Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part seven)
Happily, she felt braced again next day, when the carrier brought a letter from M. Patrice Conan.
He had occupied with distinction a chair in the university’s Department of Literature at Rennes; he was now at the Sorbonne—a brilliant writer, scholar and poet. The nephew of Dr. Conan was interested in his uncle’s little protégé. Remarking the imagination and literary sense the girl had shown in her childish compositions, he deplored that she could not have developed these faculties through ongoing study. Clélie, rebellious to all suggestions, peremptorily declared it useless for the girl to seek further rejection. Not a thing worth the attempt.
My dear Annie (M. Conan wrote today), I am late to tell you how pleased I am at your legitimate recognition. You have earned all the more merit for having taught yourself, by your own effort. Never regret your pains; you have acquired what the diploma cannot confer: a personality. Ahead of you many trials remain, but we writers are students forever. Never stop. Work. Success demands it.
Send me a short story, with that originality and sincerity, and I will forward it to one of the reviews.
And, you will see me again soon. At the urging of my fellow citizens, but with the drawback of sacrificing my peaceful studies, I am bidding for the senate seat vacant at Ille-et-Vilaine. We will be spending the summer at Rennes…
The effect of reading this letter on poor Annie’s exhausted spirit was like a reviving wave. First the old man had opened to her an Eden; now the young master of that house had sent her—at this propitious moment—his support and encouragement, indispensable to anyone engaged in a battle.
If she cried at reading and rereading the precious handwritten words, the tears were of gratitude. She set herself at once to the task of satisfying M. Conan’s request, leafing through her latest attempts…finding nothing worthy of her mentor.
A new story was born, sad, and perhaps symbolic of her destiny. Seated that night on a trunk in her refuge, she wrote by the light of the attic’s transom: “The Mermaid Delivered”.
The mermaid had been thrown by a tidal wave into the under-vaultings of a ruined tower. The people of the country, frightened by this prodigy of a woman’s head and a fish’s tail, a being to whom they attributed the ravages of the storm, hastily raised the collapsed walls and battened in the unfortunate girl, despite her lamentations. For centuries she wailed, calling to her sisters, the sun, the wind, and the waters.
Her voice grew weak. But attracted by these strange accents, scientists came, bringing a team of workers to make a breach in the tower. The nereid was drawn outside, with a rope around her naked chest. When she saw the sky, she lifted her fainting body, raised her eager arms, saluted the light with a ringing cry, and fell dead.
“Ah!” said one of the scientists, examining her through his spectacles. “A decent enough specimen for our museum, this fish to which the ancients in their ignorance gave the name of mermaid.”
Annie, in aid of her argument, composed a ballad in rhythmic prose. The work thus concluding itself, and expedited to M. Conan, she fell back into the void. In vain she tried to recall the poetic visions she was accustomed to have, enveloping her in a dream of success. Too many buried anxieties weighed on her soul. Her mother’s state demanded surveillance of greater and greater strictness. And the marriage of Barral was announced in the papers.
At last, the shutters opened. Preparations at the Conan house, the washing of windows, the hanging of fresh curtains, told the arrival of the owners was imminent. All Saint-Hélier rejoiced. The district prided itself on the fame of its writer.
For generations the Conan family had furnished notable men, proud of their Breton origin, and giving generously of themselves in service to their province. Patrice, the last of the line, with his manful eloquence, the vigor of his thought, the bold flights of his poetry, incarnated to a marvelous degree the sensitive spirit of Bretagne. As general opinion had it, his electoral victory was beyond doubt. To everyone’s gratitude he had sacrificed his retiring tastes to throw his hat in the ring.
One evening Annie saw an omnibus loaded with trunks stop before the front porch. A thin man with the look of youth and vigor jumped out, followed by a little boy, then an elegant brunette of indolent grace. Running window to window, lights came on; the entire ground floor was soon illuminated.
The young woman, with a singular emotion, watched life restore the house sacred to her memory. She imagined M. Patrice bending over his oaken desk among the great collections of books. And Mme Patrice opening armoires full of beautiful old linens, inspecting the cupboards and shelves where the china and silver were stored. A self-consciousness returned.
Before Mlle Le Goël had determined on a visit, posters announced a gathering for Patrice Conan. To reconnect with his fellow citizens, the master would speak on a literary subject: the ancient Gallic song cycles, the chansons de gestes.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)