Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part five)
But Mme Barral insisted. It was difficult to back away…almost against her heart’s counsel, Annie finished the sharing of her news. She saw the widow’s eyes grow round in astonishment.
“The first prize! To you?” The exclamation betrayed more dismay than pleasure. Mme Barral would have said in accents no different: “Isn’t it a scandal!”
Annie’s state of nerves made her sensitive to these nuances, and that susceptibility might exaggerate them. She took a step towards the door, wishing to flee at once, fearing to shed stupid tears…
An impression the widow must have caught, for she spoke in a tone more affable: “So unexpected! I can barely believe my ears! But truly I’m happy for you. What luck!”
She added, twisting the ribbon of her black silk apron, “By the way, do you know the names of the other winners?”
“I know only what concerns me,” Annie said, curt. A spur of suspicion came. Had Sylvain entered the contest? That would explain the equivocal attitude of Mme Barral, her curiosity and her visible shying at the subject. More and more ill at ease, Annie stretched a hand to the latch.
“Let me not keep you any longer, Madame. Have a good time tomorrow!”
She descended, head down and despondent, the stairs climbed in such ebullience. The intoxication of success had gone. Annie’s mind returned her to dreary reality. Vague worries nagged, gaining shape…
For some time Mme Barral had been coming less often to the “Bon Lin de Bretagne”. A prudent mother, she must want for her son an advantageous marriage. Perhaps she foresaw, a little belatedly, danger in the friendship of Sylvain with Annie Le Goël. What danger? The lowly job, the humiliations fate had burdened her with, things that might be understood to threaten…some inherited taint.
This Annie thought with sadness, racked by doubt as she made her way through the populous neighborhood. Children tussled with each other, shrieking right and left. Little girls held hands and jumped on the cobblestones, singing aloud:
Join the dance
See how we dance
An old tune, nostalgic of her childhood, that Annie always heard with melancholy. Kept behind windows, watching in jealous frustration, she had seen the fantastic spinning accelerate to the chorus:
Waltz, leap, kiss who you like!
Oh! To take her place in this game, bounding, shouting, laughing more than the others! And she must hold herself still on her little chair, finish the knitting—a task seemingly without end—under the sharp eye of her Aunt Clélie.
But she passed a veranda, over which swayed the white and pink blossoms of tall horse chestnuts. A wisteria dangled festoons of mauve against a mossy wall. Annie slowed her steps, gazing with a sort of reverence at the hammer ornamenting the gate.
One day this gate had opened in front of her. A girl of eight years, holding the hand of her Uncle Augustin, she pushed into the vast enclosure. There, old Dr. Conan, noting the pallor of the anemic child, had invited his little neighbor to take the air in his garden.
Life today promised more. Annie knew of other horizons, less poor than the bloody butcher’s stall that faced the linen shop. The flowers, the blameless beasts, all that those beautiful books had revealed to her… Her memories were enriched by imagination, thanks to the solicitude of a kind and wise old man.
The path to her present success had been forged in this venerable house.
On the threshold of his shop Uncle Augustin breathed deep, supported by a doorpost, his head raised to the sky; no doubt, he contemplated the pale crescent whose points had risen above the roofs. She stopped next to him.
“Oh!” she said, mindful of her thoughts, “if M. Conan still lived, how with all my heart I would thank him!”
She saw her uncle’s face perplexed, and realized he was ignorant of the day’s event. Clélie had not deigned to tell him. Annie told, and the old man shook his bald head slowly.
“M. Conan would be pleased indeed. Your success proves him right. He advised us to let him teach you, said you showed all the signs of a writer. I didn’t dare give my blessing, I was afraid you’d risk too much. Your father believed himself a poet. He considered himself misunderstood.”
After a pause, he went on in a low voice: “I was thinking of Alain only a minute ago. For all his faults, I loved him. When I’m no longer here, no one will be able to tell you… I don’t excuse him, but in death he was repentant, desolate and alone. Remember him without bitterness. A fault is an unlucky thing that does most harm to the guilty. Never forget.”
The simplicity with which they were offered made these hesitant words, broken by silences, all the more moving. Annie felt this profoundly, but hadn’t the chance of answering. Clélie’s rasping voice came from inside:
“You’d like your dinner this evening, would you? Come to the table!”
And Uncle Augustin, docile, dutifully closed the shutters, throwing a last glance at the moon, as it slowly climbed the sky.
Shine! (part six)
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)