Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty-three)
“Morbihan! The Le Goël family came from there, a hundred and twenty years ago. My poor Uncle Augustin had so wished to visit the home of his ancestors! It pleased him to think we were fallen royalty…but it won’t stand, sad to say. All our family are set down as ‘laborers’ in the old papers I’ve tried to decipher, these evenings I’ve been at loose ends. But we have a paleographer at Bertrand’s, who helps me.”
Patrice stopped her abruptly. “A paleographer! Old papers! Mlle Le Goël, you betray me, you keep secrets from me! It is I to whom you must entrust your parchments!”
At first taken aback by the outburst, she laughed. “I was afraid to presume! They are mediocre things, farm leases, property divisions, inventories of basic furniture…all of them witness to poverty.”
“Ah, but the richest farmers of Morbihan lived very simply. Put your vanity aside and bring me these papers tomorrow. The odor and dust of old parchments…a superlative pleasure! And you would rob me, to the benefit of any paleographer!”
“Not any! His beard is so thick and rough, and distinguishes him so well, Winifred and I have named him M. Hedgehog! But he’s the best man in the world! Even before my good savant came to my aid, I had unrolled the bundles… Among my obscure ancestors there is one of interest, who stands out from the crowd, a great uncle Alban. He has left notebooks of his accounts, dated 1782 to ’94, written in a cursive so correct my expert is astonished…not many peasants of that era could even sign their names! More interesting, this uncle died in a tragic way, drowned in the river Ars. That was in the third year of the Republic, as stated in the process notes of a clerk.”
“You make me twice as eager to leaf through your archives! In fact, why not satisfy my curiosity at once? We aren’t far from your door…I may save you the trouble of carrying and recarrying your materials. It’s six-thirty…we won’t have dinner at home until some incredible hour, Mme Conan has taken Olivier to a garden party near Versailles… Are you able to give me a few minutes?”
“Oh, monsieur, I’d be honored! I only apologize for my room. It’s not much…a cubbyhole…”
“The cell of a Benedictine? No, I should apologize for imposing myself.”
A few minutes later the senator was climbing the frayed carpet of her little staircase. Mme Maynard, encountered in the hallway, nearly fainted with wonder at recognizing the famous writer, that face familiar from the illustrated papers.
“You’ll be certain when you leave to pass through an honor guard!” Annie in mischief said aside to her employer, as they pushed open the door of her chamber.
With a quick glance she inspected the state of things. All looked correct; the cot was tidied under its pink and white coverlet, the Chinese screen masked her washstand. Only her worktable sat disarrayed. She ushered in her distinguished visitor.
“Ah! I think I’ve rediscovered my student quarters!” He spoke with cheer, hooked his hat jauntily on a corner of the guardian screen, and took possession of the armchair Annie nudged out for him.
She opened the famous iron box, so important in the eyes of Uncle Augustin, and unrolled the yellowed parchments and pressed papers, stamped by Breton notaries or bearing official seals: the fleurs de lis of France, the Armorican ermines, the figures of Liberté. Military booklets of the Empire, receipts, leases, assessments, relics of existences humble or tormented, were spread on the table.
“From all I gather of these, from the premature deaths of fathers, the onerous divisions of legacies, the endless tangles over the rights of minors, I can only conclude the Le Goël family were destined for poverty and unluckiness. Not very encouraging for their descendant!”
Annie spoke with a certain ruefulness, while her employer, fingers quivering with a hobbyist’s lust, caressed these poor vestiges of the past, many eaten away at the edges by rats.
“No one is doomed to misfortune, at least in my opinion. But I think as you do that your Alban is of particular interest.” Patrice now shuffled through the little notebooks. “These attest to the purchase of forest lands, felling and transport costs—in short, they detail a commerce in timber considerable enough, no easy achievement in those days. With the roads as they were, and the farm at a distance… Because this Kerbestous in Elven, near Plaudren, according to the entries, must have been situated at the edge of the Lanvaux moors, barely settled at that time. The writing is correct, the orthography passable, and the calculations accurate. Many of our rural scholars could do no better today. How did Alban, in his pocket of isolation, acquire it, this comparative education? Without a doubt, at some neighboring castle. The little Le Goël, fatherless, was likely managed by a guardian…or rather, the local priest, whom he might have served as altar boy.”
“It doesn’t seem that Alban was ever married,” said Annie, musing. “That violent death, told in such indifferent legal language, chills my heart! Did he end his days despondent, after living so energetically?”
“But perhaps he was victim of a personal revenge, a thing readily satisfied during civil war. See, this summons gives witness to a quarrel between himself and his brother-in-law Le Filleul, who betrayed him. And there, mademoiselle, if you’re looking for the plot of a novel—there you have it!”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)