It grew in Fairyland
A mile and a half to the south of Domremy, crowning a hill that overlooked the valley of the Meuse, the Tree could be seen from many directions. A mighty beech of great age, it was variously called "Ladies' Lodge" and "Fairy Tree," because, according to tradition, the ladies of Fairyland sometimes danced there; further, it was said that in the ancient days Pierre Granier, of the great castle of Bourlemont whose six towers still rose against the south, had walked under the Tree with a radiant lady, known only as "Fairy," and never seen elsewhere.
The children found it no trouble to believe these things, nor, for that matter, did their parents, for it was a day when myth and legend passed as history. Children had always played under the Ladies' Tree, and on special days in springtime brought "little loaves baked expressly by their mothers," to eat in the quiet shade. Not far below the Tree a clear
spring flowed from the hillside. Its waters were said to be healing; at any rate they were cold and sweet, and when the children had drunk their fill they gathered the flowers that grew round about and twined them into wreaths and garlands, to lay before the picture of the Virgin in the village church, or to hang on the branches of the Tree, for the fairies. Joining hands, they circled under the suspended offerings, singing and dancing, according to a custom of which no one knew the beginning.
Something more than five hundred years ago one of the children who twined garlands and danced and sang under the Fairy Tree was a little girl who only a few years later would change the fortunes of France. She was the youngest child of Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romee (women did not always take the husband's surname), and in the small stone church across the garden they christened her Jeanne, or Jeannette—later, in English, to be called "Joan," "Joan of Arc." (The ancestors of Jacques d'Arc are thought to have come from the village of Arc-en-Barrois, fifty miles to the southwest of Domremy; hence, "d'Arc" (of Arc). Joan's father himself came from Ceffonds, her mother from Vouthon.)
In Domremy the birthday of a little peasant girl was held of small account; in after years Joan herself did not know
how old she was. Nevertheless, neighbors remembered that she was born on the eve of Epiphany, or Twelfth-night, which is January 6, and the year has been fixed as 1412.
Beyond certain marvels said to have occurred on the night of her birth, of Joan's infancy there is not even a tradition. But of her childhood and the amazing years that followed details are not lacking. Joan herself supplied some of them, and playmates, neighbors, companions in arms, and learned doctors—witnesses sworn to tell the truth—completed the story. The picture is fresh and clear. Nothing else in history compares with it.
A child in a garden
A sturdy little girl, we see her presently following her father to the field, or her brothers when they drove the flocks to the pasture—at evening learning her prayers from the devout Isabelle Romee.
"My mother taught me the pater noster, Ave Maria, and the credo; no other than she instructed me in my belief probably as soon as the child could lisp the words.
The religion of that day was as primitive as it was profound. Everybody believed in demons and witchcraft, evils to be opposed with prayer. Legendary tales of the saints were
When the crosses were carried along the fields
A little peasant girl like the others, Joan followed the flocks, or played with her small companions in the meadows and under the Fairy Tree. Of her early friends there were two that she loved most: Hauviette and Mengette, near neighbors. Little Hauviette may have been the favorite, for she has been called "la preferee." Long afterward she said:
"As children Jeannette and I were happy together in her father's house. It was a pleasure for us to sleep in the same bed. Jeannette was good, simple, and sweet."
Mengette also told of happy days with Joan, and how sometimes they had spun and performed other household duties in company. Joan loved to go to church, she said, and gave alms of whatever she received from her father. Then, of the Tree:
"It was a very ancient Tree. From the memory of man one has always seen it there where it is. Each year in the spring, particularly on the Sunday of the Fountains, this Tree was a gathering place. Girls and boys, we came in a troop, bringing small loaves of bread. Often I was with Jeannette. We ate under the Tree; then we went to drink from the Currant Spring. How many times we have laid the cloth under the Tree and eaten together! Afterward we played and danced. Those things still go on; our children do today what we did then."
Another friend of that day told how the little girl's heart had gone out to the poor, how she had slept by the hearth that they might have her bed. And she told of Joan's going to pray in the little chapel of Bermont, on a hill in the woods beyond the adjoining village of Greux.
All remembered the Tree, and one of those who had played there with Joan told of its great beauty, and how on Ascension Eve, when the crosses were carried along the fields, the priest went there to chant the service.
Joan herself once referred to the Tree as le Fau, a native word for beech, "whence comes the fair May," meaning the branches which the peasants set before their houses on May Day. She had gone there with the other children and twined wreaths for the picture of the Virgin at Domremy. It was held by old people that fairies came there, and that Maire Aubery's wife had seen them. To her knowledge, Joan had never seen fairies near the Tree. Whether she had seen them elsewhere, or not, she did not know. With the others she had hung garlands on the branches. Sometimes she had carried them away afterward, sometimes had left them there. As a child she had danced with the other children, though "she had sung more than she had danced."
Of the generations of children that played there, probably no one ever loved the spot more than Joan. The wide and fair expanse it commanded appealed not only to her sense of beauty but to something deeper in her, something romantic
and glorious, too mystical to be understood. Southward, on the hill above Neufchateau rose the six towers of the lords of Bourlemont, seigneurs of Domremy and Greux, who sometimes with their ladies came to lead the children to the Tree. To the eastward lay the level valley of the Meuse, its placid, irresolute river breaking into channels to form islands, on one of which was another castle, though abandoned, of the lords of Bourlemont. The Meuse has its source in the south, and mists rise from its mildly tempered waters. In winter its valley is a weird region of fogs; in spring low-hanging clouds drift above its brilliant green; in June it is a dream valley, its fields under the quiet spell which precedes harvest. In whatever season, to Joan it was a valley of illusion, of knights on holy errands, of phantom marching armies.
Looking down from the Tree one saw the spire of Coussey, and in another direction Domremy and Greux—the two villages were really one—with Maxey across the river, in Lorraine. Hill and wood shut away the distance, but one knew that the loitering river found its way past other villages and came at last, to the seat of government, Vaucouleurs, valley of colors, a strong town for all its tranquil name, commanded by Robert de Baudricourt a sturdy captain hardened in the trade of arms.
Behind Domremy lay the Bois Chenu, a deep forest that skirted the hillside and stretched back to mysterious depths, haunted by wolves and reputed dragons. It was hardly a
place for little folks, but below it in early summer the slope was red with wild strawberries which the children gathered to eat with their small loaves: and when they had eaten, and sung, and danced, they sat under the shade of the great beech and, looking over the drowsy valley, talked of wonderful things.
Whatever their parents might think of fairies, the children had no doubts on the subject. They not only believed in them but were favorable to them. That the fairies had been banished for their sins and forbidden the Tree was not proof that they did not visibly assemble there. Jeanne, wife of Maire Aubery, had seen them! It was said that they sometimes took one up in the air! This happened on Thursday, clearly a magic day. The wreaths suspended on the Tree by the children were sometimes carried away during the night. Who but fairies would take them?
The children discussed these matters, and the virtue of charms and amulets. And there was a mandragora, (mandrake) a very potent magic that brought riches, and grew somewhere in the ground near the Tree under a hazel bush. But this was evil, a perilous thing to have and not to be spoken of openly. That Joan heard this talk we know from her own story. As a child she probably believed in it, for she was as the others.
Yet she was different. Even in that early time when she played and danced and sang with her companions, she was
often not really with them, but in a land where her playmates did not, and could not, enter.
She loved the sound of the bells, and sometimes when the sexton did not ring them promptly, or as much as she thought proper, she reproached him for it, offering to give him wool from her sheep and some of the big round cakes called "moons" if he would do better. Hearing the bells, Joan crossed herself and knelt. When not at her duties she was likely to be in the church, at prayer. Her companions rallied her for being so devout. She blushed and did not know how to answer. To escape them she went to the little chapel of Our Lady of Bermont, the remote shrine in the wood beyond Greux. She loved the stillness of the place, having for company the birds that are said to have eaten from her hands.
So we complete the picture of the little peasant girl: diligent, tender-hearted, devout; requiring duty of the bell ringer, offering reward if he performed it; mingling with her companions yet finding alone companionship they could not understand. Said one of these:
"Often while we were at play, Jeannette drew apart and spoke to God. The others and myself teased her about it."
Certainly she was different. Her priest of that time declared that there was not her like in the village.