The Devils of Loudun Page 9

And meanwhile another was in the making. The Public Prosecutor was a middle-aged widower with two marriageable daughters, of whom the elder, Philippe, was so remarkably pretty that, throughout the winter of 1623, the parson found himself looking more and more frequently in her direction.

Watching the girl as she moved among her father’s guests, he compared her appraisingly with his mental image of that spritely young widow whom he was now consoling, every Tuesday afternoon, for the untimely death of her poor dear husband, the vintner. Ninon was unschooled, could hardly sign her own name. But under the inconsolable sable of her weeds, the full-blown flesh was only just beginning to lose its firmness. There were treasures there of warmth and whiteness; there was an inexhaustible fund of sensuality, at once frenzied and scientific, violent and yet admirably docile and well-trained. And, thank God, there had been no barriers of prudery to be laboriously demolished, no wearisome preliminaries of Platonic idealization and Petrarchian courtship to be gone through! At their third meeting, he had ventured to quote the opening lines of one of his favourite poems:

Souvent j’ ai menti les ébats

Des nuits, t’ayant entre mes bras

Folâtre toute nue;

Mais telle jouissance, hélas!

Encor m’est inconnue.

There had been no protest, only the frankest laughter and a look out of the corner of the eye, very brief but unequivocal. At the end of his fifth visit, he had been in a position to quote Tahureau again.

Adieu, ma petite maîtresse,

Adieu, ma gorgette et mon sein,

Adieu, ma délicate main,

Adieu, donc, mon téton d’albâtre,

Adieu, ma cuissette folâtre,

Adieu, mon œil, adieu, mon cœur,

Adieu, ma friande douceur!

Mais avant que je me départe,

Avant que plus loin je m’écarte,

Que je tâte encore ce flanc

Et le rond de ce marbre blanc.

Goodbye, but only until the day after tomorrow, when she would come to St. Peter’s for her weekly confession—he was a stickler for weekly confessions—and the usual penance. And between then and next Tuesday he would have preached the sermon he was now preparing for the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin—the finest thing he had done since M. de Sainte-Marthe’s funeral oration. What eloquence, what choice and profound learning, what subtle, but eminently sound theology! Applause, felicitations! The Lieutenant Criminel would be furious, the friars green with envy. “M. le Curé, you have surpassed yourself. Your Reverence is incomparable.” He would go to his next assignation in a blaze of glory, and for a victor’s crown she would give him her encircling arms, for guerdon those kisses of hers, those caresses, that ultimate deification in the heaven of her embrace. Let the Carmelites talk of their ecstasies, their celestial touches, their extraordinary graces and spiritual nuptials! He had his Ninon, and Ninon was enough. But looking again at Philippe he wondered whether, after all, she was enough. Widows were a great consolation, and he saw no reason for giving up his Tuesdays; but widows were most emphatically not virgins, widows knew too much, widows were beginning to run to fat. Whereas Philippe still had the thin bony arms of a little girl, the apple-round br**sts and smooth columnar neck of an adolescent. And how ravishing was this mixture of youthful grace and youthful awkwardness! How touching and at the same time how provocative and exciting were these transitions from a bold, almost foolhardy coquetry to sudden panic! Overacting the part of Cleopatra, she invited every man to constitute himself an Antony. But let any man show signs of accepting the invitation, and the Queen of Egypt vanished; only a frightened child remained, begging for mercy. And then, as soon as mercy had been granted, back came the Siren, chanting allurements, dangling forbidden fruits with an effrontery of which only the totally depraved and the totally innocent are capable. Innocence, purity—what a glorious peroration he had composed upon that sublimest of themes! Women would weep when he pronounced it—now thunderously, now in the tenderest whisper—from the pulpit of his church. Even the men would be touched. The purity of the dew-dabbled lily, the innocence of lambs and little children. Yes, the friars would be green with envy. But, except in sermons and in heaven, all lilies fester sooner or later into rottenness; the ewe-lamb is predestined, first to the indefatigably lustful ram, then to the butcher; and in hell the damned walk on a living pavement, tessellated with the tiny carcases of unbaptized babies. Since the Fall, total innocence has been identical, for all practical purposes, with total depravity. Every young girl is potentially the most knowing of widows and, thanks to Original Sin, every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more than half actualized. To help it to complete actualization, to watch the still virginal bud unfold into the rank and blowsy flower—this would be a pleasure not only of the senses, but also of the reflective intellect and will. It would be a moral and, so to say, a metaphysical sensuality.

And Philippe was not merely young and virginal. She was also of good family, piously brought up and highly accomplished. Pretty as paint, but knew her catechism; played the lute, but went regularly to church; had the manners of a fine lady, but liked reading and even knew some Latin. The capture of such a prey would tickle the hunter’s self-esteem and be regarded, by all who knew of it, as a great and memorable exploit.

In the aristocratic world of a few years later, “women,” according to Bussy-Rabutin, “gained as much esteem for men as arms.” The conquest of a celebrated beauty was equivalent, very nearly, to the conquest of a province. For their triumphs in the boudoir and the bed, such men as Marsillac and Nemours and the Chevalier de Grammont enjoyed a fame almost equal, while it lasted, to that of Gustavus Adolphus or Wallenstein. In the fashionable slang of the time, one ‘embarked’ on one of these glorious affairs, embarked deliberately and self-consciously for the express purpose of cutting a more considerable figure in the world. Sex can be used either for self-affirmation or for self-transcendence—either to intensify the ego and consolidate the social persona by some kind of conspicuous ‘embarkation’ and heroic conquest, or else to annihilate the persona and transcend the ego in an obscure rapture of sensuality, a frenzy of romantic passion or, more creditably, in the mutual charity of the perfect marriage. With his peasant girls and his middle-class widows of little scruple and large appetite, the parson could get all the self-transcendence he wanted. Philippe Trincant now offered an occasion for the most agreeable and modish kind of self-affirmation—with a hoped-for sequel, when the conquest had been consummated, of some peculiarly rare and precious kind of sensual self-transcendence.

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