It was only two weeks since the Duc de Sairmeuse had returned to France; he had not yet had time to shake the dust of exile from his feet, and already his imagination saw enemies on every side.
He had been at Sairmeuse only two days, and yet he unhesitatingly accepted the venomous reports which Chupin poured into his ears.
The suspicions which he was endeavoring to make Martial share were cruelly unjust.
At the moment when the duke accused the baron of conspiring against the house of Sairmeuse, that unfortunate man was weeping at the bedside of his son, who was, he believed, at the point of death.
Maurice was indeed dangerously ill.
His excessively nervous organization had succumbed before the rude assaults of destiny.
When, in obedience to M. Lacheneur’s imperative order, he left the grove on the Reche, he lost the power of reflecting calmly and deliberately upon the situation.
Marie-Anne’s incomprehensible obstinacy, the insults he had received from the marquis, and Lacheneur’s feigned anger were mingled in inextricable confusion, forming one immense, intolerable misfortune, too crushing for his powers of resistance.
The peasants who met him on his homeward way were struck by his singular demeanor, and felt convinced that some great catastrophe had just befallen the house of the Baron d’Escorval.
Some bowed; others spoke to him, but he did not see or hear them.
Force of habit — that physical memory which mounts guard when the mind is far away — brought him back to his home.
His features were so distorted with suffering that Mme. d’Escorval, on seeing him, was seized with a most sinister presentiment, and dared not address him.
He spoke first.
“All is over!” he said, hoarsely, “but do not be worried, mother; I have some courage, as you shall see.”
He did, in fact, seat himself at the table with a resolute air. He ate even more than usual; and his father noticed, without alluding to it, that he drank much more wine than usual.
He was very pale, his eyes glittered, his gestures were excited, and his voice was husky. He talked a great deal, and even jested.
“Why will he not weep,” thought Mme. d’Escorval; “then I should not be so much alarmed, and I could try to comfort him.”
This was Maurice’s last effort. When dinner was over he went to his room, and when his mother, who had gone again and again to listen at his door, finally decided to enter his chamber, she found him lying upon the bed, muttering incoherently.
She approached him. He did not appear to recognize or even to see her. She spoke to him. He did not seem to hear. His face was scarlet, his lips were parched. She took his hand; it was burning; and still he was shivering, and his teeth were chattering as if with cold.
A mist swam before the eyes of the poor woman; she feared she was about to faint; but, summoning all her strength, she conquered her weakness and, dragging herself to the staircase, she cried:
“Help! help! My son is dying!”
With a bound M. d’Escorval reached his son’s chamber, looked at him and dashed out again, summoned a servant, and ordered him to gallop to Montaignac and bring a physician without a moment’s delay.
There was, indeed, a doctor at Sairmeuse, but he was the most stupid of men — a former surgeon in the army, who had been dismissed for incompetency. The peasants shunned him as they would the plague; and in case of sickness always sent for the cure. M. d’Escorval followed their example, knowing that the physician from Montaignac could not arrive until nearly morning.
Abbe Midon had never frequented the medical schools, but since he had been a priest the poor so often asked advice of him that he applied himself to the study of medicine, and, aided by experience, he had acquired a knowledge of the art which would have won him a diploma from the faculty anywhere.
At whatever hour of the day or night parishioners came to ask his assistance, he was always ready — his only answer: “Let us go at once.”
And when the people of the neighborhood met him on the road with his little box of medicine slung over his shoulder, they took off their hats respectfully and stood aside to let him pass. Those who did not respect the priest honored the man.
For M. d’Escorval, above all others, Abbe Midon would make haste. The baron was his friend; and a terrible apprehension seized him when he saw Mme. d’Escorval at the gate watching for him. By the way in which she rushed to meet him, he thought she was about to announce some irreparable misfortune. But no — she took his hand, and, without uttering a word, she led him to her son’s chamber.
The condition of the poor youth was really very critical; the abbe perceived this at a glance, but it was not hopeless.
“We will get him out of this,” he said, with a smile that reawakened hope.
And with the coolness of an old practitioner, he bled him freely, and ordered applications of ice to his head.
In a moment all the household were busied in fulfilling the cure’s orders. He took advantage of the opportunity to draw the baron aside in the embrasure of a window.
“What has happened?” he asked.
“A disappointment in love,” M. d’Escorval replied, with a despairing gesture. “Monsieur Lacheneur has refused the hand of his daughter, which I asked in behalf of my son. Maurice was to have seen Marie-Anne to-day. What passed between them I do not know. The result you see.”
The baroness re-entered the room, and the two men said no more. A truly funereal silence pervaded the apartment, broken only by the moans of Maurice.
His excitement instead of abating had increased in violence. Delirium peopled his brain with phantoms; and the name of Marie-Anne, Martial de Sairmeuse and Chanlouineau dropped so incoherently from his lips that it was impossible to read his thoughts.
How long that night seemed to M. d’Escorval and his wife, those only know who have counted each second beside the sick-bed of some loved one.
Certainly their confidence in the companion in their vigil was great; but he was not a regular physician like the other, the one whose coming they awaited.
Just as the light of the morning made the candles turn pale, they heard the furious gallop of a horse, and soon the doctor from Montaignac entered.
He examined Maurice carefully, and, after a short conference with the priest:
“I see no immediate danger,” he declared. “All that can be done has been done. The malady must be allowed to take its course. I will return.”
He did return the next day and many days after, for it was not until a week had passed that Maurice was declared out of danger.
Then he confided to his father all that had taken place in the grove on the Reche. The slightest detail of the scene had engraved itself indelibly upon his memory. When the recital was ended:
“Are you quite sure,” asked his father, “that you correctly understood Marie-Anne’s reply? Did she tell you that if her father gave his consent to your marriage, she would refuse hers?”
“Those were her very words.”
“And still she loves you?”
“I am sure of it.”
“You were not mistaken in Monsieur Lacheneur’s tone when he said to you: ‘Go, you little wretch! do you wish to render all my precautions useless?’”
M. d’Escorval sat for a moment in silence.
“This passes comprehension,” he murmured at last. And so low that his son could not hear him, he added: “I will see Lacheneur to-morrow; this mystery must be explained.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50