A messenger came from the English with a rude defiance and an offer of battle. But Joan's dignity was not ruffled, her bearing was not discomposed. She said to the herald:
"Go back and say it is too late to meet to-night; but to-morrow, please God and our Lady, we will come to close quarters."
The night fell dark and rainy. It was that sort of light steady rain which falls so softly and brings to one's spirit such serenity and peace. About ten o'clock D'Alen‡on, the Bastard of Orleans, La Hire, Pothon of Saintrailles, and two or three other generals came to our headquarters tent, and sat down to discuss matters with Joan. Some thought it was a pity that Joan had declined battle, some thought not. Then Pothon asked her why she had declined it. She said:
"There was more than one reason. These English are ours--they cannot get away from us. Wherefore there is no need to take risks, as at other times. The day was far spent. It is good to have much time and the fair light of day when one's force is in a weakened state--nine hundred of us yonder keeping the bridge of Meung under the Marshal de Rais, fifteen hundred with the Constable of France keeping the bridge and watching the castle of Beaugency."
"I grieve for this decision, Excellency, but it cannot be helped. And the case will be the same the morrow, as to that."
Joan was walking up and down just then. She laughed her affectionate, comrady laugh, and stopping before that old war-tiger she put her small hand above his head and touched one of his plumes, saying:
"Now tell me, wise man, which feather is it that I touch?"
"In sooth, Excellency, that I cannot."
"Name of God, Bastard, Bastard! you cannot tell me this small thing, yet are bold to name a large one--telling us what is in the stomach of the unborn morrow: that we shall not have those men. Now it is my thought that they will be with us."
That made a stir. All wanted to know why she thought that. But La Hire took the word and said:
"Let be. If she thinks it, that is enough. It will happen."
Then Pothon of Santrailles said:
"There were other reasons for declining battle, according to the saying of your Excellency?"
"Yes. One was that we being weak and the day far gone, the battle might not be decisive. When it is fought it must be decisive. And it shall be."
"God grant it, and amen. There were still other reasons?"
"One other--yes." She hesitated a moment, then said: "This was not the day. To-morrow is the day. It is so written."
They were going to assail her with eager questionings, but she put up her hand and prevented them. Then she said:
"It will be the most noble and beneficent victory that God has vouchsafed for France at any time. I pray you question me not as to whence or how I know this thing, but be content that it is so."
There was pleasure in every face, and conviction and high confidence. A murmur of conversation broke out, but that was interrupted by a messenger from the outposts who brought news--namely, that for an hour there had been stir and movement in the English camp of a sort unusual at such a time and with a resting army, he said. Spies had been sent under cover of the rain and darkness to inquire into it. They had just come back and reported that large bodies of men had been dimly made out who were slipping stealthily away in the direction of Meung.
The generals were very much surprised, as any might tell from their faces.
"It is a retreat," said Joan.
"It has that look," said D'Alen‡on.
"It certainly has," observed the Bastard and La Hire.
"It was not to be expected," said Louis de Bourbon, "but one can divine the purpose of it."
"Yes," responded Joan. "Talbot has reflected. His rash brain has cooled. He thinks to take the bridge of Meung and escape to the other side of the river. He knows that this leaves his garrison of Beaugency at the mercy of fortune, to escape our hands if it can; but there is no other course if he would avoid this battle, and that he also knows.