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The Reign of Henry VI page 5

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This was a severe blow to Charles VII. There appeared only one way of preventing the almost immediate loss of his crown. The English commander was actively pressing the siege. He had cast up a still more complete line round the city, fresh reinforcements enabled him to make the bastiles more numerous, and famine began to menace the place with all its horrors. To avoid the fall of Orleans, Charles engaged the Duke of Orleans, who had been so long a prisoner in England, to exert himself with the Protector and council in England to guarantee the neutrality of his demesnes, and for greater security to consign them during the war to their ally, the Duke of Burgundy. To this the council consented, as placing the duchy in a manner in the hands of England. The Duke of Burgundy readily accepted this trust, and waited on Bedford in Paris to apprise him of it. Bat Bedford, by no means nattered by the expected prey being thus adroitly taken out of his hands, coolly said that he was not of a humour to beat the bushes while others ran away with the game. Burgundy affected to smile at the apt simile, and retired; but it was with a resolve in his breast, to be made apparent in due time.

Foiled in this attempt, Charles now gave way to despair. The city of Orleans could not possibly long hold out, and he determined to retire with the miserable remainder of his forces into Languedoc and Dauphiny, and there await the last attacks of the conquering foe. This cowardly resolve was, however, vehemently resisted by the queen, who declared that it would be the total ruin of his affairs; and his mistress, Agnes Sorel, who was living on the best of terms with the queen, supported her in this protest vigorously, threatening, if he made so pusillanimous a retreat, to go over to England and seek a better fortune in the British court. This decided the weak prince not to throw away the sceptre of his kingdom; and while affairs were bringing on this critical situation, help, and eventually triumph, were sent from a quarter which no human sagacity could have discovered. On the borders of Lorraine, but just within the province of Champagne, lies the hamlet of Domremy, situate between Neufchateau and Vaucouleurs. In this hamlet lived a small farmer of the name of James d'Arc; and his daughter Joan, whilst a little girl, was accustomed to shepherd his small flock of sheep in the fields and heaths around. The scene of her most favourite haunt was near an old spreading beech-tree, beneath which the fairies were said to dance at night, on the banks of a clear little stream, the waters of which were reputed to be especially efficacious in the cure of diseases. Further towards the forest was a solitary chapel of the Virgin, where Joan was accustomed to say her daily prayers; and every Saturday, accompanied by some of her companions, she used to hang up in the chapel a garland of flowers, or burn a taper in honour of the mother of Christ. These facts show a great susceptibility of the imagination, and they, no doubt, nourished it, and confirmed her deep feelings of piety. When about five years of age, whilst walking in her father's garden on a Sunday, she declared that she saw a bright light in the air near her, and turning towards it saw a figure, who said that he was the archangel Michael, and commanded her to be good and dutiful, and that God would protect her. The need of this exhortation was supposed to proceed from the hardness and severity of her father, who, on hearing this, became so unkind that Joan left her home and engaged herself to a widow, an innkeeper at Neufchateau, where she acted as hostler, as young women in France still do. In this capacity she showed herself active and intrepid, riding the horses to water, and even making journeys for her mistress. But in her conduct she was still distinguished for her deep and unaffected piety. De Series says: "She had a modest countenance, sweet, civil, and resolute; her discourse was temperate, reasonable, and retired; her actions cold, showing great chastity."

After remaining five years with her mistress at the inn, she returned to her father, and again tended his flock. Probably the society into which she was thrown at the inn was becoming too repulsive to her growing seriousness and the spiritual communionship to which she believed herself admitted. She had now reached the age of eighteen. The fortunes of France were at their lowest ebb. The inhabitants of Domremy were royalists, but those of Marcy, the next village, were Burgundians. The spirit of faction raged between these little places as violently as in the armies themselves. Thence arose constant feuds, and the bitterness descended to the children as fiercely as it lived in the hearts of tne adults. When they met they fought and pelted each other with stones. Joan saw all this, and heard the insults of the Burgundians when the king was defeated and disgraced. At this moment came the terrible news of the great battle of Verneuil, and she saw the distress and despair of her friends and neighbours. The visions and the heavenly voices came now still oftener, and comforted her, till the siege, the famine, and the expected fall of Orleans renewed the general trouble. "With the archangel Michael she now regularly saw the saints Catherine and Margaret, who were the patronesses of her parish church. They exhorted her to devote herself to the salvation of her country. She represented that she was a poor peasant maiden, and did not know anything of such great matters; but the archangel Michael assured her that strength and wisdom would be given her, and that the saints Catherine and Margaret would go with her, and that all would be well. The two female saints then appeared to her, surrounded by a great light, their heads crowned with jewels, and their voices gentle and sweet as music. Joan knew that there was a prophecy abroad that, as France had been ruined by a wicked woman - Isabella of Bavaria - so it should be restored by a virgin, spotless, and devoted to the rescue of her country. Nay, this saviour of France was to come out of the neighbouring forest of oaks, Boischesnu.

The heavenly voices became more and more frequent, more and more urgent, as the affairs of France approached a crisis, announcing that she was the maid who was appointed to save France. Joan became greatly distressed, and was often found weeping when the visions left her, and longing that the angels of paradise would carry her away with them. Her parents had no faith in her visions, and, to prevent her going off to the army, they endeavoured to force her into a marriage; but Joan had voluntarily taken a vow of perpetual chastity, and she revolted with horror from the proposal. Just then a party of Burgundians fell on the village of Domremy, plundered it, and burnt down the church. Joan, with her parents, was compelled to flee and seek refuge in Neufchateau. When they returned to Domremy, and beheld the scene of desolation, the indignation of Joan was roused to the highest pitch. The voices now commanded her, on pain of the forfeiture of her salvation, to go at once to Baudricourt, the Governor of Vaucouleurs, and demand an escort to the court of the king. There she was to announce to him that she was sent to raise the siege of Orleans, and to crown him, the rightful King of France, in the city of Rheims. Joan now gave way; there was nothing to be hoped from her parents but opposition; she therefore hastened secretly to Vaucouleurs, to an uncle there, who was a simple, pious man, and who had often excited her childish feelings by taking her on his knee, and telling her sorrowful stories of the wars of France. The old man, a wheelwright by trade, at once went with her to the governor. Baudricourt at first refused to see her; when she was, at length, through her importunity, admitted, he looked upon her as crazed, and told her uncle that he should send her back to her parents again, and that she ought to be well whipped. Joan said, "It was her Lord's work, and she must do it." "Who is your lord?" asked Baudricourt. "The King of Heaven!" replied Joan. This satisfied the governor of her insanity, and he rudely dismissed her. But Joan still remained at Vaucouleurs, daily praying before the high altar in the church, and asserting that the voices urged her day and night to proceed and execute her mission. The rumour of this strange maiden flew rapidly through the town and the surrounding country; the sight of her modesty and piety, and the fame of her past pure and devout life, brought numbers of people to see her, and amongst others men of high note. The Duke of Lorraine, who was labouring under an incurable disease, sent to seek her art, as a woman possessed of supernatural powers; but Joan, with that clearness and simplicity which marked her throughout, replied, "That she had no mission to him; he had never been named to her by her voices." On all such occasions her language and conduct were the same. She was totally devoid of anything like wildness and extravagance; clear in intellect; self-possessed and single in her one purpose - to relieve Orleans and crown the king. When afterwards one Friar Richard told her he could bring a woman to her who possessed supernatural powers, and who might help her, she replied, "I have nothing to do with her: the Lord has given me my work, and he will enable me to do it." She added, "Since the Sieur de Baudricourt will not listen to me, I will set out to King Charles on foot, though I should wear my legs down to my knees on the road; for neither dukes nor kings, nor yet the daughter of the King of Scotland, can raise up this suffering France. There is no help but in me. And yet, in sooth, how much rather would I stay at home and spin by my mother's side, for this is work that I am not used to; but I must do it, since my Lord wills it."

Baudricourt was compelled by the public voice to take charge of her; but not before he had tested her by a priest and the sprinkling of holy water, that she was no sorceress, nor possessed of the devil. The Seigneurs de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengi, who had conceived full faith in her, offered to accompany her, with her brother Peter, two servants, a king's messenger, and Richard, an archer of the royal guard. The journey thus undertaken in the middle of February, 1429, was, according to ordinary ideas, little short of an act of madness. The distance from Vaucouleurs to Chinon in Tourraine, where Charles's court lay, was 150 leagues, through a country abounding with hostile garrisons, and, where they were absent, with savage marauders. But Joan declared that they should go in perfect safety, and they did so. Joan rode boldly, in man's attire, and with a sword by her side, but they saw not even a single enemy. In ten days they arrived at Fierbois, a few miles from Chinon, and she sent to inform the king of her desire to wait upon him.

When the advent of so singular a champion was announced to the frivolous Charles, he burst into a loud fit of laughter. Though he was in the condition in which men catch at straws, there was something in this affair which appeared to him ludicrous, and, if he entertained it, likely to cast ridicule upon him and his cause. Some of his counsellors advised him to see her; others treated the proposition as the height of absurdity. For three days the court continued divided, and Charles unable to decide. At length it was agreed that she should be admitted; and, to test her pretensions to superhuman direction, Charles was to pass for a private person, and one of the princes to represent him. But Joan discovered the king at a glance; and, walking up to him with serious and unembarrassed air, through all the crowd of staring courtiers, bent her knee, and said, "God give you good life, gentle king!" Charles was surprised, but replied, pointing to another part of the hall, "I am not the king: he is there."

"In the name of God," rejoined Joan, "it is not they, but you who are the king. I am, most noble king, Joan the maid, sent of God to aid you and the kingdom, and by his name I announce to you that you will be crowned in the city of Rheims."

Charles took her aside; and, after an earnest conversation with her, he declared that she had told him things which were known to no one but himself and God, and that he believed that she was really sent for the delivery of France. Probably the monarch - who was not of a nature to be impressed with anything of an elevated order - had now caught the idea that the peasant girl was shrewd enough to use as a political engine. The next day she was shown in public on horseback. She appeared about seventeen; her figure was slender and graceful, and her hair fell in rich jetty locks on her shoulders. She ran a course with a lance, and managed her horse with the utmost address. The people were struck with admiration, and with loud shouts testified their belief in her.

But the timid Charles again hesitated, and conveyed her to Poictiers to be examined before the Parliament by the most learned doctors and subtle theologians. For three weeks she was interrogated and cross-questioned in all ways. Every kind of erudite trap was laid for her, but in vain. She had but one story - that she was sent to raise the siege of Orleans, and to crown the king at Rheims, now in the hands of his enemies. When asked for a miracle, she replied, "Send me to Orleans, with an escort of men-at-arms, and you shall soon see the true sign of the truth of my mission - the raising of the siege." When not before the council, she passed her time in retirement and prayer. Having passed the most searching ordeal of the prelates and doctors, and the repeated application of holy water, she was once more brought out, armed cap-a-pie, with her banner borne before her, and equipped at all points like a knight. Mounted on a white charger, she ran a tilt with a lance, keeping such a firm seat, and displaying so steady an eye, that the soldiers and watching multitudes were enraptured.

The people of Orleans sent express for instant aid, and implored that the maid should lead the reinforcement. She demanded an ancient sword which, she said, lay in a tomb in the church of St. Catherine, at Fierbois, which was sought for, found, and brought to her, haying five crosses upon its blade. Thus armed, receiving the staff and rank of general, a brave knight, of the name of John Daulon, being appointed her esquire, with two pages and two heralds, the maid of Domremy set out with a body of troops conveying provisions to Orleans, and accompanied by some of the most famous commanders of France - Santrailles, Gaucourt, La Hire, and others. No sooner did she come into their camp, than she instituted the most rigorous discipline. She expelled all the low women who followed it, and insisted on every soldier confessing his sins and taking the sacrament.

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