merely a name—but a name of power, a name that conjured up unavowable phantasies, spirits familiar and unclean, a demon of curiosity, an incubus of concupiscence.

A bad reputation is the mental equivalent of the purely physiological appeals issued by animals during their mating seasons—cries, odours and even, in the case of certain moths, infra-red radiation. In a woman, a name for promiscuity constitutes a standing invitation to every male within gossip-range. And how fascinating, even to the most respectable ladies, is the professional seducer, the hardened breaker of hearts! In the imagination of his female parishioners Grandier’s amorous exploits took on heroic proportions. He became a mythical figure, part Jupiter, part Satyr—bestially lustful and yet, or therefore, divinely attractive. At the time of his trial, a married lady, belonging to one of Loudun’s most honourable families, testified that, after administering communion, the parson had looked at her fixedly, whereupon she “was seized with a violent love for him, which began with a little thrill in all her members.” Another met him in the street and was incontinently overcome by “an extraordinary passion.” A third merely looked at him as he was entering a church and felt “exceedingly great emotions, together with impulses such that she would very much have liked to sleep with him there and then.” All these ladies were notoriously virtuous and of unblemished reputation. Each of them, moreover, had a home with a man in it and a growing family. The poor Prioress had nothing to do, no husband, no children and no vocation. What wonder if she too fell in love with the delicious monster! “La mère prieure en fut tellement troublée, qu’elle ne parlait plus que de Grandier, qu’elle disait estre l’objet de touttes ses affections.” That double t in touttes seems to raise all to a higher power, so that Grandier becomes the object of affections beyond the limit of experience, affections which it was impossible for anyone to feel—and yet she felt them in all their monstrous and perverse enormity. The thought of the parson haunted her continuously. Her meditations, which should have been a practice of the presence of God, were a practice, instead, of the presence of Urbain Grandier, or rather of the obscenely fascinating image which had crystallized, in her fancy, around his name. Hers was the unobjective and therefore limitless and insane desire of the moth for the star, of the schoolgirl for the crooner, of the bored and frustrated housewife for Rudolph Valentino. On such merely carnal sins as gluttony and lust, the body imposes, by its very nature and constitution, certain limits. But however weak the flesh, the spirit is always indefinitely willing. To sins of the will and the imagination kind nature sets no limits. Avarice and the lust for power are as nearly infinite as anything in this sublunary world can be. And so is the thing which D. H. Lawrence called “sex in the head.” As heroic passion, it is one of the last infirmities of noble mind. As imagined sensuality, it is one of the first infirmities of the insane mind. And in either case (being free of the body and the limitations imposed by fatigue, by boredom, by the essential irrelevance of material happenings to our ideas and fancies), it partakes of the infinite. Behind her bars the Prioress found herself the victim of an insatiable monster, her own imagination. In her own person she combined the trembling and lacerated quarry with an infernal analogue of the Hound of Heaven. As might have been expected, her health broke down and by 1629 Sœur Jeanne was suffering from a psycho-somatic “derangement of the stomach which,” according to Dr. Rogier and the surgeon Mannoury, “rendered her so weak that it was with difficulty that she could walk.”

All this time, let us remember, the Ursulines’ pensionnat was purveying reading and writing, the catechism and deportment, to a growing enrolment of young girls. How, one wonders, did the pupils react to the ministrations of a head-mistress in the clutch of a sexual obsession, of teachers already infected by the hysteria of their principal? To this question the documents provide, unfortunately, no answer. All we know is that it was not until a later stage of the proceedings that indignant parents began to remove their children from the good sisters’ care. For the present, it would seem, the mental atmosphere of the convent was not so manifestly abnormal as to arouse alarm. Then, early in the fifth year of the Prioress’s reign, there occurred a series of events which, though unimportant in themselves, were destined to have enormous consequences.

The first of these events was the death of the Ursulines’ director, Canon Moussaut. A most worthy priest, the Canon had conscientiously done his best for the new community, but his best, since he was on the brink of second childhood, had not been very good. He understood nothing of his penitents; and his penitents, on their side, paid no attention to anything he said.

At the news of Moussaut’s death, the Prioress tried her hardest to look sad; but inwardly she was filled with an effervescent elation. At last, at last!

As soon as the old gentleman was safely buried, she despatched a letter to Grandier. It began with a paragraph about the irreparable loss sustained by the community, went on to stress her own and her sisters’ need for spiritual guidance by some director no less wise and holy than the dear defunct, and ended with an invitation to Grandier to step into the Canon’s shoes. Except for the spelling, which had always been Sœur Jeanne’s weakest point, the letter was altogether admirable. Reading through the fair copy, the Prioress could not see how he could possibly resist an appeal at once so heartfelt, so pious, so delicately flattering.

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