Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty)
“I’m trying to breathe life into him. My paleographer teaches me agricultural practices of the 18th century. You see where that leads me!”
“But your task above all is to make the action alive, and gripping. Your building-blocks are sound.”
The two of them seemed both, despite an unconvincing playfulness, to cling to any topic of conversation. Their talk no longer had the freedom, nor the ranging associations that had risen spontaneously during their walks on the moors or along the beach.
Something incommunicable persisted under the rhythm of light wit.
“Despite your headache,” Patrice said, “you’re looking well. Your holiday in Bretagne has done you good.”
She wished she could with sincerity return this compliment. For Annie saw saddening signs of weariness in her benefactor, a deeper creasing at the hollows of the temple, the hair he pushed from his forehead showing far more silver.
“And so we are returned to our winter quarters. Each to the grinding again, of our own millstone. You recall, Annie, that song of the boys and girls on regatta night, that melancholy refrain, that said so much more than the lyric? I love to turn the stone when all is well… Has mine become especially heavy, or is my strength failing? I don’t know…but… You are a shining one, aren’t you? Here, by good fortune, to bring light to my life.”
He broke off, as though astonished at what he’d said.
Before Annie could respond, the door flung open, and Mme Conan, steering Olivier ahead of her, entered, triumphant and breathless.
“Nothing! No harm whatsoever. That Burquet, I could kiss him! Mademoiselle Le Goël, hello! How are you? You understand what a worry, and what a relief, hmm? My dreams have been of diphtheria! My husband has a good laugh at my fears, and Burquet does the same. But men are men, and mothers…”
“Oh, joke about it, what else? Annie, we missed you as soon as we got to Rennes. My husband claimed it was unfair to send for you. But chance has worked itself out very satisfactorily. If you’ll come back in the afternoon, I’ll show you my gowns for the wedding. We will have them unpacked after lunch! They’re both marvels!”
The lamp was burning down; the charcoal fire had died on the grate. January’s chill insinuated itself into the chamber. One hour, her little desk clock announced.
In discouragement, Annie considered her latest pages, with so many words lined through. What, between these black fences, was left? Barely fifty lines! All she had produced in a night’s long work. She pushed back her chair, and stretched her cramped limbs.
“I’d have done better going to bed, than to push myself for so little. But if I had, would I have slept?”
She sat on the mattress to undo her hair. And the dreary soliloquy went on, mixing with the hectoring tick of the clock.
“I no longer know how to work or to rest. I search for sleep at night, but it’s no use…my brain just cycles through ideas with no consistency or form, and can’t settle on anything. I wake in the morning, and my eyes will barely open, my arms feel nerveless. All effort costs me. Ah! She is happier than she knows, the worker who sings while she cuts and stitches… And yet not long ago, I got such pleasure from dreaming my stories and setting them down. Everything sparked my imagination. Now writing weighs on me, and nothing leaves an impression… I sit in a fog. Why?”
The answer came, a peremptory voice from the tumult inside, which at times seemed to dominate her life. “Remember what was said of Corinne…love, when it seizes the soul, will not allow the independence necessary to create art.”
She burrowed her face in her pillow, to stop the implacable voice, but it went on:
“Your neck is in the yoke. You denied love and it has triumphed. Only one hour of the day counts for you—the one you spend behind a certain door. You live in anguish between this day’s goodbye and seeing him again tomorrow. And so…?
“And so, if you subject yourself to this, you’ll be lost. You know it. But you push away the truth. You are afraid. While with each day the enchantment grows stronger.”
“What to do?” Annie murmured, fighting with herself, as though the voice were truly not hers.
The order fell, sharp as a cleaver: “You escape!”
She resisted, moaning: “Everything I am, I owe to him. To resign my post will raise eyebrows, attract curiosity, play into that malicious, gossiping game. And the things I do for him, my devotion, he’ll miss that… It will look like I’m ungrateful!”
“Sophistries! They amount to nothing! You flee from danger or perish!”
“No, I’m not weak-willed. I’m loyal.”
“Others, just as determined, just as loyal, came to founder under the same lie. Beware!”
The words hammered, maddeningly, in a prolonged echo. Oh! Find the blackness and the void inside! Impose silence on this threatening voice!
A packet of sleeping powder, luckily, could give a respite, and thanks to this protector, Annie slipped into the abyss of forced slumber.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)