"The fate of empires and the doom of kings
Lies clearly spread before my childish mind."
—Schiller (Maid of Orleans).
A LMOST ever since the death of Dante war had been raging between England and France. For some hundred years it had gone on, until at last it was ended by a young girl known to history as Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. This is a very wonderful story of how the girl, Joan, saved her country and freed it from the hands of the foreigner.
She was born in the year 1412, away in a small village called Domrémy on the outskirts of a great wood. The child loved the forest. Birds and beasts came lovingly to her childish call. She learnt to spin and sew with other little girls, but never to read and write. She was tender to the poor and sick, fond of church and the church bells. But her quiet life was soon broken by the storm of war.
The King of France died and his son was proclaimed Charles VII., but the King of England called himself king and refused to acknowledge the French ruler. All this reached the ears of Joan, the little maid, dreaming away in her distant home amid the forests. And she "had pity on the fair realm of France."
One summer afternoon, when Joan was about thirteen, she thought she heard a voice saying to her, "Joan, be a good child, go often to church."
After this she often heard voices speaking to her, until one day she heard this: "Joan, you must go to the help of the King of France, for you shall give him back his kingdom."
"But I am only a poor maiden," pleaded Joan; "I know not how to ride to the wars or to lead men-at-arms."
Then she remembered that Merlin, the old magician who had rescued King Arthur, had said that France should be saved by a maiden from the country. Joan wept and prayed, but she knew that somehow she must go and see the king.
"It was for this I was born," she urged, when they laughed at her earnestness.
So at last it was settled that she should be taken to the king. It took eleven days to reach the Court, where Charles was living. Nobles and courtiers awaited the arrival of the peasant girl, half in sport. Even Charles had the playfulness to hide among his courtiers as she entered, but the maid knew him at once. Falling down on her knees before him,—"I am sent you by the King of Heaven to tell you that you shall be crowned King of France," she cried.
The jesting courtiers grew grave, and the young king listened to her earnest pleading. At last Charles consented to let her go and try her fortune against the English, who were besieging the town of Orleans. So Joan of Arc started forth. For her banner, she had worked the lilies of France in gold upon a white ground on one side, while on the other was the face of God looking down from the clouds upon the earth.
As she mounted her charger, clad in white armour from head to foot, her great white banner in one hand, her sword by her side, the rough French soldiers felt proud of following her, for they looked on her as something divine. When she reached Orleans she found her countrymen ready to give up the town, which had been besieged for seven long months by the English. Her appearance brought them hope and fresh courage. At the sight of her, in her shining armour, with her mystic banner raised on high, the English were struck with terror.
"She is a witch," they said among themselves.
Fort after fort had been taken. One strong one remained. Joan was determined to take it. She led out the soldiers against this last fort. The English fought desperately, and the maid fell wounded. She was carried away. Suddenly she heard that the French were failing. Heedless of her wound, she mounted her horse, unfurled her banner, and returned.
"Watch my standard," she cried; "when it touches the walls you shall enter the fort."
The return of this wounded witch at the head of her men filled the English with renewed terror. Suddenly above the din of battle rang out the clear voice of the maid, "The victory is ours!"
It was true. The long weary siege was ended: Orleans belonged to the French once more. And it was all due to the courage and inspiration of Joan of Arc.
Entering the great church at Orleans, she wept so passionately that all the people wept with her. Then, flushed with victory, with the shouts of her fellow-soldiers yet ringing in her ears, she made her way to the king.
"Come and be crowned king at Rheims," she cried, throwing herself at his feet; and two months later she stood in her armour of shining steel, her white banner held on high, to see the king crowned. Her mission was now accomplished and she wished to go home, but the king forced her to remain. The end of the story is very sad. The English declared that she was indeed a witch, and for this she was tried. The trial was a long one, and grossly unfair. Charles put out no hand to save her, though she had won him back his crown and saved his kingdom.
"I hold to my Judge," she cried, as her earthly judges gave sentence against her,—"to the King of heaven and earth."
She was condemned to die. A great pile was raised in the market-place at Rouen, where now her statue stands. Her martyrdom was as heroic as had been her life.
"Oh Rouen! Rouen!" she was heard to murmur, as she looked over the city from her lofty scaffold, "I have great fear lest you suffer for my death. Yes, my voices were from God," she cried suddenly, as the flames curled up around her.
Then her head drooped forward, and with one last cry of "Jesus," the Maid of Orleans perished.
"We are lost," muttered an Englishman as the crowd broke up; "we have burned a saint."
But the French people who loved her tell a story of how, when all was over and the heroic Maid of Orleans was but a heap of smouldering ashes, a beautiful white dove rose up from the smoking pile and flew upward towards the sky. It was the dove Peace, they said, that had spread its wings over the fair land of France, saved by Joan of Arc.