Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part thirty)
Josèphe, sensing herself suspected, flushed once more, but promptly found a tangent of escape. Very dignified, she said: “Besides, this wedding will be brilliant. I need time, or I’ll never be ready. I have nothing left to wear!”
Her husband gave her a sardonic, seated bow. “And here is the word that suffices! The impeccable excuse! The argument without answer…I have nothing left to wear! But for me, the poor male, long preparations are needless. I can stay here until the seventeenth, and it may be possible for me to get some work done. Go, madame, confer in peace with your dressmaker, have your hat created, and thwart the dark menace of your cousin!”
In consideration, Mme Conan looked at him, seeing him calm and resolute. He was infatuated with this Breton land, she knew. He owed his reputation to those works the history of l’Armor had inspired. Her attack made, she feared to go further; his proposal was a compromise, but one she could bear.
“Then we separate. Disagreeable.” She sighed, and pouted. “It seems you’re truly happy here! Since you pledge to arrive on time and meet everyone at the wedding, my uncle will have to be pleased.”
For some seconds she stood morose over this impasse, then suddenly recalled Annie.
“Why, Mlle Le Goël!” At once, she sounded friendly and lighthearted. “Let me predict your future! M. Conan will present you to M. de Kervenno. He is a widower, a heart for the taking. Take it! When I come back, I will find you chatelaine of Kervenno. At least you may modernize this prehistoric cave!”
The walls’ green tapestries, the brownish-green paint of the beams, the cedar branches blocking daylight on the garden side, all played their roles at coloring the room in murky halftones.
Olivier yawned and closed his picture-book. “Wouldn’t you think we were in a cave?”
“I won’t complain.” Annie let her words be cheerful. “The contrast is a relief. Outside it’s like an oven!”
Mme Conan went to the door. Olivier gamboled at her heels, transported by the pleasure of leaving dull Kervenno for the beautiful mansion of Normandie where he was pampered and adored. The child showed no regret at abandoning his father. M. Conan followed him with troubled eyes. Then, looking at Annie:
“Come, tell me about Elven, and the moors of Lanvaux, and of Kerbestous.”
She understood he wished to forget himself. With a force of detail she recounted her explorations, her attempts to conjure an existence for Alban, and the milieu in which he lived. She told Patrice that everything he’d deduced at first had proven true or possible.
“I impress myself, to have shown such prescience! Now, you must plan your novel while breathing the good air of Kergrist. The library here at Kervenno has a few works of local history I’ll point you to. And speaking of Kergrist, are you settled in? Are you happy?”
“Utterly charmed! I could cry from envy…a family so wise and generous! An adorable young daughter!”
Mme Conan came back with a form in her hand. “Dear mademoiselle, you’re at Kergrist? Is there a post office? On your way to town, would you send this telegram? I’m letting Uncle Mortet know we’re on our way, Olivier and myself. In three days at the latest, we can be at Havre. And I don’t even despair of…”
She tossed a mutinous gesture at her husband, a signal that clearly said: “By then you’ll have given up. You will leave with us.”
Her moodiness was gone. The dash to the city with its flowered terraces, its entertainments; and the outfits to put together, the wedding to be celebrated, these occupied the whole of Josèphe’s capricious thought. But Patrice gave to this hope a slow shake of the head. She went to him, her face clouding, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“And so, my inflexible love, you are the impossible Breton! Above all when your damned work is involved. At heart, you’re content to see us go, admit it! You can bury yourself in dreams and papers.” With a look at Annie, she added: “And Providence has sent you a complaisant ear. You two can speak your fill of monks, Druids, ancient times, Breton arts, all things that put me to sleep.”
“In other words, you cleverly avoid my ramblings by offering another victim in your place.”
Josèphe laughed acknowledgement, and on Annie, who had been about to protest, imposed silence. “Hush! To each his own. What annoys me charms you, dear mademoiselle! You drink it in, everything he has to say. And for that…I swear it sincerely…your being here is my deliverance. M. Conan is so negligent of his health. I count on you to alert the doctor at the least symptom.”
“Oh, madame, I promise!”
“Well! Here I am with a governess,” joked the writer. “I hope to behave.”
Despite the badinage of these last words, Annie took the road home with a heart less light. The differences in this marriage, the clash and its sad effects, had shown themselves again. How many such conflicts must find occasion, for a man of high intellect, fine sensibilities, and a woman infantile, changeable and frivolous…but calculating, pragmatic, hard with her bargains, egotistical, unconscious of her snobbery…
Annie could have no illusion. This trustiness Mme Conan honored her with carried a strong element of disdain. Stormy and jealous…denying it, but rummaging her husband’s pockets, the clutter of his desk, Josèphe considered Annie insignificant, from a woman’s point of view, this modest employee. She remained in Mme Conan’s eyes the unfortunate little girl, from that low and humble place, attached to her benefactors by a deep sense of debt for which anything might be asked in return.
Mme Conan was essentially lazy; she was grateful for this, that Annie spared her the esoteric subjects her husband liked discussing. And he, served by her, would not seek the elegant and refined conversationalists, women infinitely more threatening.
Annie, non-existent as a woman, drew off the fire.
These reflections unspooled themselves quickly, while with lowered eyes, she made her way between the dry-stone walls.
“Well, that is how it all must be!” she concluded, and lifted her head in pride. “I count myself lucky.”
The gentle sea, touched everywhere with sun, appeared to Annie beyond the rolling earth.
No more thinking. She told herself to forget, only admire.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)