Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty-nine)
As Annie crossed, Olivier’s inquisitive face appeared. “Look! It’s Mlle Annie! Someone has come to pass the time with us. Nice! Bonjour, mademoiselle!”
Melanie, their maid from Paris, hurried to usher Annie into the room where M. and Mme Conan were discovered. Madame was on her feet near the table, her husband seated. She turned briskly to his young secretary.
“You join us! You have the courage to plunge into this wilderness! That is true devotion!”
“Oh, such devotion is no trouble to me!” Annie gave her answer a playful air, and bent to embrace Olivier. “I found the walk charming. I love the smell of a forest, so delicious and mysterious. I’d thought I’d arrive at Sleeping Beauty’s castle!”
“The hut of an ogress!” cried the little boy, comically feigning terror. “Have you seen her, huh? At the threshold of her lair!”
“Yes, dear Annie, this castle is guarded by a female dragon! A maidservant becomes boss-of-everything!” Mme Conan laughed.
But Patrice spoke in seriousness. “No rash judgments, now…be fair! Marie-Jeanne is the foster sister of Kervenno. She governed the house even when his wife was living. She is a fixture; she would die for her master…and for this country. And the criticisms and the mockeries she is bound to hear, about the people and things she loves, naturally are unpleasing to her. You dispose her to bad temper!”
“Then she ought not to listen. Simple as that!”
Annie told herself one’s ears must be well-stuffed to be deaf to such outbursts as had escaped the windows when she’d stepped into the courtyard.
Mme Conan returned to her topic: “I’ll have you know I’ve made a huge sacrifice, coming here for weeks. I detest Bretagne. The countryside is just as depressing as the sea.”
“Of course! Your taste is for a sea tidied by spacious quays, brightly lit hotels on brightly lit streets, benches to rest on, and tea rooms close at hand. The harbor at Nice!”
“I don’t deny it! I’m not a poet or an artist. Every time you take me to Bretagne, I am sunk in boredom. That’s the truth, and I’ll say the same for Rennes! Once we had Uncle Olivier, a few connections. I understand you have to, at times, go to guard your interests and see the voters. Only…to come here afterwards! For the work that tires you, that takes up all your hours…I hate it! It pulls you away from us…ah! It’s all too much for me! Besides, Olivier will perish here!”
M. Conan, resigned to such storms, sat back in his armchair and played mechanically with an ivory-handled paper knife. Annie gave her attention to the oriental rug’s arabesques.
“It’s not at all likely Olivier will die here.” Patrice seemed forcing himself to a conciliatory tone. “The stands of fir, the purified air, can only be good for him. He makes himself bored. Two kilometers off, he can find any number of distractions: the beach, tennis, friends his own age.”
“All too far away, and the route is tedious. And physical exercises are of no use to him!”
“He seems sturdy at present.”
“I know better than you how healthy he is. The isolation of this house will drain the life from Olivier!”
“You have a horse and carriage at your disposal, if you’d like to go out.”
“But how ridiculous! Not to have a motorcar…however, M. de Kervenno finds it good to take his chauffeur with him on his yacht.”
“And to leave us his housekeeper.”
M. Conan added, with no attempt to joke: “Kervenno has been the kindest of friends to us. He wants to oblige me, and has surrendered his house so thoroughly and so courteously, that it would be disgraceful, uncivil, for us to leave without a valid reason.”
“But here is a valid reason!” Mme Josèphe seized a large envelope and brandished it in triumph. “I have an invitation to the wedding of Rosette Parisot. You speak of the rights of friendship…her mother and I were inseparable at school! All my friends from those days, all my relatives, will be there. How, in decency, could I refuse? Élisabeth is already at the coast with her children.”
“So here we’ve come to it. The coast. Cousin Élisabeth. Uncle Mortet.” M. Conan’s teasing had an edge of bitterness.
“And here we come to it, yes!” Red patches flushed her cheeks, but Josèphe rallied. “Logical and reasonable, nothing could be more so! I have my interests to defend; they are my son’s.”
Patrice smiled wearily. “The wedding takes place on the twenty-second of August, you tell me. Kervenno will be back on the fifteenth, for the regatta. The festivities should be entertainment for Olivier. And I have an appointment with the archeologists coming to work at Carnac…”
Mme Conan stamped a foot. “Spare me the archeologists, the festivities, those pebbles of Carnac! Eighteen days more in this nest for rats and owls! No, no, a hundred times no! I am sick of it! One cannot invite people to a hovel, a hermit’s cell!”
“I don’t share your difficulty. Any man at his studies, true, would feel well-accommodated in a calm retreat, such as this Kervenno has made.”
“Ah! M. de Kervenno,” Josèphe mocked. “Shall we speak of his studies, and his tastes, and his ‘calm retreat’…?”
M. Conan regarded his wife face-to-face, so seriously that she interrupted herself. He knew the busy curiosity of Josèphe, and regretted his carefree friend had left keys in so many drawers.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)