Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855
Durtal decides to write a biography of Gilles de Rais, the French marshal briefly associated with Joan of Arc, who was the subject of a famous sorcery trial in 1430. His friend des Hermies expresses his delight that Durtal is abandoning the realistic novel, but Durtal wants to apply the methods of modern realism to his task, in spite of the difficulties involved.
Des Hermies takes Durtal to the bell tower of a church and introduces him to the bell ringer Louis Carhaix, who asks to meet him. Carhaix thinks he might be useful to Durtal’s research. Durtal describes the early part of Gilles de Rais’s life to des Hermies, observing that his excessively luxurious lifestyle alarmed his expectant heirs to petition the king to prevent his selling off parts of the estate. The debts that Gilles de Rais subsequently ran up, Durtal opines, caused him to take an interest in the magical arts, by which means he hoped to learn the secret of making gold. After his alchemical experiments failed, Durtal claims, Gilles de Rais turned to active Satanism and the mass murder of children.
Having heard Durtal’s account, des Hermies raises the subject of modern Satanism and brushes aside Durtal’s opinion that there is no such thing, with an assurance that it is rife in contemporary Paris. Durtal thinks that it would help his work enormously to be able to study Satanist rites firsthand. Later, at Carhaix’s house, des Hermies offers an account of the uninterrupted descent of a Satanist tradition from the time of Gilles de Rais to modern times. He then begins supplying Durtal with research materials supporting this contention.
Durtal receives an admiring letter from a woman who read his last work of fiction. He replies to it, thus beginning an extensive correspondence that inflames his curiosity considerably. She uses a pseudonym, but he eventually guesses that she might be Hyacinthe Chantelouve, the wife of the historian at whose house he first met des Hermies. This guess is confirmed when she confronts him in Gilles de Rais’s castle, where he went to soak up the atmosphere. The two become lovers.
At Carhaix’s house des Hermies introduces Durtal to an astrologer named Gévingey, with whom they discuss spiritualism and various other aspects of modern occultism, including the kinds of demon called incubi and succubi. Gévingey names a fallen priest called Canon Docre as an accomplished black magician and suggests that he is an intimate of the Chantelouves. Durtal cannot believe at first that his new mistress is a Satanist, but evidence to that effect begins to accumulate.
After reviewing the record of Gilles de Rais’s supposed atrocities, Durtal goes to visit the Chantelouves, where the conversation quickly turns to Satanism and Canon Docre. Durtal’s infatuation with Madame Chantelouve is still increasing in intensity, and so is his desire to meet Canon Docre, but he finds some distraction in his continuing discussions with des Hermies and Carhaix on various aspects of magic and demonology, including the exploits of a certain Dr. Johannès, who supposedly freed Gévingey from the evil influence of Docre. He also carries his private account of Gilles de Rais’s career forward to the beginning of his trial.
Madame Chantelouve eventually promises to take Durtal to a black mass conducted by Docre. She confesses to being infatuated with the man at one time. While waiting for the appointed time, Durtal completes his account of the trial of Gilles de Rais’s, including his lurid confession and extravagant repentance. Madame Chantelouve takes him to the place where the black mass is to be held. He watches with interest but finds the experience rather disappointing; eventually he takes Madame Chantelouve away when she seems to be overcome by the incense that is used. They part on bad terms.
Durtal describes the black mass to des Hermies, Carhaix, and Gévingey, and they discuss its relationship to orthodox religion at some length. Carhaix argues that the prevalence of Satanism is evidence of the decadence and corruption of their society, possibly marking the nearing of its end and the Second Coming of Christ. Durtal agrees that the world is indeed sick and resolves not to have any further contact with Madame Chantelouve—a decision that she eventually accepts in a bitter letter.
Des Hermies tells Durtal more about the virtuous magic of Dr. Johannès and his miraculous cures, but Durtal is as reluctant to credit the power of white magic as he was to credit the power of black. Des Hermies confesses that he remains skeptical, causing Durtal to express a reluctant envy of Carhaix’s faith. At Carhaix’s house, Durtal adds a brief appendix to his account of Gilles de Rais’s career, describing the marshal’s execution. The three friends deliver their final verdict on the century that seems to them all to be moving to a sadly ignominious end as “storm-clouds of foul abomination” gather on its horizon. Carhaix alone conserves hope for the future in his vision of a magnificent return of the Holy Spirit.
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