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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

John Sterling 1806–44

Louis XV

THE KING with all his kingly train

Had left his Pompadour behind,

And forth he rode in Senart’s wood

The royal beasts of chase to find.

That day by chance the Monarch mused,

And turning suddenly away,

He struck alone into a path

That far from crowds and courtiers lay.

He saw the pale green shadows play

Upon the brown untrodden earth;

He saw the birds around him flit

As if he were of peasant birth;

He saw the trees that know no king

But him who bears a woodland axe;

He thought not, but he look’d about

Like one who skill in thinking lacks.

Then close to him a footstep fell,

And glad of human sound was he,

For truth to say he found himself

A weight from which he fain would flee.

But that which he would ne’er have guess’d

Before him now most plainly came;

The man upon his weary back

A coffin bore of rudest frame.

“Why, who art thou?” exclaim’d the King,

“And what is that I see thee bear?”

“I am a laborer in the wood,

And ’t is a coffin for Pierre.

Close by the royal hunting-lodge

You may have often seen him toil;

But he will never work again,

And I for him must dig the soil.”

The laborer ne’er had seen the King,

And this he thought was but a man,

Who made at first a moment’s pause,

And then anew his talk began:

“I think I do remember now,—

He had a dark and glancing eye,

And I have seen his slender arm

With wondrous blows the pick-axe ply.

“Pray tell me, friend, what accident

Can thus have kill’d our good Pierre?”

“Oh! nothing more than usual, Sir,

He died of living upon air.

’T was hunger kill’d the poor good man,

Who long on empty hopes relied;

He could not pay gabell and tax,

And feed his children, so he died.”

The man stopp’d short, and then went on,—

“It is, you know, a common thing;

Our children’s bread is eaten up

By Courtiers, Mistresses, and King.”

The King look’d hard upon the man,

And afterwards the coffin eyed,

Then spurr’d to ask of Pompadour,

How came it that the peasants died.