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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book One: On Lovely Creek


ONE warm afternoon in May Claude sat in his upstairs room at the Chapins’, copying his thesis, which was to take the place of an examination in history. It was a criticism of the testimony of Jeanne d’Arc in her nine private examinations and the trial in ordinary. The Professor had assigned him the subject with a flash of humour. Although this evidence had been pawed over by so many hands since the fifteenth century, by the phlegmatic and the fiery, by rhapsodists and cynics, he felt sure that Wheeler would not dismiss the case lightly.

Indeed, Claude put a great deal of time and thought upon the matter, and for the time being it seemed quite the most important thing in his life. He worked from an English translation of the Proces, but he kept the French text at his elbow, and some of her replies haunted him in the language in which they were spoken. It seemed to him that they were like the speech of her saints, of whom Jeanne said, “the voice is beautiful, sweet and low, and it speaks in the French tongue.” Claude flattered himself that he had kept all personal feeling out of the paper; that it was a cold estimate of the girl’s motives and character as indicated by the consistency and inconsistency of her replies; and of the change wrought in her by imprisonment and by “the fear of the fire.”

When he had copied the last page of his manuscript and sat contemplating the pile of written sheets, he felt that after all his conscientious study he really knew very little more about the Maid of Orleans than when he first heard of her from his mother, one day when he was a little boy. He had been shut up in the house with a cold, he remembered, and he found a picture of her in armour, in an old book, and took it down to the kitchen where his mother was making apple pies. She glanced at the picture, and while she went on rolling out the dough and fitting it to the pans, she told him the story. He had forgotten what she said,—it must have been very fragmentary,—but from that time on he knew the essential facts about Joan of Arc, and she was a living figure in his mind. She seemed to him then as clear as now, and now as miraculous as then.

It was a curious thing, he reflected, that a character could perpetuate itself thus; by a picture, a word, a phrase, it could renew itself in every generation and be born over and over again in the minds of children. At that time he had never seen a map of France, and had a very poor opinion of any place farther away than Chicago; yet he was perfectly prepared for the legend of Joan of Arc, and often thought about her when he was bringing in his cobs in the evening, or when he was sent to the windmill for water and stood shaking in the cold while the chilled pump brought it slowly up. He pictured her then very much as he did now; about her figure there gathered a luminous cloud, like dust, with soldiers in it … the banner with lilies … a great church … cities with walls.

On this balmy spring afternoon, Claude felt softened and reconciled to the world. Like Gibbon, he was sorry to have finished his labour,—and he could not see anything else as interesting ahead. He must soon be going home now. There would be a few examinations to sit through at the Temple, a few more evenings with the Erlichs, trips to the Library to carry back the books he had been using,—and then he would suddenly find himself with nothing to do but take the train for Frankfort.

He rose with a sigh and began to fasten his history papers between covers. Glancing out of the window, he decided that he would walk into town and carry his thesis, which was due today; the weather was too fine to sit bumping in a street car. The truth was, he wished to prolong his relations with his manuscript as far as possible.

He struck off by the road,—it could scarcely be called a street, since it ran across raw prairie land where the buffalo-peas were in blossom. Claude walked slower than was his custom, his straw hat pushed back on his head and the blaze of the sun full in his face. His body felt light in the scented wind, and he listened drowsily to the larks, singing on dried weeds and sunflower stalks. At this season their song is almost painful to hear, it is so sweet. He sometimes thought of this walk long afterward; it was memorable to him, though he could not say why.

On reaching the University, he went directly to the Department of European History, where he was to leave his thesis on a long table, with a pile of others. He rather dreaded this, and was glad when, just as he entered, the Professor came out from his private office and took the bound manuscript into his own hands, nodding cordially.

“Your thesis? Oh yes, Jeanne d’Arc. The Proces. I had forgotten. Interesting material, isn’t it?” He opened the cover and ran over the pages. “I suppose you acquitted her on the evidence?”

Claude blushed. “Yes, sir.”

“Well, now you might read what Michelet has to say about her. There’s an old translation in the Library. Did you enjoy working on it?”

“I did, very much.” Claude wished to heaven he could think of something to say.

“You’ve got a good deal out of your course, altogether, haven’t you? I’ll be interested to see what you do next year. Your work has been very satisfactory to me.” The Professor went back into his study, and Claude was pleased to see that he carried the manuscript with him and did not leave it on the table with the others.