After she had made a curtsey at the threshold, she would walk up the aisl_etween the double lines of chairs, open Madame Aubain's pew, sit down an_ook around.
Girls and boys, the former on the right, the latter on the left-hand side o_he church, filled the stalls of the choir; the priest stood beside th_eading-desk; on one stained window of the side-aisle the Holy Ghost hovere_ver the Virgin; on another one, Mary knelt before the Child Jesus, and behin_he altar, a wooden group represented Saint Michael felling the dragon.
The priest first read a condensed lesson of sacred history. Felicite evoke_aradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dyin_ations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respec_or the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. Then, when she had listened t_he Passion, she wept. Why had they crucified Him who loved little children, nourished the people, made the blind see, and who, out of humility, had wishe_o be born among the poor, in a stable? The sowings, the harvests, the wine- presses, all those familiar things which the Scriptures mention, formed a par_f her life; the word of God sanctified them; and she loved the lambs wit_ncreased tenderness for the sake of the Lamb, and the doves because of th_oly Ghost.
She found it hard, however, to think of the latter as a person, for was it no_ bird, a flame, and sometimes only a breath? Perhaps it is its light that a_ight hovers over swamps, its breath that propels the clouds, its voice tha_enders church-bells harmonious. And Felicite worshipped devoutly, whil_njoying the coolness and the stillness of the church.
As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The pries_iscoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with _tart when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered o_he stone pavement.
In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having bee_eglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia's religiou_ractices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At th_orpus-Christi Day they both decorated an altar.
She worried in advance over Virginia's first communion. She fussed about th_hoes, the rosary, the book and the gloves. With what nervousness she helpe_he mother dress the child!
During the entire ceremony, she felt anguished. Monsieur Bourais hid part o_he choir from view, but directly in front of her, the flock of maidens, wearing white wreaths over their lowered veils, formed a snow-white field, an_he recognised her darling by the slenderness of her neck and her devou_ttitude. The bell tinkled. All the heads bent and there was a silence. Then, at the peals of the organ the singers and the worshippers struck up the Agne_ei; the boys' procession began; behind them came the girls. With claspe_ands, they advanced step by step to the lighted altar, knelt at the firs_tep, received one by one the Host, and returned to their seats in the sam_rder. When Virginia's turn came, Felicite leaned forward to watch her, an_hrough that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once becam_he child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise an_ame very near fainting.
The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receiv_ommunion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did no_xperience the same delight as on the previous day.
Madame Aubain wished to make an accomplished girl of her daughter; and a_uyot could not teach English or music, she decided to send her to th_rsulines at Honfleur.
The child made no objection, but Felicite sighed and thought Madame wa_eartless. Then, she thought that perhaps her mistress was right, as thes_hings were beyond her sphere. Finally, one day, an old fiacre stopped i_ront of the door and a nun stepped out. Felicite put Virginia's luggage o_op of the carriage, gave the coachman some instructions, and smuggled si_ars of jam, a dozen pears and a bunch of violets under the seat.
At the last minute, Virginia had a fit of sobbing; she embraced her mothe_gain and again, while the latter kissed her on the forehead, and said: "Now, be brave, be brave!" The step was pulled up and the fiacre rumbled off.
Then Madame Aubain had a fainting spell, and that evening all her friends, including the two Lormeaus, Madame Lechaptois, the ladies Rochefeuille, Messieurs de Houppeville and Bourais, called on her and tendered thei_ympathy.
At first the separation proved very painful to her. But her daughter wrote he_hree times a week and the other days she, herself, wrote to Virginia. The_he walked in the garden, read a little, and in this way managed to fill ou_he emptiness of the hours.
Each morning, out of habit, Felicite entered Virginia's room and gazed at th_alls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. I_rder to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers brok_he threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and "wasted away,"
as she put it.
In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits o_er nephew Victor.
He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and the_ould sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little a_ossible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so wit_ood that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, sh_ould wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church wit_im, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.
His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package o_rown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her hi_lothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant anothe_isit from him.
In August, his father took him on a coasting-vessel.
It was vacation time and the arrival of the children consoled Felicite. Bu_aul was capricious, and Virginia was growing too old to be thee-and-thou'd, _act which seemed to produce a sort of embarrassment in their relations.
Victor went successively to Morlaix, to Dunkirk, and to Brighton; whenever h_eturned from a trip he would bring her a present. The first time it was a bo_f shells; the second, a coffee-cup; the third, a big doll of ginger-bread. H_as growing handsome, had a good figure, a tiny moustache, kind eyes, and _ittle leather cap that sat jauntily on the back of his head. He amused hi_unt by telling her stories mingled with nautical expressions.
One Monday, the 14th of July, 1819 (she never forgot the date), Victo_nnounced that he had been engaged on a merchant-vessel and that in two day_e would take the steamer at Honfleur and join his sailer, which was going t_tart from Havre very soon. Perhaps he might be away two years.
The prospect of his departure filled Felicite with despair, and in order t_id him farewell, on Wednesday night, after Madame's dinner, she put on he_attens and trudged the four miles that separated Pont-l'Eveque from Honfleur.
When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned t_he left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; som_eople she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around th_arbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the groun_loped abruptly, lights flitted to and fro, and she thought all at once tha_he had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.
Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derric_ulled them up in the air, and dumped them into a boat, where passengers wer_ustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin-boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicite, who did not recognis_im, kept shouting: "Victor!" He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she wa_reparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.
The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hul_queaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turne_nd nobody was visible;—and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finall_isappeared.
When Felicite passed the Calvary again, she felt as if she must entrust tha_hich was dearest to her to the Lord; and for a long while she prayed, wit_plifted eyes and a face wet with tears. The city was sleeping; some custom_fficials were taking the air; and the water kept pouring through the holes o_he dam with a deafening roar. The town clock struck two.
The parlour of the convent would not open until morning, and surely a dela_ould annoy Madame, so, in spite of her desire to see the other child, sh_ent home. The maids of the inn were just arising when she reache_ont-l'Eveque.
So the poor boy would be on the ocean for months! His previous trips had no_larmed her. One can come back from England and Brittany; but America, th_olonies, the islands, were all lost in an uncertain region at the very end o_he world.
From that time on, Felicite thought solely of her nephew. On warm days sh_eared he would suffer from thirst, and when it stormed, she was afraid h_ould be struck by lightning. When she harkened to the wind that rattled i_he chimney and dislodged the tiles on the roof, she imagined that he wa_eing buffeted by the same storm, perched on top of a shattered mast, with hi_hole body bend backward and covered with sea-foam; or,—these wer_ecollections of the engraved geography—he was being devoured by savages, o_aptured in a forest by apes, or dying on some lonely coast. She neve_entioned her anxieties, however.
Madame Aubain worried about her daughter.
The sisters thought that Virginia was affectionate but delicate. The slightes_motion enervated her. She had to give up her piano lessons. Her mothe_nsisted upon regular letters from the convent. One morning, when the postma_ailed to come, she grew impatient and began to pace to and fro, from he_hair to the window. It was really extraordinary! No news since four days!
In order to console her mistress by her own example, Felicite said:
"Why, Madame, I haven't had any news since six months!—"
The servant replied gently:
"Why—from my nephew."
"Oh, yes, your nephew!" And shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain continue_o pace the floor as if to say: "I did not think of it.—Besides, I do no_are, a cabin-boy, a pauper!—but my daughter—what a difference! just think o_t!—"
Felicite, although she had been reared roughly, was very indignant. Then sh_orgot about it.
It appeared quite natural to her that one should lose one's head abou_irginia.
The two children were of equal importance; they were united in her heart an_heir fate was to be the same.
The chemist informed her that Victor's vessel had reached Havana. He had rea_he information in a newspaper.
Felicite imagined that Havana was a place where people did nothing but smoke, and that Victor walked around among negroes in a cloud of tobacco. Could _erson, in case of need, return by land? How far was it from Pont-l'Eveque? I_rder to learn these things, she questioned Monsieur Bourais. He reached fo_is map and began some explanations concerning longitudes, and smiled wit_uperiority at Felicite's bewilderment. At last, he took a pencil and pointe_ut an imperceptible black point in the scallops of an oval blotch, adding:
"There it is." She bent over the map; the maze of coloured lines hurt her eye_ithout enlightening her; and when Bourais asked her what puzzled her, sh_equested him to show her the house Victor lived in. Bourais threw up hi_ands, sneezed, and then laughed uproariously; such ignorance delighted hi_oul; but Felicite failed to understand the cause of his mirth, she whos_ntelligence was so limited that she perhaps expected to see even the pictur_f her nephew!
It was two weeks later that Liebard came into the kitchen at market-time, an_anded her a letter from her brother-in-law. As neither of them could read, she called upon her mistress.
Madame Aubain, who was counting the stitches of her knitting, laid her wor_own beside her, opened the letter, started, and in a low tone and with _earching look said: "They tell you of a—misfortune. Your nephew—"
He had died. The letter told nothing more.
Felicite dropped on a chair, leaned her head against the back, and closed he_ids; presently they grew pink. Then, with drooping head, inert hands an_taring eyes she repeated at intervals:
"Poor little chap! poor little chap!"
Liebard watched her and sighed. Madame Aubain was trembling.
She proposed to the girl to go to see her sister in Trouville.
With a single motion, Felicite replied that it was not necessary.
There was a silence. Old Liebard thought it about time for him to take leave.
Then Felicite uttered:
"They have no sympathy, they do not care!"
Her head fell forward again, and from time to time, mechanically, she toye_ith the long knitting-needles on the work-table.
Some women passed through the yard with a basket of wet clothes.
When she saw them through the window, she suddenly remembered her own wash; a_he had soaked it the day before, she must go and rinse it now. So she aros_nd left the room.
Her tub and her board were on the bank of the Toucques. She threw a heap o_lothes on the ground, rolled up her sleeves and grasped her bat; and her lou_ounding could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. The meadows were empty, the breeze wrinkled the stream, at the bottom of which were long grasses tha_ooked like the hair of corpses floating in the water. She restrained he_orrow and was very brave until night; but, when she had gone to her own room, she gave way to it, burying her face in the pillow and pressing her two fist_gainst her temples.
A long while afterward, she learned through Victor's captain, th_ircumstances which surrounded his death. At the hospital they had bled hi_oo much, treating him for yellow fever. Four doctors held him at one time. H_ied almost instantly, and the chief surgeon had said:
"Here goes another one!"
His parents had always treated him barbarously; she preferred not to see the_gain, and they made no advances, either from forgetfulness or out of innat_ardness.
Virginia was growing weaker.
A cough, continual fever, oppressive breathing and spots on her cheek_ndicated some serious trouble. Monsieur Popart had advised a sojourn i_rovence. Madame Aubain decided that they would go, and she would have had he_aughter come home at once, had it not been for the climate of Pont-l'Eveque.
She made an arrangement with a livery-stable man who drove her over to th_onvent every Tuesday. In the garden there was a terrace, from which the vie_xtends to the Seine. Virginia walked in it, leaning on her mother's arm an_reading the dead vine leaves. Sometimes the sun, shining through the clouds, made her blink her lids, when she gazed at the sails in the distance, and le_er eyes roam over the horizon from the chateau of Tancarville to th_ighthouses of Havre. Then they rested on the arbour. Her mother had bought _ittle cask of fine Malaga wine, and Virginia, laughing at the idea o_ecoming intoxicated, would drink a few drops of it, but never more.
Her strength returned. Autumn passed. Felicite began to reassure Madam_ubain. But, one evening, when she returned home after an errand, she met M.
Boupart's coach in front of the door; M. Boupart himself was standing in th_estibule and Madame Aubain was tying the strings of her bonnet. "Give me m_oot-warmer, my purse and my gloves; and be quick about it," she said.
Virginia had congestion of the lungs; perhaps it was desperate.
"Not yet," said the physician, and both got into the carriage, while the sno_ell in thick flakes. It was almost night and very cold.
Felicite rushed to the church to light a candle. Then she ran after the coac_hich she overtook after an hour's chase, sprang up behind and held on to th_traps. But suddenly a thought crossed her mind: "The yard had been left open; supposing that burglars got in!" And down she jumped.
The next morning, at daybreak, she called at the doctor's. He had been home, but had left again. Then she waited at the inn, thinking that strangers migh_ring her a letter. At last, at daylight she took the diligence for Lisieux.
The convent was at the end of a steep and narrow street. When she arrive_bout at the middle of it, she heard strange noises, a funeral knell. "It mus_e for some one else," thought she; and she pulled the knocker violently.
After several minutes had elapsed, she heard footsteps, the door was hal_pened and a nun appeared. The good sister, with an air of compunction, tol_er that "she had just passed away." And at the same time the tolling o_aint-Leonard's increased.
Felicite reached the second floor. Already at the threshold, she caught sigh_f Virginia lying on her back, with clasped hands, her mouth open and her hea_hrown back, beneath a black crucifix inclined toward her, and stiff curtain_hich were less white than her face. Madame Aubain lay at the foot of th_ouch, clasping it with her arms and uttering groans of agony. The Mothe_uperior was standing on the right side of the bed. The three candles on th_ureau made red blurs, and the windows were dimmed by the fog outside. Th_uns carried Madame Aubain from the room.
For two nights, Felicite never left the corpse. She would repeat the sam_rayers, sprinkle holy water over the sheets, get up, come back to the bed an_ontemplate the body. At the end of the first vigil, she noticed that the fac_ad taken on a yellow tinge, the lips grew blue, the nose grew pinched, th_yes were sunken. She kissed them several times and would not have bee_reatly astonished had Virginia opened them; to souls like this th_upernatural is always quite simple. She washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, put her into the casket, laid a wreath of flowers on her head and arranged he_urls. They were blond and of an extraordinary length for her age. Felicit_ut off a big lock and put half of it into her bosom, resolving never to par_ith it.
The body was taken to Pont-l'Eveque, according to Madame Aubain's wishes; sh_ollowed the hearse in a closed carriage.
After the ceremony it took three quarters of an hour to reach the cemetery.
Paul, sobbing, headed the procession; Monsieur Bourais followed, and then cam_he principal inhabitants of the town, the women covered with black capes, an_elicite. The memory of her nephew, and the thought that she had not been abl_o render him these honours, made her doubly unhappy, and she felt as if h_ere being buried with Virginia.
Madame Aubain's grief was uncontrollable. At first she rebelled against God, thinking that he was unjust to have taken away her child—she who had neve_one anything wrong, and whose conscience was so pure! But no! she ought t_ave taken her South. Other doctors would have saved her. She accused herself, prayed to be able to join her child, and cried in the midst of her dreams. O_he latter, one more especially haunted her. Her husband, dressed like _ailor, had come back from a long voyage, and with tears in his eyes told he_hat he had received the order to take Virginia away. Then they both consulte_bout a hiding-place.
Once she came in from the garden, all upset. A moment before (and she showe_he place), the father and daughter had appeared to her, one after the other; they did nothing but look at her.
During several months she remained inert in her room. Felicite scolded he_ently; she must keep up for her son and also for the other one, for "he_emory."
"Her memory!" replied Madame Aubain, as if she were just awakening, "Oh! yes, yes, you do not forget her!" This was an allusion to the cemetery where sh_ad been expressly forbidden to go.
But Felicite went there every day. At four o'clock exactly, she would g_hrough the town, climb the hill, open the gate and arrive at Virginia's tomb.
It was a small column of pink marble with a flat stone at its base, and it wa_urrounded by a little plot enclosed by chains. The flower-beds were brigh_ith blossoms. Felicite watered their leaves, renewed the gravel, and knelt o_he ground in order to till the earth properly. When Madame Aubain was able t_isit the cemetery she felt very much relieved and consoled.
Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of th_reat church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints' Day. Househol_appenings constituted the only data to which in later years they ofte_eferred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion o_he roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame's turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourai_isappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madam_echaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed awa_ne by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l'Eveque announced th_evolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, th_aron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had hi_ister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen o_heir lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negr_ervant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soo_s she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. Bu_nly one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.
He could not follow any profession as he was absorbed in drinking. His mothe_aid his debts and he made fresh ones; and the sighs that she heaved while sh_nitted at the window reached the ears of Felicite who was spinning in th_itchen.
They walked in the garden together, always speaking of Virginia, and askin_ach other if such and such a thing would have pleased her, and what she woul_robably have said on this or that occasion.
All her little belongings were put away in a closet of the room which held th_wo little beds. But Madame Aubain looked them over as little as possible. On_ummer day, however, she resigned herself to the task and when she opened th_loset the moths flew out.
Virginia's frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, som_oops, a doll-house, and a basic which she had used. Felicite and Madam_ubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings an_pread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on th_iteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motion_f the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in th_arden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat o_oft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicite asked for it. Thei_yes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and th_ervant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and givin_ent to their grief in a kiss which equalised them for a moment.
It was the first time that this had ever happened, for Madame Aubain was no_f an expansive nature. Felicite was as grateful for it as if it had been som_avour, and thenceforth loved her with animal-like devotion and a religiou_eneration.
Her kind-heartedness developed. When she heard the drums of a marchin_egiment passing through the street, she would stand in the doorway with a ju_f cider and give the soldiers a drink. She nursed cholera victims. Sh_rotected Polish refugees, and one of them even declared that he wished t_arry her. But they quarrelled, for one morning when she returned from th_ngelus she found him in the kitchen coolly eating a dish which he ha_repared for himself during her absence.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited wit_aving committed frightful misdeeds in '93. He lived near the river in th_uins of a pig-sty. The urchins peeped at him through the cracks in the wall_nd threw stones that fell on his miserable bed, where he lay gasping wit_atarrh, with long hair, inflamed eyelids, and a tumour as big as his head o_ne arm.
She got him some linen, tried to clean his hovel and dreamed of installing hi_n the bake-house without his being in Madame's way. When the cancer broke, she dressed it every day; sometimes she brought him some cake and placed hi_n the sun on a bundle of hay; and the poor old creature, trembling an_rooling, would thank her in his broken voice, and put out his hands wheneve_he left him. Finally he died; and she had a mass said for the repose of hi_oul.
That day a great joy came to her: at dinner-time, Madame de Larsonniere'_ervant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. _ote from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had bee_romoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her t_ccept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.
Since a long time the parrot had been on Felicite's mind, because he came fro_merica, which reminded her of Victor, and she had approached the negro on th_ubject.
Once even, she had said:
"How glad Madame would be to have him!"
The man had repeated this remark to his mistress who, not being able to kee_he bird, took this means of getting rid of it.