Like every other woman, she had had an affair of the heart. Her father, wh_as a mason, was killed by falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother die_nd her sisters went their different ways; a farmer took her in, and while sh_as quite small, let her keep cows in the fields. She was clad in miserabl_ags, beaten for the slightest offence and finally dismissed for a theft o_hirty sous which she did not commit. She took service on another farm wher_he tended the poultry; and as she was well thought of by her master, he_ellow-workers soon grew jealous.
One evening in August (she was then eighteen years old), they persuaded her t_ccompany them to the fair at Colleville. She was immediately dazzled by th_oise, the lights in the trees, the brightness of the dresses, the laces an_old crosses, and the crowd of people all hopping at the same time. She wa_tanding modestly at a distance, when presently a young man of well-to-d_ppearance, who had been leaning on the pole of a wagon and smoking his pipe, approached her, and asked her for a dance. He treated her to cider and cake, bought her a silk shawl, and then, thinking she had guessed his purpose, offered to see her home. When they came to the end of a field he threw he_own brutally. But she grew frightened and screamed, and he walked off.
One evening, on the road leading to Beaumont, she came upon a wagon loade_ith hay, and when she overtook it, she recognised Theodore. He greeted he_almly, and asked her to forget what had happened between them, as it "was al_he fault of the drink."
She did not know what to reply and wished to run away.
Presently he began to speak of the harvest and of the notables of the village; his father had left Colleville and bought the farm of Les Ecots, so that no_hey would be neighbours. "Ah!" she exclaimed. He then added that his parent_ere looking around for a wife for him, but that he, himself, was not s_nxious and preferred to wait for a girl who suited him. She hung her head. H_hen asked her whether she had ever thought of marrying. She replied, smilingly, that it was wrong of him to make fun of her. "Oh! no, I am i_arnest," he said, and put his left arm around her waist while they sauntere_long. The air was soft, the stars were bright, and the huge load of ha_scillated in front of them, drawn by four horses whose ponderous hoofs raise_louds of dust. Without a word from their driver they turned to the right. H_issed her again and she went home. The following week, Theodore obtaine_eetings.
They met in yards, behind walls or under isolated trees. She was not ignorant, as girls of well-to-do families are—for the animals had instructed her;—bu_er reason and her instinct of honour kept her from falling. Her resistanc_xasperated Theodore's love and so in order to satisfy it (or perchanc_ngenuously), he offered to marry her. She would not believe him at first, s_e made solemn promises. But, in a short time he mentioned a difficulty; th_revious year, his parents had purchased a substitute for him; but any day h_ight be drafted and the prospect of serving in the army alarmed him greatly.
To Felicite his cowardice appeared a proof of his love for her, and he_evotion to him grew stronger. When she met him, he would torture her with hi_ears and his entreaties. At last, he announced that he was going to th_refect himself for information, and would let her know everything on th_ollowing Sunday, between eleven o'clock and midnight.
When the time grew near, she ran to meet her lover.
But instead of Theodore, one of his friends was at the meeting-place.
He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again; for, in orde_o escape the conscription, he had married a rich old woman, Madam_ehoussais, of Toucques.
The poor girl's sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, sh_ried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise.
Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at th_nd of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all he_elongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l'Eveque.
In front of the inn, she met a woman wearing widow's weeds, and upo_uestioning her, learned that she was looking for a cook. The girl did no_now very much, but appeared so willing and so modest in her requirements, that Madame Aubain finally said:
"Very well, I will give you a trial."
And half an hour later Felicite was installed in her house.
At first she lived in a constant anxiety that was caused by "the style of th_ousehold" and the memory of "Monsieur," that hovered over everything. Pau_nd Virginia, the one aged seven, and the other barely four, seemed made o_ome precious material; she carried them pig-a-back, and was greatly mortifie_hen Madame Aubain forbade her to kiss them every other minute.
But in spite of all this, she was happy. The comfort of her new surrounding_ad obliterated her sadness.
Every Thursday, friends of Madame Aubain dropped in for a game of cards, an_t was Felicite's duty to prepare the table and heat the foot-warmers. The_rrived at exactly eight o'clock and departed before eleven.
Every Monday morning, the dealer in second-hand goods, who lived under th_lley-way, spread out his wares on the sidewalk. Then the city would be fille_ith a buzzing of voices in which the neighing of horses, the bleating o_ambs, the grunting of pigs, could be distinguished, mingled with the shar_ound of wheels on the cobble-stones. About twelve o'clock, when the marke_as in full swing, there appeared at the front door a tall, middle-age_easant, with a hooked nose and a cap on the back of his head; it was Robelin, the farmer of Geffosses. Shortly afterwards came Liebard, the farmer o_oucques, short, rotund and ruddy, wearing a grey jacket and spurred boots.
Both men brought their landlady either chickens or cheese. Felicite woul_nvariably thwart their ruses and they held her in great respect.
At various times, Madame Aubain received a visit from the Marquis d_remanville, one of her uncles, who was ruined and lived at Falaise on th_emainder of his estates. He always came at dinner-time and brought an ugl_oodle with him, whose paws soiled their furniture. In spite of his efforts t_ppear a man of breeding (he even went so far as to raise his hat every tim_e said "My deceased father"), his habits got the better of him, and he woul_ill his glass a little too often and relate broad stories. Felicite woul_how him out very politely and say: "You have had enough for this time, Monsieur de Gremanville! Hoping to see you again!" and would close the door.
She opened it gladly for Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head an_hite cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the manner i_hich he took snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind o_we which we feel when we see extraordinary persons. As he managed Madame'_states, he spent hours with her in Monsieur's study; he was in constant fea_f being compromised, had a great regard for the magistracy and som_retensions to learning.
In order to facilitate the children's studies, he presented them with a_ngraved geography which represented various scenes of the world; cannibal_ith feather head-dresses, a gorilla kidnapping a young girl, Arabs in th_esert, a whale being harpooned, etc.
Paul explained the pictures to Felicite. And, in fact, this was her onl_iterary education.
The children's studies were under the direction of a poor devil employed a_he town-hall, who sharpened his pocket-knife on his boots and was famous fo_is penmanship.
When the weather was fine, they went to Geffosses. The house was built in th_entre of the sloping yard; and the sea looked like a grey spot in th_istance. Felicite would take slices of cold meat from the lunch basket an_hey would sit down and eat in a room next to the dairy. This room was al_hat remained of a cottage that had been torn down. The dilapidated wall-pape_rembled in the drafts. Madame Aubain, overwhelmed by recollections, woul_ang her head, while the children were afraid to open their mouths. Then, "Wh_on't you go and play?" their mother would say; and they would scamper off.
Paul would go to the old barn, catch birds, throw stones into the pond, o_ound the trunks of the trees with a stick till they resounded like drums.
Virginia would feed the rabbits and run to pick the wild flowers in th_ields, and her flying legs would disclose her little embroidered pantalettes.
One autumn evening, they struck out for home through the meadows. The new moo_llumined part of the sky and a mist hovered like a veil over the sinuositie_f the river. Oxen, lying in the pastures, gazed mildly at the passin_ersons. In the third field, however, several of them got up and surrounde_hem. "Don't be afraid," cried Felicite; and murmuring a sort of lament sh_assed her hand over the back of the nearest ox; he turned away and the other_ollowed. But when they came to the next pasture, they heard frightfu_ellowing.
It was a bull which was hidden from them by the fog. He advanced towards th_wo women, and Madame Aubain prepared to flee for her life. "No, no! not s_ast," warned Felicite. Still they hurried on, for they could hear the nois_reathing of the bull behind them. His hoofs pounded the grass like hammers, and presently he began to gallop! Felicite turned around and threw patches o_rass in his eyes. He hung his head, shook his horns and bellowed with fury.
Madame Aubain and the children, huddled at the end of the field, were tryin_o jump over the ditch. Felicite continued to back before the bull, blindin_im with dirt, while she shouted to them to make haste.
Madame Aubain finally slid into the ditch, after shoving first Virginia an_hen Paul into it, and though she stumbled several times she managed, by din_f courage, to climb the other side of it.
The bull had driven Felicite up against a fence; the foam from his muzzle fle_n her face and in another minute he would have disembowelled her. She ha_ust time to slip between two bars and the huge animal, thwarted, paused.
For years, this occurrence was a topic of conversation in Pont-l'Eveque. Bu_elicite took no credit to herself, and probably never knew that she had bee_eroic.
Virginia occupied her thoughts solely, for the shock she had sustained gav_er a nervous affection, and the physician, M. Poupart, prescribed the salt- water bathing at Trouville. In those days, Trouville was not greatl_atronised. Madame Aubain gathered information, consulted Bourais, and mad_reparations as if they were going on an extended trip.
The baggage was sent the day before on Liebard's cart. On the followin_orning, he brought around two horses, one of which had a woman's saddle wit_ velveteen back to it, while on the crupper of the other was a rolled shaw_hat was to be used for a seat. Madame Aubain mounted the second horse, behin_iebard. Felicite took charge of the little girl, and Paul rode M. Lechaptois'
donkey, which had been lent for the occasion on the condition that they shoul_e careful of it.
The road was so bad that it took two hours to cover the eight miles. The tw_orses sank knee-deep into the mud and stumbled into ditches; sometimes the_ad to jump over them. In certain places, Liebard's mare stopped abruptly. H_aited patiently till she started again, and talked of the people whos_states bordered the road, adding his own moral reflections to the outline o_heir histories. Thus, when they were passing through Toucques, and came t_ome windows draped with nasturtiums, he shrugged his shoulders and said:
"There's a woman, Madame Lehoussais, who, instead of taking a young man—"
Felicite could not catch what followed; the horses began to trot, the donke_o gallop, and they turned into a lane; then a gate swung open, two farm-hand_ppeared and they all dismounted at the very threshold of the farm-house.
Mother Liebard, when she caught sight of her mistress, was lavish with joyfu_emonstrations. She got up a lunch which comprised a leg of mutton, tripe, sausages, a chicken fricassee, sweet cider, a fruit tart and some preserve_runes; then to all this the good woman added polite remarks about Madame, wh_ppeared to be in better health, Mademoiselle, who had grown to be "superb,"
and Paul, who had become singularly sturdy; she spoke also of their decease_randparents, whom the Liebards had known, for they had been in the service o_he family for several generations.
Like its owners, the farm had an ancient appearance. The beams of the ceilin_ere mouldy, the walls black with smoke and the windows grey with dust. Th_ak sideboard was filled with all sorts of utensils, plates, pitchers, ti_owls, wolf-traps. The children laughed when they saw a huge syringe. Ther_as not a tree in the yard that did not have mushrooms growing around it_oot, or a bunch of mistletoe hanging in its branches. Several of the tree_ad been blown down, but they had started to grow in the middle and all wer_aden with quantities of apples. The thatched roofs, which were of unequa_hickness, looked like brown velvet and could resist the fiercest gales. Bu_he wagon-shed was fast crumbling to ruins. Madame Aubain said that she woul_ttend to it, and then gave orders to have the horses saddled.
It took another thirty minutes to reach Trouville. The little carava_ismounted in order to pass Les Ecores, a cliff that overhangs the bay, and _ew minutes later, at the end of the dock, they entered the yard of the Golde_amb, an inn kept by Mother David.
During the first few days, Virginia felt stronger, owing to the change of ai_nd the action of the sea-baths. She took them in her little chemise, as sh_ad no bathing suit, and afterwards her nurse dressed her in the cabin of _ustoms officer, which was used for that purpose by other bathers.
In the afternoon, they would take the donkey and go to the Roches-Noires, nea_ennequeville. The path led at first through undulating grounds, and thence t_ plateau, where pastures and tilled fields alternated. At the edge of th_oad, mingling with the brambles, grew holly bushes, and here and there stoo_arge dead trees whose branches traced zigzags upon the blue sky.
Ordinarily, they rested in a field facing the ocean, with Deauville on thei_eft, and Havre on their right. The sea glittered brightly in the sun and wa_s smooth as a mirror, and so calm that they could scarcely distinguish it_urmur; sparrows chirped joyfully and the immense canopy of heaven spread ove_t all. Madame Aubain brought out her sewing, and Virginia amused herself b_raiding reeds; Felicite wove lavender blossoms, while Paul was bored an_ished to go home.
Sometimes they crossed the Toucques in a boat, and started to hunt for sea- shells. The outgoing tide exposed star-fish and sea-urchins, and the childre_ried to catch the flakes of foam which the wind blew away. The sleepy wave_apping the sand unfurled themselves along the shore that extended as far a_he eye could see, but where land began, it was limited by the downs whic_eparated it from the "Swamp," a large meadow shaped like a hippodrome. Whe_hey went home that way, Trouville, on the slope of a hill below, grew large_nd larger as they advanced, and, with all its houses of unequal height, seemed to spread out before them in a sort of giddy confusion.
When the heat was too oppressive, they remained in their rooms. The dazzlin_unlight cast bars of light between the shutters. Not a sound in the village, not a soul on the sidewalk. This silence intensified the tranquility o_verything. In the distance, the hammers of some calkers pounded the hull of _hip, and the sultry breeze brought them an odour of tar.
The principal diversion consisted in watching the return of the fishing- smacks. As soon as they passed the beacons, they began to ply to windward. Th_ails were lowered to one third of the masts, and with their fore-sail_welled up like balloons they glided over the waves and anchored in the middl_f the harbour. Then they crept up alongside of the dock and the sailors thre_he quivering fish over the side of the boat; a line of carts was waiting fo_hem, and women with white caps sprang forward to receive the baskets an_mbrace their men-folk.
One day, one of them spoke to Felicite, who, after a little while, returned t_he house gleefully. She had found one of her sisters, and presently Nastasi_arette, wife of Leroux, made her appearance, holding an infant in her arms, another child by the hand, while on her left was a little cabin-boy with hi_ands in his pockets and his cap on his ear.
At the end of fifteen minutes, Madame Aubain bade her go.
They always hung around the kitchen, or approached Felicite when she and th_hildren were out walking. The husband, however, did not show himself.
Felicite developed a great fondness for them; she bought them a stove, som_hirts and a blanket; it was evident that they exploited her. Her foolishnes_nnoyed Madame Aubain, who, moreover did not like the nephew's familiarity, for he called her son "thou";—and, as Virginia began to cough and the seaso_as over, she decided to return to Pont-l'Eveque.
Monsieur Bourais assisted her in the choice of a college. The one at Caen wa_onsidered the best. So Paul was sent away and bravely said good-bye to the_ll, for he was glad to go to live in a house where he would have bo_ompanions.
Madame Aubain resigned herself to the separation from her son because it wa_navoidable. Virginia brooded less and less over it. Felicite regretted th_oise he made, but soon a new occupation diverted her mind; beginning fro_hristmas, she accompanied the little girl to her catechism lesson every day.