For fifty years the ladies of Pont-lÉvêque envied Madame Aubain her servant Felicity.
For a hundred francs a year she cooked, and cleaned, sewed, washed, ironed, could harness a horse, fatten up poultry, churn butter; and she remained loyal to her mistress who, all the same, was not an agreeable person.
Madame Aubain had married a fine young fellow without a fortune, who died at the beginning of 1809, leaving her two very young children, and a great number of debts. Then she sold her real estate, except the farm of Toucques, and the farm of Geffosses, whose rents amounted to five thousand francs at the outside, and she quitted the house at Saint-Milaine to settle in another one less costly, which had belonged to her ancestors, and was situated behind the market-place.
This house, covered with tiles, was set between a lane and an alley that gave on the river. Inside, its ground levels were unequal, and were the cause of frequent stumbles. A narrow vestibule separated the kitchen from the living-room, where Madame Aubain passed the whole day, seated near the window casement on a straw-bottomed chair. Against the wainscoting, painted white, were lined up eight mahogany chairs. An old piano carried, under a barometer, a heaped pyramid of wooden and cardboard boxes. Two deep arm-chairs, tapestry covered, flanked the yellow marble mantelpiece in the style of Louis XV. The clock in the middle represented a temple of Vestaand the whole room smelled slightly musty, for the floor was lower than the garden.
On the first floor there was, first of all, Madames room, very big, hung with a wallpaper with pale flowers, and containing the portrait of Monsieur in the costume of a muscadin. It communicated with a smaller room, where two childrens couches were to be seen without their mattresses. Then came the drawing-room, always shut up, and filled with furniture covered with a sheet. Then a corridor led to a study: books and papers filled the shelves of a book-case surrounding with its three sides a large blackwood desk. The two end panels were invisible beneath pen-and-ink sketches, landscapes in body colour, and Audrans engravings, souvenirs of better times and vanished luxury. A dormer window on the second story lighted Felicitys room, looking out on the fields.
She rose with the dawn so as not to miss Mass, and worked without stopping until evening; then, dinner being finished, the dishes put away and the door fast shut, she covered the faggots with ashes, and fell asleep before the hearth, her rosary in her hand. Nobody in her marketing could show more obstinacy. As to her cleanliness, the polish on her saucepans was the despair of other servants. Thrifty, she ate slowly, and gathered up from the table with her fingers the crumbs of the loafa twelve-pound loaf, baked specially for her, which lasted twenty days.
All through the year she carried a cotton handkerchief fixed at her back by a pin, a bonnet that hid her hair, grey stockings, a red skirt, and over her bodice an apron with a bib like a hospital nurse.
Her face was thin and her voice sharp. At twenty-five years of age you would have guessed her to be forty. After her fiftieth year she showed no traces of any age at all; and, always silent, upright in carriage, and measured in gesture, she seemed a woman made of wood, functioning automatically.
She had had, like any one else, her love story.
Her father, a mason, had been killed in falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother died, her sisters scattered; a farmer took her in, and employed her, while still a little girl, in guarding cows in the fields. She shivered under her rags, drank flat on her stomach the water of the pools, for no pretext at all was beaten, and finally was dismissed for a theft of thirty pence which she had not committed. She took service in another farm, became hen girl there, and, as she pleased her employers, her comrades were jealous of her.