The Devils of Loudun Page 48

What were the reasons for this extraordinary concern over a case, apparently, of such small importance? Like His Eminence’s contemporaries, we must be content with guesses. That the desire for personal vengeance was an important motive seems certain. In 1618, when Richelieu was only Bishop of Luçon and Abbot of Coussay, this whippersnapper of a parson had been rude to him. And now there was good reason to believe that the same Grandier was responsible for the outrageous libels and insults contained in the Cordonnière. True, the accusation was one which it would be all but impossible to substantiate in a court of law. But, for merely having been suspected of such a crime, the man deserved to be got rid of. And this was not all. The guilty parson was the incumbent of a guilty parish. Loudun was still a stronghold of Protestantism. Too prudent to compromise themselves at the time of the uprising which ended in 1628 with the capture of La Rochelle, the Huguenots of Poitou had done nothing to deserve open and systematic persecution. The Edict of Nantes still stood and, intolerable as they were, the Calvinists had to be tolerated. But now suppose that it could be proved, out of the mouths of the good sisters, that these gentlemen of the so-called Reformed Religion had been in secret league with an enemy even worse than the English—with the devil himself? In that case there would be ample justification for doing what he had long been planning to do: namely, to deprive Loudun of all its rights and privileges, and to transfer them to his own brand-new city of Richelieu. And even this was not all. The devils might be useful in yet other ways. If people could be made to believe that Loudun was but the beachhead of a regular invasion from hell, then it might be possible to revive the Inquisition in France. And how convenient that would be! How greatly it would facilitate the Cardinal’s self-appointed task of centralizing all power in the absolute monarchy! As we know from our own experience of such secular devils as the Jews, the Communists, the Bourgeois Imperialists, the best way to establish and justify a police state is to keep harping on the dangers of a Fifth Column. Richelieu made only one mistake: he overestimated his compatriots’ belief in the supernatural. Seeing that he was in the middle of the Thirty Years War, he would probably have done better with a Fifth Column of Spaniards and Austrians than with mere spirits, however infernal.

Laubardemont lost no time. By 6th December he was back again at Loudun. From a house in the suburbs he sent secretly for the Public Prosecutor and the Chief of Police, Guillaume Aubin. They came. Laubardemont showed them his commission and a royal warrant for Grandier’s arrest.

Aubin had always liked the parson. That night he sent Grandier a message, informing him of Laubardemont’s return and urging immediate flight. Grandier thanked him; but, fondly imagining that innocence had nothing to fear, ignored his friend’s advice. Next morning, on his way to church, he was arrested. Mesmin and Trincant, Mignon and Menuau, the apothecary and the surgeon—in spite of the earliness of the hour, they were all on hand to see the fun. It was to the sound of jeering laughter that Grandier was led away to the coach which was to carry him to his appointed prison in the castle of Angers.

The parsonage was now searched, and all Grandier’s books and papers were impounded. Disappointingly enough, his library contained not a single work on the Black Art; but it did contain (and this was very nearly as damning) a copy of the Lettre de la Cordonnière, together with the manuscript of that Treatise on Sacerdotal Celibacy which Grandier had written in order to salve the conscience of Mlle. de Brou.

In convivial moments Laubardemont had been heard to remark that if he could get hold of only three lines of a man’s handwriting he could find a reason for hanging him. In the Treatise and the pamphlet against the Cardinal he already had the amplest justification not merely for a hanging, but for the rack, the wheel, the stake. And the search had revealed other treasures. For example, there were all the letters written to the parson by Jean d’Armagnac—letters which, if he ever made a nuisance of himself, could certainly be used to send the royal favourite into exile or to the scaffold. And here were the absolutions granted by the Archbishop of Bordeaux. At the moment M. de Sourdis was doing very well at the Admiralty; but if at any time he should do less well, these proofs that he had once absolved a notorious magician might come in very handy. Meanwhile, of course, they must be kept out of Grandier’s hands; for if he could show no proof that he had been absolved by the Metropolitan, then his condemnation by the Bishop of Poitiers still held good. And if it still held good, Grandier was the priest who had performed the veneric act in church. And if he were capable of that, then, obviously, he was capable of bewitching seventeen nuns.

The weeks that followed were a long orgy of licensed spite, of perjury consecrated by the Church, of hatred and envy, not merely unrepressed, but officially rewarded. The Bishop of Poitiers issued a monitory, denouncing Grandier and inviting the faithful to inform against him. The injunction was eagerly obeyed. Whole volumes of malicious gossip were transcribed by Laubardemont and his clerks. The case of 1630 was reopened, and all the witnesses who had confessed to perjury now swore that all the lies they had recanted were gospel truth. At these preliminary hearings Grandier was neither present in person nor represented by counsel. Laubardemont did not permit the case for the defence to be stated, and when Grandier’s mother protested against the iniquitous and even illegal methods which were being employed, he merely tore up her petitions. In January 1634 the old lady gave notice that she was appealing, in her son’s name, to the Parlement of Paris. Laubardemont, meanwhile, was at Angers, cross-questioning the prisoner. His efforts were fruitless. Grandier, who had been informed of the appeal and who felt confident that his case would soon be tried before another and less manifestly prejudiced judge, refused to answer the Commissioner’s questions. After a week of alternate browbeating and cajolery, Laubardemont gave up in disgust and hurried back to Paris and the Cardinal. Set in motion by old Mme. Grandier, the ponderous machinery of the law was slowly but surely grinding its way towards an appeal. But an appeal was the last thing that either Laubardemont or his master desired. The judges of the high court were passionately concerned with legality, and jealous, on principle, of the executive branch of the government. If they were permitted to review the case, Laubardemont’s reputation as a lawyer would be ruined and His Eminence would have to give up a scheme to which, for reasons best known to himself, he was greatly attached. In March, Richelieu took the matter to the Council of State. The devils, he explained to the King, were counter-attacking, and only by the most energetic action could they be checked and turned back. As usual, Louis XIII permitted himself to be convinced. The Secretary of State drew up the necessary documents. Under the royal hand and seal it was now decreed that “without regard to the appeal at present lodged with the Parlement, which His Majesty hereby annuls, my lord Laubardemont shall continue the action initiated against Grandier. . . .: to which end the King renews his commission for as long as may be necessary, debars the Parlement of Paris and all other judges from taking cognizance of the case, and forbids the parties from suing before them, under penalty of a fine of five hundred livres.”

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