Far and wide lay a rained country, yielding nothing butdesolation. Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain,was as shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. Everything wasbowed down, dejected, oppressed, and broken. Habitations, fences,domesticated animals, men, women, children, and the soil that borethem- all worn out.
Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was anational blessing, gave a chivalrous tone to things, was a politeexample of luxurious and shining life, and a great deal more toequal purpose; nevertheless, Monseigneur as a class had, somehow orother, brought things to this. Strange that Creation, designedexpressly for Monseigneur, should be so soon wrung dry and squeezedout! There must be something shortsighted in the eternal arrangements,surely! Thus it was, however; and the last drop of blood havingbeen extracted from the flints, and the last screw of the rackhaving been turned so often that its purchase crumbled, and it nowturned and turned with nothing to bite, Monseigneur began to runaway from a phenomenon so low and unaccountable.
But, this was not the change on the village, and on many a villagelike it. For scores of years gone by, Monseigneur had squeezed itand wrung it, and had seldom graced it with his presence except forthe pleasures of the chase- now, found in hunting the people; now,found in hunting the beasts, for whose preservation Monseigneur madeedifying spaces of barbarous and barren wilderness. No. The changeconsisted in the appearance of strange faces of low caste, rather thanin the disappearance of the high caste, chiselled, and otherwisebeautified and beautifying features of Monseigneur.
For, in these times, as the mender of roads worked, solitary, in thedust, not often troubling himself to reflect that dust he was and todust he must return, being for the most part too much occupied inthinking how little he had for supper and how much more he would eatif he had it- in these times, as he raised his eyes from his lonelylabour, and viewed the prospect, he would see some rough figureapproaching on foot, the like of which was once a rarity in thoseparts, but was now a frequent presence. As it advanced, the menderof roads would discern without surprise, that it was a shaggy-hairedman, of almost barbarian aspect, tall, in wooden shoes that wereclumsy even to the eyes of a mender of roads, grim, rough, swart,steeped in the mud and dust of many highways, dank with the marshymoisture of many low grounds, sprinkled with the thorns and leaves andmoss of many byways through woods.
Such a man came upon him, like a ghost, at noon in the July weather,as he sat on his heap of stones under a bank, taking such shelter ashe could get from a shower of hail.
The man looked at him, looked at the village in the hollow, at themill, and at the prison on the crag. When he had identified theseobjects in what benighted mind he had, he said, in a dialect thatwas just intelligible:
"How goes it, Jacques?"
"All well, Jacques."
They joined hands, and the man sat down on the heap of stones.
"Nothing but supper now," said the mender of roads, with a hungryface.
"It is the fashion," growled the man. "I meet no dinner anywhere."
He took out a blackened pipe, filled it, lighted it with flint andsteel, pulled at it until it was in a bright glow: then, suddenly heldit from him and dropped something into it from between his fingerand thumb, that blazed and went out in a puff of smoke.
"Touch then." It was the turn of the mender of roads to say itthis time, after observing these operations. They again joined hands.
"To-night?" said the mender of roads.
"To-night," said the man, putting the pipe in his mouth.
He and the mender of roads sat on the heap of stones lookingsilently at one another, with the hail driving in between them likea pigmy charge of bayonets, until the sky began to clear over thevillage.
"Show me!" said the traveller then, moving to the brow of the hill.
"See!" returned the mender of roads, with extended finger. "You godown here, and straight through the street, and past the fountain--"
"To the Devil with all that!" interrupted the other, rolling his eyeover the landscape. "I go through no streets and past no fountains.Well?"
"Well! About two leagues beyond the summit of that hill above thevillage."
"Good. When do you cease to work?"
"Will you wake me, before departing? I have walked two nightswithout resting. Let me finish my pipe, and I shall sleep like achild. Will you wake me?"
The wayfarer smoked his pipe out, put it in his breast, slippedoff his great wooden shoes, and lay down on his back on the heap ofstones. He was fast asleep directly.
As the road-mender plied his dusty labour, and the hail-clouds,rolling away, revealed bright bars and streaks of sky which wereresponded to by silver gleams upon the landscape, the little man(who wore a red cap now, in place of his blue one) seemed fascinatedby the figure on the heap of stones. His eyes were so often turnedtowards it, that he used his tools mechanically, and, one would havesaid, to very poor account. The bronze face, the shaggy black hair andbeard, the coarse woollen red cap, the rough medley dress of home-spunstuff and hairy skins of beasts, the powerful frame attenuated byspare living, and the sullen and desperate compression of the lipsin sleep, inspired the mender of roads with awe. The traveller hadtravelled far, and his feet were footsore, and his ankles chafed andbleeding; his great shoes, stuffed with leaves and grass, had beenheavy to drag over the many long leagues, and his clothes werechafed into holes, as he himself was into sores. Stooping downbeside him, the road-mender tried to get a peep at secret weapons inhis breast or where not; but, in vain, for he slept with his armscrossed upon him, and set as resolutely as his lips. Fortified townswith their stockades, guard-houses, gates, trenches, anddrawbridges, seemed to the mender of roads, to be so much air asagainst this figure. And when he lifted his eyes from it to thehorizon and looked around, he saw in his small fancy similarfigures, stopped by no obstacle, tending to centres all over France.
The man slept on, indifferent to showers of hail and intervals ofbrightness, to sunshine on his face and shadow, to the pattering lumpsof dull ice on his body and the diamonds into which the sun changedthem, until the sun was low in the west, and the sky was glowing.Then, the mender of roads having got his tools together and all thingsready to go down into the village, roused him.
"Good!" said the sleeper, rising on his elbow. "Two leagues beyondthe summit of the hill?"
The mender of roads went home, with the dust going on before himaccording to the set of the wind, and was soon at the fountain,squeezing himself in among the lean kine brought there to drink, andappearing even to whisper to them in his whispering to all thevillage. When the village had taken its poor supper, it did notcreep to bed, as it usually did, but came out of doors again, andremained there. A curious contagion of whispering was upon it, andalso, when it gathered together at the fountain in the dark, anothercurious contagion of looking expectantly at the sky in one directiononly. Monsieur Gabelle, chief functionary of the place, became uneasy;went out on his house-top alone, and looked in that direction too;glanced down from behind his chimneys at the darkening faces by thefountain below, and sent word to the sacristan who kept the keys ofthe church, that there might be need to ring the tocsin by-and-bye.
The night deepened. The trees environing the old chateau, keepingits solitary state apart, moved in a rising wind, as though theythreatened the pile of building massive and dark in the gloom. Upthe two terrace flights of steps the rain ran wildly, and beat atthe great door, like a swift messenger rousing those within; uneasyrushes of wind went through the hall, among the old spears and knives,and passed lamenting up the stairs, and shook the curtains of thebed where the last Marquis had slept. East, West, North, and South,through the woods, four heavy-treading, unkempt figures crushed thehigh grass and cracked the branches, striding on cautiously to come inthe courtyard. Four lights broke out there, and moved away indifferent directions, and all was black again.
But, not for long. Presently, the chateau began to make itselfstrangely visible by some light of its own, as though it weregrowing Then, a flickering streak played behind the architecture ofthe front, picking out transparent places, and showing wherebalustrades, arches, and windows were. Then it soared higher, and grewbroader and brighter. Soon, from a score of the great windows,flames burst forth, and the stone faces awakened, stared out of fire.
A faint murmur arose about the house from the few people who wereleft there, and there was a saddling of a horse and riding away. Therewas spurring and splashing through the darkness, and bridle wasdrawn in the space by the village fountain, and the horse in a foamstood at Monsieur Gabelle's door. "Help, Gabelle! Help, every one!"The tocsin rang impatiently, but other help (if that were any) therewas none. The mender of roads, and two hundred and fifty particularfriends, stood with folded arms at the fountain, looking at the pillarof fire in the sky. "It must be forty feet high," said they, grimly;and never moved.
The rider from the chateau, and the horse in a foam, clatteredaway through the village, and galloped up the stony steep, to theprison on the crag. At the gate, a group of officers were looking atthe fire; removed from them, a group of soldiers. "Help, gentlemen-officers! The chateau is on fire; valuable objects may be saved fromthe flames by timely aid! Help, help!" The officers looked towards thesoldiers who looked at the fire; gave no orders; and answered, withshrugs and biting of lips, "It must burn."
As the rider rattled down the hill again and through the street, thevillage was illuminating. The mender of roads, and the two hundred andfifty particular friends, inspired as one man and woman by the idea oflighting up, had darted into their houses, and were putting candles inevery dull little pane of glass. The general scarcity of everything,occasioned candles to be borrowed in a rather peremptory manner ofMonsieur Gabelle; and in a moment of reluctance and hesitation on thatfunctionary's part, the mender of roads, once so submissive toauthority, had remarked that carriages were good to make bonfireswith, and that post-horses would roast.
The chateau was left to itself to flame and burn. In the roaring andraging of the conflagration, a red-hot wind, driving straight from theinfernal regions, seemed to be blowing the edifice away. With therising and failing of the blaze, the stone faces showed as if theywere in torment. When great masses of stone and timber fell, theface with the two dints in the nose became obscured: anon struggledout of the smoke again, as if it were the face of the cruel Marquis,burning at the stake and contending with the fire.
The chateau burned; the nearest trees, laid hold of by the fire,scorched and shrivelled; trees at a distance, fired by the four fiercefigures, begirt the blazing edifice with a new forest of smoke. Moltenlead and iron boiled in the marble basin of the fountain; the waterran dry; the extinguisher tops of the towers vanished like icebefore the heat, and trickled down into four rugged wells of flame.Great rents and splits branched out in the solid walls, likecrystallisation; stupefied birds wheeled about and dropped into thefurnace; four fierce figures trudged away, East, West, North, andSouth, along the night-enshrouded roads, guided by the beacon they hadlighted, towards their next destination. The illuminated village hadseized hold of the tocsin, and, abolishing the lawful ringer, rang forjoy.
Not only that; but the village, light-headed with famine, fire,and bell-ringing, and bethinking itself that Monsieur Gabelle had todo with the collection of rent and taxes- though it was but a smallinstalment of taxes, and no rent at all, that Gabelle had got in thoselatter days- became impatient for an interview with him, and,surrounding his house, summoned him to come forth for personalconference. Whereupon, Monsieur Gabelle did heavily bar his door,and retire to hold counsel with himself. The result of that conferencewas, that Gabelle again withdrew himself to his housetop behind hisstack of chimneys; this time resolved, if his door were broken in(he was a small Southern man of retaliative temperament), to pitchhimself head foremost over the parapet, and crush a man or two below.
Probably, Monsieur Gabelle passed a long night up there, with thedistant chateau for fire and candle, and the beating at his door,combined with the joy-ringing, for music; not to mention his having anill-omened lamp slung across the road before his posting-house gate,which the village showed a lively inclination to displace in hisfavour. A trying suspense, to be passing a whole summer night on thebrink of the black ocean, ready to take that plunge into it upon whichMonsieur Gabelle had resolved! But, the friendly dawn appearing atlast, and the rush- candles of the village guttering out, the peoplehappily dispersed, and Monsieur Gabelle came down bringing his lifewith him for that while.
Within a hundred miles, and in the light of other fires, therewere other functionaries less fortunate, that night and othernights, whom the rising sun found hanging across once-peacefulstreets, where they had been born and bred; also, there were othervillagers and townspeople less fortunate than the mender of roadsand his fellows, upon whom the functionaries and soldiery turnedwith success, and whom they strung up in their turn. But, the fiercefigures were steadily wending East, West, North, and South, be that asit would; and whosoever hung, fire burned. The altitude of the gallowsthat would turn to water and quench it, no functionary, by any stretchof mathematics, was able to calculate successfully.