The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 4
THE ROAD TO VERSAILLES
AT the break of day, rumbling out of the little fishing village, I was surprised to see both Broussard and Levert astir as early as myself, each in a separate coach, traveling the same direction. I thought it strange that they chose to go separately, and that neither had told me of his expected journey. However that might be, as it suited my purpose well to be alone, I disturbed not myself with pondering over it. Yet I wondered somewhat.
The King and Court were at Versailles; so judging to find Serigny there I turned aside from my first intention and proceeded thither. I was shocked by the universal desolation of the country through which I passed. Was this the reverse side to all the Grand Monarque's glory? I had pictured la belle France as a country of wine, of roses and of happy people. These ravaged fields, these squalid dens of misery, the sullen, despairing faces of the peasantry, all bore silent protest to the extravagances of Versailles. For the wars, the ambition and the mistresses of Louis had made of this fair land a desert. Through the devastated country roamed thousands of starving people, gaunt and hungry as the wild beasts of the forest; they subsisted upon such berries as they found, but durst not touch a stick of their lord's wood to thaw out their frozen bodies.
Young as I was, and a soldier, the sight of this wide-spread suffering appalled me, though being no philosopher I reasoned not to the cause. Yet this was the real France, the foundation upon which the King had reared the splendid structure of his pride.
It was some time during the second day, I think, when we passed a few scattering hovels which marked the approach to a village where we were to stop for dinner. At the foot of a little incline the horses shied violently, and passed beyond the man's control. My driver endeavored in vain to quiet them, and then jumped from his box and ran to their heads. I looked out to see what the matter was, and observing a squad of soldiers, followed by quite a concourse of villagers, I sprang to the ground.
Down the hill they marched, some ten or fifteen fellows in a dirty half uniform, I knew not what it was, while straggling out behind them seemed to follow the entire population of the hamlet. The old and gray-haired fathers, the mothers, the stalwart children and toddling babies, all came to stand and gape. In the lead there strode a burly ruffian, proud of his low authority, who shouted at intervals:
Behind him skulked four stout varlets, bearing between them a rude plank, on which was stretched a naked body, the limbs being not yet stiffened in death. I hardly credited my sight. Before they came abreast of us I inquired of the driver what it all meant. He only shrugged his shoulders, "A dead Huguenot, I suppose," and gave his care to the horses. Verily this was past belief.
I placed myself in the road and bade the leader of the procession pause. He stopped, staring stupidly at my dress.
"What is here my good fellow? what crime hath he committed?"
He, like the driver, answered carelessly:
"None; she is a Huguenot."
"She," I echoed, and stopped the bearers who laid their ghastly burden down, having little relish in the task. Yes, it was in very truth a woman.
"For the sake of decency, comrade, why do you not cover her and give her Christian burial?"
"It is the law," he replied stolidly.
"Yes, yes, it is the law," eagerly assented the people who gathered about the corpse, not as friends, not as mourners, but as spectators of the horrid scene. Among them, unrebuked, were many white-faced children, half afraid and wholly curious. I looked at them all in disgust. They went their way and came to the outskirts of the village, where they contemptuously tossed the woman from the plank across a ditch into the open field. In spite of my loathing I had followed.
I perceived now a feeble old woman hobble up toward the body and try with loud wailings to make her way through the guard which surrounded it. They shoved her back with their pikes, and finally one of them struck her for her persistence.
"Pierre, look at her old mother; ah, Holy Virgin, what a stubborn lot are these heretics."
Her mother! Great powers of heaven, could it be possible? My indignation blazed out against the inhuman guard.
"Why do ye this most un-Christian thing?" and to the crowd:
"Do you call yourselves men to stand by and witness this?"
At my words one sturdy young fellow, of the better, peasant-farmer class, broke from those who held him and would have thrown himself unarmed against the mail-clad guard. Many strong arms kept him back. He struggled furiously for a while, then sank in the sheer desperation of exhaustion upon the road. As soon as he was quiet the mob, gathering about the more attractive spectacle, left him quite alone. I went up to him, laid my hand upon his shoulder, and spoke to him kindly. He looked up, surprised that one wearing a uniform should show him human sympathy. He had a good, honest face, blue-eyed and frank, yet such an expression of utter hopelessness as never marred a mortal countenance. It haunts me to this day.
I was touched by the man's sullen apathy, succeeding so quickly to the desperate energy I had seen him display, and asked concerning his trouble.
"Oh, God, Monsieur, my wife, Celeste, my young wife! Only a year married, Monsieur." He raised upon his elbow, taking my hand in both of his, "We tried to go; tried to reach England, America, anywhere but France; they brought us back, put us in prison; she died—died, Monsieur, of cruelty and exposure, then they cast her out like some unclean thing; she, so pure, so good. Only look, lying there. Holy Mother of Christ, look down upon her."
He turned his gaze to where his wife lay and sprang up.
"She shall not—shall not," and cast himself again towards the guard. A dozen men seized him.
Deeply pained by his misery and the horror of the thing, I made my way to the front, near where the body lay.
"What is this foul law of which you spoke? Tell me?"
My tone had somewhat of authority and anger in it, so the fellow gave me civil answer.
"The law buries a Huguenot as you see—such unholy flesh could never sleep in holy earth. The beasts and birds will provide her proper sepulcher."
"Nay, but compose her fittingly; here is my cloak."
"It is not the order of the King," he sullenly replied. The brutal throng again gave assent.
"’Tis not the law, 'tis not the law," and bowed their heads at very name of law.
I remembered the Governor's errand, and could waste no time in quarrel which was not mine, yet willingly would I have cast my cloak about her. I inquired of the man:
"And what is the penalty should the hand of charity take this woman from the highway?"
"On pain of death."
"Then death let it be," screamed her husband, and breaking through the line of guard, he threw himself upon his wife, protecting her with his pitying garments.
Whilst I had been talking to the officer, no one observed the man come stealthily to the front, coat in hand, until, seeing his chance, he broke through their line. But these staunch upholders of the law would not have it so. They tore him viciously away, and I, sickened, turned from a revolting struggle I could do nothing to prevent. All these long years have not dimmed the memory of that barbarous scene.