The Devils of Loudun Page 71

“Judas, Judas. . . .”

Lactance heard them and, in a passion of uncontrollable rage, jumped down from the pyre, seized a twist of straw and, lighting it in the brazier, waved the flame in the victim’s face. Let him confess who he was—the devil’s servant! Let him confess, let him renounce his master!

“Father,” said Grandier with a calm and gentle dignity that contrasted strangely with the almost hysterical malice of his accusers, “I am about to meet the God who is my witness that I have spoken the truth.”

“Confess,” the friar fairly screamed. “Confess! . . . You have only a moment to live.”

“Only a moment,” the parson repeated slowly. “Only a moment—and then I go to that just and fearful judgment to which, Reverend Father, you too must soon be called.”

Without waiting to hear anything more, Father Lactance threw his torch on to the straw of the pyre. Hardly visible in the bright afternoon sunshine, a little flame appeared and began to creep, growing larger as it advanced, towards the bundles of dry kindling. Following the Recollet’s example, Father Archangel set fire to the straw on the opposite side of the pyre. A thin blue haze of smoke rose into the windless air. Then, with a cheerful crackling, like the noise that accompanies the drinking of mulled wine on a winter evening by the hearth, one of the faggots caught fire.

The prisoner heard the sound and, turning his head, saw the g*y dancing of flames.

“Is this what you promised me?” he called to La Grange in a tone of agonized protest.

And suddenly the divine presence was eclipsed. There was no God, no Christ, nothing but fear.

La Grange shouted indignantly at the friars and tried to extinguish the nearest flames. But there were too many of them to be stamped out; and here was Father Tranquille setting fire to the straw behind the parson’s back, here was Father Lactance lighting another torch at the brazier.

“Strangle him,” he ordered. And the crowd took up the cry. “Strangle, strangle!”

The executioner ran for his noose, only to discover that one of the Capuchins had surreptitiously knotted the rope so that it could not be used. By the time the knots were undone, it was too late. Between the executioner and the victim he had intended to save from this last agony there was a wall of flame, a billowing curtain of smoke. Meanwhile, with whisk and holy water pot, the friars were ridding the bonfire of its remaining devils.

“Exorciso te, creatura ignis. . . .”

The water hissed among the burning logs and was turned in an instant to steam. From the further side of the wall of flames came a sound of screaming. The exorcism, it was evident, had begun to take effect. The friars paused for a moment to give thanks; then, with faith renewed and energy redoubled, they set to work again.

“Draco nequissime, serpens antique, immundissime spiritus . . .”

At this moment a large black fly appeared from nowhere, bumped into Father Lactance’s face and dropped on the opened pages of his book of exorcism. A fly—and as large as a walnut! And Beelzebub was the Lord of Flies!

“Imperat tibi Martyrum sanguis,” he shouted above the roaring of the fire, “Imperat tibi continentia Confessorum . . .”

With a preternaturally loud buzz the insect took wing and disappeared into the smoke.

“In nomine Agni, qui ambulavit super aspidem et basiliscum. . . .”

All at once the screams were strangled by a paroxysm of coughing. The wretch was trying to cheat them by dying of suffocation! To frustrate this latest of Satan’s wiles, Lactance hurled a whiskful of holy water into the smoke.

“Exorciso te, creatura fumi. Effugiat atque discedat a te nequitia omnis ac versutia diabolicae fraudis. . . .”

It worked! The coughing stopped. There was another cry, then silence. And suddenly, to the consternation of the Recollet and his Capuchin colleagues, the blackened thing at the centre of the bonfire began to speak.

“Deus meus,” it said, “miserere mei Deus.” And then, in French, “Forgive them, forgive my enemies.”

The coughing began again. A moment later the cords which bound him to the post gave way and the victim tumbled sideways among the blazing logs.

The fire burned on, the good fathers continued to sprinkle and intone. Suddenly a flock of pigeons came swooping down from the church and started to wheel around the roaring column of flame and smoke. The crowd shouted, the archers waved their halberds at the birds, Lactance and Tranquille splashed them on the wing with holy water. In vain. The pigeons were not to be driven away. Round and round they flew, diving through the smoke, singeing their feathers in the flames. Both parties claimed a miracle. For the parson’s enemies the birds, quite obviously, were a troop of devils, come to fetch away his soul. For his friends, they were emblems of the Holy Ghost and living proof of his innocence. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that they were just pigeons, obeying the laws of their own, their blessedly other-than-human nature.

When the fire had burned itself out, the executioner scattered four shovelfuls of ashes, one towards each of the cardinal points of the compass. Then the crowd surged forward. Burning their fingers, men and women rummaged in the hot flaky dust, hunting for teeth, for fragments of the skull and pelvis, for any cinder showing the black smear of burned flesh. A few, no doubt, were merely souvenir hunters; but most of them were in search of relics, for a charm to bring luck or compel reluctant love, for a talisman against headaches or constipation or the malice of enemies. And these charred

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies