The Devils of Loudun Page 86

When Sœur Jeanne was taken to see him, Richelieu was at the highest pinnacle of his glory, but already a sick man, suffering much pain and in constant need of medical attention. “My lord Cardinal had been bled that day, and all the doors of his château of Ruel were closed, even to bishops and marshals of France; none the less we were introduced into his antechamber, though he himself was in bed.” After dinner (“it was magnificent, and we were served by his pages”), the Mother Superior and an Ursuline companion were ushered into the bedroom, knelt to receive His Eminence’s benediction and could only with difficulty be persuaded to rise and take chairs. (“The contestation of politeness on his part and of humility on ours lasted quite a long time; but at last I was obliged to obey.”)

Richelieu began the conversation by remarking that the Prioress was under great obligations to God, inasmuch as He had chosen her, in this age of unbelief, to suffer for the honour of the Church, the conversion of souls and the confounding of the wicked.

Sœur Jeanne replied with a paean of gratitude. She and her sisters would never forget that, while the rest of the world had treated them as crazy impostors, His Eminence had been to them not merely a father, but a mother, a nurse and a protector as well.

But the Cardinal would not permit himself to be thanked. On the contrary, he felt himself extremely obliged to Providence for having given him the opportunity and the means to assist the afflicted. (All these things, the Prioress remarks, were spoken “with a ravishing grace and much sweetness.”)

Next, the great man asked if he might look at the sacred names inscribed on Sister Jane’s left hand. And after the sacred names it was the turn of the unction of St. Joseph. The chemise was unfolded. Before taking it into his hands, the Cardinal piously took off his night-cap; then he sniffed at the blessed object and exclaiming, “That smells perfectly good!” kissed it twice. After which, holding the chemise “with respect and admiration,” he pressed it against a reliquary which was standing on the table beside the bed—presumably in order to recharge its contents with the mana inhering in the unction. At his request the Prioress described (for the how many hundredth time?) the miracle of her healing, then knelt for another blessing. The interview was over. Next day His Eminence sent her five hundred crowns to defray the expenses of her pilgrimage.

One reads Sœur Jeanne’s account of this interview, then turns to the letters in which the Cardinal had ironically twitted Gaston d’Orléans with his credulity in regard to the possession. “I am delighted to hear that the devils of Loudun have converted Your Highness and that you have now quite forgotten the oaths with which your mouth was habitually filled.” And again, “the assistance you will receive from the master of the devils of Loudun will be powerful enough to enable you, in a very short time, to make a long journey on the road to virtue.” On another occasion he learns by a courier who is “one of the devils of Loudun” that the Prince has contracted a disease, whose nature is sufficiently indicated by the fact that “you have deserved it.” Richelieu commiserates with His Highness and offers him “the exorcisms of the good Father Joseph” as a remedy. Addressed to the King’s brother by the man who had had Grandier burned for trafficking with devils, these letters are as astounding for their insolence as for their ironic scepticism. The insolence may be attributed to that urge to ‘score off’ his social superiors which remained, throughout life, an incongruously childish element in the Cardinal’s complex character. And what of the scepticism, the cynical irony? What was His Eminence’s real opinion of witchcraft and possession, of the calligraphic stigmata and the blessed chemise? The best answer, I would guess, is that, when he felt well and was in the company of laymen, the Cardinal regarded the whole affair as either a fraud, or an illusion, or a mixture of both. If he affected to believe in the devils, it was solely for political reasons. Like Canning, he had called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old—the only difference being that, in his case, the New World was not America, but hell. True, the public’s reaction to the devils had been unsatisfactory. In the face of so general a scepticism, his plans for an inquisitorial Gestapo to fight sorcery and incidentally to strengthen the royal authority had had to be abandoned. But it is always good to know what not to do, and the experiment, though negative in its results, had been well worth making. True, an innocent man had been tortured and burned alive. But after all one can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. And anyhow the parson had been a nuisance and was better out of the way.

But then the trouble in his shoulder would flare up again, and his fistula would keep him awake at nights with its intolerable pain. The doctors were called in; but how little they could do! The efficacy of medicine depended upon vis medicatrix Naturae. But in this wretched body of his Nature seemed to have lost her healing power. Could it be that his sickness had a supernatural origin? He sent for relics and holy images, he asked for prayers to be said on his behalf. And meanwhile, in secret, he consulted his horoscope, he fingered his tried and trusted talismans, he repeated under his breath the spells he had learned in childhood from his old nurse. When sickness came, when the doors of his palace were closed “even to bishops and marshals of France,” he was ready to believe in anything—even in Urbain Grandier’s guilt, even in the unction of St. Joseph.

For Sœur Jeanne, the interview with His Eminence was but one in a long series of triumphs and excitements. From Loudun to Paris, and from Paris to Annecy, she moved in a blaze of glory, travelling from popular ovation to popular ovation, and from one aristocratic reception to others yet more flattering to her vanity.

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