Sparrow: The Story of Joan of Arc
Sparrow: The Story of Joan of Arc
HarperCollins Children’s Books
A division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published as Joan of Arc in Great Britain in paperback by Pavilion Books,
London House, Great Eastern Wharf, London SW11 4NQ in 1998
Published in 2001 by Hodder Children’s Books, a division of Hodder Headline
Limited, 338 Euston Road, London, NW1 3BH
This edition published as Sparrow – the story of Joan of Arc by HarperCollins
Children’s Books in 2012
SPARROW. Copyright © Michael Morpurgo 1998.
Michael Morpurgo asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of the work.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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SOURCE ISBN: 9780007465958
Ebook Edition © MARCH 2012 ISBN: 9780007465965
For Christine Baker
Chapter 1: One Joan a Year
Chapter 2: Voices in the Garden
Chapter 3: For France
Chapter 4: What is it About that Girl?
Chapter 5: We Need a Miracle
Chapter 6: Go Godoms, in God’s Name, Go!
Chapter 7: Joan the Miraculous, Joan the Invincible
Chapter 8: Alone in the Wilderness
Chapter 9: Trial and Tribulation
Chapter 10: Where Shall I be Tonight?
Chapter 11: The Sparrow and the Saint
About the Author
Other Books by Michael Morpurgo
About the Publisher
To begin with it was the picture. It was the picture that made it all happen – I am quite sure of it.
In the house where I grew up, in our old house in Montpellier, the picture always hung at the top of the stairs. Every time I went up to bed at night, there she’d be – Joan of Arc in her shining armour, holding her standard, with a shaft of light falling across her uplifted face. I would often gaze up at her and yearn to be serene and strong, just as she was. I wanted to have the same visionary, faraway look in my eyes, and the same hairstyle too.
But I learned very early on that my father did not share my enthusiasm. He disliked the picture intensely, about as intensely as my mother loved it. Apparently it had hung in her house when she was a child. But I didn’t like it just because my mother did. I had my own reasons, reasons I always kept to myself – until now.
My name is Eloise Hardy. I was seventeen last May. Something extraordinary has just happened to me, something so extraordinary that I feel I have to write it down. I want to remember all of it as it really happened, every moment of it, every word of it. Maybe, in the remembering of it, in the writing of it, I will begin to understand it better. I hope so.
One of my very earliest memories is of me standing in front of the full-length mirror in my mother’s bedroom, a red tablecloth over my shoulders for a cloak, a broom with a towel tied to it for my standard. I would contrive to strike my saintliest pose. I once wrote out every adjective I could think of that described her perfectly: noble, honest, kind, brave, and a few others besides. I made a resolution to be all those things for the rest of my life. It lasted for about a day, I think. I read all the books I could find about her; and the more I read, the more I wanted to be her. I made a serious start in this direction when I was about ten years old. Without ever disclosing my reasons I managed to persuade my mother to let me have my hair cut en boule, just like Joan in the picture. Seven years later and it’s still cut the same way. It suited me then. It suits me now.
Thinking back, I suppose I have always been a strange sort of girl, never quite happy being who I was, dumpier, more ordinary than everyone else around me. My face was too round, my hair too thick. At my primary school I was ‘a dreamer’, or so my teachers often said. ‘Bright as a button. Such a pity about her spelling’ ran one school report. Dyslexia was diagnosed. I didn’t mind that much. It made me different, distinctive, for a while at least. Besides, I reasoned, Joan of Arc couldn’t read and she couldn’t write either. And she managed well enough, didn’t she? I found out about all sorts of other worthy people who had done good and great and exciting things in their lives, who had changed the world – Louis Pasteur, Mother Teresa, Mongolfier, Francis of Assisi. But to me these were mere fleeting interests, no more. Joan of Arc, La Pucelle, Johanne of Domrémy, the Maid of Orléans, always remained my real mentor. And as I grew up she became my abiding soulmate.
Just last year, when I was sixteen, I was told we would be moving house. I didn’t want to leave at all. I loved my life in Montpellier, and everything about it. I was happy where I was, with my school, with my friends. But my father, who is a plastic surgeon, had been offered a job elsewhere, a better one, which was far too good an opportunity to turn down, so he said. I protested, of course, but it was no use. The decision had been made. “And anyway,” said my mother, “at least Joan on the staircase will find a good home. It’ll be the perfect place for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Orléans,” my father said. “We’re moving to Orléans.”
On my way upstairs that night I spoke to Joan, face to face, and silently. “You’ll be going back where you belong, back to Orléans, Joan, where you lifted the siege and drove the English out, where you rode triumphant through the streets, your standard fluttering over your head. We’re going to live there. I’m going to walk where you walked, be where you were. We’ll be together.”
There were no more protests from me after that, and indeed all my anxieties about moving very soon vanished. It wasn’t the end of anything. On the contrary, it was quite definitely the beginning of something. I felt it in my bones even then.
I wheedled my mother into letting me have the Joan of Arc picture to hang in my new bedroom in Orléans. She wasn’t too difficult to persuade – I think she was pleased that I still liked it so much after all these years. My father was, of course, delighted that he wouldn’t have to pass Joan of Arc on the stairs any more. He said as much. “Every time I look at her on my way to bed, she says the same thing: ‘And have you done enough for France today, Monsieur Hardy?’ Gives a man a guilty conscience. As far as I’m concerned you can stick her where you like – just as long as she can’t see me and I can’t see her.”
So now I had my Joan of Arc all to myself in my new room. I hung her above my bed. Neither my mother nor my father really knew how much she meant to me, because I never told them. I never told anyone. I didn’t want her ridiculed – and, I suppose, I didn’t want me to be ridiculed either. I didn’t want her even discussed. They were great ones for discussing everything, my parents. To discuss her would be to share her, and I didn’t want that.
Now that Joan was in my room she became even more my secret familiar, my guardian angel and my talisman. I would reach up and touch her face every night before I went to sleep; and in times of trouble I would even talk to her, but quietly in whispers, so no one could ever hear me. It sounds silly, but I began to hope for, even to expect, perhaps, replies to my questions, solutions to my troubles. None came, of course. I so much wanted to hear voices, as she had. I listened for them, longed for them, but none came.
As time passed, I talked to her more and more often, for my troubles were many. Worst amongst them was the isolation I felt at my new school. I didn’t know anyone, and no one seemed to want to know me – except, that is, for Marie Duval. Whenever she talked to me, Marie Duval made me feel I was the most important person in the world to her. I can’t think why she took me in as she did because she always had friends enough and plenty fluttering around her. There was a kind of serenity about her, a serenity I’d known in only one other person, in Joan, in my picture.
One day our black and white cat, Mimi, fifteen years old and all the brothers and sisters I had, just went off and never came back. Day after day I went miaowing round the streets, tapping her saucer with a spoon. I came home one evening to the news that a black and white cat had been run over at the bottom of our street. I wept all night long, brimful with wretchedness. The next morning I was looking up at Joan, for some crumb of comfort, I suppose, when a sudden bright hope flashed through me. Why had I assumed the worst? There must be hundreds of black and white cats in Orléans. Perhaps Mimi was just lost and couldn’t find her way home. I should go on looking, but further afield perhaps.
So it was that I found myself that same afternoon after school walking along the river towards my favourite place in Orléans, a place I’d often visited before, the river bank opposite the site of the Tourelles, the English fort that Joan of Arc had captured hundreds of years before to raise the siege of Orléans. I sat down at the river’s edge and watched a flotilla of canoes trying to negotiate the fast water under the bridge. A pair of ducks flew in, landed and swam towards me, bobbing comically. I laughed, and felt suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of complete wellbeing, of boundless optimism. Mimi would come back when she was good and ready, she’d gone off exploring. I should just stop worrying.
I looked up across the river at where the Tourelles had once stood, shading my eyes against the sun. The place must have seemed impregnable to Joan, to her soldiers, yet time after time they had stormed the walls. Again and again the English had beaten them back, and every time Joan had rallied her soldiers to the attack. She was first up the ladder, first over the ramparts, her standard whipping about her in the wind. All about her now the cheering soldiers poured over the walls. The defenders were forced back and back, and were finally overwhelmed. The slaughter was bloody and terrible. As her soldiers celebrated, I saw Joan turn away from them. I saw her crying up against the wall, out of joy, out of relief, out of horror.
It was strange. Down here by the river, I could see it all in my mind’s eye so well, so distinctly. She was short, sturdy and dark – dumpy even, just like me. Yet, in my picture at home she was tall and elegant, with the face of an angel – a slim angel. I decided I preferred the Joan of the Tourelles – the Joan of my dreams.
Day after day I came back to the same place – I confess, not to look for Mimi any more, but simply to dream the same dream. I could never lose myself in it for long though. Some earthly distraction or other would bring me back to now – a lorry rumbling over the bridge, the raucous laughter of the canoeists paddling past, or a bird hopping past my feet, usually a sparrow. There was one sparrow in particular, I noticed, that came back and back. He would stand and watch me first with one eye, then the other. So I took to feeding him, to tempt him in even closer. However much I fed him, he always came back for more. And if any of his friends tried to join in the breadcrumb feast, he’d very soon see them off. I could always tell him from the others – he had a white patch on his throat. He was a scruffy looking ragamuffin of a sparrow, but a real character. I called him Jaquot.
Every time I came now, Jaquot would be waiting for me, and I liked that. I really think he looked forward to our meetings as much as I did. He seemed to learn when to leave me alone so I could dream my dreams in peace. When one day I spoke to him it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I told him all about Joan of Arc, about my picture at home, about how she’d stormed the Tourelles and relieved Orléans. I swear he was listening to every word! But when I’d finished he was simply a greedy sparrow once again. In the end I think I went down to the river as much for Jaquot as for Joan of Arc. As for Mimi, I hadn’t forgotten about her. I just knew she’d come back. Somehow I was quite sure of it.
The first I heard of it was on a Monday morning. When I got to school the place was buzzing with excitement. Marie Duval came running up to me. “We’ve been chosen!” she said. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me what we’d been chosen for. So I asked her. Each year, it seemed, one school in Orléans was selected, and from that school one seventeen-year-old girl was chosen to be Joan of Arc, chosen to ride through the streets on a white horse dressed in silver armour and carrying her standard. Whoever was chosen would lead the entire procession. It would be in May, May 8th, on the anniversary of the relief of Orléans, just four weeks away. May 8th? May 8th? May 8th would be my seventeenth birthday!
It was some immediate encouragement to me that half the school, being boys, must be disqualified. But there were at least four hundred girls and about a hundred of those, I calculated, would be seventeen or thereabouts. By that afternoon almost every one of those eligible had put herself forward for selection, a hundred and ten in all, including Marie, including me. A hundred and ten to one. Yet I knew, as I stood there looking at the great long list of hopefuls, that I would be the one to be chosen. I had no doubt about it. We all had to write an essay – ‘The life and death of Joan of Arc’. We had two weeks to finish it and hand it in. The ten best essays would be selected, and for those ten there would be final interviews conducted by the Headmaster and the Mayor of Orléans, and then the winner would be announced.
As I walked home that afternoon I knew for certain that all of this had been meant – the picture of Joan I’d grown up with, the move from Montpellier to Orléans, my new school being chosen for the May 8th celebrations, and the fact that my birthday on the 8th May would make me seventeen and therefore eligible to be the Joan of Arc they were looking for. It wasn’t too good to be true. It was going to be true. It was going to happen. I would write the essay of my life: researching diligently, checking every spelling. I would type it out on my mother’s word processor, so they didn’t have to read my scrawly handwriting. I’d get it done on time, no procrastinations, and submit it. As sure as night follows day, it would be one of the chosen ten. And then, and then…
For two weeks I never once went near the river. Jaquot was abandoned. I confess I scarcely ever thought of him. I delved in the library and read as I’d never read before. Then I settled down and started to type, enlisting the spellcheck on the word processor almost constantly. There would be no mistakes. My mother kept saying I mustn’t get my hopes up too much, that after all I’d only just arrived at the school, that there were a hundred other girls all beavering away at their essays just as I was. But at the same time she was encouraging me to do my best. She’s a writer herself, a journalist, so she knew what she was talking about – in this instance.
“Write it for its own sake, for her sake, Eloise. Try to get under her skin. Try to find the girl behind the legend.” That was good advice. I knew it and I took it, but I didn’t tell her I had. I didn’t tell her either that I knew I was going to win anyway, that it was all fate, all a meant thing. She’d be sure to scoff at that. My father was scoffing quite enough already for both of them. “Lot of old flagwaving drumbeating claptrap, if you ask me. All this dressing-up and parading up and down about something that happened hundreds of years ago. Bit of fun, maybe; but you shouldn’t go taking it so seriously.”
When it came to it, though, he was the first to read my essay. After he’d finished he took off his glasses and looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. All he said was, “Poor girl. Poor, poor girl. How she must have suffered.” My mother said she never knew that I could write that well. I knew, too, that it was far and away the best essay I’d ever written. I was quite sure, as I handed it in, that it would be one of the chosen ten. I hoped Marie Duval’s would be another. So, when the Headmaster announced the winners, I was pleased when her name was read out, and wildly excited when I heard my own, but not in the least surprised. Everyone else at school was surprised, my teachers in particular; but none of that bothered me. There were a few cruel mutterings about how I must have been helped, but I ignored them as best I could and simply looked forward to the interview and to my inevitable selection as Joan of Arc.
I was nervous before the interview, even though I knew I was going to win. As it turned out, the interview was short and sweet. The Mayor looked just like mayors should look, jovial and well-fed, but worthy with it. He leant forward and asked me from under his twitching eyebrows: “So, Eloise, why do you want to be Joan of Arc then?”
“I’ve always wanted to be Joan of Arc,” I replied. “Ever since I was little.” It was an answer they clearly weren’t expecting, and I was pleased about that.
“Can you ride a horse, Eloise?” the Headmaster asked.
“Yes, but not as well as Joan could,” I said. Just be truthful, I kept telling myself. Joan was truthful, always truthful.
There were a few other questions about how long I’d lived in Orléans and where we had lived before, but none of them was searching enough to worry me. The Mayor’s endlessly twitchy eyebrows made me smile, so that my laughter came easily – I was so relaxed that I was almost sad when it was all over.
There were only two more to go in after me. Once the last interview was over, we didn’t have long to wait. The Mayor and the Headmaster came out together. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears.
“Believe you me, this has been a very difficult choice to make,” began the Headmaster. “There is no question in our minds who wrote the best essay. It was so good, so outstandingly good, that the Mayor has decided for the first time ever, to publish it as an integral part of the May 8th celebrations. However, we both feel we must take other matters into consideration. Accordingly, on account of her remarkable essay, we have chosen Eloise Hardy – as runner-up. But as you know, Eloise has only been living here in Orléans for a few weeks, a very short time. There can only be one Joan a year, I’m afraid. And our choice for Joan of Arc was born in Orléans and has been living here all her life. She, too, wrote a fine essay, and she interviewed well too. So our Joan for this year is Marie Duval.”
Not me! Not me! Marie had her hands to her face, and there was clapping all around me. The Mayor was kissing her on both cheeks to congratulate her, and I found myself doing the same thing like everyone else. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her tears and mine. “I’m sorry,” she said. And I knew she meant it.
“Maybe another year,” said my mother when they came up to my room to console me later that evening. “And, after all, you are having your essay published. That’s much more important.”
“You win some, you lose some,” my father added. He kissed the top of my head and tipped my face upwards so that I had to look him in the eye. “And what do they know anyway?” he said.
They were both kinder, more attentive to me in the days that followed than they had been since I was little. And at school I discovered that Marie Duval was no longer my only friend. Perhaps my essay had earned me some respect; or maybe it was through my losing that I had gained everyone’s sympathy. Either way, I basked in it. So it wasn’t a complete disaster after all – that was what I kept telling myself anyway. Telling myself was one thing, believing myself another.
The picture above my bed was, for me, no longer of my Joan of Arc, but of Marie Duval. It was too painful a reminder. I took it down and put it in the back of my cupboard. Out of sight, out of mind, I thought. I wasn’t angry at Marie. She had been kindness itself. Not a bit of it. I was angry at Joan. I felt she had misled me, abandoned me; and, talking to the cupboard one night, I told her so.
The river, the only place I could be alone and away from it all, had now become my place of tears. The faithful Jaquot was always there, always waiting for me. Every day now, after school, I would go and sit on the river bank and cry until I had no more tears left to cry. I poured my heart out to Jaquot, and he stayed and listened – providing I kept feeding him.
As May 8th came closer, Marie was ever more fêted at school, and preparations for the great day were becoming increasingly evident not just at school, but throughout the city – bunting everywhere, flags in the streets, and images of Joan of Arc in every shop window. There were reminders around me everywhere I looked. Worst of all was having to smile through it all at school, having to hide my misery. With Jaquot I didn’t need to hide anything.
On the night of May 6th I made the decision. I would simply miss school the next day. I would go down to the river and spend all day there with Jaquot. I went off to school at half-past seven as usual and made quite sure I was out of sight of the house before I doubled back and made for the river. Jaquot wasn’t there, but then I was early, earlier than I’d ever been before. He came soon enough though, hopping up on to the toe of my shoe to ask for his breakfast. I fed him and told him what I’d done and why I’d done it. I had the distinct impression he didn’t approve.
“Be like that, then,” I said, and I lay back in the sun and closed my eyes, soaking myself in the warmth of it. For a while I could hear Jaquot pecking busily around my feet. But when I opened my eyes again he was gone, and nowhere to be seen.
That was when I saw the light, a glowing light as bright as the sun, in among the branches of the trees above me. Then it was brighter still, and whiter, enveloping me utterly, until there was nothing to see except the light, and nothing to be heard either. The city had hushed to silence all around me.
The voice came from deep inside the light, deep inside the silence, from far away and close by. “Talking of sparrows,” it said, “there was only one creature on this earth who really knew Joan. She called him Belami. He was a sparrow, just an ordinary sparrow like Jaquot; and he stayed with her all her life, almost from the very beginning, and right to the very end. He was her best friend on this earth, maybe her only friend, too. I could tell you more, if you’d like it. I could tell you her whole story, and Belami’s too. Would you like that?”
I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. Because I couldn’t say a word.
“I’ll tell you anyway,” came the voice again, “because I want to, and because I think you should know all of it, as it was, as it happened.”
I felt myself drifting into the light, into the voice.
He was born in the little grey house in Domrémy, the same house Joan had been born in, but fifteen years later – to the day. There was an old nest hole high in the thatch, a safe enough birthplace for a sparrow, you might have thought. This sparrow, though, was still a fledgling, still too young to fly, but did not know it. To him flying must have looked a simple enough business – both his parents did it after all, and with little apparent effort. Lots of birds were doing it, all the time, all around him. He was determined to do it before his brothers and sisters, very determined.
So, one morning, standing on the very edge of his nest hole, and looking out on to a world of white cherry blossoms, the soft sunlight slanting through the green of the beech leaves, he made up his mind to take off and explore this wonderland. He would aim, he thought, for the great spreading apple tree at the bottom of the garden. He fluttered for a few brief seconds on the brink, and felt the lifting power under him for the first time. He let his wings take him and float him out on the air. But at once he was falling. However hard he tried, his beating wings simply would not keep him up. The landing was bumpy and uncomfortable, though not disastrous; but he was still some distance from the apple tree.
He was hopping and flapping his way towards it when he caught sight of the cat stealing through the long grass, slinking low, his tail twitching this way and that. Every bird, however young, knows about cats. The sparrow crouched and was instantly still, still as death. By the time he decided to make his escape, he already knew he had left it too late. For all his wild flapping he could manage little more than a few frantic stumbling hops. At the last moment he cried out, but there was no help, no escape. He was caught, caught and held fast. Death was warm darkness, and mercifully quickly over.
When the hands around him opened, he found himself blinking up into Joan’s smiling face. “Don’t worry,” she was saying, “I promise I won’t hurt you. And I won’t let Minou hurt you either. I promise. A white sparrow! I didn’t know sparrows could be white.” There was something calming in her voice, and the sparrow lay still in the bowl of her hands, his heart still pumping with forgotten fear. A judiciously aimed stick sent the disappointed cat scampering away back towards the house. “See?” she laughed, and she settled the sparrow in her lap, talking to him all the while, till she felt the heartbeat stop its racing. “You’ve got brown eyes,” she said, “like me. But I think we’ve a lot more in common than that. We shall be friends, I know we shall.”
One of his claws became entangled in the thick red wool of her skirt. Joan freed him carefully, gently, and stroked his head with the back of her forefinger. “They said I would find a friend,” she went on. “My voices told me so, and they never lie to me, never. Because you are beautiful and because you are my friend, I shall call you Belami. Do you like that? Belami – yes, it suits you. They told me you would come. I needed a friend, Belami, someone I could tell everything to. I wanted to tell Hauviette – she’s my best friend – but they said no. They told me to be patient – the blessed St Margaret is always telling me to be patient – and here you are, just as they promised. They promised me a friend to keep me company, one who would never betray me, and therefore not of humankind, they said. I never understood them, not until now. That’s the trouble with my voices, Belami, sometimes they’re so difficult to understand. They will speak to me in riddles and I wish they wouldn’t. And sometimes, it’s so difficult to believe what they say, even when I do understand them. Oh, Belami, the things they say I must do! Of course, I didn’t believe in them at all at first. I mean you wouldn’t, would you? After all, it’s only saints who hear voices, only saints who see visions – or witches. That’s what I thought, Belami, that’s what everyone thinks. But it’s not true. I’m no saint, but I’m no witch either; and I do hear my voices, Belami, I do see my visions.”
She pushed her finger underneath him and felt the tentative grasp of his claws. “Dear Belami, it’s so good to have someone I can tell at last. I think my voices were right. If I’d told Hauviette she’d have thought me mad in the head, or worse. But here I am, talking on and on about myself, when I expect all you want is feeding. Bread and milk, with worms mashed in – how would that be?”
So Joan carried Belami into the house cupped in her hands. She scooted the cat out, and fed Belami for the first time. A few days later and he was flying free. As weeks passed and he grew stronger he was able to fend for himself more and more, but he never strayed far from her and liked to keep her always in his sight. It was on the day of his first exultant flight up towards the sun. he was gliding back to earth when he saw Joan so small, so alone on the ground below. It came to Belami then that he would not be as other birds were, that he would live his life with her, come what may. She had saved him, fed him, and cared for him. Best of all, she needed him. So he would be her friend for life. He would not leave her. He would never leave her.
It was a common enough sight around the village now, Joan with her white sparrow flying above her. Any catapult jokes met with a very frosty response. They were scarcely ever apart. Hauviette said to her once that she never knew she could be jealous of a sparrow, but she was. Wherever Joan went, Belami would follow, and more often than not it was to the spreading apple tree at the bottom of the garden. Here he would sit on her shoulder and listen to her, with half an eye on the aphids and grasshoppers in the long grass below him. When temptation got the better of him he would dart down and help himself; but he would try his best to be attentive because he knew how she loved to talk to him, how she had to unburden herself. He was there for that, there to listen.
Often she’d tell him the same story. It was so miraculous a story that Belami never tired of hearing it. “To tell you is to remind me it was true,” she told him, “that it really happened. It helps me to make sense of everything they’ve told me ever since.” She stroked his wings – she always seemed to do that whenever she wanted him to stay with her and listen. “It was here, Belami,” she began, “right here under this tree that I first heard them – over two years ago now. I should have been out guarding the sheep and the cattle with my brothers, Pierre and Jean, and Hauviette and the others, I know that. But, to be honest, any excuse not to be there and I always took it. You watch sheep long enough at their grazing, you watch cows long enough swishing their tails in the sunshine – I’m telling you, Belami, it’s enough to bore anyone half to death. Anything to pass the time, and races are best because I’m good at races. But that day it wasn’t even my idea. Down to the river and back, that’s what Pierre said – a long way, that is. I think they thought they could beat me over a longer distance. Hauviette hates running, it hurts her legs. So she stayed to mind the sheep and the cattle. Off we went, and I won – by a mile. They weren’t at all pleased, as you can imagine. I’m just a fast runner, Belami – you’ve seen me. I can’t help that, can I? And besides it was a race and I’ve always liked winning better than losing.
“Anyway, the race was over and I was lying there in the sun still trying to catch my breath when Pierre – my own brother! – came up and said that Mother wanted me back at the house. I didn’t think, I just went. He made it sound really urgent, the pig. When I got home I found Mother busy at her spinning, and of course she knew nothing about it. You should have heard her. ‘Why have you left the cattle?’ she said. ‘Do you think they look after themselves? Well, do you?’ And she boxed my ears and sent me back off to the fields.”
Belami flew down and perched on her knee. He knew Joan would be crying. She always cried when she got to this part of the story. “She was so angry with me, Belami, and it was so unfair. I sat down here, right here, and cried my heart out.” She brushed her tears away with the back of her hand. “I remember there was a sudden rush of wind through the leaves above me, and I remember thinking that was odd, because until then there had been no wind that day, no wind at all. Then there was a silence and strange stillness all around me, as if the whole world had stopped breathing. Over there, just by the well, I saw a white light amongst the trees, and bright like the sun is bright. Then I seemed to be surrounded by it – like being cocooned in a white mist, it was. And out of this mist came a voice calling me – not from inside my head, Belami, I promise you. It was a real voice, a man’s voice. He spoke very slowly, as if he wanted me to remember every word he said. I did remember, every word of it.
“‘Joan,’ it said, ‘Joan of Arc, of Domrémy. You have been chosen by God, by the King of Heaven, to drive the enemy from the soil of France for ever. You will set the rightful Prince of France, the Dauphin, on his throne and see him crowned at Reims. To do this you will have to become a soldier. You will lead the French army into battle, and you will be victorious – that you must never doubt. You will save France, Joan. These things you will accomplish by the grace of God, and in His name. I am the Archangel Michael, Joan. After me will come many voices, many visions, all sent by God to help you and to guide you. Listen to them, Joan, listen and always obey them. Speak to no man of me, and of your voices, until the time comes. Meanwhile be good, be strong, have courage. God bless you, Joan. God bless you.’
“I saw him, Belami, I saw the Archangel Michael. I heard him. He was there, and then he wasn’t there. When he had gone and the bright light had gone, I just sat here quite unable to move at first. I was so scared I thought I’d gone mad, Belami. I thought the devil was in me. I got up and I ran. I ran and ran, to the chapel of Notre Dame at Beaumont, my favourite place in all the world, my sanctuary. I always feel safe there. To get there you have to go through Oaky Wood – there’s no other way. You know that, Belami, you’ve been there. There are wolves in that wood and wild boar. And there are supposed to be fairies in there too. I don’t believe in all that fairy nonsense, but it’s what people say. Anyway, I wasn’t frightened of wolves or wild boar or fairies, not that day. It was the devil in me that I was frightened of. I’ve never run so fast in all my life. Once I reached the chapel I threw myself down on the floor, and I prayed and I prayed and I prayed for the devil to come out of me. My voices answered me almost at once. ‘Joan, dear Joan,’ – a woman’s voice this time – ‘Your voices come from God, not from the devil. You must believe that. I am St Catherine and I will speak to you often, I will be with you whenever you need me. So do not fear your voices. There is no devil in you – that is why you have been chosen. Have no fear, have no fear.’
“Ever since then, Belami, ever since St Catherine spoke to me that first time in the chapel, I have had no fear of my voices, only of what they ask me to do.” She held out her finger to Belami and he hopped on. She brought him close to her face and looked into his eyes. “Why me? Why me, Belami? Why would He choose me to do this thing? I’m just Joan, plain Joan. I can sew and spin well enough, though not as well as my mother. I shepherd sheep, I fetch water, I herd cattle. But I am no soldier to go and defeat the English.” There were tears running down her cheeks. “How can I be expected to save France? I know now that I must, but how? How?”
Belami pecked at her tears, and she laughed at that. She set him back on her knee. “I ask them how, and they do not tell me. I ask them when, and they do not tell me. ‘Be patient, Joan,’ they say, ‘the time will come.’ And I do try to be patient, Belami, I do try. But I’m not good at being patient. They should know that, shouldn’t they? They should know everything. And meanwhile we hear news that the English and their Burgundian friends triumph everywhere. Their soldiers have only to bark and we French cringe in fear and run off to hide in our castles, our tails between our legs. Every day I am made to wait our enemies become stronger, and we become weaker. I know I shouldn’t, but I hate them, Belami, I hate the English. Why don’t they just go home and leave us in peace? I hate the Burgundians even more though. They’re of our blood, they’re French, and they ally themselves with the English, parcelling up the country, my country, as they see fit. English, Burgundians, they raid and rob wherever they want, and we have no power, nor any will, it seems, to stop them. There’s hardly a village left in France that’s truly French any more – that’s what Father says. Even here in Domrémy there are some who speak openly in support of the Burgundians. And Maxey, our next door village, just down the valley, is all Burgundian. You saw them, Belami, those boys from Maxey who set up on us in the fields only a couple of weeks ago. I longed then to stand and fight, but my brothers sent me and Hauviette off home so we wouldn’t get hurt. How many more times do I have to stand by and watch my brothers and my friends come home bloodied and beaten?” She was on fire with rage now. “And last year when those Burgundian soldiers came – there were only a few of them – did we band together to drive them off? No, we ran. We took our animals and ran for the safety of the Château d’Ile, and the soldiers came and pillaged and burnt the village just as they pleased. And my voices told me then to be patient. They tell me now to be patient.
“I asked Mother once: ‘Why do we always have to run?’ Do you know what she said, Belami? ‘We do as your father says, as the village council says. It is not for you to question his commands nor their decisions. It’s nothing to fret over. The soldiers have been before. They will come again. They are like the storms of winter. When they are gone, we rebuild, make good. There has been no war in this land for a hundred years. Why should it stop now? Life goes on. We just keep our heads down and keep out of the way – it’s all we can do. You think too much, Joan, you always have. Just stick to your spinning and your shepherding and your praying, and with a bit of luck you could make a good wife one day and devout mother. Girls these days,’ she tutted at me and shook her head, ‘I don’t know.’
“So you can see, Belami, even my own mother has long since given up the fight and will not listen to me. I cannot even persuade my own mother. And my voices say that I have to persuade all of France to rise up and drive the English out. But how will I make them believe it can be done, when I do not know myself how it can be done? Oh, Belami, I only wish you could talk. Do you believe I can do what my voices say? Do you? Do you? Oh, talk to me, Belami, talk to me.”
As time passed Joan went less often to the fields with the cattle. She might drive them out to graze with the other children, but would always find some excuse to go off. She told Hauviette she needed quiet, that she was going to pray. And it was true, she would spend every hour she could wandering the Oaky Wood alone, or praying in Notre Dame at Beaumont. She was never really alone, of course, for Belami was never far from her side. Sometimes, particularly when she was at her prayers, he would keep his distance, knowing how she liked to be on her own with her voices. He stayed close by though, always hoping for a glimpse of her saints – St Margaret or St Catherine perhaps – but to his great disappointment he never saw nor heard anything of them. He could see she was often deeply troubled and upset by what they told her, so much so that sometimes she couldn’t bring herself to speak of it, even to Belami.
She talked to him mostly of her family, and of Hauviette, about how odd they thought she had become recently, how quiet and distant. It was her father that worried about her, more than anyone else, it seemed. “You know the worst of all this, Belami?” she told him. “I am deceiving my own father. By not telling him of my voices, of what they say I will one day have to do, I am deceiving him. And he loves me so much, and he trusts me too. We’re so alike, him and me. He knows me so well, as I know him. Sometimes, Belami, I find him looking at me very strangely. It’s as if he knows something. You know what he said, only yesterday? Out of the blue it was. Father was talking of Robert de Beaudricourt, the captain of the castle at Vaucouleurs, and what a fine soldier he was. All I said was that given half a chance (and if I wasn’t a girl, of course) I’d go off and be a soldier, and I’d drive the English out of France once and for all. He looked at me hard and suddenly became very angry. ‘Don’t you ever speak of such a thing, Joan,’ he says. ‘I had a dream once, a dream that comes back and back to haunt me, a dream that you would one day run off with the soldiers.’ My brothers sniggered at this. Father banged the table and glared at them. ‘It is no joke,’ he stormed, ‘I tell you, if Joan ever went off with the soldiers I would drown her myself in the river, with my own hands. There could be no greater shame for all of us. Speak to me no more of soldiers, Joan. Be content that you are what God has made you, with what God wants you to be.’
“There are times, Belami, and that was one of them, that I so long to tell him what it is that God really wants me to do. But I cannot. My voices forbid it. To do what I have to do, what God tells me I must do, I must wrong my own father. I must hurt him. Yet he is the one man on this earth I will ever love, my voices have told me as much. How he will hate me, Belami, how they will all hate me.” She wept bitterly at the thought of it.
Belami had taken to waiting for her outside the chapel at Beaumont while she went in to pray. She was always a long time at her prayers; and besides, it was often warmer for him outside, and Belami loved to feel the sun on his feathers. She would often be overwhelmed by tears when she came out, but not this time. Her eyes were bright with excitement. “The moment has come, Belami. I feel like an arrow released at last from its bow. Just now, in the chapel, Belami, the blessed St Margaret came to me and said that I have to go to Vaucouleurs, as soon as possible. I have to see Robert de Beaudricourt himself. I am to tell him to send me to the Dauphin at Chinon. I am to go to fight the English. It is the beginning, Belami, it is the beginning.”
It was several weeks before Joan could arrange things. Vaucouleurs was a dozen miles away through the forest. She would need an escort, somewhere to stay, and most important, a reason for going. Otherwise her parents would become suspicious and would never allow her to leave at all. In the end luck lent a helping hand, or fate perhaps. Joan’s favourite uncle, Uncle Durand – he was a cousin really, but Joan had always called him Uncle – paid the family a visit. He just happened to say to her that she must come over and stay one day soon, that her Aunt Joan hadn’t seen her in a long time.
“She could come now, when I leave,” he said. “Why not?”
“She’s work to do here,” her mother replied, rather tartly.
“We can do without her for a few days,” said Joan’s father. “It’ll be good for her to get away for a while. She’s not been looking herself lately. Let her go.”
And so it was arranged there and then. When Uncle Durand went the next day, Joan would go with him.
Sitting under her tree with Belami the evening before she left, Joan was beside herself with excitement. “Can you believe it, Belami?” she said. “Do you know where Uncle Durand lives? Not two miles from Vaucouleurs! And he knows Robert de Beaudricourt. He knows him! My uncle, he’s a kind man, and godly too. He will listen to me. He will believe me, I know he will.”
Belami was there the next morning as Uncle Durand and Joan set off into the mists of the forest. She waited until the village was well behind them before she told him. She first made him promise faithfully he would never tell anyone what she was about to tell him. She didn’t tell him everything, only as much as she thought he needed to know. Uncle Durand sat in stunned silence on his horse as she told him, his eyes never leaving her face. “So you see, Uncle, if you do not take me to Robert de Beaudricourt at Vaucouleurs, where my voices tell me I must go, then he will not send me to the Dauphin at Chinon, and I will not be able to drive them out of France, nor to have the Dauphin crowned King of France, King of all the French. Without you, none of this can happen, Uncle.”
Uncle Durand rode on for some time before replying. “I should take you straight home, Joan, and tell your father. That’s what I should do. But I cannot, can I? I promised you I would say nothing and I will keep my promise. But what am I to do, Joan? What am I to make of you? You could be lying to me, making the whole thing up for all I know; or perhaps you are deluded and mad in the head. But if not, then you must be truly blessed. I shall help you, Joan, because I have always known you to be a good and honest and God-fearing girl, and because there’s a light in your eyes that makes me want to believe in you, want to help you.
“But there’s another reason, too, why I’m going to help you, Joan. I once heard a story, a legend if you like, about a young girl from these parts who would one day drive the English out for good and save France. Maybe the story is a true one, a prophecy, and not a legend at all. Maybe you are the one, Joan. I hope to God you are. I may live to regret it, but I will follow my hope and help you all I can, all I can, dear Joan. But we’ll have to tell your aunt, we cannot keep it from her.”
Joan reached out and took his hand in hers. “I knew you would,” she said. “Thank you, Uncle, thank you.”
But her Aunt Joan was not nearly so easy to persuade. She believed her – that wasn’t the problem – but she had other serious objections. “You shouldn’t go anywhere near that Robert de Beaudricourt,” she said. “He’s a soldier, and all soldiers are the same – rough, coarse creatures. That castle’s no place for a girl your age. I’d never forgive myself.”
“Nothing’s going to happen, Aunt,” Joan replied. “I’ll have Uncle with me, and besides I can look after myself.”
“And he drinks too much,” her aunt went on. “Everyone knows it. He won’t listen, Joan. He won’t believe you. Your uncle and I, we believe you because we love you, we know you.”
“If you believe me, Aunt,” said Joan, “then you must believe my voices too. It’s my voices that tell me I must go to the Dauphin. Robert de Beaudricourt can get me to the Dauphin. He’s the only person who can. I must go, Aunt, can’t you see?” Her aunt still looked doubtful. “I’ll be all right. I’ll have Belami with me too, as well as Uncle Durand!”
“That sparrow,” tutted Aunt Joan. “What is it you see in him? He goes everywhere with you. I don’t mind outside, but I don’t like him in the house – I’ve told you.”
“He loves it here,” Joan replied. “You’ve got no cats, and he loves you too because he knows you’ll help me, because you believe in me. So tomorrow, Aunt, when we go to Vaucouleurs, I will go with your blessing, won’t I?”
“Of course,” said her aunt, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s just that I fear for you, I fear for what will become of you.”
“But how can you fear for me when I have God on my side?” Joan exclaimed.
They set off early the next morning. Belami flew up and perched himself high on the castle wall as Joan and Uncle Durand rode into the courtyard below. They had to sit there and wait all morning, and all the while Joan had to endure the coarse banter of the soldiers. Several times she had to restrain Uncle Durand from boxing their ears. Then, at long last, two men came striding out of the castle. Both were in armour, swords at their side. “That’s him,” Uncle Durand whispered, “and that’s Bertrand de Poulengy with him.” Uncle Durand stepped forward. “My lord, we sent word we wanted to see you. It’s important, important for France.” Robert de Beaudricourt tried to ignore him, but Uncle Durand blocked his path determinedly. “My lord, I have brought my cousin to see you. She is from Domrémy. What she has to say to you may save us all, may save France.”
“What do you mean? What are you saying?” He was looking down at Joan, towering over her.
“I come to you in my Lord’s name, Robert,” Joan said, her eyes looking back into his, unflinching. “I come to tell you that you must send a message at once to the Dauphin. You must tell him not to engage in any battles with the English until I am there at his side. Tell him that I shall lead his army into battle and give the English such a beating that they will all go running back home where they belong. Once this is done I shall be there to lead him to his coronation in the cathedral at Reims. Tell him, Robert. Do it for me, do it for France, do it for my Lord.”
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