Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part thirteen)
Moving Towards the Light
The bus rumbled over the cobblestones of the Louvre courtyard. Annie, leaning towards the glass, spied the grand perspective, framed by the pink columns of the Arc-du-Carrousel, extending under a reddened sky into a vapor of gold, and opening onto the Étoile. The hoarse voice of the conductor broke her concentration. She smiled at the man who rummaged in his sack to give her change, a bill between his lips, with a perfect disdain for microbes.
Once more Annie was seized by the strange and silly notion that she played a role in a comedy. She had lived in Paris for six months, and astonishment could still, at times, catch her unawares.
“Is this really me, a captive for so long, coming and going—hustling and bustling!—dependent on only myself, and whatever my work demands?”
The work, now, had become her principal concern. Satisfaction came with difficulty, Annie obliged to educate herself as she created, and suffering the noble torments of the writer, the artist, who ardently searches for the subtlety, the exact note to express her idea. But in drawing from herself the best of her character, she was living a dream life, forbidden until now.
Not an hour wasted! Careful of her morning habits, Annie pursued what she could before leaving her rooms, of the manuscript that had kept her awake. Afterwards, her daily duties, her secretarial tasks at M. Conan’s, two afternoons a week at the Gazette Féminine, a widely read fashion journal where she edited two columns and oversaw the layout…the rounds at the libraries, the Collège de France, the lectures at the Sorbonne or Foyer, kept her away from home until evening.
She loved this active life, and Paris. She adored the vibrancy of the city’s scenes, its spirit and gravity; she enjoyed, never bored, the color and style discovered on every walk. Now, from the Pont du Saint-Pères, she could see in the west the blinding sun, red and round, ignite the Seine, which seemed to roll with crimson waves. At her right, the bronze beams limned the black cornices of the Louvre. And at the farthest reach of this tableau, the harmonious lines of the Ile de la Cité, the windows of rusty gables picked out in a thousand scintillations, while clear against the deep blue of the sky stood the grey towers of Notre Dame, the chiseled needle of the Sainte-Chapelle; and the moon, still transparent, showed its timid face above the Palais-Mazarin.
Annie never saw the famous dome without telling herself that one day, assuredly, her employer would be seated under the cupola, and to its glory, she would hear his eloquent voice. The bus continued in a cloud of exhaust, soon stopping to deposit its passenger before the Senate. Known to those bailiffs “manning the barricades”, for defense of the honorable men, the young woman filed in by the familiar way closed to commoners, up to the library where M. Conan had arranged to meet her.
Often she joined him there in the mornings, to take his instructions or to write a few urgent letters. When, through the tall window she saw the majestic garden, the fountain’s iridescent waters, the vast avenue rising to the white hemisphere of the observatory, the niece of Clélie Le Goël saw herself again at the Lin de Bretagne, and told herself justifiably: “I’m dreaming!”
Her employer, kept at a meeting, was not to be found. But a note recommended her to the Réserve, to consult the first copy of the Gazette de France, dating from 1631. Patrice Conan, entering as spokesman for the Voix de Paris, wished to cite the opening article, in which the good Théophraste Renaudot exposits in his Preface, with as much wisdom as with honesty and diplomatic sense, the goal of his enterprise, and so excellently defines the role of the press.
The senator had indicated for his secretary the phrases she was to transcribe in their exact text, and added: “When you’re done, take yourself off! Until tomorrow!”
Annie was ushered inside the vaulted room, always deserted, where venerable and dusty volumes dressed in beautiful old bindings slept, in a repose rarely troubled, as evidenced by their brittle pages.
Pressed side-by-side on the shelves were judiciary rulings, carrying the vessel Lutèce as a coat of arms, innumerable Acts of Parliament, registers of clerical assemblies, and many works rarely browsed, such as a magnificent original edition of the Histoire Naturelle de Buffon, covered in oxblood, embossed in tarnished gold, stiff and sumptuous as the author in his jabot and lace cuffs.
A melancholy emanated from these long rows of abandoned tomes, whose pages had not often the good fortune of being opened. In large libraries, before such a multiplicity of condemned books, all forgotten, Annie felt overwhelmed. So many useless efforts! And what of the current output, likewise doomed to be be shut away?
Everything has been said. Ecclesiastes has already said that. But no one would attempt any more, if we lived only in the past, Annie thought. Persevere! From the best of yesterday comes the best of tomorrow. In the solitude of the senatorial Réserve, the scratching of her pen was continuous, small and stubborn, like the nibbling of a mouse.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)