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   Chapter 5 THE MAID

The Path of the King By John Buchan Characters: 25790

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The hostel of the Ane Raye poured from its upper and lower windows a flood of light into the gathering August dusk. It stood, a little withdrawn among its beeches, at a cross-roads, where the main route southward from the Valois cut the highway from Paris to Rheims and Champagne. The roads at that hour made ghostly white ribbons, and the fore-court of dusty grasses seemed of a verdure which daylight would disprove. Weary horses nuzzled at a watertrough, and serving-men in a dozen liveries made a bustle around the stables, which formed two sides of the open quadrangle. At the foot of the inn signpost beggars squatted-here a leper whining monotonously, there lustier vagrants dicing for supper. At the main door a knot of young squires stood talking in whispers-impatient, if one judged from the restless clank of metal, but on duty, as appeared when a new-comer sought entrance and was brusquely denied. For in an upper room there was business of great folk, and the commonalty must keep its distance.

That upper room was long and low-ceiled, with a canopied bed in a corner and an oaken table heaped with saddle-bags. A woman sat in a chair by the empty hearth, very bright and clear in the glow of the big iron lantern hung above the chimney. She was a tall girl, exquisitely dressed, from the fine silk of her horned cap to the amethyst buckles on her Spanish shoes. The saddle-bags showed that she was fresh from a journey, but her tirewoman's hands must have been busy, for she bore no marks of the road.

Her chin was in her hands, and the face defined by the slim fingers was small and delicate, pale with the clear pallor of perfect health, and now slowly flushing to some emotion. The little chin was firm, but the mouth was pettish. Her teeth bit on a gold chain, which encircled her neck and held a crystal reliquary. A spoiled pretty child, she looked, and in a mighty ill temper.

The cause of it was a young man who stood disconsolately by a settle a little way out of the lantern's glow. The dust of the white roads lay on his bodyarmour and coated the scabbard of his great sword. He played nervously with the plume of a helmet which lay on the settle, and lifted his face now and then to protest a word. It was an honest face, ruddy with wind and sun and thatched with hair which his mislikers called red but his friends golden.

The girl seemed to have had her say. She turned wearily aside, and drew the chain between her young lips with a gesture of despair.

"Since when have you become Burgundian, Catherine?" the young man asked timidly. The Sieur Guy de Laval was most notable in the field but he had few arts for a lady's chamber.

"I am no Burgundian," she said, "but neither am I Armagnac. What concern have we in these quarrels? Let the Kings who seek thrones do the fighting. What matters it to us whether knock-kneed Charles or fat Philip reign in Paris?"

The young man shuddered as if at a blasphemy "This is our country of France. I would rid it of the English and all foreign bloodsuckers."

"And your way is to foment the quarrel among Frenchmen? You are a fool, Guy. Make peace with Burgundy and in a month there will be no Goddams left in France."

"It is the voice of La Tremouille."

"It is the voice of myself, Catherine of Beaumanoir. And if my kinsman of La Tremouille say the same, the opinion is none the worse for that. You meddle with matters beyond your understanding.... But have done with statecraft, for that is not the heart of my complaint. You have broken your pledged word, sir. Did you not promise me when you set out that you would abide the issue of the Bourbon's battle before you took arms? Yet I have heard of you swashbuckling in that very fight at Rouvray, and only the miracle of God brought you out with an unbroken neck."

"The Bourbon never fought," said de Laval sullenly. "Only Stewart and his Scots stood up against Fastolf's spears. You would not have me stay idle in face of such odds. I was not the only French knight who charged. There was La Hire and de Saintrailles and the Bastard himself."

"Yet you broke your word," was the girl's cold answer. "Your word to me. You are forsworn, sir."

The boy's face flushed deeply. "You do not understand, my sweet Catherine. There have been mighty doings in Touraine, which you have not heard of in Picardy. Miracles have come to pass. Orleans has been saved, and there is now a great army behind Charles. In a little while we shall drive the English from Paris, and presently into the sea. There is hope now and a clear road for us Frenchmen. We have heard the terrible English 'Hurra' grow feeble, and 'St. Denis' swell like a wind in heaven. For God has sent us the Maid...."

The girl had risen and was walking with quick, short steps from hearth to open window.

"Tell me of this maid," she commanded.

"Beyond doubt she is a daughter of God," said de Laval.

"Beyond doubt. But I would hear more of her."

Her tone was ominously soft, and the young man was deceived by it. He launched into a fervid panegyric of Jeanne of Arc. He told of her doings at Orleans, when her standard became the oriflamme of France, and her voice was more stirring than trumpets; of her gentleness and her wisdom. He told of his first meeting with her, when she welcomed him in her chamber. "She sent for wine and said that soon she would drink it with me in Paris. I saw her mount a plunging black horse, herself all in white armour, but unhelmeted. Her eyes were those of a great captain, and yet merciful and mild like God's Mother. The sight of her made the heart sing like a May morning. No man could fear death in her company. They tell how..."

But he got no farther. The girl's face was pale with fury, and she tore at her gold neck-chain till it snapped.

"Enough of your maid!" she cried. "Maid, forsooth! The shame of her has gone throughout the land. She is no maid, but a witch, a light-of-love, a blasphemer. By the Rood, Sir Guy, you choose this instant between me and your foul peasant. A daughter of Beaumanoir does not share her lover with a crack-brained virago."

The young man had also gone pale beneath his sunburn. "I will not listen," he cried. "You blaspheme a holy angel."

"But listen you shall," and her voice quivered with passion. She marched up to him and faced him, her slim figure as stiff as a spear. "This very hour you break this mad allegiance and conduct me home to Beaumanoir. Or, by the Sorrows of Mary, you and I will never meet again."

De Laval did not speak, but stood gazing sadly at the angry loveliness before him. His own face had grown as stubborn as hers.

"You do not know what you ask," he said at length. "You would have me forswear my God, and my King, and my manhood."

"A fig for such manhood," she cried with ringing scorn. "If that is a man's devotion, I will end my days in a nunnery. I will have none of it, I tell you. Choose, my fine lover choose-between me and your peasant."

The young man looked again at the blazing eyes and then without a word turned slowly and left the room. A moment later the sound of horses told that a company had taken the road.

The girl stood listening till the noise died away. Then she sank all limp in a chair and began to cry. There was wrath in her sobs, and bitter self-pity. She had made a fine tragedy scene, but the glory of it was short. She did not regret it, but an immense dreariness had followed on her heroics. Was there ever, she asked herself, a more unfortunate lady?

And she had been so happy. Her lover was the bravest gallant that ever came out of Brittany; rich too, and well beloved, and kin to de Richemont, the Constable. In the happy days at Beaumanoir he was the leader in jousts and valiances, the soul of hunting parties, the lightest foot in the dance. The Beaumanoirs had been a sleepy stock, ever since that Sir Aimery, long ago, who had gone crusading with Saint Louis and ridden out of the ken of mortals. Their wealth had bought them peace, and they had kept on good terms alike with France and Burgundy, and even with the unruly captains of England. Wars might sweep round their marches, but their fields were unravaged. Shrewd, peaceable folk they were, at least the males of the house. The women had been different, for the daughters of Beaumanoir had been notable for beauty and wit and had married proudly, till the family was kin to half the nobleness of Artois and Picardy and Champagne. There was that terrible great-aunt at Coucy, and the aunts at Beaulieu and Avranches, and the endless cousinhood stretching as far south as the Nivernais.... And now the main stock had flowered in her, the sole child of her father, and the best match to be found that side of the Loire.

She sobbed in the chagrin of a new experience. No one in her soft cushioned life had ever dared to gainsay her. At Beaumanoir her word was law. She had loved its rich idleness for the power it gave her. Luxurious as she was, it was no passive luxury that she craved, but the sense of mastery, of being a rare thing set apart. The spirit of the women of Beaumanoir burned fiercely in her.... She longed to set her lover in the forefront of the world. Let him crusade if he chose, but not in a beggars' quarrel. And now the palace of glass was shivered, and she was forsaken for a peasant beguine. The thought set her pacing to the window.

There seemed to be a great to-do without. A dozen lanterns lit up the forecourt, and there was a tramping of many horses. A shouting, too, as if a king were on the move. She hurriedly dried her eyes and arranged her dress, tossing the reliquary and its broken chain on the table. Some new guests; and the inn was none too large. She would have the landlord flayed if he dared to intrude on the privacy which she had commanded. Nay, she would summon her people that instant and set off for home, for her company was strong enough to give security in the midnight forests.

She was about to blow a little silver whistle to call her steward when a step at the door halted her. A figure entered, a stranger. It was a tall stripling, half armed like one who is not for battle but expects a brush at any corner of the road. A long surcoat of dark green and crimson fell stiffy as if it covered metal, and the boots were spurred and defended in front with thin plates of steel. The light helm was open and showed a young face. The stranger moved wearily as if from a long journey.

"Good even to you, sister," said the voice, a musical voice with the broad accent of Lorraine. "Help me to get rid of this weariful harness."

Catherine's annoyance was forgotten in amazement. Before she knew what she did her fingers were helping the bold youth to disarm. The helm was removed, the surcoat was stripped, and the steel corslet beneath it. With a merry laugh the stranger kicked off the great boots which were too wide for his slim legs.

He stretched himself, yawning, and then laughed again. "By my staff," he said, "but I am the weary one." He stood now in the full glow of the lantern, and Catherine saw that he wore close-fitting breeches of fine linen, a dark pourpoint, and a tunic of blue. The black hair was cut short like a soldier's, and the small secret face had the clear tan of one much abroad in wind and sun. The eyes were tired and yet merry, great grey eyes as clear and deep as a moorland lake.... Suddenly she understood. It may have been the sight of the full laughing lips, or the small maidenly breasts outlined by the close-fitting linen. At any rate she did not draw back when the stranger kissed her cheek.

"Ah, now I am woman again," said the crooning voice. The unbuckled sword in its leather sheath was laid on the table beside the broken reliquary. "Let us rest side by side, sister, for I long for maids' talk."

But now Catherine started and recoiled. For on the blue tunic she had caught sight of an embroidered white dove bearing in its beak the scroll De par le Roy du ciel. It was a blazon the tale of which had gone through France.

"You are she!" she stammered. "The witch of Lorraine!"

The other looked wonderingly at her. "I am Jeanne of Arc," she said simply. "She whom they call the Pucelle. Do you shrink from me, sister?"

Catherine's face was aflame. She remembered her lost lover, and the tears scarcely dry. "Out upon you!" she cried. "You are that false woman that corrupt men's hearts." And again her fingers sought the silver whistle.

Jeanne looked sadly upon her. Her merry eyes had grown grave.

"I pray you forbear. I do not heed the abuse of men, but a woman's taunts hurt me. They have spoken falsely of me, dear sister. I am no witch, but a poor girl who would fain do the commands of God."

She sank on the settle with the relaxed limbs of utter fatigue. "I was happy when they told me there was a lady

here. I bade Louis and Raymond and the Sieur d'Aulon leave me undisturbed till morning, for I would fain rest. Oh, but I am weary of councils! They are all blind. They will not hear the plain wishes of God.... And I have so short a time! Only a year, and now half is gone!"

The figure had lost all its buoyancy, and become that of a sad, overwrought girl. Catherine found her anger ebbing and pity stealing into her heart. Could this tired child be the virago against whom she had sworn vengeance? It had none of a woman's allure, no arts of the light-of-love. Its eyes were as simple as a boy's.... She looked almost kindly at the drooping Maid.

But in a moment the languor seemed to pass from her. Her face lit up, as to the watcher in the darkness a window in a tower suddenly becomes a square of light. She sank on her knees, her head thrown back, her lips parted, the long eyelashes quiet on her cheeks. A sudden stillness seemed to fall on everything. Catherine held her breath, and listened to the beating of her heart.

Jeanne's lips moved, and then her eyes opened. She stood up again, her face entranced and her gaze still dwelling on some hidden world... Never had Catherine seen such happy radiance.

"My Brothers of Paradise spoke with me. They call me sometimes when I am sad. Their voices said to me, 'Daughter of God, go forward. We are at your side.'"

Catherine trembled. She seemed on the edge of a world of which in all her cosseted life she had never dreamed, a world of beautiful and terrible things. There was rapture in it, and a great awe. She had forgotten her grievances in wonder.

"Do not shrink from me," said the voice which seemed to have won an unearthly sweetness. "Let us sit together and tell our thoughts. You are very fair. Have you a lover?"

The word brought the girl to earth. "I had a lover, but this night I dismissed him. He fights in your company, and I see no need for this war."

Jeanne's voice was puzzled. "Can a man fight in a holier cause than to free his country?"

"The country..." But Catherine faltered. Her argument with Guy now seemed only pettishness.

"You are a great lady," said Jeanne, "and to such as you liberty may seem a little thing. You are so rich that you need never feel constraint. But to us poor folk freedom is life itself. It sweetens the hind's pottage, and gives the meanest an assurance of manhood.... Likewise it is God's will. My Holy Ones have told me that sweet France shall be purged from bondage. They have bidden me see the King crowned and lead him to Paris.... After that they have promised me rest."

She laid an arm round Catherine's neck and looked into her eyes.

"You are hungry, sister mine," she said.

The girl started. For the eyes were no longer those of a boy, but of a mother-very wise, very tender. Her own mother had died so long ago that she scarcely remembered her. A rush of longing came over her for something she had never known. She wanted to lay her head on that young breast and weep.

"You are hungry-and yet I think you have been much smiled on by fortune. You are very fair, and for most women to be beautiful is to be happy. But you are not content, and I am glad of it. There is a hunger that is divine...."

She broke off, for the girl was sobbing. Crumpled on the floor, she bent her proud head to the Maid's lap "What must I do?" she cried piteously. "The sight of you makes me feel my rottenness. I have been proud of worthless things and I have cherished that wicked pride that I might forget the doubts knocking on my heart. You say true, I am not content. I shall never be content, I am most malcontent with myself.... Would to God that like you I had been born a peasant!"

The tragic eyes looked up to find the Maid laughing-a kind, gentle merriment. Catherine flushed as Jeanne took her tear-stained face in her hands.

"You are foolish, little sister. I would I had been born to your station. My task would have been easier had I been Yoland of Sicily or that daughter of the King of Scots from whom many looked for the succour of France. Folly, folly! There is no virtue in humble blood. I would I had been a queen! I love fine clothes and rich trappings and the great horse which d'Alencon gave me. God has made a brave world and I would that all His people could get the joy of it. I love it the more because I have only a little time in it."

"But you are happy," said the girl, "and I want such happiness."

"There is no happiness," said the Maid, "save in doing the will of God our Father."

"But I do not know His will.... I am resolved now. I will take the vows and become a religious, and then I shall find peace. I am weary of all this confusing world."

"Foolish one," and Jeanne played with the little curls which strayed around Catherine's ear. "You were not born for a nunnery. Not that way God calls you."

"Show me His way," the girl implored.

"He shows His way privily to each heart, and His ways are many. For some the life of devout contemplation, but not for you, sister. Your blood is too fiery and your heart too passionate.... You have a lover? Tell me his name."

Docilely Catherine whispered it, and Jeanne laughed merrily.

"Sir Guy! My most loyal champion. By my staff, you are the blessed maid. There is no more joyous knight in all the fields of France."

"I do not seek wedlock. Oh, it is well for you who are leading armies and doing the commands of God. Something tells me that in marriage I shall lose my soul."

The girl was on her knees with her hands twined. "Let me follow you," she cried. "I will bring a stout company behind me. Let me ride with you to the freeing of France. I promise to be stalwart."

The Maid shook her head gently.

"Then I take the vows." The obstinate little mouth had shut and there were no tears now in the eyes.

"Listen, child," and Jeanne took the suppliant hands in hers. "It is true that God has called me to a holy task. He has sent His angels to guide me and they talk with me often. The Lady of Fierbois has given me a mystic sword. I think that in a little while this land will be free again.... But I shall not see it, for God's promise is clear, and for me it does not give length of days. I did not seek this errand of mine. I resisted the command, till God was stern with me and I submitted with bitter tears. I shall die a maid, and can never know the blessedness of women. Often at night I weep to think that I shall never hold a babe next my heart."

The face of Jeanne was suddenly strained with a great sadness. It was Catherine's turn to be the comforter. She sat herself beside her and drew her head to her breast.

"For you I see a happier fate-a true man's wife-the mother of sons. Bethink you of the blessedness. Every wife is like the Mother of God-she has the hope of bearing a saviour of mankind. She is the channel of the eternal purpose of Heaven. Could I change-could I change! What fortunate wife would envy a poor maid that dwells in the glare of battle?... Nay, I do not murmur. I do God's will and rejoice in it. But I am very lonely."

For a little there was silence, an ecstatic silence. Something hard within Catherine melted and she felt a gush of pity. No longer self-pity, but compassion for another. Her heart grew suddenly warm. It was as if a window had been opened in a close room to let in air and landscape.

"I must rest, for there is much ado to-morrow. Will you sleep by me, for I have long been starved of a woman's comradeship?"

In the great canopied bed the two girls lay till morning. Once in the darkness Catherine started and found her arms empty. Jeanne was kneeling by the window, her head thrown back and the moonlight on her upturned face. When she woke in the dawn the Maid was already up, trussing the points of her breeches and struggling with her long boots. She was crooning the verse of a ballad:

"Serais je nonette' Crois que non-"

and looking with happy eyes at the cool morning light on the forest.

"Up, sleepy-head," she cried. "Listen to the merry trampling of the horses. I must start, if I would spare the poor things in the noon. Follow me with your prayers, for France rides with me. I love you, sweet sister. Be sure I will hasten to you when my work is done."

So the Maid and her company rode off through the woods to Compiegne, and a brooding and silent Catherine took the north road to Picardy.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The promise was kept. Once again Catherine saw and had speech of Jeanne. It was nearly two years later, when she sat in a May gloaming in the house of Beaumanoir, already three months a bride. Much had happened since she had ridden north from the inn at the forest cross-roads. She had summoned de Laval to her side, and the lovers had been reconciled. Her father had died in the winter and the great fortune and wide manors of the family were now her own. Her lover had fought with Jeanne in the futile battles of the spring, but he had been far away when in the fatal sortie at Compiegne the Maid was taken by her enemies. All the summer of that year he had made desperate efforts at rescue, but Jeanne was tight in English hands, and presently was in prison at Rouen awaiting judgment, while her own king and his false councillors stirred not hand or foot to save her. Sir Guy had hurled himself on Burgundy, and with a picked band made havoc of the eastern roads, but he could not break the iron cordon of Normandy. In February they had been wed, but after that Beaumanoir saw him little, for he was reading Burgundy a lesson in the Santerre.

Catherine sat at home, anxious, tremulous, but happy. A new-made wife lives in a new world, and though at times she grieved for the shame of her land, her mind was too full of housewifely cares, and her heart of her husband, for long repining. But often the thought of Jeanne drove a sword into her contentment.... So when she lifted her eyes from her embroidery and saw the Maid before her, relief and gladness sent her running to greet her.

Long afterwards till she was very old Catherine would tell of that hour. She saw the figure outlined against a window full of the amethyst sky of evening. The white armour and the gay surcoat were gone.

Jeanne was still clad like a boy in a coarse grey tunic and black breeches, but her boots did not show any dust of the summer roads. Her face was very pale, as if from long immurement, and her eyes were no more merry. They shone instead with a grave ardour of happiness, which checked Catherine's embrace and set her heart beating.

She walked with light steps and kissed the young wife's cheek-a kiss like thistledown.

"You are free?" Catherine stammered. Her voice seemed to break unwillingly in a holy quiet.

"I am free," the Maid answered. "I have come again to you as I promised. But I cannot bide long. I am on a journey."

"You go to the King?" said Catherine.

"I go to my King."

The Maid's hand took Catherine's, and her touch was like the fall of gossamer. She fingered the girl's broad ring which had come from distant ancestors, the ring which Sir Aimery of Beaumanoir had worn in the Crusades. She raised it and pressed it to her.

Catherine's limbs would not do her bidding. She would fain have risen in a hospitable bustle, but she seemed to be held motionless. Not by fear, but by an exquisite and happy awe. She remembered afterwards that from the Maid's rough clothes had come a faint savour of wood-smoke, as from one who has been tending a bonfire in the autumn stubble.

"God be with you, lady, and with the good knight, your husband. Remember my word to you, that every wife is like Mary the Blessed and may bear a saviour of mankind. The road is long, but the ways of Heaven are sure."

Catherine stretched out her arms, for a longing so fierce had awoke in her that it gave her power to move again. Never in her life had she felt such a hunger of wistfulness. But Jeanne evaded her embrace. She stood poised as if listening.

"They are calling me. I go. Adieu, sweet sister."

A light shone in her face which did not come from the westering sun. To Catherine there was no sound of voices, but the Maid seemed to hear and answer. She raised her hand as if in blessing and passed out.

Catherine sat long in an entranced silence. Waves of utter longing flowed over her, till she fell on her knees and prayer passionately to her saints, among whom not the least was that grey-tunicked Maid whose eyes seemed doorways into heaven. Her tirewoman found her asleep on her faldstool.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Early next morning there came posts to Beaumanoir, men on weary horses with a tragic message. On the day before, in the market-place of Rouen, the chief among the daughters of God had journeyed through the fire to Paradise.

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