Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as a young painter, by Henri Rachon.

At the end of a deep, winding canyon, there is a last, even steeper rise to the arid plateau from which surges a fantastic concentration of towers and walls…  We are at Boussagues, in Cevenol country, an ancient land, where Julius Caesar had already had each rock hollowed into a vigilaire where his centurions lay in wait.  On the surrounding plain, a few sweet chestnut trees break with the roughness of the site, where shades of the Camisards, martyrised by the Sun-King [Louis XIV] still roam.  But there where, between the eagle-nest towers, a donjon rises, covered in rough-cut slates, a charming manor was built during the Renaissance.  It has always been called la maison du Bailly.  After many vicissitudes, it becomes the property, under Napoleon, of the Baron de Senegra, Grand Master of Holland.  This high-ranking person was the sponsor and friend of many of the great painters of the epoch, notably Ingres.  At the end of the XIXth Century, the manor was acquired by a rich aristocrat, a descendant of the Counts of Toulouse, also a painter, and among the greatest of them:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, the “father” of the Goulue and Yvette Guilbert.

As we know, this artist of genius was also a desperate pleasure-seeker.  His brief existence was spent in the places of Parisian pleasure which he studied with a stroke as cruel as his own destiny.  Sometimes he escaped to London, Brussels or Madrid looking for new distractions which he recorded in his sketch-book with incredible intensity.  Despite, and doubtless because of, his infirmity:  this giant of the pencil is a dwarf, the sequel of two falls that he made when he was a child.

Absorbed by his art and his passions, the Count hardly remembers his Boussagues land, the gestion of which he had entrusted to his mother right from the beginning.  She was born Tapie de Celeyran, and had left the property at the disposition of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a rigorous Order whose nuns devoted themselves to educational tasks.  Around the end of the century, two of its representatives settled into the manor.  They are in charge notably of the kindergarten, the Cathechism and the “choir of big adolescent girls”.  Father Blanc is serving the parish at this time.  He has just returned from India, where he had been a missionary, and knows eight or nine languages including Greek, Sanskrit and Tamil.  This exceptional priest does not want to leave Boussagues for anything in the world.  Its strange, desolated site favourises his meditations.

However, this erudite priest does not administer his parish as a Contemplative:  after having listened to his edifying words translated from the Bible of the Hebrews, his parishioners see him climb a ladder and push the tower’s tiles around with all the strength of his long, ascetic body.  Then, with angelic patience, he corrects the homework of the little, poor pupils of this desert…  However, his goodwill does not extend as far as complacency when it is reported to him that some teenage boys had been to visit the sweet chestnut trees with company!  In fact, this good priest is a man of great character who knows what he wants, particularly as it is very little:  above all to live in this retired place as long as he can assume the charges of his ministry and to devote himself to it far from the tumult of the city.

Monsignor de Cabrieres, Cardinal of Montpellier, knows this:  when, for the third time, he wants to name Father Blanc to a more important post, he sends him his successor who receives the order to discharge his furniture in front of the Presbytery and not to move from there.  The curate receives him stoically and with cordiality, but after having shown him his parish, he prays him to leave immediately.  Once more Monsignor de Cabrieres has to give in…

What are the relations between the curate and the two nuns who live in one wing of the house?  One of them, Sister Delphine, is also a character.  Doubtless very necessary up there, where the winters are terrible and life inside the stones of the secular walls, most often melancholic.  Her companion, Sister Saint-Jean, of more fragile health, dies in 1890, in the Great Northern Room on the second floor of the manor…

The Boussagues donjon where Sister Delphine heard the wind blow as through an organ pipe, and recognized the plaintive voice of a deceased nun.

Between Father Blanc and Sister Delphine the atmosphere is sometimes tense…  When the nun garnishes the main altar with too many candles for her vicar, who would like to consecrate more to charitable deeds, or when the scholarly priest is irritated to see her limit his cultural allowance only to Le Pelerin magazine or pious books.  Or again, when she timidly tells him about strange visions which come to her in the night…

This is essentially a setting of such serenity that a convent on Mount Athos would seem dissipated in comparison…

Such serenity?  Without a doubt.  Except for the anxiety manifested by the nun about everything that touches the dead and the existence of another world.  During her lifetime, Sister Saint-Jean shared these preoccupations and they both often spoke of the chances of survival.  The one who died first had even promised to give a sign to the other when she had definitively arrived in her Paradise.  Two years after the death of Sister Saint-Jean this signal reaches the survivor.  One evening in November, her devotions finished, Sister Delphine is about to take her evening infusion, when she hears a door of the donjon creak and immediately a formidable gust of wind rushes in.  It seems to her that the tower has just changed into a gigantic organ pipe roaring all the sufferings of Purgatory…   But, covering the noise, she soon distinctly hears Sister Saint-Jean calling her in a tender, plaintive voice.

Delighted and terrified, the nun sees in this manifestation a tangible proof of the immortality of the soul and makes it her duty to inform certain inhabitants of Boussagues.  She had in the countryside such a reputation for goodness, intelligence and common sense that everyone believes her word.  The curate hears about it and loses his temper for the first time.  He reproaches the nun with exciting his parishioners to superstition and threatens her with exorcism.  This hardly troubles the nun who retorts that her good faith and her conscience uphold her words.

To be continued.

Advertisements