When the heavy drag had been adjusted to the wheel, and the carriage slid down hill, with a cinderous smell, in a cloud of dust, the red glow departed quickly; the sun and the Marquis going down together, there was no glow left when the drag was taken off.
But, there remained a broken country, bold and open, a little village at the bottom of the hill, a broad sweep and rise beyond it, a church- tower, a windmill, a forest for the chase, and a crag with a fortress on it used as a prison. Round upon all these darkening objects as the night drew on, the Marquis looked, with the air of one who was coming near home.
The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poor fountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. All its people were poor, and many of them were sitting at their doors, shredding spare onions and the like for supper, while many were at the fountain, washing leaves, and grasses, and any such small yieldings of the earth that could be eaten. Expressive sips of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.
Few children were to be seen, and no dogs. As to the men and women, their choice on earth was stated in the prospect--Life on the lowest terms that could sustain it, down in the little village under the mill; or captivity and Death in the dominant prison on the crag.
Heralded by a courier in advance, and by the cracking of his postilions' whips, which twined snake-like about their heads in the evening air, as if he came attended by the Furies, Monsieur the Marquis drew up in his travelling carriage at the posting-house gate. It was hard by the fountain, and the peasants suspended their operations to look at him. He looked at them, and saw in them, without knowing it, the slow sure filing down of misery-worn face and figure, that was to make the meagreness of Frenchmen an English superstition which should survive the truth through the best part of a hundred years.
Monsieur the Marquis cast his eyes over the submissive faces that drooped before him, as the like of himself had drooped before Monseigneur of the Court--only the difference was, that these faces drooped merely to suffer and not to propitiate--when a grizzled mender of 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 closed round to look and listen, in the manner of the people at the Paris fountain.
"I passed you on the road?"
"Monseigneur, it is true. I had the honour of being passed on the road."
"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 under the 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? You know 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, with his face thrown up to the sky, and his head hanging down; then recovered himself, fumbled with his cap, and made a bow.
"What was he like?"
"Monseigneur, he was whiter than the miller. All covered with dust, white as a spectre, tall as a spectre!"
The picture produced an immense sensation in the little crowd; but all eyes, without comparing notes with other eyes, looked at Monsieur the Marquis.