Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 3

  • 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!—"
  • "From whom?—"
  • 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.