Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc/Book III/Chapter 20
In the morning I was at my official post. It was on a platform raised the height of a man, in the churchyard, under the eaves of St. Ouen. On this same platform was a crowd of priests and important citizens, and several lawyers. Abreast it, with a small space between, was another and larger platform, handsomely canopied against sun and rain, and richly carpeted; also it was furnished with comfortable chairs, and with two which were more sumptuous than the others, and raised above the general level. One of these two was occupied by a prince of the royal blood of England, his Eminence the Cardinal of Winchester; the other by Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais. In the rest of the chairs sat three bishops, the Vice-Inquisitor, eight abbots, and the sixty-two friars and lawyers who had sat as Joan's judges in her late trials.
Twenty steps in front of the platforms was another—a table-topped pyramid of stone, built up in retreating courses, thus forming steps. Out of this rose that grisly thing, the stake; about the stake bundles of fagots and firewood were piled. On the ground at the base of the pyramid stood three crimson figures, the executioner and his assistants. At their feet lay what had been a goodly heap of brands, but was now a smokeless nest of ruddy coals; a foot or two from this was a supplemental supply of wood and fagots compacted into a pile shoulder-high and containing as much as six packhorse loads. Think of that. We seem so delicately made, so destructible, so insubstantial; yet it is easier to reduce a granite statue to ashes than it is to do that with a man's body.
The sight of the stake sent physical pains tingling down the nerves of my body; and yet, turn as I would, my eyes would keep coming back to it, such fascination has the gruesome and the terrible for us.
The space occupied by the platforms and the stake was kept open by a wall of English soldiery, standing elbow to elbow, erect and stalwart figures, fine and sightly in their polished steel; while from behind them on every hand stretched far away a level plain of human heads; and there was no window and no housetop within our view, howsoever distant, but was black with patches and masses of people.
But there was no noise, no stir; it was as if the world was dead. The impressiveness of this silence and solemnity was deepened by a leaden twilight, for the sky was hidden by a pall of low-hanging storm-clouds; and above the remote horizon faint winkings of heat-lightning played, and now and then one caught the dull mutterings and complainings of distant thunder.
At last the stillness was broken. From beyond the square rose an indistinct sound, but familiar—court, crisp phrases of command; next I saw the plain of heads dividing, and the steady swing of a marching host was glimpsed between. My heart leaped for a moment. Was it La Hire and his hellions? No—that was not their gait. No, it was the prisoner and her escort; it was Joan of Arc, under guard, that was coming; my spirits sank as low as they had been before. Weak as she was they made her walk; they would increase her weakness all they could. The distance was not great—it was but a few hundred yards—but short as it was it was a heavy tax upon one who had been lying chained in one spot for months, and whose feet had lost their powers from inaction. Yes, and for a year Joan had known only the cool damps of a dungeon, and now she was dragging herself through this sultry summer heat, this airless and suffocating void. As she entered the gate, drooping with exhaustion, there was that creature Loyseleur at her side with his head bent to her ear. We knew afterward that he had been with her again this morning in the prison wearying her with his persuasions and enticing her with false promises, and that he was now still at the same work at the gate, imploring her to yield everything that would be required of her, and assuring her that if she would do this all would be well with her: she would be rid of the dreaded English and find safety in the powerful shelter and protection of the Church. A miserable man, a stony-hearted man!
The moment Joan was seated on the platform she closed her eyes and allowed her chin to fall; and so sat, with her hands nestling in her lap, indifferent to everything, caring for nothing but rest. And she was so white again—white as alabaster.
How the faces of that packed mass of humanity lighted up with interest, and with what intensity all eyes gazed upon this fragile girl! And how natural it was; for these people realized that at last they were looking upon that person whom they had so long hungered to see; a person whose name and fame filled all Europe, and made all other names and all other renowns insignificant by comparisons; Joan of Arc, the wonder of the time, and destined to be the wonder of all times! And I could read as by print, in their marvelling countenances, the words that were drifting through their minds: "Can it be true, is it believable, that it is this little creature, this girl, this child with the good face, the sweet face, the beautiful face, the dear and bonny face, that has carried fortresses by storm, charged at the head of victorious armies, blown the might of England out of her path with a breath, and fought a long campaign, solitary and alone, against the massed brains and learning of France—and had won it if the fight had been fair!"
Evidently Cauchon had grown afraid of Manchon because of his pretty apparent leanings toward Joan, for another recorder was in the chief place here, which left my master and me nothing to do but sit idle and look on.
Well, I suppose that everything had been done which could be thought of to tire Joan's body and mind, but it was a mistake; one more device had been invented. This was to preach a long sermon to her in that oppressive heat.
When the preacher began, she cast up one distressed and disappointed look, then dropped her head again. This preacher was Guillaume Erard, an oratorical celebrity. He got his text from the Twelve Lies. He emptied upon Joan all the calumnies in detail that had been bottled up in that mass of venom, and called her all the brutal names that the Twelve were labelled with, working himself into a whirlwind of fury as he went on; but his labors were wasted, she seemed lost in dreams, she made no sign, she did not seem to hear. At last he launched this apostrophe:
"O France, how hast thou been abused! Thou hast always been the home of Christianity; but now, Charles, who calls himself thy King and governor, indorses, like the heretic and schismatic that he is, the words and deeds of a worthless and infamous woman!" Joan raised her head, and her eyes began to burn and flash. The preacher turned to her: "It is to you, Joan, that I speak, and I tell you that your King is schismatic and a heretic!"
Ah, he might abuse her to his heart's content; she could endure that; but to her dying moment she could never hear in patience a word against that ingrate, that treacherous dog our King, whose proper place was here, at this moment, sword in hand, routing these reptiles and saving this most noble servant that ever King had in this world—and he would have been there if he had not been what I have called him. Joan's loyal soul was outraged, and she turned upon the preacher and flung out a few words with a spirit which the crowd recognized as being in accordance with the Joan of Arc traditions—
"By my faith, sir! I make bold to say and swear, on pain of death, that he is the most noble Christian of all Christians, and the best lover of the faith and the Church!"
There was an explosion of applause from the crowd—which angered the preacher, for he had been aching long to hear an expression like this, and now that it was come at last it had fallen to the wrong person: he had done all the work; the other had carried off all the spoil. He stamped his foot and shouted to the sheriff—
"Make her shut up!"
That made the crowd laugh.
A mob has small respect for a grown man who has to call on a sheriff to protect him from a sick girl.
Joan had damaged the preacher's cause more with one sentence than he had helped it with a hundred; so he was much put out, and had trouble to get a good start again. But he needn't have bothered; thee was no occasion. It was mainly an English-feeling mob. It had but obeyed a law of our nature—an irresistible law—to enjoy and applaud a spirited and promptly delivered retort, no matter who makes it. The mob was with the preacher; it had been beguiled for a moment, but only that; it would soon return. It was there to see this girl burnt; so that it got that satisfaction—without too much delay—it would be content.
Presently the preacher formally summoned Joan to submit to the Church. He made the demand with confidence, for he had gotten the idea from Loyseleur and Beaupere that she was worn to the bone, exhausted, and would not be able to put forth any more resistance; and, indeed, to look at her it seemed that they must be right. Nevertheless, she made one more effort to hold her ground, and said, wearily—
"As to that matter, I have answered my judges before. I have told them to report all that I have said and done to our Holy Father the Pope—to whom, and to God first, I appeal."
Again, out of her native wisdom, she had brought those words of tremendous import, but was ignorant of their value. But they could have availed her nothing in any case, now, with the stake there and these thousands of enemies about her. Yet they made every churchman there blench, and the preacher changed the subject with all haste. Well might those criminals blench, for Joan's appeal of her case to the Pope stripped Cauchon at once of jurisdiction over it, and annulled all that he and his judges had already done in the matter and all that they should do in it henceforth.
Joan went on presently to reiterate, after some further talk, that she had acted by command of God in her deeds and utterances; then, when an attempt was made to implicate the King, and friends of hers and his, she stopped that. She said—
"I charge my deeds and words upon no one, neither upon my King nor any other. If there is any fault in them, I am responsible and no other."
She was asked if she would not recant those of her words and deeds which had been pronounced evil by her judges. Here answer made confusion and damage again:
"I submit them to God and the Pope."
The Pope once more! It was very embarrassing. Here was a person who was asked to submit her case to the Church, and who frankly consents—offers to submit it to the very head of it. What more could any one require? How was one to answer such a formidably unanswerable answer as that?
The worried judges put their heads together and whispered and planned and discussed. Then they brought forth this sufficiently shambling conclusion—but it was the best they could do, in so close a place: they said the Pope was so far away; and it was not necessary to go to him anyway, because the present judges had sufficient power and authority to deal with the present case, and were in effect "the Church" to that extent. At another time they could have smiled at this conceit, but not now; they were not comfortable enough now.
The mob was getting impatient. It was beginning to put on a threatening aspect; it was tired of standing, tired of the scorching heat; and the thunder was coming nearer, the lightning was flashing brighter. It was necessary to hurry this matter to a close. Erard showed Joan a written form, which had been prepared and made all ready beforehand, and asked her to abjure.
"Abjure? What is abjure?"
She did not know the word. It was explained to her by Massieu. She tried to understand, but she was breaking, under exhaustion, and she could not gather the meaning. It was all a jumble and confusion of strange words. In her despair she sent out this beseeching cry—
"I appeal to the Church universal whether I ought to abjure or not!"
"You shall abjure instantly, or instantly be burnt!"
She glanced up, at those awful words, and for the first time she saw the stake and the mass of red coals—redder and angrier than ever now under the constantly deepening storm-gloom. She gasped and staggered up out of her seat muttering and mumbling incoherently, and gazed vacantly upon the people and the scene about her like one who is dazed, or thinks he dreams, and does not know where he is.
The priests crowded about her imploring her to sign the paper, there were many voices beseeching and urging her at once, there was great turmoil and shouting and excitement among the populace and everywhere.
"Sign! sign!" from the priests; "sign—sign and be saved!" And Loyseleur was urging at her ear, "Do as I told you—do not destroy yourself!"
Joan said plaintively to these people—
"Ah, you do not do well to seduce me."
The judges joined their voices to the others. Yes, even the iron in their hearts melted, and they said—
"O Joan, we pity you so! Take back what you have said, or we must deliver you up to punishment."
And now there was another voice—it was from the other platform—pealing solemnly above the din: Cauchon's—reading the sentence of death!
Joan's strength was all spent. She stood looking about her in a bewildered way a moment, then slowly she sank to her knees, and bowed her head and said—
They gave her no time to reconsider—they knew the peril of that. The moment the words were out of her mouth Massieu was reading to her the abjuration, and she was repeating the words after him mechanically, unconsciously—and smiling; for her wandering mind was far away in some happier world.
Then this short paper of six lines was slipped aside and a long one of many pages was smuggled into its place, and she, noting nothing, put her mark on it, saying, in pathetic apology, that she did not know how to write. But a secretary of the King of England was there to take care of that defect; he guided her hand with his own, and wrote her name—Jehanne.
The great crime was accomplished. She had signed—what? She did not know—but the others knew. She had signed a paper confessing herself a sorceress, a dealer with devils, a liar, a blasphemer of God and His angels, a lover of blood, a promoter of sedition, cruel, wicked, commissioned of Satan; and this signature of hers bound her to resume the dress of a woman.
There were other promises, but that one would answer, without the others; and that one could be made to destroy her.
Loyseleur pressed forward and praised her for having done "such a good day's work."
But she was still dreamy, she hardly heard.
Then Cauchon pronounced the words which dissolved the excommunication and restored her to her beloved Church, with all the dear privileges of worship. Ah, she heard that! You could see it in the deep gratitude that rose in her face and transfigured it with joy.
But how transient was that happiness! For Cauchon, without a tremor of pity in his voice, added these crushing words—
"And that she may repent of her crimes and repeat them no more, she is sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, with the bread of affliction and the water of anguish!"
Perpetual imprisonment! She had never dreamed of that—such a thing had never been hinted to her by Loyseleur or by any other. Loyseleur had distinctly said and promised that "all would be well with her." And the very last words spoken
to her by Erard, on that very platform, when he was urging her to abjure, was a straight, unqualified promised—that if she would do it she should go free from captivity.
She stood stunned and speechless a moment; then she remembered, with such solacement as the thought could furnish, that by another clear promise made by Cauchon himself—she would at least be the Church's captive, and have women about her in place of a brutal foreign soldiery. So she turned to the body of priests and said, with a sad resignation—
"Now, you men of the Church, take me to your prison, and leave me no longer in the hands of the English"; and she gathered up her chains and prepared to move.
But alas! now came these shameful words from Cauchon—and with them a mocking laugh:
"Take her to the prison whence she came!"
Poor abused girl! She stood dumb, smitten, paralyzed. It was pitiful to see. She had been beguiled, lied to, betrayed; she saw it all now.
The rumbling of a drum broke upon the stillness, and for just one moment she thought of the glorious deliverance promised by her Voices—I read it in the rapture that lit her face; then she saw what it was—her prison escort—and that light faded, never to revive again. And now her head began a piteous rocking motion, swaying slowly, this way and that, as is the way when one is suffering unwordable pain, or when one's heart is broken; then drearily she went from us, with her face in her hands, and sobbing bitterly.