But hold! I must not let my pen run away too fast with me! I am leaping to the end, before the end has come. But, as I say, I have no heart to write of all those weary months of wearing inactivity, wherein the spirit of the Maid chafed like that of a caged eagle, whilst the counsellors of the King—her bitter foes—had his ear, and held him back from following the course which her spirit and her knowledge alike advocated.
And yet we made none so bad a start.
"We must march upon Paris next," spoke the Maid at the first Council of War held in Rheims after the coronation of the King; and La Hire and the soldiers applauded the bold resolve, whilst La Tremouille and other timid and treacherous spirits sought ever to hold him back.
I often thought of the words spoken by the Maid to those friends of hers from Domremy, when she bid them farewell on the evening of which I have just written.
"Are you not afraid, Jeanne," they asked, "of going into battle, of living so strange a life, of being the companion of the great men of the earth?"
And she, looking at them with those big grave eyes of hers, had made answer thus:
"I fear nothing but treachery."
I wondered when she spoke what treachery she was to meet with; but soon it became all too apparent. The King's ministers were treacherously negotiating with false Burgundy, some say with the Regent Bedford himself. They cared not to save France. They cared only to keep out of harm's way—to avoid all peril and danger, and to thwart the Maid, whose patriotism and lofty courage was such a foil to their pusillanimity and cowardice.
So that though she led us to the very walls of Paris, and would have taken the whole city without a doubt, had she been permitted, though the Duc d'Alencon, now her devoted adherent, went down upon his very knees to beg of the King to fear nothing, but trust all to her genius, her judgment; he could not prevail, and orders were sent forth to break down the bridge that she had built for the storming party to pass over, and that the army should fall back with their task undone!
Oh, the folly, the ingratitude, the baseness of it all! How well do I remember the face of the Maid, as she said:
"The King's word must be obeyed; but truly it will take him seven years—ah, and twenty years now—to accomplish that which I would do for him in less than twenty days!"
Think of it—you who have seen what followed. Was Paris in the King's hands in less than seven years? Were the English driven from France in less than twenty?
She was wounded, too; and had been forcibly carried away from the field of battle; but it was against her own will. She would have fought through thick and thin, had the King's commands not prevailed; and even then she begged to be left with a band of soldiers at St. Denis.
"My voices tell me to remain here," she said; but alas! her voices were regarded no longer by the King, whose foolish head and cowardly heart were under other influences than that of the Maid, to whom he had promised so much such a short while since.
And so his word prevailed, and we were perforce obliged to retreat from those walls we had so confidently desired to storm. And there in the church of St. Denis, where she had knelt so many hours in prayer and supplication, the Maid left her beautiful silver armour, which had so often flashed its radiant message of triumph to her soldiers, and with it that broken sword—broken outside the walls of Paris, and which no skill had sufficed to mend—which had been taken from St Catherine's Church in Fierbois.
It was not altogether an unwonted act for knights to deposit their arms in churches, though the custom is dying away, with so many other relics of chivalry; but there was something very strange and solemn in this act of the Maid. It was to us a significant sign of that which she saw before her. We dared not ask her wherefore she did it. Something in her sad, gentle face forbade us. But I felt the tears rising to my eyes as I watched her kneel long in prayer when the deed was done, and I heard stifled sobs arising from that end of the building where some women and children knelt. For the Maid was ever the friend of all such, and never a woman or child whom she approached, whether she were clad in peasant's homespun or in shining coat of mail, but gave her love and trust and friendship at sight.
Henceforth the Maid went clothed in a light suit of mail, such as any youthful knight might wear. She never spoke again of her fair white armour, or of the sword which had shivered in her hand, none save herself knew how or when.
Alas! for the days of glory which had gone before! Why did we keep her with the King's armies, when the monarch's ear was engrossed by adverse counsel, and his heart turned away from her who had been his Deliverer in the hour of his greatest need?
Methinks she would even now have returned home, but for the devotion of the soldiers and the persuasions of the Duc d'Alencon, and of some of the other generals, amongst whom the foremost were Dunois and La Hire. These chafed equally with the Maid at the supine attitude of the King; and the Duke, his kinsman, spoke out boldly and fearlessly, warning him of the peril he was doing to his kingdom, and the wrong to the Maid who had served him so faithfully and well, and to whom he had made such fair promises.
But for the present all such entreaties or warnings fell upon deaf ears. The time for the King's awakening had not yet come.
Nevertheless, we had our days of glory still, under the banner of the Maid, when, after many months of idleness, the springtide again awoke the world, and she sallied forth strong in the assurance of victory, whilst fortress after fortress fell before her, as in the days of yore. Oh, how joyous were our hearts! Now did we believe truly that the tide had turned, and that we were marching on to victory.
But upon the Maid's face a shadow might often be seen to rest; and once or twice when I would ask her of it, she replied in a low, sorrowful voice:
"My year is well-nigh ended. Something looms before me. My voices have told me to be ready for what is coming. I fear me it will be my fate to fall into the hands of the foe!"
I would not believe it! Almost I was resolved to plunge mine own dagger into her heart sooner than she should fall into the hand of the pitiless English. But woe is me! I was not at her side that dreadful evening at Compiegne, when this terrible mishap befell. I had been stricken down in that horrid death trap, when, hemmed in between the ranks of the Burgundians and English, we found our retreat into the city cut off.
Was it treachery? Was it incapacity upon the part of the leaders of the garrison, or what was the reason that no rush from the city behind took the English in the rear, and effected the rescue of the Maid?
I know not—I have never known—all to me is black mystery. I was one of those to see the peril first, and with Bertrand and Guy de Laval beside me, to charge furiously upon the advancing foe, crying aloud to others to close round the Maid and bear her away into safety, whilst we engaged the enemy and gave them time.
That is all I know. All the rest vanishes in the mists. When these mists cleared away, Bertrand and I were in the home of Sir Guy, tended by his mother and grandmother—both of whom had seen and loved well the wonderful Maid—and she was in a terrible prison, some said an iron cage, guarded by brutal English soldiers, and declared a witch or a sorceress, not fit to live, nor to die a soldier's death, but only to perish at the stake as an outcast from God and man.
Months had passed since the battle of Compiegne. Fever had had me fast in its grip all that while, and the news I heard on recovery brought it all back again. Bertrand and Guy were in little better case. We were like pale ghosts of our former selves during those winter months, when, hemmed in by snow, we could learn so little news from without, and could only eat out our hearts in rage and grief.
With the spring came the news of the trial at Rouen—the bitter hatred of Bishop Cauchon—the awful consummation he had vowed to bring about.
I know not whether it were folly to hope such a thing, but we three knights made instantly for the coast and crossed to England, to seek the ear of the young King there, and plead the cause of the Maid before him. I need not say how our mission failed. I care not to recall those sickening days of anxiety and hope deferred, and utter defeat at the last.
Heartbroken and desperate we returned; and made our way to Rouen. The whole city was in confusion. Need I say more? That very day, within an hour, the Maid, the Messenger from God, the Deliverer of the King, the Saviour of France, was to die by fire, to perish as a heretic. And the King whom she had saved had not lifted a hand to save her; the country she had delivered from a crushing disgrace, stood idly by to watch her perish thus!
Oh, the shame!—the treachery!—the horror! Let me not try to write of it. The King has striven now to make amends; but I wonder how he feels sometimes when he sees the May sunshine streaming over the fair earth—over that realm which he now rules from sea to sea, when he thinks of the Maid who was led forth in that blaze of glory to meet her fiery doom.
O God of Heaven look down and judge! How shall I tell of the sight I beheld?
Suddenly I came upon it—mad with my grief, desperate with horror and despair. I saw the face of the Maid again! I saw her upraised eyes, and her hands clasped to her breast, holding thereto a rough wooden cross, whilst someone from below held high in the air a crucifix taken from some church and fastened upon a long wand.
The pile on which she stood was so high—so high; they said it was done in mercy, that the rising clouds of smoke might choke her ere the flame touched her. She was clad in a long white garment from head to foot; her hair had grown and fell about and back from her face in a soft cloud gilded by the sun's rays. Her face was rapt—smiling—yes, I will swear it—smiling, as a child smiles up into the face of its father.
There was an awful hush throughout the wide place. Everything reeled and swam before me; but I saw that face—that serene and smiling face, wan and pale, but tranquil and glad and triumphant.
Then came the rush of smoke, and the glare of ruddy fire. A stifled cry, like one immense groan rose from below—above in the reek and blaze all was silent. But from out that fire I saw—yes, and another saw it too (an English soldier, rushing to add a faggot to the pyre, a token of his hate to the Maid), and it so wrought upon him that he dropped his burden, fell upon his knees and was like to die of the fear—I saw a white dove rise from the smoke wreaths of that ghastly pile, hover a moment, just touched by the glare of the fire, and then dart heavenwards as upon eagle's wings.
Yes, I saw it. To the day of my death will I swear it. I saw what she had seen in vision long ago; and upon my heart there fell a strange sense of peace and calm. It had not hurt her—it had been as she once said. Her saints had been with her to the end. She had triumphed. All was well. Called of her Country, she had answered nobly to the call. Her Country had awarded her a fiery death; but in that fiery chariot she had ascended to the Lord, in whom she trusted, hereafter to receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away.