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Book 1 Chapter 2 Cinq Mars by Alfred de Vigny


CHAPTER II

THE STREET

     Je m'avancais d'un pas penible et mal assure vers le but
     de ce convoi tragique.--NODIER, 'Smarra'.

The reign of which we are about to paint a few years--a reign of
feebleness, which was like an eclipse of the crown between the splendors
of Henri IV and those of Louis le Grand--afflicts the eyes which
contemplate it with dark stains of blood, and these were not all the work
of one man, but were caused by great and grave bodies. It is melancholy
to observe that in this age, still full of disorder, the clergy, like a
nation, had its populace, as it had its nobility, its ignorant and its
criminal prelates, as well as those who were learned and virtuous. Since
that time, its remnant of barbarism has been refined away by the long
reign of Louis XIV, and its corruptions have been washed out in the blood
of the martyrs whom it offered up to the revolution of 1793.

We felt it necessary to pause for a moment to express this reflection
before entering upon the recital of the facts presented by the history of
this period, and to intimate that, notwithstanding this consolatory
reflection, we have found it incumbent upon us to pass over many details
too odious to occupy a place in our pages, sighing in spirit at those
guilty acts which it was necessary to record, as in relating the life of
a virtuous old man, we should lament over the impetuosities of his
passionate youth, or over the corrupt tendencies of his riper age.

When the cavalcade entered the narrow streets of Loudun, they heard
strange noises all around them. The streets were filled with agitated
masses; the bells of the church and of the convent were ringing
furiously, as if the town was in flames; and the whole population,
without paying any attention to the travellers, was pressing tumultuously
toward a large edifice that adjoined the church. Here and there dense
crowds were collected, listening in silence to some voice that seemed
raised in exhortation, or engaged in emphatic reading; then, furious
cries, mingled with pious exclamations, arose from the crowd, which,
dispersing, showed the travellers that the orator was some Capuchin or
Franciscan friar, who, holding a wooden crucifix in one hand, pointed
with the other to the large building which was attracting such universal
interest.

"Jesu Maria!" exclaimed an old woman, "who would ever have thought that
the Evil Spirit would choose our old town for his abode?"

"Ay, or that the pious Ursulines should be possessed?" said another.

"They say that the demon who torments the Superior is called Legion,"
cried a third:

"One demon, say you?" interrupted a nun; "there were seven in her poor
body, whereunto, doubtless, she had attached too much importance, by
reason of its great beauty, though now 'tis but the receptacle of evil
spirits. The prior of the Carmelites yesterday expelled the demon Eazas
through her mouth; and the reverend Father Lactantius has driven out in
like manner the demon Beherit. But the other five will not depart, and
when the holy exorcists (whom Heaven support!) summoned them in Latin to
withdraw, they replied insolently that they would not go till they had
proved their power, to the conviction even of the Huguenots and heretics,
who, misbelieving wretches! seem to doubt it. The demon Elimi, the worst
of them all, as you know, has threatened to take off Monsieur de
Laubardemont's skull-cap to-day, and to dangle it in the air at
Miserere."

"Holy Virgin!" rejoined the first speaker, "I'm all of a tremble! And to
think that many times I have got this magician Urbain to say masses for
me!"

"For myself," exclaimed a girl, crossing herself; "I too confessed to him
ten months ago! No doubt I should have been possessed myself, but for the
relic of Saint-Genevieve I luckily had about me, and--"

"Luckily, indeed, Martine," interposed a fat gossip; "for--no
offence!--you, as I remember, were long enough with the handsome
sorcerer."

"Pshaw!" said a young soldier, who had joined the group, smoking his
pipe, "don't you know that pretty Martine was dispossessed a month ago."

The girl blushed, and drew the hood of her black cloak over her face. The
elder gossips cast a glance of indignation at the reckless trooper, and
finding themselves now close to the door of the building, and thus sure
of making their way in among the first when it should be thrown open, sat
down upon the stone bench at the side, and, talking of the latest
wonders, raised the expectations of all as to the delight they were about
to have in being spectators of something marvellous--an apparition,
perhaps, but at the very least, an administration of the torture.

"Is it true, aunt," asked Martine of the eldest gossip, "that you have
heard the demons speak?"

"Yes, child, true as I see you; many and many can say the same; and it
was to convince you of it I brought you with me here, that you may see
the power of the Evil One."

"What kind of voice has he?" continued the girl, glad to encourage a
conversation which diverted from herself the invidious attention procured
her by the soldier's raillery.

"Oh, he speaks with a voice like that of the Superior herself, to whom
Our Lady be gracious! Poor young woman! I was with her yesterday a long
time; it was sad to see her tearing her breast, turning her arms and her
legs first one way and then another, and then, all of a sudden, twisting
them together behind her back. When the holy Father Lactantius pronounced
the name of Urbain Grandier, foam came out of her mouth, and she talked
Latin for all the world as if she were reading the Bible. Of course, I
did not understand what she said, and all I can remember of it now is,
'Urbanus Magicus rosas diabolica,' which they tell me means that the
magician Urbain had bewitched her with some roses the Devil had given
him; and so it must have been, for while Father Lactantius spoke, out of
her ears and neck came a quantity of flame-colored roses, all smelling of
sulphur so strongly that the judge-Advocate called out for every one
present to stop their noses and eyes, for that the demons were about to
come out."

"Ah, look there now!" exclaimed with shrill voices and a triumphant air
the whole bevy of assembled women, turning toward the crowd, and more
particularly toward a group of men attired in black, among whom was
standing the young soldier who had cut his joke just before so
unceremoniously.

"Listen to the noisy old idiots!" exclaimed the soldier. "They think
they're at the witches' Sabbath, but I don't see their broomsticks."

"Young man, young man!" said a citizen, with a sad air, "jest not upon
such subjects in the open air, or, in such a time as this, the wind may
become gushing flames and destroy you."

"Pooh! I laugh at your exorcists!" returned the soldier; "my name is
Grand-Ferre, and I've got here a better exorciser than any of you can
show."

And significantly grasping the handle of his rapier in one hand, with the
other he twisted up his blond moustache, as he looked fiercely around;
but meeting no glance which returned the defiance of his own, he slowly
withdrew, left foot foremost, and strolled along the dark, narrow streets
with all the reckless nonchalance of a young soldier who has just donned
his uniform, and a profound contempt for all who wear not a military
coat.

In the meantime eight or ten of the more substantial and rational
inhabitants traversed in a body, slowly and silently, the agitated
throng; they seemed overwhelmed with amazement and distress at the
agitation and excitement they witnessed everywhere, and as each new
instance of the popular frenzy appeared, they exchanged glances of wonder
and apprehension. Their mute depression communicated itself to the
working-people, and to the peasants who had flocked in from the adjacent
country, and who, all sought a guide for their opinions in the faces of
the principal townsmen, also for the most part proprietors of the
surrounding districts. They saw that something calamitous was on foot,
and resorted accordingly to the only remedy open to the ignorant and the
beguiled--apathetic resignation.

Yet, in the character of the French peasant is a certain scoffing finesse
of which he makes effective use, sometimes with his equals, and almost
invariably with his superiors. He puts questions to power as embarrassing
as are those which infancy puts to mature age. He affects excessive
humility, in order to confuse him whom he addresses with the very height
of his isolated elevation. He exaggerates the awkwardness of his manner
and the rudeness of his speech, as a means of covering his real thoughts
under the appearance of mere uncouthness; yet, despite all his
self-command, there is something in his air, certain fierce expressions
which betray him to the close observer, who discerns in his sardonic
smile, and in the marked emphasis with which he leans on his long staff,
the hopes that secretly nourish his soul, and the aid upon which he
ultimately relies.

One of the oldest of the peasants whom we have indicated came on
vigorously, followed by ten or twelve young men, his sons and nephews,
all wearing the broad-brimmed hat and the blue frock or blouse of the
ancient Gauls, which the peasants of France still wear over their other
garments, as peculiarly adapted to their humid climate and their
laborious habits.

When the old man had reached the group of personages of whom we have just
spoken, he took off his hat--an example immediately followed by his whole
family--and showed a face tanned with exposure to the weather, a forehead
bald and wrinkled with age, and long, white hair. His shoulders were bent
with years and labor, but he was still a hale and sturdy man. He was
received with an air of welcome, and even of respect, by one of the
gravest of the grave group he had approached, who, without uncovering,
however, extended to him his hand.

"What! good Father Guillaume Leroux!" said he, "and have you, too, left
our farm of La Chenaie to visit the town, when it's not market-day? Why,
'tis as if your oxen were to unharness themselves and go hunting, leaving
their work to see a poor rabbit run down!"

"Faith, Monsieur le Comte du Lude," replied the farmer, "for that matter,
sometimes the rabbit runs across our path of itself; but, in truth, I've
a notion that some of the people here want to make fools of us, and so
I've come to see about it."

"Enough of that, my friend," returned the Count; "here is Monsieur
Fournier, the Advocate, who assuredly will not deceive you, for he
resigned his office of Attorney-General last night, that he might
henceforth devote his eloquence to the service of his own noble thoughts.
You will hear him, perhaps, to-day, though truly, I dread his appearing
for his own sake as much as I desire it for that of the accused."

"I care not for myself," said Fournier; "truth is with me a passion, and
I would have it taught in all times and all places."

He that spoke was a young man, whose face, pallid in the extreme, was
full of the noblest expression. His blond hair, his light-blue eyes, his
thinness, the delicacy of his frame, made him at first sight seem younger
than he was; but his thoughtful and earnest countenance indicated that
mental superiority and that precocious maturity of soul which are
developed by deep study in youth, combined with natural energy of
character. He was attired wholly in black, with a short cloak in the
fashion of the day, and carried under his left arm a roll of documents,
which, when speaking, he would take in the right hand and grasp
convulsively, as a warrior in his anger grasps the pommel of his sword.
At one moment it seemed as if he were about to unfurl the scroll, and
from it hurl lightning upon those whom he pursued with looks of fiery
indignation--three Capuchins and a Franciscan, who had just passed.

"Pere Guillaume," pursued M. du Lude, "how is it you have brought with
you only your sons, and they armed with their staves?"

"Faith, Monsieur, I have no desire that our girls should learn to dance
of the nuns; and, moreover, just now the lads with their staves may
bestir themselves to better purpose than their sisters would."

"Take my advice, my old friend," said the Count, "and don't bestir
yourselves at all; rather stand quietly aside to view the procession
which you see approaching, and remember that you are seventy years old."

"Ah!" murmured the old man, drawing up his twelve sons in double military
rank, "I fought under good King Henriot, and can play at sword and pistol
as well as the worthy 'ligueurs';" and shaking his head he leaned against
a post, his knotty staff between his crossed legs, his hands clasped on
its thick butt-end, and his white, bearded chin resting on his hands.
Then, half closing his eyes, he appeared lost in recollections of his
youth.

The bystanders observed with interest his dress, slashed in the fashion
of Henri IV, and his resemblance to the Bearnese monarch in the latter
years of his life, though the King's hair had been prevented by the
assassin's blade from acquiring the whiteness which that of the old
peasant had peacefully attained. A furious pealing of the bells, however,
attracted the general attention to the end of the great street, down
which was seen filing a long procession, whose banners and glittering
pikes rose above the heads of the crowd, which successively and in
silence opened a way for the at once absurd and terrible train.

First, two and two, came a body of archers, with pointed beards and large
plumed hats, armed with long halberds, who, ranging in a single file on
each side of the middle of the street, formed an avenue along which
marched in solemn order a procession of Gray Penitents--men attired in
long, gray robes, the hoods of which entirely covered their heads; masks
of the same stuff terminated below their chins in points, like beards,
each having three holes for the eyes and nose. Even at the present day we
see these costumes at funerals, more especially in the Pyrenees. The
Penitents of Loudun carried enormous wax candles, and their slow, uniform
movement, and their eyes, which seemed to glitter under their masks, gave
them the appearance of phantoms.

The people expressed their various feelings in an undertone:

"There's many a rascal hidden under those masks," said a citizen.

"Ay, and with a face uglier than the mask itself," added a young man.

"They make me afraid," tremulously exclaimed a girl.

"I'm only afraid for my purse," said the first speaker.

"Ah, heaven! there are our holy brethren, the Penitents," cried an old
woman, throwing back her hood, the better to look at them. "See the
banner they bear! Ah, neighbors, 'tis a joyful thing to have it among us!
Beyond a doubt it will save us; see, it shows the devil in flames, and a
monk fastening a chain round his neck, to keep him in hell. Ah, here come
the judges--noble gentlemen! dear gentlemen! Look at their red robes; how
beautiful! Blessed be the Virgin, they've been well chosen!"

"Every man of them is a personal enemy of the Cure," whispered the Count
du Lude to the advocate Fournier, who took a note of the information.

"Don't you know them, neighbors?" pursued the shrill, sharp voice of the
old woman, as she elbowed one and pinched another of those near her to
attract their attention to the objects of her admiration; "see, there's
excellent Monsieur Mignon, whispering to Messieurs the Counsellors of the
Court of Poitiers; Heaven bless them all, say I!"

"Yes, there are Roatin, Richard, and Chevalier--the very men who tried to
have him dismissed a year ago," continued M. du Lude, in undertones, to
the young advocate, who, surrounded and hidden from public observation by
the group of dark-clad citizens, was writing down his observations in a
note-book under his cloak.

"Here; look, look!" screamed the woman. "Make way! here's Monsieur Barre,
the Cure of Saint-Jacques at Chinon."

"A saint!" murmured one bystander.

"A hypocrite!" exclaimed a manly voice.

"See how thin he is with fasting!"

"See how pale he is with remorse!"

"He's the man to drive away devils!"

"Yes, but not till he's done with them for his own purposes."

The dialogue was interrupted by the general exclamation, "How beautiful
she is!"

The Superior of the Ursulines advanced, followed by all her nuns. Her
white veil was raised; in order that the people might see the features of
the possessed ones, it had been ordered that it should be thus with her
and six of the sisterhood. Her attire had no distinguishing feature,
except a large rosary extending from her neck nearly to her feet, from
which hung a gold cross; but the dazzling pallor of her face, rendered
still more conspicuous by the dark hue of her capuchon, at once fixed the
general gaze upon her. Her brilliant, dark eyes, which bore the impress
of some deep and burning passion, were crowned with eyebrows so perfectly
arched that Nature herself seemed to have taken as much pains to form
them as the Circassian women to pencil theirs artistically; but between
them a slight fold revealed the powerful agitation within. In her
movements, however, and throughout her whole bearing, she affected
perfect calm; her steps were slow and measured, and her beautiful hands
were crossed on her bosom, as white and motionless as those of the marble
statues joined in eternal prayer.

"See, aunt," ejaculated Martine, "see how Sister Agnes and Sister Claire
are weeping, next to the Superior!"

"Ay, niece, they weep because they are the prey of the demon."

"Or rather," interposed the same manly voice that spoke before, "because
they repent of having mocked Heaven."

A deep silence now pervaded the multitude; not a word was heard, not a
movement, hardly a breath. Every one seemed paralyzed by some sudden
enchantment, when, following the nuns, among four Penitents who held him
in chains, appeared the Cure of the Church of Ste. Croix, attired in his
pastor's robe. His was a noble, fine face, with grandeur in its whole
expression, and gentleness in every feature. Affecting no scornful
indifference to his position, he looked calmly and kindly around, as if
he sought on his dark path the affectionate glances of those who loved
him. Nor did he seek in vain; here and there he encountered those
glances, and joyfully returned them. He even heard sobs, and he saw hands
extended toward him, many of which grasped weapons. But no gesture of his
encouraged these mute offers of aid; he lowered his eyes and went on,
careful not to compromise those who so trusted in him, or to involve them
in his own misfortunes. This was Urbain Grandier.

Suddenly the procession stopped, at a sign from the man who walked apart,
and who seemed to command its progress. He was tall, thin, sallow; he
wore a long black robe, with a cap of the same material and color; he had
the face of a Don Basilio, with the eye of Nero. He motioned the guards
to surround him more closely, when he saw with affright the dark group we
have mentioned, and the strong-limbed and resolute peasants who seemed in
attendance upon them. Then, advancing somewhat before the Canons and
Capuchins who were with him, he pronounced, in a shrill voice, this
singular decree:

   "We, Sieur de Laubardemont, referendary, being delegated and
   invested with discretionary power in the matter of the trial of the
   magician Urbain Grandier, upon the various articles of accusation
   brought against him, assisted by the reverend Fathers Mignon, canon,
   Barre, cure of St. Jacques at Chinon, Father Lactantius, and all the
   other judges appointed to try the said magician, have decreed as
   follows:

   "Primo: the factitious assembly of proprietors, noble citizens of
   this town and its environs, is dissolved, as tending to popular
   sedition; its proceedings are declared null, and its letter to the
   King, against us, the judges, which has been intercepted, shall be
   publicly burned in the marketplace as calumniating the good
   Ursulines and the reverend fathers and judges.

   "Secundo: it is forbidden to say, publicly or in private, that the
   said nuns are not possessed by the Evil Spirit, or to doubt of the
   power of the exorcists, under pain of a fine of twenty thousand
   livres, and corporal punishment.

   "Let the bailiffs and sheriffs obey this. Given the eighteenth of
   June, in the year of grace 1639."

Before he had well finished reading the decree, the discordant blare of
trumpets, bursting forth at a prearranged signal, drowned, to a certain
extent, the murmurs that followed its proclamation, amid which
Laubardemont urged forward the procession, which entered the great
building already referred to--an ancient convent, whose interior had
crumbled away, its walls now forming one vast hall, well adapted for the
purpose to which it was about to be applied. Laubardemont did not deem
himself safe until he was within the building and had heard the heavy,
double doors creak on their hinges as, closing, they excluded the furious
crowd without.