Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part ten)
Annie had been tormented, frequently, by a childhood nightmare. She had dreamed someone chased her, that in the impetus of escape she came detached from earth and flew…but soaring, banged her head against an obstacle, a ceiling or the vault of a roof. In mad terror she saw herself trapped, delivered to the mercy of her persecutor, who was dragging her down by the feet…
The child awakened screaming, drenched in sweat.
This bizarre dream, after so many years, returned. She again experienced the illusion of flight, sensed an enemy’s hot breath following close…
She woke, ill-at-ease and trembling, not knowing what evil had gripped her and stopped her taking wing. Around the chamber her mother circled, pale as a ghost. Annie told herself, in sadness, that dismal reality was no less distressing.
Marceline had fallen into such weakness that Clélie herself, without admitting this compassion, said no more about interning her at Saint-Méen. Generally harmless, the poor lost soul did not dare adventure outdoors, not since the laughing boys had terrorized her. She was content wandering the house, opening drawers and cupboards, searching for no one knew what, muttering indistinct words.
These unending searches she pursued to the attic, plumbing boxes and trunks, rummaging to disorder Annie’s books and notebooks. A worm-eaten coffer, its missing lock replaced with a padlock, interested her above all. To make an end of this lock, to pick it, to pry it off, became for Marceline a fixation. She left aside her earlier manias, those fidgetings in the mirror…those prowlings of the streets.
Unluckily, the attic door no longer had a key. Augustin, concerned, called for the locksmith. And while they waited, he stopped the door as best he could with a piece of twisted wire.
One evening Annie came home after passing the day with M. Conan, and entering, heard excited voices from the heights of the house. In the blink of an eye, she had climbed two flights, to see from the uppermost step the barricade to the attic, breached.
She shuddered at the scene beheld.
Marceline knelt on a floor littered with objects, her grey hair wild; she was by her brother-in-law restrained. Her hands convulsed towards a thing that Augustin lifted above the door.
“Give it back to me! Give it back to me! It belongs to me! That miserable man…oh! You’ve hidden it! But I’ve found it, thanks to scissors and a good nail!”
“Quiet! Marceline, you do not insult the dead!”
At the end of the attic, Clélie, eyes wide with terror, watched, not daring to involve herself. Augustin, keeping the poor woman down, turned to his niece and passed her a locket.
“Guard it, Annie! Put it in a safe place. It is a picture of your father!”
Still as a statue of ice, Annie made a grim survey of the photograph—a smiling man, young and elegant. Augustin, worn nearly speechless, said again with exasperated vehemence: “Child, that is your father! Try not to judge him…save yourself from this place!”
A wrenching cry interrupted. Marceline fell to the floor, racked by a seizure, after which she lay lifeless. The three witnesses, silent in their united efforts, carried her down the narrow, inconvenient stairs, to her bed.
A grueling task, a mournful cortege! The unconscious state prolonged itself, despite all their care. A common fear possessed them, seeing the body lie insensible. Augustin ran for the doctor.
But the doctor could only record death, as following an embolism. The unfortunate at last had come to the end of her long ordeal.
Augustin Le Goël, three days after the funeral, tried in vain to rise. He subsided onto his bed and said, “The hour of eternal rest cannot be postponed.”
The dramatic conflict had broken his frail, long-debilitated body. In a few days, his face creased and yellowed into a mask, proof he wasted away. The old man concentrated himself upon a mournful reverie, that which absorbs all who approach life’s inevitable issue.
He conceded to it, in a crisis of suffering. “What good is self-deceit? All the world must pass! This is my turn…I will hold steady and think of what’s needful… Annie, go warn the priest of Saint-Hélier! For some years, I’ve seen him without telling your aunt. In her atheism she has, sorry to say, stolen faith from everyone around her. May you one day believe in the power of confession!”
Clélie, terrified at so soon a return of the solemn Visitor no human can see without trembling, hid herself while the priest climbed to the sick man’s chamber. A newfound respect annihilated the proud woman; the spouse who between her iron hands had been a pipsqueak, insignificant, and was now so tranquil in the face of death, revealed to her another personality and became her superior.
The morning the priest entered, wearing his stole and upraising a ciborium, Annie fell to her knees and filled her mind with the prayer for the dying. She could not feel the active presence of a God, but she envied the faith that inspired this resignation, this illumination of hope.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)