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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 11


I slept like one dead, more tired than I knew from the journey. When I opened my eyes it was to the late morning sun making crossed lines on the floor through the window—a fancy window with real glass in it, rippled like the River Meuse in spring. And Jeannette—Jeanne—was standing over the bed shaking me. “Little friend,” she said, “I am glad to see you remember how to open your eyes. I have had a time waking you. But out of bed with you now, for we must hurry to transform you into a boy. Pierre has agreed to make you his page. I have found you clothes,” she continued, extending her arm to me and pulling me up, “but first I must be your barber. Come, sit here.”

She led me to a bench by the window, and put a roll of cloth around my neck. Then she picked up a pair of sharp-looking shears and, before I could even yawn or wish her good day, she seized my curly hair and cut it off, short, above my ears, like hers.

I did not see the result right away, but I could see it in her eyes, for when she stepped back to survey her work it was with such merriment that I knew she was no barber. “Well, well,” she said heartily, “it will do, I suppose, for a peasant boy trimmed by a sheepshearer.”

When she took away the cloth, I felt an unfamiliar breeze where my neck was usually protected by my hair and the kerchief I bound it with. My head felt lighter and freer, too, but when I reached up and encountered a mass of short, round curls I knew Jeanne was right to speak of a sheepshearer, for it felt not unlike the back of a ewe.

Jeanne thrust her hand into my hair and tousled it. “It suits you, Gabrielle,” she said. “You make a splendid boy. Your hair is curlier than when it was long, like many-leaved vines, all tangles.” She took her hand away. “But come, off with that shift. You agree to serve Pierre as his page, do you not? Better gentle Pierre than grouchy Jean, eh?”

“Much better,” I said, pulling my shift over my head.

For the next thirty minutes or so, we struggled with garments I had never handled before and that Jeanne had just come to understand. First came short linen braies to put my legs through and tie around my waist. Luckily there was string running through the upper hem with which to cinch them closed, for they were larger than I was. Next there was a loose, long-sleeved chemise, also linen, reaching below the braies. Then came a doublet like Jeanne’s, but lighter in weight than hers, with tight buttoned sleeves—heavy enough, though, for it was several layers of thick blue cloth, lined and quilted. It went clumsily around my body and upper legs, and fastened to scratchy woolen hose with points—laces—that went through eyelets on the doublet and tied there.

“You should rejoice,” said Jeanne, bending to fasten the same point I was fastening; we bumped heads and laughed.

“Why so?” I asked.

“I have twenty points to fasten; you have less than half as many. And believe me”—here she pulled a point so tight that I curled my leg up to show her I could not move and we laughed again—“believe me, it is a bother tying them whenever you remove your hose. Some hose,” she said, “are one piece, unlike these, but I thought since you are not a boy, it would be easier for you to have them separate, for necessity’s sake.”

I nodded, seeing at once what she meant, though the thought of undoing any of this costume to attend to my daily needs daunted me.

Over the doublet, as an outer cloak, came a short robe of rough brown wool, slit in front, for, Jeanne said, ease upon a horse. It was edged with rabbit fur, and thin in spots, as if it had been much worn, and I wondered who had owned it before me.

Jeanne also gave me a belt and a large purse to hang from it; I added my own small one, which still held my mother’s knife. Finally she handed me a sort of hood for my head, whose long end I could wear wrapped like a turban or slung around my neck as I chose and as the weather dictated.

“And at last these,” Jeanne said, presenting me with a pair of soft leather boots, laced up the side. “I tried to get you hose with leather soles, but found none. In any case, your feet will be better protected in these.”

“How beautiful they are,” I said, turning them in my hands and feeling the softness of the leather. I slipped them on; they made my feet both light and warm, unlike the heavy wooden sabots in which I ordinarily clumped. “I could dance in these,” I said, and Jeanne, laughing, seized my arm and we whirled for a moment around the room.

It was an odd feeling. It was hard to move at first, for the hose were still so tightly laced to the doublet that I felt my legs constrained. But at the same time it was freer, with no skirt to whip around my legs and catch on things. In a few minutes, I felt I had the knack of it, and I bowed to Jeanne, saying, “My lady, thank you.”

“You are welcome, my lad,” she said merrily. Then she put on a solemn face. “What would your mother say, and your sisters, and”—she made her eyes round—“Pierre, and”—here her eyes grew rounder still, and she poked me with her elbow—“and that Louis you told me of, eh?”

I felt my face grow hot, for I, too, wondered what Louis would think if he saw me, and I feared secretly that he might not like me this way at all, if indeed he found me again as he had promised.

But I need not have feared. When I emerged from the house with Jeanne that noontime, it was to find Louis, Pierre, Father Pasquerel, and Jean, waiting outside among the men-at-arms who had come from Chinon. Pierre was on a fine charger, leading a smaller, heavier brown mare. “Bonjour—good day—my page,” Pierre said to me, falling quickly into the fiction of my transformation. Louis gave me a broad wink, so I understood that Pierre had told him what to expect. Pierre’s eyes kept going to my hair, where my hood had slipped, and he looked as if he would laugh if he could, and Louis looked so falsely grave I knew he was in the same state. Father Pasquerel, though, seemed puzzled, as if he thought me familiar, but knew not why he should know a page, or how Pierre had acquired one. Jean, I could see, recognized me or had been told of my disguise, for he scowled unpleasantly, and I knew I still had no friend there. “So now we have two garçons manqués,” he muttered, “two false boys. But men want men to lead them, not maids. This campaign is folly, and no good will come of it.”

Pierre ignored him. “I have brought you a horse, Gabrielle,” he said—and I was thankful my name sounds the same whether male or female—“to replace the one that was stolen from us.”

“Thank you—er—master,” I answered, entering slowly into the game. I realized dimly that though no horse had been stolen from us, Pierre of course had to explain why his page had none. But mostly I was still trying to disguise my joy at seeing Louis.

No one, I realized as Pierre pushed the mare toward me, could help me mount, for were I a page, I would be accustomed to mounting on my own. Jeanne, however, grasped the mare’s reins and led her and me to a flat stump at the side of the road. “Stand on this to mount,” she whispered, “and always have something like it nearby when you mount or dismount; otherwise you will rip your hose or tear the points from them. As to riding, pretend there is no saddle between you and the horse, and you will soon grow used to it, as I did. Perhaps Pierre will teach you more on the way—but a girl from Domremy would not fall off,” she added severely.

“Nor,” I whispered back, stepping onto the stump after patting the mare’s nose to show her I was her friend and hoped she would be mine, “would a page from Domremy.”

Jeanne smiled at this, and I reached over the mare’s narrow back and somehow threw myself, clumsily I am sure, into the saddle. It felt hard and uncomfortable, not warm and alive like a horse’s naked back. But my mare, whom I called Yarrow, for there was a yellow tint to her brownness, like the centers of yarrow flowers, proved gentle and patient. She waited calmly while I arranged myself and while Louis, under the guise of adjusting the straps at her head, instructed me to put my feet in the stirrups. That, too, was an odd feeling, for when I had ridden before, my feet hung freely. In a while, though, I grew accustomed to it, and to my unfamiliar clothes.

And so on a glorious late April day, we set out for Blois to meet the men assembled there to join us. A herald cried, “For Orléans and the king!” as we rode along the Loire, which was wider and deeper than our little River Meuse, and straighter, too—a truly noble river, with islands here and there along its course. I missed Louis, who had to ride behind most of the time with the men-at-arms who had come from Chinon. But since he had owned to being noble and had purchased a horse in Chinon with his father’s money, he was respected and well-mounted. He had much to learn, too, even though, as he had told me, he had played clumsily at tilting at a wooden knight with his brothers as a child, and had ridden chargers. But as he had often remarked, he had been better at scholarly pursuits than at such sport.

It was a day blessed by God, Jeanne said. The long wet winter and the cold early spring seemed at last at an end. Larks and thrushes sang to us as we rode, and although I was still struggling with Yarrow’s trappings, my spirits were high. I found I was enjoying the masquerade of being a boy. I had taught myself to swagger, and to make my voice squeak so the men would think it was changing, as boys’ voices do. Pierre had given out that I had been sickly as a child and so was not strong. But in truth I was stronger than some boys, and lacked few skills country boys possess; I could snare a rabbit or net a fish as easily as they. And since I was only a page, it was not expected that I yet knew the art of war. During the times I needed privacy, Pierre contrived to watch for me, and as for sleeping, a page often sleeps with his master, and none sought to molest me there. My only regret was seeing so little of Louis—and so much at times of Father Pasquerel, who knew by now who I really was and who stayed close to me whenever Louis and I were together, as if to prevent what had not yet begun.

We reached Blois on a bright sunny day with daffodils and wood hyacinths blooming beside the Loire. One moment the way before us was open and empty, but suddenly when we came around a gentle curve, the water meadow was full of men and priests, horses and carts, and bright tents and banners—blues and reds and golds—decorated with family coats of arms or fleurs-delis, the lilies that stand for France itself. It was as if the world had emptied itself upon the plain, and was peopled only with priests and men wearing armor, or heavy leather or padded cloth, or mail—tight rows of crinkled metal, close as fish scales.

Most men carried shields and weapons: swords, of course, and daggers and axes, and an odd-looking thing I had never seen, called a halberd, which had a curved, hooklike blade on one side for pulling a man off his horse, and a sharp blade on the other. There were maces and pikes as well, and also crossbows, with windlasses for drawing back the string, and metal bolts with square heads to shoot instead of arrows. Pierre showed me a machine for hurling huge stones, and also cannons and bombards and serpentines and culverins. These were all tubes of various sizes, from large to small. Pierre explained that powder was put inside the tube, behind a stone, and when the powder was lighted, it would explode and the stone would be thrust out of the tube.

My mind reeled. The armored men and the horses, the tents and carts and weapons, seemed more like a vision in a dream than something truly there, or like figures painted upon the land. But the figures moved and spoke and shouted, and swords clanked against armor, and heavy carts drawing heavier cannons made the ground tremble as they rumbled along the riverbank.

Into the midst of this throng rode Jeanne’s two heralds, named Ambleville and Guyenne, and then Jeanne herself, with no covering over her steel armor, so it gleamed silver in the sun. She held a standard of white boucassin with the words—so said Father Pasquerel—JHESUS MARIA emblazoned on it, and painted fleurs-de-lis and figures of angels and Our Lord. Boucassin is the finest linen; the standard glowed in the sun as if with a holy light, and the images stood out as sharply as the words. She had a pennon, too, a small flag showing an angel, Our Lady, and a dove.

Jeanne rode through the crowd and then turned to face it, drawing her sword from the leather scabbard she had ordered at Tours. It shone as if it had never known rust—and the throng fell silent.

“Welcome, brave Frenchmen,” she shouted in a loud, clear voice, and with such gladness that it infected all who heard her. “This is a joyful day, for as you know we meet here, with God’s help, to free our good friends the Orléanais and to crown our king.”

A lusty cheer went up from the men, so lusty it shook the earth, and I wondered if the wind would carry it to the besieged Orléanais so they could rejoice as we did.

For a few days all was bustle and preparation and organization, and I saw Louis only at a distance, as he worked with the other men, loading carts and herding animals. As for me, I had to learn the duties of a page and gain greater skill in riding. Pierre had already given out that I was adept at healing, so I hunted herbs, filling my two purses and several leather pouches with yarrow for wounds made with iron weapons and to stop bleeding; goatsbeard for closing wounds; sage for healing them quickly; horsetail to shrink swellings; boneset and feverfew and myrtle for healing bones and joints. I even found cabbage in a neglected garden and picked it, for I knew that it, combined with salt from one of the supply barrels, would cure infections, and I feared there would be many of those after the wounds of battle.

Jeanne chased away any women who tried to join us to consort with the men, and twice each day, she and Father Pasquerel made all the priests come together and sing praises to the Blessed Mother. No soldier could attend unless he first confessed. Day and night I stayed as close to Pierre as I could, lest my sex be discovered, or kept to myself with Yarrow, who nickered softly now whenever I approached, and put her head down so I could rub the soft spot between her nostrils. I wondered what she would do when there was fighting, for she was no war-horse, and what I would do myself. Though I was eager, I knew I was not a soldier, and I had no weapon but my mother’s knife and a short sword Pierre had given me, which I was unskilled, so far, at using.

The army was really many armies, each group led by its own captain. The day before we were to march, Pierre pointed the captains out to me. First was a grizzled, heavyset man called La Hire, with elegant clothes and a foul tongue. I dubbed him the Blusterer, although he was gentle, Pierre said, around Jeanne, and swore only “By my staff” and other mild oaths within her hearing.

Then came a smaller, lithe, and slippery-seeming man. “He is Gilles de Rais,” Pierre told me, “and a marshal of France, which is a high honor, and he is also kinsman to the stout La Trémoille, who is the dauphin’s favorite but no one else’s, and whom Jeanne says she does not trust.”

“Gilles de Rais puts me in mind of a weasel or a river rat,” I said, and I called him the Green-snake in my mind, after our nickname for a certain bully in Maxey.

There was a tall captain, too, Poton de Xaintrailles, whom Pierre told me never laughed—the Owl, I named him, for his solemnity. Pierre also pointed out the Archbishop of Reims, named Regnault de Chartres, who, it was rumored, was nearly as close to the dauphin as La Trémoille. “And that man,” Pierre continued, “is the Duke of Alençon, my sister’s favorite, and well liked by all.” He nodded toward a handsome, elegant-looking man only a little older than we but settled in his age, with a sharply chiseled nose and grave eyes. He was standing with Jeanne, in earnest conversation. I could see that she regarded him well and felt warm toward him, for she put her hand on his arm once or twice and laughed heartily at something he said.

“She calls him mon beau duc,” said Pierre, “—my handsome duke—and sometimes I think she likes him as well as she likes me.”

I glanced at Pierre to see if he was jealous, but could not tell. Jeanne’s name of mon beau duc suited this captain’s elegance, and so I borrowed it.

That night I fell to reviewing in my mind the new faces I had seen, and the names I had given them. But what, I wondered again as I fell asleep, will my horse and I, and all of them, be like when we are at war?


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