The Devils of Loudun Page 46

This letter also remained unanswered, and the horrible farce was allowed to go on, day after day, until the middle of December, when M. de Sourdis came most opportunely to stay at his abbey, Saint-Jouin-des-Marnes. Unofficially by Grandier and officially by de Cerisay the Archbishop was informed of what was happening and asked to intervene. M. de Sourdis immediately sent his personal physician to look into the matter. Knowing that the doctor was a man who would tolerate no nonsense and that his master, the Metropolitan, was frankly sceptical, the nuns took fright and during the whole time of the investigation behaved themselves like so many lambs. There was no sign of possession. The doctor made his report to this effect and in the last days of December 1632 the Archbishop published an ordinance. Henceforward Mignon was not to exorcize at all, and Barré might do so only in conjunction with two exorcists appointed by the Metropolitan, a Jesuit from Poitiers and an Oratorian from Tours. No one else might take part in the exorcisms.

The prohibition was almost unnecessary; for during the months that followed there were no devils to exorcize. No longer stimulated by priestly suggestions, the frenzies of the nuns gave place to a dismal, morning-after condition, in which mental confusion was mingled with shame, remorse and the conviction of enormous sin. For what if the Archbishop were right? What if there never had been any devils? Then all these monstrous things they had done and said could be imputed to them as crimes. Possessed, they were guiltless. Unpossessed, they would have to answer, at the Last Judgment, for blasphemy and unchastity, for lies and malice. At their feet hell yawned appallingly. And meanwhile, to make matters worse, there was no money and everybody had turned against them. Everybody—the parents of their pupils, the pious ladies of the town, the crowds of sightseers, and even their own relatives. Yes, even their own relatives; for now that they had ceased to be possessed, now that, in the judgment of the Archbishop, they were either impostors or the victims of melancholy and enforced continence, they had become disgraces to their families, and as such were repudiated, disavowed, their allowance cut off. Meat and butter disappeared from the refectory table, servants from the kitchen. The nuns were forced to do their own housework; and when the housework was done, they had to earn their bread by taking in plain sewing, by spinning wool for rapacious cloth merchants who took advantage of their needs and their misfortunes by paying them even less than the current rate for sweated labour. Hungry, oppressed by incessant toil, haunted by metaphysical terrors and a sense of guilt, the poor women looked back nostalgically to the happy days of their possession. Winter gave place to spring, and spring to a no less wretched summer. Then, in the autumn of 1633, hope revived. The King had changed his mind about the castle keep, and M. de Laubardemont was once again a guest at the Swan and Cross. Mesmin de Silly and the other Cardinalists were exultant. D’Armagnac had lost the game; the castle was doomed. Nothing now remained but to get rid of the insufferable parson. At his very first interview with the King’s Commissioner, Mesmin broached the subject of the possession. Laubardemont listened attentively. As a man who, in his time, had judged and burned several scores of witches, he could legitimately claim to be an expert in matters supernatural.

Next day he called at the convent in the rue Paquin. Canon Mignon confirmed Mesmin’s story; so did the Mother Superior; so did the Cardinal’s kinswoman, Sister Claire de Sazilly, and so did Laubardemont’s two sisters-in-law, the demoiselles de Dampierre. The bodies of all the good sisters had been infested by evil spirits; the spirits had been introduced by magic, and the magician was Urbain Grandier. These truths had been vouched for by the devils themselves, and were therefore beyond doubt. And yet His Grace, the Archbishop, had said there was no real possession, and thereby disgraced them in the eyes of the world. It was a monstrous injustice, and they begged M. de Laubardemont to use his influence with His Eminence and His Majesty to have something done about it. Laubardemont was sympathetic, but made no promises. Personally, he liked nothing better than a good witch trial. But how did the Cardinal feel about such matters? It was hard indeed to say. Sometimes he seemed to take them very seriously indeed. But the next time you saw him, the chances were that he would be talking about the supernatural in the derisive tones of a disciple of Charron or Montaigne. By those who serve him, a great man must be treated as a mixture between a god, a naughty child and a wild beast. The god must be worshipped, the child amused and bamboozled and the wild beast placated and, when aroused, avoided. The courtier who, by an unwelcome suggestion, annoys this insane trinity of superhuman pretension, subhuman ferocity and infantile silliness, is merely asking for trouble. The nuns might weep and implore; but until he had discovered which way the wind was blowing, Laubardemont had no intention of doing anything to help them.

A few days later Loudun was honoured by the visit of a very distinguished personage, Henri de Condé. This prince of the blood royal was a notorious sodomite, who combined the most sordid avarice with an exemplary piety. In politics he had once been an anti-Cardinalist, but now that Richelieu’s position seemed impregnable, he had become the most fawning of His Eminence’s sycophants. Informed of the possession, the Prince at once expressed a desire to see for himself. Canon Mignon and the nuns were only too happy to oblige. Accompanied by Laubardemont and a numerous suite, Condé drove in state to the convent, was received by Mignon and ushered into the chapel, where a solemn Mass was celebrated. At first the nuns observed the most perfect decorum; but at the moment of communion, the Prioress, Sœur Claire and Sœur Agnès went into convulsions and rolled on the floor, howling obscenities and blasphemies. The rest of the community followed suit and for an hour or two the church looked like a mixture between a bear-garden and a brothel. Greatly edified, the Prince declared that doubt was no longer possible and urged Laubardemont to write at once to the Cardinal, informing His Eminence of what was going on. “But the Commissioner,” as we learn from a contemporary narrative, “gave no inkling as to what he thought about this strange spectacle. However, after returning to the inn, he felt himself deeply moved by compassion for the deplorable condition of the nuns. To cloak his real feelings, he invited Grandier’s friends to dinner and, along with them, Grandier himself.” It must have been a delightful party.

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