The Peasant and the Prince

Harriet Martineau

Peasant and the Prince, by Harriet Martineau

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Title: The Peasant and the Prince
Author: Harriet Martineau
Illustrator: Kronheim
Release Date: October 31, 2007 [EBook #23275]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ASCII

Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

The Peasant and the Prince, by Harriet Martineau.

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
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