Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Henri Rachon.

A few months later, another rumour is spreading through the town:  Sister Delphine does not only hear voices, she also has visions, which usually arrive while she is saying her Rosary, kneeling on her prie-dieu.  And what does she see?  The Virgin Mary dressed in azure and gold or the Baby Jesus, clutching lilies?  Not at all.  It is a sort of choir-boy who appears to her each time, but of such bizarre appearance that there is no risk of meeting anyone like him in Boussagues…  He wears the little calotte and, over his ordinary clothes, a white surplice with a belt of red material.  Although he is the size of a child, he also wears spectacles and…  a very thick beard of the most beautiful black.  It is whispered that this singular servant of the Mass is afflicted with a tic which makes him continually lick his violaceous lips, as if he were dying of thirst…

It is in the room known as “the study” that the ghost is to be seen, according to an immuable rite.  When the nun hears swishing and sighing, she opens the door to this chamber next-door to her own and shines a petrol-lamp which has a reflector:  the spectre is usually already perched on a chair, in the process of carefully adjusting the Comtoise clock.  Sister Delphine then sees him descend with difficulty and approach her.  She stands aside and lets him enter her bedroom.  He walks with a limp over to the window where he stops.  The nun prays aloud and it sometimes happens that the apparition recites with her one or two Aves before disappearing suddenly, each time letting out a piercing scream…

The petrol lamp that Sister Delphine shone on the ghost dressed as a choir-boy.

Father Blanc of course knows about this too.  He exhorts, he storms, but refuses to see the phenomenon for himself.  It is even worse when, some time later, the nun decides to write to a close family member of the painter, to advise her “that very strange things are happening at the castle”  and to describe the ghost to her in detail down to “the well-starched shirt which billowed under the rising of his breast”

We are in 1914, so other stories, smacking more of gunpowder than of sulphur, come to nourish the Boussagues gossip.  Curiously, it is at this time too that the last nocturnal intrusion of the little man with twisted legs occurs, an apparition marked by an extraordinary coup de theatre.  On this particular night, he appears thirstier than ever and in prey to inhabitual agitation as well.  The nun sees him climb onto his chair and try to grow bigger on his atrophied legs.  A painful rictus crosses his face while he vehemently calls for some absinthe.  The dear nun is now used to this presence which disturbs her hardly more than the flight of a moth around her lamp.  To this unusual demand she is only able to reply by an apology…  Suddenly the ghost goes into mad anger, jumps from the chair and rushes to the Comtoise.  Firstly, he breaks the glass which protects its face, then with superhuman strength rips out the whole pendulum which passes through the upper niche of the piece of furniture, along with the heavy metal weights.  Surrounded this time by a blueish halo, he attacks the pendulum which he had thrown on the ground after having broken the cables which held the weights.

Sister Delphine’s last vision caused even more talk outside than in her bedroom and at the same time relegated the war rumours to second place.  So much so that the owners of the manor asked Father Blanc for a detailed enquiry about these singular events.  The good priest was very affected by it.  But to what point his initial doubts gave in to perplexity can be read in the letter that he sent to the mother of the deceased painter.  Speaking of the voices and the nun’s repeated visions, he concludes by saying:

“This and many other things which happened afterward do not show the intervention of angels and saints…”

***

These facts are little known.  They were revealed well after the painter’s death, by his first-cousin-once-removed, Countess Attems, nee Tapie de Celeyran.  It is  a case of haunting that is exceptionally complete and convincing…

It is convincing because of the quality of the witnesses and protagonists in the story.  What interest would Sister Delphine have in inventing such a story?  She died in 1919, practically in odour of sanctity.

By his bizarre appearance and his weird comportment at the end, the ghost did not give a very edifying image of the other world.  Therefore, it is not likely that she invented it to prove the reality of the after-life.

***

Toulouse-Lautrec (left) dressed as a choir-boy.

The most troubling part of the story is that Sister Delphine always affirmed that, at each of his apparitions, the ghost was disguised as a choir-boy.  She gave a very detailed description to Father Blanc, who had to admit that the apparition resembled in a striking fashion the son of the owners of the manor, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa.

***

It is known with certitude that the nun had never met Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.  It is also known that she did not even know of his existence:  the Toulouse-Lautrecs, of ancient high nobility, lived in the Bordelais, and hid from everyone the bohemian lifestyle that Henri led at Montmartre.  Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec had also completely broken off relations with his son.

***

Sister Delphine described the ghost dressed as a choir-boy because that was how she saw him.  It was one of the artist’s favourite attires that his contemporaries saw several times during religious or profane festivals.  The description of the starched shirt is also in the artist’s habits.

***

At the end of his life, Toulouse-Lautrec, who died at the age of 37, always forgot his appointments.  He was very upset about it and was continually asking the time and winding up his watches.  This insomniac suffered a lot from solitude too and confided to his friends that he was bored with life and that killing time was for him an obsession.  There is an evident connection between this character trait and the final destruction of the clock.

***

To be continued.

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