Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-two)
Annie went quickly and softly to her desk, wanting to meet no one in the outer rooms, only to plunge into daily work. Yet as she took her seat, the thin partition wall let pass an animated murmur of voices, from a sitting room opposite the study.
Often, she had cursed this awkward propinquity, the parrot-chatter of Mme Conan’s friends incompatible with organized thought. But this discord, she realized quickly, came from a domestic quarrel, a recurring episode in a stormy intimate life.
At the crescendo of anger, each word began to make itself distinct. The woman’s flow pitched high with sour feeling, long exasperated tirades that the baritone, falling more and more subdued and grim-humored, cut into with brief responses.
“No, no, no! I am not a bit at fault! The letter was addressed to you? So what…I have the right to read it!”
“It was marked ‘personal’. Which might be taken to mean, leave it alone!”
“Leave it alone! What can be said to a married man that his wife can’t know about?”
“There is such a thing as professional secrecy.”
“Please! Between spouses? Rules of comportment? Meaningless!”
“Not in every case.”
“Besides, it was no professional secret in this stupid tale. You’re splitting hairs with me! I have the right to know what people write to you!”
“No. Flat out, no. A letter, I will say it again, carries the private business of one person to another. No third party in the confessional!”
Her answer was virulent and explosive. “I am not a third party! I am your wife. That is to say, you! I will never hear an argument against it! I must know everything of yours, just as you know everything of mine. And a fine thing if I hadn’t read it…what did I find, in this famous ‘personal’ letter? That you had loaned money, and hadn’t told me! It’s too much! You hadn’t told me!”
In her indignation, she weighed stress on every syllable.
“It was my own money, Josephe. I took nothing of yours!”
“Nonsense! All, everything, is ours in common. Your money belongs just as much to your wife and child. You don’t have the right to chip away at your son’s inheritance! And yet again, for a Kervenno!”
“Kervenno is a man of heart. He has pledged, himself, to help a friend in distress…”
“Then the friends of your friends are going to be our ruin!” hissed the angry voice. “Truly, you amaze me with your carelessness about money. You permit yourself the largesse of a lord! And what do you get from it? My friend Odette, whose husband is a stockbroker, or Emma, married to that canning factory… Can you even calculate how much they’ve gained? You writers live in a fog. All these lovely ideas can’t put food on the table! It takes money, always. Money and more money. What would have become of you if I hadn’t brought you my dowery, and what would be our future, what would be Olivier’s, without the legacies that will come to me?”
Out of breath, Mme Conan was obliged to stop. But her husband’s voice rose in turn, shaken, bruised, severe.
“You have just offended me to the bottom of my soul. Some words cannot be forgotten. I have never looked on marriage as a means of speculation. I know a way of proving this…we’ll separate, ourselves and our property. We will have no more of these odious battles. Some of your bourgeois ideas may have their merits. For me, they poison my existence.”
“Not another word. I need calm. You are driving me mad.”
“All that, for this wretched letter?”
“And I will not let the subject pass, without saying to you how much your puerile curiosity wears me out and revolts me. It is a servant’s vice to pry at drawers and read letters not addressed to you. Discretion is a matter of honor that few women understand.”
“But, Patrice, why do you keep a secretary, if you despise women so much?”
“Mlle Le Goël has the virtues of an honest man!”
As he spoke, he crossed the room with rapid steps and opened the door to the hallway without allowing himself to be stopped by the cry, hoarse as a fading call for rescue:
“Patrice! Patrice! Listen to me!”
Already he was in his study. Josephe soon quit the sitting room, and farther off in the apartment the bolts on her bedroom door could be heard slamming, as she stormed like a child.
Annie continued to write, not daring to lift her head. She had kept to her place, feeling she did the forbidden and could not do otherwise, saddened and humiliated by the sadness and humiliation of another.
The silence prolonged itself. She turned the page, forcing her eyes from straying. Why did M. Conan stand so perfectly still, a few steps away? He tried to recover, no doubt, after the slanging match, paralyzed by the same ailment he had given to Annie, his pitiful auditor. A bitter taste in the mouth, a weight in the hollow of the chest, that hampered breathing…
But if she could master herself enough to feign her work, she could not stop her hand shaking, or align characters that her brimming eyes could not distinguish. Two tears, which desperately she tried to hold back, fell on the paper.
Her wrist had been seized impetuously. “Annie, I see you. You’re trembling…why? You heard what was said in the bedroom just now?”
She could not deny it. She stood, lost. An arm circled her shoulder.
“It’s my fault, then, that you’re crying. Oh, Annie! Too dear Annie!”
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)