A Heroine of France
By Evelyn Everett-Green
Public Domain Books
Chapter IX. How the Maid Assumed Command At Orleans.
The house of the Treasurer was a beautiful building in the Gothic style, and weary as was the Maid with the toils and excitements through which she had passed, I saw her eyes kindle with pleasure and admiration as she was ceremoniously led into the great banqueting hall, where the tables were spread with abundant good cheer (despite the reduced condition of the city), to do honour to her who came as its Deliverer.
There was something solemn and church-like in these surroundings which appealed at once to the Maid. She had a keen eye for beauty, whether of nature or in the handiwork of man, and her quick penetrating glances missed nothing of the stately grandeur of the house, the ceremonious and courtly welcome of the Treasurer, its master, or the earnest, wistful gaze of his little daughter Charlotte, who stood holding fast to her mother’s hand in the background, but feasting her great dark eyes upon the wonderful shining figure of the Maid, from whose white armour the lights of the great hall flashed back in a hundred points of fire.
The greeting of the master of the house being over, the Maid threw off for a moment the grave dignity of her bearing throughout this trying day, and became a simple girl again. With a quick grace of movement she crossed the space which divided her from the little child, and kneeling suddenly down, took the wondering little one in her arms, and held her in a close embrace.
“Ma petite, ma mie, ma tres chere,” those nearest heard her murmur. “Love me, darling, love me! I have a little sister at home who loves me, but I had to go away and leave her. Perhaps I may never see her again. Try to love me instead, and comfort my heart, for sometimes I am very, very weary, and hungry for the love that I have lost!”
Now, one might have thought that so young a child–for she was not more than eight years old, and small for her years–would have been affrighted at the sudden approach of the shining warrior, about whom so many stories had been told, and who looked more like the Archangel Michael, as many thought, than a creature of human flesh and blood. But instead of showing any fear, the child flung her arms about the neck of the Maid, and pressed kisses upon her face–her headpiece she had removed at her entrance–and when the mother would have loosened her hold, and sent the child away with her attendant, little Charlotte resisted, clinging to her new friend with all her baby strength, and the Maid looked pleadingly up into the kindly face of the lady, and said:
“Ah, madame, I pray you let her remain with me. It is so long since I felt the arms of a child about my neck!”
And so the little one stayed to the banquet, and was given the place of honour beside the Maid. But neither of these twain had any relish for the dainty meats and rich dishes served for us. As on the march, so now in the walls of the city, the Maid fared as simply as the rudest of her soldiers. She mixed water with her wine, took little save a slice or two of bread, and though to please her hosts she just touched one or two specially prepared dishes, it was without any real relish for them, and she was evidently glad when she was able to make excuse to leave the table and go to the room prepared for her.
But here again she showed her simple tastes, for when the great guest chamber was shown her she shrank a little at its size and luxury, and, still holding the child’s hand in hers, she turned to the mother who was in attendance and said:
“I pray you, sweet lady, let me whilst I am your guest share the room of this little daughter of yours. I am but a simple country girl, all this grandeur weighs me down. If I might but sleep with this little one in my arms–as the little sister at home loved to lie–I should sleep so peacefully and have such happy dreams! Ah, madame!–let me have my will in this!”
And Madame Boucher, being a mother and a true woman, understood; and answered by taking the Maid in her arms and kissing her. And so, as long as the Maid remained in Orleans, she shared the little white bedroom of the child of the house, which opened from that of the mother, and the bond which grew up between the three was so close and tender a one, that I trow the good Treasurer and his wife would fain have regarded this wonderful Maid as their own daughter, and kept her ever with them, had duty and her voices not called her elsewhere when the first part of her task was done.
Now Bertrand and I, together with Pierre, her brother, and the Chevalier d’Aulon and Sir Guy de Laval, were lodged in the same house, and entertained most hospitably by the Treasurer, who sat up with us far into the night after our arrival, listening with earnest attention to all we could tell him respecting the Maid, and telling us on his part of the feeling in Orleans anent her and her mission, and what we might expect to follow her arrival here.
“The townsfolk seem well-nigh wild for joy at sight of her,” spoke De Laval, “and the more they see of her, the more they will love her and reverence her mission. I was one who did openly scoff, or at least had no faith in any miracle, until that I saw her with mine own eyes; and then some voice in my heart–I know not how to speak more plainly of it–or some wonderful power in her glance or in her voice, overcame me. And I knew that she had in very truth come from God, and I have never doubted of her divine commission from that day to this. It will be the same here in Orleans, if, indeed, there be any that doubt.”
“Alas! there are–too many!” spoke the Treasurer, shaking his head, “I am rejoiced that our two greatest Generals, Dunois and La Hire, have become her adherents, for I myself believe that she has been sent of God for our deliverance, and so do the townsfolk almost to a man. But there are numbers of the lesser officers–bold men and true–who have fought valiantly throughout the siege, and who have great influence with the soldiers they lead, and these men are full of disgust at the thought of being led by a woman–a girl–and one of low degree. They would be willing for her to stand aloft and prophesy victory for their arms, but that she should arm herself and lead them in battle, and direct operations herself, fills them with disgust and contempt. There is like to be trouble, I fear, with some of these. There is bold De Gamache, for example, who declares he would sooner fold up his banner and serve as a simple soldier in the ranks, than hold a command subservient to that of a low-born woman!”
That name as applied to the Angelic Maid set our teeth on edge; yet was it wonderful that some should so regard her?
“Let them but see her–and they will change their tune!” spake Bertrand quickly. “A low-born woman! Would they speak thus of the Blessed Virgin? And yet according to the wisdom of the flesh it would be as true of one as of the other.”
The Treasurer spoke with grave thoughtfulness:
“Truly do I think that any person honoured by the Lord with a direct mission from Himself becomes something different by virtue of that mission from what he or she was before. Yet we may not confound this mission of the Maid here in Orleans with that one which came to the Blessed Mary.”
“Nor had I any thought,” answered Bertrand, “of likening one to the other, save inasmuch as both have been maidens, born in lowly surroundings, yet chosen for purity of heart and life, and for childlike faith and obedience, for the honour of receiving a divine commission. There the parallel stops; for there can be no comparison regarding the work appointed to each. Yet even as this Maid shall fulfil her appointed task in obedience to the injunctions received, she is worthy to be called the handmaid of the Lord.”
“To that I have nought to say but yea,” answered the Treasurer heartily, “and I pray our Lord and the Blessed Virgin to be with her and strengthen her, for I fear me she will have foes to contend with from within as well as from without the city; and as all men know, it is the distrust and contradiction of so-called friends which is harder to bear than the open enmity of the foe.”
It was difficult for us, vowed heart and soul to the cause of the Maid, and honoured by her friendship and confidence, to believe that any could be so blind as not to recognise in her a God-sent messenger, whom they would delight to follow and to honour. Yet when I walked out upon the following morning–a sunny first of May–to have a good look round at the position of the fortifications, the ring of English bastilles to the north, the blockading towers upon the southern bank, I was quickly aware of a great deal of talk going on amongst the soldiers and the officers which was by no means favourable to the cause of the Maid.
Voices were hushed somewhat at my approach, for though none knew me, I was of course a stranger, and therefore likely to have entered the town in the train of the Maid, who had yesterday made her appearance there. But I heard enough to be sure that what the Treasurer had said last evening was likely to be true. The soldiers were disposed to scoff at being led by a woman, and the officers to grumble at having had to bear all the burden of the long siege, and then when the King did send an army for the relief, to send it under the command of this Maid, who would bear away the honour and glory which otherwise all might have shared.
From their point of view, perhaps, this discontent was not unreasonable; but as I looked upon the works around me, I marvelled how it had been possible for the English, unprotected as they must have originally been, to erect these great towers for their own shelter, and from which to batter the town with their cannon and great stone balls, when the French in great numbers and protected by strong walls, ought to have been able to sally forth continually and so to harass them that the construction of such buildings should have been impossible.
The great Dunois had shown considerable acumen. He had himself destroyed all the suburbs of the town which lay without the walls, so that the English might find no shelter there, and when they had effected a lodgment on the south side of the river, he had destroyed the greater part of the bridge, thus making it impossible for the enemy to cross and take possession of the town. But he had not stopped the erection of those threatening towers circling round the city to the north, nor the construction of those still stronger blockading fortresses on the south side, Les Tourelles guarding the fragment of the broken bridge, and Les Augustins not far away.
When I spoke to one grizzled old soldier about it, he shrugged his shoulders and made reply:
“What would you? Those English are helped of the devil himself. We have tried to stand against them, but it is all to no purpose. Some demon of fighting enters into them, and they know that we shall fly–and fly we do. At last there were none who would face them. Our generals sought in vain to lead them. You should have heard La Hire swearing at them. O-he, O-he, he is a master of the art! Some of us would have followed him; but the rest–one might as well have asked a flock of sheep to go against the wolf, telling them they were fifty to one! Not they! It was witchcraft, or something like it. They sat still on these ramparts and watched the English working like moles or like ants, and never lifted a finger. Pouf! When men get to that they are not fit to fight They had better go home and ply the distaff with the women.”
“And let a woman come and lead their comrades to battle!” I said, laughing. “Have you seen the wonderful Maid of whom all the world is talking?”
“No; at least, I only caught a gleam of light upon her white armour last night; but as I said to the boys in the guardroom, I care not whether she be woman, witch, or angel; if she will bring back heart and courage, and make men again of all these chicken-hearted poltroons, I will follow her to the death wherever she may lead. I am sick with shame for the arms of France!”
“Bravely spoken, my friend!” I cried, giving him my hand; “and if that be the spirit of the army, I doubt not but that a few days will see such a turn in the tide of warfare as shall make the whole world stand aghast!”
“Then you believe in her?” quoth the old soldier, looking me shrewdly up and down.
“With my whole heart!” I answered, as I turned and took my way back to my quarters.
That same day the Maid held a council of war, at which all the officers of any importance were permitted to attend; and here it was that she received the first real check since she had received the King’s commission and royal command.
“Let us attack the foe at once, and without delay, messires!” she said, sitting at the head of the council table, fully armed, save for her headpiece, and speaking in her clear, sweet, full tones, wherein power and confidence were blended; “the Lord of Hosts is on our side. Let us go forth in His strength, and the victory will be ours.”
But they listened to her in silent consternation and amaze. Here was this inexperienced girl, blind with enthusiasm, drunk with success, her head completely turned by her reception last night, actually advising an assault upon the enemy before the arrival of the army of relief, which had been forced to return to Blois to cross the river, and which could not arrive for a few more days. What madness would she next propose? Well, at least La Hire and Dunois were there to curb her folly and impetuosity. A chit of a girl like that to sit and tell them all to go forth to certain death at her command! As though they would not want all their strength to aid the relieving army to enter when it should appear! As though they were going to weaken themselves beforehand by any mad scheme of hers!
Thus the storm arose. Even La Hire, Dunois, and the Treasurer himself, were against her. As for the lesser officers, when they began to speak, they scarce knew how to contain themselves, and restrain their anger and scorn from showing itself too markedly towards one who held the King’s mandate of command.
And of late the Maid had always been listened to with such honour and respect! How would she bear this contradiction and veiled contempt, she who had come to assume the command of the city and its armies at the King’s desire?
She sat very still and quiet at the table, as the storm hummed about her. Her clear gaze travelled from face to face as one or another of the officers rose and spoke. Sometimes a slight flush of red dyed her cheek for a moment; but never once did anger cloud her brow, or impatience or contempt mar the wonderful serenity of her beautiful eyes. Only once did she speak during the whole of the debate, after her opening words had been delivered, and that was after a very fiery oration on the part of a youthful officer, whose words contained more veiled scorn of her and her mission than any other had dared to show.
Instead of looking at him either in anger or in reproach, the Maid’s own wonderful smile shone suddenly upon him as he concluded. Then she spoke:
“Captain de Gamache, you think yourself my foe now; but that will soon be changed, and I thank you beforehand for the brave, true service which you shall presently render me. But meantime, beware of rashness; for victory shall not come to the city without the Maid.”
He gazed at her–we all gazed at her–in amaze, not knowing what her words portended. But she gave no explanation. She only rose to her feet and said:
“Then, gentlemen, since the attack is not to be yet–not till the arrival of the relieving force, let me make the tour of the battlements, and examine the defences of the city. I would that you had faith to let me lead you forth today; but the time will come when I shall not have to plead with you–you will follow gladly in my wake. For the rest, it would perchance be a sorrow to my brave men, who have marched so far with me, not to partake in the victory which the Lord is about to send us; wherefore I will the more readily consent to delay, though, let me tell you, you are in the wrong to withstand the wishes of the Commander of the King’s armies, and the messenger of the King of Kings.”
I verily believe that she shamed them by her gentle friendliness more than she would have done by any outburst of wrath. Had she urged them now, I am not sure but what they would have given her her way; but she did not. She put her white velvet cap, with its nodding plumes, upon her head, and taking with her the chiefest of the generals and her own immediate retinue, she made the tour of the walls and defences of the city, showing such a marvellous insight into the tactics of war that she astonished all by her remarks and by her injunctions.
Suddenly, as we were walking onwards, she paused and lifted her face with a wonderful rapt expression upon it. Then she turned to Dunois, and said with quiet authority:
“Mon General, I must ask of you to take a small body of picked men, and ride forth towards Blois, and see what bechances there. I trow there is trouble among the men. Traitors are at work to daunt their hearts. Go and say that the Maid bids them fear nothing, and that they shall enter Orleans in safety. The English shall not be suffered to touch them. Go at once!”
“In broad daylight, lady, and before the very eyes of the foe?”
“Yes, yes,” she answered instantly; “I will stand here and watch you. No hurt shall be done to you or to your company.”
So Dunois went at her command, and we saw him and his little band ride fearlessly through the English lines; and scarce could we believe our eyes when we noted that no weapon was raised against them; not even an arrow was shot off as they passed.
“She speaks the words of God. She is His messenger!” whispered the men who stood by; and her fame flew from mouth to mouth, till a strange awe fell upon all.
She was never idle during those days of waiting. She asked news of the letter she had sent to the English, and heard it had been delivered duly, though the herald had not returned. She gave commission to La Hire to demand his instant release, and this was accomplished speedily; for the bold captain, of his own initiative, vowed he would behead every prisoner they had in the city if the man were not given up at the command of the Maid. I am very sure no such act of summary vengeance would have been permitted, but the man was instantly released and came and told us how that the letter had been read with shouts of insulting laughter, and many derisive answers suggested; none of which, however, had been dispatched, as Talbot, the chief in command of the English armies, had finally decreed that it became not his dignity to hold any parley with a witch.
And yet she could scarce believe that they should none of them understand how that she was indeed come from God, and that they must be lamentably overthrown if they would not hear her words. On the third day of her stay in the city she caused her great white banner to be carried forth before her, and riding a white horse, clad in her silver armour, and clasping her banneret in her hand she rode slowly out upon the broken fragment of the bridge opposite to the tower of Les Tourelles, and begged a parley from the English general in command.
It was not Lord Talbot who came forth and stood upon his own end of the bridge, gazing haughtily across the space which divided them; but it was a notable soldier, whom the French called Classidas, though I have been told that his real name was Sir William Glassdale. To him the Maid addressed herself in her clear mellow voice, which could be heard across the flowing river:
“Retournez de la part Dieu a l’Angleterre!” was the burden of her charge, imploring him to have mercy upon himself and his soldiers, as else many hundreds of them, and himself also, must perish miserably, and perchance even without the offices of the Church.
But she was answered by roars of mocking laughter from the soldiers of the fort, and worse still, by gross insults from Classidas himself, hurled across at her from a biting tongue, which carried like the note of a trumpet.
Silently she stood and gazed at him; mournfully she turned and rode back to the town.
“May God have mercy upon their souls!” she prayed; and for the rest of the day she was sorrowful and sad.
“If it could have been done without bloodshed!” she murmured again and yet again.
Ah, and then the day when the news came that the relieving army was in sight! Was she sad or pensive then? No! She sprang to her feet; she set down the little Charlotte, who was playing in her arms; she seized her weapons, her page flew to bring her full armour. Her horse was already in waiting; she swung upon his back. She waved her hand and called to us to rally about her.
“The English are preparing to fight!” she cried (how did she know? none had told her), “but follow me, and they will strike no blow.”
Already La Hire was at her side, seeking to dissuade her from leaving the shelter of the town. She smiled at him, and rode through the gate, her white banner floating in the wind.
“See yonder; that is the point of danger. We will station ourselves there, and watch our brave army march past. They shall not be hurt nor dismayed. All shall be well!”
So we rode, wondering and amazed, behind and around her, and at the appointed spot, in the very midst of the English lines, we halted, and made a great avenue for the army from Blois to pass through. All gazed in wonder at the Maid. All saluted deeply. The English in their towers gazed in amaze, but fired no shot. We all passed into the city in safety.
Great God, but how would it be with our Maid when the real battle and bloodshed should begin?