OW while all these things had been going on, poor Gabriel had been growing more wretchedly unhappy day by day. His people had become poorer and poorer, and the long, cold winter was upon them. They had almost given up hope of the release of peasant Viaud from prison, and did not know where they could get bread or fire to keep them alive through the bitter cold. Sometimes Gabriel thought with despair of how much he had hoped from his little prayer! For he was sure, by this time, that God was angry with him for daring to put it in the beautiful book.
And to add the last touch to his distress, he had been obliged to give up his work and lessons at the Abbey; for Brother Stephen had been ill for a time, and unable to paint, and all the other monks had colour-grinders of their own. So Gabriel, who could not afford to be idle even for a few days, had been forced to seek employment elsewhere.
The only work he could find was with a leather dresser in the village of St. Martin's, and though it was very hard and distasteful to him, he felt that he must keep at it, as he could thus earn a few pennies more each day than he could as colour-grinder at the Abbey. And yet, with all his hard toil, the little sum he brought home at night was far from enough to keep them all from want, to say nothing of paying the tax which still hung over them; and so every day they became more hopeless and discouraged.
Indeed, in those times, when a peasant family fell under the displeasure of their noble lord, it was a bitter misfortune, for there were few places to which they might turn for help.
And it seemed to Gabriel especially hard to bear all their troubles in the gracious Christmas season; for it was now past the middle of December. Always before they had had enough for their happy little Christmas feast, and some to spare. They had always had their sheaf of wheat put by for the birds; and for two seasons past Gabriel's father had let him climb up the tall ladder and fasten the holiday sheaf, bound with its garland of greens, to the roof of the little peaked and gabled dovecote that stood on top of a carved pole in the centre of the farmyard. For every Norman peasant always wishes the birds, too, to be happy at the joyous Christmas-tide.
And always, every Christmas eve, when Gabriel and his little brothers and sister had gone to bed, they had set their wooden shoes in a row on the hearthstone; and then in the morning when they wakened up, they always found that the blessed Christ-child had been there in the night, and filled all the little shoes with red apples and nuts.
But this Christmas-time everything was so sad and changed, they were sure even the Christ-child would forget them. And, day by day, the little supply of coarse meal for their black bread grew smaller and smaller, and the snow became deeper, and the wintry winds blew more cold and cruelly.
Meantime, King Louis's messenger was travelling as fast as he could, and three days before Christmas he arrived at St. Martin's Abbey. The Abbot was greatly surprised to see him, and still more so when he asked if he might speak privately with Brother Stephen. This the Abbot granted, though he was very anxious to know the messenger's errand; for he could think of no reason for it, unless there had been something wrong with King Louis's book. So he was quite uneasy as he saw the messenger enter Brother Stephen's cell and close the door.
Brother Stephen, too, was at first much surprised when his visitor told him he had come from King Louis to inquire about a peasant boy by the name of Gabriel Viaud; though in a moment it flashed through his mind that Gabriel's prayer had found its way to the palace, and that the answer was coming.
He said nothing of this, however, but when the messenger asked if he had such a boy for colour-grinder, he eagerly answered:
"Yes, and there lives no manlier and sweeter-spirited lad in all France!"
"Is it true," continued the messenger, "that Count Pierre de Bouchage hath imprisoned his father for failure to pay a tax, and that the family are now in sore distress?"
"Yes, that also is true," replied the monk very sadly. And then he said beseechingly: "But surely King Louis will help them? Surely our gracious sovereign will not allow such injustice and cruelty?"
Here the messenger answered:
"Nay, our sovereign is indeed a generous monarch! Else had he not been so touched by the little prayer which the peasant lad placed in the book thou madest for the Lady Anne. Though I dare say thou knewest naught of it" (here Brother Stephen smiled gently, but said nothing), "yet so the lad did. And 'twas because of that scrap of parchment falling under the eyes of King Louis, that I have journeyed all the way from Paris. And," he added, as he remembered the heavy snow through which he had ridden, "it takes a stout heart and a stouter horse to brave thy Norman roads in December!"
Then he asked Brother Stephen a great many more questions, and inquired what road to take in order to find Count Pierre's castle, and also the Viaud cottage. And then when he had satisfied himself about all these matters, he went back to the great hall of the Abbey, where the Abbot was slowly pacing the floor, telling his beads as he walked.
The Abbot, though very curious as to the reason of the messenger's visit, asked him no questions other than if the book for Lady Anne had been entirely satisfactory; and he felt relieved when the messenger assured him that so far as he knew both the king and Lady Anne had been greatly delighted with it. Then, after talking a little while about Brother Stephen's artistic work, the messenger briefly explained to the Abbot his errand, and told him that King Louis had ordered him to make his inquiries about Gabriel as quietly as possible.
As he heard, the Abbot raised his eyebrows and looked somewhat disapproving, when he realized that the peasant lad who had dared to put his page into the beautiful book was the same little colour-grinder who had had the boldness to speak to him, one day in the garden, and ask him to take off Brother Stephen's chain. However, whatever he may have thought, he kept it to himself; he treated the messenger with much courtesy, and, on bidding him good night, invited him to stay as a guest of the Abbey so long as he chose.
The next morning the messenger rode to the Viaud farm, and, though he did not go into the cottage, he looked it over carefully and the land about it; and then he took the highway that led to the castle of Count Pierre de Bouchage.
When he reached the castle, he asked to see Count Pierre, and so was taken into the great hall, where the count received him in a very haughty manner. He became somewhat more polite, however, when he learned that King Louis had sent the messenger to him; though he looked decidedly blank when the latter presented to him a letter written on parchment and fastened with a wax seal stamped with the king's emblem, which was the print of a little porcupine with the quills on his back standing up straight, and a crown on top of them.
On seeing this letter, Count Pierre looked blank because the truth was, that, like many other noble lords at that time, he could read only with great difficulty. But then the messenger rather expected this, and so he asked permission to read the parchment to him, and Count Pierre frowningly assented.
Indeed, though the messenger pretended not to notice his angry looks, he frowned blacker and blacker as the reading went on. For King Louis requested in the letter that Count Pierre at once release from prison in his castle one Jacques Viaud, peasant on his estate. And the King further said that he himself wished to buy the Viaud cottage and farm, together with a good-sized piece of ground that adjoined it (the messenger, in looking it over that morning, had selected a piece of land which was much better soil than the most of the Viaud farm), and he stated that for this purpose he had sent by his messenger a certain sum in gold pieces.
The king mentioned also that he would like to have the flock of sheep, with the addition of fifty more than had been taken from them, restored to the Viaud family. And, finally, he said that he desired Count Pierre to do these things in honour of his king's approaching marriage with the Lady Anne. For when kings and queens marry, it is generally customary for them, and for many of the loyal noblemen who are their subjects, to bestow gifts and benefits upon the poor people, so that every one may be as happy as possible on the royal wedding-day.
Now Count Pierre really did not care a fig to do honour to King Louis's marriage, and he was very angry to be asked to release a peasant whom he had imprisoned, and to restore flocks which he had seized; and especially was he furious at the request to buy the land, for he did not wish to sell it, and so to lose control over the peasant-folk who lived there.
But, nevertheless, in spite of his wrath, the count knew well enough that he had no real right to do as he had done, and that King Louis knew it also; and that therefore the very best thing he could do was to obey the king's wishes at once.
King Louis had made his letter a polite request rather than a command, because some of his unruly subjects, like Count Pierre, were proud and difficult to manage, and he wished to settle matters pleasantly and peaceably, if possible. And so, in asking him to honour the royal wedding, he gave the count an excuse to yield to the king's wishes, without hurting his pride so much as if he were obliged to obey a command.
Count Pierre began to see this, too; and, moreover, he knew that, notwithstanding the politeness of his letter, the king had plenty of soldiers, and that he would not hesitate to send them to the Castle de Bouchage, if necessary, to bring its lord to terms. And he very wisely reflected that to fight King Louis would be a much more dangerous and expensive undertaking than the private war with the Baron of Evreux, which he already had on his hands.
Before yielding to the requests in the letter, however, Count Pierre wished to satisfy himself that the messenger had correctly read it to him. And so, haughtily demanding it for a few minutes, he hurried out of the hall, and sent a page scampering off to bring him a troubadour; for one or more of these wandering singers were always to be found in every nobleman's castle, and the count knew that most of them could read.
When in a few minutes the page came back, followed, close at his heels, by a man in motley dress, with a viol hung over his shoulders, Count Pierre, without waiting to greet the latter, thrust the parchment into his hands with a gruff command:
"There, fellow! read this letter for me instantly! and if thou makest a single mistake, I will have thee strangled with the strings of thine own viol, and tumbled off the highest turret of this castle before set of sun!"
At this fierce threat, the troubadour began at once to read, taking care to make no mistakes. Count Pierre listened attentively to every word, and when the troubadour came to the end, having read it exactly as the messenger had done, the count angrily snatched it from his hands, and, swallowing his rage as best he could, went slowly back to the castle hall.
Then after a few moments' silence, he very ungraciously and ill-naturedly gave orders that peasant Viaud be released from prison, and the sheep sent back. He made a very wry face over the fifty extra ones, and did not look at all anxious to celebrate King Louis's approaching wedding.
And then he took the gold pieces which the messenger offered him, and reluctantly scrawled his name (it was all he could write, and that very badly) to a piece of parchment which the messenger had ready, and which, when Count Pierre had signed it, proved that he had sold to King Louis the land and cottage, and no longer held control over peasant Viaud or any of his family.
When this was done, the messenger, bidding the nobleman a courteous farewell, left the latter still very angry and scowling, and, above all, lost in amazement that King Louis should take all this trouble on account of a poor, unknown peasant, who had lived all his life on a tiny farm in Normandy! And as no one ever explained things to him, Count Pierre never did know how it had all come about, and that, however much against his will, he was doing his part toward helping answer Gabriel's little prayer.