Jeanne D'Arc: her life and death/Chapter XVII

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CHAPTER XVIII — THE SACRIFICE. MAY 31, 1431.[edit]

It is not necessary to be a good man in order to divine what in certain circumstances a good and pure spirit will do. The Bishop of Beauvais had entertained no doubt as to what would happen. He knew exactly, with a perspicuity creditable to his perceptions at least, that, notwithstanding the effect which his theatrical mise en scène had produced upon the imagination of Jeanne, no power in heaven or earth would induce that young soul to content itself with a lie. He knew it, though lies were his daily bread; the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. He had bidden his English patrons to wait a little, and now his predictions were triumphantly fulfilled. It is hard to believe of any man that on such a certainty he could have calculated and laid his devilish plans; but there would seem to have existed in the mediæval churchman a certain horrible thirst for the blood of a relapsed heretic which was peculiar to their age and profession, and which no better principle in their own minds could subdue. It was their appetite, their delight of sensation, in distinction from the other appetites perhaps scarcely less cruel which other men indulged with no such horrified denunciation from the rest of the world. Others, it is evident, shared with Cauchon that sharp sensation of dreadful pleasure in finding her out; young Courcelles, so modest and unassuming and so learned, among the rest; not L'Oyseleur, it appears by the sequel. That Judas, like the greater traitor, was struck to the heart; but the less bad man who had only persecuted, not betrayed, stood high in superior virtue, and only rejoiced that at last the victim was ready to drop into the flames which had been so carefully prepared.

The next morning, Tuesday after Trinity Sunday, the witnesses hurried with their news to the quickly summoned assembly in the chapel of the Archbishop's house; thirty-three of the judges, having been hastily called together, were there to hear. Jeanne had relapsed; the sinner escaped had been re-caught; and what was now to be done? One by one each man rose again and gave his verdict. Once more Egidius, Abbot of Fécamp, led the tide of opinion. There was but one thing to be done: to give her up to the secular justice, "praying that she might be gently dealt with." Man after man added his voice "to that of Abbot of Fécamp aforesaid"—that she might be gently dealt with! Not one of them could be under any doubt what gentle meaning would be in the execution; but apparently the words were of some strange use in salving their consciences.

The decree was pronounced at once without further formalities. In point of view of the law, there should have followed another trial, more evidence, pleadings, and admonitions. We may be thankful to Monseigneur de Beauvais that he now defied law, and no longer prolonged the useless ceremonials of that mockery of justice. It is said that in coming out of the prison, through the courtyard full of Englishmen, where Warwick was in waiting to hear what news, the Bishop greeted them with all the satisfaction of success, laughing and bidding them "Make good cheer, the thing is done." In the same spirit of satisfaction was the rapid action of the further proceedings. On Tuesday she was condemned, summoned on Wednesday morning at eight 'clock to the Old Market of Rouen to hear her sentence, and there, without even that formality, the penalty was at once carried out. No time, certainly, was lost in this last stage.

All the interest of the heart-rending tragedy now turns to the prison where Jeanne woke in the early morning without, as yet, any knowledge of her fate. It must be remembered that the details of this wonderful scene, which we have in abundance, are taken from reports made twenty years after by eye-witnesses indeed, but men to whom by that time it had become the only policy to represent Jeanne in the brightest colours, and themselves as her sympathetic friends. There is no doubt that so remarkable an occurrence as her martyrdom must have made a deep impression on the minds of all those who were in any way actors in or spectators of that wonderful scene. And every word of all these different reports is on oath; but notwithstanding, a touch of unconscious colour, a more favourable sentiment, influenced by the feeling of later days, may well have crept in. With this warning we may yet accept these depositions as trustworthy, all the more for the atmosphere of truth, perfectly realistic, and in no way idealised, which is in every description of the great catastrophe; in which Jeanne figures as no supernatural heroine, but as a terrified, tormented, and often trembling girl.

On the fatal morning very early, Brother Martin l'Advenu appeared in the cell of the Maid. He had a mingled tale to tell—first "to announce to her her approaching death, and to lead her to true contrition and penitence; and also to hear her confession, which the said l'Advenu did very carefully and charitably." Jeanne on her part received the news with no conventional resignation or calm. Was it possible that she had been deceived and really hoped for mercy? She began to weep and to cry at the sudden stroke of fate. Notwithstanding the solemnity of her last declaration, that she would rather bear her punishment all at once than to endure the long punishment of her prison, her heart failed before the imminent stake, the immediate martyrdom. She cried out to heaven and earth: "My body, which has never been corrupted, must it be burned to ashes to-day!" No one but Jeanne knew at what cost she had kept her perfect purity; was it good for nothing but to be burned, that young body not nineteen years old? "Ah," she said, "I would rather be beheaded seven times than burned! I appeal to God against all these great wrongs they do me." But after a while the passion wore itself out, the child's outburst was stilled; calming herself, she knelt down and made her confession to the compassionate friar, then asked for the sacrament, to "receive her Saviour" as she had so often prayed and entreated before. It would appear that this had not been within Friar Martin's commission. He sent to ask the Bishop's leave, and it was granted "anything she asked for"—as they give whatever he may wish to eat to a condemned convict. But the Host was brought into the prison without ceremony, without accompanying candles or vestment for the priest. There are always some things which are insupportable to a man. Brother Martin could bear the sight of the girl's anguish, but not to administer to her a diminished rite. He sent again to demand what was needful, out of respect for the Holy Sacrament and the present victim. And his request had come, it would seem, to some canon or person in authority whose heart had been touched by the wonderful Maid in her long martyrdom. This nameless sympathiser did all that a man could do. He sent the Host with a train of priests chanting litanies as they went through the streets, with torches burning in the pure early daylight; some of these exhorted the people who knelt as they passed, to pray for her. She must have heard in her prison the sound of the bell, the chant of the clergy, the pause of awe, and then the rising, irregular murmur of the voices, that sound of prayer never to be mistaken. Pray for her! At last the city was touched to its heart. There is no sign that it had been sympathetic to Jeanne before; it was half English or more. But she was about to die: she had stood bravely against the world and answered like a true Maid; and they had now seen her led through their streets, a girl just nineteen. The popular imagination at least was subjugated for the time.

Thus Jeanne for the first time, after all the feasts were over, received at last "her Saviour" as she said, the consecration of that rite which He himself had instituted before He died. But she was not permitted to receive it in simplicity and silence as becomes the sacred commemoration. All the time she was still preschée and admonished by the men about her. A few days after her death the Bishop and his followers assembled, and set down in evidence their different parts in that scene. How far it is to be relied upon, it is difficult to say. The speakers did not testify under oath; there is no formal warrant for their truth, and an anxious attempt to prove her change of mind is evident throughout; still there seem elements of truth in it, and a certain glimpse is afforded of Jeanne in the depths, when hope and strength were gone. The general burden of their testimony is that she sadly allowed herself to have been deceived, as to the liberation for which all along she had hoped. Peter Morice, often already mentioned, importuning her on the subject of the spirits, endeavouring to get from her an admission that she had not seen them at all, and was herself a deceiver: or if not that, at least that they were evil spirits, not good,—drew from her the impatient exclamation: "Be they good spirits, or be they evil, they appeared to me." Even in the act of giving her her last communion, Brother Martin paused with the consecrated Host in his hands.

"Do you believe," he said, "that this is the body of Christ?" Jeanne answered: "Yes, and He alone can free me; I pray you to administer." Then this brother said to Jeanne: "Do you believe as fully in your voices?" Jeanne answered: "I believe in God alone and not in the voices, which have deceived me." L'Advenu himself, however, does not give this deposition, but another of the persons present, Le Camus, who did not live to revise his testimony at the Rehabilitation.

The rite being over, the Bishop himself bustled in with an air of satisfaction, rubbing his hands, one may suppose from his tone. "So, Jeanne," he said, "you have always told us that your 'voices' said you were to be delivered, and you see now they have deceived you. Tell us the truth at last." Then Jeanne answered: "Truly I see that they have deceived me." The report is Cauchon's, and therefore little to be trusted; but the sad reply is at least not unlike the sentiment that, even in records more trustworthy, seems to have breathed forth in her. The other spectators all report another portion of this conversation. "Bishop, it is by you I die," are the words with which the Maid is said to have met him. "Oh Jeanne, have patience," he replied. "It is because you did not keep your promise." "If you had kept yours, and sent me to the prison of the Church, and put me in gentle hands, it would not have happened," she replied. "I appeal from you to God." Several of the attendants, also according to the Bishop's account, heard from her the same sad words: "They have deceived me"; and there seems no reason why we should not believe it. Her mind was weighed down under this dreadful unaccountable fact. She was forsaken—as a greater sufferer was; and a horror of darkness had closed around her. "Ah, Sieur Pierre," she said to Morice, "where shall I be to-night?" The man had condemned her as a relapsed heretic, a daughter of perdition. He had just suggested to her that her angels must have been devils. Nevertheless perhaps his face was not unkindly, he had not meant all the harm he did. He ought to have answered, "In Hell, with the spirits you have trusted"; that would have been the only logical response. What he did say was very different. "Have you not good faith in the Lord?" said the judge who had doomed her. Amazing and notable speech! They had sentenced her to be burned for blasphemy as an envoy of the devil; they believed in fact that she was the child of God, and going straight in that flame to the skies. Jeanne, with the sound, clear head and the "sane mind" to which all of them testified, did she perceive, even at that dreadful moment, the inconceivable contradiction? "Ah," she said, "yes, God helping me, I shall be in Paradise."

There is one point in the equivocal report which commends itself to the mind, which several of these men unite in, but which was carefully not repeated at the Rehabilitation: and this was that Jeanne allowed "as if it had been a thing of small importance," that her story of the angel bearing the crown at Chinon was a romance which she neither expected nor intended to be believed. For this we have to thank L'Oyseleur and the rest of the reverend ghouls assembled on that dreadful morning in the prison.

Jeanne was then dressed, for her last appearance in this world, in the long white garment of penitence, the robe of sacrifice: and the mitre was placed on her head which was worn by the victims of the Holy Office. She was led for the last time down the echoing stair to the crowded courtyard where her "chariot" awaited her. It was her confessor's part to remain by her side, and Frère Isambard and Massieu, the officer, both her friends, were also with her. It is said that L'Oyseleur rushed forward at this moment, either to accompany her also, or, as many say, to fling himself at her feet and implore her pardon. He was hustled aside by the crowd and would have been killed by the English, it is said, but for Warwick. The bystanders would seem to have been seized with a sudden disgust for all the priests about, thinking them Jeanne's friends, the historians insinuate—more likely in scorn and horror of their treachery. And then the melancholy procession set forth.

The streets were overflowing as was natural, crowded in every part: eight hundred English soldiers surrounded and followed the cortège, as the car rumbled along over the rough stones. Not yet had the Maid attained to the calm of consent. She looked wildly about her at all the high houses and windows crowded with gazers, and at the throngs that gaped and gazed upon her on every side. In the midst of the consolations of the confessor who poured pious words in her ears, other words, the plaints of a wondering despair fell from her lips, "Rouen! Rouen!" she said; "am I to die here?" It seemed incredible to her, impossible. She looked about still for some sign of disturbance, some rising among the crowd, some cry of "France! France!" or glitter of mail. Nothing: but the crowds ever gazing, murmuring at her, the soldiers roughly clearing the way, the rude chariot rumbling on. "Rouen, Rouen! I fear that you shall yet suffer because of this," she murmured in her distraction, amid her moanings and tears.

At last the procession came to the Old Market, an open space encumbered with three erections—one reaching up so high that the shadow of it seemed to touch the sky, the horrid stake with wood piled up in an enormous mass, made so high, it is said, in order that the executioner himself might not reach it to give a merciful blow, to secure unconsciousness before the flames could touch the trembling form. Two platforms were raised opposite, one furnished with chairs and benches for Winchester and his court, another for the judges, with the civil officers of Rouen who ought to have pronounced sentence in their turn. Without this form the execution was illegal: what did it matter? No sentence at all was read to her, not even the ecclesiastical one which was illegal also. She was probably placed first on the same platform with her judges, where there was a pulpit from which she was to be preschée for the last time. Of all Jeanne's sufferings this could scarcely be the least, that she was always preschée, lectured, addressed, sermonised through every painful step of her career.

The moan was still unsilenced on her lips, and her distracted soul scarcely yet freed from the sick thought of a possible deliverance, when the everlasting strain of admonishment, and re-enumeration of her errors, again penetrated the hum of the crowd. The preacher was Nicolas Midi, one of the eloquent members of that dark fraternity; and his text was in St. Paul's words: "If any of the members suffer, all the other members suffer with it." Jeanne was a rotten branch which had to be cut off from the Church for the good of her own soul, and that the Church might not suffer by her sin; a heretic, a blasphemer, an impostor, giving forth false fables at one time, and making a false penitence the next. It is very unlikely that she heard anything of that flood of invective. At the end of the sermon the preacher bade her "Go in peace." Even then, however, the fountain of abuse did not cease. The Bishop himself rose, and once more by way of exhorting her to a final repentance, heaped ill names upon her helpless head. The narrative shows that the prisoner, now arrived at the last point in her career, paid no attention to the tirade levelled at her from the president's place. "She knelt down on the platform showing great signs and appearance of contrition, so that all those who looked upon her wept. She called on her knees upon the blessed Trinity, the blessed glorious Virgin Mary, and all the blessed saints of Paradise." She called specially—was it with still a return towards the hoped for miracle? was it with the instinctive cry towards an old and faithful friend?—"St. Michael, St. Michael, St. Michael, help!" There would seem to have been a moment in which the hush and silence of a great crowd surrounded this wonderful stage, where was that white figure on her knees, praying, speaking—sometimes to God, sometimes to the saintly unseen companions of her life, sometimes in broken phrases to those about her. She asked the priests, thronging all round, those who had churches, to say a mass for her soul. She asked all whom she might have offended to forgive her. Through her tears and prayers broke again and again the sorrowful cry of "Rouen, Rouen! Is it here truly that I must die?" No reason is given for the special pang that seems to echo in this cry. Jeanne had once planned a campaign in Normandy with Alençon. Had there been perhaps some special hope which made this conclusion all the more bitter, of setting up in the Norman capital her standard and that of her King?

There have been martyrs more exalted above the circumstances of their fate than Jeanne. She was no abstract heroine. She felt every pang to the depth of her natural, spontaneous being, and the humiliation and the deep distress of having been abandoned in the sight of men, perhaps the profoundest pang of which nature is capable. "He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let him deliver him if he will have him." That which her Lord had borne, the little sister had now to bear. She called upon the saints, but they did not answer. She was shamed in the sight of men. But as she knelt there weeping, the Bishop's evil voice scarcely silenced, the soldiers waiting impatient—the entire crowd, touched to its heart with one impulse, broke into a burst of weeping and lamentation, "à chaudes larmes" according to the graphic French expression. They wept hot tears as in the keen personal pang of sorrow and fellow-feeling and impotence to help. Winchester—withdrawn high on his platform, ostentatiously separated from any share in it, a spectator merely—wept; and the judges wept. The Bishop of Boulogne was overwhelmed with emotion, iron tears flowed down the accursed Cauchon's cheeks. The very world stood still to see that white form of purity, and valour, and faith, the Maid, not shouting triumphant on the height of victory, but kneeling, weeping, on the verge of torture. Human nature could not bear this long. A hoarse cry burst forth: "Will you keep us here all day; must we dine here?" a voice perhaps of unendurable pain that simulated cruelty. And then the executioner stepped in and seized the victim.

It has been said that her stake was set so high, that there might be no chance of a merciful blow, or of strangulation to spare the victim the atrocities of the fire; perhaps, let us hope, it was rather that the ascending smoke might suffocate her before the flame could reach her: the fifteenth century would naturally accept the most cruel explanation. There was a writing set over the little platform which gave footing to the attendants below the stake, upon which were written the following words:

JEANNE CALLED THE MAID, LIAR, ABUSER OF THE PEOPLE, SOOTHSAYER, BLASPHEMER OF GOD, PERNICIOUS, SUPERSTITIOUS, IDOLATROUS, CRUEL, DISSOLUTE, INVOKER OF DEVILS, APOSTATE, SCHISMATIC, HERETIC.

This was how her countrymen in the name of law and justice and religion branded the Maid of France—one half of her countrymen: the other half, silent, speaking no word, looking on.

Before she began to ascend the stake, Jeanne, rising from her knees, asked for a cross. No place so fit for that emblem ever was: but no cross was to be found. One of the English soldiers who kept the way seized a stick from some one by, broke it across his knee in unequal parts, and bound them hurriedly together; so, in the legend and in all the pictures, when Mary of Nazareth was led to her espousals, one of her disappointed suitors broke his wand. The cross was rough with its broken edges which Jeanne accepted from her enemy, and carried, pressing it against her bosom. One would rather have that rude cross to preserve as a sacred thing, than the highest effort of art in gold and silver. This was her ornament and consolation as she trod the few remaining steps and mounted the pile of the faggots to her place high over all that sea of heads. When she was bound securely to her stake, she asked again for a cross, a cross blessed and sacred from a church, to be held before her as long as her eyes could see. Frère Isambard and Massieu, following her closely still, sent to the nearest church, and procured probably some cross which was used for processional purposes on a long staff which could be held up before her. The friar stood upon the faggots holding it up, and calling out broken words of encouragement so long that Jeanne bade him withdraw, lest the fire should catch his robes. And so at last, as the flames began to rise, she was left alone, the good brother always at the foot of the pile, painfully holding up with uplifted arms the cross that she might still see it, the soldiers crowding, lit up with the red glow of the fire, the horrified, trembling crowd like an agitated sea around. The wild flames rose and fell in sinister gleams and flashes, the smoke blew upwards, by times enveloping that white Maid standing out alone against a sky still blue and sweet with May—Pandemonium underneath, but Heaven above. Then suddenly there came a great cry from among the black fumes that began to reach the clouds: "My voices were of God! They have not deceived me!" She had seen and recognised it at last. Here it was, the miracle: the great victory that had been promised—though not with clang of swords and triumph of rescuing knights, and "St. Denis for France!"—but by the sole hand of God, a victory and triumph for all time, for her country a crown of glory and ineffable shame.

Thus died the Maid of France—with "Jesus, Jesus," on her lips—till the merciful smoke breathing upwards choked that voice in her throat; and one who was like unto the Son of God, who was with her in the fire, wiped all memory of the bitter cross, wavering uplifted through the air in the good monk's trembling hands—from eyes which opened bright upon the light and peace of that Paradise of which she had so long thought and dreamed.