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Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc: Chapter 6

We were not, of course, quite there, for we had some distance still to walk. By the time we arrived, the sun was well down. We sheltered as best we could outside the city walls, for the gates were closed and there was such a flood of pilgrims that it was said the gatekeepers would open for no one till well after Prime. It was cold, too, the colder because the city was so high. We huddled against one another near our poor fire, warmed more by our sheepskins and the presence of so many people than by its small flames.

At last it was daylight, and the bells rang for Prime. And when the gates were opened, we walked, with all the thousands of others, into the city.

How shall I describe it? The sun was bright on the thin stone mountains that Louis had said rose above the town, and also on the front of the cathedral. The cathedral stood far above us at the head of many steps, which we could hardly see under the crowds that climbed them. Some pilgrims walked upright, others went on their knees, and those who could not do either crawled on their stomachs, pulling themselves up painfully, in constant danger of being trampled.

The cathedral itself was massive, with three arched doorways on a flat façade, framed in alternating light and dark cut stones, the light ones dazzling in the sun. The crowd pressed hard against us as we crossed the large square at the bottom of the steps. For every few pilgrims there was someone selling food or relics or medals. But it was the beggars I noticed most, holding out their grimy hands as we passed, and inching forward on gnarled sticks to tug at people’s mantles and cloaks. One woman, dressed in rags, her face pockmarked and her limbs twisted, knelt in our path, and Isabelle gave her bread. On all sides, it seemed, there were people suffering from diseases I knew nothing of. “Do not weep for them, Gabrielle,” Louis said to me as I reached in my purse for something to give a runny-nosed child with only one arm. “Most are as well and as strong as you and I; I saw many in the cities I passed on my way to the abbey. If you followed them to their beggar inns tonight, as I did once, you would see them unstrap their bent legs and arms and rub the life back into them.” Gently, he moved my hand away from my purse. But I reached in again when he turned aside, and gave the child my few crumbs, for she looked honest enough to me, and I despaired of there being cures for so many who were ill or maimed.

There were other folk, too, of sinister appearance and lewd glance. I clung closely to Isabelle when one, laughing and leering, reached a ruddy hand out to me. Isabelle scowled at the churl and pulled me away. “It is all right, little one,” she whispered as we began the long slow climb up the cathedral steps. “Stay nearby and you will not be harmed.”

Awe overtook my fear as we climbed, and increased and overwhelmed me when we went inside.

Again, how shall I describe it? I have seen many cathedrals since then, but though some others have rolled together in my mind and become as one, this cathedral remains apart. Inside, it was huge, like a whole world within walls. People surged around us, praying, so there was a constant murmur of voices, broken only by a muted cry when someone was overcome with feeling. What pain humanity must suffer, I thought, with so many here to ask for health or to buy their way into Heaven, or to beg safety from the world’s evils, or freedom from sin.

High windows set with colored glass caused the sun to cast red and blue light-jewels with drops of silver onto the stout carved columns that rose to the ceiling, which was painted with wondrous scenes; my neck ached and I grew dizzy studying them. “That is Saint Michael,” said Isabelle, who must have been following my glance, “and there are the Women and the Tomb. See, you can find Mary Magdalene there, and there the mother of James, called Mary, and Salome—and the blessed angel, there.”

I nodded, and tried to swallow so I could speak, but my neck was stretched so tight that I could not. By the time I turned toward her, the crowd had flowed forward and us with it. Isabelle was on her knees before a wide white altar trimmed with gold. Again I was speechless, thinking how poor and humble our altar at Domremy was beside this one, and wondering which pleased God more. I knelt, and looked up—and then at last I saw the famous Black Virgin, enthroned almost at the altar’s peak. Isabelle smiled and squeezed my hand.

“She was brought from Egypt,” a man near me murmured reverently, “the blessed Black Virgin. Think of it! All that way!”

“No, no,” whispered another man, younger, and balanced on a rough crutch. “From Palestine; I have a monk’s word on it.”

But a toothless old woman next to me winked and puffed garlic in my face as she said, “Do not believe them, my dear. The Black Virgin was given to the cathedral by Saint Louis himself!”

The argument did not matter to me, only the beauty, and the strangeness of the rich brown faces—not really black—of the Blessed Mother and her Infant, polished and glowing above their red robes.

Both Virgin and Infant wore jeweled crowns, and atop each crown perched a small blue bird. I smiled to see them there, as if nesting, and when I caught Louis’s eye, I could see he was smiling as well. I wanted to speak of them, but with Isabelle praying beside me and Brother Antoine nearby, I dared not.

I heard her whisper, “Blessed Virgin, protect my Jeannette. Guide her in her great and holy journey, and keep her from harm. Watch over her; spare her, and spare France …”

Her voice dropped and I could hear no more, but I saw that her lips still moved and her face was transformed with fervor. And suddenly, in that holy place, the meaning of Jeannette’s journey swept over me. Perhaps it was true after all that only someone as gently pious as she could save France and crown our rightful king; it seemed fitting.

The envy I had felt for Jeannette diminished, and in me was born instead a wish to serve, to add my strength, perhaps, to her gentleness. I began to pray, but soon the advancing crowd pressed against us and we had to rise and pass farther on, lest we be trampled.

Brother Antoine led us down the crowded steps and through the narrow streets, away from the great throng of pilgrims. We each obtained a medal from a seller in the square as we passed—a five-sided leaden one, rectangular with a triangle above, like a flat miniature house or reliquary, with the image of the Virgin carved in the center. There was a knob at each corner and holy words around the sides. I have mine to this day.

I marveled at the streets of Le Puy. Again, I have seen many towns since then, but this was the first outside of Neufchâteau, and it was much larger. It amazed me that there could be so many tall houses, so many people living so close together. There were streets for selling bread and other goods, as in Neufchâteau, but longer, and thicker with shops. Unlike our plain dirt road in Domremy, the streets of Le Puy were built of stones set in dirt, rough and slippery, and were so narrow and crowded that I was sure the stone arches that often spanned the space from one house to the house opposite were all that kept the houses from collapsing against each other or falling into the gutters that edged the streets and ran with noxious waste. Instead of the clear clean air of the Meuse valley, there was a smell everywhere of too many people too close together. Carts rumbled noisily by, people hurried past, and sellers shouted their wares. Except for the pigs rooting in the gutters as they did beside our road, too, and the birds flapping overhead, settling on roofs and flying off again, it seemed strange to me, and like a dream.

We found a seller of pies, under a signboard that was itself a wooden pie. Louis, whose purse was still fatter than any of ours, bought two, which we all shared. They were bird pies, I think, some sort of wild bird in sauce, and very tasty. Then we went out of the city to find a place for the night, closer to the gate this time. Isabelle wanted to return to the cathedral in the morning, and Louis and I wanted to climb the pillar-like mountain that had the church on it—Saint-Michel-d’Aiguilhe, it was called. Brother Antoine said he wanted to find a friar he knew who he was sure would have come to the Jubilee.

And so, with plans for the next day and aching limbs and heads from this one and from our journey, we found a spot as comfortable as any, and settled ourselves, hoping the night would be neither cold nor wet.


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