Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty-six)
Annie saw Patrice justified in his conjecture. Alban, possibly spied on by Le Filleul, had shown loyalties that gave rise to suspicions. Private grievances could be settled—Patrice had said so—in times of public lawlessness.
A belfry surmounted by a cross, slender between two hexagonal towers, made one more of the historian’s hypotheses allowable. The little Alban, called to serve mass at Kerléon, had profited, perhaps, by auditing lessons given to the young noblemen. From that, a greater ambition, a bolder evolution of character, arousing—why not?—a sympathy condemned to silence, but fiercely and courageously felt…?
All of this she found believable. Along the sunken lane, the light vehicle now jumped from rut to puddle, and Annie clamped hands to her seat, wildly dodging low-hanging oak limbs. The impression of solitude grew. The path lost itself in fields where the cart had to follow a course worn by wagon-wheels. Stands of trees were dark spots here and there. Close at hand stood great chestnuts and walnuts, arching to form a cave of shadow. The horizon widened within this circle until distantly the earth seemed to touch the sky. The cart wended its way among ranks of trees and giant bramble bushes.
“You’d think you had come to the heart of the wilderness…eh, madame?”
But a thatched roof showed its ridge above the thicket. They soon stopped at a clearing before a long building of masoned granite, black beneath the felting of the brown roof.
“Haut-Kerbestous! Francoise!” The driver spoke to a woman, come to the door. “Allow this lady inside. Her grandparents lived here, a hundred and fifty years ago.”
All Bretons understand this devotion to the past. Grave in her dignity, the cottager answered with a welcoming gesture.
Annie crossed the well-used threshold. Entering the lower room, she saw a floor of beaten earth, ceiling beams darkened by smoke. A window narrow as an archer’s keyhole permitted a thin ray of light to fall on a table, the boards disjointed by hard use, the feet rudely crafted. In the shadows to the extreme right were farm implements, bags of onions, sacks of grain. At the other end, around a vast hearth, was the corner used for intimate life, the bed-boxes, dressing table, clothes-cupboard, and stepladder.
Truly, these rustic furnishings were the same as those belonging to Le Goël. From her uncle’s papers, Annie recognized details of objects inventoried following Alban’s death. Her heart lurched, for she could picture the life of poverty in this dimly lit cottage. Poor Uncle Augustin, caressing his parchments, dreaming of mansions and splendor!
Had he visited the farmhouse of Kerbestous, what a lesson in humility!
But also, in determination. Annie sensed a bond form between her soul and that of Alban, who had fought so vigorously against such a destiny. In this too, his reach had exceeded his grasp.
Under the roof where her ancestor had been born, she tried with a passion to evoke him. Almost, she could make him visible, in his white woolen pantaloons, long hair, short velvet-trimmed jacket…reading hearthside by the uncertain light of a resin candle, or sparing the light altogether, writing his accounts near the window.
Annie left that house she would not enter again, with the impressions of a believer after visiting a sanctuary. The cart then followed the river, as it snaked along the bottom of a slope flanked with rushes. Next came the mill of Quélidan, where Le Filleul had lived. On the summit of a hill opposite, a stone cross spread its mossy arms. Everywhere bristled boxwood, gorse, holly, and broom. This was the Lanvaux moor, where erratic boulders mingled with the remains of megalithic groupings.
The moor, the martyrdom, the little river serving the mill, the farmhouse and the castle, the slander, the attack…
A storyline began to sort itself in her novelist’s imagination, a weaving of the known and the probable. For five days Annie stayed at Elven, wandering, never wearying, over the deserted moors her ancestor had roamed.
But all the hotel’s rooms were reserved for a large family of regulars. It was time to think of departing. By telephone, Annie appealed to Kergrist.
The call was returned on schedule, a voice as gentle and grave as the muted sound of an oboe, responding to the “Hello”:
“Yes, Mademoiselle, this is Annik Le Goël speaking. You are calling to say you’re on your way here?”
“Oh, how delightful! Soon, then?”
“In two or three days. I will write you from Auray. I am going by short stages to better enjoy my pleasures!”
“Everything will be ready. And I will meet your train…how should I know you?”
“Look for a blonde, twenty-five…but perhaps I seem older… I will be dressed all in black, carrying a little satchel done in grey sailcloth. And you, how will I know you?”
The voice from Kergrist came back colored with laughter. “Me, I am a little Bretonne brunette. I cover my head, I wear the shawl and apron…”
“Wonderful! I couldn’t love you more! But, so I’ll know you from any other, stick a flower in your fichu, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes! Two big white daisies from our garden, very easy to spot! And so…goodbye for now!”
“For now, and very happily soon to meet!”
Annie, going out of her cabin, met the postman. He rummaged his bag, and handed her a letter, on which she recognized the large, fluid hand of M. Conan.
With a finger she unsealed the envelope. Four lines only, dated from Carnac.
The demon tempter has triumphed. Since yesterday we have been at Kervenno. If you come from Elven to Kergrist, we will be neighbors. Mme Conan, for whom this solitude is a trial, recommends you do not forget.
Two images that show things mentioned in the story: the traditional lit clos of Bretagne, and the farmers’ dress that Annie pictures her ancestor wearing.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)