The Devils of Loudun Page 35

But Grandier’s answer, when it came, was a polite refusal. Not only did he feel himself unworthy of so high an honour; he was also much too busy with his duties as a parish priest.

From the pinnacle of joy, the Prioress tumbled headlong into a disappointment in which grief was mingled with hurt pride, and out of which there grew, as she ruminated the bitter cud of her defeat, a cold persistent rage, a steady malignancy of hatred.

To implement this loathing was by no means easy; for the parson inhabited a world into which it was impossible for a cloistered nun to penetrate. She could not go to him; and he would not go to her. Their nearest approach to a personal contact came when Madeleine de Brou called at the convent to visit her niece, who was one of the boarders. Entering the parlour, Madeleine found the Prioress confronting her on the other side of the grille. She uttered a polite greeting and was answered by a torrent of abuse that became more shrilly violent with every passing moment. “Whore, strumpet, debaucher of priests, committer of the ultimate sacrilege!” Through the bars the Prioress spat at her rival. Madeleine turned and fled.

The last hope of a personal, face-to-face vengeance was now gone. But one thing, at least, Sœur Jeanne could still do: she could associate herself and the whole community under her charge with Grandier’s avowed enemies. Without delay she sent for the man who, of all the local clerics, had the most cogent reasons for detesting him. Ill-favoured, congenitally lame, devoid of talent no less than of charm, Canon Mignon had always envied the parson’s good looks, quick wit and easy successes. To this general and, so to say, antecedent antipathy had been added, over the years, a number of more specific grounds for dislike—Grandier’s sarcasms, the seduction of Mignon’s cousin, Philippe Trincant, and, more recently, a quarrel over a piece of property disputed between the collegial church of Sainte-Croix and the parish of Saint-Pierre. Acting against the advice of his fellow canons, Mignon had taken the case to court and, as they had all prophesied, lost it. He was still smarting under this humiliation when the Prioress summoned him to the convent parlour, and, after talking at large about the spiritual life and in particular of the parson’s scandalous behaviour, invited him to become the nuns’ confessor. The offer was immediately accepted. A new ally had joined the forces leagued against Grandier. Precisely how that ally was to be made use of, Mignon did not yet know. But, like a good general, he was prepared to seize every opportunity that might present itself.

In the Prioress’s mind, meanwhile, the new hatred for Grandier had not abolished, had not even mitigated, the old obsessive desires. The imagined hero of her waking or nocturnal dreams remained the same; but now he was no longer the Prince Charming, for whom one left the casement open at night, but an importunate incubus, who delighted in inflicting upon his victim the outrage of an unwelcome but irrepressible pleasure. After Moussaut’s death Sœur Jeanne dreamed on several occasions that the old man had come back from Purgatory to implore his former penitents for the assistance of their prayers. But even as he plaintively spoke, everything changed and “it was no longer the person of her late confessor, but the face and semblance of Urbain Grandier who, altering his words and behaviour at the same time as his figure, talked to her of amours, plied her with caresses no less insolent than unchaste, and pressed her to grant him what was no longer hers to dispose of, that which, by her vows, she had consecrated to her divine Bridegroom.”

In the mornings the Prioress would recount these nocturnal adventures to her fellow nuns. The tales lost nothing in the telling and, within a very little while, two other young ladies—Sœur Claire de Sazilly (Cardinal Richelieu’s cousin) and another Claire, a lay sister, were also having visions of importunate clergymen and hearing a voice that whispered the most indelicate propositions in their ears.

The next, the determining event in the long series which led at last to the parson’s destruction, was a rather silly practical joke. Devised by a committee of the younger nuns and their older pupils, for the purpose of frightening the babies and the pious and simple-minded elders, the joke was a simple hallowe’en affair of pretended apparitions and poltergeists. The house in which the nuns and their boarders were lodged had a reputation, as we have already seen, for being haunted. Its occupants were therefore well prepared to be terrified when, shortly after the old Canon’s death, a white-sheeted figure was seen to glide about the dormitories. After the first visitation, all doors were carefully bolted; but the phantoms either made their way along the leads and entered through the windows, or else were admitted by their fifth column within the rooms. Clothes were plucked off the beds, faces were touched by icy fingers. Overhead, in the attics, there was a groaning and a rattling of chains. The children screamed; the Reverend Mothers crossed themselves and appealed to St. Joseph. In vain. After a few quiet nights the ghosts would be back again. The school and convent were in a panic.

Seated at his listening post in the confessional, Canon Mignon knew about everything—about the incubi in the cells, about the ghosts in the dormitories, about the practical jokers in the attics. He knew about everything—and suddenly a light dawned and the finger of Providence was manifest. All things, he now perceived, were working together for good. He would work with them. To this end, he reprimanded the jokers, but ordered them to say nothing about their pranks. He instilled a new terror into the victims of those pranks by telling them that the things they had taken for ghosts were more probably devils. And he confirmed the Mother Superior and her fellow visionaries in their hallucinations by assuring them that their nightly visitants were real and manifestly satanic. After which he repaired, with four or five of the parson’s most influential enemies, to M. Trincant’s country house at Puydardane, a league from town. There, before the assembled council of war, he gave an account of what was happening in the convent and showed how the situation might be exploited to Grandier’s disadvantage. The matter was discussed and a plan of campaign, complete with secret weapons, psychological warfare and a supernatural intelligence service, was drawn up. The conspirators parted in the highest of spirits. This time, they all felt, they had him—on toast.

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