THE doctor did not come until the next day, at dawn. The child's cries went on inexorably. At times they lost a little of their shrillness, grew fainter, and it seemed as if they were going to subside, but suddenly they rose again, more harrowing than ever.
"Nêne! Nêne! It hurts! Help me, Nêne!"
The doctor examined carefully the little body in pain. The fire had caught at her skirts, probably while the child was kneeling to watch the chestnuts roasting. The cotton smock, already overheated, had flared up like paper, burning away all her hair, scorching her face and neck and hands. The left side was the worst; another second or two, and the whole of her body would have been one great wound.
"She is not in any real danger," said the doctor. "The burns seem to be superficial. But you got to her just in time."
He was a young man with an air of self-importance. He put on bandages but, to Madeleine's way of thinking, he didn't go about it as he should, too hurriedly and too roughly. When he was done, he rubbed his hands as if he were very well satisfied.
"It will be nothing;—painful, of course, but you mustn't be frightened over trifles. Do you hear me, Madame? There you are, all in a tremble, and unnerved—it's foolish! Look at me: am I upset?—Do her screams upset me?—My goodness, one's got to use some self-control!"
Madeleine had resumed her seat by the child's bedside and the doctor was standing behind her, talking and talking, suggesting that he was a widely travelled and learned man.
With his little girl's incessant cries ringing in his ears, Michael had to make an effort to listen to him with some semblance of politeness; he nodded approvingly, even though he heard only bits of disconnected sentences that made no sense to him.
"In Paris … over there … at the hospital … you wouldn't believe it! … In the course of my studies … In Paris … some appalling cases … I remember a certain woman … burned all over … blisters as big as bladders … That was at St. Louis' Hospital … and don't forget, there was asphyxiation too … One of my colleagues suggested picric acid … I said: No! … I saved her life … In the Paris hospitals … great, complicated cases …"
Madeleine turned round, bristling, and flung into his face:
"Great complicated cases! Great complicated cases! Why don't you heal this one that's little … and simple, so you say! If you know such a lot, why can't you stop her from suffering!"
The young physician laughed out of the corner of his mouth, but all his bragging was cut short. So he went away, saying to Michael:
"She's none too easy to get on with, your old woman, eh?"
As soon as he was gone, Madeleine called Gideon.
"Run over to the Hardilas," she told him, "and fetch Red Julie who casts spells for burns. We've got to try everything."
Michael, coming back, heard her and said:
"What could she do, after the doctor?"
Madeleine neither moved nor answered. She hadn't spoken to him since the accident; she paid no attention whatever to him.
He went on, a little louder:
"The day of witches is past."
As she still refused to answer, he ventured to come quite close to the bed.
"Madeleine, you must be dead tired. I'll take your place for a spell.—I'll hold up her head as well as you and if she wants to be carried around, I'll carry her around. Do you hear me, Madeleine?"
She turned away as she had turned away from the doctor; she said nothing, but her look was so unrelenting that Michael drew back.
The witch of the Hardilas came in the morning; she was half blind, very old, very dirty and very gruff.
Right away she gave her prescription: three spiders, three slugs, three earth-worms cut in seven pieces, seven ash leaves and seven cloves of garlic; put all this into a little sack and place it under the pillow.
"Do you hear, my dear? Under the pillow."
"Yes, yes, I hear," said Madeleine.
"Well, then! Now you go out, I command you!"
"Where do you want me to go?"
"Go outside of the house. I must breathe on the wounds—and speak words that you mustn't hear. Well, now—go away!"
The old woman was losing her patience; she went to the bed and roughly pulled back the covers. Lalie, who had been easier for a little while, cried out:
Madeleine rushed to her:
"I'm here, darling."
"Nêne! She hurt me!"
"No wonder," said Madeleine, instantly roused to wrath. "Why aren't you more careful? If you came to hurt her, you'd better tell me!"
The old woman played the lofty string; she was used to being flattered and she was so much held in fear that she ended by believing in her own powers of sorcery.
She drew back, made weird gestures and mumbled things to herself.
Lalie took fright at this gaunt, ugly old woman who was shaking her claw-like hands, and Madeleine protested:
"That's enough of your bugaboos!"
The old sorceress was so startled, she looked ready to jump to the ceiling. Then she began to yelp:
"Red viper and water lizard! White wehrwolfs! Come, my pets! Black wehrwolfs! Speckled wehrwolfs!"
Madeleine took her out by the door so energetically that the rest of her incantations stuck in her throat for lack of breath.
Michael was coming in from the garden. Madeleine's arms went stiff, and looking him straight in the eye she shouted:
"So it seems that everyone is turning against the child! First the young one, then this old thing! First the doctor, then the witch! I'm fed up on you, all of you! Go away!—Go away!——"
Michael stammered in his amazement:
"But this one—you yourself sent for her!"
She made no reply; she didn't seem to have heard. Her eyes became like steel; she flung out her arms and opened her big hands.
"I don't want anybody here, not anybody! I'll jump at the head of the first one who comes in!"
And as Michael came nearer, she closed the door in his face.
All through a week the house was unapproachable.
The hands ate their meals in Michael's room; they passed in and out by the back door with muffled tread. Madeleine did not trouble about them; she troubled neither about the kitchen, nor about the house, nor about the live stock nor about any of her tasks. As long as the child's plaints kept on, she sat by the bedside, stubbornly, jealously, fiercely; and her eyes were wide and dry.
On the morning of All-Saints, however, as the child had dropped off into a deep sleep, she quietly opened the hall door and entered the men's room. They were finishing their breakfast and Michael had just counted out the farm-hands' wages; he was pouring out some wine to drink to Gideon, who was leaving that day to enter military service.
The men looked at her and found nothing to say. Finally Michael got himself to ask:
"Is she sleeping? She passed a good night, it seemed to me."
He waited anxiously for her answer, but no answer came.
Madeleine turned to Gideon:
"So you are leaving these parts? Where are they sending you, poor boy?"
Gideon answered bravely:
"Not to the ends of the world! I'm going to Angers, to join the dragoons."
"I'll be sorry," she said, "not to see you round here any more."
"I hope he'll come to pay us a visit every time he gets a furlough."
Then he placed on the table a little pile of gold pieces.
"Here are your wages, too, Madeleine.—You'll have use for them."
Then for the first time in a week she spoke to him:
"Thank you. I have a very good use for them, indeed."
She took a gold piece and handed it to Gideon. "You'll be going to Saint-Ambroise, won't you? Well then, will you do me the favor of stopping in at Mme. Blanchevirain's: you'll please pick out the nicest toy she has to amuse a little girl."
Michael was going to protest, but she shrugged her shoulders and stressed her request:
"The nicest toy in the shop! And you'll bring it to me, won't you?"
"I will," said the young man. "You'll have it this evening."
Michael had turned very red, but his pride was beaten and he offered his suggestion timidly:
"We might, at the same time, have the doctor called here again. I'd like him to look her over once more."
"What for? To hurt her again? Seeing a child in pain doesn't upset him one bit, your fine doctor!"
"Well, we might call in another doctor,—say the old one, of Saint-Ambroise."
"Oh, do as you like," said Madeleine and turned on her heel.
The new doctor came in the afternoon—no rush and fuss about him! He was a timid, sensible little old man without any great reputation. He was of no use in cases of wounds because the sight of blood made him ill. They said that his learning was scanty and that his long practice had not taught him much. But there was this to his credit: if he rarely cured his patients, he hardly ever killed them.
Standing beside the bed of Lalie, who was still sound asleep, he said softly:
"Poor little darling—she's asleep—don't let's wake her. Never wake the sick!—She was burned, you say? Poor little thing, she must have suffered martyrdom.—I won't disturb her. You're using olive oil on the burns, aren't you?"
Madeleine replied with an effort:
"Olive oil, yes,—that's what I use."
She had seated herself by the bedside; her legs felt nerveless; her head was heavy; she felt no pain, on the contrary,—the gentle murmur of the doctor's voice was soothing to her.
"That's quite right.—Go on with it—and take care not to abrase the skin when you apply it. The hands are rather bad, and the left cheek.—Perhaps she'll be all right again—let's hope so.—Such a pretty little girl!—it would be too bad to have her disfigured. She ought to be amused, have her mind occupied now;—and get her to eat well. She'll be up and about again soon—oh, yes, yes, I promise you: she'll pick up very quickly now. It's a pleasure to 'tend these little tots.—How she sleeps! She hasn't rested much these past nights, has she?"
As he turned round for Madeleine's answer, he saw that she too had fallen asleep. Crushed with weariness, she slept with her mouth open, almost without breathing, and she was so white, one might have thought her dead.
The doctor pointed her out to Michael, whispering: "Hush!"—and left the room on tiptoe.