A Heroine of France
By Evelyn Everett-Green
Public Domain Books
Chapter XII. How the Maid Raised the Siege.
To tell the tale of how Les Augustins was taken is but to tell again the tale of St Loup.
I know not precisely what instructions the lesser officers received, nor what they told their men. But whether from preconcerted arrangement that the attack was only to be a feint, or whether from the dash and energy of the English, it appeared at first as though the tide of war was rolling back in its old track, and that the prowess of the English as destined to win the day.
For one thing the assault was commenced before the Maid had crossed the river and could put herself at the head of the men. A large body of troops had been transported to the south side in boats during the night, under cover of darkness; and this was all very well; but they should have waited hen daylight came for the Maid to march at their head, instead of which they sought to rush the fortress before ever she had appeared at all; and when we arrived at the river’s bank, it was to see a furious battle raging round the base of Les Augustins, and ere we were half across the river, we saw only too plainly that the French were being badly beaten, were fleeing in all directions from the pursuing foe, and were making for the river bank once more as fast as their legs could carry them.
The Maid watched it all, with that strange, inscrutable look upon her face, and that battle light in her eyes which we were all learning to know. She was sitting upon her horse; for though a number of animals had been taken across in the night, no horse of hers had been so conducted, and we had led the creature with its rider into the great flat-bottomed boat; so that she was on a higher level than the rest of us, and could better see what was passing, though it was plain to all that our soldiers were getting badly beaten.
“O foolish children, silly sheep!” murmured the Maid as she watched, “and yet you are not to blame, but those who lead you. When will they understand? When will they believe?”
We reached the shore, and the Maid, without waiting for any of us to mount or form a bodyguard round her, leaped her horse to the bank, and charged up it, her pennon flying, her eyes alight with the greatness of her purpose.
But even as she climbed the slippery bank, a great rush of flying soldiers met her, and by their sheer weight forced back horse and rider almost to the river’s brink before they were aware who or what it was.
Then her silver trumpet voice rang out. She called upon them to reform, to follow her. She cried that her Lord would give them the victory, and almost before we who had accompanied her had formed into rank for the charge, the flying, panic-stricken men from the front, ashamed and filled with fresh ardour, had turned themselves about, closed up their scattered ranks, and were ready to follow her whithersoever she might lead them.
Yet it was to no speedy victory she urged them. No angel with a flaming sword came forth to fight and overcome as by a miracle. But it was enough for that white-clad figure to stand revealed in the thickest of the carnage to animate the men to heroic effort. As I say, it was the story of St. Loup over again; but if anything the fighting was more severe. What the Generals had meant for a mere feint, the Maid turned into a desperate battle. The English were reinforced many times; it seemed as though we had a hopeless task before us. But confidence and assurance of victory were in our hearts as we saw our Deliverer stand in the thick of the fight and heard her clarion voice ringing over the field. Ere the shades of night fell, not only was Les Augustins ours, but its stores of food and ammunition had been safely transported into the city, and the place so destroyed and dismantled that never again could it be a source of peril to the town.
And now the Maid’s eyes were fixed full upon the frowning bulk of Les Tourelles, rising grim and black against the darkening sky, with its little “tower of the Boulevard,” on this side the drawbridge. Thither had the whole English force retired–all who were not lying dead or desperately wounded on the plain or round the gutted tower of Les Augustins–we saw their threatening faces looking down fiercely upon us, and heard the angry voices from the walls, heaping abuse and curses upon the “White Witch,” who had wrought them this evil.
“Would that we could attack at once!” spoke the Maid. “Would that the sun would stay his course! Truly I do believe that we should carry all before us!”
The leaders came up to praise and glorify her prowess. They heard her words, but answered how that the men must needs have a night’s rest ere they tried this second great feat of arms. But, they added, there should be no going back into the city, no delay on the morrow in crossing the river.
It was a warm summer-like night. Provisions were abundant, shelter could be obtained beneath the walls of the captured citadel. They, with the bulk of the army, would remain on the south bank for the nonce, and the Maid should return to the city with the convoys of wounded, to spend a quiet night there, returning with the dawn of the morrow to renew the attack and take Les Tourelles.
Thus they spoke, and spoke suavely and courteously. But I did note a strange look in the eyes of the Maid; and I wondered why it was that Dunois, the speaker, grew red and stumbled over his words, whilst that La Hire, who had done a giant’s work in the fighting that day, ground his teeth and looked both ashamed and disturbed.
The Maid stood a brief while as though in doubt. But then she made quiet reply:
“Then, gentlemen, it shall be as you will. I will return to the city for the night. But with the dawn of day I will be here, and Les Tourelles shall be ours. The siege of Orleans shall be raised!”
They bowed low to her; every one of them made obeisance. Yet was there something ironical in the very humility of some? I could not tell; yet my heart burned within me as I followed our mistress; and never had I known her so silent as she was upon our journey back, or as we sat at supper, the rest of us telling of the day’s doings, but the Maid speechless, save when she bent her head to answer some eager question of little Charlotte’s, or to smile at her childish prattle.
Suddenly the door was flung open, and Sir Guy strode in with a face like a thundercloud. Behind him came a messenger sent by the Generals to the Maid, and this was the news he brought:
There had been a council held after dark, and it was then unanimously agreed that all now had been done that was necessary. The city was provisioned, the power of the English had been greatly weakened and broken. The army would now be content with the triumphs already won, and would quietly await further reinforcements before taking any fresh step.
The man who brought this message faltered as he delivered it. The Maid sat very still and quiet, her head lifted in a dignified but most expressive disdain.
“Monsieur,” she replied, when the envoy ceased speaking, “go back to those who sent you. Tell them that they have had their council and I have had mine. I leave the city at dawn as I have said. I return not to it till the siege has been raised.”
The man bowed and retired confusedly. The Maid lifted the little child in her arms, as was her wont, to carry her to bed. She turned to her chaplain as she did so:
“Come to me at dawn, my father, to hear my confession; and I pray you accompany me upon the morrow; for my blood will be shed. But do not weep or fear for me, my friends, nor spread any banquet for me ere I start forth upon the morrow; but keep all for my return in the evening, when I will come to you by the bridge.”
She was gone as she spoke, and we gazed at her and each other in amaze; for how could she come back by a bridge which had been destroyed, and how did she brook such slights as were heaped upon her without showing anger and hurt pride?
“And there is worse yet to come!” cried Sir Guy in a fury of rage, “for I lingered behind to hear and see. If you will believe it, there are numbers and numbers of the lesser officers who would desire that the Maid should now be told that her work is done, and that she can retire to her home in Domremy; that the King will come himself with another reinforcing army to raise the siege, so that they may get rid of her, and take the glory to themselves whenever the place shall be truly relieved. Could you believe such folly, such treachery?”
We could not; we could scarce believe our ears, and right glad was I to hear how that La Hire had had no part in this shameful council; and I hope that Dunois had not either, though I fear me he was less staunch.
La Hire had returned to the city to seek to infuse into the citizens some of the spirit of the Maid. He was always for bold attack, and would be ready on the morrow, we did not doubt, for whatever might betide.
It was little after dawn when we rode forth, the Maid in her white armour at our head, carrying her small pennon, whilst D’Aulon bore the great white standard close behind. Her face was pale and rapt. None of us spoke to her, and Pasquerel, her good chaplain, rode behind telling his beads as he went.
We reached the Burgundy Gate; and behold it was fast shut. At the portal stood De Gaucourt, a notable warrior, with a grim look about his mouth. The Maid saluted him courteously, and quietly bid him open the gate. But he budged not an inch.
“Madam,” he said, “I have my commands from the Generals of the army. The gate is to remain shut. No one is to be suffered to pass forth today.”
We understood in a moment. This was a ruse to trap the Maid within the city walls. Our hands were upon the hilts of our swords. At a word from her, they would have flashed forth, and De Gaucourt would have been a dead man had he sought to hinder us in the opening of the gate. But the Maid read our purpose in our eyes and in our gestures, and she stayed us by her lifted hand.
“Not so, my friends,” she answered gravely, “but the Chevalier de Gaucourt will himself order the opening of the gate. I have to ride through it and at once. My Lord bids it!”
Her eyes flashed full and suddenly upon him. We saw him quiver from head to foot. With his own hands he unlocked the gate, and it seemed to swing of its own accord wide open before us. The Maid bent her head in gracious acknowledgment, swept through and was off to the river like a flash of white lightning.
The river lay golden in the glory of the morning. The boats which had transported us across last night bore us bravely over now. I know not how the Generals felt when they saw the Maid, a dazzling vision of brightness, her great white standard close behind, her phalanx of knights and gentlemen in attendance, gallop up to the scene of action, from which they thought they had successfully banished her. I only know that from the throats of the soldiers there arose a deafening shout of welcome. They at least believed in her. They looked to her as to none else. They would follow her unwaveringly, when no other commander could make them budge.
A yell that rent the very firmament went up at sight of her, and every man seized his arms and sprang to his post, as though inspired by the very genius of victory.
“Courage, my children, forward! The day shall be ours!” she cried, as she took her place at the head of the formidable charge against the walls which frowned and bristled with the pikes and arrows of the English. Her voice, like a silver clarion, rang clear through the din of the furious battle which followed:
“Bon coeur, bonne esperance, mes enfants, the hour of victory is at hand! De la part de Dieu! De la part de Dieu!”
That was her favourite battle cry! It was God who should give the victory.
But it was no easy victory we were to win that day. The English fought with the energy of despair. They knew as well as we that when Les Tourelles fell the siege would be raised. True they had their bastilles upon the north side of the river to fall back upon, since the Maid’s counsel of destruction had not been followed. But once dislodged from the south bank, and Orleans would lie open to the support of her friends in the south, and the position of the English army would be one of dire peril. For now the French were no more cowed by craven fear of the power of their enemies. They had found them capable of defeat and overthrow; the spell was broken. And it was the Maid who had done it!
Oh, how we fought around her that day! She was on foot now, for the banks of the moat were slippery, and the press around the walls was too great to admit easily of the tactics of horsemen. I never saw her strike at any foe. It was her pennon rather than her sword in which she trusted. Here was the rallying point for the bravest and most desperate of the assailants, ever in the thickest of the strife, ever pointing the way to victory.
It was the tower of the Boulevard against which we were directing our attack. If that fell, Les Tourelles itself must needs follow, isolated as it would then be in the midst of the river. We did not know it then, but we were to learn later, that La Hire in the city with a great band of citizens and soldiers to help him, was already hard at work constructing a bridge which should carry him and his men across to Les Tourelles, to take the English in the rear, whilst their attention was concentrated upon our work on the other side.
No wonder that the clash and din was something deafening, that the boom of the great cannon ceased not; smoke and fire seemed to envelop the walls of the towers; the air was darkened by clouds of arrows; great stones came crashing into our midst. Men fell on every side; we had much ado to press on without treading under foot the dead and dying; but the white pennon fluttered before us, and foot by foot we crept up towards the base of the tower.
Victory! Victory! was the cry of our hearts. We were close to the walls now–the Maid had seized a ladder, and with her own hands was setting it in position, when–O woe! woe!–a great cloth-yard shaft from an English bow, tipped with iron and winged with an eagle’s plume, struck upon that white armour with such crashing force that a rent was made in its shining surface, and the Maid was borne to the ground.
Oh, the terrible fear of that moment! The yell of triumph and joy which arose from the walls of the fortress seemed to turn my blood into liquid fire.
The English had seen the fall of our champion. They shouted like men drunk with victory! They knew well enough that were she dead, they would drive back the French as sheep are driven by wolves.
I had been close beside the Maid for hours; for I never forgot what she had spoken about being wounded that day; yet when she fell I had been parted from her a brief space, by one of those battle waves too strong for resistance. But now I fought my way to her side with irresistible fury, though there was such a struggling press all about her that I had much ado to force my way through it. But I was known as one of her especial personal attendants, and way was made for me somehow; yet it was not I who was the first to render her assistance.
When I arrived, De Gamache was holding her in his arms; someone had removed her headpiece, and though her face was as white as the snowy plumes, her eyes were open, and there was a faint brave smile upon her lips. De Gamache had his horse beside him, his arm slipped through the reins.
“My brave General,” he said, as the Maid looked in his face, “let me lift you to my saddle and convey you to a place of safety. I have done you wrong before; but I pray you forgive me, and bear no malice; for I am yours till death. Never was woman so brave.”
“I should be wrong indeed to bear malice against any, my good friend,” spoke the Maid, in her gentle tones, “above all against one so courteous, so brave.”
We lifted her upon the horse. We formed a bodyguard round her. We drew her out of the thick of the press, for once unresisting; and we laid her down in a little adjacent vineyard, where the good Pasquerel came instantly, and knelt beside her offering prayers for her recovery. But the great arrow had pierced right through her shoulder, and stood out a handbreadth upon the other side. We had sent for a surgeon; but we dreaded to think of the pain she must suffer; must be suffering even now. Her face was white; her brow was furrowed.
But suddenly, as we stood looking at her in dismay, she sat up, took firm hold of the cruel barb with her own hands, and drew it steadily from the wound.
Was ever courage like hers? As the blood came gushing forth, staining her white armour red, she uttered a little cry and her lips grew pale. Yet I think the cry was less from pain than to see the marring of her shining breastplate; and the tears started to her eyes. Never before had this suffered hurt; the sight of the envious rent hurt her, I trow, as much as did the smart of her wound.
The surgeon came hurrying up, and dressed the wound with a pledget of linen steeped in oil; and the Maid lay very white and still, almost like one dying or dead, so that we all held our breath in fear. In sooth, the faintness was deathlike for awhile, and she did beckon to her priest to come close to her and receive her confession, whilst we formed round her in a circle, keeping off all idle gazers, and standing facing away from her, with bent, uncovered heads.
Was it possible that her Lord was about to take her from us, her task yet unfulfilled? It was hard to believe it, and yet we could not but fear; wherefore our hearts were heavy within us during that long hour which followed.
And the battle? It was raging still, but the heart of it seemed to be lacking. The English were crying out that the White Witch was dead, taunting their foes with being led by a woman, and asking them where she was gone to now.
Dunois came hurrying up for news of her. The Maid roused herself and beckoned to him to come to her where she lay, and asked him of the battle. Dunois told her that the courage of the men seemed failing, that he thought of sounding the retreat.
For a few moments she lay still; her eyes bent full upon the blinding blue of the sunny sky. Then she spoke:
“Sound no retreat, my General,” she spoke, “but give the men a breathing space. Let them draw off for a brief moment. Let them eat and drink and refresh themselves. Tell them that I will come to them again; and when you and they see my standard floating against the wall, then know by that token that the place is yours.”
Dunois went his way, and soon the sound of the struggle ceased. There came a strange hush in the heat of the noontide hours. The Maid lay still a while longer; then raising herself, asked that water should be brought to cleanse away all stains from her hands and face and her white armour.
That being done she called to D’Aulon and said to him:
“Take the great standard; plant it again upon the edge of the moat; and when the silken folds touch the tower wall, call and tell me; and you, my knights and gentlemen, be ready to follow me to victory!”
Did we doubt her ability, wounded as she was, to lead us? Not one whit. We looked to our arms; we stood silently beside her. We watched D’Aulon move quietly forward to the appointed place, and unfold the great white banner, which hung down limply in the sultry heat of the May afternoon. He stood there, and we stood beside the Maid a great while; she lay upon the heap of cloaks which had been spread to form a couch for her; her hands were clasped and her eyes closed as though in prayer.
Then a little puff of wind arose, followed by another, and yet another–soft, warm wind, but we saw the folds of the banner begin to unfurl. Little by little the breeze strengthened; breathlessly we watched the gradual lifting of the silken standard, till, with an indescribably proud motion–as though some spirit was infused into the lifeless silk–it launched itself like a living thing against the tower wall.
“It touches! It touches!” cried D’Aulon.
“It touches! It touches!” we shouted in response.
“It touches! It touches!” came an echoing wave sound from the soldiers watching from their resting places.
The Maid was on her feet in a moment. Where was the weakness, the feebleness, the faintness of the wounded girl? All gone–all swallowed up in the triumph of the victorious warrior.
“Onward! Onward, my children. Onward, de la part de Dieu! He has given you the victory! Onwards and take the tower! Nothing can resist you now!”
Her voice was heard all over the field. The white folds of the banner still fluttered against the wall, the white armour of the Maid shone dazzling in the sunshine as she dashed forward. The army to a man sprang forward in her wake with that rush, with that power of confidence against which nothing can stand.
The English shrieked in their astonishment and affright. The dead had come to life! The White Witch, struck down as they thought by mortal wound, was charging at the head of her armies. The French were swarming up the scaling ladders, pouring into their tower, carrying all before them.
Fighting was useless. Nothing remained but flight. Helter skelter, like rabbits or rats, they fled this way and that before us. Not an Englishman remained upon the south side of the river. The French flag waved from the top of the tower. The seven months’ siege was raised by the Maid eight days after her entrance into the city.