Although much improvement in all the arts of life, and much increase of population had taken place during the latter years of Henry the Fourth, and under the regency of Mary de Medicis; yet at the time of their son Louis the Thirteenth, the country was still but thinly peopled, and far different from the gay, thronged land, that it appears to-day. For besides that it was in earlier days, there had been many a bitter and a heavy war, not only of France against her enemies, but of France against her children. Religious and political differences had caused disunion between man and man, had banished mutual confidence and social intercourse, and raised up those feuds and hatreds, which destroy domestic peace, and retard public improvement. Amidst general distrust and civil wars, industry had received no encouragement; and where stand at present many a full hamlet and busy village, where the vineyard yields its abundance, and the peasant gathers in peace the bounty of Nature, were then the green copses of the forest, the haunt of the wild boar and the deer. The savage tenants of the wood, however, did not enjoy its shelter undisturbed; for, in those days of suspicion, hunting was a safer sport than conversation, and the boughs of the oak a more secure covering than the gilded ceilings of the saloon.
To our pampered countrymen, long nurtured in that peculiar species of luxury called comfort, the roads of France even now must seem but rude and barbarous constructions, when compared with the smooth, joltless causeways over which they are borne in their own land; but in the time of Louis the Thirteenth, when all works of the kind were carried on by the Seigneur through whose estates they passed, few but the principal roads between one great town and another were even passable for a carriage. Those, however, which traversing the wood of Mantes, served as means of access to the royal residence of St. Germain, were of a superior kind, and would have been absolutely good, had the nature of the soil afforded a steady foundation: but this was not always to be found in the forest, and the engineer had shown no small ingenuity in taking advantage of all the most solid parts of the land, and in avoiding those places where the marshy or sandy quality of the ground offered no secure basis. By these circumstances, however, he was obliged to deviate sadly from those principles of direct progression, so dear to all Frenchmen; and the road from St. Germain to Mantes, as well as that which branched off from it to join the high-road to Chartres, instead of being one interminable, monotonous, straight line, with a long row of trees, like a file of grenadiers, on each side, went winding in and out with a thousand turnings amongst the old oaks of the forest, that seemed to stand forward, and stretch their broad branches across it, as if willing to shelter it from the obtrusive rays of the sun. Sometimes, climbing the side of a hill, it would suddenly display a wide view over the leafy ocean below, till the eye caught the towers and spires of distant cities breaking the far grey line of the horizon. Sometimes, descending into the depths of the forest, it would almost seem to lose itself amongst the wild groves and savannas, being itself the only trace of man’s laborious hand amidst the wilderness around.
Such was the aspect of the day, though the scene was in the south of France, at a spot which we shall leave for the present nameless, when at about seven o'clock in the morning--an hour in which, at that period of the year, the sun's rays are weak and powerless--a tall, strong, florid man of about four-and-thirty years of age was seen upon the edge of a wide wood walking along cautiously step by step, carefully bending down his eyes upon the withered leaves that strewed his path, as if he had dropped something of value which he sought to find.
The wood, as we have said, was extensive, covering several miles of undulating ground, broken by rocks and dingles, and interspersed by more than one piece of water. It contained various kinds of tree, as well as various sorts of soil; but at the spot of which we now speak the wood was low and thin, gradually increasing in volume as it rose along the slope of the adjacent hill, till it grew into a tangled thicket, from which rose a number of tall trees, waving their grey branches sadly in the wintry air. On a distant eminence, rising far above the wood itself, might be seen towers, and turrets, and pinnacles, the abode of some of the lords of the land; and at the end of a long glade, up which the man we have just mentioned was cautiously stealing, as we have described, appeared a little cottage with one or two curious outbuildings, not usually found attached to the abodes of the agricultural population.