France was a wreck, a ruin, a desolation. The half of it belonged to England, with none to dispute or deny the truth; the other half belonged to nobody--in three months would be flying the English flag; the French King was making ready to throw away his crown and flee beyond the seas.
Now came the ignorant country-maid out of her remote village and confronted this hoary war, this all-consuming conflagration that had swept the land for three generations. Then began the briefest and most amazing campaign that is recorded in history. In seven weeks it was finished. In seven weeks she hopelessly crippled that gigantic war that was ninety-one years old. At Orleans she struck it a staggering blow; on the field of Patay she broke its back.
Think of it. Yes, one can do that; but understand it? Ah, that is another matter; none will ever be able to comprehend that stupefying marvel.
Seven weeks--with her and there a little bloodshed. Perhaps the most of it, in any single fight, at Patay, where the English began six thousand strong and left two thousand dead upon the field. It is said and believed that in three battles alone--Cr‚cy, Poitiers, and Agincourt--near a hundred thousand Frenchmen fell, without counting the thousand other fights of that long war. The dead of that war make a mournful long list--an interminable list. Of men slain in the field the count goes by tens of thousands; of innocent women and children slain by bitter hardship and hunger it goes by that appalling term, millions.
It was an ogre, that war; an ogre that went about for near a hundred years, crunching men and dripping blood from its jaws. And with her little hand that child of seventeen struck him down; and yonder he lies stretched on the field of Patay, and will not get up any more while this old world lasts.
Chapter 32 The Joyous News Flies Fast
THE GREAT news of Patay was carried over the whole of France in twenty hours, people said. I do not know as to that; but one thing is sure, anyway: the moment a man got it he flew shouting and glorifying God and told his neighbor; and that neighbor flew with it to the next homestead; and so on and so on without resting the word traveled; and when a man got it in the night, at what hour soever, he jumped out of his bed and bore the blessed message along. And the joy that went with it was like the light that flows across the land when an eclipse is receding from the face of the sun; and, indeed, you may say that France had lain in an eclipse this long time; yes, buried in a black gloom which these beneficent tidings were sweeping away now before the onrush of their white splendor.
The news beat the flying enemy to Yeuville, and the town rose against its English masters and shut the gates against their brethren. It flew to Mont Pipeau, to Saint Simon, and to this, that, and the other English fortress; and straightway the garrison applied the torch and took to the fields and the woods. A detachment of our army occupied Meung and pillaged it.
When we reached Orleans that tow was as much as fifty times insaner with joy than we had ever seen it before--which is saying much. Night had just fallen, and the illuminations were on so wonderful a scale that we seemed to plow through seas of fire; and as to the noise--the hoarse cheering of the multitude, the thundering of cannon, the clash of bells--indeed, there was never anything like it. And everywhere rose a new cry that burst upon us like a storm when the column entered the gates, and nevermore ceased: "Welcome to Joan of Arc--way for the SAVIOR OF FRANCE!" And there was another cry: "Cr‚cy is avenged! Poitiers is avenged! Agincourt is avenged!--Patay shall live forever!"
Mad? Why, you never could imagine it in the world. The prisoners were in the center of the column. When that came along and the people caught sight of their masterful old enemy Talbot, that had made them dance so long to his grim war-music, you may imagine what the uproar was like if you can, for I can not describe it.