Up to the middle of her fourteenth year, Joan had been the most light-hearted creature in the village, with a happy laugh. She had been a patriot, and sometimes the war news had sobered her spirits and made her weak. But when these interruptions had run their course, her spirits rose and she was her old self again.
But now for a whole year and a half she had been mainly grave. She was carrying France upon her heart, and she found the burden not light. Many a time the idea crossed my mind that she had a secret—a secret which she was keeping wholly to herself, as well from me as from the others. Several times she had changed the subject when she was on the verge of a revelation of some sort. I was to find this secret out, but not just yet.
One day we were together in the pastures talking about France, as usual. For her sake, I had always talked hopefully before, but that was mere lying. But there was not anything to hang a rag of hope for France upon. Finally I resolved to never insult her more with deception. I said:
“Joan, I have concluded that we have been in the wrong all this time. The case of France is desperate and hopeless.”
I glanced at her face to see the result.
There was none to see. At least none that I was expecting. There was a suggestion of wonder in her serious eyes, but that was all. She asked, in an ordinary, level tone:
“What—the case of France is hopeless? How can you say that? How can you feel like that?”
“How can I? How could I think or feel in any other way? Joan, have you really any hope for France—really and actually?”
“Hope—oh, more than that! France will win her freedom and keep it. Do not doubt it.”
It seemed to me that her clear mind must surely be clouded today. So I said:
“Joan, your heart, which worships France, is deceiving your head. Here—I want to make a picture on the ground with a stick. Now, this rough outline is France. Through its middle, east, and west, I draw a river.”
“Yes, the Loire.”
“Now, then, this whole northern half of the country is in the tight grip of the English.”
“And this whole southern half is really in nobody’s hands at all. England has armies here and can take full possession whenever she may choose. What was France is now but a British province. Is this true?”
Her voice was low, and just touched with emotion, but distinct:
“Yes, it is true.”
“Very well. Now add this fact: When have French soldiers won a victory? Since eight thousand Englishmen nearly wiped out sixty thousand Frenchmen a dozen years ago, French courage has been paralyzed. It is a common saying today that if you confront fifty French soldiers with five English ones, the French will run.”
“It is a pity, but even these things are true.”
“Then certainly the day for hoping is past.”
I believed the case would be clear to her now. I thought she would say that there was no longer any ground for hope. But I was mistaken. She said, without any doubt in her tone:
“France will rise again. You shall see.”
“Rise?—with this burden of English armies on her back!”
“She will cast it off; she will trample it under foot!” This with spirit.
“Without soldiers to fight with?”
“The drums will summon them. They will answer, and they will march.”
“March to the rear, as usual?”
“No; to the front—ever to the front—always to the front! You shall see.”
“And the King?”
“He will mount his throne—he will wear his crown before two years are past.”
“Indeed? and who is going to perform all these impossibilities?”
What could have put those strange ideas in her head? This question kept running in my mind during two or three days.
I watched her. But her eye was clear and sane, her ways were natural, her speech direct and to the point. No, there was nothing the matter with her mind. It was still the soundest in the village and the best. She went on thinking for others, planning for others, sacrificing herself for others, just as always before. She went on caring for the sick and the poor. There was a secret somewhere, but madness was not the key to it.
Now the key did presently come into my hands, and the way that it happened was this. You have heard all the world talk of this matter which I am about to speak of, but you have not heard an eyewitness talk of it before.
I was coming from over the ridge, one day—it was the 15th of May, 1428—and I got to the edge of the oak forest. I was about to step out onto the open space in which the haunted beech tree stood. But I caught sight of Joan, and thought I would surprise her.
The day was overcast, and all that grassy space where the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one resting in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost to thought and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing—a white shadow came slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of a grand size—a robed form, with wings—and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of. The brilliance was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, sensing that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.
Another strange thing. The wood had been silent, with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid. Now all the birds burst forth into song, and the joy of it was beyond belief. It was plain to see it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds, Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low.
She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.
The shadow approached Joan slowly. It reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its splendor. In that immortal light, her face became divine.
Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her. Standing drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen—but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant. She clasped her hands and lifted them high, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say:
“But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be a comrade with men?—soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rudeness and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?—I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it.... Yet—if it is commanded—”
Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God. I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know.
I heard my name called. It was Joan’s voice. It startled me, for how could she know I was there? I said to myself, it is part of the dream. It is all dream. I knew I was awake now and free from the spell. Then I heard my name called again, and I stepped at once from under cover, and there indeed was Joan, but not looking as she had looked in the dream. For she was not crying now, but was looking as she had used to look a year and a half before, when her heart was light and her spirits high. Her old energy and fire were back. It was almost as if she had been in a trance all that time and had come awake again. I was so glad that I felt like running to call everybody and have them flock around her and give her welcome. I ran to her excited and said:
“Ah, Joan, I’ve got such a wonderful thing to tell you about! You would never imagine it. I’ve had a dream, and in the dream I saw you right here where you are standing now, and—”
But she put up her hand and said:
“It was not a dream.”
It gave me a shock, and I began to feel afraid again.
“Not a dream?” I said, “How can you know about it, Joan?”
“Are you dreaming now?”
“I—I suppose not. I think I am not.”
“Indeed you are not. I know you are not. And you were not dreaming when you cut the mark in the tree.”
I felt myself turning cold with fright, for now I knew that I had not been dreaming. Then I realized that my feet were upon holy ground—the ground where that heavenly shadow had rested. I moved quickly away with fear. Joan followed, and said:
“Do not be afraid; indeed there is no need. Come with me. We will sit by the spring and I will tell you all my secret.”
When she was ready to begin, I said:
“First tell me this. You could not see me in the wood. How did you know I cut a mark in the tree?”
“Wait a little; I will soon come to that; then you will see.”
“But tell me one thing now. What was that awful shadow that I saw?”
“I will tell you, but do not be disturbed; you are not in danger. It was the shadow of an archangel—Michael, the chief and lord of the armies of heaven.”
I could only tremble.
“You were not afraid, Joan? Did you see his face—did you see his form?”
“Yes; I was not afraid, because this was not the first time. I was afraid the first time.”
“When was that, Joan?”
“It is nearly three years ago now.”
“So long? Have you seen him many times?”
“Yes, many times.”
“It is this, then, that has changed you. It was this that made you thoughtful and not as you were before. I see it now. Why did you not tell us about it?”
“It was not permitted. It is permitted now, and soon I shall tell all. But only you, now. It must remain a secret for a few days still.”
“Has none seen that white shadow before but me?”
“No one. It has fallen upon me before when you and others were present, but none could see it. Today it has been otherwise, and I was told why. But it will not be visible again to any.”
“It was a sign to me, then—and a sign with a meaning of some kind?”
“Yes, but I may not speak of that.”
“Strange—that that dazzling light could rest upon an object before one’s eyes and not be visible.”
“With it comes speech, also. Several saints come, attended by angels, and they speak to me. I hear their voices, but others do not. They are very dear to me—my Voices; that is what I call them to myself.”
“Joan, what do they tell you?”
“All manner of things—about France, I mean.”
“What things have they told you about?”
She sighed, and said:
“Disasters—only disasters, and misfortunes, and humiliation. There was nothing else to foretell.”
“They spoke of them to you beforehand?”
“Yes. So that I knew what was going to happen before it happened. It made me grave—as you saw. It could not be otherwise. But always there was a word of hope, too. More than that: France was to be rescued, and made great and free again. But how and by whom—that was not told. Not until to-day.” As she said those last words a sudden deep glow shone in her eyes, which I was to see there many times in the future. “But today I know. God has chosen the lowest of His creatures for this work; and by His command, and in His protection, and by His strength, not mine, I am to lead His armies, and win back France, and set the crown upon the head of His servant that is the prince and shall be the King.”
I was amazed, and said:
“You, Joan? You, a child, lead armies?”
“Yes. For one little moment or two the thought crushed me. But those weak moments passed. They will not come again. I will not turn back, God helping me, till the English grip is loosed from the throat of France. My Voices have never told me lies, they have not lied today. They say I am to go to the governor, and he will give me men-at-arms for escort and send me to the King. A year from now a blow will be struck which will be the beginning of the end, and the end will follow swiftly.”
“Where will it be struck?”
“My Voices have not said; nor what will happen before it is struck. It is appointed me to strike it, that is all I know; and follow it with others, sharp and swift, undoing in ten weeks England’s long years of costly labor—for such is God’s will.”
These were tremendous sayings. They were impossibilities to my reason, but to my heart they rang true. And while my reason doubted, my heart believed and held fast to the belief from that day. Presently I said:
“Joan, I believe the things which you have said, and now I am glad that I am to march with you to the great wars.”
She bade me keep these and the other revelations to myself for the present, and I said I would, and kept the faith I promised.
None who met Joan that day failed to notice the change that had come over her. She moved and spoke with energy and decision. There was a strange new fire in her eye, and also a something wholly new and remarkable in her carriage and in the set of her head. This new light in the eye and this new bearing were born of the authority and leadership which had this day been placed in her by God, and they asserted that authority as plainly as speech could have done it. This calm command remained with her until her mission was accomplished.
Source: Adapted from Chapter 6 “Joan and Archangel Michael”
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
By Mark Twain
By Mark Twain, from Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Gutenberg.org, Public Domain