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.”
The cottage where M. Lacheneur had taken refuge was situated on a hill overlooking the water.
It was, as he had said, a small and humble dwelling, but it was rather less miserable than the abodes of most of the peasants of the district.
It was only one story high, but it was divided into three rooms, and the roof was covered with thatch.
In front was a tiny garden, in which a few fruit-trees, some withered cabbages, and a vine which covered the cottage to the roof, managed to find subsistence.
This garden was a mere nothing, but even this slight conquest over the sterility of the soil had cost Lacheneur’s deceased aunt almost unlimited courage and patience.
For more than twenty years the poor woman had never, for a single day, failed to throw upon her garden three or four basketfuls of richer soil, which she was obliged to bring more than half a league.
It had been more than a year since she died; but the little pathway which her patient feet had worn in the performance of this daily task was still distinctly visible.