The Devils of Loudun Page 89

At Briare, on the homeward road, the two Jesuits took leave of their companions. Sœur Jeanne was never again to see the man who had sacrificed himself in order to bring her back to sanity. Surin and Thomas turned westward to Bordeaux; the others took the road to Paris, where Sœur Jeanne had a rendezvous with the Queen. She reached Saint-Germain just in time. During the night of 4th September 1638 the labour pains began. The Blessed Virgin’s girdle, which had been brought from Notre-Dame du Puy, was fastened about the Queen’s waist and the Prioress’s chemise was spread over the royal abdomen. At eleven o’clock on the following morning Anne of Austria was safely delivered of the male child who, five years later, was to become Louis XIV. “Thus it was,” wrote Surin, “that St. Joseph demonstrated his mighty power, not only in securing for the Queen a happy delivery, but also in presenting France with a King incomparable in power and in greatness of mind, a King of rare discretion, of admirable, prudence and of a godliness without previous example.”

As soon as the Queen was out of all danger, Sœur Jeanne packed up her chemise and took the homeward road to Loudun. The doors of the convent opened, then closed behind her, for ever. Her crowded hour of glorious life was over; but she could not immediately reconcile herself to the humdrum routine, which was henceforth to be her lot. A little before Christmas she fell ill with congestion of the lungs. Her life, according to her own account, was despaired of. “Our Lord,” she told her confessor, “has given me a great desire to go to heaven; but He has also conveyed to me the knowledge that, if I were to remain on earth a while longer, I could do Him some service. And so, Reverend Father, if you will but apply the holy unction, I shall most assuredly be healed.” The miracle seemed so certain to occur, that Sœur Jeanne’s confessor as good as sent out invitations for the blessed occasion. On Christmas night “there assembled in our church an incredible multitude of people desirous of witnessing my recovery.” Persons of quality were accommodated with seats in a chamber adjoining the Prioress’s bedroom, into which they could look through a grating. “After nightfall, I being at the height of my sickness, Father Alange, a Jesuit, in full canonicals, including the chasuble, entered our room, bearing the holy unction. Drawing near to my bed, he placed the relic on my head and began to repeat the litanies of St. Joseph which he intended to say in their entirety. No sooner had he placed that holy deposit (dépôt) on my head than I felt myself entirely cured. However, I decided to say nothing until the good father had finished the litanies. Then I announced the fact and asked for my clothes.”

Perhaps this second and all too punctual miracle failed to make any very great impression on the public. In any case it was the last of its kind.

Time passed. The Thirty Years’ War went on and on. Richelieu grew richer and richer, and the people more and more miserable. There were peasant revolts against high taxes, and bourgeois revolts (in which Pascal’s father participated) against the lowering of interest rates on government bonds. Among the Ursulines of Loudun life went on as usual. Every few weeks the Good Angel (who was still M. de Beaufort, but in miniature, being now only three and a half feet high and not more than sixteen years old) renewed the fading names on the Prioress’s left hand. Enclosed now in a handsome reliquary, her chemise, with the unction of St. Joseph, had taken its place among the convent’s most precious and most efficacious relics.

At the end of 1642 Richelieu died and was followed to the grave, a few months later, by Louis XIII. On behalf of the five-year-old King, Anne of Austria and her lover, Cardinal Mazarin, ineptly ruled the country.

In 1644 Sœur Jeanne began to write her memoirs and acquired a new Jesuit director, Father Saint-Jure, to whom she sent her own, and Surin’s still unfinished, work on the devils. Saint-Jure lent the manuscripts to the Bishop of Evreux, and the Bishop, who was in charge of the demoniacs of Louviers, proceeded to direct this new and, if possible, even more revolting orgy of madness and malice along the lines laid down at Loudun. “I think,” Laubardemont wrote to the Prioress, “I think that your correspondence with Father Saint-Jure has been of great service in this present affair.”

Less successful than the Louviers affair was the possession organized by M. Barré at Chinon. At first all seemed to be going well. A host of young women, including some belonging to the best families of the town, succumbed to the psychological infection. Blasphemy, convulsions, denunciations, obscenity—everything was in order. Unfortunately, one of the demoniac girls, called Beloquin, had a grudge against M. Giloire, a local priest. Going to church early one morning, she poured a bottleful of chicken’s blood on the high altar, then announced, during M. Barré’s exorcism, that it was her own, shed at midnight, while M. Giloire was violating her. Barré, of course, believed every word of it and began to question the other girls’ devils, with a view to collecting more incriminating evidence against his colleague. But the woman, from whom Beloquin had bought the chicken, confided her suspicions to a magistrate. The Lieutenant Criminel started an investigation. Barré was indignant and Beloquin counter-attacked with excruciating pains in the hypochondries, magically induced, so her devils declared, by M. Giloire. Unimpressed, the Lieutenant Criminel called more witnesses. To escape from him, Beloquin fled to Tours, whose Archbishop was notoriously in favour of possessions. But the Archbishop was out of town and his place had been taken by an unsympathetic Coadjutor. He listened to Beloquin’s stories, then called in two midwives, who discovered that the pains, though real enough, were due to the presence in the uterus of a small pewter cannon ball. Cross-examined, the girl admitted that she had put it there herself. After which poor M. Barré was deprived of all his benefices and banished from the archidiocese of Touraine. He ended his days obscurely, as a pensioner in a monastery at Le Mans.

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