On this Thursday, 15 January 1846, a storm has been threatening all day over the hamlet of Bouvigny. We are in the Perche, not far from the Sarthe, a rich and humid region, where heavy, grey work-horses have prospered for centuries. The sky is so leaden this evening that snow is expected before nightfall. In the Loisnard cottage, they have had to light the candle even earlier than on the preceding days: Monsieur Piedaleu, glover in Mamers, has ordered some urgent work.
So, in the low-ceilinged house with whitewashed walls, Julie Loisnard, the daughter of the master of the house, her cousin Angelique Cottin, and a little neighbour, Marie Hamel, get busy.
All day, and even in the evening, they weave fishnet lace from which Mr Piedaleu will make gloves for the beautiful town ladies. Huddled around an oak side-table, they pass a wooden shuttle back and forth in the woof, fixed by a nail in the table.
One of them, Angelique, aged fourteen, is a lot less deft than the other two. She prefers the axe or the pitchfork to the embroidery shuttle. To show off her biceps, they say in the village. Poor Angelique is not very bright. Her mind is even a bit clouded, and the village children call her “the idiot” or “half-a-loaf”. With her perpetual servant’s poor chunky fingers, she does what she can, the poor girl, the ugly one, that the Loisnards have taken in because Cottin, her drunkard of a father, hit her more often than he should…
The clock placed on the beautiful wardrobe of polished oak, the pride of the Loisnards, chimes eight o’clock. The last chime has not finished ringing when, suddenly, Angelique’s shuttle falls from her hands and speeds like an arrow across the room, almost blinding Marie Hamel on its way past.
“It’s not my fault!…”
Angelique rises to pick up her shuttle which has rolled under the credence… She brushes against the little table in solid oak, which immediately begins to wobble as if it is coming to life, rocks, bounds, knocking over the candle, then rolls throughout the room, before crashing heavily against the wall, its legs in the air.
The three young girls begin to scream. Even more loudly because they are plunged into darkness, the room being lit only by the embers in the fireplace.
Angelique sobs loudly and rushes with outstretched arms towards her cousin Julie…
This gesture sets off another catastrophe. The scissors hanging at her waist shoot like a rocket towards the ceiling, flutter like an appalling bird of iron across the room, before falling into the bread-hutch.
Little Marie then lets out a frightful cry, throws herself at the door, and takes off like a madwoman into the night.
Julie follows her, hurling for her parents to whom she recounts, while sobbing, the terrible prodigies that she has just witnessed. Mother Loisnard signs herself and tells her husband to fetch the Curate.
“Better let ‘our gentlemen’ know too,”
the father grumbles as he hurries off.
Upon returning to the cottage, the Curate and father Loisnard find that there is already a whole gathering in front of the house. They had made a detour to the manor of “our gentlemen”, Bertrand and Alcide de Faremont, two elderly aristocratic gentlemen who live not far from the Loisnard home. Alcide accompanies them, and they cut through the circle of peasants, who are worried and vaguely hostile.
There are about twenty of them and they surround, at a respectful distance, Angelique who is standing, crying. The Curate gently murmurs to her to pull herself together.
Angelique sits down on a chair that someone has brought… and finds herself on the floor, for the chair has flown into the air, as if pulled by an invisible thread.
When she leans on the side-table to help herself up, it shakes like the bear at the Mamers Fair. Terrorised, Angelique backs towards the fireplace… and immediately sets off a waltz of tongs and andirons, while the pot suspended over the fire begins to jump and spill it contents everywhere.
Alcide de Faremont and the good Curate exchange knowing looks.
If they say what they are thinking, if they comment aloud this evident case of possession, they fear that the rednecks who surround them might hurt the poor girl. So, they say nothing. Faremont at last says, with the authority that no-one contests in the village:
“Let us all remain calm. Angelique is ill. That is all!… Believe me… the Devil has nothing to do with it! Angelique emits a sort… a sort of electricity… isn’t that right Monsieur le cure?”
Perhaps for the first time in his life, the Curate permits himself to utter a white lie:
“Of course, Monsieur le chevalier, Angelique is ill. She is ill… She’s an electric girl, nothing more. The doctor will cure her.”
At these words, the unhappy young girl, knocked out by all these emotions, falls fainting into Alcide de Faremont’s arms.
The next day, Angelique awakes late, with a heavy head. Mother Loisnard greets her by telling her to sort some beans.
Angelique grabs a saucer and immediately the vegetables begin to dance around the kitchen, just like in the Tales of Perrault, and the chairs repeat their tricks of the day before. Leontine Loisnard calls her farm valet in to help. But they can fight the furniture as much as they like, as long as the electric girl is in the room, the chairs continue their farandol.
Monsieur de Faremont arrives right in the middle of all this, and this time he decides to discover the truth. He is known as “Voltairian” in the village, that is to say, a free thinker and vaguely “anti-clerical”. Which doesn’t stop him rushing off to see the Curate to tell him to leave his breviary and his exorcism treatises.
“Come later to The Muzerie, Monsieur le cure and you will have the proof that your parishioner is truly an electric girl!”
Before a full house, Mr de Faremont presents a pendulum suspended on a copper stick to Angelique. His treatises on electrical fluid, such as described by Mr de Volta, are very clear. At the approach of the living “battery” which is Angelique, the pendulum will start to oscillate.
Everyone holds his breath… but the pendulum remains perfectly motionless. The bread-hutch, on the other hand, which is full and weighs a good quintal-and-a-half, takes off and falls heavily onto the floor. Only because the young girl brushed against it as she was backing away.
This is the beginning of an incredible scene, which this time involves the fall of a heavy shelf that had been solidly fixed to the stone wall.
Angelique rolls on the floor screaming that she is going to kill herself.
Soon the circle of peasants disintegrates: they are all afraid of being possessed too. At The Muzerie all is consternation…
On this same day, at nine o’clock at night, loud knocking is heard at the cottage door.
The dogs hurl death… is it the Devil?
No, it is only Cottin the drunkard, armed with his carter’s whip and all smeared with wine. He is only stopping on his way past… He yells to the poor Angelique, who is busy at that moment running after a wayward fork:
“You’re good for a side-show at the fair!”
Then he disappears, grumbling, into the night.
To be continued.