Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twelve)
“I’ve anticipated all of that,” M. Conan said. “The environment is against you. Fresh air is needed. Well! Perhaps Mme Conan has again found the best answer to these obstacles…yes, we’ve discussed you. You must live in Paris for your development, see the world, learn from it!”
“I can’t afford it!”
“Hold on! My wife has heard me praise the services you render me with such zeal and intelligence… Now, at Paris, I will need someone near me, someone reliable. Not only for the political correspondence, but for going to the libraries, researching documents, correcting my proofs, etc. A helper I can train in my own habits…will you be that someone?”
“Me? Oh, monsieur! Am I ready for what you expect?”
“I haven’t the least doubt. Let us dispense with the obvious concerns. Our apartment on the rue Saint-Simon is too cramped for us to offer you a decent room. Mme Conan, who is entirely practical, has thought already of a little boardinghouse, a respectable place a hop and a skip from the Luxembourg. The small salary I can offer you—two thousand four hundred, for four hours a day—should be more than ample to your needs. And I do not despair of your finding supplementary resources!”
“Oh, monsieur, I can’t tell you how grateful I am! What generosity…so thoughtful!”
“I don’t want you agreeing, now, for mere surprise. Think carefully!”
“It is my wish,” she murmured, incapable of speech, but pressing with emotion the beneficent hand. She left the house, her soul expanded with unexpected hope.
She waited to discuss these plans with her aunt. Clélie, two days later, listened utterly still. Her waxen face looked so faded between the smooth bands of hair still black, and the crepe of her collar, that a natural pity overcame her niece.
“It will be so hard for you to live alone, my aunt! If you’d like…”
“Never worry over me,” said the widow. “I should not count against your plans.”
Not changing the attitude in which she sat, bent over the table with eyes lowered, she added: “See to your own life. Your uncle told you that. Take his advice, work to your gain. You have your prime before you! For two years we’ve been free of that ball and chain, the debt we’d carried for so long. I will give you your share of the legacy, and you have a few thousand as well from your mother. For myself, I’ll put up the necessary pension, and go to a house of retreat in the country. In peace I will prepare to pass the black door.”
“That is the common fate. Useless, then, for me to complain.”
The old woman rose to open the Empire secretary, taking out a pocketbook stuffed with banknotes. “You’ll find inside fifteen thousand francs. That will seem to you something, and it is little. Do not misuse it. Money is hard to get.”
“I know all you’ve taught me, Aunt!”
“Life has been difficult for me, more than you may believe, and in more ways than one. You have the right to blame me, I know it. But I defied myself…you were too much like your father!”
Through Annie’s mind flashed a doubt. Clélie, before the picture of Alain Le Goël, seemed strangely troubled. A thousand other memories converged, persuasively…so much hatred, so much stubborn rancor, did it point to a secret inclination, buried or betrayed?
“I amaze myself, telling you all this. But we are unlikely to speak together again,” the widow finished, and resumed her cold manner. “No, never fear to leave me alone. Go when you like!”
Having thus quelled any hint of emotionalism, Clélie went calmly about ordering her material affairs; she occupied herself retiring the last of expenses and selling the business. Annie for her part sold some furniture and packed household things, to leave as soon as possible for Paris. She would arrive ahead of the Conan family, who needed to spend the end of autumn at Havre.
In mid-September Annie left for the capital. A second life, beginning…
Sad as her past had been, she did not say goodbye to it with indifference. A melancholy sense of loss had filled her whenever, in those final days, she walked the city of her birth, the city proud and somber, that imprisons the running waters under a vault.
Poor wretch! You symbolize my youth, jailed and hidden away…so Annie thought, following the quay, vast and empty.
Seated in a third-class car, she looked at her aunt Clélie, who had accompanied her to the train and stood there, correct, upright, and impassive, waiting its departure. Annie pictured the austere isolation the old woman went to shut herself into, the soul’s once living spring, perhaps run dry through adversity. Tears rose to the rims of her eyes.
But near Clélie a young mother, surrounded by a crowd of children, lifted a blonde and rosy little girl, who blew kisses to a traveler, her father no doubt, leaning from the door.
And Annie Le Goël felt, with a passion, jealous of these happy ones.
Recessing into her corner, it was for herself she cried, as the train shuddered. Whatever the satisfactions of the future, could they purchase back the lost times, the childhood without sun, the young years sacrificed?
*Annie’s 2400 francs would be an annual salary.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)