The deacon Auguste Mercier had spent his whole life looking after each and every one of the twenty-four large bells contained within the tower at the Basilica of Saint Senin. He would speak to them, caress them and, at times, even had impure thoughts as he took the burnished clappers in his hands to polish them and bring out their shine, even though no-one could see them, hidden as they were from the gaze of mere mortals. Only Mercier had access to those intimate regions of his twenty-four girlfriends (or boyfriends, depending on how one interprets the functioning of the aforementioned clappers).
Auguste was born and bred in the Basilica, like centuries earlier the famous protagonist of the novel by Victor Hugo, which the deacon had read and re-read, dozens of times. He identified with Quasimodo, the amiable hunchback who lived between the majestic walls and gargoyles of Notre Dame, and who fell irremediably in love with the gypsy girl, Esmeralda.
Saint Sernin or Saint Saturnin, as he is also known, was the bishop of Toulouse around the year 250 AD. He was a brave Roman missionary sent to preach in Gaul, with the fatal result we shall now relate.
The story is a gruesome one, befitting those dark and distant times. Sernin, to reach the small chapel where he preached, had to a cross a temple built in honour of the god Jupiter, who in the Toulouse of that period (Tolosa), had rather more prestige than Christianity. The city’s inhabitants, observing that their god paid no attention to their pleas, blamed Jupiter’s divine disdain on the presence of the bishop. And so they tied him to a bull and let the animal run loose through the town until the ill-fated Sernin was completely dismembered, his body unrecognisable.
A group of women identified and gathered up his remains, then buried them in a makeshift grave as deep as they could dig. Over time, the site became a place of worship for that new religion which, as we all know, ended up replacing paganism. Jupiter went out of fashion, becoming what it is today: the largest planet in the solar system. Which isn’t a bad ending at all. And Sernin’s grave, as we said, became the foundation for the Basilica in which Auguste loved his bells as a sheikh would love his houris, locked away in a harem of rock and iron.
The young monk’s sensuality was rather muddled, as might be expected of someone his age, and in his fantasies, bells and churchgoers merged. Then, wounded in love, he recalled the unfortunate fate of Quasimodo and strengthened his vows of chastity, dedicating himself body and soul to his metal treasures. Celibacy was a question of men and women but there was nothing in the Scriptures or anywhere else about possible relationships with inanimate objects. The mere thought of his bells as objects infuriated Auguste, however, so he quickly set himself to rights by mentally enumerating their names: Claude, Jean-Pierre, Marie, Adolphe, Vivien, Lucille…
There was another in the city who shared Auguste’s peculiar passion. We’re referring to Brother Etienne, who lived in none other than Saint Etienne Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the Basilica of Saint Sernin across the Capitole quarter, also on the right bank of the Garonne River. The fortified romanesque belfry at Saint Etienne Cathedral held a 17-bell carillon, along with another five free-hanging bells.
The carillon bells were operated using a keyboard similar to that of an organ, though somewhat cruder. And Brother Etienne was the person responsible for producing the clarion melodies that cheered the residents of St.Aubin du Puy and the neighbouring quarter of Carmes, although in reality, the sound of the bells could be clearly heard even in the Basilica of Saint Sernin.
The other five bells, much larger and more resounding, were the classic free-swinging type rung using their corresponding ropes. In this task, Brother Etienne was aided by four altar boys who would each hang on to a bell rope, pulling the powerful clappers into action over fifty metres above their tonsured heads. These five enormous pieces of metal with their overwhelming clappers were the favourites in Brother Etienne’s personal harem.
It was the month of May, the time of year which the much-feared “Devil’s Wind” blows strong. Gusts can be powerful enough to rip a train from its tracks and cause a dramatic accident, which is exactly what happened in 1916. This ferocious wind incensed the deacon Auguste Mercier, capable as it was of making his twenty-four girlfriends (or boyfriends) toll without his consent. He would lean out of the bell tower’s highest skylights and shake his fist at the sky in fury, swearing and blaming Jupiter for the virulence of the elements, although he would later regret these pagan outbursts and spend the next few days doing penance.
When the “Devil’s Wind” blows, inhabitants of the whole region become irritable, dogs bark and howl unremittingly, and even cattle break off their pleasant pasturing, turning nervy and unpredictable. It is during this time that the region’s limited number of crimes are committed, providing sensationalist column inches in a place where, during the rest of the year, the police pass their time dealing with minor conflicts and administrative offences.
During that windy, ill-fated month of May and perhaps to counteract the furious roaring of the elements, the two virtuoso bell ringers simultaneously threw themselves upon their respective keyboards, drawing impossible melodies that travelled on the wind, converging with its violent gusts, then merging together once again to the general bewilderment of Toulouse’s astonished residents. As if possessed by the devil himself, both musicians locked themselves inside their belfries and bolted the entrances to their carillon rooms.
The battle between the two churches went on for days and the Devil’s Wind continued to blow, exhausting everyone’s patience. Then finally, all of a sudden, it stopped and the city’s streets were bathed in bright, reassuring sunlight. The carillon room doors had to be broken down with assistance from the police, who discovered the bodies of the deacon Auguste Mercier and Brother Etienne, both slumped lifelessly over their keyboards.
The autopsy concluded that they had died of physical exhaustion, caused by non-stop bell ringing over those ill-starred days.
Now, and given the fact that no other deacon or priest has ever wished to play the carillons again, both have been automated. This has come as something of a relief to the city’s bishop, who had heard on the grapevine of his subordinates’ unusual behaviour and their two metal-filled harems. The bells’ sinuous curves and powerful, manly clappers have yet to arouse the rampant passions of anyone else.