Now add this clinching fact, and surely the sum is complete: When have French soldiers won a victory? Scotch soldiers, under the French flag, have won a barren fight or two a few years back, but I am speaking of French ones. Since eight thousand Englishmen nearly annihilated sixty thousand Frenchmen a dozen years ago at Agincourt, French courage has been paralyzed. And so it is a common saying to-day 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 it could not fail to be clear to her, and that she would say, herself, that there was no longer any ground for hope. But I was mistaken; and disappointed also. 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 pauper King?"
"He will mount his throne--he will wear his crown."
"Well, of a truth this makes one's head dizzy. Why, if I could believe that in thirty years from now the English domination would be broken and the French monarch's head find itself hooped with a real crown of sovereignty--"
"Both will have happened before two years are sped."
"Indeed? and who is going to perform all these sublime impossibilities?"
It was a reverent low note, but it rang clear.
What could have put those strange ideas in her head? This question kept running in my mind during two or three days. It was inevitable that I should think of madness. What other way was there to account for such things? Grieving and brooding over the woes of France had weakened that strong mind, and filled it with fantastic phantoms--yes, that must be it.
But I watched her, and tested her, and it was not so. 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 ministering to her sick and to her poor, and still stood ready to give the wayfarer her bed and content herself with the floor. There was a secret somewhere, but madness was not the key to it. This was plain.
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, '28--and when I got to the edge of the oak forest and was about to step out of it upon the turfy open space in which the haunted beech tree stood, I happened to cast a glance from cover, first--then I took a step backward, and stood in the shelter and concealment of the foliage. For I had caught sight of Joan, and thought I would devise some sort of playful surprise for her. Think of it--that trivial conceit was neighbor, with but a scarcely measurable interval of time between, to an event destined to endure forever in histories and songs.
The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein 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 reposing 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, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions--a robed form, with wings--and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one cal look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that in pained my eyes and brought the water into them.