JOAN RIDES TO THE RING
Icy rivers forded in the dark
JOAN, between her two cavaliers, followed by their two servants and the King's messengers, completed an army as picturesque as it was small.
"I was clad as a man," Joan's said, describing her departure, "wearing a sword which the captain had given me, without other arms." She further said she had taken male dress by command of God and the angels.
Dressed as a youth of the period, mounted and wearing a sword, the young girl made a striking figure. Her hair was cropped, and she wore the loose black cap of a page. Her short coat was a kind of tunic belted at the waist. Underneath it was a justaucorps, or doublet, a kind of heavy shirt to which the band of her close fitting leggings was attached by means of "laces and points"—that is to say, stout hooks and a leather thong. High-laced boots or gaiters, spurs, and a cape completed her costume. She was seventeen, doing what girls of all ages have dreamed, riding at glorious venture,
a knight and a squire on either hand. To her the dream had come true.
Of their winter's journey through the long stretch of forest and desolated field that lay between Vaucouleurs and Chinon, little is left to us. The story, if we knew the details, would of itself make an exciting book. Because of the enemy, the "army" must avoid the roads and bridges. Icy rivers, swollen by winter rains, must be forded in the dark. There were four of these between Vaucouleurs and St. Urbain, their first stop—two of them deep and swift. Joan had ridden as any other peasant child might ride to and from the field. To swim a horse through a racing current was another matter. Without doubt her knights kept her between them. None of them later spoke of this—such things became too common.
It was near morning when they reached the Abbey of St. Urbain, thirty miles from Vaucouleurs. How grateful was the welcome it offered, the comfort they found within. The distance still to be traveled was more than three hundred miles. Everywhere was the enemy; such roads as there were they could not follow, but must keep to the forest. After St. Urbain there would be no such protecting shelter. How precious are the brief accounts left by Joan's cavaliers of that terrific winter journey. Said Jean de Metz:
"We traveled by night, through fear of the English and Burgundians, who were in possession of the roads. We were on the road the space of eleven days, always riding."
Always riding, through the winter night and storm, with every little way a black, boiling river, and none that by any chance ran in their direction. Sometimes in deep anxiety, de Metz said to Joan:
"Will you surely do what you say?"
To which she never failed to reply:
"Have no fear; what I do, I do by commandment."
When they could travel no more they sought out some hidden place to sleep, stretched themselves in their wet clothing, Joan between her two knights, her sworn protectors from evil. De Metz and de Poulengy both told of this, and the latter added:
"During the eleven days that our journey lasted we had many afflictions, but Joan always said to us: ‘Fear nothing. You shall see how at Chinon the noble Dauphin will greet us with a glad face.’ In hearing her speak I felt myself deeply stirred."
Few episodes in knightly annals can compare with the eleven days' journey of this little army, struggling through seemingly endless nights, beset by hidden dangers, dropping down exhausted for a little rest on the frozen ground. A girl of seventeen, fording rivers in February and sleeping on the ground afterward! But Joan was strong of body, and made stronger by her purpose. Between her faithful knights she probably slept untroubled by doubts and dreams. If only de Poulengy had told us something more of the "many afflictions."
flictions." Were they night alarms, hairbreadth escapes, accidents, periods of hunger? The country was stripped, picked clean by war; villages were desolated, peasants lying dead at their thresholds. De Metz told of providing Joan with money, for alms, without doubt for straggling survivors. Supplies could be found only in the larger places, and these were in enemy hands. The King's messengers knew the route and its resources, but two men foraging for themselves is one thing, while provisioning an army of seven is quite another.
Joan herself dismissed this terrific journey with a word. It was her habit to meet troubles without fear, and once they were over to put them behind her. "My Voices often came to me," she said. She further said they passed by Auxerre, and that she heard mass there at the cathedral. How did she manage this? Auxerre was a hostile city, walled, its massive gates guarded. De Poulengy did not hear mass on the way, but de Metz heard it twice. So it was Joan and de Metz who left their camp disguised, crossed the river Yonne, climbed the steep hill, took their chances with the guards at the city gates, and threaded their way through the narrow streets to the great cathedral, where today there is a statue of the Maid kneeling, with an inscription which tells us that Joan of Arc on her way to Chinon stopped there, February 27, 1429, to pray.
They had been four days coming from Vaucouleurs, a distance, as they traveled, of one hundred and fifty miles. The
way to Chinon was longer than that behind them, but the worst was over. Another two days of blind paths and dark rivers and they would reach Gien, a friendly city on the Loire. There were marauding bands beyond Gien, but the land was loyal, and they need not avoid the towns.
Came to St. Catherine de Fierbois
At Gien they told who they were and were given welcome. The messengers, possibly the knights, were known there, and word quickly flew in every direction that a maid from the borders of Lorraine, fulfilling an old prophecy, was on her way to restore the King. It reached the people shut up in Orleans and gave them hope. It found its way to the besieging English camps and filled them with dread. Captains and men jeered at the idea, but they were afraid. They believed Joan a witch. Of the French army they had no fear; witchcraft was another matter.
Joan did not linger at Gien. She had great work to do—the greatest ever given to one of her years—she must be on her way. Crossing the Loire she may have been reminded, that forty miles farther down its waters washed the walls of Orleans to whose relief she was marching. For the present they must avoid that city, passing below and beyond it.
The season was less bitter now; they rode through a fair,
level land, where one need not always avoid the roads and where rivers ran in the right direction. They made their way to the Cher and followed it to Selles, to which loyal city she was one day to come in her glory, then presently bending southward came to St. Catherine de Fierbois, a famous shrine.
Joan had heard of Fierbois, for word of these holy places traveled far. Many knights made pilgrimages to this chapel of Saint Catherine, to give thanks for preservation from great danger and to leave some portion of their arms, as an offering. Joan had been preserved through great dangers; Saint Catherine was one of her Voices—she would offer prayers from a grateful heart.
She heard three masses at Fierbois and sent a letter to the King at Chinon, now only eighteen miles distant. In this letter she told him that she had traveled far to reach him and knew many things for his good. Afterward she testified:
"It seems to me that I said to him . . . that I would know him among all others."
Joan could neither read nor write, and it is not likely that her knights were much better off. Few in that day had these accomplishments. Some priest of St. Catherine's wrote the letter, of which unfortunately no trace remains today. She expected an answer, for in it she asked the King if she should enter the town where he was. None came. Her letter may never have reached Charles, a weakling surrounded by frivolous
lows or malicious triflers, who would be likely to throw aside such a message.
The little army spent the night at Fierbois, and was off next morning for Chinon. Arriving at a point where the grim castle on the heights came into view, the peasant girl of Domremy must have been deeply moved. The long gray pile of towers and buildings and battlements that crowned the hilltop contained her uncrowned King. Her mission was to restore his realm and place the crown upon his head—she, a young girl, humble, unknown, who had been taught only to sew and to spin at her mother's side. The great stronghold was already ancient—weather-beaten by centuries of storm and battle—a frowning front of masonry, terrifying to a heart less resolute than hers.
Joan once spoke of her arrival at Chinon, but said no more than that she "arrived near the King without interference and lodged first at an inn kept by an honest woman."