Authors: Julia O'Faolain
For a long time, the former Hôtel de Lamballe retained the grace of the
. Even in the 1890s, when it had been a mental hospital for fifty years, its grounds could reclaim a radiance which was often at its most beguiling when one of the figures in the foreground happened to be that of Monseigneur de Belcastel. Though an inmate, he wore well-cut cassocks and moved with a courtly ease, which, if you were a Mason – many were – and disliked priests, might strike you as ‘fishy’ or even sinister. Yet if you were to engage him in chat, you would find him good company and refreshingly free from self-conceit. His mind was quick, his curiosity lively and his slim ankles twinkled amusingly in their violet silk socks. There was nothing slimy about him, and he had clearly not shirked life’s physical risks.
Gouged into his right cheek was a scar so tender that squeamish visitors tried to stay on his left. But his friendliness could foil them, for he had a vivacious way of turning his head, and when he did, the purple scar flashed like a grin and could put off the very people he had hoped to draw close. When this happened, his cheek pulsed, and the scar leered. One of two things: the monsignor lacked vanity or – a better bet? – chose to punish it. Adam Gould, his attendant, sometimes pondered the odds, for he knew how pride disguises itself. Besides, there were rumours of a scandal.
‘Not’, Dr Blanche had warned when engaging Adam, ‘that such tales can be trusted. When you get to know each other, Monseigneur de Belcastel may tell you his side of the story. Meanwhile, if this is to be a true asylum, we mustn’t ask too many questions. I haven’t asked
many, you’ll note.’ And the doctor smiled his soft, affable, fat man’s smile. ‘My own guess,’ he confided, ‘is that our noble prelate is more martyr than villain.’
‘You mean he’s a scapegoat?’
Blanche shrugged. ‘There are two sides to his story. This one,’ he handed Adam a slightly thumbed press cutting, ‘is probably best taken with a pinch of salt.’
Le Journal des débats
, January 1890
CLERICAL PLOT (?) COMES TO LIGHT DURING FIRE
. Some mornings ago house-guests in one of our more illustrious châteaux awoke to find that fire had broken out and cut off the main exit. Luckily some sportsmen, who were hunting nearby, smelled smoke, raised the alarm, broke down a side door and forced their way in. Thanks to this resolute action, lives were saved, major injuries avoided and a curious discovery made. One of the rescuers, an illiterate man, was directed by a prominent personage – we have been advised by our lawyers not to give his name – to save a box of important papers. The man obeyed, then, some time later, on failing to find its owner again, entrusted the box to the local schoolteacher who, as he put it himself, ‘smelled a rat’ and gave it to the police. This led to the discovery of a secret society pledged to destroy the French Republic, instigate a coup and restore the monarchy.
At first several senior army officers and churchmen were thought to be involved, but it now appears that, since the only man – a priest – against whom there is any proof is mentally unstable, the plots may prove fanciful. Trusting in such an outcome, this newspaper’s editors welcome the chance to remind citizens that the present pope has warned against putting divisive politics before the unity for which true religion strives. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII understands the world in which he lives, so there is no longer any reason why a man should not be both a good Catholic and a good Republican. If it is so in America, why not in France?
Aristotle wrote that even God cannot change the past, and it follows that old grudges should be buried sooner rather than later. The habit prevalent among reactionaries of referring to our Republic as a ‘shrew’, ‘scold’, ‘harridan’, ‘whore’ and ‘witch’ is a proof of political immaturity. Perhaps such people should be denied the vote?
We shall keep our readers abreast of further developments.
The suspect cleric is, we learn, to be confined in a private asylum near the village of Passy on the outskirts of Paris. It is run by the distinguished neurologist, Dr Emile Blanche, an enlightened and charitable – though some might say ‘naive’ – gentleman whose readiness to open his doors to the politically compromised of all persuasions has more than once earned him the nickname of ‘
’ or launderer.
If his new boarder is sane enough to do so, he should be made to answer for his activities. Democracy demands openness, and attempts to defeat the ballot box must not be tolerated.
‘It follows,’ said Blanche, when Adam had read this, ‘that, officially, our poor friend’s malady had better continue to defeat us. Do you take my point?’
‘He was badly burned.’
‘You mean ...?’ touching his own cheek.
‘Oh, in every sense.’
‘Yes. I am relying on your sympathetic flair.’ Delicately, the doctor laid a finger to his nose.
‘Mother wit. Trust yourself.’
This exchange took place when Adam was twenty-two years old, had just ditched a plan to become a priest, and didn’t trust himself at all. Mother wit had not been valued in his seminary. Perhaps he had none? Like small animals parted too early from their mothers, and in his case from his native habitat, he might lack instinct. He certainly lacked assurance. The doctor, though, so pooh-poohed his doubts that Adam, one of whose uncles had come here twenty years before to help with another monsignor, saw that Blanche supposed him to have inherited skills as specialized as those of a Swiss Guard.
‘A charming gentleman, your uncle!’ Blanche enthused. ‘He could soothe the most intractable hysterics.’
Notoriously, the uncle’s monsignor too had been a charmer. Monsignor George Talbot had been the late pope’s favourite chamberlain and adviser for years before his dementia was noticed. Indeed it might never, the uncle’s letters speculated, have been noticed at all if the Vatican Council of 1870 had not brought northern churchmen to Rome. These unnerved the papal court. Being used to living among Protestants, the northerners were rich, liberal with donations, fussed about gravitas and showed such shock at the eccentricities of the
that in the end the pope felt reluctantly obliged to have his ‘
’ spirited to Paris and Dr Blanche’s discreet, private establishment.
Talbot’s affliction had been some sort of religious mania, but Monseigneur de Belcastel was clearly a different sort of man. He seemed startlingly sane. There was nothing eccentric about him at all. Yet here he was, outside not just the circles in which gentlemen of his extraction might expect to revolve, but outside normal society. And so, to be sure, was Adam. A hybrid outside this asylum, he would, he knew, be considered a ‘half-gentleman’ back in Ireland and a ‘spoilt priest’ by his seminary classmates, some of whom were still praying that he might return to their fold.
His uncle, though less prone to pray, had rallied when needed.
ve sent a thumping great letter of recommendation on your behalf to
le cher vieux
he had written when Adam left his seminary
t let me down any lower than I
ve done myself which, after a trip too many to the gee-gees and the gaming tables, is very low indeed. I hope, by the way, that you haven
t got it in mind to turn into a
– i.e. one who, like myself, is paid by our sainted family to keep away? The pay is far too meagre to be divided! As things are, I only keep body and soul together by wintering in cheap and chilly, out-of-season resorts here in Normandy. By the same token, it would be as well not to breathe any of this to Blanche on whom I seem to have made a good impression! What a lark! It tickles me to be asked to recommend someone. It
s the first time in my life. So, you see, you
ve made me happy
Talbot was a funny old fellow. To cheer him up I used to wear a white sheet and pretend to be the pope. It was like playing charades! I would regularly issue bulls and anathemas against people we disliked. Great fun! Hope your own troubles clear up
Two years later, Adam had grown fond of Belcastel and was familiar with his tastes and character, but had still no more than a hazy notion about the predicament which had pitchforked him here.
Then Madame Blanche, when tidying an old hatbox, came upon cuttings from monarchist papers which the doctor had forgotten. These revived Adam’s curiosity.
La Gazette de France
, January 1890
SMELLING RATS IN MORBIHAN
Lest our readers be misled by recent reports of fire and scandal in the home of a noble Breton family, we have made our own inquiries. They reveal that the fire was almost certainly started by the ‘rescuers’, who were no doubt paid to discredit the gentlemen gathered inside. It follows that the ‘subversive’ papers were planted in the château rather than rescued from it.
Royalists should know that their withdrawal from public life leaves their friends vulnerable to such manoeuvres. It has delivered France to its present vulgarity,
, ignorance of the art of living, puerile parsimony and absence of respect. Worse: it has led to time-servers usurping the aristocracy’s role. It is now three-quarters of a century since it was first noted that men who aimed to stay in office had to vary their oath of allegiance so often, that the number of their perjuries could be reckoned by their appointments as easily as a stag’s age is reckoned by counting the branches of his horns.
Paradoxically, this limpet grasp on preferment ensures stability. As regimes change, continuity is assured by renegades.
A sadder paradox is that men of honour, like the one who became a scapegoat in this story, find that confinement to a lunatic asylum may be the idealist’s lot. In a democracy success is often a sign of moral weakness and failure the wages of virtue.
‘Don’t imagine,’ said Monseigneur de Belcastel when Adam showed him this newspaper cutting, ‘that the
Gazette de France
approves of failure. Those journalists think me a great fool and that it’s just as well I’ve been put out of the way. Losers end up by fighting each other like caged beasts. No wonder they talk of smelling rats.’
Passy, like its neighbouring district, Auteuil, is a leafy area full of mature trees and high-walled gardens which slope down to the River Seine, and though the doctor’s establishment really is, as he claims, an asylum from the world, it is haunted too by some of the world’s grimmer ghosts, being housed in what was once variously described as a château or hôtel belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette’s close friend, the princesse de Lamballe. She perished almost exactly a hundred years ago, in the September massacres of 1792, when, according to some, her head along with more delicate parts of her anatomy was paraded on pikes outside the windows of the imprisoned queen. Did this really happen? How to be sure? It may well be happening now in inmates’ dreams, for monarchist propaganda keeps such stories alive. After her death the princess’s estate became a pleasure garden, and later a place of ill repute which had to be closed down.
Piquantly, dubious heads now hide here again, and the latest arrival is the fashionable, forty-two-year-old fiction-writer, lady-killer and journalist Guy de Maupassant, whose misfortune – he was delivered some weeks ago in a straitjacket – arouses the malign curiosity of his one-time professional colleagues. Journalists are an envious breed because their currency – fame – is one which they themselves rarely enjoy. Guy, though, did enjoy both fame and its fruits until last 2 January, when his maladies finally got the better of him. He had been baffling them for some time, growing ever more desperate as he went from doctor to doctor and from spa to spa, sampling every sort of cure while raging at his clouded vision, migraine headaches, toothaches, hallucinations, weight loss and memory lapses.