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Of the dark and terrible legends to which Brittany has given birth, one of the most gloomy and romantic is the story of Gilles de Retz, alchemist, magician, and arch-criminal. But the story is not altogether legendary, although it has undoubtedly been added to from the great stores of tradition. Gilles is none other than the Bluebeard of the nursery tale, for he appears to have actually worn a beard bluish-black in hue, and it is probable that his personality became mingled with that of the hero of the old Oriental story.
Gilles de Laval, Lord of Retz and Marshal of France, was connected with some of the noblest families in Brittany, those of Montmorency, Rocey, and Craon, and at his father’s death, about 1424, he found himself lord of many princely domains, and what, for those times, was almost unlimited power and wealth. He was a handsome youth, lithe and of fascinating address, courageous, and learned as any clerk. A splendid career lay before him, but from the first that distorted idea of the romantic which is typical of certain minds had seized upon him, and despite his rank and position he much preferred the dark courses which finally ended in his disgrace and ruin to the dignities of his seigneury.
Gilles took his principal title from the barony of Retz or Rais, south of the Loire, on the marches of Brittany. As a youth he did nothing to justify an evil augury of his future, for he served with zeal and gallantry in the wars of Charles VI against the English and fought under Jeanne Darc at the siege of Orléans. In virtue of these services, and because of his shrewdness and skill in affairs, the King created him Marshal of France. But from that time onward the man who had been the able lieutenant of Jeanne Darc and had fought by her side at Jargeau and Patay began to deteriorate. Some years before he had married Catherine de Thouars, and with her had received a large dowry; but he had expended immense sums in the national cause, and his private life was as extravagant as that of a prince in a fairy tale. At his castle of Champtocé he dwelt in almost royal state; indeed, his train when he went hawking or hunting exceeded in magnificence that of the King himself. His retainers were tricked out in the most gorgeous liveries, and his table was spread with ruinous abundance. Oxen, sheep, and pigs were roasted whole, and viands were provided daily for five hundred persons. He had an insane love of pomp and display, and his private devotions were ministered to by a large body of ecclesiastics. His chapel was a marvel of splendour, and was furnished with gold and silver plate in the most lavish manner. His love of colour and movement made him fond of theatrical displays, and it is even said that the play or mystery of Orléans, dealing with the story of Jeanne Darc, was written with his own hand. He was munificent in his patronage of the arts, and was himself a skilled illuminator and bookbinder. In short, he was obviously one of those persons of abnormal character in whom genius is allied to madness and who can attempt and execute nothing except in a spirit of the wildest excess.
The reduction of his fortune merely served his peculiar and abnormal personality with a new excuse for extravagance. At this time the art of alchemy flourished exceedingly and the works of Nicolas Flamel, the Arabian Geber, and Pierre d’Estaing enjoyed a great vogue. On an evil day it occurred to Gilles to turn alchemist, and thus repair his broken fortunes. In the first quarter of the fifteenth century alchemy stood for scientific achievement, and many persons in our own enlightened age still study its maxims. A society exists to-day the object of which is to further the knowledge of alchemical science. A common misapprehension is current to the effect that the object of the alchemists was the transmutation of the baser metals into gold, but in reality they were divided into two groups, those who sought eagerly the secret of manufacturing the precious metals, and those who dreamed of a higher aim, the transmutation of the gross, terrestrial nature of man into the pure gold of the spirit.
The latter of these aims was beyond the fevered imagination of such a wild and disorderly mind as that of Gilles de Retz. He sent emissaries into Italy, Spain, and Germany to invite adepts in the science to his castle at Champtocé. From among these he selected two men to assist him in his plan—Prelati, an alchemist of Padua, and a certain physician of Poitou, whose name is not recorded. At their instigation he built a magnificent laboratory, and when it was completed commenced to experiment. A year passed, during which the necessities of the ‘science’ gradually emptied many bags of gold, but none returned to the Marshal’s coffers. The alchemists slept soft and fed sumptuously, and were quite content to pursue their labours so long as the Seigneur of Retz had occasion for their services. But as the time passed that august person became greatly impatient, and so irritable did he grow because of the lack of results that at length his assistants, in imminent fear of dismissal, communicated to him a dark and dreadful secret of their art, which, they assured him, would assist them at arriving speedily at the desired end.
The nature of the experiment they proposed was so grotesque that its acceptance by Gilles proves that he was either insane or a victim of the superstition of his time. His wretched accomplices told him that the Evil One alone was capable of revealing the secret of the transmutation of the baser metals into gold, and they offered to summon him to their master’s aid. They assured Gilles that Satan would require a recompense for his services, and the Marshal retorted that so long as he saved his soul intact he was quite willing to conclude any bargain that the Father of Evil might propose.
It was arranged that the ceremony should take place within a gloomy wood in the neighbourhood. The nameless physician conducted the Lord of Retz to a small clearing in this plantation, where the magic circle was drawn and the usual conjurations made. For half an hour they waited in silence, and then a great trembling fell upon the physician. A deadly pallor overspread his countenance. His knees shook, he muttered wildly, and at last he sank to the ground. Gilles stood by unmoved. The insanity of egotism is of course productive of great if not lofty courage, and he feared neither man nor fiend. Suddenly the alchemist regained consciousness and told his master that the Devil had appeared to him in the shape of a leopard and had growled at him horribly. He ascribed Gilles’ lack of supernatural vision to want of faith. He then declared that the Evil One had told him where certain herbs grew in Spain and Africa, the juices of which possessed the power to effect the transmutation, and these he obligingly offered to search for, provided the Lord of Retz furnished the means for his travels. This Gilles gladly did, and of course never beheld the Poitevin knave again.
Days and months passed and the physician did not return. Gilles grew uneasy. It was imperative that gold should be forthcoming immediately, for not only was he being pressed on every side, but he was unable to support his usual magnificence. In this dilemma he turned to Prelati, his remaining alchemical assistant. This man appears to have believed in his art or he would not have made the terrible suggestion he did, which was that the Lord of Retz should sign with his own blood a compact with the Devil, and should offer up a young child in sacrifice to him. To this proposal the unhappy Gilles consented. On the following night Prelati quitted the castle, and returned shortly afterward with the story that the fiend had appeared to him in the likeness of a young man who desired to be called Barron, and had pointed out to him the resting-place of a hoard of ingots of pure gold, buried under an oak in the neighbouring wood. Certain conditions, however, must be observed before the treasure was dug up, the chief of which was that it must not be searched for until a period of seven times seven weeks had elapsed, or it would turn into slates. With these conditions de Retz would not comply, and, alarmed at his annoyance, the obliging Prelati curtailed the time of waiting to seven times seven days. At the end of that period the alchemist and his dupe repaired to the wood to dig up the treasure. They worked hard for some time, and at length came upon a load of slates, inscribed with magical characters. Prelati pretended great wrath, and upbraided the Evil One for his deceit, in which denunciation he was heartily joined by de Retz. But so credulous was the Seigneur that he allowed himself to be persuaded to afford Satan another trial, which meant, of course, that Prelati led him on from day to day with specious promises and ambiguous hints, until he had drained him of nearly all his remaining substance. He was then preparing to decamp with his plunder when a dramatic incident detained him.
For some time a rumour had been circulating in the country-side that numerous children were missing and that they had been spirited away. Popular clamour ran high, and suspicion was directed toward the castle of Champtocé. So circumstantial was the evidence against de Retz that at length the Duke of Brittany ordered both the Seigneur and his accomplice to be arrested. Their trial took place before a commission which de Retz denounced, declaring that he would rather be hanged like a dog, without trial, than plead before its members. But the evidence against him was overwhelming. It was told how the wretched madman, in his insane quest for gold, had sacrificed his innocent victims on the altar of Satan, and how he had gloated over their sufferings. Finally he confessed his enormities and told how nearly a hundred children had been cruelly murdered by him and his relentless accomplice. Both he and Prelati were doomed to be burned alive, but in consideration of his rank he was strangled before being cast into the flames. Before the execution he expressed to Prelati a hope that they would meet in Paradise, and, it is said, met his end very devoutly.
The castle of Champtocé still stands in its beautiful valley, and many romantic legends cluster about its grey old walls. “The hideous, half-burnt body of the monster himself,” says Trollope, “circled with flames—pale, indeed, and faint in colour, but more lasting than those the hangman kindled around his mortal form in 180 the meadow under the walls of Nantes—is seen, on bright moonlight nights, standing now on one topmost point of craggy wall, and now on another, and is heard mingling his moan with the sough of the night-wind. Pale, bloodless forms, too, of youthful growth and mien, the restless, unsepulchred ghosts of the unfortunates who perished in these dungeons unassoiled ... may at similar times be seen flitting backward and forward, in numerous groups, across the space enclosed by the ruined wall, with more than mortal speed, or glancing hurriedly from window to window of the fabric, as still seeking to escape from its hateful confinement.”