Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Along French Byways
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo



   THE birthplace and girlhood home of Joan of Arc, peasant‑saint and noblest of all French heroines, was Domremy, a village in the hilly eastern department of the Vosges. The Vosges is a poor country compared with most parts of France; but such is nearly always the nature of the region that pro­duces saints. Comfort and wealth and adjacency to the great towns are not congenial, apparently, to growths so delicate.

Domremy is off the main routes of travel, yet pilgrims resort to it from all parts of France and from allover the world; for Joan of Arc is not a French heroine alone — she belongs to the whole human race. All nations honor her, and none render homage more heartily than the English, her ancient foes. Paris was my starting point when I essayed to visit Domremy, and I found the route a very zigzag one. A number of changes were necessary, and considerable tedious waiting at junctions. I was on the way all the after­noon and far into the evening, and was a little dis­couraged when I left the train at Maxey, the railroad station nearest Domremy, to learn that the place I sought was still two miles away, and that there was no conveyance thither. I was in an unknown coun­try, and it was night. I did not enjoy the situation, but there was no help for it.

The station master came with his lantern to the sta­tion door and gave me directions, and I walked away into the darkness. Maxey was only a little place, its streets deserted at this hour, houses black, save for here and there a lighted window, farmyard odors on the air, and the most noticeable sound the tinkle of water running from spouts into unseen troughs. On the outskirts of the hamlet I met a laborer who pointed out a short cut to Domremy across the fields, and I left the main road and followed a vague, winding meadow-way. Luckily, a quarter-moon shone in the west, or I should have had serious difficulty in keeping to the path’s uncertain markings.

I was on a wide lowland plain with hills round about. On the distant slopes I could see, here and there, dark patches of wood, but the valley was all open farm-land, with only stray trees and scattered groves. Through the meadows flowed the river Meuse, a leisurely stream, often looping and turning back on itself, and at times expanding into reedy marshes. Somewhere there was a dam, for through the dim quiet of the night I could hear the noisy overflow of water.


The meadows were half mown, and the hay from a few of the fields had gone to the barns; but it was the beginning of the harvest, and usually such grass as had been cut lay in swaths, as left by the scythes of the mowers, or gathered in heaps to shed the dew and possible rain awaited spreading and further drying on the morrow.

The stillness and mystery of the hour, with the pale lustre of the thin moon shining down on the damp meadows, were conducive to dreaming, and I thought of the old-time heroine whose fame had drawn me thither, realizing with a certain wonder and elation that this was her home region, and that I was treading a path she very likely had trod many times long, long ago, that in these meadows she had worked, that somewhere in that dark grove of trees on ahead was a village — Joan’s village! It seemed very fitting that she should have lived amid these surroundings in a region so retired, in a landscape of such gentle repose, with its broad levels and its protecting hills sweeping low along the horizon. Did she not catch from her envi­ronment some of her own brave, simple spirit? What a pity that the voices should have come to draw her away from the tranquil, pastoral life that was before her and plunge her into the midst of battles and intrigues and falsity! It is true that thus she won glory, but there was also the dreadful death at the stake. The story is one of strange contrast and pathos — and the tragedy of her early end, however we regard it, was perhaps necessary to make her fame secure. Had long life been granted there might have developed mistakes and weakness. We could not be sure her self-sacrificing courage would have come down to us so unsullied, to win for her the warm place she now has in the hearts of humanity.

When I reached Domremy I found it hardly less silent and lonely than the plain. It was the exact counterpart of Maxey — street deserted, a few dim lights in house windows and a steady, musical flow of water from spouts into outdoor troughs. I kept on till I came to the church, near which I dis­covered a building that bore the sign of a hotel. I went in and fumbled through a dark hall to a door that let me into the kitchen. There I found a light burning, and a man and woman sitting, their day’s work done, in drowsy meditation before the fire. They were dazed by my sudden intrusion, and it took me some time with my broken French to make them comprehend that I wanted a room and board for several days. Such a request from a tourist was rare. The place has many visitors, but nearly all come and go the same day. They do not care to loiter in this out-of-the-way little place. When I finally made my intentions clear, an extra candle was exhumed, and I was conducted to an apartment upstairs. My cham­ber had a decided individuality. It was large and had bare white plaster walls. In one corner was a long, substantial table and in each of two other corners a bed overhung by a lofty red canopy. The beds, indepen­dent of the canopies, were two-story affairs, and it was a problem just how to climb into them. On top of each was a fluffy feather mattress rather more than a foot thick. These overlying feather constructions might just as well have been packed away during the warm summer months, but I suppose the housewives take too much pride in them to sanction such a proceeding.

The next morning I began my rambling, which by the time I left made me very well acquainted with the hamlet and the habits of its people, and with the region lying round about. The village is a farming community just as it always has been from the time of Joan of Arc to the present. Its size has varied little with the passing of the centuries, and its homes and the ways of its people are simple and primitive. Every inhabitant, if we except the priest and a colony of nuns, works in the fields. The keepers of the shops, inns, and hotel have their land and their cattle like the rest, and when their indoor business can spare them they turn to their farm labor as naturally as if it was habitual.

The farm buildings are very much concentrated. House, barn, and stables are all under one expansive tile roof, and a whole line of such domiciles join walls along the street. In their great size and look of age and lack of windows they savor of mediævalism. The barn is the centre and heart of a house structure, and its big, sagging, wooden doors are a prominent feature of the house front. From the broad barn floor you can step at once into the dwelling-rooms on the one side or into the stables on the other. The height of the building is usually two or two and one-half stories, and if you look in at the barn doors you find the space beautifully vast in its high, cobwebby gloom. The house part rarely occupies a section clear to the roof, but ordinarily has a hay-loft over it, just as do the stables on the other side of the barn floor. There is need of all the barn room, for crops are stored indoors, and you never see stacks of hay and grain in the fields of the Vosges, as in warmer and more fertile districts. The stables are low and dark, and show a decided lack of convenience. The only way to remove the manure is to load it on a wheelbarrow and trundle it out by hand. That is the daily task of the lady of the house. She adds the loads to the accumulating heap in the front yard, and there the hens delight to scratch all day. It is a square, well-made heap mixed with straw litter, but it speaks rather loudly for itself in warm weather. The spare space in front of the house is also the receptacle for a variety of farm machines, the wood-pile, and for what­ever odds and ends it is handy to leave there. When a house has no space between it and the street, some arrangement for a farmyard in the rear of the premises is a necessity, but that is plainly not as convenient as to have everything right before the house door, open to the public way. Looks seemed not to count.


Nearly all the farmers kept both ducks and chick­ens, and the fowls at night staid somewhere about the stables. To make ingress and egress easy for them and for the cats, a hole was cut at the base of one of the barn doors.

The dwelling part of these great farm structures, as seen from the street, is apt to have but a single door and window. The window is curtained and perhaps has plants in it. Frequently it is tasteful and attract­ive, but Domremy fashion decrees that under it, inside, shall be a sink, and this sink connects with a stone spout or trough which conveys the waste water to the open air. The spout projects out from beneath the window sill, and its tricklings find their way as best they can, more or less directly, to the street gutter.

House walls are whitewashed, though as often in tones of sober drab as in the natural white. Occasion­ally there are vines creeping up the walls about the house doors, and when this is the case the attractive­ness of the premises is decidedly enhanced. The tile roofs, too, are always pleasing with their varied shades of red and tawny gray, and their wrinkled irregularity. Home interiors are simple to the point of barrenness. There is very little furniture, almost never an easy-chair, and almost never a picture. But there is sure to be a handsome, tall clock and some capacious, metal-trimmed, hardwood wardrobes, and on the mantel above the fireplace are brass candlesticks and an array of colored crockery. Stoves of the American type are in common use in some parts of France, but at Domremy the broad old fireplaces that gape across half a roomside are the rule. I liked to walk through the village in the evening and get glimpses through open house doors of the fires on the low stone hearths furnishing all the light for the dusky rooms. There was something very cheerful and domestic about the flicker, and the changing shadows, and the humble family life. Some of the household would be gathered around the table, a woman was perhaps lifting a black pot off the crane or laying fresh fuel on the coals beneath; on a bed in the corner the baby lay asleep, and over all played the glow of that open home fire.

In the centre of the village, where the main road parts and one branch crosses the Meuse by a stone bridge to the meadows, and another turns off toward the western hill slopes, stands the church. It is broad and heavy and is fronted by a stumpy tower. Above the main entrance is a great allegorical picture painted on canvas, tacked snug against the wall. The paint­ing contains many figures, including Joan of Arc and divers saints and angels, and its unusual size, strong coloring, and strange placing catch the stranger’s attention at once, and all pilgrims stop to study its probable significance. To the left of the entrance, on a high pedestal, is a bronze statue of Joan, and around on the other side of the church, at the time of my visit, was piled against the wall a great heap of brush. The brush was tied in bundles, as if in readiness for the burning of some modern martyr, but I suppose it was really the peaceful property of the dweller in a neighboring farmhouse.

The church tower had a clock on it, and a single pointer indicated rather vaguely the time. After the usual manner of French clocks this Domremy time­piece struck the hours twice with a short pause between the two series. The idea is, that if it struck only the first series, as do our clocks, the mind, so apt to be preoccupied with other things, would not be alert enough to begin with the initial stroke and count through with certainty. The preliminary series is needed to warn a person to make ready to count on the repeat.

Just beyond the church is the Joan of Arc cottage, an ugly building which has no charm in itself or in its surroundings. It looks more like a big shed than anything else, for the roof all slants one way from a very high wall at the front to a very low one at the back. The inside is kept as a museum, and it has all a museum’s blankness and stiffness, with no sugges­tion of its ever having been occupied as a home. The old garden at the rear, with its narrow paths and little plots of flowers and vegetables, happily has a real touch of humility. You can fancy it is not unlike what it was in Joan’s day, and the mind easily calls up the scene in those twilight hours of long ago when the simple shepherd maiden stood in this selfsame garden and heard mingled with the ringing of the bells from the near church those mysterious voices speaking to her.


Three-fourths of a mile to the south of Domremy, on a hill slope overlooking the broad levels of the valley, stands a basilica with a slender golden spire, marking the spot where tradition says Joan first received the command from her voices to join the army and deliver France from its enemies. In the near view the building has a pomp and pretention not at all in keeping with its rural surroundings nor with the simple character of the peasant girl it glorifies. I only saw it once when it seemed to me truly beauti­ful and impressive. Conditions favored. It was late in the afternoon, and the lower part of the basilica was shadowed by the steep western hill, while the golden spire, touched by the rays of the setting sun, became a wand of flame against the sky.

To follow the winding, ascending way that leads through the farm-lands from the village to the basilica imbues one with the genuine pilgrim feeling. You have the company of others making the journey, some on foot and some in carriages; they go and come all day long, singly, in groups, and at times in processions. A cross, halfway, bearing a life-size figure of Christ, gives the road emphasis as a pilgrim route and you feel transformed by some magic of the region half a thousand years or more into the past. Yet after all you get only a tincture, only a reminiscence, of the old days; for those early pilgrimages, especially when the destination was the Holy Land, entailed very real hardships, and they took a weary length of time. Most of the pilgrims did their travelling on foot with a long staff in the hand, a broad black hat on the head, and for the body a black or gray gabardine girt with a leather belt. Millions of such pilgrims made their lagging way to Jerusalem, and a large per cent of those who started lost their lives either going or re­turning. Our latter-day pilgrimages, in which one is rushed to his destination on a railroad train, and com­fortably looks about and pays his respects at the pil­grim shrine, and then is whirled back home with no exertion on his part, are very pale affairs.

The basilica on the Domremy hillside, with its elaboration of architectural detail and its ornamenta­tion of gold and color, stands where formerly the tall trees grew. Nature's woodland temple has been re­placed by this gorgeous church, and I do not think any one will ever hear voices from the other world there again.

The valley as I looked down on it from the basilica lay spread out before me like a map. There were the roadways with their thin lines of soldierly poplars, the tree-clumps and bushes marking the winding course of the river, the red-roofed villages, and the broad grass­lands busy everywhere with hay-makers. As many women were in the hay-fields as men, but their work was mostly confined to turning, raking, and opening. In some cases they handled the hay on the loads, but they never did the heaviest work — the mowing or the pitching on.

Nearly all the grass is cut and cared for by hand, though mowing-machines and horse-rakes are owned by a few of the more progressive farmers. There were men in the meadows swinging their great broad-bladed scythes all day. It was in the morning hours, however, that they were busiest, coats off, and fre­quently bareheaded, advancing slowly, but steadily, across th,, fields and laying low the daisy-spangled grass. Labor began before sunrise, and when the last loads came trundling in at about eight o'clock in the evening there were still stray workers scattered about the meadow who would keep to their tasks as long as daylight lasted.

In many parts of France two-wheeled carts, very high and very ponderous, are the only ones in com­mon use for heavy farm work, but at Domremy the type of cart in favor was low and had four wheels. When two horses, or, as was often the case, three, were attached to a wagon, they were hitched tandem, never abreast. Sometimes the team was made up of a horse and an ox, the former the leader, and the latter between the shafts. When a hay-cart went to the fields in the early morning or just after the noon lunch, it was apt to be the conveyance of the whole farm family — men and women, old and young, sit­ting square on the floor or perched along on the side racks. But it seemed to be necessary that one man should walk beside the team to do the driving; for even if the two or three draught animals were all horses, they were driven much as if they were oxen. A single line attached to the bridles hung on the left-hand side of the team, though it was seldom used except in turning corners. The driver depended in the main on his commands and exclamations, and on the cracking of his long-lashed whip.

One of the most common sounds that came to my ears from the street, when I was in my room at my hotel was the ring of hammer blows on iron. This was made by men sitting before their house doors sharpening their scythes. I do not think any farmer in the village had a grindstone, but it was not neces­sary. To sharpen his tool he laid the edge of the broad blade on a heavy-headed spike driven in a block of wood, and pounded the scythe edge sharp with a light hammer. The spike had a flange on it midway, so that when the mower used it in the fields it could be driven in the ground and hammered on without sinking in too far to be serviceable. Some mowers carried a whetstone slung from the belt in a cow's horn sheath, but the spike and the hammer were the favorite implements when the scythe got dull.


We had a flurry of rain one afternoon. Dark clouds had been reaching up across the sky for an hour, and presently the storm broke, big drops pelted thick and fast, and there was a rumble of thunder accompanied by flashes of lightning. The great meadows around the village were full of haymakers. They had seen indications at noon that the storm clouds were gather­ing, and had eaten hasty lunches and hurried to the fields to save the hay. They got some of it into tumbles, and a few half-loads on the wagons. Then the rain came and sent them scurrying back to the village, the first corners comparatively dry, the later arrivals well bedraggled. The poultry that inhabited the streets had promptly sought shelter, all the spouts from the conduits of the broad roofs gushed with water, and the wayside gutters became brooks. But the shower was soon past, the chickens and ducks reappeared, and the men and women put on their wooden shoes and spent the rest of the day working about their homes.

Mornings the village was always enlivened with processions of cows on the way to pasture, with horses and colts being led to the watering troughs, and with certain pigs which were apparently let out for an airing. But the event most pastoral and inter­esting was the start of the sheep for the day's grazing. From some byway a shepherd appeared accompanied by two black dogs and a few goats and sheep. The man blew a long horn at every corner, and barn doors opened here and there, and from each farm dwelling came additions to the flock until there were a hundred or two of the sheep and a goodly sprinkling of the shaggy goats. Now they wended their way out into the country to some waste fields on the western slopes where they would feed until evening.

I visited the shepherd on his hillside one day. He wore sabots and patched blue overalls. Slung from his shoulder was his horn and a black bag containing his lunch and a bottle of wine. In his hand, always ready for service, he carried a staff with a small iron hook and a scoop on the end. The hook he could deftly slip around the hind leg of one of the creatures when he wished to catch it. The scoop he used to shovel up pebbles and bits of earth to throw at the constantly wandering flock. It was a very effective warning, and with the intelligent help of his dogs he did not have to move about much himself. Often he sat and meditated, looking off across the green land­scape.

Toward night the bleating flock came straggling back along the lanes to the village. The dogs barked, the horn blew, the sheep ran hither and thither about the street, barn doors were thrown open, housewives appeared, and excitement reigned. But it was only for a few minutes. The sheep knew their homes, and little coveys of them separated from the main flock of their own accord, to seek their accustomed stables, till none were left save three or four younglings whose memories had failed them. There they were, their usual companions gone, homeless and forlorn on the street. They were in a panic, their wits left them entirely, and they never would be able to find their proper domiciles were they not driven and per­suaded. Their mistresses were after them, however, and I saw one of the reluctant lambs walked off by a woman who gripped it by its hind legs and pushed it along in the way it should go, as if it had been a wheelbarrow. The youngest of the stragglers on the same occasion was picked up by another woman and carried off in her arms.

In most places that I visited in France, I was fortu­nate enough to find some one who could talk English, but I could learn of no such linguist in Domremy. Some one suggested, in response to my inquiries, that the sister superior at the convent could speak my language, but when I went to the convent to seek that dignitary, and questioned its sober, coiffured inhabit­ants, they shook their heads and bowed me outside the gates of their citadel with evident relief. I felt as if I had been trespassing. Perhaps I had, but I had jangled the bell at the door in the street wall in vain, and then, as it happened not to be latched, I had pushed it open and crossed the threshold. There I was in a gravelled courtyard, and I was looking about doubtfully, trying to make up my mind what to do next when one of the spooks of the place oppor­tunely appeared. It may be a question whether the term "spooks," as applied to the nuns, is judicious, but it very well describes the impression they made on me. Their dress and manner of life were, to my mind, distressingly unworldly and unnatural, and their fune­real garments, prayer-books, beads, and images, gave them the air of making piety a business, while their barren, walled-in buildings looked like jails. It seemed as if the happiness of the young girls in the charge of these silent, frigid figures must be very much curtailed.

After my discomfiture at the convent gate, I blun­dered into the presence of the nuns yet again. It was evening, and I was returning from a walk in the fields, when I heard singing from within the church. A service was in progress, and I decided to attend. The one pointer of the clock on the tower indicated that it was a trifle after eight o'clock, and the night was dull and clouded. I expected to step from the outer dusk into a brightly lighted interior. Instead, I found myself in dense gloom, relieved only by one faint little taper fastened against a stone pillar. This tiny spark revealed vaguely many mysterious figures kneel­ing among the seats in the middle of the church. I made my way hesitatingly to a bench at the extreme rear, and sat down unnoticed. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness, I could make out dimly the vaulted arches of the ceiling, some colored windows beyond the altar, a statue above the little taper, and I saw that the congregation was composed of young women and girls, several nuns, and half a dozen white-capped old women. I was the lone man in the assemblage, and I would not have been surprised had I been asked to leave.


The singing which was in progress when I entered was followed by a long recitative — a chanting medley of sound that to my ears was not unlike the evening music of a frog pond. They went through it unhesi­tatingly, and I wondered that they were able to retain all its dull length in memory so accurately. Presently one of the nuns began to read from a prayer-book, and then I saw there was a second light in the room, for this nun had a candle, and when she held it up to illu­mine the page she was reading, it shone into her hood, and on the cloth's transparent folds it cast fantastic shadows from her features.

At the close of the service, when the worshippers filed out from the church, I found they were nearly all private scholars of the convent school. The only village farm folk were three or four children and a few old women. These scattered to their homes, while the school, two by two, beginning with the tallest girls, who may have attained the age of sixteen or eighteen, and ending with the youngest, who were eight or ten, marched away, officered by the nuns, down a side lane back to the convent. They always came and went by that lane, save on Sundays, when, in honor of the day, or as a special privilege to the scholars, they passed through the main street.

Sunday was observed by the villagers after the usual French manner, as one of mixed work, play, and de­votion, and the devotion was both last and least. The Sabbath I was at Domremy was a good hay day, and nearly all the able-bodied peasantry were in the fields. The wagons came rolling in from the meadows to the village barns with their loads the whole day through, until darkness put an end to the operations. Yet labor was not quite as general as on week days, for I noticed that a good deal of fishing was going on in the river Meuse, and that more men than usual re­sorted to the inns. A good deal of the fishing was done by boys, but I do not think their amateur angling was very successful. Nets seemed to meet with better reward. A party of three or four with their nets would usually return at the end of half a day or so with about two fish, weighing from one to four pounds each. The rest of the day the fishers would spend in showing their prizes to their friends, and telling them how they did it. Business at the inns began at noon, when the landlords, after a morning spent in the hay‑fields, got into their best clothes and took down their shutters. Too many were still engaged in field labor for trade to really thrive, yet after all, fair-sized groups gathered at the inns, where they drank, smoked, played cards, and talked the hours away, with evident satis­faction.

I attended morning mass at the village next to the south. I was early; but the day was hot, and I was glad to get into the cool twilight of the church and sit and wait. The only other person present was the gray old sexton. He was reaching up from behind the altar and taking down the tall candles one by one, snuffing, and otherwise putting them in order and replacing them. At ten o'clock a small boy came in, threw his wide straw hat at a seat, took a grip on one of the bell-ropes dangling in the rear of the room, and tolled the bell a few strokes. Then he came over and looked at me long and attentively. That accomplished to his satisfaction, he returned to his bell. There were three bell-ropes, and presently more boys came and joined the first, and helped ring the chimes. They enjoyed the task thoroughly, and they made the bells send forth all the clamor of which they were capable. It was a kind of gymnastic performance on the part of the boys, and they went through it like so many jumping jacks. For variety, they sometimes clung to the rope on its recoil, and let it carry them up in the air four or five feet. That was like flying, and the resounding thump of their heavy shoes on the paving, when they returned to earth, rejoiced their hearts. Occasionally one would break his downward journey by putting his feet on a pew-back, and then allowing himself to sag off sideways. The congregation had now begun to stroll in, but no one paid any attention to the boys. When the time came for services, the youngsters desisted, with some reluctant final flour­ishes, and went off to the chancel to put on their robes and help the priest before the altar. There was no organ, but the chanting was harmonious, and the decorous formalities of the service were not unpleas­ing. The audience kept increasing till nearly time for the benediction, but even when the last of the eleventh-hour worshippers had come, the church was but thinly filled. No doubt the number would have been much larger had it not been such good hay weather.

The next morning I left Domremy. I made an early start, for I had a long journey before me; but, though I was up at four o'clock, the village was already bestirring itself, and its people were beginning to appear on the street. At five, just as I left my hotel to walk to the station, the Angelus rang from the church tower. Work had begun in earnest by then. Hay wagons were being unloaded in the barns, there were men before the house fronts pounding out a sharp edge on their scythes, and the women were get­ting breakfast, or were milking in the stables, or were driving the cows to pasturage in the meadow enclosures. In the fields were laborers plodding along the paths on their way to work, and mowers swinging their scythes through the dewy grass; and that was the last impression I had of the homeland of Joan of Arc —peaceful meadows and hills and stream, and peasant workers beginning their day's labor under a clouded sky threatening rain.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.