Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part eighteen)
The first visitors were the personal friends of Mme Conan, belonging to the world of finance and high-stakes business dealings, and dressed by the best fashion houses…in that sober and costly elegance which always speaks of Taste, while through their jewels they expressed their fortunes.
Their talk was fed by matters concrete: servants, the maladies of children, what the dentist charged, how much for a hat…
Or sensations—a gang that raged in Montmartre, the latest trial.
In comparison to this prosaic life, the contentions at Bertrand’s, where each boarder defended her ideas and dissected those of her neighbor, took on the weight of Platonic dialogues. Happily, the tone lifted when there arrived…one by one for the most part, a few accompanied by their spouses…the wives of professors, writers, artists, and politicians. Mme Conan gave up guiding the several conversations.
Annie began to interest herself. Aesthetics, literature, world politics, scientific discoveries, all flew about the room and mingled. Yet among quips and epigrams, what apt perceptions, what profound sensibilities, what wise advice, penetrating this gentle sparring! Gossip slipped its way in here and there, sharply observed, mordant. It is always tempting to be witty at the expense of another.
One visitor showed herself particularly expert at this game. Tall, with a swaying walk and coquettish air, a face pretty in repose but subject to odd and sudden changes, as if the mask of tragedy succeeded that of amusement, she entered all clusters of talk, with a dominating voice by turns mocking and insinuating.
Struck by these contrasts, and not having caught the name of this sparkling conversationalist, Annie dubbed her Mme Bittersweet. The woman was capturing the room’s attention with the recounting of a marriage, still kept secret, and arranged on the sly between a man of the world and the daughter of a locksmith—in short, a frightful misalliance! Mme Conan and her friends feigned cries of horror, and chided the males for their weakness.
An old man, with the finely etched profile of a 16th century prelate, worthy the pastels of Perronneau, protested with quiet irony:
“Pardon an old purist who must quibble over the duly appropriate epithet. First remove this adjective frightful, and even the noun misalliance!”
“M. Laffenel!” Mme Bittersweet’s exclamation came ill-tempered. “You are a man! Thus suspect! What is your opinion worth? I know the unfortunate lover gone astray…he is M. Du Breuil, who I’m sorry to say is connected to my own family!”
“And I,” answered Laffenel, still placid, “have the advantage of knowing Mlle Laure Marçais, who has become Mme Du Breuil. Her father’s workshop sits opposite the building where I have lived for twenty-two years. I watched the girl grow up. I assure you that she was born a princess. And I served as witness to her marriage.”
Five seconds of silence followed this reproach of the listening women. A few men smiled. But Mme Bittersweet was quick to rally.
“Ah!” She caressed her muff, a worn bit of otter fur, and made a melancholy noise. “We shall not know ourselves vanquished…these men support each other in their worst follies. The male ego seeks gratification, at the risk of wrecking everything, and without a scruple will trample underfoot the most sacred engagements. The story of that poor mooncalf Boucastel is a heartbreaking proof!”
At once a chorus of pitying voices rose, not one of which, this time, could be made out to defend the accused. A famous doctor had abandoned his wife, mother of his three children, for his daughters’ governess. The sad event had just reached the gossip mills. The first stages of divorce were underway.
“La Vie Privée de Michel Teissier,” sighed M. Laffenel. “Yes, I am in agreement. Man is weak. And woman is…perverse.”
“Women may be at times perverse. Yes. But men are as weak as they are brutal,” Mme Bittersweet austerely corrected. “And this edifying example is repeated every day, and everywhere! Moral: it is always dangerous to insert a third party, a woman younger than yourself, into your household.”
At this moment her frosty gaze rested on Annie, close by offering some confections. Mme Bittersweet leaned towards Mme Conan, her voice caressing:
“Dear madame, you have not presented this charming little blonde. One of your relatives, perhaps?”
Joséphe, polite but absentminded, said: “No! Mlle Le Goël is only my husband’s secretary.”
Annie heard distinctly both question and answer. The tray shook in her hands when Mme Bittersweet faced her suddenly with a bright, hard eye. To her mind came possibilities never considered. Most of these women would stiffen against one of her dependent state, her humiliating origins. Annie thought first in such broad terms, of her honored place as protégé…which was only the generosity of Patrice Conan…
Occupied with these musings, she passed from armchair to armchair, coming near that of M. Laffenel, who stretched fingers avidly towards the candied fruits.
“Here, here!” he said, without reproach. “You’re tardy to offer me these goodies, Mlle Le Goël! You are not aware that I’m as fond of them as the late Monselet! A gourmand with a fine wit and a cheerful pen! Read him, young woman, when you have the occasion…you will not waste your time!”
References in this section;
Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, an 18th century portrait artist.
La Vie Privée de Michel Teissier, Edouard Rod, begun 1893, a three-part novel with divorce as a plot point.
Charles Monselet, a writer of comedies and romances, and as Alanic has Laffenel mention, a famous gourmand.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)