Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part nineteen)
Art critic, contributor to Foyer, reader for the Voix de Paris, M. Laffenel had often met the secretary of M. Conan, and showed to her an amiable sympathy. Annie, taken into his confidence, smiled at the excellent fellow, highly esteemed by her patron.
“Well met!” he said. “You begin to look cheerful! And what were you thinking of just now, with that fearsome frown?”
“Of the inequality of conditions.”
“Oh, ho! They carry one far, such meditations!”
“Mine will not lead me to revolt, or envy, only irony. I was imagining how off-putting to these wellborn women, so at ease on their social perches, to be surprised by the revelation that someone of inoffensive appearance…brushing past their skirts, handing around sweets…had come from…”
“A house of correction?”
“No. Only a modest house where she often did the washing and lent a hand at the big chores, such as wiping down the windows of her uncle’s little shop, and sweeping the front walk!” Annie spoke with a touch of bravado.
“There’s nothing to blush at in that! My father was a tinsmith. Console yourself, child. Jesus was born in a stable, and was a carpenter until the age of thirty, and chose his disciples among tradesmen. He even chose a tax collector! What a setback for these ladies, eh?…if the whole troop of apostles in their earthy appearance came asking hospitality!”
“They would barricade the doors!” A burst of laughter escaped.
Patrice Conan entered the salon. A few compliments to the right and left, and he arrived at M. Laffenel, who detained Annie for the seizing of a candied nut.
“We seem very gay in this corner!” The senator squeezed the hand of his old friend.
“We are speaking of transcendental philosophy,” M. Laffenel answered, good-humored.
“I hadn’t supposed philosophy such fun.”
“As it happens, we were soaring to the heights, nonstop from the Social Contract to the Gospel.”
“Audacious and a little profane, as combinations go. And what conclusion have you drawn, please?”
“Excuse me, the tray is empty, thanks to M. Laffenel’s sampling!”
Annie, so saying, left them. She had just intercepted a piercing look launched at the three by Mme Bittersweet. Born of the late conversation, a fear oppressed her. Her safe harbor no longer felt assured. What venomous suppositions might one day poison the mind of Mme Conan…the careless remark, the friendly solicitude…?
Or the jealousy, the pleasure some took simply in doing harm.
The dinner was underway when Annie took her place at the table. All latecomers at Bertrand’s gave annoyance, the oblong room being a tight squeeze, and discomfited inmates unavoidable. An embarrassment…but Annie consoled herself that Winifred was guilty of the same dereliction. Miss Landley soon appeared, having a small air about her, of victory…even of preening.
“You will forgive me. My dear guest was a bit late.”
Behind her was Mme Christiane Fougerays. Petite, with a receding chin, and bony features elevated by magnificent topaz eyes, crowned by such a thicket of brown hair that it must tumble to her knees unrolled, she dressed with a voluntary simplicity that hid a veteran’s savvy. She carried her head high, showed a frankness of expression and a modest manner.
Her venturing to share their boardinghouse fare produced a sensational effect.
No doubt Christiane had taken the precaution of dining beforehand, for she merely touched her lips to their stews and economical palate-cleansers, furtively wiping glasses and plates. Jaded with luxury and fond of new impressions, Christiane seemed to amuse herself in this milieu so different from her own, and with a calculated grace she conquered them.
She reached her seat, reserved near Winifred’s, giving to each and all a cheery word and a friendly sign. Mme Bertrand, and the duenna of the house, Mme Maynard, made the evening a celebration for this brilliant bird of passage.
“We’ve languished in your absence! And what part of America have you been touring, this time?”
“Very stupidly, New York.”
Mme Fougerays spoke with negligence, accustomed to follow fancy North or East, having no obstacles to her latest insomnia-driven whim.
Mme Maynard gasped in admiration. “You talk like it were the least thing in the world! And to go and return in three weeks, as though it were no distance! You are an indefatigable globetrotter!”
“Not indefatigable, sadly. And this time, on reflection, I would have turned around mid-crossing, if that were possible. I went for the remarriage of a friend…I asked myself at sea if it was not stupid, disrupting my life for this absurdity, this bore and annoyance.”
“Your friend, you think, will find herself disappointed?” asked Mme Bertrand.
“Marriage and remarriage are fated to end in disappointment…for the woman.”
“Or for the man,” M. Liégeois slipped in, alone among the boarders in standing against this disdain for the strong sex.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)