Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part fifteen)
On a still smaller table sat the portraits of those who lived forever in her thoughts: her mother, Augustin Le Goël, the Conan family grouped around elderly uncle Olivier, in an amateur photograph already faded.
Annie opened a large box covered in floral fabric, that contained her manuscript-in-progress; she placed her alarm clock where she could see its face. Only eight and a half hours! Until midnight, at least, a good, peaceful evening.
Quick! Refill the pen…
A light drumming came at the partition. “My dear! Two words, before the Muse descends!”
“Come in, pet.”
Leaning over her pages and ordering them, Annie heard the light tap of feet, then a perfumed touch glided along her cheek. Lilies of the valley fell onto her papers.
“Ah! Dear Winifred! One of your sweet surprises!”
“Mme Fougerays brought me a box this afternoon, of these little bells, rare to be found yet. I warned her I would share with you.”
“There, take the armchair! I am going to give them a drink right now. The vase will decorate my table, and the perfume will speak to me…if a perfume can speak…of the loveliest soul I know!”
“I’m sorry to sit down,” Miss Landley said. “I’m a nuisance to you…but seeing you for a few minutes cheers me up.”
Annie turned her chair and took the hands of her musician friend. “Tell me why you won’t play Chopin this evening?”
At the dinner she had remarked the pallor of Winifred, the reddened pouches under eyes that spoke of recent tears, and a face near crumpling. Disappointment might find relief in spilling itself.
“I’ve had a bad day,” Winifred stammered, looking aside. “I met someone who resembled so much a man who hurt me once. And Mme Fougerays was going through one of her sad times, too.”
“Yes, and that’s why you’re so down! I was afraid of Mme Fougerays turning up again…I’ll chance confessing it! She’s a bad influence on you, in my opinion, a pest, a wet blanket…a grievance-seeker!”
“Christiane has the right to believe the worst of people…poor, poor, too rich Christiane! She has seen enough of rottenness…been humiliated, duped, wounded as few women have! So many people know her story, I shan’t be indiscreet telling you. She, being a millionaire many times over, had made the first move towards a young man…to her, he seemed reserved from pride, a boy too sensitive… Well! On her honeymoon, she learned that a girl had killed herself, that her husband had been engaged before knowing he might have the Roubaix sugar fortune! Christiane was devastated with horror. From that point on, she could only see, she told me…see behind him, this poor desperate girl’s ghost…it was odious! She divorced him and took back her own name. I had been her teacher before she was married.
“Around this time, when we grew even closer to each other, I learned I could no longer count on my cousin Reginald. He’d written me from Cape Town for a long time, gone there to make his fortune… And…he… Oh! To know him sunken into hell…gambling, alcohol!”
On Winifred’s cheeks the tears flowed. Annie pressed that thin and valiant hand. “Don’t have regrets for such an ingrate, so unworthy! You must forget him!”
“We can’t forget just because we want to. No more than we can love.” Winifred spoke simply and dried her eyes. “But I have faith in a better world. And I pray for it!” She stood, calmer. “Go to, darling, write! Forgive me for coming to you with my troubles. Your work is also a kind of prayer. You love Beauty, and Ruskin said that that is a religion in itself. And you’ve done charity, listening to a sentimental chatterbox…”
The two women embraced. Winifred, a hand on the doorknob, threw a kiss, so naïve, so graceful…that if childish, she could never seem absurd or affected. “Please, respect Christiane,” she pleaded in a low voice. “I’d love to see you friends! She is wholly disposed to a sympathy for you, and she opens herself up with such difficulty!”
“Dear and excellent girl! You have been speaking in my favor! Goodnight!”
“Good working night, to you! But never forget, conserve your strength!”
Annie sat again at her table. Her thoughts had scattered like thistledown in the wind, and she needed some moments to concentrate and direct them. She drew closer to her blotter the images of friends whose eyes gave her courage. Surrounded by these guiding spirits of her solitude, she allowed her pen to course over the paper.
And while she plowed her lonely furrow, unconsciously at times Annie looked up, consulting the gaze of Patrice Conan, as though seeking the master’s approval.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)