Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty)
“We admit it!” answered Mme Fougerays coldly. “Marriage is a lottery, that is understood. All games of hazard have their traps.”
She spoke with a boldness near cynicism, unafraid of her known history making the cause of her misanthropy readable; seeming to wish, in a morbid way, to flay the wound, to revive…with pleasure…her sufferings.
Mme Maynard, to flatter their elegant guest’s obsession, threw herself at once into agreement. “Ah, but you’re right! We women have so much to complain of. Nothing is a warrant against treason…not giving, not faithfulness, not charm!”
And as statistical proof of this principle, she commented on the Boucastel episode, which Annie had heard the evening past at Mme Conan’s salon—a story now public property, having reached the gossip column of a morning daily.
“Someone familiar with the…upset,” added the old woman, “told me that, very cunningly, heart and head utterly cold, this girl’s actions were all calculation, her end always to get her share of Boucastel’s fortune. Those are the morals of today! These young women are not content to chase husbands among the untaken!”
“Is it possible!” said Winifred. “I was young, but no more ruthless than any other…”
“Say prettier and more pleasant than most,” corrected Mme Bertrand.
“Well! A married man could not have existed for me. That was taboo! Marriage is a sacrament, but also a pledge of loyalty. And as the saying goes, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods!”
“I would expect nothing less of your heart and spirit. Good, sensible Winifred!” said Mme Fougerays. And carrying to her conclusion, daring in objectivity, unconcerned that the topic risked allusion to the personal, Christiane continued:
“It is evident divorce, while liberating for some, rightly incurs the anathema of the Church and the criticism of sociologists. Marriage is not an impregnable citadel. Any schemer may consider the position, these days, open to the marketplace, and see benefit to herself in expelling the reigning queen.”
“Hearts can be taught to excuse and explain many things!” M. Liégeois put in, with a musing air.
“Men have no say in the matter,” pronounced Mme Fougerays. “But I am curious to know the opinion of the modern young woman. I am forty years old. There is a yawning gap between my contemporaries and the present generation! What do you think of our talk, mademoiselle Serloff?”
“Love is love.” The young woman, eyes lowered, answered in her pretty alto voice. “And Ibsen teaches us to be ourselves, with courage, and to live our lives!”
“Even to the destruction of others,” finished Mme Fougerays. “Our turn! Mademoiselle Annie Le Goël, so unhappily mute this evening, have you a French view of our controversy?”
Annie flinched at the summons. The discussion stirred the most painful memories. The bad woman at the sunny door, her father’s leaving…all the sorrows brought on…
“You seem so far away,” Christiane teased. “The literary demon has you by the ear?”
“No, I haven’t lost a word of the debate.”
“Then, your thoughts?”
“I agree with Winifred. Marriage is inviolable, not only as a sacrament, but as a contract, signed and sworn to. A breach is a forfeiture, by definition. I would not steal another woman’s husband any more than her purse! Character counts!”
“Bravo!” cried Mme Fougerays. “There is conviction! A categorical answer, a girl who has pride…that pleases me!”
She made a discreet sign to Winifred and rose, without finishing the peeled orange on her plate. Miss Landley followed with a docile smile, and bending to Annie, whispered in her ear: “Come to my room for tea. You’ve made me so happy! Only, my dear, do bring a chair.”
Annie could not have saddened sweet Winifred by refusing. After a few minutes, outfitted with the requested seat, she joined the two friends.
Mme Fougerays gave a cry of joy. “How kind of you to give us a little of your time! I know you work so much!”
Probing for the keys to souls, taking inventory of their contents, had been a thrilling game to the world-weary Christiane. So far, all she had made “come out” of Annie, surprised and enchanted her like the never-seen.
While Winifred gathered tea things and heated the pot with a spirit lamp, then busied herself arranging napery, encumbering her table with cups and sugars, Christiane continued to interview Annie, who intrigued her as a living mystery.
“This evening you have completely won me over, Mlle Le Goël! Each time I hear you, I can barely believe you have ‘educated’ yourself, nearly alone! By what miracle have you acquired all that makes you what you are?”
“Oh, I’m not so much. And not by a miracle, but by making use of the least second, getting up at five to study and going to bed at eleven. I was not allowed to burn a light in the house any later.”
“But it’s the regimen of a Carmelite! Naturally, you haven’t travelled?”
“Once, on a short leave…a three-day adventure…I went to Saint-Malo to see the Mont-Saint-Michel.”
“But in your profession new views are necessary, to enrich the imagination, to inform one’s judgment. If you should have the leisure and the wish, remember that I’d like you as a travelling companion. We will go anywhere you please. I’ve seen almost every sight on planet Earth!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)