Old Rouen! What place is so sadly memorable of the glorious Maid as thou, for thou Overt indeed her "last home," as she apostrophized thee in the final hour. Here she underwent the long agony of her trial, the double martyrdom of the prison and the pyre! But Rouen that gave her death was also to give her life immortal; it is from this place that we date the beginning of her greater career, of her grander, more spiritual mission.
This being our pilgrim-halt, patient reader, we may profitably look about us in the old city of Rollo, with a contemporary eye, before turning to the several mementoes of Jeanne d'Arc. Rouen is charming in not a few aspects, legendary, deeply rooted in history, of a fascination antique and wonderful; in short, all that the guidebooks say of it.
Nevertheless, it is not among my favorite French cities—no small list, bien entendu. A preference of this sort is not readily explained; something personal, psychological enters into it, difficult to define. One is not taken brutally by a city or by a woman, and
one does not have to explain why. You simply cannot give yourself—voila tout!
Undoubtedly the people count for much in your attraction or repulsion. My sojourn having been short, I would not trust overweeningly to my impresions and reactions. However, I may not pretend to like the Rouennais as I like the Tourangeaux or the Orleanais or the Niemois or the Marseillais, to mention no more. But why I don't is rather an invidious question, yet one not remote from the interest of our book.
The Norman character is proverbially crafty-malin, the French say, and the Normans are apt to agree; over-shrewd, self-centered, grasping, covetous. In Rouen the price was settled for Jeanne's blood, here the great crime was committed, and here the executioners received their blood-money, priests as well as laymen.
Perhaps the Rouennais are no more keen for the main chance, no more sedulous in pursuit of the franc, than their compatriots of other regions of France. But to a stranger, at least, this greed of gain seems more pronounced in Rouen than elsewhere; again because it is less veiled and attenuated with the fine courtesy of the French. The Provincial will perhaps ask as high a price as the Norman, but his soft manner dissembles the extortion; whereas the son of Rollo still retains something of the brusqueness of the Vikings. Poor Jeanne! I can sympathize with her aversion. to making her long home in Rouen; quaint and
admirable as it is, I should not care to live there. Do we not by such a wish measure our affection for a foreign city? . . . No, I could not long remain happy in the city of Cauchon! .. .
There is an English note in Rouen which more or less agreeably strikes the casual visitor, and a certain veiled repugnance toward Americans, which seems of kindred motive. I would not refer these symptoms to the ancient English occupation of the city, which may or may not have definitely marked the Rouennais character. At any rate, the city is favored rather demonstratively by British tourists and sojourners—for historic reasons, don't you know?—and the king's English is maltreated by the hotel and tradesfolk with smiling hardihood. Also, in deference to their British clientele, the Rouennais make a parade of flunkyism and affect a sort of snobbishness which is distinctly false to their native character and not really complimentary to the English. The part is one wholly unsuited to the French, who, as a rule, are not given to making themselves ridiculous.
This does not please entirely; like Jeanne herself, I prefer the English in England, the French in France.
Jeanne remains a source of profit to the Rouennais, who lay great store by her legend, though they have done little for her in an artistic way. The statue in the Place de la Pucelle seems of a false taste. Jeanne is represented as Bellona, the goddess of war, which sufficiently denotes its character. The work antedates
the best art created in honor of Jeanne and the modern renascence of her fame.
The noblest, worthiest monument to the Maid is to be seen at Bon-Secours, two miles from Rouen, five hundred feet above sea-level; erected in 1892. It stands opposite to the beautiful church of BonSecours (a popular shrine), commanding a great sweep of the Seine Valley, Rouen, its churches and monuments. No site more grand could be imagined. Jeanne is there enthroned, as it were, and deified, looking down upon that prospect which had so ravished the English masters of France. Ah, she took it away from them, after all! There is the old, wondrous city, sunlight flashing from tower and pinnacle; there the great flowing river that received her ashes. . . .
The monumental edifice is of graceful Renaissance style, in three campanulate structures, the central and tallest of which contains a superb marble statue of Jeanne by Barrias. An inspiring figure, brave, beautiful, the hands chained, the wide gaze embracing heaven and earth. This part of the monument is topped by a statue of St. Michael in bronze by Thomas. In the smaller lateral chambers are lovely marble images of Ste. Catherine and Ste. Marguerite.
I wonder what my Lord Duke Bedford and the pious Cauchon would give for a look at it? Can't you see them scuffling and belting each other at a peephole in their smoky residence? . . . Ah! things have changed somewhat since the worthy pair contrived their bon proses and reckoned themselves the cleverest fellows in the world. . . .
With this grand exception, the monuments of the Maid that one sees in Rouen have reference to her trial and death. First, there is the tower of the chateau Bouvreuil, in which she was held prisoner during several months, and sometimes examined there by her judges. Nothing else remains of the great castle, the strong keep of the English in those times when they seemed to march on resolutely to the conquest of France. Perhaps it was not really Jeanne's tower—there were several others attached to the ancient structure, we know; but we are not averse to well-meaning deceptions, which give life and blood to tradition. Then also it may have been Jeanne's tower—you will find nobody to dispute this in Rouen. But nothing about it can be genuine, save the site and the foundations, the restoration having been made in 1866. Within is shown what purports to have been the dungeon of Jeanne's companion-at-arms, the bold Xaintrailles, a tradition ill supported. La Hire and he have been credited with an attempt to snatch her from this English keep, but the tale is not strongly warranted and seems to have been founded upon an "alarum" contrived by her friends.
Also, it is firmly held by the custodians that the Maid was threatened with the torture in this very place by her judges, and here made her undaunted reply. The mere notion gives life to the stones under your feet! .. .
An unquestionable relic is the grim old archiepiscopal palace where Jeanne was taken and examined several times in the course of her trial. It stands solid
as ever, frowning, suspicious, formidable, even like the type of high churchman or militant priest whose strong house it was in those old times—a man who dealt in temporal as well as spiritual arms. I stood long before the low massive door, which Jeanne must have entered with her keepers, and thought of her contraction of the heart, knowing how little mercy she should find there! And again I bethought me of the scarlet wolves—keepers of the sheep, forsooth, that raged for the blood of this Lamb of God! .. .
On the wall, side by side, are two plaques, the one recording the condemnation, 1432, the other setting forth the reversal, 1456 – an impressive symbol of the errancy of human, even priestly judgments!
From the old strong palace of the archbishops, long aimed at by the Bishop of Beauvais, I went to the garden of St. Ouen near-by, where the scene of Jeanne's alleged abjuration was cunningly arranged by Cauchon and his accomplices. Formerly attached to the Church of St. Ouen, the place is now a public garden wherein an inscription recalls this last perfidious attempt to destroy the highest honor of Jeanne d'Arc and to annul the verity of her heavenly call. One imagines that gloomy scene, the assembled priests and judges, the crowd of onlookers, the prisoner pale but collected, the imprecating preacher, the executioner standing by, and the honest people who reach out their arms to Jeanne, begging her to save herself from the fire. That piece of diabolism failed, like all the rest, and the place, now clothed in the verdure of spring and merry with the laughter of children,
served but to remind me of her unconquerable faith.
From St. Ouen—not omitting a peep into the beautiful church I walked to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, dating from the thirteenth century, one of the richest and noblest in France, sanctified with great memories and august traditions. Here Ste. Jeanne d'Arc is fittingly honored, though less demonstratively than in the Cathedral of Orleans. Her altar is on the right as you enter, a lovely and spacious one; statue of the Maid between two allegorical figures; all in marble. I wait awhile and observe that it is not neglected by the Rouennais. Here, as elsewhere, the religious sentiment towards Jeanne is strongly manifest.
In this chapel of Jeanne d'Arc, in the old Norman cathedral where the English princes worshiped at the time they held France in an iron grip, I saw something that interested me more than any of the so-called treasures of the church. It was a fair-sized plaque attached to the wall of Jeanne's chapel, a little to the left of her statue. It was touched in red and black, and bore the British royal devices, also the mottoes, Honi soit qui mal y pence and Dieu et mom droit. The inscription in English read:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND TO THE MEMORY OF ONE MILLION MEN OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918, AND OF WHOM THE GREATER PART REST IN FRANCE.
Here is a solemn testimony of peace and reconciliation which, by a happy inspiration, is placed
under the protection of Jeanne herself, relying upon her old magnanimous spirit. One may augur well from this reverent gesture. May it conduce more and more to friendship between England and France!
Last of all, I went to visit that sad and, alas! indubitable (Not strictly correct: the Place de la Pucelle, site of the large fountain-monument above mentioned, was at one time identified as the true local of the execution. In the course of five centuries the human memory is apt to become unstable!) monument—le vieux marche, the old market-place where Jeanne suffered the uttermost malice of her enemies; whence the priests fled, some in tears, after consummating their evil work. A small square in the pavement bears this inscription, eloquent from its brevity:
I have often stood musing there, thinking how many have made the pilgrimage to this spot in love and veneration for the humble child who was raised up as a light to the nations; none worthier among them than the noble Englishman Charles Dickens, who has written:
THEY THREW HER ASHES INTO THE SEINE, BUT THEY WILL RISE AGAINST HER MURDERERS ON THE LAST DAY!
I wish to part kindly with Rouen, for, like the lover of Cynara, I remain faithful to her, "in my fashion"; and often I catch myself dreaming of the
stern old Norman city, her ancient streets and venerable temples; the grosse horloge that was old before Jeanne d'Arc's day; the grim tower that recalls her heroic life and death; that haunting relic of time, the house in the rue St. Romain; that other speaking antiquity, the Hotel Bourgtheroulde; the charming fontaine Sainte-Marie, trysting-place of lovers. Then the old bridges and the Seine, here at its broadest, and crowning all, Bon-Secours with the Maid monumented aloft, watching over Rouen at her feet—nay, extending her wide gaze to the frontiers of her beloved France.