Extracts from the Political Works of the Abbé de St. Pierre

 [This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010.  Copyright as such.]

Notre-Dame de la Victoire

I was told lately at Valogne, that a good priest of the town who teaches the children to read, had had an apparition in broad day ten or twelve years ago. As that had made a great deal of noise at first on account of his reputation for probity and sincerity, I had the curiosity to hear him relate his adventure himself. A lady, one of my relations, who was acquainted with him, sent to invite him to dine with her yesterday, the 7th of January, 1708, and as on the one hand I showed a desire to learn the thing from himself, and on the other it was a kind of honorable distinction to have had by daylight an apparition of one of his comrades, he related it before dinner without requiring to be pressed, and in a very charming manner.


"In 1695," said M. Bezuel to us, "being a schoolboy of about fifteen years of age, I became acquainted with the two children of M. Abaquene, attorney, schoolboys like myself. The eldest was of my own age, the second was eighteen months younger; he was named Desfontaines; we took all our walks and all our parties of pleasure together, and whether it was that Desfontaines had more affection for me, or that he was more gay, obliging, and clever than his brother, I loved him the best.

"In 1696, we were walking both of us in the cloister of the Capuchins. He told me that he had lately read a story of two friends who had promised each other that the first of them who died should come and bring news of his condition to the one still living; that the one who died came back to earth, and told his friend surprising things. Upon that, Desfontaines told me that he had a favor to ask of me; that he begged me to grant it instantly: it was to make him a similar promise, and on his part he would do the same. I told him that I would not. For several months he talked to me of it, often and seriously; I always resisted his wish. At last, towards the month of August, 1696, as he was to leave to go and study at Caen, he pressed me so much with tears in his eyes, that I consented to it. He drew out at that moment two little papers which he had ready written: one was signed with his blood, in which he promised me that in case of his death he would come and bring me news of his condition; in the other I promised him the same thing. I pricked my finger; a drop of blood came, with which I signed my name. He was delighted to have my billet, and embracing me, he thanked me a thousand times.

"Some time after, he set off with his brother. Our separation caused us much grief, but we wrote to each other now and then, and it was but six weeks since I had had a letter from him, when what I am going to relate to you happened to me.

"The 31st of July, 1697, one Thursday—I shall remember it all my life—the late M. Sortoville, with whom I lodged, and who had been very kind to me, begged of me to go to a meadow near the Cordeliers, and help his people, who were making hay, to make haste. I had not been there a quarter of an hour, when about half-past-two, I all of a sudden felt giddy and weak. In vain I leant upon my hay-fork; I was obliged to place myself on a little hay, where I was nearly half an hour recovering my senses. That passed off; but as nothing of the kind had ever occurred to me before, I was surprised at it and feared it might be the commencement of an illness. Nevertheless it did not make much impression upon me during the remainder of the day. It is true I did not sleep that night so well as usual.

"The next day, at the same hour, as I was conducting to the meadow M. de St. Simon, the grandson of M. de Sortoville, who was then ten years old, I felt myself seized on the way with a similar faintness, and I sat down on a stone in the shade. That passed off, and we continued our way; nothing more happened to me that day, and at night I had hardly any sleep.

"At last, on the morrow, the second day of August, being in the loft where they laid up the hay they brought from the meadow, I was taken with a similar giddiness and a similar faintness, but still more violent than the other. I fainted away completely; one of the men perceived it. I have been told that I was asked what was the matter with me, and that I replied, 'I have seen what I should never have believed;' but I have no recollection of either the question or the answer. That, however, accords with what I do remember to have seen just then; as it were some one naked to the middle, but whom, however, I did not recognize. They helped me down from the ladder. The faintness seized me again, my head swam as I was between two rounds of the ladder, and again I fainted. They took me down and placed me on a large beam which served for a seat in the large square of the capuchins. I sat down on it and then I no longer saw M. de Sortoville nor his domestics, although present; but perceiving Desfontaines near the foot of the ladder, who made me a sign to come to him, I moved on my seat as if to make room for him; and those who saw me and whom I did not see, although my eyes were open, remarked this movement.

"As he did not come, I rose to go to him. He advanced towards me, took my left arm with his right arm, and led me about thirty paces from thence into a retired street, holding me still under the arm. The domestics, supposing that my giddiness had passed off, and that I had purposely retired, went every one to their work, except a little servant, who went and told M. de Sortoville that I was talking all alone. M. de Sortoville thought I was tipsy; he drew near, and heard me ask some questions, and make some answers, which he has told me since.

"I was there nearly three-quarters of an hour, conversing with Desfontaines. 'I promised you,' said he to me, 'that if I died before you I would come and tell you of it. I was drowned the day before yesterday in the river of Caen, at nearly this same hour. I was out walking with such and such a one. It was very warm, and we had a wish to bathe; a faintness seized me in the water, and I fell to the bottom. The Abbé de Menil-Jean, my comrade, dived to bring me up. I seized hold of his foot; but whether he was afraid it might be a salmon, because I held him so fast, or that he wished to remount promptly to the surface of the water, he shook his leg so roughly, that he gave me a violent kick on the breast, which sent me to the bottom of the river, which is there very deep.

"Desmoulins related to me afterwards all that had occurred to them in their walk, and the subjects they had conversed upon. It was in vain for me to ask him questions—whether he was saved, whether he was damned, if he was in purgatory, if I was in a state of grace, and if I should soon follow him; he continued to discourse as if he had not heard me, and as if he would not hear me.

"I approached him several times to embrace him, but it seemed to me that I embraced nothing, and yet I felt very sensibly that he held me tightly by the arm, and that when I tried to turn away my head that I might not see him, because I could not look at him without feeling afflicted, he shook my arm as if to oblige me to look at and listen to him.

"He always appeared to me taller than I had seen him, and taller even than he was at the time of his death, although he had grown during the eighteen months in which we had not met. I beheld him always naked to the middle of his body, his head uncovered, with his fine fair hair, and a white scroll twisted in his hair over his forehead, on which there was some writing, but I could only make out the word in, &c.

"It was his same tone of voice. He appeared to me neither gay nor sad, but in a calm and tranquil state. He begged of me when his brother returned, to tell him certain things to say to his father and mother. He begged me to say the Seven Psalms which had been given him as a penance the preceding Sunday, which he had not yet recited; again he recommended me to speak to his brother, and then he bade me adieu, saying, as he left me, Jusques, jusques, (till, till,) which was the usual term he made use of when at the end of our walk we bade each other good-bye, to go home.

"He told me that at the time he was drowned, his brother, who was writing a translation, regretted having let him go without accompanying him, fearing some accident. He described to me so well where he was drowned, and the tree in the avenue of Louvigni on which he had written a few words, that two years afterwards, being there with the late Chevalier de Gotol, one of those who were with him at the time he was drowned, I pointed out to him the very spot; and by counting the trees in a particular direction which Desfontaines had specified to me, I went straight up to the tree, and I found his writing. He (the Chevalier) told me also that the article of the Seven Psalms was true, and that on coming from confession they had told each other their penance; and since then his brother has told me that it was quite true that at that hour he was writing his exercise, and he reproached himself for not having accompanied his brother. As nearly a month passed by without my being able to do what Desfontaines had told me in regard to his brother, he appeared to me again twice before dinner at a country house whither I had gone to dine a league from hence. I was very faint. I told them not to mind me, that it was nothing, and that I should soon recover myself; and I went to a corner of the garden. Desfontaines having appeared to me, reproached me for not having yet spoken to his brother, and again conversed with me for a quarter of an hour without answering any of my questions.

"As I was going in the morning to Notre-Dame de la Victoire, he appeared to me again, but for a shorter time, and pressed me always to speak to his brother, and left me, saying still, Jusques, Jusques, and without choosing to reply to my questions.

"It is a remarkable thing that I always felt a pain in that part of my arm which he had held me by the first time, until I had spoken to his brother. I was three days without being able to sleep, from the astonishment and agitation I felt. At the end of the first conversation, I told M. de Varonville, my neighbor and schoolfellow, that Desfontaines had been drowned; that he himself had just appeared to me and told me so. He went away and ran to the parents' house to know if it was true; they had just received the news, but by a mistake he understood that it was the eldest. He assured me that he had read the letter of Desfontaines, and he believed it; but I maintained always that it could not be, and that Desfontaines himself had appeared to me. He returned, came back, and told me in tears that it was but too true.

"Nothing has occurred to me since, and there is my adventure just as it happened. It has been related in various ways; but I have recounted it only as I have just told it to you. The Chevalier de Gotol told me that Desfontaines had appeared also to M. de Menil-Jean; but I am not acquainted with him; he lives twenty leagues from hence near Argentan, and I can say no more about it."

This is a very singular and circumstantial narrative, related by M. l'Abbé de St. Pierre, who is by no means credulous, and sets his whole mind and all his philosophy to explain the most extraordinary events by physical reasoning, by the concurrence of atoms, corpuscles, insensible evaporation of spirit, and perspiration. But all that is so far-fetched, and does such palpable violence to the subjects and the attending circumstances, that the most credulous would not yield to such arguments. It is surprising that these gentlemen, who pique themselves on strength of mind, and so haughtily reject everything that appears supernatural, can so easily admit philosophical systems much more incredible than even the facts they oppose. They raise doubts which are often very ill-founded, and attack them upon principles still more uncertain. That may be called refuting one difficulty by another, and resolving a doubt by principles still more doubtful.

But, it will be said, whence comes it that so many other persons who had engaged themselves to come and bring news of the immortality of the soul, after their death, have not come back. Seneca speaks of a Stoic philosopher named Julius Canus, who, having been condemned to death by Julius Caesar, said aloud that he was about to learn the truth of that question on which they were divided; to wit, whether the soul was immortal or not. And we do not read that he revisited this world. La Motte de Vayer had agreed with his friend Baranzan Barnabite that the first of the two who died should warn the other of the state in which he found himself. Baranzan died, and returned not.

Because the dead sometimes return to earth, it would be imprudent to conclude that they always do so. And it would be equally wrong reasoning to say that they never do return, because having promised to revisit this world they have not done so. For that, we should imagine that it is in the power of spirits to return and make their appearance when they will, and if they will; but it seems indubitable, that on the contrary, it is not in their power, and that it is only by the express permission of God that disembodied spirits sometimes appear to the living.

We see, in the history of the bad rich man, that God would not grant him the favor which he asked, to send to earth some of those who were with him in hell. Similar reasons, derived from the hardness of heart or the incredulity of mortals, may have prevented, in the same manner, the return of Julius Canus or of Baranzan. The return of spirits and their apparition is neither a natural thing nor dependent on the choice of those who are dead. It is a supernatural effect, and allied to the miraculous.

St. Augustine says on this subject that if the dead interest themselves in what concerns the living, St. Monica, his mother, who loved him so tenderly, and went with him by sea and land everywhere during her life, would not have failed to visit him every night, and come to console him in his troubles; for we must not suppose that she was become less compassionate since she became one of the blest: absit ut facta sit vitâ feliciore crudelis.

The return of spirits, their apparition, the execution of the promises which certain persons have made each other, to come and tell their friends what passes in the other world, is not in their own power. All that is in the hands of God.


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