On 1 March 1911, Augustin Lesage is deep in a Pas-de-Calais coal mine. The thirty-five-year-old miner is working in a lateral tunnel, away from the central gallery of this Saint-Pierre-les-Auchel mine shaft, testing the thickness of the vein. For the last two hours, he has been using his pick to widen the half-metre high tunnel in which he was lying. He is now able to kneel in it. He raises his pick, then lowers it again without striking. A voice, which seems to come from deep within the earth, is saying:
“A painter!… You will be a painter!”
Augustin thinks that he is going mad. He is afraid to move, fearing that the voice will speak again. And it does. Once more, he receives the message:
“One day, you will paint!.. “
Back on the surface, Augustin doesn’t tell anyone about the “voices”, and the following days, he descends in terror into the mine. He is sure that, if he hears the voices again, it will prove that he is losing his mind.
Weeks, then months go by, and ordinary daily life continues. Augustin has not forgotten what happened on 1 March, but he is only too happy not to be hearing any more voices, and does not try to pierce the mystery of the meaning of the words he thought he’d heard. The mere idea that he could be a painter is completely absurd. As far back as he can go in his family tree, there has never been an artist and, from what he can see around him, there is nothing worth painting anyway.
Sunday is his only day of rest. In the morning, after Mass, he goes with his best friend, Ambroise Lecomte, to drink a glass of white wine in the town’s one and only cafe. In the afternoon, he and his wife, Irma, along with his two children, both good pupils, go for a walk among the sickly gardens which border the miners’ houses.
In Winter, they visit each other. Saturday night, they eat slices of potato, grilled on the reddened stove. Strange stories are told. During the rest of the week, from four o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon, the men are deep in the mine, with only bread and cheese to sustain them, along with a thermos of chickory.
From time to time Augustin remembers the voices, and recalls that, more than fifteen years before, while he was doing his military service in Lille, his friends had dragged him to the Palais des Beaux-Arts one Sunday. He had been bored to death looking at all those pieces of art. He is absolutely sure that painting is the last thing that could satisfy his thirst for knowledge and change, which, like most men of his condition, he craves.
Almost one year after the event, one of his mining colleagues, who had worked for a while in town, suddenly says in the middle of a conversation at the cafe:
“Did you know that spirits exist?… That we can even talk with them?… I just read about it… It’s called spiritism!”
Later, when his life had been totally changed by the message received from… wherever it was that it came, Augustin would say that he was again struck by these words. Was spiritism the explanation of his voices?
Augustin decides to go to Sui-le-Noble to visit the healer Jean Beziat, who also gives conferences on spiritism. It had taken him a while to make up his mind, but his friend Ambroise was so passionate about it, that he finally took the decision. If nothing else, the healer might be able to cure the pain in his back, which often torments him in his bed, on the mattress stuffed only with fern fronds.
The healer gives him two books: Jeanne d’Arc medium and Apres la mort. He reads them both and learns that spiritism groups call spirits, while holding each other’s hands around a light table. So, one evening, with Ambroise Lecomte and another mining couple, Augustin launches himself into experimental spiritism.
“We had hardly been there ten minutes with our hands on the table, when we heard a cracking sound. My hair stood up on my head. The others were frightened too. We were sure that the spirits were going to appear and speak.
“Suddenly, the table rises. It wobbles and comes to hit me five times, very strongly. I say to the others: “But, it’s hurting me!” One of them asks: “Is it Lesage who is the medium?” The table knocks once, which, according to our conventions, means yes. It rises again and comes to hit me again. And this little side-table moved so fast!
“That’s all we had during the first seance. Very interested by this beginning, which astonished us, we decided to have a seance every Thursday, at eight o’clock at night.”
When, the following week, the little group meets again, things happen fast. Augustin’s hand starts to tremble and, involuntarily, he writes the following message on a sheet of paper:
“The voices that you heard are real, one day you will be a painter!… Take what we say to you literally and your mission will accomplish itself… “
To be continued.