Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc/Book II/Chapter 29
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Book II - Fierce Talbot Reconsiders
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I knew she had seen the wisdom of the Tree. But when? I could not know. Doubtless before she had lately told the King to use her, for that she had but one year left to work in. It had not occurred to me at the time, but the conviction came upon me now that at that time she had already seen the Tree. It had brought her a welcome message; that was plain, otherwise she could not have been so joyous and light-hearted as she had been these latter days. The death-warning had nothing dismal about it for her; no, it was remission of exile, it was leave to come home.
Yes, she had seen the Tree. No one had taken the prophecy to heart which she made to the King; and for a good reason, no doubt; no one wanted to take it to heart; all wanted to banish it away and forget it. And all had succeeded, and would go on to the end placid and comfortable. All but me alone. I must carry my awful secret without any to help me. A heavy load, a bitter burden; and would cost me a daily heart-break. She was to die; and so soon. I had never dreamed of that. How could I, and she so strong and fresh and young, and every day earning a new right to a peaceful and honored old age? For at that time I thought old age valuable. I do not know why, but I thought so. All young people think it, I believe, they being ignorant and full of superstitions. She had seen the Tree. All that miserable night those ancient verses went floating back and forth through my brain:
" And when in exile wand'ring, we
We marched to Meung without halting. There we carried the bridge by assault, and left a force to hold it, the rest of the army marching away next morning toward Beaugency, where the lion Talbot, the terror of the French, was in command. When we arrived at that place, the English retired into the castle and we sat down in the abandoned town.
Talbot was not at the moment present in person, for he had gone away to watch for and welcome Fastolfe and his re-enforcement of five thousand men.
Joan placed her batteries and bombarded the castle till night. Then some news came: Richemont, Constable of France, this long time in disgrace with the King, largely because of the evil machinations of La Tremouille and his party, was approaching with a large body of men to offer his services to Joan—and very much she needed them, now that Fastolfe was so close by. Richemont had wanted to join us before, when we first marched on Orleans; but the foolish King, slave of those paltry advisers of his, warned him to keep his distance and refused all reconciliation with him.
I go into these details because they are important. Important because they lead up to the exhibition of a new gift in Joan's extraordinary mental make-up—statesmanship. It is a sufficiently strange thing to find that great quality in an ignorant country girl of seventeen and a half, but she had it.
Joan was for receiving Richemont cordially, and so was La Hire and the two young Lavals and other chiefs, but the Lieutenant-General, D'Alençon, strenuously and stubbornly opposed it. He said he had absolute orders from the King to deny and defy Richemont, and that if they were overridden he would leave the army. This would have been a heavy disaster indeed. But Joan set herself the task of persuading him that the salvation of France took precedence of all minor things—even the commands of a sceptred ass; and she accomplished it. She persuaded him to disobey the King in
the interest of the nation, and to be reconciled to Count Richemont and welcome him. That was statesmanship; and of the highest and soundest sort. Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.
In the early morning, June 17th, the scouts reported the approach of Talbot and Fastolfe with Fastolfe's succoring force. Then the drums beat to arms; and we set forth to meet the English, leaving Richemont and his troops behind to watch the castle of Beaugency and keep its garrison at home. By and by we came in sight of the enemy. Fastolfe had tried to convince Talbot that it would be wisest to retreat and not risk a battle with Joan at this time, but distribute the new levies among the English strongholds of the Loire, thus securing them against capture; then be patient and wait—wait for more levies from Paris; let Joan exhaust her army with fruitless daily skirmishing; then at the right time fall upon her in resistless mass and annihilate her. He was a wise old experienced general, was Fastolfe. But that fierce Talbot would hear of no delay. He was in a rage over the punishment which the Maid had inflicted upon him at Orleans and since, and he swore by God and Saint George that he would have it out with her if he had to fight her all alone. So Fastolfe yielded, though he said they were now risking the loss of everything which the English had gained by so many years' work and so many hard knocks.
The enemy had taken up a strong position, and were waiting, in order of battle, with their archers to the front and a stockade before them.
Night was coming on. A messenger came from the English with a rude defiance and an offer of battle. But Joan's dignity was not ruffled, her bearing was not discomposed. She said to the herald—
"Go back and say it is too late to meet to-night; but to-morrow, please God and our Lady, we will come to close quarters."
The night fell dark and rainy. It was that sort of light steady rain which falls so softly and brings to one's spirit such serenity and peace. About ten o'clock D'Alençon, the Bastard of Orleans, La Hire, Pothon of Saintrailles, and two or three other generals came to our headquarters tent, and sat down to discuss matters with Joan. Some thought it was a pity that Joan had declined battle, some thought not. Then Pothon asked her why she had declined it. She said—
"There was more than one reason. These English are ours—they cannot get away from us. Wherefore there is no need to take risks, as at other times. The day was far spent. It is good to have much time and the fair light of day when one's force is in a weakened state—nine hundred of us yonder keeping the bridge of Meung under the Marshal de Rais, fifteen hundred with the Constable of France keeping the bridge and watching the castle of Beaugency."
"I grieve for this decision, Excellency, but it cannot be helped. And the case will be the same the morrow, as to that."
Joan was walking up and down just then. She laughed her affectionate, comrady laugh, and stopping before that old war-tiger she put her small hand above his head and touched one of his plumes, saying—
"Now tell me, wise man, which feather is it that I touch?"
"In sooth, Excellency, that I cannot."
"Name of God, Bastard, Bastard! you cannot tell me this small thing, yet are bold to name a large one—telling us what is in the stomach of the unborn morrow: that we shall not have those men. Now it is my thought that they will be with us."
That made a stir. All wanted to know why she thought that. But La Hire took the word and said—
"Let be. If she thinks it, that is enough. It will happen."
Then Pothon of Santrailles said—
"There were other reasons for declining battle, according to the saying of your Excellency?"
"Yes. One was that we being weak and the day far gone, the battle might not be decisive. When it is fought it must be decisive. And it shall be."
"God grant it, and amen. There were still other reasons?"
"One other—yes." She hesitated a moment, then said: "This was not the day. To-morrow is the day. It is so written."
They were going to assail her with eager questionings, but she put up her hand and prevented them. Then she said—
"It will be the most noble and beneficent victory that God has vouchsafed for France at any time. I pray you question me not as to whence or how I know this thing, but be content that it is so."
There was pleasure in every face, and conviction and high confidence. A murmur of conversation broke out, but that was interrupted by a messenger from the outposts who brought news—namely, that for an hour there had been stir and movement in the English camp of a sort unusual at such a time and with a resting army, he said. Spies had been sent under cover of the rain and darkness to inquire into it. They had just come back and reported that large bodies of men had been dimly made out who were slipping stealthily away in the direction of Meung.
The generals were very much surprised, as any might tell from their faces.
"It is a retreat," said Joan.
"It has that look," said D'Alençon.
"It certainly has," observed the Bastard and La Hire.
"It was not to be expected," said Louis de Bourbon, "but one can divine the purpose of it."
"Yes," responded Joan. "Talbot has reflected. His rash brain has cooled. He thinks to take the bridge of Meung and escape to the other side of the river. He knows that this leaves his garrison of Beaugency at the mercy of fortune, to escape our hands if it can; but there is no other course if he would avoid this battle, and that he also knows. But he shall not get the bridge. We will see to that."
"Yes," said D'Alençon, "we must follow him, and take care of that matter. What of Beaugency?"
"Leave Beaugency to me, gentle duke; I will have it in two hours, and at no cost of blood."
"It is true, Excellency. You will but need to deliver this news there and receive the surrender."
"Yes. And I will be with you at Meung with the dawn, fetching the Constable and his fifteen hundred; and when Talbot knows that Beaugency has fallen it will have an effect upon him."
"By the mass, yes!" cried La Hire. "He will join his Meung garrison to his army and break for Paris. Then we shall have our bridge force with us again, along with our Beaugency watchers, and be stronger for our great day's work by four-and-twenty hundred able soldiers, as was here promised within the hour. Verily this Englishman is doing our errands for us and saving us much blood and trouble. Orders, Excellency—give us orders!"
"They are simple. Let the men rest three hours longer. At one o'clock the advance-guard will march, under our command, with Pothon of Saintrailles as second; the second division will follow at two under the Lieutenant-General. Keep well in the rear of the enemy, and see to it that you avoid an engagement. I will ride under guard to Beaugency and make so quick work there that I and the Constable of France will join you before dawn with his men."
She kept her word. Her guard mounted and we rode off through the puttering rain, taking with us a captured English officer to confirm Joan's news. We soon covered the journey and summoned the castle. Richard Guetin, Talbot's lieutenant, being convinced that he and his five hundred men were left helpless, conceded that it would be useless to try to hold out. He could not expect easy terms, yet Joan granted them nevertheless. His garrison could keep their horses and arms, and carry away property to the value of a silver mark per man. They could go whither they pleased, but must not take arms against France again under ten days.
Before dawn we were with our army again, and with us the Constable and nearly all his men, for we left only a small garrison in Beaugency castle. We heard the dull booming of cannon to the front, and knew that Talbot was beginning his attack on the bridge. But some time before it was yet light the sound ceased and we heard it no more.
Guétin had sent a messenger through our lines under a safe-conduct given by Joan, to tell Talbot of the surrender. Of course this poursuivant had arrived ahead of us. Talbot had held it wisdom to turn, now, and retreat upon Paris. When daylight came he had disappeared; and with him Lord Scales and the garrison of Meung.
What a harvest of English strongholds we had reaped in those three days!—strongholds which had defied France with quite cool confidence and plenty of it until we came.