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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 22

We left toward the end of August, and by then my horse, Anglais, had begun to grow plump with inactivity. By then, also, Nicolas said, the king himself had heard Christine de Pisan’s poem about Jeanne; it praised him, too, so he was well pleased, but La Trémoille and Regnault de Chartres were angry. I wondered what kind of woman this Christine de Pisan was, and what it would be like to write words as well as read them; that a woman had written something so many people had heard seemed to me a great marvel.

By the time we left, too, we had learned that Armagnacs had taken Saint-Denis, outside Paris, and that they were so close to the city, and so read to fight for our king, that the people of Paris dared not leave their city’s walls to harvest their grapes. The rumor was also that the Parisians had cut their grain before it was ready, to save it from hungry soldiers, and that they were fortifying the town. And indeed, when we drew near Paris, we could see tubs of stones on the city walls, and many cannons for beating us back if we attacked, or for attacking us if we came near.

We stopped at a windmill just outside Paris, near the village of La Chapelle. Our men took several pockets of English outside the city, and Jeanne and the captains met daily to discuss their plans. The king was in Senlis, and Jeanne and Alençon, Pierre said, were much vexed at him, wishing he would come—but La Trémoille and Regnault de Chartres were much vexed at Jeanne and Alençon, for their eagerness to fight. As to Jean, we had not seen him for some time.

At last, at the end of September’s first week, the king arrived, and the royal army ranged itself on the northwest side of the city, outside the Saint-Honoré Gate. Spirits soared again, and confidence rose. Everywhere men talked of victory and of Paris’s being French again, and of the end of the war.

Then one afternoon, Jeanne rode along the line of men as she often did, talking and smiling, telling them cheerfully it would not be long till victory. When she had come to the end and was turning to go, one of the few women who still followed the army—one of those whose child I had delivered, as it happened—came from behind a cart directly in front of Jeanne. Although this woman was not wed, she was good in all else and loved her man as I loved Louis; they planned to wed as soon as they could. But Jeanne flew in anger at her, saying, “What, is this how you follow your king and help your gallant men-at-arms?” She leapt from her horse, waving the sword she had gotten miraculously so long ago from Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois, and had carried with her throughout the war, without ever using it for killing.

Even as I ran to shield the woman, Jeanne struck her with the flat of that sword—and it shattered.

Jeanne froze, as did I, staring at it, while the poor woman slunk off, weeping. I turned to tend her, but as I left, I could not help saying, “This is ill, Jeannette, and ill-omened.” I know not what made me speak the words, but I felt a stab inside when I saw the broken sword, as if no good would come of it, and perhaps much evil.

Word of this event spread quickly among the men. Later other word came, too, that Jeanne had taken the splintered sword to the king’s armorers and that, though they heated their forges well and pounded the blade and did all they could, it would not mend.

“Superstition,” said Louis near nightfall while we ate a scrap of bread and some cheese we had saved. “One should not put store in such foolishness. If the sword cannot be mended, why then it is too old. You told me yourself it was covered with rust when it was found. If it was, then the metal is weakened and thin, too, I’ll warrant, from where the rust was cleaned off. And if as you say she has not used it for killing but only for show, it does not surprise me that it broke when at last she struck with it. There is too much talk of omens, good and bad, in this army.” Angrily, he broke off a bit of cheese rind and handed it to me; every morsel was cherished among us, since we did not know when we would get the next.

“Even so,” I said, “I like it not.” I thought of Jeanne’s saints, of whom of course I could not speak to Louis, and wondered what they said of it.

I bathed the hurt woman’s bruises that night. The next day, which was the feast of the birth of Our Lady, I wanted to mix a poultice of sage leaves to reduce their swelling, but despite the holiness of the day, Alençon rode up and down the lines, ordering us all to make fascines to throw into the moats of Paris, and so I was unable. I never saw the woman again; I think she may have gone away from us that day, and if she did, I hope her man went with her.

At last the order came to move forward, and I wondered if it was from Jeanne, or Alençon, or the king. As usual, Nicolas and I were at the end of the long line, but I could see from Anglais’s back that the army was ranged along the length of the city’s walls, from the Saint-Honoré Gate to a place they called the Swine Market. We pulled our cart up in back of a hill, and the artillerymen set up their cannons and culverins and other guns. The English and Burgundian garrison inside the city fired at us from the walls, on which we saw many flags, including one bearing the red cross of Saint George, who is to the English what Saint Michael is to us French, I think.

The shots did little harm, being from too great a distance. Though they knocked over those they hit, they did not wound them but for bruises and the minor injuries of falling.

At around midday Jeanne rode up with her standard-bearer, plus Gilles de Rais and other captains. She looked splendid in her armor, as always, but I was shocked to see a different sword by her side, though I should have expected it. She and the men dismounted and strode toward the ditch that formed the outermost moat—a dry one—around the city. I could not help but admire her courage, for stones from cannons were falling around us, with arrows and crossbow bolts. But she and the captains paid no heed, and climbed down into the first ditch, where for a moment they disappeared. I held my breath, waiting to see if they would cross safely to its other side—for I knew that if a stone from a cannon fell on them now, it would surely crush them, and they were within good range of the enemy crossbows as well.

But at last Jeanne emerged with her standard-bearer, on a small hill between the dry ditch and the water moat. She waved her new sword and shouted up to the walls, “Surrender to us at once, to the King of France. If you do not surrender before nightfall, we shall enter by force whether you like it or not, and you will all be put to death without mercy.”

“Shall we, you tart?” came the rude reply, and crossbow bolts rained over the walls. I saw Jeanne stumble and clutch the upper part of her leg, and as I ran toward her, I saw her standard-bearer stumble as well and lift his visor. As he looked down toward the ground, I think to see a wound in his foot, he fell back suddenly, and when I reached Jeanne, I saw that he had caught a bolt in his forehead and now lay dead.

“My wound is nothing,” Jeanne gasped. “You must leave here; you will be hurt.”

“And you, what will you do?” I asked, draping her arm over my shoulder and struggling under the weight of her armor. “Let me at least see your wound—here, we can go behind this ridge, just here.” Somehow we managed to cross to the mound of earth between the ditches. As I started up the ridge, Jeanne pulled me down, saying, “If we stand, they will attack us; we must crawl,” and so we did, to the back of the ridge, where I loosened Jeanne’s leg armor and examined her wound, which was only, I was glad to see, in the flesh. I dressed it the best I could, and bound it.

No sooner had I done that than she reached down as if to tighten her armor again. But I stayed her hand, saying, “Leave it off if you can, or just strap it loosely over the wound, for the wound will become too hot under your armor, and is sure to fester.”

She smiled crookedly, saying, “Friend dove, I will obey you in this, because it is what you know best. But you must obey me in what I know. Go you back to the king’s surgeon, so you may be of service to the other wounded, for I fear there may be more this day than there have been for some time. But we will still prevail, doubt not.” So saying, she gave me a gentle push, then called me back, saying, “Tell them to bring up the fascines and throw them in the water.”

So I crawled back, and relayed her orders to those commanding the carts, and they obeyed. The Parisian defenders fought more steadily now, and more fiercely, and many of our men fell; I was kept busy for some time. Soon Nicolas and I moved to a barn where we could shelter the wounded. But we could do little for them, being very short once more of supplies.

As the day waned, we could see it was going ill for us. I thought of the broken sword, despite Louis’s doubt of omens—and thinking of Louis made me worry about how he had fared, for I had not seen him all that day.

Still later that afternoon, more and more of our men left the field, tired, bloody, and dispirited. At last one of them said, “Pack up your wounded, surgeons, for we are about to retreat.”

I heard Jeanne say angrily, “By my staff, the place would have been taken!” and I guessed that the order to retreat was none of hers. But it seemed sensible to me, for the walls held and the defenders still had great tubs of stones and appeared to be well supplied with arrows and other weapons.

Nicolas and I moved the wounded, and our men threw their siege ladders and other equipment into the barn and set all alight so the enemy could not use them. A herald rode up, saying, “We have safe conduct to bury our dead; come you with us, in case there are any living wounded among them that need your aid.”

As we went, I felt much as I had felt at Patay, though there were not as many dead—but these were French. The slaughter seemed to me as senseless and as wrong as in that battle, and I wondered bitterly why, if God were on our side, He had let so many of our men die. Could it be that He was punishing us for thinking He was on the side of any who fought?

And then I stopped, frozen in disbelief and horror, one foot stumbling against the other—for there on the ground before me lay Louis, flecks of blood on his lips and more blood running from his ear. Although there was no mark upon him that I could see, I knew that boded great ill.

I fell to my knees and touched his healing cheek, afraid to move him or go closer.

“Gabrielle,” he said weakly, trying, I could see, to sit. “I knew you would come. But you must leave. They will—fire …”

I put my finger to his lips. “Hush, my love,” I said, the tears welling from my eyes. “They will not fire. We have safe conduct to …”

He smiled, and I knew he was aware that I had been about to say “bury the dead.” He raised his arm and let it fall—for such was his great weakness—on my shoulder.

And I lay down, there on the bloody battlefield, my arms around him as well as I could place them.

“It was—a cannon shot,” he whispered, his lips close to my ear.

“Where?” I asked him. But I knew.

“On—my head. My helmet—shattered. And—and a bolt, I think, in my back, after I fell. I cannot—turn,” he said apologetically, “or I would show it you. But perhaps you could …”

“Not now,” I said softly, holding him, trying to keep back my tears. “Rest now, my love. Rest.” For I knew then that his wounds were mortal, and that not even Nicolas could save him.

And so we lay there silently as the sun sank and the air grew chill. Once I got up to strip a riding tunic from a dead knight who lay nearby, and I put it over Louis, and then lay next to him again.

We spoke hardly at all; I could tell it pained him, and his mind could not always find words, nor could his tongue and throat and mouth utter them. So I sang to him, some of the songs my mother had sung to babies, and I recited prayers and psalms. He seemed to like the sound of my voice, though I could see his eyes dimming and I suspect he could not understand me, or see me either. I was suspended; I was not myself, but part of the earth on which I lay and the man I held. And Gabrielle, the innocent girl who had longed for adventure, was no more.

As the sun rose again, shedding its pink-and-gold light across the battlefield, I saw that there were fewer bodies. Many, I realized, had been removed, but those who took them had kept away from me and from Louis. At full dawn, Louis’s eyelids lifted weakly and he smiled. “Gabrielle,” he said quite clearly, “I love you.”

“Oh, my Louis, I love you,” I said, and hope, which can be the cruelest of emotions, gripped my heart, for he sounded stronger.

But he did not speak again. A few minutes later, his eyes opened wide, as if in surprise. His breath shuddered in his chest, and he was dead.

I made the sign of the cross and then lay there, unmoving, holding him, till the sun was high and warm in the sky, and he was cold. I do not remember thinking, or even feeling. I suspect I would never have moved again, had not Nicolas come to me and raised me to my feet, saying “Come, we will put him on the cart, and take him away. You must come now, Gabrielle, for the army is to leave soon.”

Woodenly, still without feeling, I helped lift Louis onto the cart. It was then that I saw the bolt in his back, and I made to pull it out, but Nicolas stayed my hand. I pushed him aside and pulled it anyway, for I did not want anyone to see a bolt in Louis’s back and think him coward, not knowing he had been struck down before the bolt found him. The blood that followed it flowed slowly, with no life behind it.

Nicolas talked as he maneuvered the cart across the battlefield. He told me, I think, that Jeanne wanted to attack again and that Alençon agreed. But the king had ordered otherwise, and the army was restless, saying Jeanne had promised a victory that had not come. I heard his words only at a distance, as if he were an insect buzzing near my head.

When we reached La Chapelle, we found Pierre standing near its church. Nodding at Nicolas, he lifted me off the cart and held me, ignoring the stares of those who had not yet guessed I was a woman. “My poor little dove,” he said, using his sister’s name for me. “My poor, poor playmate and companion. You loved him well; you brought joy to him, do you know that?” He tipped my face up to his.

But I could not respond; I just looked away.

“I fear for you now,” Pierre said softly, glancing at Nicolas over the top of my head. “I fear it will go ill with us all. Jeanne is determined to continue fighting, and has some plan with Alençon for going against the king’s wishes. She has taken a suit of armor and a sword to the church at Saint-Denis because she was wounded in this battle, and that is the custom, but I fear she wavers in what guides her, or even that she has lost that guidance, and sues to bring it back.”

“I fear it myself,” Nicolas answered gravely. “And”—he touched my shoulder—“though you are a fine healer, you now must heal yourself. If there were a convent …”

I heard a sharply indrawn breath—Pierre’s—and then his voice, exclaiming. “But there is! The convent of which the king’s sister is prioress. It is, I think, not far from here …”

I heard them dully, as they decided my fate, but I did not care. “Christine de Pisan,” said one, “the noblewoman who wrote about Jeanne,” and “Poissy,” said the other, and back and forth they went, settling between them where I should go. But I heeded them only when at last Pierre said to me gently, “We must bury Louis. Surely you do not want to leave him above ground?”

I know I shook my head, but the tears welled up again.

“Come,” Pierre said quickly. “I saw some women selling shrouds. Maybe we can beg one …” He broke off then, looking at me oddly. “Gabrielle,” he said, “have you heard what we have been discussing, Nicolas and I?”

I shook my head again, though I had heard some.

“We think you should go to a convent, and there rest and heal where you will be safe. It is too far for you to go home to Domremy, and I cannot take you. I cannot take you to Poissy either …”

Nicolas interrupted. “That,” he said gently, “is where the king’s sister rules, and where Madame de Pisan, the poetess, lives. Both are friendly to the king and to Jeanne’s cause. I think they would welcome you—and it is not far.”

“I would see you to Poissy safely,” Pierre said, “but I must stay with Jeanne, and so must Father Pasquerel. There is no one save him or me or Nicolas, who is needed here as well, that I would trust to protect you.” He hesitated, then said, “But there is one whom no one will molest, for fear of contagion, and that is a leper.”

I nodded, remembering the one I had seen on the journey from Le Puy, and realizing now that they truly meant for me to leave them, to go to where the woman was who had written the poem praising Jeanne. I did not care to go, but neither did I care to stay. I wanted only to be dead, like Louis, to be with him in Heaven, forever …

“If we can find two shrouds,” Pierre said softly, “one for Louis and one for you, you can walk along the roads undisturbed, for all will shun you. You would seem more like an outcast leper if you walked than if you rode your horse. Could you walk, do you think?”

I nodded once more, numbly. I felt no fear at the prospect of traveling alone, for I felt as if nothing worse could befall me than already had. Nothing could ever touch my soul as Louis’s death had touched it, and I had little care for my body’s safety.

We begged two shrouds of a woman who so pitied us that she gave them to us for a few bits of bread and salt herring that Pierre managed to find among the supplies. We wrapped Louis in one, and dug a grave for him, and out of the other fashioned a leper’s garb for me. I held it close to me that night as I slept under the medicine cart, with Nicolas and Pierre nearby. The next morning, Pierre made a clapper for me such as lepers use to warn people of their presence. He and Nicolas then bade me farewell, and numbly, I took my leave of them, and set off toward Poissy.


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