Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-three)
A shifting of feet was heard, near the door. With a fear she could not name, Annie broke from the embrace. Mme Conan entered, bowed and tamed, and in a voice of supplication that caught in her throat, said:
“I beg pardon of you both, for disturbing your work. Good morning, Mlle Le Goël. How do you do?”
Not waiting for the stammered response, she asked of her husband, cautious, and with an air of submission: “Before you begin your dictation, Patrice, I need you to tell me something. I have my errands for the day, and I’ll be going to the tailor for your new evening cape. Have you decided which fur you like for the collar?”
Not looking at her, in an offhand way he answered, “It’s all one to me.”
“But tell me, Persian lamb? Otter? I would love to know what you prefer.”
She pushed on, soliciting his forgiveness, making him see that she was not highhanded, her passions were not despotic, but easily dispelled by fresh affection. He knew how it was with her; these violent moods passed…they always did.
The devices of the spoiled child exceeded the defenses of the husband. But this time Mme Conan seemed to realize she had gone too far, and that the way to reconciliation would be thorny. He was offended; he was silent with her. A withdrawal was the prudent answer.
Piteous of manner, she said, “Then you rely on my taste? I will try…I will do my best.” She let him see, in a stifled sigh, her resignation, and made motions to take herself off. But seeking to look amiable, she stopped near Annie, who sat leafing through documents in a file-box.
“You’re coming down with a cold this morning, mademoiselle. You work too hard…take care! Your story in the Gazette Féminine was very good. I read it yesterday evening, and enjoyed it so much!”
At last, she crossed the threshold. As soon as Mme Conan had disappeared, Annie walked to the door, placed her hand on the knob, and waited with a face of such meaning that Patrice shook himself. In two steps he was near her, gripping her arm, and asking in a low voice:
“What will you do?”
“Take my hat and coat, and go out, as soon as the passage is clear.”
Both stricken, they looked deep into each other’s eyes, Annie shivering from head to toe. His fingers, through the cloth of her sleeve, froze her skin, and the force that detached her from the place she clung, returning her to the room’s center, was irresistible.
“Listen to me, listen,” Patrice said, hollow-voiced and breathless. “Since you know now, let me explain… Very badly, very insufficiently. But I’ve held it inside, all these weeks, what…what I couldn’t, just now. Don’t despise me. Pity me…understand. You are different from all the women I’ve known. I would notice…often, I would notice certain affinities between us, of thought, of judgment…of taste, and I valued you as a companion, to work with, found your conversation charming… Refreshing to me. But it was there, in the moors, that I recognized… A rarity, a delight, the perfect concordance of two sensibilities. I can’t stop seeing you in that costume…not a girl after all, but a woman… Since that time, the thought of you has never left me.”
These words fell, half-coherent, flung at her in starts, blinding as a squall of hailstones. He must silence himself, she repeated inside, with desperate conviction. Everything rising from the abyss of her own silence grew and strengthened, taking the shape of an invader she could not chase away. Behind disorder and terror, she knew herself to clutch at his confessions, to drink them in avidly, to intoxication. Her mind had clarity enough only to know her danger, and that she must do what necessity enforced—
Break the spell, now.
Haggard and pale, she said: “I beg you, no more. You are tearing my heart.”
She saw him seized with shame and regret. “Forgive me. I’m making you ill…sit down!”
He must fear he would see her faint. He was guiding her to the armchair, but Annie refused. “Let me go!”
Patrice dropped his hand from her arm.
Speaking in a low whisper, she turned from him. “I don’t want to…I must not, hear any more. You know it as well as I do.”
He too had gone white. He bit his lip, in a moment’s thought. His poor face roiled her, the defeat there, and the spasms of feeling suppressed…
But he could not keep back this bitterness. “I ought to have held my tongue. Cyrano does not reveal himself until the fifth… Until the act of his death.”
He brushed the hand that hung beside her skirt. She stood in shock at his irony; while, pleadingly, he said:
“Annie… Go, since that’s what you want. If I’ve harmed you, forget what I’ve said. I’d lost control. But know I need you in my life. Forget…forget… Let’s become again to each other what we’ve been until now…”
She had no chance to answer. The maid arrived to say that a Breton senator wished a few minutes’ speech with Monsieur. Annie, taking advantage, left the room.
She felt driven by an instinct to flee, her mind blank. At the foyer, she made for the door to the street. And then, she retraced her steps, having left her hat and coat hanging on their pegs.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)