Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

A Heroine of France: The Story of Joan of Arc Chapter 16

How the Maid Accomplished Her Mission

Shall I ever forget that evening? No, not if I live to be a hundred!

June had well-nigh passed ere we began our march from Gien–that triumphant march headed by the King and the Maid–and July had run half its course since we had been upon the road. For we had had a great tract of country to traverse, and a large army must needs have time in which to move itself.

And now upon a glorious golden evening in that month of sunshine and summertide, we saw before us–shining in a floating mist of reflected glory–the spires and towers, the walls and gates of the great city of Rheims–the goal of our journeyings–the promised land of the Maid’s visions and voices!

Was it indeed a city of stone and wood which shone before us in the level rays of the sinking sun? I asked that question of myself; methinks that the Maid was asking it in her heart; for when I turned my eyes upon her, I caught my breath in amaze at her aspect, and I know now what it is to say that I have looked upon the face of an angel!

She had dropped her reins, and they hung loose upon her horse’s neck; her hands were clasped together in a strange rapture of devotion. Her head was bare; for she often gave her headpiece to her page to carry for her, and in the evenings did not always replace it by any other covering. Her hair had grown a little longer during these months, and curled round her face in a loose halo, which in the strong and ruddy light of the setting sun, shone a glorious golden colour, as though a ray of heavenly light were enmeshed within it.

But it was the extraordinary brightness of those great luminous eyes, the rapt and intense expression of her face which arrested my attention, and seemed for a moment to stop the triumphant beating of my heart. It was not triumph which I read there, though there was joy and rapture and peace, beyond all power of understanding. It was the face of one who sees heaven open, and in the wonder and awe of the beatific vision forgets all else, and feels not the fetters of the flesh, heeds not those things which must needs intervene ere the spirit can finally be loosed to enter upon blessedness and rest, but soars upwards at once into heavenly regions.

The town of Rheims lay before us. The inhabitants were pouring forth to meet us. We saw them coming over the plain, as we watched the walls and buildings, glowing in the mystic radiance of the summer’s evening, loom up larger and grander and sharper before us. It was no dream!

And yet who would have thought it possible three months ago? In mid-April the iron grip of the English lay all over the land north of the Loire, and the south lay supine and helpless, stricken with the terror of the victorious conqueror. Orleans was at its last gasp, and with its fall the last bulwark would be swept away; all France must own the sway of the conqueror. The King was powerless, indolent, ready to fly at the first approach of peril, with no hope and no desire for rule, doubtful even if he had the right to take upon himself the title of King, careless in his despair and his difficulties. The army was almost non-existent; the soldiers could scarce be brought to face the foe. One Englishman could chase ten of ours. The horror as of a great darkness seemed to have fallen upon the land.

And yet in three months’ time what had not been accomplished!

The King was riding into the ancient city of Rheims, to be crowned King of France; Orleans was relieved; a score of fortresses had been snatched from the hands of the English. These were fleeing from us in all directions back to Paris; where they hoped to make a stand against us, but were in mortal fear of attack; and now it was our soldiers who clamoured to be led against the English–the English who fled helter-skelter before the rush and the dash of the men whom heretofore they had despised.

And all this was the work of yonder marvellous Maid–a girl of seventeen summers, who, clad in white armour, shining like an angelic vision, was riding at the King’s side towards the city.

He turned and looked at her at the moment my gaze was thus arrested, and I saw his face change. He put out his hand and touched hers gently; but he had to touch her twice and to speak twice ere she heard or knew.

“Jeanne–fairest maiden–what do you see?”

She turned her gaze upon him–radiant, misty, marvellous.

“I see the Land of Promise,” she answered, speaking very low, yet so clearly that I heard every word. “The chosen of the Lord will go forward to victory. He will drive out the enemy before the face of him upon whom He shall set the crown of pure gold. France shall prosper–her enemies shall be confounded. What matter whose the work, or whose the triumph? What matter who shall fall ere the task be accomplished–so that it be done according to the mind of the Lord?”

“And by the power of the Maid–the Deliverer!” spoke the King, a gush of gratitude filling his heart, as he looked first at the slight figure and inspired face of the Maid, and then at the city towards which we were riding, the faint clash of joy bells borne softly to our ears. “For to you, O my General, I owe it all; and may the Lord judge betwixt us twain if I share not every honour that I may yet win with her who has accomplished this miracle!”

But her gaze was full of an inexplicable mystery.

“Nay, gentle Dauphin, but that will not be,” she said; “One shall increase, another shall decrease–hath it not ever been so? My task is accomplished. My work is done. Let another take my place after tomorrow, for my mission will be accomplished.”

“Never!” cried the King firmly and earnestly, and when I heard him thus speak my heart rejoiced; for I, no more than others, believed that success could attend the King’s further efforts without her who was the inspiration of the army, and the worker of these great miracles which had been wrought. How often have I wondered since–but that is no part of my story. Let me tell those things which did happen to us.

How can I tell of our entry into Rheims? Have I not spoken in other places of other such scenes, often in the early dusk of evening, when whole cities flocked out to meet the Maid, to gaze in awe and wonder upon her, to kiss her hands, her feet, her knees, the neck and flanks of the horse she rode, and even his very footprints in the road, as he moved along with his precious burden?

As it was there, so was it here–the same joy, the same wonder, the same enthusiasm. The King was greeted with shouts and acclamations, it is true; but the greater admiration and wonder was reserved for the Maid, and he knew it, and smiled, well pleased that it should be so; for at that time his heart was full of a great gratitude and affection, and never did he seek to belittle that which she had wrought on his behalf.

Thankfulness, peace, and happiness shone in the eyes of the Maid as she rode; but there was a nearer and more personal joy in store for her; for as we passed through the town, with many pauses on account of the greatness of the throng, pouring in and out of the churches (for it was the vigil of the Madelaine), or crowding about the King and the Maid, she chanced to lift her eyes to the windows of an inn in the place, and behold her face kindled with a look different from any I had seen there before, and she looked around for me, and beckoning with her hand, she pointed upwards, and cried in tones of strange delight and exultation:

“My father, fair knight, my father! I saw his face!”

Now, I knew that Jacques d’Arc had been greatly set against his daughter’s mission, and it had been declared that he had disowned her, and would have withheld her from going forth, had such a thing been within his power. She had never received any message of love or forgiveness from him all these weeks, though her two younger brothers had joined the army, and were always included in her household. So that I was not surprised at the kindling of her glance, nor at the next words she spoke.

“Go to him, my friend; tell him that I must needs have speech with him. Ah, say that I would fain return home with him when my task is done, if it be permitted me. Go, find him speedily, ere he can betake himself away. My father! My father! I had scarce hoped to look upon his face again!”

So whilst the King and the Maid and their train rode on to the huge old palace of the Archeveche, hard by the Cathedral, I slipped out of my place in the ranks, and passed beneath the archway into the courtyard of the old inn, where the Maid declared that she had seen the face of her father looking forth.

I had not much trouble in finding him; for already a whisper had gone forth that certain friends and relatives of the wonderful Maid had journeyed from Domremy to witness her triumphant entry into Rheims. Indeed, some of these had followed us from Chalons, all unknown to her, who would so gladly have welcomed them. Chalons, though a fortified town, and with a hostile garrison, had opened its gates to us without resistance, feeling how hopeless it was to strive against the power of the Maid.

The wonder and awe inspired by her presence, and by her marvellous achievements, had sunk deeply into the spirits of these simple country folk, who had only heretofore known Jeanne d’Arc as a gentle village maiden, beloved of all, but seeming not in any way separated from her companions and friends. Now they had seen her, white and glistening, in martial array, riding beside a King, an army at her back, acclaimed of the multitude, the idol of the hour, a victor in a three months’ campaign, the like of which never was before, and methinks can never be again.

So now, when I stood face to face with the rugged prud’homme, the father of this wonderful Maid, and told him of her desire to speak with him upon the morrow, when the King should have received his crown, I saw that many emotions were struggling together in his breast; for his soul revolted yet, in some measure, at the thought of his girl a leader of men, the head of an army, the friend of kings and courtiers, whilst it was impossible but that some measure of pride and joy should be his at the thought of her achievements, and in the assurance that at last the King, whom loyal little Domremy had ever served and loved, was to receive his crown, and be the anointed sovereign of the land.

“She desires speech with me? She, whom I have seen riding beside the King? What have I to do with the friends of royalty? How can she consort with princes and with peasants?”

“Let her show you that herself, my friend,” I answered. “We, who have companied with her through these wonderful weeks, know well how that she is no less a loving daughter, a friend of the people, for being the friend of a King and the idol of an army. Give me some message for her. She longs for a kind word from you. Let me only take her word that you will see her and receive her as a father should receive his child, and I trow that it will give her almost the same joy as the knowledge that by her miraculous call she has saved her country and crowned her King.”

I scarce know what answer Jacques d’Arc would have made, for he was a proud, unbending man, and his face was sternly set whilst I pleaded with him. But there were others from Domremy, entirely filled with admiration of the Maid, and with desire to see her again; and their voices prevailed, so that he gave the answer for which I waited. He would remain at the inn over the morrow of the great function of the coronation, and would receive his daughter there, and have speech with her.

“Tell her that I will take her home with me, if she will come,” he spoke; “for she herself did say that her work would be accomplished when the crown was placed upon the King’s head. Let her be true to her word; let her return home, and become a modest maiden again beneath her mother’s care, and all shall be well betwixt us. But if pride and haughtiness possess her soul, and she prefers the company of courtiers and soldiers to that of her own people, and the life of camps to the life of home, then I wash my hands of her. Let her go her own way. She shall no longer be daughter of mine!”

I did not tell those words to the Maid. My lips refused to speak them. But I told her that her father would remain in the place till she had leisure to have speech with him; and her eyes kindled with joy at hearing such news, for it seemed to her as though this would be the pledge of his forgiveness, the forgiveness for which she had longed, and for the lack of which none of her triumphs could altogether compensate.

There was no sleep for the city of Rheims upon that hot summer’s night. Although the coming of the King had been rumoured for some time, it had never been fully believed possible till news had been brought of the fall of Troyes, and the instant submission of Chalons. Then, and only then, did citizens and prelates truly realise that the talked-of ceremony could become an accomplished fact, and almost before they had recovered from their amazement at the rapidity of the march of events, courtiers brought in word that the King and his army were approaching.

So all night long the people were hard at work decorating their city, their churches, above all their Cathedral; and the priests and prelates were in close conference debating what vestments, what vessels, what rites and ceremonies should be employed, and how the lack of certain necessary articles, far away at St. Denis, could be supplied out of the rich treasuries of the Cathedral.

As the dawn of the morning brightened in the east, the sun rose upon a scene of such splendour and magnificence as perhaps has seldom been witnessed at such short notice. The whole city seemed one blaze of triumphal arches, of summer flowers, of costly stuffs and rich decoration. Every citizen had donned his best and brightest suit; the girls and children had clothed themselves in white, and crowned themselves with flowers. Even the war-worn soldiers had polished their arms, furbished up their clothes, and borrowed or bought from the townsfolk such things as were most lacking; and now, drawn up in array in the great square, with tossing banners, and all the gay panoply of martial glory, they looked like some great victorious band–as, indeed, they were–celebrating the last act of a great and wonderful triumph.

As for the knights, nobles, and courtiers, one need not speak of the outward glory of their aspect–the shining armour, the gay dresses, the magnificent trappings of the sleek horses–that can well be pictured by those who have ever witnessed a like brilliant scene.

But for the first part of the day, with its many and varied ceremonies, there was lacking the shining figure of the Maid; nor did the King himself appear. But forth from the Palace of the Archeveche rode four of the greatest and most notable peers of the realm, attended by a gorgeous retinue; and with banners waving, and trumpets blowing great martial blasts, they paced proudly through the streets, between the closely-packed ranks of soldiers and citizens, till they reached the ancient Abbey of Sainte Remy, where the monks of Sainte Ampoule guard within their shrine the holy oil of consecration, in that most precious vial which, they said, was sent down from heaven itself for the consecration of King Clovis and his successors.

Upon bended knees and with bared heads these great peers of France then took their solemn oath that the sacred vial should never leave their sight or care, night or day, till it was restored to the keeping of the shrine from which the Abbot was about to take it. Then, and only then, would the Abbot, clothed in his most sumptuous vestments, and attended by his robed monks, take from its place that holy vessel, and place it in the hands of the messengers–Knights Hostages, as they were termed for the nonce–and as they carried it slowly and reverently forth, and retraced their steps to the Cathedral, accompanied now by the Abbot and monks, every knee was bent and every head bowed.

But all the while that this ceremony was taking place, the Maid was shut up in her room in the Palace, dictating a letter of appeal to the Duke of Burgundy, and praying him in gentle, yet authoritative terms, to be reconciled to his King, join hands with him against the English foe, and then, if need there were to fight, to turn his arms against the Saracens, instead of warring with his brethren and kinsmen. I trow that this thing was urged upon her at this time, in that she believed her mission so nearly accomplished, and that soon she would have no longer right to style herself “Jeanne the Maid," and to speak with authority to princes and nobles.

As yet she was the appointed messenger of Heaven. Her words and acts all partook of that almost miraculous character which they had borne from the first. I will not quote the letter here; but it is writ in the page of history; and I ask of all scholars who peruse its words, whether any village maiden of but seventeen years, unlettered, and ignorant of statecraft, could of herself compose so lofty and dignified an appeal, or speak with such serene authority to one who ranked as well-nigh the equal of kings. It was her last act ere she donned her white armour, and passed forth from her chamber to take part in the ceremony of the coronation. In some sort it was the last of her acts performed whilst she was yet the deliverer of her people.

When I looked upon those words, long after they had been penned, I felt the tears rising in mine eyes. I could have wept tears of blood to think of the fate which had befallen one whose thoughts were ever of peace and mercy, even in the hour of her supremest triumph.

How can my poor pen describe the wonders of the great scene, of which I was a spectator upon that day? Nay, rather will I only seek to speak of the Maid, and how she bore herself upon that great occasion. She would have been content with a very humble place in the vast Cathedral today; she had no desire to bear a part in the pageant which had filled the city and packed the great edifice from end to end.

But the King and the people willed it otherwise. The thing which was about to be done was the work of the Maid, and she must be there to see all, and the people should see her, too–see her close to the King himself, who owed to her dauntless courage and devotion the crown he was about to assume, the realm he had begun to conquer.

So she stood near at hand to him all through that long, impressive ceremony–a still, almost solemn figure in her silver armour, a long white velvet mantle, embroidered in silver, flowing from her shoulders, her hand grasping the staff of her great white banner, which had been borne into the Cathedral by D’Aulon, and beside which she stood, her hand upon the staff.

She was bareheaded, and the many-coloured lights streamed in upon her slim, motionless figure, and the face which she lifted in adoration and thanksgiving. I trow that none in that vast assembly, who could see her as she thus stood, doubted but that she stood there the accredited messenger of the Most High. The light from Heaven itself was shining on her upturned face, the reflection of an unearthly glory beamed in her eyes. From time to time her lips moved, as though words of thanksgiving broke silently forth; but save for that she scarcely moved all through the long and solemn ceremony. Methinks that she saw it rather in the spirit than in the flesh; and the knights and nobles who had poured in from the surrounding country to witness this great function, and had not companied with the Maid before, but had only heard of her fame from afar, these regarded her with looks of wonder and of awe, and whispering together, asked of each other whether in truth she were a creature of flesh and blood, or whether it were not some angelic presence, sent down direct from Heaven.

And so at last the King was anointed and crowned! The blare of the thousand trumpets, the acclamations of a vast multitude proclaimed the thing done! Charles the Seventh stood before his people, their King, in fact as well as in name.

The work of the Maid was indeed accomplished!

RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS                          CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 17

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