Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc/Book III/Chapter 23
The young can sink into abysses of despondency, and it was so with Noël and me now; but the hopes of the young are quick to rise again, and it was so with ours. We called back that vague promise of the Voices, and said the one to the other that the glorious release was to happen at "the last moment"—"that other time was not the last moment, but this is; it will happen now; the King will come, La Hire will come, and with them our veterans, and behind them all France!" And so we were full of heart again, and could already hear, in fancy, that stirring music the clash of steel and the war-cries and the uproar of the onset, and in fancy see our prisoner free, her chains gone, her sword in her hand.
But this dream was to pass also, and come to nothing. Late at night, when Manchon came in, he said—
"I am come from the dungeon, and I have a message for you from that poor child."
A message to me! If he had been noticing I think he would have discovered me—discovered that my indifference concerning the prisoner was a pretence; for I was caught off my guard, and was so moved and so exalted to be so honored by her that I must have shown my feeling in my face and manner.
"A message for me, your reverence?"
"Yes. It is something she wishes done. She said she had noticed the young man who helps me, and that he had a good face; and did I think he would do a kindness for her? I said I knew you would, and asked her what it was, and she said a letter—would you write a letter to her mother? And I said you would. But I said I would do it myself, and gladly; but she said no, that my labors were heavy, and she thought the young man would not mind the doing of this service for one not able to do it for herself, she not knowing how to write. Then I would have sent for you, and at that the sadness vanished out of her face. Why, it was as if she was going to see a friend, poor friendless thing. But I was not permitted. I did my best, but the orders remain as strict as ever, the doors are closed against all but officials; as before, none but officials may speak to her. So I went back and told her, and she sighed, and was sad again. Now this is what she begs you to write to her mother. It is partly a strange message, and to me means nothing, but she said her mother would understand. You will 'convey her adoring love to her family and her village friends, and say there will be no rescue, for that this night—and it is the third time in the twelve-month, and is final—she has seen the Vision of the Tree.'"
"Yes, it is strange, but that is what she said; and said her parents would understand. And for a little time she was lost in dreams and thinkings, and her lips moved, and I caught in her muttering these lines, which she said over two or three times, and they seemed to bring peace and contentment to her. I set them down, thinking they might have some connection with her letter and be useful; but it was not so; they were a mere memory, floating idly in a tired mind, and they have no meaning, at least no relevancy."
I took the piece of paper, and found what I knew I should find:
"And when in exile wand'ring we
Shall fainting yearn for glimpse of thee,
O rise upon our sight!"
There was no hope any more. I knew it now. I knew that Joan's letter was a message to Noël and me, as well as to her family, and that its object was to banish vain hopes from our minds and tell us from her own mouth of the blow that was going to fall upon us, so that we, being her soldiers,
would know it for a command to bear it as became us and her, and so submit to the will of God; and in thus obeying, find assuagement of our grief. It was like her, for she was always thinking of others, not of herself. Yes, her heart was sore for us; she could find time to think of us, the humblest of her servants, and try to soften our pain, lighten the burden of our troubles—she that was drinking of the bitter waters; she that was walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
I wrote the letter. You will know what it cost me, without my telling you. I wrote it with the same wooden stylus which had put upon parchment the first words ever dictated by Joan of Arc—that high summons to the English to vacate France, two years past, when she was a lass of seventeen; it had now set down the last ones which she was ever to dictate. Then I broke it. For the pen that had served Joan of Arc could not serve any that would come after her in this earth without abasement.
The next day, May 29th, Cauchon summoned his serfs, and forty-two responded. It is charitable to believe that the other twenty were ashamed to come. The forty-two pronounced her a relapsed heretic, and condemned her to be delivered over to the secular arm. Cauchon thanked them. Then he sent orders that Joan of Arc be conveyed the next morning to the place known as the Old Market; and that she be then delivered to the civil judge, and by the civil judge to the executioner. That meant she would be burnt.
All the afternoon and evening of Tuesday, the 29th, the news was flying, and the people of the country-side flocking to Rouen to see the tragedy—all, at least, who could prove their English sympathies and count upon admission. The press grew thicker and thicker in the streets, the excitement grew higher and higher. And now a thing was noticeable again which had been noticeable more than once before—that there was pity for Joan in the hearts of many of these people. Whenever she had been in great danger it had manifested itself, and now it was apparent again—manifest in a pathetic dumb sorrow which was visible in many faces.
Early the next morning, Wednesday, Martin Ladvenu and another friar were sent to Joan to prepare her for death; and Manchon and I went with them—a hard service for me. We tramped through the dim corridors, winding this way and that, and piercing ever deeper and deeper into that vast heart of stone, and at last we stood before Joan. But she did not know it. She sat with her hands in her lap and her head bowed, thinking, and her face was very sad. One might not know what she was thinking of. Of her home, and the peaceful pastures, and the friends she was no more to see? Of her wrongs, and her forsaken estate, and the cruelties which had been put upon her? Or was it of death—the death which she had longed for, and which was now so close? Or was it of the kind of death she must suffer? I hoped not; for she feared only one kind, and that one had for her unspeakable terrors. I believed she so feared that one that with her strong will she would shut the thought of it wholly out of her mind, and hope and believe that God would take pity on her and grant her an easier one; and so it might chance that the awful news which we were bringing might come as a surprise to her at last.
We stood silent awhile, but she was still unconscious of us, still deep in her sad musings and far away. Then Martin Ladvenu said, softly—
She looked up then, with a little start and a wan smile, and said—
"Speak. Have you a message for me?"
"Yes, my poor child. Try to bear it. Do you think you can bear it?"
"Yes"—very softly, and her head drooped again.
"I am come to prepare you for death."
A faint shiver trembled through her wasted body. There was a pause. In the stillness we could hear our breathings. Then she said, still in that low voice—
"When will it be?"
The muffled notes of a tolling bell floated to our ears out of the distance.
"Now. The time is at hand."
That slight shiver passed again.
"It is so soon—ah, it is so soon!"
There was a long silence. The distant throbbings of the bell pulsed through it, and we stood motionless and listening. But it was broken at last—
"What death is it?"
"Oh, I knew it, I knew it!" She sprang wildly to her feet, and wound her hands in her hair, and began to writhe and sob, oh, so piteously, and mourn and grieve and lament, and turn to first one and then another of us, and search our faces beseechingly, as hoping she might find help and friendliness there, poor thing—she that had never denied these to any creature, even her wounded enemy on the battle-field.
"Oh, cruel, cruel, to treat me so! And must my body, that has never been defiled, be consumed today and turned to ashes? Ah, sooner would I that my head were cut off seven times than suffer this woeful death. I had the promise of the Church's prison when I submitted, and if I had but been there, and not left here in the hands of my enemies, this miserable fate had not befallen me. Oh, I appeal to God the Great Judge, against the injustice which has been done me."
There was none there that could endure it. They turned away, with the tears running down their faces. In a moment I was on my knees at her feet. At once she thought only of my danger, and bent and whispered in my ear: "Up!—do not peril yourself, good heart. There—God bless you always!" and I felt the quick clasp of her hand. Mine was the last hand she touched with hers in life. None saw it; history does not know of it or tell of it, yet it is true, just as I have told it. The next moment she saw Cauchon coming, and she went and stood before him and reproached him, saying—
"Bishop, it is by you that I die!"
He was not shamed, not touched; but said, smoothly—
"Ah, be patient, Joan. You die because you have not kept your promise, but have returned to your sins."
"Alas," she said, "if you had put me in the Church's prison, and given me right and proper keepers, as you promised, this would not have happened. And for this I summon you to answer before God!"
Then Cauchon winced, and looked less placidly content than before, and he turned him about and went away.
Joan stood awhile musing. She grew calmer, but occasionally she wiped her eyes, and now and then sobs shook her body; but their violence was modifying now, and the intervals between them were growing longer. Finally she looked up and saw Pierre Maurice, who had come in with the Bishop, and she said to him:
"Master Peter, where shall I be this night?"
"Have you not good hope in God?"
"Yes—and by His grace I shall be in Paradise."
Now Martin Ladvenu heard her in confession; then she begged for the sacrament. But how grant the communion to one who had been publicly cut off from the Church, and was now no more entitled to its privileges than an unbaptized pagan? The brother could not do this, but he sent to Cauchon to inquire what he must do. All laws, human and divine, were alike to that man—he respected none of them. He sent back orders to grant Joan whatever she wished. Her last speech to him had reached his fears, perhaps: it could not reach his heart, for he had none.
The Eucharist was brought now to that poor soul that had yearned for it with such unutterable longing all these desolate months. It was a solemn moment. While we had been in the deeps of the prison, the public courts of the castle had been filling up with crowds of the humbler sort of men and women, who had learned what was going on in Joan's cell, and had come with softened hearts to do—they knew not what; to hear—they knew not what. We knew nothing of this, for they were out of our view. And there were other great crowds of the like caste gathered in masses outside the castle gates. And when the lights and the other accompaniments of the Sacrament passed by, coming to Joan in the prison, all those multitudes kneeled down and began to pray for her, and many wept; and when the solemn ceremony of the communion began in Joan's cell, out of the distance a moving sound was borne moaning to our ears—it was those invisible multitudes chanting the litany for a departing soul.
The fear of the fiery death was gone from Joan of Arc now, to come again no more, except for one fleeting instant—then it would pass, and serenity and courage would take its place and abide till the end.