The Peasant and the Prince by Harriet Martineau

The Peasant and the Prince by Harriet Martineau.jpg

Chapter One.

The Lover in the Wood.

One fine afternoon in April, 1770, there was a good deal of bustle in the neighbourhood of the village of Saint Menehould, in the province of Champagne, in France. The bride of the Dauphin of France,—the lady who was to be queen when the present elderly king should die—was on her journey from Germany, and was to pass through Saint Menehould to Paris, with her splendid train of nobles and gentry; and the whole country was alive with preparations to greet her loyally as she passed. The houses of the village were cleaned and adorned; and gangs of labourers were at work repairing the roads of the district;—not hired labourers, but peasants, who were obliged by law to quit the work of their own fields or kilns, when called upon, to repair the roads, for a certain number of days. These road-menders were not likely to be among the most hearty welcomers of the Dauphiness; for they had been called off, some from their field-work, just at the time when the loss of a few days would probably cause great damage to the crops;—and others from the charcoal works, when their families could ill spare the small wages they gained at the kilns. These forced labourers would willingly have given up their sight of the Dauphiness, if she would have gone to Paris by another route, so that this road-mending might have been left to a more convenient season.

The peasants round Saint Menehould were not all out upon the roads, however. In the midst of a wood, a little to the north of the village, the sound of a mallet might be heard by any traveller in the lane which led to the ponds, outside the estate of the Count de D—.

The workman who was so busy with his mallet was not a charcoal-burner; and the work he was doing was on his own account. It was Charles Bertrand, a young peasant well-known in the village, who had long been the lover of Marie Randolphe, the pretty daughter of a tenant of the Count de D—. When they were first engaged, everybody who knew them was glad, and said they would be a happy couple. But their affairs did not look more cheerful as time went on. Charles toiled with all his might, and tried so earnestly to save money, that he did not allow himself sufficient food and rest, and was now almost as sallow and gaunt-looking as his older neighbours; and yet he could never get nearer to his object of obtaining a cottage and field to which he might take Marie home. Marie grew somewhat paler, and her face less pretty; for, besides her anxiety for her lover, she had hard living at home. Her father and mother had her two young brothers to maintain, as well as themselves; and no toil, no efforts on the part of the family, could keep them above want. Their earnings were very small at the best; and these small gains were so much lessened by the work her father was called out to do upon the roads—and, of the money brought home, so much went to buy the quantity of salt which they were compelled by law to purchase, that too little remained to feed and clothe the family properly.

This story of the salt will scarcely be believed now; but it was found, throughout France, about eighty years ago, to be only too true. An enormous tax was laid upon salt, as one of the articles which people could not live without, and which therefore everybody must buy. To make this tax yield plenty of money to the king, there was a law which fixed the price of salt enormously high, and which compelled every person in France above eight years old to buy a certain quantity of salt, whether it was wanted or not. By the same law, people were forbidden to sell salt to one another, though one poor person might be in want of it, and his next-door neighbour have his full quantity, without any food to eat it with. Even in such a case as this, if a starving man ventured to sell salt for a loaf of bread, he was subject to severe punishment. Now, Marie’s brothers were just ten and nine years old; and the hardships of the family had been increased since these poor boys became the cause of their father having to buy their portion of salt. Just able before to get on, the family were, by this additional tax, brought down to a state of want; and Marie begged her father not to say a word about giving her a single penny, to help her marriage with Charles; for she saw well that he would never be able to do it. Her poor father could not contradict her.

As he could do nothing for her, he did not like to oppose the plan which the young people were found at length to have talked over. Charles knew that, in cases of great poverty, huts had been built in a wood, or caves scooped out in the side of the chalk-hills, where people lived who could not hire, or buy, or build a house. He told Marie that he would build a hut in the wood, and that he would then marry, and live or starve together, since there was no use in waiting longer, seeing, as they did, that their prospect never could improve. The lord of the chateau would not object, he was sure; as the lords always got out of their peasantry much more service than would pay for the stakes and twigs of a hut in the wood. Marie was easily persuaded, though her mother wept at the idea of the cold of winter, and the damps of spring, and the ague of autumn, that she knew caused terrible suffering to the poor, who lived in the woods and caves. The good woman tried to console herself with taking great care of a pair of fowls, which were to be her wedding present to her daughter.

So here was Charles, this day at work in the wood, with Marie’s brothers to help him. One well-wisher had lent him an axe, and another a mallet; and he cut and drove stakes, while Robin and Marc collected twigs from the brushwood, moss from the roots of trees, and rushes from the margin of the ponds. They had chosen such a spot as they thought Marie would like; for she would not be persuaded to come and choose for herself. She only dropped that the hut ought to stand above the fogs of the ponds; and she left the rest to Charles. Charles had found a little green recess among the trees, on a slightly rising ground; Robin and Marc declared for it at once, when he showed them how he could cut away the brushwood, so as to leave a pathway to the pond, and a pretty view of it when it gleamed in the sun, as it did this afternoon. The boys clapped their hands: and Charles, feeling a glow at his heart, as if Marie and he were going to be happy at last, began to sing, as he drove his corner-stakes.

“You will have a pleasant life of it here in the woods,” said Robin, bringing as large a load of rushes as his two arms would hold. “I should like to live here, as you are going to do. You have only to look into that pond for three minutes to see more fine fish than you will want for a month after.”

“The fish will do us no good,” said Charles. “If a fishbone is found within a furlong of where I live (here where nobody else lives), off I am marched straight to jail. And the Count’s bailiff has surprisingly sharp eyes.”

“I would bury the fishbones in the night-time,” observed Marc, coming up with a faggot of twigs; “but I would have the fish, if I wanted them, for all the bailiff.”

“If you go to yonder jail,” said Charles, “and ask the folk how they came there, some of them will tell you it was trying to get fish, when they were hungry, for all the bailiff. Or, if not fish, something else from the woods and warrens—a rabbit, perhaps, or a couple of doves.”

“I hope the bailiff won’t put me into jail for my rabbits,” said Marc, “for I have not eaten them. I have a pretty litter of rabbits for Marie; and you will help me to make a hutch for them, behind the house. I should say hereabouts.”

“Do you know no better than that?” said Charles. “Your father could have told you in a minute, if you had asked him, that it is against the law for anybody to keep rabbits and pigeons except the nobles.”

“Pigeons!” exclaimed Robin. “Why, that is too bad! I have the prettiest pair of doves, from this wood, that ever was seen. I took them from the nest, a month ago; and I tell Marie that their cooing will set all the doves in the wood cooing, so that she will have music all day long while you are away at work.”

“No matter for all that,” said Charles. “It would be a pretty treat for Marie; and it is a pretty thought of yours: but Marie must be content to hear the Count’s pigeons coo; for the first day the bailiff finds any tame ones, he will wring their necks, and make her or you suffer for having them. I can’t allow a rabbit or a pigeon here, boys, say what you will. They will be my ruin. Ah! I see you are vexed with me: but I did not make the law, and have no more liking to it than you: but I can tell you, quick as the bailiff’s eyes are upon everybody, they are most so upon people who live, as I am going to do, with fish, and pigeons, and rabbits all close round about them, and oftentimes wanting a meal, as I fear Marie and I shall do.”

The boys declared that if Charles would not take home their presents, they would keep them, and bear the risk themselves. They might thus let Marie have a rabbit or a bird to eat, now and then, if she could not keep them in their live state, as a pleasure.

As the floor of the hut could not be too much trodden, in the absence of planks and bricks, Charles and the boys gave it a first treading now, as soon as the six biggest stakes were driven in. Like all their peasant neighbours who were not barefoot, they wore wooden clogs; and with these all three stamped and tramped with might and main.

They were so busy at this work, that they did not perceive that any one was approaching, till Robin, happening to turn round, exclaimed—

“Why, here is Marie!”

Charles bounded out of the enclosure, threw his arms round Marie, and covered her cheek with kisses; so delighted was he with her for coming, as he thought, to see how the work went on, without even waiting till he went for her.

“Stay, stay, Charles!” exclaimed she, as soon as he would let her speak. “Hear what I came for,” she added, mournfully, and almost impatiently. “You must give over this work for to-day; and perhaps for many days more. You must go away somewhere out of sight, till all the strangers have left the place; or there is no saying what may happen. Father says so; and it was my mother that bade me come. She could not come herself, and so leave me among the soldiers.”

“Soldiers! What soldiers?” asked all at once.

“The soldiers are come that we were warned would come whenever the Count should bring his family home, and the Dauphiness pass through: and there are so many that there is not a house within two miles of the village that has not some quartered in it. We have three at home; and what we are to do for them we don’t know, nor how long they will stay. The first thing, however, Charles, is for you to keep out of sight. Father says if you don’t, the Count’s people will certainly be laying hold of you for military service.”

Charles struck his mallet against a tree, as if he wished to knock its head off. Between fear, anger, and disappointment, he was quite in a passion. He could not reasonably deny that all his and Marie’s hopes might depend on his hiding himself till the bustle was past; but it made him wretched to think of skulking in idleness, when his protection and assistance would be most wanted by Marie and her family.

“Now, don’t do that, love,” said Marie, gently holding his hand, as the dull shock of his blows echoed through the wood. “That noise will bring somebody. The Count himself, and his family, are not far off; and his people are all about. Do be quiet, Charles.”

“Quiet, indeed! And what are you to do with three soldiers, when you have not enough for yourselves?”

“I don’t know, indeed,” said Marie, tearfully, as she remembered that her mother’s cherished pair of fowls were doomed already for supper. She did not mention this; but said that the soldiers were calling for fuel, as they liked a good fire in spring evenings; and that her brothers must make haste home, each with a faggot, which would serve as an excuse for having been so long in the wood, if the Count’s people should have their eyes upon them. She herself must make haste back, Marie said, as the soldiers wanted their linen washed by the next morning. Her mother was trying to borrow some wood-ashes, as they had scarcely any soap; and it was time now that they were at the wash-tub. She must be gone.

The boys were more eager than Marie to be home. They were in fear for their rabbits and doves. They were heaping up their faggots with all speed, when they heard noises from the lane which made them pause. There was the sound of wheels, and the tramp of many horses, and the voices of a large company.

“It is the Count and his family,” said Marie, “coming to the chateau by the shortest road. No—do not go, boys,” she entreated, as they left their faggots, and began forcing their way through the brushwood towards the pond, that they might see the sight in the lane. “Robin, dear Robin!—Marc,—come back! Do come back, now! You will see them much better to-morrow. They will make a much grander show to-morrow. Charles, do make them stay here!”

Charles did not attempt this. He was thinking of something else; for he had observed Marie’s colour change when the cavalcade was first heard in the lane. He fixed his eyes upon her as he said—

“Had you seen the Count and his train when you found us here?”

“Yes,” she replied, looking in his face; “I had crossed the corner of neighbour Thibaut’s field, and was upon the stile when the party turned into the cross-road; and I had to wait till they were all past.”

“How many were there?”

“Oh, more than I can tell. There was a coach full of ladies, and six horses to it. And some more ladies on horseback, and some gentlemen, and many servants.”

“Did any of them speak to you?”

“They gave me good-day. But, Charles, I could hardly return it dutifully to them.” She hid her face on her lover’s shoulder as she whispered, “It made my heart sink to nothing, and does now, to think that I cannot be married without his consent,—that great Count’s! When I saw his grandeur, I thought it never could be.”

“Never fear,” said Charles, relieved from some feeling of dread which he hardly understood, but still with a heavy heart. “If his grandeur be all you are afraid of, never fear. He will be too busy to attend to such an affair, and will send us word through the bailiff, or the cure, if we can get him to speak for us. Or we can wait a few days, till they are fairly gone with the Dauphiness, and then marry; and the thing done, he will not take it amiss that we did not trouble him for his consent, at such a busy time.”

“See, what are the boys doing?” exclaimed Marie, who saw through the trees that her brothers were making the humblest of their rustic bows repeatedly, and with extraordinary earnestness. “Come further back into the wood,” she whispered. “Here, behind this thicket;—here no one can see us from the lane. Hark! Can you hear what those voices are saying.”

No words could be distinguished; but the boys soon came running back, and, to Marie’s great relief, followed by no one.

Her brothers were full of what they had seen. The cavalcade was very grand. The great coach looked quite full of ladies with their large white hats, covered with feathers, and flowers, and ribbons. Some more ladies in light blue riding-habits rode the most beautiful sleek horses; and so did the gentlemen. One of the young gentlemen stopped, or tried to stop; but his horse would not stand, but kept wheeling round and round the whole time he was speaking to them. He asked them whether they did not live in this wood; and when they said, “No,” he asked whether somebody did not live in it. Upon their saying that they knew of no inhabitant, he further inquired whether, if he came bird-nesting, or with his fishing-rod, they did not think he should find some sort of habitation among the trees. And then he asked whether they were not the Count’s peasantry; and what their names were, and how many there were in the family; and whether the bailiff was kind to them. By that time, the gentleman’s horse began to bolt across the lane, and all the party but one groom were almost out of sight; so the gentleman took off his hat, and bowed down to his saddle, looking very funny,—not mocking, but in play, and galloped off; and the groom laughed and nodded, and galloped after his master.

Charles now turned away, and with desperate tugs pulled up the stakes he had driven with so much satisfaction, and threw them into the thicket. He filled the holes, scratched up with brambles the ground he and the boys had trodden, and strewed it over with green twigs, so that no token of his late labour was left to attract the eye of the passer-by. The boys looked ruefully on his proceedings; and Marie appeared to forget that her mother wanted her, as she gazed. She soon, however, observed that the lane was empty now, and they must be gone. Sending her brothers on before, she stayed one moment to entreat Charles to be patient under the separation and delay of a few days, and proposed to him that he should be found, that day week, at a certain cave in the chalk-hill, two miles off, where she would send to let him know when the danger was over, and he might appear again.

Charles made no promises,—spoke no word of any kind. He kissed her fervently, and would scarcely let her go: and when she looked back from the verge of the wood, she saw him leaning his forehead against a tree. She feared he was weeping very bitterly.

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Categories: English Literature

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