THE chemist's letter had not reached him until thirty-six hours after the event, and, in any case, Monsieur Homais, out of consideration for his sensibility, had so phrased it that he could not know what to expect.
His first reaction had been to collapse as though struck down by apoplexy; his second, to grasp that she had not actually died. But by now she might have. . . . Finally, he had put on his smock, taken his hat, strapped on his spurs and ridden off hell for leather. During the whole of his journey he had been breathing hard and suffering agonies of uncertainty. Once, indeed, he was driven to dismount. He could no longer see anything, thought he heard voices all round him, and felt that he was going mad.
Dawn broke. He noticed three black hens roosting in a tree. He started back in terror from the terrible omen. Then he promised the Virgin three chasubles for the church, and vowed that he would make a pilgrimage, barefooted, from the cemetery of Les Bertaux to the chapel of Vassonville.
He rode into Maromme and shouted for the ostler at the inn. He thrust the stable door open with his shoulder, pounced on a sack of oats, poured a bottle of sweet cider into the manger, and once again leapt on to his mare who set off with a shower of sparks from her hooves.
He told himself that of course they would save his daughter. The doctors would discover some remedy, of that he was sure. He recalled all the miraculous cures of which he had heard.
Then he had a vision of her dead. She lay there on her back in the middle of the road. He drew rein and the hallucination vanished.
At Quincampoix he drank three cups of coffee in quick succession, to give himself courage.
It occurred to him that the writer of the letter might have made a mistake in the name. He felt for it in his pocket, but dared not open it.
He played with the idea that the whole thing might he a practical joke on the part of someone who owed him a grudge--a grim sort of joke. Besides, if she were dead, wouldn't everybody know? But there was nothing out of the ordinary about the look of the country