Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight waggons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping waggoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables—red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.
And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.
Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat, led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and came to a dead stop. The horses behind, thus unexpectedly checked, ran their heads against the backs of the carts in front of them, and the procession halted amidst a clattering of bolts and chains and the oaths of the awakened waggoners. Madame Francois, who sat in front of her vehicle, with her back to a board which kept her vegetables in position, looked down; but, in the dim light thrown to the left by a small square lantern, which illuminated little beyond one of Balthazar’s sheeny flanks, she could distinguish nothing.
“Come, old woman, let’s get on!” cried one of the men, who had raised himself to a kneeling position amongst his turnips; “it’s only some drunken sot.”
Madame Francois, however, had bent forward and on her right hand had caught sight of a black mass, lying almost under the horse’s hoofs, and blocking the road.
“You wouldn’t have us drive over a man, would you?” said she, jumping to the ground.
It was indeed a man lying at full length upon the road, with his arms stretched out and his face in the dust. He seemed to be remarkably tall, but as withered as a dry branch, and the wonder was that Balthazar had not broken him in half with a blow from his hoof. Madame Francois thought that he was dead; but on stooping and taking hold of one of his hands, she found that it was quite warm.