The Count's Tax
ND in this happy manner the spring and summer wore away and the autumn came. Brother Stephen felt very cheerful, for the beautiful book grew more beautiful week by week; and he was very proud and happy, because he knew it was the loveliest thing he had ever made.
Indeed, he himself was so cheerful, that as the autumn days, one after another, melted away, it was some little time before he noticed that Gabriel was losing his merriness, and that he had begun to look sad and distressed. And finally, one morning, he came looking so very unhappy, that Brother Stephen asked, with much concern:
"Why, lad, whither have all thy gay spirits taken flight? Art thou ill?"
"Nay, sir," answered Gabriel, sadly; "but oh, Brother Stephen, we are in so much trouble at home!"
At this the monk at once began to question him, and learned that Gabriel's family were indeed in great misfortune.
And this is how it came about: in those days the peasant folk had a very hard time indeed. All of the land through the country was owned by the great nobles; and the poor peasants, who lived on the little farms into which the land was divided, had few rights. They could not even move to another place if they so wished, but were obliged to spend all their lives under the control of whatever nobleman happened to own the estate on which they were born.
They lived in little thatched cottages, and cultivated their bits of land; and as rent for this, each peasant was obliged to help support the great lord who owned everything, and who always lived in a strong castle, with armed men under his command.
The peasants had to raise wheat and vegetables and sheep and cows, so that the people of the castles might eat nice, white bread, and nut cookies and roast meat; though the poor peasants themselves had to be content, day after day, with little more than hard, black bread, and perhaps a single bowl of cabbage or potato soup, from which the whole family would dip with their wooden spoons.
Then, too, the peasants often-times had to pay taxes when their noble lord wished to raise money, and even to follow him to war if he so commanded, though this did not often happen.
And now we come to the reason for Gabriel's troubles. It seems that the Count Pierre de Bouchage, to whose estate Gabriel's family belonged, had got into a quarrel with a certain baron who lived near the town of Evreux, and Count Pierre was determined to take his followers and attack the baron's castle; for these private wars were very common in those days.
But Count Pierre needed money to carry on his little war, and so had laid a very heavy tax on the peasants of his estate; and Gabriel's father had been unable to raise the sum of money demanded. For besides Gabriel, there were several little brothers and sisters in the family, Jean and Margot and little Guillaume, who must be clothed and fed; and though the father was honest and hard-working yet the land of their little farm was poor, and it was all the family could do to find themselves enough on which to live.
When peasant Viaud had begged Count Pierre to release him from the tax, the count, who was hard and unsympathetic, had become angry, and given orders that the greater part of their little farm should be taken from them, and he had seized also their little flock of sheep. This was a grievous loss, for out of the wool that grew on the sheep's backs, Gabriel's mother every winter made the warm, homespun clothes for all the family.
Indeed, Count Pierre had no real right to do all this; but in those times, when a noble lord chose to be cruel and unjust, the poor peasants had no way to help matters.
And this was not all of Gabriel's woes; for only a few days after he had told these things to Brother Stephen, when he went home at night, he found his mother crying bitterly, and learned that Count Pierre, who was having some trouble raising his money, and so had become more merciless than ever, had that day imprisoned his father at the castle, and refused to release him unless some of the tax were paid.
This was the hardest blow of all; and though the other children were too young to understand all that had befallen them, poor Gabriel and his mother were so distressed that neither slept that night; and the next morning when the little boy arose, tired out instead of rested by the long night, he had scarcely the heart to go away to the Abbey, and leave things so miserable at home. But his mother thought it best for him to keep on with his work with Brother Stephen, because of the little sum he earned; and then, too, he felt that he must do his part to help until King Louis's book was finished. After that, he did not know what he could do! He did not know how he could best try to take his father's place and help the family; for, after all, he knew he was only a little boy, and so things seemed very hopeless!
Indeed the grief and poverty that had come upon them at home made Gabriel so sad that Brother Stephen was quite heart-broken, too, for he deeply loved the lad. As he worked, he kept trying all the while to think of some way to help them; but as the monk had passed all his life within the walls of the Abbey, he knew but little of the ways of the outside world; and he had no money of his own, or he would gladly have paid the tax himself.