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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 27

It was a long journey, but an uneventful one. The summer had warmed and turned dry, and the fields were ripening; I took what I needed from them as I passed, and picked berries near the woods. Twice I snared a bird, and once a rabbit, and so managed to keep myself alive. The few people I passed gave me wide berth and surprised looks, which told me there was perhaps no leprosarium on my route, and so in their eyes I had no justification for being on the road. But none of them asked me where I was bound, so I did not trouble myself about them.

In time, I came at last to Beaurevoir. I could see even from a distance that it was a stronger, larger castle than Beaulieu, with many towers, and I wondered, as I drew near, how I was to gain entrance within its walls, to hear news of Jeanne. Then I realized that I had an easy way, for there is nearly always a woman about to give birth in a castle, and I still had the dress Marie had given me.

And so, one bright June day, I washed myself in a shallow brook and put on my woman’s dress. I made a sack of my shroud, lest I need it again, and in it and in my purse, I put childbirth herbs that I had spent two days gathering—lupine and sweet cicely, plus wallflower, for I had no ergot to hasten birth and it was too early for carrot seeds and too late for peony.

My sack and purse full, I went boldly up to the castle’s main gate. I shouted till I had raised the guard, and when a man came out, saying, “Well, mistress, what would you?” I smiled my best smile and announced, “There is a woman within who has need of a midwife, and I am one. Make haste, man, for her time is upon her!”

The ruse worked, as I had thought it would, for men are cowards when it comes to childbirth. The drawbridge was lowered and I was ushered in.

“Who is the lady?” a guard asked, and I felt less bold then, for I knew not what to say.

“Marie,” I told him, speaking the first name that came to my mind. “Or Jeanne-Marie? Forgive me, sir, but I was summoned in such haste, I remember not.”

“Send for Madame Grisette,” said the guard who was obviously in charge. “She will know.”

So I waited, flanked by two knights, who glanced at me skeptically every now and then but said nothing. I tried to look nonchalant, as if standing by castle portcullises was something I did daily.

At last Madame Grisette, a tall, slender woman, middle-aged, with a stern face, and clad in a rich green gown, came out and looked me up and down with open suspicion. “Bien,” she said to the guards at last. “Good. You may leave us. But remain nearby; I may have need of you.” Her French was odd, as is all Burgundian French, but I could understand it if I listened closely. She inclined her head, beckoning me inside, and she did not smile.

“Now, madame,” she said when the great door had thudded shut behind us, “please be good enough to tell me the true reason for your visit. I am lady-in-waiting to the Demoiselle de Luxembourg, and there is no woman here who is near her time. I cannot therefore believe that you are in truth a midwife.”

“But I am, madame,” I said, dropping a curtsy, and trying to speak clearly, for I thought my French would be as odd to her as hers was to me. “But”—and here I drew a deep breath, deciding to trust her, although another voice within told me that since she was Burgundian and suspicious, I was a fool—“I am not here as a midwife but as friend to one whom you keep here.”

“And who might that be?” Madame Grisette asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Jeanne the Maid.” Even as I spoke my heart fluttered in my chest in fear at her coldness. I dared not tell her more.

“Ha!” she exclaimed, and walked around me as if I were a horse she was thinking of buying. “Then you are no friend to my master, and have perhaps come to do us harm—or by some trick, to free the Maid. I must call the guards again and search you.”

She called them then, and while my heart still beat fast with fear, she searched me, in full view of the guards. I closed my eyes from embarrassment until at last she dismissed them and handed me back my clothes.

“I found,” she said watching me closely while I dressed, “a purse of herbs and one small knife; I shall keep them, lest you plan to put them to ill use. Make no mistake; you will be watched here, if I let you go among us.”

“The knife is for my protection, madame,” I told her, “and for my work, which is healing as well as midwifery.”

“You will do no healing or midwifery here, I’ll warrant,” she said severely. “And you will go no farther in this castle without my mistress’s leave. My master the duke hunts this day, so I must apply to his aunt, the Demoiselle de Luxembourg, in his absence. Guard!”

The men returned.

“You will watch this woman while I speak to the demoiselle. Do not permit her to leave this chamber.”

While I tried to disguise my growing fear by settling the folds of my dress and smoothing my hopeless hair, the guards ranged themselves on each side of me. Madame Grisette left, and we three stood in a silence so stern and heavy I could feel it pressing on me.

It was not long, thanks be to God, before she returned and, gesturing brusquely for me to follow, led me outside and across the castle ward to a long, narrow building, many-towered. We went in through a wide door, and thence up a winding stone stair to a small chamber, bright with sunshine and colored cushions. There a little dog came to greet me, yapping, and an elderly woman, in a soft gray gown trimmed with pearls, sat at an embroidery frame, with several younger women, also embroidering, near her. They all put their needles down and stared at me, adding greatly to my fear.

“Amé!” exclaimed the elderly lady, calling to the dog, “Tais-toi! Be silent!”

The dog ran back to her and stood near the folds of her skirt, eyeing me with bright intelligent eyes. I smiled at it, longing to stroke it, and thinking that both it and I would enjoy a game of ball more than the conversation that was bound to follow.

“Madame,” said my escort, her voice steady but disapproving, “this is the young woman of whom I told you, come because of your good nephew’s prisoner, Jeanne the Maid, whom she says is her friend.”

There were whispers from the ladies ranged around the room, and looks both sharp and curious. But the lady in gray remained impassive. “Leave me, mesdames,” she ordered her women. “No, Grisette,” she said, turning toward her. “You may stay.”

When we were alone, the Demoiselle de Luxembourg—for it was she, of course—pointed to one of the small embroidered stools on which the ladies had been sitting and said to me, “Be seated, child, and tell me your story. But before you do, know that you are in a house of Luxembourg, and that my nephew, Jean, is no friend to the French king, though he bears kindly feelings toward those who, out of only innocence or folly, follow him.”

“I know nothing of politics, madame,” I said carefully, and as morning changed to afternoon, I told her my story. She seemed so interested that I found myself forgetting both my fear and Madame Grisette’s disapproval, and telling more than I had planned. The demoiselle asked many questions, especially about my dear Madame Christine, whom she had once met. But she asked nothing, I felt, that would compromise Jeanne or the king’s cause if I answered truthfully.

As the light fled from the windows and the room fell into shadows and became colder, Madame Grisette rose, saying, “Madame forgive me, but I must light the fire. Your hands need the warmth, I am sure. And perhaps you would soon like to dine.” I thought at first she had softened a little—but then she turned to me, and I could tell that though she served her mistress well, she was no friend to the king’s cause or to Jeanne, despite her mistress’s kindness.

The demoiselle nodded, waving her hand toward the door and saying, “Have them bring enough food for two, Grisette.”

It was then that I noticed the demoiselle’s hands, seeing the twists and knobs at the knuckles that bespeak the joint sickness that comes upon the old, the same that had crippled Sister Georgette. “Madame,” I said when Grisette had left, “my pardon, but if your kitchen has flax and honey, and oil or pig’s grease, I can make an unguent that may ease your hands somewhat.”

“I thank you, child,” she said. “Perhaps I will avail myself of that in time. But first you must tell me what you hope to do here.”

I hesitated, hardly knowing myself, now that I was there.

“I should tell you,” she said before I was able to assemble my thoughts enough to speak, “that I have visited the Maid, as have my nephew’s wife and stepdaughter, and although as you have seen, Grisette does not approve, we find her to be truly pious and of good character, and the bravest of women. She is sincere in her dedication to Charles and to France, and, seeing her virtue, I cannot hate her as an enemy. I fear for her safety as much as you—not while she is here, but if she were to be sent away, especially to the English. They, you know, would like to put her to trial …”

“To trial!” I said, horrified. “But she has done no crime, except that of war, which surely is not a thing one is tried for, since so many wage it.”

“Ordinarily, no,” said the demoiselle, “but the English say she is a witch, or a heretic, and that she acted not for God but for herself, for vanity. Indeed,” she said gently, “your own Charles, whom you call king, has done nothing toward ransoming her. There was some rejoicing in his court, I am told, at the Maid’s capture, especially on the part of one George de La Trémoille. And Regnault de Chartres, Archbishop of Reims, who crowned your king, has, I am told, sent word to the people of Reims that the Maid was too prideful to listen to those who advised her to make peace—so he is not likely to help her either. Indeed, it is said that your king has found a young shepherd who does miracles and that his attention is now placed there, not on the Maid.”

She spoke gently, as if she knew the pain her words would cause me. It was unthinkable that the king would not ransom Jeanne, after she had crowned him and saved France!

And that the English would put her to trial was beyond imagining.

“But,” the demoiselle continued, “know that if you speak of your plans to me, you speak to one who admires your friend. Do not, however, speak of them to Grisette, lest you be betrayed.”

“I—I have no plans,” I said miserably, “except that I wish to stay close to Jeanne in case there is any way that I may aid her.”

“To escape? I cannot assist you there. Surely you see that.”

“I can, madame, and I would not ask it, for you must be loyal to your people as I must be loyal to mine. No, it is more because she has no woman with her, no one from home, that I wish to stay near her, to comfort her. I have not seen her to speak to since before she was captured at Compiègne …”

I could say no more.

The demoiselle rose and came slowly to me, putting her gnarled hand on my shoulder. “I cannot take you to her,” she said softly, “but I can tell her you are here, and I can take her a message if it is not one that will betray my nephew and his cause. It would be unwise to tell him of yours, but perhaps I can convince him to let you stay here as one of my serving women.”

“That,” I said, trying to regain control of my voice, “would be most helpful madame.”

She smiled. “And what message,” she asked, “shall I take to your friend?”

“That—that Gabrielle is here,” I said, “and hopes she is well. And that I will stay by her, hoping—praying—for her eventual release. And that …”

The demoiselle held up her hand, whispering, “Enough!” Serving women came into her chamber then, with a little table bearing dishes covered with gold covers, in which were soups and roasted birds and fruits and even salads, plus a ewer of water and one of wine. The demoiselle remained silent till the women had left and then graciously bade me eat, which I did, hungrily and with much gratitude.

And so the demoiselle spoke to her nephew about me, and he allowed me to stay and serve her, bringing rushes for her floor, and beating dust from the tapestries that hung in her chamber, and airing the great bed in which she slept. Madame Grisette scowled and grumbled, but the demoiselle delivered my message to Jeanne, and brought back one saying that she was well and kindly treated, and that she, too, prayed she would be released. The demoiselle begged me to ask Jeanne through her to put on women’s clothes, for both she and Luxembourg’s wife and stepdaughter had urged her unsuccessfully to do so, but I said I could not, for she was guarded by men. I reminded her of what I had told her before: that I had worn men’s clothes, too, when among men, for safety as well as for disguise.

As the summer progressed, rumors passed among the servants that Jeanne would soon be taken to the English, and the demoiselle herself grew weak. Although she said the unguent I had made for her hands soothed her greatly, it of course could do nothing for the slowness of her step. Then one night she came to me, a candle in her hand. Without speaking, she returned my mother’s knife and my herbs to me, and led me up a steep staircase to the top of the tower in which I knew Jeanne was held. I dared not ask her why she was doing this when she had so long refused, but my heart beat wildly within me.

And then, when we entered the tower, I saw why, for Jeanne, pale and thin, lay on a litter of straw, a great bloody mark on her head.

“Leave us; stay outside,” the demoiselle said in a low voice to the guards, who nodded and left, stopping just outside the door.

“She fell,” the demoiselle said, “or jumped, or someone pushed her from the tower. My nephew is sorely angry, and will not send for a surgeon, saying that if she dies, perhaps the English will stop hounding him. But I know he speaks in anger only, and will send for surgeons in the morning, for she is too valuable a prize to give up and I think he holds her to command the highest price he can. I am sure, though, that he will move her, if she lives, to another place. But she is in pain now, and in need, as you can see, and I cannot let her remain unattended when I know you love her, and have skill.”

I hardly heard her, though I felt a flash of horror at what she had said about price. Before she had finished speaking, I was bending over Jeanne, feeling her head gently with my fingers, which told me her skull was intact, as much as I could discern. But whether her brain was addled, as so often happens when there is a blow to the head or a fall upon it, I could not tell. “Jeanne,” I said softly—then, “Jeanette!”

She stirred when I spoke her childhood name, and moaned, and opened her eyes, which stared blankly for a time into mine and then softened.

“Gabrielle,” she said. “Gabrielle—friend dove—the good demoiselle said you were here, but I knew not whether it to be true. Oh, Gabrielle!” She reached up her arms to me, with tears in her eyes, and pulled me to her. I embraced her, and then I gently drew away, saying, “Jeannette, your head—does it hurt?”

“It does. But—but for a moment”—she was whispering now—“for a moment, I tasted the open air again, and freedom, and I would have escaped, Gabrielle, I …”

“Shh,” I warned her, indicating the demoiselle—but when I turned, I saw that she had withdrawn and had her back to us.

“Do not talk, Jeanette,” I said. “You must rest.”

But she would not. “What of Pierre?” she asked. “And d’Aulon? And Poton de Xaintrailles?”

“I know nothing of them,” I told her. “I would that I did, but it was you I followed. D’Aulon was with you, was he not, for a time?”

“At first, and he comforted me unfailingly. But they took him from me at Beaulieu. I am angry, Gabrielle,” she whispered, “that I could not escape from here, and my saints are angry that I tried, I fear. But I had heard that I am to be sold to the English, and I cannot abide that thought. And I heard that the English will kill everyone in Compiègne—even children, everyone older than seven—and I felt I must go to them.”

“Were you truly seeking to escape so you could go to war again?” I asked her gently. “Or were you seeking to die?”

Jeanne was silent for so long I thought she had slipped into unconsciousness or sleep, but at last she said, “I know not. Either one, I think, would have pleased me. And now I must be patient, and do as God wills.” She touched my face. “Bless you, friend dove,” she said, and closed her eyes.

“Bless you, Jeannette,” I whispered, “for you have done great good for France, and suffered much for her.”

Her eyes flew open again. “But I have failed!” she cried bitterly.

I shook my head. “The good Loire towns are still the king’s, I am sure,” I told her, “and in them no doubt they pray daily for your release. All over France,” I went on, to cheer her, hoping it was true, “people praise and thank you. You are remembered as good, not as a failure.”

“It is God who should be remembered, not I,” she said drowsily, “for I have only done as He wishes, through my saints.”

“And so,” I told her, “you cannot have failed. One does not always see God’s design till time has passed.”

She smiled then, and slept.

The demoiselle and I stayed with her till the sky outside the window through which she had jumped turned gray. Sometimes she woke, and I bathed her head, for the demoiselle had the guards bring us cool water and those herbs that I requested for dressing her wound, for most of those I had brought were better for childbirth than for injuries such as Jeanne’s. When Jeanne woke, we talked of Domremy, and of the mist on the River Meuse, which she loved as much as I, and of our parents and old friends. I think—I hope—it comforted her.

But when dawn came, the demoiselle hurried me away.

Not long after that, the demoiselle left Beaurevoir. I suspect she was sent away, for her nephew was not pleased at her fondness for Jeanne, and perhaps suspected she had played a part in Jeanne’s leap from the tower, which he recognized as an attempt to escape. I wondered, also, what Madame Grisette said to him of the matter and, indeed, of me. Soon afterwards, Jeanne was taken under strong guard to the Cour le Comte, in Arras. I followed her there, again clad as a leper, but this castle was the Duke of Burgundy’s, and I dared not try my midwife ruse there.

Instead I found a hermit’s hut, abandoned, just outside the walls, and stayed in that, babbling like a madwoman when anyone passed. Every day or so, I strapped one leg under my skirt as Louis had told me false beggars do. With a stick under my arm, I hobbled to the castle and sat against its walls, mumbling and holding out my hand as if begging, but truly listening for news. Some passersby gave me small coins, deniers and oublies, with which, when I had enough, I purchased bread.

And so I passed the first part of early winter, until one cold December day when I heard that Jeanne had been sold to the English, and was to be taken to Rouen, to stand the trial she dreaded.


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