It has been said that her stake was set so high, that there might be no chance of a merciful blow, or of strangulation to spare the victim the atrocities of the fire; perhaps, let us hope, it was rather that the ascending smoke might suffocate her before the flame could reach her: the fifteenth century would naturally accept the most cruel explanation. There was a writing set over the little platform which gave footing to the attendants below the stake, upon which were written the following words:
JEANNE CALLED THE MAID, LIAR, ABUSER OF THE PEOPLE, SOOTHSAYER, BLASPHEMER OF GOD, PERNICIOUS, SUPERSTITIOUS, IDOLATROUS, CRUEL, DISSOLUTE, INVOKER OF DEVILS, APOSTATE, SCHISMATIC, HERETIC.
This was how her countrymen in the name of law and justice and religion branded the Maid of France—one half of her countrymen: the other half, silent, speaking no word, looking on.
Before she began to ascend the stake, Jeanne, rising from her knees, asked for a cross. No place so fit for that emblem ever was: but no cross was to be found. One of the English soldiers who kept the way seized a stick from some one by, broke it across his knee in unequal parts, and bound them hurriedly together; so, in the legend and in all the pictures, when Mary of Nazareth was led to her espousals, one of her disappointed suitors broke his wand. The cross was rough with its broken edges which Jeanne accepted from her enemy, and carried, pressing it against her bosom. One would rather have that rude cross to preserve as a sacred thing, than the highest effort of art in gold and silver. This was her ornament and consolation as she trod the few remaining steps and mounted the pile of the faggots to her place high over all that sea of heads. When she was bound securely to her stake, she asked again for a cross, a cross blessed and sacred from a church, to be held before her as long as her eyes could see. Frere Isambard and Massieu, following her closely still, sent to the nearest church, and procured probably some cross which was used for processional purposes on a long staff which could be held up before her. The friar stood upon the faggots holding it up, and calling out broken words of encouragement so long that Jeanne bade him withdraw, lest the fire should catch his robes. And so at last, as the flames began to rise, she was left alone, the good brother always at the foot of the pile, painfully holding up with uplifted arms the cross that she might still see it, the soldiers crowding, lit up with the red glow of the fire, the horrified, trembling crowd like an agitated sea around. The wild flames rose and fell in sinister gleams and flashes, the smoke blew upwards, by times enveloping that white Maid standing out alone against a sky still blue and sweet with May—Pandemonium underneath, but Heaven above. Then suddenly there came a great cry from among the black fumes that began to reach the clouds: “My voices were of God! They have not deceived me!” She had seen and recognised it at last. Here it was, the miracle: the great victory that had been promised—though not with clang of swords and triumph of rescuing knights, and “St. Denis for France!”—but by the sole hand of God, a victory and triumph for all time, for her country a crown of glory and ineffable shame.