Monsieur the Marquis in his travelling carriage (which might havebeen lighter), conducted by four post-horses and two postilions,fagged up a steep hill. A blush on the countenance of Monsieur theMarquis was no impeachment of his high breeding; it was not fromwithin; it was occasioned by an external circumstance beyond hiscontrol- the setting sun.
The sunset struck so brilliantly into the travelling carriage whenit gained the hill-top, that its occupant was steeped in crimson."It will die out," said Monsieur the Marquis, glancing at his hands,"directly."
In effect, the sun was so low that it dipped at the moment. When theheavy drag had been adjusted to the wheel, and the carriage sliddown hill, with a cinderous smell, in a cloud of dust, the red glowdeparted quickly; the sun and the Marquis going down together, therewas no glow left when the drag was taken off.
But, there remained a broken country, bold and open, a littlevillage at the bottom of the hill, a broad sweep and rise beyond it, achurchtower, a windmill, a forest for the chase, and a crag with afortress on it used as a prison. Round upon all these darkeningobjects as the night drew on, the Marquis looked, with the air ofone who was coming near home.
The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poortannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poorfountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. Allpoor a its people were poor, and many of them were sitting at theirdoors, shredding spare onions and the like for supper, while many wereat the fountain, washing leaves, and grasses, and any such smallyieldings of the earth that could be eaten. Expressive signs of whatmade them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax forthe church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were tobe paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscriptionin the little village, until the wonder was, that there was anyvillage left unswallowed.
Few children were to be seen, and no dogs. As to the men andwomen, their choice on earth was stated in the prospect- Life on thelowest terms that could sustain it, down in the little village underthe ill; or captivity and Death in the dominant prison on the crag.
Heralded by a courier in advance, and by the cracking of hispostilions' whips, which twined snake-like about their heads in theevening air, as if he came attended by the Furies, Monsieur theMarquis drew up in his travelling carriage at the posting-housegate. It was hard by the fountain, and the peasants suspended theiroperations to look at him. He looked at them, and saw in them, withoutknowing it, the slow sure filing down of misery-worn face andfigure, that was to make the meagreness of Frenchmen an Englishsuperstition which should survive the truth through the best part of ahundred years.
Monsieur the Marquis cast his eyes over the submissive faces thatdrooped before him, as the like of himself had drooped beforeMonseigneur of the Court- only the difference was, that these facesdrooped merely to suffer and not to propitiate- when a grizzled menderof the roads joined the group.
"Bring me hither that fellow!" said the Marquis to the courier.
The fellow was brought, cap in hand, and the other fellows closedround to look and listen, in the manner of the people at the Parisfountain.
"I passed you on the road?"
"Monseigneur, it is true. I had the honour of being passed on theroad."
"Coming up the hill, and at the top of the hill, both?
"Monseigneur, it is true."
"What did you look at, so fixedly?"
"Monseigneur, I looked at the man."
He stooped a little, and with his tattered blue cap pointed underthe carriage. All his fellows stooped to look under the carriage.
"What man, pig? And why look there?"
"Pardon, Monseigneur; he swung by the chain of the shoe- the drag."
"Who?" demanded the traveller.
"Monseigneur, the man."
"May the Devil carry away these idiots! How do you call the man? Youknow all the men of this part of the country. Who was he?"
"Your clemency, Monseigneur! He was not of this part of the country.Of all the days of my life, I never saw him."
"Swinging by the chain? To be suffocated?"
"With your gracious permission, that was the wonder of it,Monseigneur. His head hanging over- like this!"
He turned himself sideways to the carriage, and leaned back, withhis face thrown up to the sky, and his head hanging down; thenrecovered himself, fumbled with his cap, and made a bow.
"What was he like?"
"Monseigneur, he was whiter than the miller. All covered withdust, white as a spectre, tall as a spectre!"
The picture produced an immense sensation in the little crowd; butall eyes, without comparing notes with other eyes, looked atMonsieur the Marquis. Perhaps, to observe whether he had any spectreon his conscience.
"Truly, you did well," said the Marquis, felicitously sensiblethat such vermin were not to ruffle him, "to see a thiefaccompanying my carriage, and not open that great mouth of yours. Bah!Put him aside, Monsieur Gabelle!"
Monsieur Gabelle was the Postmaster, and some other taxingfunctionary united; he had come out with great obsequiousness toassist at this examination, and had held the examined by the draperyof his arm in an official manner.
"Bah! Go aside!" said Monsieur Gabelle.
"Lay hands on this stranger if he seeks to lodge in your villageto-night, and be sure that his business is honest, Gabelle."
"Monseigneur, I am flattered to devote myself to your orders."
"Did he run away, fellow?- where is that Accursed?"
The accursed was already under the carriage with some half-dozenparticular friends, pointing out the chain with his blue cap. Somehalf-dozen other particular friends promptly hauled him out, andpresented him breathless to Monsieur the Marquis.
"Did the man run away, Dolt, when we stopped for the drag?"
"Monseigneur, he precipitated himself over the hill-side, headfirst, as a person plunges into the river."
"See to it, Gabelle. Go on!"
The half-dozen who were peering at the chain were still among thewheels, like sheep; the wheels turned so suddenly that they were luckyto save their skins and bones; they had very little else to save, orthey might not have been so fortunate.
The burst with which the carriage started out of the village andup the rise beyond, was soon checked by the steepness of the hill.Gradually, it subsided to a foot pace, swinging and lumbering upwardamong the many sweet scents of a summer night. The postilions, witha thousand gossamer gnats circling about them in lieu of the Furies,quietly mended the points to the lashes of their whips; the valetwalked by the horses; the courier was audible, trotting on aheadinto the dim distance.
At the steepest point of the hill there was a littleburial-ground, with a Cross and a new large figure of Our Saviour onit; it was a poor figure in wood, done by some inexperienced rusticcarver, but he had studied the figure from the life- his own life,maybe- for it was dreadfully spare and thin.
To this distressful emblem of a great distress that had long beengrowing worse, and was not at its worst, a woman was kneeling. Sheturned her head as the carriage came up to her, rose quickly, andpresented herself at the carriage-door.
"It is you, Monseigneur! Monseigneur, a petition."
With an exclamation of impatience, but with his unchangeable face,Monseigneur looked out.
"How, then! What is it? Always petitions!"
"Monseigneur. For the love of the great God! My husband, theforester."
"What of your husband, the forester? Always the same with youpeople. He cannot pay something?"
"He has paid all, Monseigneur. He is dead."
"Well! He is quiet. Can I restore him to you?"
"Alas, no, Monseigneur! But he lies yonder, under a little heap ofpoor grass."
"Monseigneur, there are so many little heaps of poor grass?"
She looked an old woman, but was young. Her manner was one ofpassionate grief; by turns she clasped her veinous and knotted handstogether with wild energy, and laid one of them on thecarriage-door- tenderly, caressingly, as if it had been a humanbreast, and could be expected to feel the appealing touch.
"Monseigneur, hear me! Monseigneur, hear my petition! My husbanddied of want; so many die of want; so many more will die of want."
"Again, well? Can I feed them?"
"Monseigneur, the good God knows; but I don't ask it. My petitionis, that a morsel of stone or wood, with my husband's name, may beplaced over him to show where he lies. Otherwise, the place will bequickly forgotten, it will never be found when I am dead of the samemalady, I shall be laid under some other heap of poor grass.Monseigneur, they are so many, they increase so fast, there is so muchwant. Monseigneur! Monseigneur!"
The valet had put her away from the door, the carriage had brokeninto a brisk trot, the postilions had quickened the pace, she was leftfar behind, and Monseigneur, again escorted by the Furies, was rapidlydiminishing the league or two of distance that remained between himand his chateau.
The sweet scents of the summer night rose all around him, androse, as the rain falls, impartially, on the dusty, ragged, andtoil-worn group at the fountain not far away; to whom the mender ofroads, with the aid of the blue cap without which he was nothing,still enlarged upon his man like a spectre, as long as they could bearit. By degrees, as they could bear no more, they dropped off one byone, and lights twinkled in little casements; which lights, as thecasements darkened, and more stars came out, seemed to have shot upinto the sky instead of having been extinguished.
The shadow of a large high-roofed house, and of many over-hangingtrees, was upon Monsieur the Marquis by that time; and the shadowwas exchanged for the light of a flambeau, as his carriage stopped,and the great door of his chateau was opened to him.
"Monsieur Charles, whom I expect; is he arrived from England?"
"Monseigneur, not yet."