Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part thirty-five)
A sudden inspiration caught the fancy of Annik. “Oh! Would you like to…it will be so fun! We should dress you, too, as we do in Morbihan! Mother! Come quickly and give us your advice!”
What to choose? The apron of bright purple surah, covered in Chantilly lace, or the one in moiré, in the blue of France? The creamy blond shawl or the crepe de chine, in black with scalloped edges?
These treasures were passed from hand to hand, discussed, tried on, rejected, and tried again. Annie was learning that a Bretonne ensemble is an undertaking of no small importance. How many pins must be pricked into unseen places, cords knotted to subdue the transparent georgette…then pleats fixed into the shawl, framing the heart according to custom, in the middle of the back, and gracefully to cross the chest. Then with how many precautions must the rectangle of muslin, bordered in the lace of Valenciennes, be positioned to its most flattering, to quiver from its bandeau!
The Le Goël women made a great work of it, with a wonderful ardor, and Annie, docile, allowed herself to be handled like a doll. Only at the last, when they permitted it, could she see step out to the mirror, and consider in wonder this unknown figure.
“Is that me?”
Someone other than herself, certainly, this girl made younger by the pink halftone of the headdress, less thin by the long skirt’s ample folds, that lay flattened across her stomach by a wide band of velvet; her waist defined by contrast, while the cutaway sleeves, and their embroidered linings, fleshed out the arms inside. Never before had Annie seen herself so pretty, and she stood dumbfounded before her image.
“That is you, absolutely!” cried Annik, exultant. “Oh! Come out with us! No one will know you! You’ll tell everyone you’re my cousin from Rochefort-en-Terre, who has never visited! Don’t you think, Papa? They will all be fooled!”
Annie fell in, laughing, with this innocent mischief. Thus the Le Goël family, augmented by one, went to the quay, M. Le Goël, magnificent himself in his navy blue ensemble and medals, keeping guard over them.
And: “My niece from Rochefort,” he presented Annie, very serious, delighted with the hoax.
“But she must come more often to Kergrist, for she is, my faith, good to look at!” jovially answered an old comrade of the Chief Petty Officer.
Annie dared be persuaded that she truly was “good to look at”, feeling the gazes of men linger on her, nearly as much as on her beautiful companion. Her youth, surrendered to life’s struggle, had flourished again in the warm sun, and the quietness and affection of her shelter. Her meagre cheeks with their pallor had grown rounder, their transparent covering of golden down lending them the freshness of a peach.
She had scorned itemizing herself, to please the eyes of others. Annie had barely known her own looks, nor taken account of this slow metamorphoses that, a few moments ago, she had seen in the mirror.
“It’s to the Breton costume I owe my little success,” she thought. “I look like my father. I have been reproached for that often enough. The headdress brings it out.”
But Annie tried to put her soul in harmony with her exterior. She wanted to imagine it, herself a country girl, like these with their bodices flanked in velvet, their aprons silky as petals, who smiled and giggled and took each other by the arm, giddy in the midst of a festival.
Just what she might be now, if her family had not left their granite farm.
She would work in the house or the fields, wear clogs on her feet all week, and on Sundays dress herself with naïve coquetry, before a little mirror won at the fairground, dreaming of indulgences past and future.
Would happiness have come more easily in these conditions? What was she looking for? What did she want?
To become better at her work; her work to be all sufficient…
What else? With disdain, defiance, Annie had rejected love, having no hope or ambition for it. But if hers had been a normal life? What was the unconscious desire of these twittering girls, laughing and turning red at the sailor with his blue collar, or the farmhand in his velvet jacket, approaching them aloof or bold, but foolishly afraid inside? Love, love, true and wholesome, love that will lead to marriage.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)