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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 5

I did not know what to do. People do not like to be laughed at, and this boy was a monk, at least he wore monk’s garb.

The boy froze where he stood, and stared as if at an apparition, a smile playing at his lips—or a grimace; I was not sure which. “Who are you?” he demanded of me. “You look—like a peasant girl. How came you here?” He studied me with eyes that were huge and softly brown like a doe’s, and dabbed at his sweating forehead with his wide sleeve, which, I could see in the moonlight, was none too clean.

“I am a peasant girl,” I told him with as much dignity as I could muster. “I am Gabrielle de Domremy, a pilgrim and healer and midwife, accompanying a woman from my village to Le Puy for the Jubilee. I came to the chapel by stealth, for pilgrims are not admitted to it or to the cloister.”

“No, they are not,” the boy said, but by now he really was smiling. “Did anyone see you?”

“I think not. What were you doing? Are you a monk?”

He sat down on a stone bench, and gestured for me to sit beside him. “I am called Louis, Louis d’Avallon, I suppose, for that is where I am from, and I am a novice here, because that is what my father wishes for me, though I hate it. I am my father’s youngest son, and he does not know what else to do with me. My oldest brother is at war, and my next brother manages my father’s lands with my father, and my sister is married. That leaves me.” He wiped his forehead once more.

“Why do you hate it?” I asked him, astonished. “It is beautiful here—so peaceful.”

“Too peaceful,” he said fiercely. “I would rather be at war. I was exercising because I am made to sit still all day, indoors. It is very dull.”

I nodded, for of course I agreed that it would be. I told him a little about life in Domremy and about my sisters and my infant brother, and how this pilgrimage was more an adventure for me than a holy journey.

“We are both sinners, then, Gabrielle de Domremy,” he said, smiling again when I had finished. “I would go with you on your pilgrimage. I would do anything to leave this place.”

“Then come with us,” I said, surprising myself with my boldness.

He looked startled, then thoughtful.

“Is it not true,” I went on, “that if one has no vocation for a cloistered life, one may leave it?”

“It is true,” he said, “if one has not yet taken final vows, as I have not. But my father has paid many écus for me to be here. And the abbot tells me to be patient, that one cannot know one’s vocation until after one has stayed for—well, for a long time.”

“Perhaps,” I said, feeling mischief rising in me, as if I were with Pierre, “some people are so unsuited for a cloistered life that they must leave sooner. For the good of the order,” I added.

“Perhaps.” He got up and began pacing. I followed him in under the cloister’s stone arches, where he sat on another bench. “Perhaps some people can serve God better by being out of a cloister than in it.”

“Brother Antoine, who travels with us,” I said quickly, “is a holy man of God, and he goes about in the whole world. He …” I stopped, for I had no idea what else Brother Antoine did.

Louis’s soft brown eyes had fire in them now. “I will go with you,” he said. “Perhaps if I leave a letter for the abbot, and tell him that I can do God’s work better outside …” He frowned; now I was staring at him. “What is it?” he asked.

“You—you said ‘leave a letter,’” I answered, barely able to conceal my excitement. “You know how to write?”

“Yes, and read, too,” he said cheerfully, as if it were a matter of no importance. “Why?”

“Because,” I told him, “I would give anything to be able to read. If I could read, I could study the books that have been written about healing, for I have heard there are some …”

“Oh, yes,” Louis said airily. “I was copying one just the other day, in the scriptorium. That is why I must sit still all day. It told of certain herbs. Would you like to see it?”

My heart raced, and I could not speak, so I merely nodded.

“Come,” Louis held out his hand and put his finger to his lips. “Be very quiet.” He started to lead me inside, but then he stopped, saying, “No, it is too dangerous. You stay here. I will bring the book to you—no, I will bring you a sheet I have copied, for the book itself is large and heavy. Wait.”

He disappeared, and I sat under the shadowy arches for what seemed a lifetime. Suppose a sleepless monk came outside and found me? By the time Louis returned, I was soaked with fear-sweat, and very cold.

But I forgot it all when he slipped a large parchment page from under his robe, and took me out into the moonlight.

I do not know which moved me more, the gold-and-red-and-blue-and-green drawings of plant tendrils twining in the borders of the page, or the detailed rendering of a sprig of agrimony in the center, with its toothed leaves, or the intricate vines weaving through an angular black-outlined thin gold shape in a square at the beginning, or the rows of black marks that I knew must be words flowing evenly across the page.

“Agrimony,” I breathed.

Louis looked startled. “So you can read after all,” he said, disappointment in his voice.

“No, no,” I told him, pointing to the drawing in the center. “It is a plant I know. My mother uses it for certain pains of women.”

“Yes, of course,” he said, sounding relieved. “And here it says to use it also for knife cuts, and the fits that seize infants.”

I looked in wonder at the black marks; could they indeed convey so much?

“See,” said Louis gently, “here are the letters for agrimony. This”—he pointed to the design within the square and traced the gold of it—“this is A, decorated grandly because it is the first letter of the word. The first letter on a page is often thus, dressed as nobility, you could say. The smaller letters after it are g, r, i.” He pointed to them as he named them. “And m, and …”

But then a bell rang inside. “Matins,” Louis said, snatching the page from me and rolling it up. “Hurry, Gabrielle; you must leave quickly, for the monks will soon come to prayers in the chapel.” He paused, tucking the rolled page back under his robe. “When do you leave for Le Puy?”

“I am not sure. Today, I think, unless Isabelle—that is the pilgrim of whom I spoke—wishes to rest. But I think it is far enough still so that we may not linger.”

Louis nodded. “I will try to come with you. Look for me near the big tree outside the gate. If I can come, I will wait for you there. Go”—and I could hear footsteps in the distance—“go quickly.”

For the rest of that early morning, I wondered nervously if he would come. But when we left, a while after Prime as the sky was lightening, he was there, wearing, instead of his monk’s robes, a nobleman’s hose and a short robe lined with fur. The hose were baggy and stained, and the robe was old and threadbare at the elbows of its wide sleeves, as if he had already journeyed in those clothes, and been careless of them.

Isabelle was at first afraid and then cross. Louis told her what he had told me, and then said, “And when I went to the abbot after prayers at Matins, and told him how I felt and that I wished to go to Le Puy, he blessed me and let me go, because it is, after all, a holy pilgrimage.”

Isabelle looked as if she did not believe him. “What of your father, monsieur?” she asked. “Will he not be angry?”

Louis scuffed the long toe of his leather shoe into the ground and said, “My father is not fond of me, madame; he loves my brothers more.”

I could see the sympathy in Isabelle’s eyes as she turned to Brother Antoine as if in supplication, and he said, “Well, well, the boy is a man, it appears, able to make a man’s choices, and able to accept his father’s wrath if that is to be. Perhaps for the abbot the important thing is the money that the abbey has already received; if the father cares not for his son, what duty is owed may have been discharged well enough. We cannot prevent him from traveling with us, in any case, if he wishes.”

At that, Isabelle nodded—and so now our party was four instead of three. We had a new horse, too, from the monks, a young mare who was gentle and able to go faster than Gray Mist, whom I was nonetheless sad to leave. I found a dried apple for him before we left, and bade goodbye to the gate dog as well.

At first as we traveled, Isabelle seemed restrained when she remembered Louis was of noble blood. But he acted so much like us, and was so pleasant and considerate of her, bidding her rest often and fetching water for her, that she soon accepted him. He bought wine for us all, too, out of his small sack of écus, kept back from those his father had given him for his journey to the abbey. We told him more about Domremy, and about Jeannette, and he made us laugh with stories of his clumsiness, describing his attempts at matching his older brothers in lance thrusts and sword-play. “I was better than they at the learning that comes from books,” he said, “which is why my father sent me to the abbey. I did not ever mind learning, but I wished to be a scholar-knight, not just a scholar, and perhaps one day that is what I shall be, now that you have freed me.” He bowed to Isabelle then, and she blushed.

As we neared Le Puy, the air felt cooler. The way grew steeper and the road thicker with other pilgrims, all hurrying to reach the cathedral by Good Friday—Annunciation Day—and eager to behold the blessed Black Virgin. There were more evergreens now, I noticed. We stumbled on rocks as we climbed hills and mountains, and my knees often felt as if they would collapse as we went up, or twist apart as we went down, and my feet slipped dangerously in my wooden sabots.

And so it was that one day in Holy Week, when we were at our most tired and hungry and footsore, and had little bread or salt herring left to eat and nothing fresh, and when I thought my right foot would fall off from the blister that I could not seem to heal, and when the road was thronged with silent, plodding pilgrims—on a day when I found myself thinking I had been God’s own fool to leave Domremy—on such a day, on a sudden, as the sun neared its highest point over our heads and made Isabelle and me shed our woolen shawls despite the cool air and give them to the mare to carry—a great shout rose from the front of the line, up a small hill.

“What is it?” Brother Antoine asked wearily.

“Shall I run up and see?” asked Louis.

“Yes, do,” said Isabelle.

When Louis came back to us, his dirty face was lightened by his smile. “Shall I tell you?” he teased. “Or will you wait yourselves to see a wonder?”

“Oh, tell us,” said Brother Antoine crossly, “lest we think you made this wonder up out of your own mind.”

“Surely,” said Louis, “the crowd ahead would not be shouting with joy at a wonder that was only in my mind.”

“Louis,” said Isabelle, “if you do not tell us quickly, Gabrielle and I will faint from curiosity.”

“I faint?” I said, feigning shocked anger. “I shall never faint, no matter what I see!”

You see how familiar we had all become with one another!

Louis drew us aside to a heap of stones which perhaps had once been a roadside shrine, now fallen apart from neglect or vandals. “It is a marvel, truly,” he said, “and I am told it means we are near Le Puy at last.”

“And?” urged Brother Antoine, rubbing his foot. “And? What is this marvel? It had better be a fine one, Louis, for I have seen many marvels and can judge them well. If this be not one, I shall—I shall break your head!”

Louis clutched his head in mock horror. I could see both of them were enjoying this banter, but I could also see that Isabelle, who was seated on the ground by now, was tired, and needed reassurance. “If you do not say quickly,” I told Louis, “I shall spoil your tale by running forward myself and looking, and then I will have the telling of it.”

“Very well,” said Louis. He knelt and took Isabelle’s hands in his. “Up ahead,” he said softly, “growing out of the earth and reaching toward Heaven, is a pillar of stone—a very thin mountain—upon the very top of which is a church, scraping against the sky. And a little farther off, high but not as high, rises a great cathedral, and beyond it another pillar-mountain. All those in front of us say the thin mountains and the cathedral are in Le Puy!”

Isabelle closed her eyes, and leaned back against me, for I was standing behind her. “Jesus be praised,” she said. “We are there at last!”


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