The Devils of Loudun Page 75

Sœur Jeanne had made up her mind to keep her secrets to herself, and she acted upon this resolution by feeling and expressing an intense aversion for her new exorcist and by going into fits (in her own words, “being troubled inwardly and outwardly by the demons”) whenever Surin tried to question her about the condition of her soul. When he approached, she ran away and, if compelled to listen to him, she howled and stuck out her tongue. In all this, Sœur Jeanne remarks, “she greatly exercised his virtue. But he had the charity to attribute her disposition to the devil.”

All the nuns suffered from remorse and a conviction, in spite of their devils, of having gravely sinned; but the Prioress had a more pressing and a more conspicuous reason than any of her sisters for feeling guilty. Shortly after the execution of Grandier, Isacaaron, who was a devil of concupiscence, “took advantage of my slackness to give me most horrible temptations against chastity. He performed an operation upon my body, the strangest and most furious that could be imagined; thereafter he persuaded me that I was great with child, in such sort that I firmly believed the fact and exhibited all the signs.” She confided in her sisters, and soon a score of devils had announced the pregnancy. The exorcists reported the matter to the Commissioner and the Commissioner reported to His Eminence. Menstruation, he wrote, had ceased for the past three months; there were constant vomitings, with a derangement of the stomach, secretion of milk and a marked enlargement of the belly. As the weeks passed, the Prioress became more and more painfully agitated. If she bore a child, she herself and, with her, the community of which she was the head and her whole order, would be disgraced. She was filled with a despair, from which the only relief was a visit from Isacaaron. These visits were of almost nightly occurrence. In the darkness of her cell she would hear noises and feel the bed trembling. Hands drew back the sheet; voices whispered flatteries and indecencies in her ear. Sometimes there was a strange light in the room, and she would see the form of a goat, a lion, a snake, a man. Sometimes she fell into a catalepsy and while she lay there, unable to move, it was as though small animals were crawling under the bedclothes, tickling her body with their paws and probing snouts. Then the wheedling voice would ask her, yet once more, for just a little love, for just the tiniest favour. And when she answered that “her honour was in the hands of God and that He would dispose of it according to His will,” she was tumbled out of bed and beaten so violently that her face was quite disfigured and her body covered with bruises. “It happened very often that he treated me in this way, but God gave me more courage than I would have dared to hope for. And yet I was so wicked that I took pride in these trifling combats, thinking that I must be very pleasing to God and that therefore I had no reason for dreading, as I had done, the reproaches of my conscience. Nevertheless, I found it impossible to stifle my remorse, or to prevent myself from believing that I was not what God wished me to be.”

Isacaaron was the chief culprit, and it was against Isacaaron that Surin directed all his energies, all the thunders of the ritual. Audi ergo et time, Satana, malorum radix, fomes vitiorum. . . . Nothing availed. “Since I would not reveal my temptations, they increased more and more.” And as Isacaaron became stronger, so did Sœur Jeanne’s despair, so did her anxieties on account of the steadily advancing pregnancy. Shortly before Christmas she found means to procure certain drugs—mugwort, no doubt, and aristolochium and colocynth, the three simples to which Galenic science and the desperate optimism of girls in trouble attributed abortifacient powers. But what if the child should die, unbaptized? Its soul would be lost eternally. She threw the drugs away.

Another plan now suggested itself. She would go to the kitchen, borrow the cook’s largest knife, cut herself open, extract the baby, baptize it and then either recover, or die herself. On New Year’s Day, 1635, she made a general confession, “without, however, revealing my plans to the confessor.” The following day, armed with her knife and carrying a basin of water for the baptism, she shut herself up in a little room on the top floor of the convent. There was a crucifix in the room. Sœur Jeanne knelt before it, and prayed God to “forgive her death and that of the little creature, in case I should murder myself and it, for I was resolved to smother it as soon as it was baptized.” While she was undressing, she was overtaken by de petittes appréhensions d’estre damnée; but these little apprehensions were not strong enough to divert her from her evil design. After taking off her habit, she cut a large hole in her chemise with a pair of scissors, picked up the knife and began to thrust it between the two ribs nearest to the stomach, “with a strong resolution to proceed to the bitter end.” But though they often attempt suicide, hysterics very rarely succeed. “Behold the merciful stroke of Providence which prevented me from doing what I had intended! I was suddenly thrown down with inexpressible violence. The knife was snatched out of my hand and placed before me at the foot of the crucifix.” A voice cried, “Desist!” Sœur Jeanne raised her eyes to the crucifix. The Christ detached one of his arms from the cross and held out his hand to her. Divine words were spoken, after which there was a muttering and howling of devils. The Prioress resolved, there and then, to change her way of life and be wholly converted. Meanwhile, however, the pregnancy continued and Isacaaron had by no means given up hope. One night he offered, for a consideration, to bring her a magic plaster which would, if applied to the stomach, put an end to her pregnancy. The Prioress was sorely tempted to accept his terms, but on second thoughts decided to say no. The exasperated devil gave her a sound beating. Another time Isacaaron wept and complained so mournfully that Sœur Jeanne was touched to the heart and “felt a desire for the same thing to present itself again.” It did. There seemed to be no reason why this sort of thing should not go on indefinitely.

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