“In vain Charles clamoured for subsidies, invented excuses for exactions, and pressed the imposts. The paralyzed cities and fields abandoned to the wolves could afford no succour. Remember his very claim to the throne was disputed. He became like a blind man going the rounds with a tin cup begging sous. His court at Chinon was a snarl of intrigue complicated by an occasional murder. Weary of being hunted, more or less out of harm’s way behind the Loire, Charles and his partisans finally consoled themselves by flaunting in the face of inevitable disaster the devil-may-care debaucheries of the condemned making the most of the few moments left them. Forays and loans furnished them with opulent cheer and permitted them to carouse on a grand scale. The eternal qui-vive and the misfortunes of war were forgotten in the arms of courtesans.
“What more could have been expected of a used-up sleepy-headed king, the issue of an infamous mother and a mad father?”
“Oh, whatever you say about Charles VII pales beside the testimony of the portrait of him in the Louvre painted by Foucquet. That bestial face, with the eyes of a small-town ursurer and the sly psalm-singing mouth that butter wouldn’t melt in, has often arrested me. Foucquet depicts a debauched priest who has a bad cold and has been drinking sour wine. Yet you can see that this monarch is of the very same type as the more refined, less salacious, more prudently cruel, more obstinate and cunning Louis XI, his son and successor. Well, Charles VII was the man who had Jean Sans Peur assassinated, and who abandoned Jeanne d’Arc. What more need be said?”
“What indeed? Well, Gilles de Rais, who had raised an army at his own expense, was certainly welcomed by this court with open arms. There is no doubt that he footed the bills for tournaments and banquets, that he was vigilantly ‘tapped’ by the courtiers, and that he lent the king staggering sums. But in spite of his popularity he never seems to have evaded responsibility and wallowed in debauchery, like the king. We find Gilles shortly afterward defending Anjou and Maine against the English. The chronicles say that he was ‘a good and hardy captain,’ but his ‘goodness’ and ‘hardiness’ did not prevent him from being borne back by force of numbers. The English armies, uniting, inundated the country, and, pushing on unchecked, invaded the interior. The king was ready to flee to the Mediterranean provinces and let France go, when Jeanne d’Arc appeared.
“Gilles returned to court and was entrusted by Charles with the ’guard and defence’ of the Maid of Orleans. He followed her everywhere, fought at her side, even under the walls of Paris, and was with her at Rheims the day of the coronation, at which time, says Monstrelet, the king rewarded his valour by naming him Marshal of France, at the age of twenty-five.”
“Lord!” Des Hermies interrupted, “promotion came rapidly in those times. But I suppose warriors then weren’t the bemedalled, time-serving incompetents they are now.”