In 1762, in a little Prussian village called Quarrey, there is a good curate, Father Hartmann, whose elderly maid Angelica is a real pearl. Rising at Dawn, last to retire, her cooking is delicious. She polishes the Presbytery floors once a week, knows like none other how to wash and iron soutanes, surplices and altar cloths, embroiders admirable stoles, makes marvellous tarts and jams, and still finds time to play dominoes in the evening with her master – that master to whom she devotes a veritable cult and for whom she cares as if he were her child.
Her role is not limited to looking after the house and flowering the altar, either. She also does the gardening, rings the bells for the Angelus and energetically protects Father Hartmann from annoying people. It is no good coming to knock on the Presbytery door when the good curate, his stomach full of sausages and cabbage washed down with schnaps, is taking a nap. Angelica, ceasing for a moment to be the gentle, humble person who creeps silently through the Presbytery corridors, becomes a veritable watch-dog. She snarls:
“Monsieur the Curate is busy! Come back later!”
Several parishioners, who try to insist, have to flee from the threat of a cudgel that Angelica, in her desire to protect her holy man’s sleep, does not hesitate to brandish in fury. It is even said that one day, she had kicked the rear-end of a bigot, a real flea in the sacristy ear, who had come for the tenth time to ask the curate to bless a gaufrette mould which reproduced the portrait of Saint Irenee…
In short, Angelica is not only an accomplished housekeeper, she is also a woman of character. She often says:
“When I’m no longer here, I don’t know what will happen to Monsieur the Curate!”
Good Father Hartmann reassures her:
“Angelica, you will bury us all!… And you will still be making mirabelle jams when our bones have been no more than dust for a long time…”
But the holy man proposes and God disposes.
One day in November 1762, the good and vigilant Angelica returns from the laundry with her teeth chattering, retires to bed with a temperature, but not before preparing a succulent partridge with sweet chestnuts for her master, and, without a complaint, leaves this world for the other…
Naturally, Father Hartmann’s pain is immense. And it is very reluctantly that, after having buried the unfortunate Angelica, the curate engages a new servant.
This one is called Frida. She is just forty, the canonic age imposed at the time for ecclesiastic maids, and appears full of good will.
She moves into the Presbytery on 12 November. It is on the following day that the first bizarre things happen.
On this day, Frida rises at Dawn. She descends to the kitchen and what she sees freezes her in the doorway: the cooking-stove is alight, a pumpkin soup – Father Hartmann’s favourite – is gently simmering on it; the floor has been washed; on the table, vegetables have been peeled.
Astounded, she enters the dining-room to prepare the fire. No need: flames are dancing in the fireplace, the room is already warm. What does this mean?
Suddenly, Frida becomes red with embarrassment. Could it be Monsieur the Curate who, up before her, had prepared everything to shame her?
She hears his step on the stairs. She rushes to him and apologises. He asks her why.
“It’s you, isn’t it, who prepared everything?”
“The fire, the soup and the vegetables that I found when I got up… Not to mention the floor that you washed…”
“Me?! Firstly, my good Frida, I don’t know how to do any of that; and then, I have just risen… Come, come, you weren’t properly awake…”
And the Father goes to say his Mass. When he comes back, he sits at the table. He exclaims over the pumpkin soup and asks how she had guessed that it was his favourite meal. Frida bows her head:
“I didn’t guess anything, Monsieur the Curate, because I told you that it was cooking when I came down…”
The curate frowns. He is wondering if his new servant has all her reason.
At this moment, a noise comes from the courtyard: someone is turning the well-handle. Frida and the curate rush out and find a bucket full of water on the coping. The chain is still moving. Frida says:
“You see, it’s continuing…”
This time, Father Hartmann is perplexed. And he is even more so when he learns, half-an-hour later, that his bed has been made by mysterious hands and that a guinea fowl has been found on the kitchen table, plucked, cleaned, ready to be skewered…
Then, Frida becomes frightened. She declares that she doesn’t want to remain… There is a ghost… Father Hartmann replies:
“Of course there isn’t… There are no such things as ghosts…”
But, deep down inside, he is starting to wonder if Angelica mightn’t have something to do with these strange phenomena.
In the course of the morning, Frida, more and more horrified, finds the house swept, dusted, the wood cut into logs, the wine drawn.
Finally, she goes upstairs to take refuge in her bedroom. When she comes back down to prepare the meal, she discovers the place laid, the guinea fowl cooked to perfection, the salad prepared, fresh bread and a pear tart still hot. Then, she goes back upstairs, collects her things, and goes to find Father Hartmann. She is in tears.
“I’m going, Monsieur the Curate. I have nothing to do here. Someone does everything for me. I can’t take it any more!… Excuse me, but I’m too frightened…”
And, making the sign of the cross, she flees the Presbytery.
From this moment, Father Hartmann will live extraordinary days. “Someone” invisible does his washing-up, prepares his meals, washes and irons his lingerie, does his gardening and rings the Angelus.
Rapidly, the whole town, told about it by Frida, talks only of the prodigies that are unfolding at the Presbytery. They come in crowds to see the well-handle turning on its own, plates traversing space and placing themselves on the table, a knife peeling vegetables and the iron moving over shirts and surplices.
Soon, these strange manifestations are known to the whole province, and one day, the King of Prussia, Frederic II himself, is informed of it. He immediately orders a captain and a lieutenant of his guard to go to see what is happening.
The two officers arrive the next day at Quarrey and hasten to the Presbytery. The captain laughingly enquires after the ghost, but stops for, there, in front of him, in the garden, a wheelbarrow is rolling along on its own. He exclaims that it is the Devil, and instantly receives a formidable kick in the pants and his face is magistrally slapped twice.
From then on, no-one in the little Prussian village has any more doubts that it is the ghost of the good and energetic Angelica…
To be continued.