The Absolving Dream
ANTOINE COURCY was one of those who are fitted and trained by nature for the cure of souls. If you had spoken to him of psychiatry he would not have understood you. The long word would have been Greek to him. But the thing itself he knew well. The preliminary penance which he laid upon Pierre Duval was remedial. It belonged to the true healing art, which works first in the spirit.
When the broken soldier went down the hill, in the blaze of the mid-morning sunlight, toward Domrémy, there was much misgiving and confusion in his thoughts. He did not comprehend why he was going, except that he had promised. He was not sure that some one might not know him, or perhaps out of mere curiosity stop him and question him. It was a reluctant journey.
Yet it was in effect an unconscious pilgrimage to the one health-resort that his soul needed. For Domrémy and the region round about are saturated with the most beautiful story of France. The life of Jeanne d'Arc, simple and mysterious, humble and glorious, most human and most heavenly, flows under that place like a hidden stream, rising at every turn in springs and fountains. The poor little village lives in and for her memory. Her presence haunts the ridges and the woods, treads the green pastures, follows the white road beside the river, and breathes in the never-resting valley-wind that marries the flowers in June and spreads their seed in August.
At the small basilica built to her memory on the place where her old beech-tree, "Fair May," used to stand, there was an ancient caretaker who explained to Pierre the pictures from the life of the Maid with which the walls are decorated. They are stiff and conventional, but the old man found them wonderful and told with zest the story of La Pucelle -- how she saw her first vision; how she recognized the Dauphin in his palace at Chinon; how she broke the siege of Orléans; how she saw Charles crowned in the cathedral at Rheims; how she was burned at the stake in Rouen. But they could not kill her soul. She saved France.
In the village church there was a priest from the border of Alsace, also a pilgrim like Pierre, but one who knew the shrine better. He showed the difference between the new and the old parts of the building. Certain things the Maid herself had seen and touched,
"Here is the old holy-water basin, an antique, broken column hollowed out on top. Here her fingers must have rested often. Before this ancient statue of St. Michel she must have often knelt to say her prayers. The curé of the parish was a friend of hers and loved to talk with her. She was a good girl, devout and obedient, not learned, but a holy and great soul. She saved France."
In the house where she was born, and passed her childhood, a crippled old woman was custodian. It was a humble dwelling of plastered stone standing between two tall fir-trees, with ivy growing over the walls, lilies and hollyhocks blooming in the garden. Pierre found it not half so good a house as "L'Alouette." But to the custodian it was more precious than a palace. In this upper room with its low mullioned window the Maid began her life. Here, in the larger room below, is the kneeling statue which the Princess Marie d'Orléans made of her. Here, to the right, under the sloping roof, with its worm-eaten beams, she slept and prayed and worked.
"See, here is the bread-board between two timbers where she cut the bread for the croûte-au-pot. From this small window she looked at night and saw the sanctuary light burning in the church. Here, also, as well as in the garden and in the woods, her heavenly voices spoke to her and told her what she must do for her king and her country. She was not afraid or ashamed, though she lived in so small a house. Here in this very room she braided her hair and put on her red dress, and set forth on foot for her visit to Robert de Baudricourt at Vaucouleurs. He was a rough man and at first he received her roughly. But at last she convinced him. He gave her a horse and arms and sent her to the king. She saved France."
At the rustic inn Pierre ate thick slices of dark bread and drank a stoup of thin red wine at noon. He sat at a bare table in the comer of the room. Behind him, at a table covered with a white cloth, two captains on furlough had already made their breakfast. They also were pilgrims, drawn by the love of Jeanne d'Arc to Domrémy. They talked of nothing else but of her. Yet their points of view were absolutely different.
One of them, the younger, was short and swarthy, a Savoyard, the son of an Italian doctor at St. Jean de Maurienne. He was a skeptic; he believed in Jeanne, but not in the legends about her.
"I tell you," said he, eagerly, "she was one of the greatest among women. But all about her ' voices ' was illusion. The priests suggested it. She had hallucinations. Remember her age when they began -- just thirteen. She was clever and strong; doubtless she was pretty; certainly she was very courageous. She was only a girl. But she had a big, brave idea which possessed her -- the liberation of her country. Pure? Yes. I am sure she was virtuous. Otherwise the troops would not have followed and obeyed her as they did. Soldiers are very quick about those things. They recognize and respect an honest woman. Several men were in love with her, I think. But she was 'une nature froide.' The only thing that moved her was her big, brave idea -- to save France. The Maid was a mother, but not of a mortal child. Her offspring was the patriotism of France."
The other captain was a man of middle age, from Lyons, the son of an architect. He was tall and pale and his large brown eyes had the tranquility of a devout faith in them. He argued with quiet tenacity for his convictions,
"You are right to believe in her," said he," but I think you are mistaken to deny her ' voices.' They were as real as anything in her life. You credit her when she says that she was born here, that she went to Chinon and saw the king, that she delivered Orléans. Why not credit her when she says she heard God and the saints speaking to her? The proof of it was in what she did. Have you read the story of her trial? How clear and steady her answers were! The judges could not shake her. Yet at any moment she could have saved her life by denying the voices. It was because she knew, because she was sure, that she could not deny. Her vision was a part of her real life. She was the mother of French patriotism -- yes. But she was also the daughter of true faith. That was her power."
"Well," said the younger man, "she sacrificed herself and she saved France. That was the great thing."
"Yes," said the elder man, stretching his hand across the table to clasp the hand of his companion, "there is nothing greater than that. If we do that, God will forgive us all."
They put on their caps to go. Pierre rose and stood at attention. They returned his salute with a friendly smile and passed out.
After a few moments he finished his bread and wine, paid his score, and followed them. He watched them going down the village street toward the railway station. Then he turned and walked slowly back to the spring in the dell.
The afternoon was hot, in spite of the steady breeze which came out of the north. The air felt as if it had passed through a furnace. The low, continuous thunder of the guns rolled up from Verdun, with now and then a sharper clap from St. Mihiel.
Pierre was very tired. His head was heavy, his heart troubled. He lay down among the ferns, looking idly at the fox. glove spires above him and turning over in his mind the things he had heard and seen at Domrémy. Presently he fell into a profound sleep.
How long it was he could not tell, but suddenly he became aware of some one near him. He sprang up. A girl was standing beside the spring.
She wore a bright-red dress and her feet were bare. Her black hair hung down her back. Her eyes were the color of a topaz. Her form was tall and straight. She carried a distaff under her arm and looked as if she had just come from following the sheep.
"Good day, shepherdess," said Pierre. Then a strange thought struck him, and he fell on his knees. "Pardon, lady," he stammered. "Forgive my rudeness. You are of the high society of heaven, a saint. You are called Jeanne d'Arc?"
She nodded and smiled. "That is my name," said she. "Sometimes they call me La Pucelle, or the Maid of France. But you were right, I am a shepherdess, too. I have kept my father's sheep in the fields down there, and spun from the distaff while I watched them. I knew how to sew and spin as well as any girl in the Barrois or Lorraine. Will you not stand up and talk with me?"
Pierre rose, still abashed and confused. He did not quite understand how to take this strange experience -- too simple for a heavenly apparition, too real for a common dream. "Well, then," said he, "if you are a shepherdess why are you here? There are no sheep here."
"But yes. You are one of mine. I have come here to seek you."
"Do you know me, then? How can I be one of yours?"
"Because you are a soldier of France and you are in trouble."
Pierre's head drooped. "A broken soldier,'' he muttered, "not fit to speak to you. I am running away because I am afraid of fear."
She threw back her head and laughed. "You speak very bad French. There is no such thing as being afraid of fear. For if you are afraid of it, you hate it. If you hate it, you will have nothing to do with it. And if you have nothing to do with it, it cannot touch you; it is nothing."
"But for you, a saint, it is easy to say that. You had no fear when you fought. You knew you would not be killed."
"I was no more sure of that than the other soldiers. Besides, when they bound me to the stake at Rouen and kindled the fire around me I knew very well that I should be killed. But there was no fear in it. Only peace."
"Ah, you were strong, a warrior born. You were not wounded and broken."
"Four times I was wounded," she answered, gravely. "At Orléans a bolt went through my right shoulder. At Paris a lance tore my thigh. I never saw the blood of Frenchmen flow without feeling my heart stand still. I was not a warrior born. I knew not how to ride or fight. But I did it. What we must needs do that we can do. Soldier, do not look on the ground. Look up."
Then a strange thing took place before his eyes. A wondrous radiance, a mist of light, enveloped and hid the shepherdess. When it melted she was clad in shining armor, sitting on a white horse, and lifting a bare sword in her left hand.
"God commands you," she cried. "It is for France. Be of good cheer. Do not retreat. The fort will soon be yours!"
How should Pierre know that this was the cry with which the Maid had rallied her broken men at Orleans when the fort of Les Tourelles fell? What he did know was that something seemed to spring up within him to answer that call. He felt that he would rather die than desert such a leader.
The figure on the horse turned away as if to go.
"Do not leave me," he cried, stretching out his hands to her. "Stay with me. I will obey you joyfully."
She turned again and looked at him very earnestly. Her eyes shone deep into his heart. "Here I cannot stay," answered a low, sweet, womanly voice. "It is late, and my other children need me."
"But forgiveness? Can you give that to me -- a coward?"
"You are no coward. Your only fault was to doubt a brave man."
"And my wife? May I go back and tell her?"
"No, surely. Would you make her hear slander of the man she loves? Be what she believes you and she will be satisfied."
"And the absolution, the word of peace? Will you speak that to me?"
Her eyes shone more clearly; the voice sounded sweeter and steadier than ever. "After the penance comes the absolution. You will find peace only at the lance's point. Son of France, go, go, go! I will help you. Go hardily to Verdun."
Pierre sprang forward after the receding figure, tried to clasp the knee, the foot of the Maid. As he fell to the ground something sharp pierced his hand. It must be her spur, thought he.
Then he was aware that his eyes were shut. He opened them and looked at his hand carefully. There was only a scratch on it, and a tiny drop of blood. He had torn it on the thorns of the wild-gooseberry bushes.
His head lay close to the clear pool of the spring. He buried his face in it and drank deep. Then he sprang up, shaking the drops from his mustache, found his cap and pistol, and hurried up the glen toward the old Roman road.
"No more of that darned foolishness about Switzerland," he said, aloud. "I belong to France. I am going with the other boys to save her. I was born for that." He took off his cap and stood still for a moment. He spoke as if he were taking an oath. "By Jeanne d'Arc!"