Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part fourteen)
The text was copied quickly, Annie thinking with pleasure of escape through the garden she saw touched here and there with the last glimmers of daylight, sunrays illuminating the trees, sketching lines of twigs and swelling buds. An indecisive mist scattered silver at the end of the allées, dampening the springtime green of the lawn. And on the benches sat several couples, hands interlaced, faces so close that their breaths mingled like kisses. Annie turned her head with a will to ignore these sights; also, the flatteries of passersby. Love was nothing to her but folly, an eternal war of ambush—coquetries, tricks, and ploys—the woman conqueror as insatiable as the man.
To Annie it took no effort, taught by her father’s scandal, and by her own experience of male pride and egotism, to maintain a defensive attitude, to circulate at ease, with no intention of pleasing.
The stares, the cajoling words, the homages paid to her rosy complexion and blonde hair spilling from a velvet toque, fell inert as blunt arrows before her indifference. She went about the charming garden not allowing herself to be troubled, enjoying the beauty of the evening, the fresh earthy smells of damp beds, the discreet perfumes of early flowers…the thwarted whistlings of clownish men.
As she came near the Verlaine parterre, a young woman rose and approached her, an album between her hands. “Are you going home, Mlle Le Goël?” The dark, heavy-lidded eyes held a caressing smile. “Will you wait while I collect my brushes and palette? I’ll come with you!”
“Gladly, Mlle Serloff! What can you be painting, so late? I can barely see!”
“Notes, for a batik! A stylized tulip design…I remind myself of nuances that only show at this hour on the petals. Do you see that blue lilac, that pinkish green? Isn’t it curious?”
Together they followed the allée alongside the museum, to exit onto the rue de Vaugirard. Near the gate, a man of middle age greeted them, his gaze narrowing and gliding towards Olga Serloff. The painful tension of watching a cat stalk a bird cast its shadow over Annie. This M. Liégeois had a short time ago joined their boardinghouse, and now prowled around the small Lithuanian, come to Paris to study the decorative arts. If the daughter of Alain Le Goël had a horror of perfidious, traitorous women, she had only pity for those tenderhearted and lonely.
She avoided intrusive friendships, but could not rebuff the young foreigner, who took refuge near her with an instinctive need for protection. Another forced intimacy, in the communal existence of the boardinghouse, was Winifred Landley’s—a woman of soft, faded features, and blondeness maintained by chamomile rinses.
Born to English parents, but orphaned very young and raised in a French town, she exhausted herself running to recitals throughout the capital. Winifred’s courage and candor had won the sympathies of Annie, who was her immediate neighbor. She was infinitely good and helpful, and by degrees this sympathy had grown to friendship.
Winifred was stopped at the door of the Maison Bertrand, and stood waiting for the two arrivals. “I’m not late today! It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”
“What a joy to have you this evening! I will ask for a little Chopin for dessert! And work better afterwards.”
Annie put an arm under Winifred’s; they climbed the steep staircase with its fraying carpet. But the gentle face darkened, and in a sighing voice, Miss Landley murmured: “Oh, no, not this evening, love. Chopin would drain my heart!”
An imperious chime announcing dinner was sounding already. Each went to her room to prepare, and soon after, the long table was populated with as many nationalities as there were guests. German, Spanish, Italian, American, Romanian… It was like an old serving plate, seen at a local seller’s of used goods, decorated round the rim with all the countries of the world offering to each other a fraternal hand.
No less than in places of origin, differences in education and mentality created diversity, the general conversation with its unforeseen turns and interesting discussions being so much the more varied. Annie listened well and spoke little. Despite her inexperience she had quickly caught on that a certain reserve was essential to this boardinghouse life, were she not to find her time, energy, and freedom encroached away. Idle old women, pillars of this community, would willingly monopolize the young secretary of Patrice Conan. They burned, knowing how the great writer launched himself into the tumult of the press, for an inside word on his opinions and projects.
Annie, anticipating this nosiness, beat a retreat following dessert, and allowed the others who thrived on gossip to group into the salon. At the end of the corridor, she saw the profile of the dandy Liégeois, resembling that of Francois the First, bent towards the brown head of Olga Serloff. Nonchalantly he turned at the sound of her steps, and recognizing Annie, shot her a look of defiance. He had divined in her an adversary and on all occasions treated her to a mocking hostility.
She pushed the door, tightening her lips in contempt, but laughing at herself that this banal scene could make her feel sad. What did it mean, after all, if the little Lithuanian Eve listened to a serpent’s proposal?
“Leave it! Never mind…get to work!”
Annie lit the lamp and sat before the small table that served for a desk. To be at home, free to think, dream, study! What a delight! A glance at her favorite books arranged along their shelves, and Annie felt joy and renewal. She did not often have time to leaf through them, but they rested complacent and faithful, friends at hand. Daudet, Tolstoy, Musset, Molière, La Bruyère, Shakespeare, Hugo, Paul Fort, and Francis James, her life-givers, her preferred ones, because, knowing the whole of humanity, they had taken pity on it—or could elevate vulgar reality to a heightened fantasy.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)