Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her house-hold for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou's close friend and a Lancaster supporter - until the day that her daughter Elizabeth Woodville fell in love and married the rival king Edward IV. Of all the little-known but important women of the period, her dramatic story is the most neglected. With her links to Melusina, and to the founder of the house of Luxembourg, together with her reputation for making magic, she is the most haunting of heroines.
SUMMER 1430: CASTLE OF BEAUREVOIR, NEAR ARRAS, FRANCE
She sits, this odd trophy of war, as neat as an obedient child, on a small stool in the corner of her cell. At her boots are the remains of her dinner on an earthenware plate, laid on the straw. I notice that my uncle has sent good slices of meat, and even the white bread from his own table, and she has eaten little. I and I am staring at her, from her boy’s riding boots, to her man’s bonnet crammed on her brown cropped hair, as if she were some exotic animal, trapped for our amusement. As if someone had sent a lion cub to entertain the great family of Luxembourg, for us to put in our collection.
A lady-in-waiting behind me crosses herself and whispers, “Is this a witch?”I don’t know. How does one ever know?
“This is ridiculous,” I hear my great-aunt say boldly. “Who has ordered the poor girl to be chained? Open the door at once.”
There is a confused muttering of men trying to shift the respon-sibility, and then someone turns the big key in the cell door and my great-aunt stalks in. The girl—she must be about seventeen or eighteen—looks up from under her jagged fringe of hair as my great-aunt stands before her, then slowly rises to her feet, doffs her cap, and gives an awkward little bow.
“I am Jehanne, the Demoiselle of Luxembourg,” my great-aunt says. She gestures to my aunt. “This is the lady of the castle, Je-hanne of Bethune, and this is my nephew’s daughter, Jacquetta.”
The girl looks steadily at each of us and gives a little nod of her head to each. As she looks at me I feel a little tap-tap for my atten-tion, a whisper of magic as palpable as the brush of a fingertip on the nape of my neck. I wonder if standing behind her there are in-deed two accompanying angels and if it is their presence that I can all but feel.
“Can you speak, maid?” my great-aunt asks, when the girl says nothing.
“Oh yes, my lady,” the girl says. She has the hard accent of the Champagne region. She is no more than a peasant girl.
“Will you give me your word not to try to escape if I have these chains taken off your legs?” She hesitates, as if she is in any position to choose.
“No, I can’t,”she says.My great-aunt smiles.
“Do you understand the offer of parole?I can release you to live with us here in the castle, but you have to promise not to run away.” The girl frowns. It is almost as if she is listening for advice, then she shakes her head.
“I know this parole. It is when one knight makes a promise to another. They have rules as if they were joust-ing. I’m not like that. My words are real, not like a troubadour’s poem. This is not a game for me.”“Maid, parole is not a game!” my aunt interrupts.The girl looks at her. “It is, my lady. The noblemen are not seri-ous about these matters. Not serious like me. They play at war and make up rules. It is a game to them. Besides, I cannot make prom-ises. I am promised already.”“To the one who wrongly calls himself the King of France?”“To the King of Heaven.”
My great-aunt pauses for a moment’s thought. “I will tell them to take the chains off you and guard you so that you do not escape; but you can come and sit with us in my rooms. I think what you have done for your country and for your prince has been very great, Joan. And I will not see you here, under my roof, a captive in chains.”
“Will you tell your nephew to set me free?”My great-aunt hesitates. “I cannot order him; but I will do every-thing I can to see you free. At any event, I won’t let him release you to the English.”
At their very name, the girl shudders and crosses herself, thump-ing her head and her chest in the most ridiculous way, as a peasant might cross himself at the name of Old Hob. I have to choke back a laugh. This draws the girl’s dark gaze to us.“They are only mortal men,” I explain to her. “The English have no powers beyond that of mortal men. You need not fear them like this. You need not cross yourself at their name.”“I don’t fear them.” She ignores my patronizing tone. “I am not such a fool as to fear that they have powers. It is that they know that I have powers. That’s what makes them such a danger. They are mad with fear. They fear me so much that they will destroy me the moment I fall into their hands. I am their terror. I am their fear that walks by night.” “While I live, they will not have you,” my great-aunt assures her. At once, unmistakably, Joan looks straight at me, a hard, dark gaze as if to see that I too have heard, in this sincere assertion, the ring of an utterly empty promise.
My great-aunt believes that if she can bring Joan into our com-pany, talk with her, moderate her religious fervor, perhaps educate her that she will be led, in time, to wear the dress of a young woman and that the fighting youth who was dragged off the white horse at Compiègne will transform, as strong wine into water, and she will become a young woman who can be seated among young wait-ing women, who will answer to a command and not to the ringing church bells, and who can perhaps be overlooked by the English who are demanding that we surrender a hermaphrodite murderous witch to them. If we have nothing but a tamed girl to offer, perhaps they will be satisfied and go on their violent way.
Joan herself is exhausted by recent defeats and by her uneasy sense that the king she has crowned is not worthy of the holy oil,that the enemy she had on the run has turned against her, and that the mission given to her by God Himself is falling away from her.Everything that made her “the Maid” before her adoring troop of soldiers has become uncertain. Under my great-aunt’s steady kind-ness she is becoming once more an awkward country girl: nothing special.
Of course, all the maids-in-waiting to my great-aunt want to know about the adventure that is ending in this slow creep of defeat;and as Joan spends her days with us, learning to be a girl and not the Maid, they pluck up the courage to ask her.“How were you so brave?” one demands. “How did you learn to be so brave? In battle, I mean.” Joan smiles at the question. The four of us are seated on a grassy bank beside the moat of the castle, idle as children. The July sun is beating down and the pasture lands around the castle are shimmer-ing in the haze of heat; even the bees are lazy: buzzing and then fall-ing silent. We have chosen to sit in the shadow of the highest tower;behind us in the glassy water of the moat we can hear the bubble of a carp coming to the surface. Joan is sprawled like a boy, one hand outstretched into the water, her cap over her eyes. In the basket beside me are half-sewn shirts that we are supposed to hem for the poor children of Cambrai. But the two maids always avoid work of any sort, Joan has no skill, and I have my great-aunt’s precious pack of cards in my hands and I am shuffling and cutting them and idly looking at the pictures.
“I knew I was called by God,” Joan said simply, “and that He would protect me, so I had no fear. Not even in the worst of the bat-tles. He warned me that I would be injured but that I would feel no pain, so I knew I could go on fighting. I even warned my men that I would be injured. I knew before we went into battle. I just knew.”
“Do you really hear voices?” I ask.“Do you?”The question is so shocking that the girls turn to look at me,and under their joint gaze I and I am blushing as if for something shameful.
“No! No!”“Then what?”“What do you mean?”“What do you hear?” she asks reasonably, as if everyone hears something.“Well, not voices, exactly,” I say.“What do you hear?”I glance behind me as if the very ash might rise to listen.
“When someone in my family is going to die, then I hear a noise,” I say. “A special noise.”“What sort of noise?” one of the maids, Elizabeth, asks. “I didn’t know this. Could I hear it?” “You are not of my house,” I say irritably. “Of course you wouldn’t hear it. You would have to be a descendant of ... and any-way, you must never speak of this. You shouldn’t really be listening.I shouldn’t be telling you.”
“What sort of noise?” Joan repeats.“Like singing,” I say, and see her nod, as if she too has heard it.“They say it is the voice of Melusina, the first lady of the House of Luxembourg,” I whisper. “They say she was a water goddess who came out of the river to marry the first count but she couldn’t be a mortal woman. She comes back to cry for the loss of her children.”“And when have you heard her?”
“The night that my baby sister died, I heard something. And I knew at once that it was Melusina.”
“How did you know?” the other maid whispers, afraid of being excluded from the conversation. I shrug, and Joan smiles in recognition of truths that cannot be explained.
“I just knew,” I say. “It was as if I recognized her voice. As if I had always known it.” “That’s true. You just know.” Joan nods.
“But how do you know that it comes from God and not from the Devil?”I hesitate.
Any spiritual questions should be taken to my confessor at the very least to my mother or my great-aunt. But the song of Melusina, and the shiver on my spine, and my occasional sight of the unseen—something half-lost, sometimes vanishing around a corner,lighter gray in a gray twilight, a dream which is too clear to be forgot-ten, a glimpse of foresight but never anything that I can describe— these things are too thin for speech. How can I ask about them when I cannot even put them into words? How can I bear to have someone clumsily name them or, even worse, try to explain them away? I might as well try to hold the greenish water of the moat in my hands.“Because it is hardly anything,” I say. “Like when you go into a room and it is quiet—but you know, you can just tell, that someone is there. You can’t hear or see anyone, but you just know. It’s little more than that. I never think of it as a gift coming from God or the Devil. It is just nothing.”
“My voices come from God,” Joan says certainly. “I know it. If it were not true, I should be utterly lost.”“So can you tell fortunes?” Elizabeth asks me childishly.My fingers close over my cards. “No,” I say. “And these don’t tell fortunes; they are just for playing. I don’t tell fortunes. My great-aunt would not allow me to do it, even if I could.”“Oh, do mine!” she urges me.“These are just playing cards,” I say. “I’m no soothsayer.”“Oh, draw a card for me and tell me,” Elizabeth says, “and for Joan. What’s going to become of her? Surely you want to know what’s going to happen to Joan?”“It means nothing,” I say to Joan. “And I only brought them so we could play.”
“They are beautiful,” she says. “They taught me to play at court with cards like these. How bright they are.”I hand them to her. “Take care with them; they’re very precious,” I say jealously as she spreads them in her callused hands. “The Demoiselle showed them to me when I was a little girl and told me the names of the pictures. She lets me borrow them because I love to play. But I promised to take care of them.” Joan passes the pack back to me, but though she is careful and my hands are ready for them, one of the thick cards tumbles from us and falls face down on the grass.
“Oh! I am sorry,” Joan exclaims, and quickly picks it up. I can feel a whisper, like a cool breath down my spine. The meadow before me and the cows licking their tails in the shade of the tree seem far away, as if we four were enclosed in glass, butter riesin a bowl, in another world. “You had better look at it now,” I say. Joan looks at the brightly painted picture, her eyes widen slightly, and then she shows it to me. “What does this mean?”We both see the peaceful smile of a man dressed in bright livery, hanging from one extended foot, the other leg crooked easily, his toe pointed and placed against his other leg as if he were dancing, inverted in the air, his hands clasped behind his back as if bowing, the happy fall of his blue hair as he hangs, upside down, smiling.“
” Elizabeth reads. “How horrid. What does it mean? Oh, surely it doesn’t mean—” She breaks off.“It doesn’t mean you will be hanged,” I say quickly to Joan. “So don’t think that. It’s a playing card, it can’t mean anything like that.”“But what does it mean?” Elizabeth demands, though Joan is si-lent, as if it is not her card, not her fortune that I am refusing to tell.“His gallows is two growing trees,” I say. I am playing for time under Joan’s brown, serious gaze. “This means spring and renewal and life—not death. And there are two trees: the man is balanced between them. He is the very center of resurrection.”Elizabeth nods.
“And look: he is not hanged by his neck to kill him, but tied by his foot,” I say. “If he wanted, he could stretch up and untie himself. He could set himself free, if he wanted.”“But he doesn’t set himself free,” the girl observes. “It is as if he is dancing there, held by a foot. He is like a tumbler, an acrobat. What does that mean?”“It means that he is willingly there, willingly waiting, allowing himself to be held by his foot, hanging in the air.”“To be a living sacrifice?” Joan says slowly, in the words of the Mass.“He is not crucified,” I say quickly. It is as if every word I say leads us to another form of death. “This doesn’t mean anything.”“No,” she says. “These are just playing cards, and we are just playing a game with them. It is a pretty card, the hanged man. He looks happy. He looks happy to be upside down in springtime. Shall I teach you a game with counters that we play in Champagne?”“yes,” I say. I hold out my hand for her card and she looks at it for a moment before she hands it back to me. “Honestly, it means nothing,” I say again to her .She smiles at me, her frank smile. “I know what it means,” she says.“Shall we play?” I start to shuffle the cards and one turns over in my hand.“Now that’s a good card,” Joan remarks. “
La roue de fortune,
”I hold it out to show it to her. “It means the wheel of fortune that can throw you up very high or bring you down very low. Its mes-sage is to be indifferent to victory or defeat, as they both come on the turn of the wheel.”“In my country the farmers make a sign for fortune’s wheel,” Joan remarks. “They draw a circle in the air with their forefinger when something very good or something very bad happens. Someone in-herits money, or someone loses a prize cow, they do this.” She points her finger in the air and draws a circle. “And they say something.”
“A spell?”“Not really a spell.” She smiles mischievously.“What then?”She giggles. “They say ‘
.’ ”I am so shocked that I rock back with laughter.“What? What?” the younger maid demands.“Nothing, nothing,” I say. Joan is still giggling. “Joan’s country-men say rightly that everything comes to dust, and all that a man can do about it is learn indifference”.
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