Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part seventeen)
M. Conan intervened, annoyed at this shamelessness. “You forget, Josèphe, that Mlle Le Goël has no time to spare.”
“Oh, I know.” She sent him a flirtatious look of rebellion. “But I also know that Mlle Le Goël is always pleased to be agreeable to me. Now! Nothing terrifies me so much as a Paris reception. I am not used to it…it’s my nightmare! So often the visitors are people I don’t know, and the intellectuals simply frighten me! The wives take on a host of subjects I would not dare. The Salon de l’Épatant, the play at the Vieux Colombier, the latest novel of Bourget or de Farrère, the philosophy of Bergson! I’m lost! How do they find the time to read everything and see everything? The life here is killing!”
Saying this, Mme Conan threw herself into an armchair, and in sorrowful manner went on: “All because some demon has pushed you into politics! The Senate, the newspaper, this, that! What chores, what an excess of bother you attract, my poor dear. Your white hairs have doubled. It would be so good if you could just let yourself live!”
“On the channel coast!” M. Conan completed for her, his tone a comedic ecstasy.
“Mock me! I dream of ending my days there.” Her eyes were on the little mule she balanced at the tip of her foot.
For Josèphe Mortet, the channel coast was the land of Canaan. She was a creole mix of Spanish and Dutch, and the daughter of a marine officer. Her nature had its complexities—she could be indolent and at the same time determinedly active. Early in life, she had lost both parents, her young years spent at Havre in her uncle’s opulent villa. Of this she ardently coveted possession…the uncle was in his seventies. But a certain cousin, clever and insinuating, worried Josèphe.
Élisabeth lived at Honfleur, within reach of the old man, and could counter-maneuver at the crucial moment. It would have needed paying court to Uncle Mortet more often, but the poor health of Olivier forced a different climate. What a trial!
Another anxiety tormented Josèphe: she had an unmarried aunt in Martinique, proprietress of some sugar plantations, who showed an ill-timed infatuation with her manager’s children. On this side, too, attention must be paid. A sight of Olivier would assuredly have conquered… But how could one expose the little boy to the hazards of travel? So many perplexities to trouble the existence of a poor mother! She wanted her son happy—but rich of course, because Olivier, so fragile, could never bear the fatigue of scholarship, or the emotions of competing for place.
These laments were the ordinary foundation of Mme Conan’s discourse. And she complained no less on the subject of her husband, while she clung to him to the detriment of his work and effort. Indiscreetly affectionate, exaggerated in solicitude, her influence tended to dissolve and deflect all resistance.
The penciled brows were drawn into a frown. Annie hastened to reassure her. “Madame, since you think I might truly be a help to you, I’ll be happy to come do my part.”
Mme Conan brightened. “I knew you would! I won’t care any longer about making conversation, having you on hand! Thank you! Thank you!”
She made a sudden bound for the door. “Oh, heavens! The poor dressmaker…I’ve forgotten!”
M. Conan, without looking at his assistant, placed the business correspondence in his briefcase. He murmured, then, in a low voice:
“I return to you your freedom this morning, Mlle Le Goël. It is enough that I abuse your time. You’ve sacrificed hours that are precious to you, I know it!”
“A light sacrifice…”
“In any case, done with a good grace, and charm. I thank you, too.”
“Oh, monsieur! From you to me, those words need never be said!”
Her gratitude to him, her eagerness, shone in her eyes, lighting them a more brilliant blue. Patrice Conan, graver still, lowered his own.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)