Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty-seven)
Dure Lex, Sed Lex
(The law is harsh, but it is the law.)
A new country met the eyes of the traveler. One of salt flats and dunes, naked or planted with pines, villages clustering perched on rocky pedestals, embankments covered in ferns and thornbushes, and the gleaming sea to the west, under the sun.
Someone on the railed enclosure of the little train pointed her to a prominence of green mounds, naming the place Kervenno. Annie smiled at this corner of the countryside, feeling sure of finding friendship here.
Now the road ran between small dwellings with flower gardens of dahlias, hydrangeas, and roses, unassuming towns under fir trees—
Then a little steeple meeting roofs around the curve of the track: Kergrist! Journey’s end! Annie, her light baggage in hand, made ready to step down.
Before the shed that served for a stationhouse, she saw a white headdress, with two other spots of white shaped like stars against a dark ground, moving among the porters. She waved a joyous signal, and the little headdress flew to her.
“Mlle Le Goël, is that you?”
“Yes, Mlle Annik!”
The two, face to face, studied each other, neither concealing a delighted surprise. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re near my age!” Annik lifted shy and radiant eyes.
“Well, I was sure you were young,” Annie replied. “But…” She hesitated, then allowed admiration its lead. “I could not have guessed you were so lovely!”
The girl was tall and slim, her complexion made glowing by sea air, and bearing features Phidias might have given to a goddess, large eyes that sparkled like sun on the waves, loops of hair showing black under the transparent wings of her headdress. Annik of Kergrist had that imperious beauty of perfection which cannot be ignored, yet invites no speculation. A queen of such beauty must win the devotion of her people, and lead them to heroic deeds!
But this marvelous gift, bestowed upon a simple girl, was too great for her modesty. Annie saw the lovely Bretonne take herself aside, embarrassed at the wondering and indiscreet glances of a few strangers.
And to the compliment Annie paid her, she lowered her head, showing a gentle dismay, and answered only: “I am twenty years old, that’s all.” She seized the bag with a hand so vigorous that Annie had to concede the struggle.
“Have you a trunk? Please, I’ll take your ticket. You, Ernest! You’ll carry this on the wheelbarrow…and we’ll take this path.” To Annie she said: “See that house facing us. The window on the lower floor with the embroidered shade, that is yours!”
The voice was warm and pure, in harmony with the lovely eyes. Graced by this chatter, the path between the orchard and washhouse seemed short. They came to a low wall, aquiver with clematis vines and roses. On the doorstone of the little house the parents of Annik Le Goël stood with welcoming faces.
Ah! Good people! To see them was to love them! Their kindness, intelligence, simplicity, and the uprightness that declared itself unapologetically! The father was a retired sailor, with the ribbons of four medals in the buttonhole of his jacket, nestled amidst a wiry beard and thick locks of hair. His magnificent eyes were his daughter’s. The mother was rosy and blonde, and so unaffected, so young in her becoming costume, that she seemed barely an elder sister to Annik.
And how these three prized one another, Annie read in the loving looks and tender smiles they exchanged at the least remark. Deep in her heart came the sting of bitter jealousy. Why, from the beginning of her existence, had she not known this happiness, this sweetness?
Annik, unsuspicious of touching on private sorrow, eagerly drew Annie to the chamber readied in her honor. One look at little room where she would spend three or four weeks, combined with these gracious attentions, cast away all melancholy.
The room was comfortable and clean, and so amusing with its exotic ornaments, shells from the Indian Ocean, Chinese fans, coconuts carved by the patients of Nouméa. Then too, a Lilliputian sailing ship to decorate the chimneypiece, masterwork of Annik’s father, and the quilt, the window shade made like stained glass, both embroidered by the needle of the daughter! Through the window, a portion of sky, the water-carved valley, the hillside dressed in gorse, and the estuary bridge with its ironwork filigree, that united the two banks.
Annie surprised herself by humming a tune as she unpacked her bags with the help of her young hostess—a thing so little familiar to her that she laughed at herself. Then, catching Annik before the mirror:
“I look so hollow and washed out, I might be all of ten years older than you! I’ve had a hard life…but I keep in store a lot of youth I’ve never had the chance to spend. It will revive here, in your company, I’m sure of it!”
Nouméa is the capital of New Caledonia, once a French prison colony. The original text calls the coconut carvers “patients” but I haven’t located in research any explanation for this.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)