The Devils of Loudun Page 61

Supernatural blasphemy, more than human bawdry—and if these were not sufficient proofs of diabolic possession, what about the nuns’ contortions, what about their exploits in the acrobatic field? Levitation had quickly been ruled out; but if the good sisters never rose into the air, they at least performed the most amazing feats on the floor. Sometimes, says de Nion, “they passed the left foot over the shoulder to the cheek. They also passed their feet over the head, until the big toes touched the nose. Others again were able to stretch their legs so far to the left and right that they sat on the ground, without any space being visible between their bodies and the floor. One, the Mother Superior, stretched her legs to such an extraordinary extent that, from toe to toe, the distance was seven feet, though she herself was but four feet high.” Reading such accounts of the nuns’ performances, one is forced to the conclusion that, as well as naturaliter Christiana, the feminine soul is naturaliter Drum-Majoretta. So far as the Eternal Feminine is concerned, a taste for acrobacy and exhibitionism would seem to be built-in, only awaiting a favourable opportunity to manifest itself in handsprings and back somersaults. In the case of cloistered contemplatives, such opportunities are not of frequent occurrence. It took seven devils and Canon Mignon to create the circumstances in which, at long last, it became possible for Sister Jane to do the splits.

That the nuns found a deep satisfaction in their gymnastics is proved by de Nion’s statement that, though for months at a stretch they were “tortured by the devils twice a day,” their health in no way suffered. On the contrary, “those who were somewhat delicate seemed healthier than before the possession.” The latent drum-majorettes, the cabaret dancers in posse had been permitted to come to the surface and, for the first time, these poor girls without a vocation for prayer were truly happy.

Alas, their happiness was not unmitigated. They had their lucid intervals. They were aware, from time to time, of what was being done to them, of what they themselves were doing to the wretched man with whom they had all frantically imagined themselves to be in love. We have seen that, as early as 26th June, Sister Claire had been complaining of the manner in which the exorcists were treating her. On 3rd July, in the chapel of the castle, she suddenly burst into tears and, between her sobs, declared that everything she had said about Grandier during the preceding weeks was a tissue of lies and calumnies, and that she had acted throughout under orders from Father Lactance, Canon Mignon and the Carmelites. Four days later, in a yet wilder passion of remorse and rebellion, she tried to run away, but was caught as she left the church and brought back, struggling and weeping, to the good fathers. Emboldened by her example, Sister Agnes (that beau petit diable, whom Killigrew was to see, more than a year later, still grovelling at the feet of her Capuchin) appealed to the spectators, who had come to see her show those now familiar legs of hers, begging with tears in her eyes to be delivered from her horrible captivity among the exorcists. But the exorcists always had the last word. Sister Agnes’s entreaties, Sister Claire’s attempt at flight, her retractations and qualms of conscience—these, it was only too obvious, were the work of Grandier’s lord and protector, the devil. If a nun withdrew what she had said against the parson, that was proof positive that Satan was speaking through her mouth and that what she had originally affirmed was the indubitable truth.

It was in the case of the Prioress that this argument was used with the greatest effect. One of the judges wrote a brief summary of the counts on which Grandier was condemned. In the sixth paragraph of this document we read what follows. “Of all the accidents by which the good sisters were tormented, none seems stranger than that which befell the Mother Superior. The day after she gave her evidence, while M. de Laubardemont was taking the deposition of another nun, the Prioress appeared in the convent yard, dressed only in her chemise, and stood there for the space of two hours, in the pouring rain, bareheaded, a rope round her neck, a candle in her hand. When the parlour door was opened, she rushed forward, fell on her knees before M. de Laubardemont and declared that she had come to make amends for the offence she had committed in accusing the innocent Grandier. After which, having retired, she fastened the rope to a tree in the garden and would have hanged herself if the other sisters had not come running to the rescue.”

Another man might have supposed that the Prioress had told a pack of lies and was suffering the well-deserved agonies of remorse. Not so M. de Laubardemont. To him it was manifest that this show of contrition had been put on by Balaam or Leviathan, constrained thereto by the spells of the magician. So far from exculpating the parson, Sœur Jeanne’s confession and attempted suicide made it more certain than ever that he was guilty.

It was no good. From the prison they had built for themselves—the prison of obscene phantasies now objectified as facts, of deliberate lies now treated as revealed truths—the nuns would never be able to escape. The Cardinal had now gone so far that he could not afford to let them repent. And could they themselves have afforded to persist in that repentance? By retracting what they had said about Grandier they would condemn themselves, not merely in this world but also in the next. On second thoughts, they all decided to believe their exorcists. The good fathers assured them that what felt so horribly like remorse was only a diabolic illusion; that what looked in retrospect like the most monstrous of lies was actually a truth, and a truth so wholesome, so Catholic, that the Church was ready to guarantee both its orthodoxy and its correspondence with the facts. They listened, they suffered themselves to be persuaded. And when it became impossible to go on pretending to believe this abominable nonsense, they took refuge in delirium. Horizontally, on the level of everyday reality, there was no escape from their prison. And as for upward self-transcendence—there was no question, in the midst of all this fiendish preoccupation with fiends, of lifting up the soul to God. But downwards the road was still wide open. And downwards they went, again and again—sometimes voluntarily, in a desperate effort to escape from the knowledge of their guilt and humiliation; sometimes, when their madness and the suggestions of the exorcists were too much for them, against their will and in spite of themselves. Down into convulsions; down into swinish squalor or maniacal rage. Down, far down, below the level of personality, into that subhuman world, in which it seemed natural for an aristocrat to play tricks for the amusement of the mob, for a nun to blaspheme and strike indecent postures and shout unmentionable words. And then down, still further, down into stupor, down into catalepsy, down into the ultimate bliss of total unconsciousness, of absolute and complete oblivion.

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