A Heroine of France
By Evelyn Everett-Green
Public Domain Books
Chapter X. How the Maid Led Us Into Battle.
“It was well indeed that you sent me forth on that mission, my Chieftainess,” spoke Dunois, as we sat at the long table in the Treasurer’s house, refreshing ourselves after the fatigues of the march to and from the city, and the anxiety of awaiting an attack, which had not come. He bowed towards the Maid in speaking, calling her by a playful title in vogue amongst the officers and Generals who were her friends. “Though what prompted you to that act of sagacity is more than I know. I had no misgivings that there would be trouble with the army.”
“My voices warned me,” answered the Maid gently. “It was not much; yet a little leaven often leavens the whole lump. They needed just the leader’s eye and voice to recall them to their duty.”
“Truly that is just how the matter stood,” spoke Sir Guy in low tones to us twain, Bertram and I, who sat on either side of him at the other end of the board.
He had been one to depart and return with Dunois, and we looked eagerly to him for explanation.
“There are ever timid spirits in all ranks, and traitors or faint-hearted friends are never far away in such times as these. The army which would have followed the Maid to the death with joy, felt depression and disappointment at being parted from her. Had they been able to ford the river and march straight into the city, there would have been no trouble, no tremors or doubts; but the turning back was a discouragement, and alas! the French have had too much of this of late. There were whisperers at work seeking to undermine faith in the Maid and her mission. As she says, no great hurt was done; it was but the work of a few–and some of these priests, who should better have understood the counsels of God–but a little leaven will work mightily in the lump, as she herself did justly remark; and ere we reached Blois, we had heard rumours that the army was talking of disbanding itself and dispersing hither and thither. The truth was not so bad as that; but there was wavering and doubt in the ranks.
“Our appearance with the message from the Maid worked like a charm. The soldiers, when they knew that she had been told of their hesitation, were instantly horribly ashamed. They clamoured to be led back to her, to show the mettle of which they were made. I trow they will not waver again, now that she hath them beneath her eye.”
“It is marvellous how she doth hold them by the power of her glance, by her gentleness and devotion. And, look you, what hath she done to the English? It was rumoured through the city that so soon as the relief army approached the English lines, there would be an attack in force, and our comrades would be driven back at the sword’s point, and have to fight every inch of the way. Yet what has been the truth? The Maid led us to the spot which commanded the road–well in the heart of the English lines. Their fortresses were humming like hives of bees disturbed. The English knew what was being done, and watched it all; yet not a gun was fired, not an archer launched his shaft, not a man moved out to oppose the entrance of the relief force nor even the convoy of provisions for the garrison. They watched it all as men in a dream, not a dog moved his tongue against us.”
“She told us it would be so,” spoke I, leaning towards Sir Guy, “there will be fighting anon; but it was not to be then. Surely their arms were holden by a power they wot not of. If she herself had not gone forth to guard the way–standing like the flaming cherubim with the sword which turned every way–I misdoubt me but that a heavy action must have been fought, ere the army was suffered to enter the gates.”
There was much talk all down the table of these matters; but the Maid took little part in this. Her eyes were heavy, and she looked weary and pale. I doubt not she had spent the night previous in vigil and prayer, as was so often her wont. When we rose from our repast, she retired into a small inner room reserved for her use, and the little Charlotte went with her. A curtain, partly drawn, shut off this room from the outer one in which we knights and some of her pages and gentlemen sat talking; and I was just able to see from where I sat that the Maid had laid herself down upon a couch, the little one nestled beside her, and I felt sure by her stillness and immobility that she was soon soundly asleep, taking the rest she sorely needed after the exertions and excitements of the early hours of the day.
Our conversation languished somewhat, for the warmth of the May afternoon made us all drowsy. We, like the Maid herself, had laid aside our coats of mail, and were enjoying a spell of rest and leisure; and there was silence in both the rooms, when suddenly we–if indeed we slept–were awakened by the voice of the Maid speaking in the tones of one who dreams.
“I must up and against the English!” she cried, and at the first word I started broad awake and was on my feet at the door of communication, looking towards her.
She still lay upon the couch, but her eyes were wide open and fixed; her lips moved.
“I hear! I hear!” she went on, yet still as one who dreams, “I am ready–I will obey. Only tell me what I must do. Is it against the towers I must go, to assail them? Or is it that Fastolffe comes against us with yet another host?”
Little Charlotte here pulled the Maid by the hand, crying out:
“What are you saying? To whom do you speak? There is nobody here but you and me!”
The Maid sprang to her feet, wide awake now in an instant. She bent for one moment over the wondering child, and kissed her tenderly, as though to soothe the alarm in the baby eyes.
“Run to your mother, ma mie, for I must off and away on the instant,” then wheeling round with her air of martial command, she called to me and said, “To arms at once! I must to the front! French blood is flowing. They are seeking to act without me. O my poor soldiers, they are falling and dying! To horse! to horse! I come to save them!”
Was she dreaming? What did it mean? The town seemed as quiet as the still summer afternoon! Not a sound of tumult broke the silence of the streets. Yet the Maid was having us arm her with lightning speed, and Bertrand had rushed off at the first word for her horse and ours.
“I know not what they are doing,” spoke the Maid, “but my voices tell me to fly to their succour! Ah! why could they not have told me before! Have I not ever been ready and longing to lead them against the foe?”
She was ready now. We were all ready, and the echoes of the quiet house awoke beneath our feet as we clattered down the staircase to the courtyard below, where already the horses were standing pawing the ground with impatience, seeming to scent the battle from afar. The Maid swung herself lightly to the saddle with scarce a touch from me.
“My banner! My banner!” she suddenly cried; and looking upwards we saw a pretty sight. The little Charlotte, her mother beside her, was hanging out of the window, the light staff of the Maid’s white banneret clasped in her chubby hands; and she was leaning out of the window, holding it towards the white mailed figure, of whom (in armour) she always spoke, in hushed tone, as mon ange. The Maid looked upwards, kissed her gauntletted hand to the little one, seized the staff of her banner, and then, calling upon her followers in clear tones of command, dashed out through the gateway into the street beyond, and without an instant’s hesitation turned towards that gate of the city nearest to the English bastille named St. Loup. And though we all spurred after her, so that the sparks flew from under our horses’ feet, and the Chevalier d’Aulon brought up the rear bearing the great white standard, which was to lead the armies into battle, we none of us knew wherefore we had come forth nor whither we were going; and the city being yet still and quiet, the citizens rushed to doors and windows to watch us pass by, and shouted questions to us which we were not able to answer.
Now, the house of the Treasurer is hard by the Renart Gate, and we were making for the Burgundy Gate; so you who know Orleans will understand that we had the whole distance of the city to traverse ere we cleared the walls. And sure enough, as we approached the fortifications upon the eastern side, a change came over the spirit of the scene; signs of excitement and fear and wonder began to show themselves; the walls were alive with men at arms, gazing fixedly out eastward, shouting, gesticulating, wild with a tumult of emotion. Soldiers buckling on their arms, citizens with pale, yet resolute, faces, and swords or axes in their hands, were hurrying forth, and at sight of the Maid on her chestnut charger (for the Crusader was ever her favourite horse, and she had declared that he must carry her into her first battle whenever that should be) they shouted aloud with joy, and vowed themselves her servants and followers, wherever she should lead them.
A young blacksmith, armed with a great club, was hanging upon my stirrup, and bounding along beside my horse with a swiftness and strength which excited my admiration. From him I heard first of the thing which had taken place.
“It was De Gamache and some of the other lesser officers who designed it,” he cried. “They declared that the power of the English was already broken; that they would not leave their walls or show fight today; that already they had grown faint hearted, and were ready to fly before the French.
“My Captain, I tell you the truth, these men are jealous of the Angelic Maid whom Heaven has sent us. They say that she will take from them all the honour and glory; that they will fight and risk their lives, but that she alone will have the praise. So they were full of bitterness and anger; and some, methinks, may have thought to shame her by showing that they could act without her aid, and do the work she has come to do, whilst she takes her rest and holds her councils. So, gathering a band of soldiers together, these officers have sallied forth to try and storm and take the fortress of St. Loup, which lies some two thousand English yards from the walls along the river banks. But the soldiers on the walls are shouting out that the English have swarmed forth like angry bees, and are beating back our soldiers and slaying them by the score.”
“They should have known better than to go forth without the knowledge and command of the Maid,” I said sternly, and the young man at my side nodded vehemently, his face alight.
“That is what we said–we others–we citizens, who have seen how powerless the soldiers are against the English. Have they not fought again and again, and what has come of it but loss and defeat? And now that the good God has sent a Deliverer, it is like flying in His face to seek and do without her. I said as much again and again. I knew no good would come of it. But when we saw the Maid herself flying to the rescue, then did I vow that I, too, would fight under her banner. For now I know that God will give us the victory!”
We were at the Burgundy Gate by this time and, dashing through, we saw a terrible sight. The whole open plain between the walls of the town and the fortress of St. Loup was covered with soldiers, strewn with dying and dead. A horrible sort of fight was going on, horrible to us, because the French were in full retreat before our foe, going down like sheep before the butcher’s knife, rushing panic stricken hither and thither as men demented, whilst the English soldiers, as though ashamed of their recent inaction and paralysis, were fiercely pursuing, shouting “Kill! kill! kill!” as they went about their work of slaughter, driving back their enemies, and striking at them remorselessly.
Here and there a brave officer, with his band of chosen followers, would be presenting a bold face to the foe, making a stand and seeking to rally the flying ranks. I was certain that I saw De Gamache himself, hewing his way like a very Paladin through the ranks of the English, and dealing death and destruction wherever he went. But the valour of a few had no power to turn the fortunes of the field; and the rout had already begun, when the Maid and her attendants, closely followed by an enthusiastic band of soldiers and citizens, dashed forth from the Burgundy Gate, and mingled with the flying French hastening towards the city for safety.
“Courage, my children, courage!” cried the Maid, waving her white pennon. “Be not dismayed. The Lord has heard your cries. He has sent me to your aid. Take courage! Fear nothing, for the victory shall be ours!”
She did not even pause to note the effect of her words upon them, but sped onwards, fearless of danger, right into the very heart of the battle. We followed and closed up round her; but that shining white figure could not be hidden. The English saw it bearing down upon them, and instantly there was wavering in their ranks. Before our swords had had time to strike at them, something touched them as with an icy hand.
“The Maid! the Maid! The White Witch!” they cried, and they paused in their pursuit to gaze upon that dazzling figure, and methinks their hearts melted like wax within them.
From behind now arose a mighty tumult, and shouts and cries as of triumph thundered from the city walls. Dunois and La Hire, more tardily advised of what was happening, but prompt and decisive in action, were galloping out of the Gate at the head of the picked soldiers under their command. Rank behind rank we could see them flashing through the shadow into the sunshine, and dashing forward in compact order, their gaze fixed full upon the Maid in the centre of the plain, who stood with uplifted sword and fluttering pennon, a veritable angel of the battle.
But we saw other sights, too; for Lord Talbot was not idle on his side, but sent forth from other of the bastilles bodies of men to the aid of the defenders of St. Loup.
The whole plain was filled with surging masses of soldiers, rushing one upon the other in the fury of the fray.
How would the Maid bear it? She whose tender heart ached at the thought of human suffering, and whose soul was filled with yearning sorrow for men struck down in their sins. I pressed up towards her and saw her pitiful eyes fixed upon a convoy of wounded men, whom we had sent to rescue from their peril, lying as they did in the very heart of the plain. The eyes which had been flashing fire a moment before, were suffused with tears, as the melancholy procession passed her by.
She turned to her page and said, “Ride quickly into the city, and bid the priests come forth to hear the confessions and give absolution to the dying. Lose not a moment! Tell them that souls are every moment being hurried to their last account. Bid them make haste and come, and let them give equal care to friend and foe; for in death all men are equal in the sight of God, and I would not that any English soldier or prisoner should fall without the consolations of religion.”
Then, having thus done all that she could for the wounded and the dying, the Maid was once again the resolute soldier. Her keen eyes swept the plain; she saw with lightning speed where the need was the greatest, where the peril to the French cause was direst, and sweeping into the midst of the press, her sword and her banner flashing in the sunshine, she ever brought succour and victory in her wake.
No foe could stand before her. Not that she struck blows with her own hand. There seemed no need for that, and when at the close of the day I relieved her of her arms, there was no spot of blood upon her shining blade, though her coat of silver mail had received stains from the fray. She was like the Angel of Victory, flashing through the ranks of the combatants. Wherever she appeared, the flying French turned back to face the foe, and the pursuing English wavered, paused, and finally broke rank and fled backwards to the shelter of their walls and forts. Our men fought gallantly–let me not deny them their due–soldiers and citizens alike, who had come forth with and after the Maid, all were inspired by confidence and courage. But it was her presence in the ranks which gave assurance of victory. Wherever French soldiers wavered it was when she was far away and her back towards them. Yet so soon as she turned in their direction–and some power seemed to whisper to her whenever her soldiers were dismayed–and galloped to their assistance, all was well again; and ere an hour had passed the English were driven back within their towers, and the victory was ours.
Dunois and La Hire rode up to the Maid and saluted. From the city in our rear we could already hear the pealing of the joy bells, the triumphant acclamation of the populace.
“Let us lead you back thither to receive the plaudits you have so well deserved,” spoke Dunois, who was man enough to give all the credit of the victory to the Maid. “Right valiantly have you accomplished your task. Now let us take you to receive the gratitude of the town.”
“Accomplished!” repeated the Maid with a glance of surprise. “Why, my friends, the task is scarcely yet begun!”
They gazed at her in amazement; but she calmly pointed towards the frowning walls and battlements of St. Loup.
“We must take yonder tower,” she said quietly, “that is what our brave, but rash young officers set themselves to do. They shall not be disappointed. It shall be ours ere night fall upon us. Call to me the bold De Gamache; I would have speech with him and his comrades.”
The greater Generals looked at her and at one another, speaking no word. The walls and battlements of St. Loup were strong and well defended. The tower could spout fire and smoke like a living monster. Already the troops had marched far and fought hotly. Surely if assault were to be made it should wait for another day. Thus they communed together a stone’s throw from the Maid; but she only looked upon them with her deep inward smile, and softly I heard her speak the words:
“No, it must be done today.”
De Gamache rode up, and some half dozen other officers with him. His face was stained with blood and blackened by smoke. He had a scarf bound about his left arm; but his bearing was bold and resolute, and though his cheek flushed at the clear, direct gaze of the Maid’s eyes, he neither faltered nor trembled as he stood before her.
“You did desire a good thing, my Captain,” she said, “and had you told me of your brave wish, I would have put myself at your head and led you to victory forthwith. Yet this victory has not been forfeited, only delayed by your eager rashness. Say, if I lead you myself, this very hour, against yon frowning tower, will you follow me like brave soldiers of the Cross, and not turn back till my Lord has given us the victory? For He will deliver yon place into our hands, albeit not without bloodshed, not without stress or strife. Many must be slain ere we can call it ours, but will you follow and take it?”
The shout which arose from a thousand throats rang to the welkin, and methinks must have smote with dread import upon the English ears. The Maid’s voice seemed to float through the air, and penetrate to the extreme limits of the crowd, or else her words were taken up and repeated by a score of eager tongues, and so ran through the mighty muster with thrilling import. The eyes were dazzled by the flashing blades as men swung them above their heads.
“Lead us, O Maid, lead us! We follow to death or victory! We fear nothing so that you are our leader and our guide!”
There was no withstanding a spirit like that! La Hire’s voice was one of the foremost in the cry; his great blade the first to leap from its scabbard. Sage counsels of war, prompted by experience, had to give way before a power different from anything which the veterans had known before. With a dash, the elan of which was a marvellous sight to see, the soldiers poured themselves like a living stream against the walls of St. Loup. The English behind the fortifications rained upon them missiles of every description. The air was darkened by a cloud of arrows. The cannon from the walls belched forth smoke and flame, and great stone and iron balls came hurtling down into our midst, dealing death and destruction. The English soldiers with their characteristic daring sallied forth sword in hand to beat us back and yet we pressed on and ever on; driven backwards here and there by stress of fighting; but never giving great way, and always rallied by the sight of that gleaming white armour, and by the clear, sweet voice ringing out through all the tumult of arms.
“Courage, my children, courage. The fight is fierce; but my Lord gives you the victory. A little more courage, a little more patience, and the day is ours!”
She stood unscathed amid the hail of stones and arrows. Her clear glance never quailed; her sweet voice never faltered; she had thought for everyone but herself. Again and again with her own hands she snatched some follower from a danger unseen by him, but which a moment later would have been his death. She herself stood unmoved in the awful tumult. She even smiled when Dunois and La Hire would have drawn her from the hottest of the fighting.
“No, no, my friends, my place is here. Have no fear. I shall not suffer. I have guardians watching over me that you wot not of.”
And so she stood unmoved at the foot of the tower, till the English, overcome with amaze, gave up the defence, and fled from a place they believed must surely be bewitched.
And as the last of the sunlight faded from the sky, the fortress of St. Loup was ours. The Maid had fought her first battle, and had triumphed.