Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part two)
Impatience tautened her nerves while she continued to review invoices. Her fever increased under the weight of Mlle Virot’s sneaking surveillance. At last the bell announced the end of shift. Annie, with the others, went to the cloakroom. Her jacket thrown on, hat cocked at a devilish angle atop her wealth of blonde locks, Mlle Le Goël rushed outdoors. She escaped the human swell that already filled the street, reaching a small park near the river. She pulled the letter from her pocket and tore the envelope with a trembling hand…
The lines danced before her dazzled eyes. She felt weak-kneed, overcome with joy.
Mademoiselle (wrote the secretary of the Revue), we have the agreeable task of informing you that your submission, entitled “The Revenge of Armand”, has been unanimously chosen for the first prize of the competition opened by Foyer. Your play will be performed in the coming winter, for the birthday of Molière, at the Second Public Theater.
Patrice Conan, your eminent compatriot, who has given all assistance to the judging of our competition, counsels that you abandon your pseudonym of “Stellina”, and sign your real name. Will you let us know of your decision by telegram, as we will publish the results in our next issue? The sum of three thousand francs, assigned to the first prize winner, will, at the end of the month, be at your disposal.
Please accept, Mademoiselle, my most sincere compliments, with my wishes for a bright literary future.
Annie had to sink onto a bench. She shook with this happiness that might be catastrophe. A whirlwind of hopes left her astonished. Three thousand francs! The amount represented a fortune, two years’ pay at her job. Three thousand francs for a piece in free verse, scribbled undercover in the attic corner where she took refuge to write. Three thousand francs! And still more—
“… my wishes for a bright literary future…”
How thrilling! To be oneself, fully known and proud! To achieve that liberty through work that was pleasing! To free both herself and her mother from a governance so harsh and heavy! And then…to give way at last to that hope of hopes concealed, to unite her life with that friend of her youth, who knew her complaints and understood them, who shared her taste in art!
Was it possible her unhappy fate could be turned aside? After a childhood sad and deprived, a youth unlived, this sudden deliverance…
Annie instinctively clasped her hands. But she no longer knew how to pray. Her joy, rather than mount paeans to heaven, penetrated her soul with tenderness. The world seemed a better place, and of those who had done her ill, she exerted herself towards indulgence…even towards her Aunt Clélie who, though Annie was twenty-three, remained her terror. This woman had been so from the first, when a small child huddled in her mother’s skirts had seen her, rigid and majestic, enthroned at the back of a somber room, where the child’s mother had come to seek asylum.
Annie’s fright before the austere figure, tight-lipped and marble-browed, had expressed itself in the distraught cry: “Maman! Maman! Can’t we leave? I want to go back home, with Papa!”
“A king says I want,” retorted Mme Clélie Le Goël. “And as you are no longer at your house, and as you no longer have a papa, or near to it, you had better say no more!”
Certainly, it was bitter, the hospitality that began with such a welcome. Small Annie had suffered so violent a sense of revulsion, it seemed her heart would break! She had been the pitiful child who never plays, who never knows the sunshine of caresses. And as she grew, with tears of shame and despair, she had heard herself reproached for the very bread she ate. From the age of fourteen she had worked, at the mending of lace and fine embroideries, to furnish her quota of the meagre household budget.
Teaching herself by makeshift, taking hours from her sleep to rise at the break of dawn, she had devoured books lent by her obliging neighbor. He was the venerable M. Conan, former army surgeon and uncle of the now famous writer.
But that knowledge so acquired, superior in many ways to the school programs, held too many gaps for Annie to qualify for a true education. She’d had to content herself with an elementary certificate. This at least gave her a start, at the offices of the great manufactory, Soufflet.
What would she not have done to free herself, to move far from the sad household where her youth suffocated! But a sacred, painful duty kept her there. Annie was tenderhearted and believed in duty. She had no right to push away the poor hands that clung to her.
Marceline Le Goël was frail in mind and body; she subjugated herself to the elder Clélie, whom she admired and was cowed by. She begged her daughter not to abandon her. One particular duty, heartbreaking, was the necessity at times to deliver the unfortunate woman to the nursing home of Saint-Méen. The costs of this care had doubled. Annie bent under the onus of a debt she knew could not be repaid.
Today, examining this past, recalled by the contrast of unlooked-for happiness, she found excuses for the faults of Clélie. Clélie was hard on herself as on others, and though bilious and melancholy of nature, still she merited esteem. It was the bankruptcy of her husband, cousin to Annie’s father, that had locked her, humiliated, in a place inferior to her education. Mme Augustin Le Goël was bound to the strictest economies, to all privations—to detach the hold, little by little, of her creditors. In such a state, she could not with a good grace have taken on the support of a woman and child, in straits of their own.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)