The Devils of Loudun Page 8

To these petty enemies Grandier soon added another capable of doing him immeasurably greater harm. Early in 1618, at a religious convention attended by all the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the neighbourhood, Grandier went out of his way to offend the Prior of Coussay by rudely claiming precedence over him in a solemn procession through the streets of Loudun. Technically the parson’s position was unassailable. In a procession originating in his own church, a Canon of Sainte-Croix had a right to walk in front of the Prior of Coussay. And this right held good even when, as was here the case, the Prior was at the same time a Bishop. But there is such a thing as courtesy; and there is also such a thing as circumspection. The Prior of Coussay was the Bishop of Luçon, and the Bishop of Luçon was Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu.

At the moment—and this was an additional reason for behaving with magnanimous politeness—Richelieu was out of favour. In 1617 his patron, the Italian gangster, Concini, had been assassinated. This coup d’état was engineered by Luynes and approved by the young King. Richelieu was excluded from power and unceremoniously driven from the court. But was there any reason for supposing that this exile would be perpetual? There was no reason at all. And, in effect, a year later, after a brief banishment to Avignon, the indispensable Bishop of Lucon was recalled to Paris. By 1622 he was the King’s first minister and a Cardinal.

Gratuitously, for the mere pleasure of asserting himself, Grandier had offended a man who was very soon to become the absolute ruler of France. Later, the parson would have reason to regret his incivility. Meanwhile the thought of his exploit filled him with a childish satisfaction. A commoner, an obscure parish priest, he had lowered the pride of a Queen’s favourite, a bishop, an aristocrat. He felt the elation of a small boy who has made a long nose at the teacher and ‘got away with it’ unpunished.

Richelieu himself, in later years, derived an identical pleasure from behaving towards princes of the blood exactly as Urbain Grandier had behaved towards him. “To think,” said his old uncle, as he watched the Cardinal calmly taking precedence of the Duke of Savoy, “to think that I should have lived to see the grandson of lawyer Laporte walking into a room before the grandson of Charles V!” Another horrid little boy had triumphantly got away with it.

The pattern of Grandier’s life at Loudun was now set. He fulfilled his clerical duties and in the intervals discreetly frequented the prettier widows, spent convivial evenings in the houses of his intellectual friends and quarrelled with an ever-widening circle of enemies. It was a thoroughly agreeable existence, satisfying alike to head and heart, to the gonads and the adrenals, to the social persona and his private self. There had as yet been no gross or manifest misfortune in his life. He could still imagine that his amusements were gratuitous, that he could desire with impunity and abhor without effect. In fact, of course, destiny had already begun to render its account, but unobtrusively. He had suffered no hurt that he could feel, only an imperceptible coarsening and hardening, only a progressive darkening of the inner light, a gradual narrowing of the soul’s window on the side of eternity. To a man of Grandier’s temperament—the sanguine-choleric, according to the Constitutional Medicine of his day—it still seemed obvious that all was right with the world. And if all was right with the world, then God must be in His Heaven. The parson was happy. Or, to put it a little more precisely, in the alternation of his moods, it was the manic that still predominated.

In the spring of 1623, full of years and honours, Scévole de Sainte-Marthe died and was buried with all due pomp in the church of Saint-Pierre-du-Marché. Six months later, at a memorial service attended by all the notables of Loudun and Châtellerault, of Chinon and Poitiers, Grandier spoke the great man’s oraison funèbre. It was a long and splendid oration in the manner (not yet old-fashioned, for the first edition of Balzac’s stylistically revolutionary letters did not appear until the following year) of the ‘devout humanists.’ The elaborate sentences glittered with quotations from the classics and the Bible. A showy and superfluous erudition exhibited itself complacently at every turn. The periods rumbled with an artificial thunder. For those who liked this sort of thing—and in 1623 who did not?—this, most decidedly, was the sort of thing they would like. Grandier’s oration was received with general applause. Abel de Sainte-Marthe was so much moved by the parson’s eloquence that he penned and published a Latin epigram on the subject. No less flattering were the lines which M. Trincant, the Public Prosecutor, wrote in the vernacular.

Ce n’est pas sans grande raison

Qu’on a choisi ce personnage

Pour entreprendre l’oraison

Du plus grand homme de son âge;

Il fallait véritablement

Une éloquence sans faconde

Pour louer celuy dignement

Qui n’eut point de second au monde.

Poor M. Trincant! His passion for the Muses was genuine but hopeless. He loved them, but they, it is evident, did not love him. But if he could not write poetry, he could at least talk about it. After 1623 the Public Prosecutor’s drawing-room became the centre of Loudun’s intellectual life. It was a pretty feeble life, now that Sainte-Marthe was gone. Trincant himself was a well-read man; but most of his friends and relatives were not. Excluded from the Hôtel Sainte-Marthe, these people had, unfortunately, a prescriptive right to an invitation from the Public Prosecutor. But when they came in at the door, learning and good conversation flew out of the window. How could it be otherwise with those bevies of cackling women; those lawyers who knew about nothing except statutes and procedure; those country squires whose only interests were dogs and horses? And finally there were M. Adam the apothecary, and M. Mannoury the surgeon—Adam, the long-nosed, Mannoury, the moon-faced and pot-bellied. With all the gravity of doctors of the Sorbonne, they held forth on the virtues of antimony and blood-letting, on the value of soap in clysters and the cautery in the treatment of gunshot wounds. Then, lowering their voices, they would speak (always, of course, in strictest confidence) of the Marquise’s pox, of the King’s Counsel’s wife’s second miscarriage, of the Bailiff’s sister’s young daughter’s green sickness. At once absurd and pretentious, solemn and grotesque, the apothecary and the surgeon were predestined butts. They invited sarcasm, they solicited the shafts of derision. With the merciless ferocity of a clever man who will go to any lengths for the sake of a laugh, the parson gave them what they asked for. In a very little while he had two new enemies.

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