“Poor Carhaix!” said Durtal, as he blew out the candle. “Another who loves this epoch about as well as Des Hermies and I do. But he has the tutelage of his bells, and certainly among his wards he has his favourite. He is not to be pitied. He has his hobby, which renders life possible for him, as hobbies do.”
“How is Gilles de Rais progressing?”
“I have finished the first part of his life, making just the briefest possible mention of his virtues and achievements.”
“Which are of no interest,” remarked Des Hermies.
“Evidently, since the name of Gilles de Rais would have perished four centuries ago but for the enormities of vice which it symbolizes. I am coming to the crimes now. The great difficulty, you see, is to explain how this man, who was a brave captain and a good Christian, all of a sudden became a sacrilegious sadist and a coward.”
“Metamorphosed over night, as it were.”
“Worse. As if at a touch of a fairy’s wand or of a playwright’s pen. That is what mystifies his biographers. Of course untraceable influences must have been at work a long time, and there must have been occasional outcropping not mentioned in the chronicles. Here is a recapitulation of our material.
“Gilles de Rais was born about 1404 on the boundary between Brittany and Anjou, in the chateau de Machecoul. We know nothing of his childhood. His father died about the end of October, 1415, and his mother almost immediately married a Sieur d’Estouville, abandoning her two sons, Gilles and Rene. They became the wards of their grandfather, Jean de Craon, ‘a man old and ancient and of exceeding great age,’ as the texts say. He seems to have allowed his two charges to run wild, and then to have got rid of Gilles by marrying him to Catherine de Thouars, November 30, 1420.
“Gilles is known to have been at the court of the Dauphin five years later. His contemporaries represent him as a robust, active man, of striking beauty and rare elegance. We have no explicit statement as to the role he played in this court, but one can easily imagine what sort of treatment the richest baron in France received at the hands of an impoverished king.
“For at that moment Charles VII was in extremities. He was without money, prestige, or real authority. Even the cities along the Loire scarcely obeyed him. France, decimated a few years before, by the plague, and further depopulated by massacres, was in a deplorable situation.
“England, rising from the sea like the fabled polyp the Kraken, had cast her tentacles over Brittany, Normandy, l’Ile de France, part of Picardy, the entire North, the Interior as far as Orleans, and crawling forward left in her wake towns squeezed dry and country exhausted.