Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-four)
Leaving the house, Annie sped off without choosing her direction, carried only by a wish to be far away, and to calm by exercise the torment distracting her. She caught herself in the glass of a store, her scarf bunched at her chin, her face like marble, locks of hair straying outside her toque. A glacial breeze swept the boulevard. Then before her were tramlines and buses, crisscrossing a broad space, telling her she approached the place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Unthinking, mechanically, she had followed the way home.
But the idea of climbing to her room, of subjecting this rawness, this delirium, to people she barely knew, whose scrutiny could crush her soul, overwhelmed her with discouragement. She needed a space of repose before she saw another person, to gather her strength and reason.
The church of Saint-Germain, a little ahead, raised its dark tower. Where do women take refuge, not to sob in the street…?
She crossed the square and entered. She fell to a chair in the nave, drew in her arms, bent her head over her knees, and shivered, more with fever than with cold. The fatal scene replayed in her imagination.
And so, they were brought to their culmination, all the fears that had haunted her wakeful nights. A few words… And life, forever, was marred. Forget, as he had begged her to? No. No, tomorrow could never be like yesterday. Never could they return to what they had been. The bridge was burned.
You could not go back, you could not take back things said.
Even were their pride in duty miraculous, even could they hold themselves controlled for a while… They had not looked into each other’s souls with impunity. Their eyes would show the world what neither of them could master.
She saw the jealousy, the ill-will, the attention these ambushers would pay to the great writer and his disciple—ready, at the least hint of a cause, to denigrate, to destroy.
But the greater danger was within. She had told herself she was strong, but Annie knew it now, how in the moment of fascination all self-respect melts, and under this spell it is torture to escape. The danger…her heart racing still, she had only touched its surface. But as she felt herself spinning into vertigo, a shock made her sit up.
What chance, to teach its stern lesson, had directed her eyes to the great medallion, where Mme Conan smiled, rosy-cheeked and serene, her son at her knee? The hallucination had come suddenly, in some shift of the light; but ghosts of Annie’s past had been wakened by it, and the light now illuminated her shadowed future.
She saw the little girl she had been, the day the stranger had entered their sunny home…the red-haired woman who had stolen the heart of Alain Le Goël. Ahead, she saw her own path, the dark meeting-places, the lies they would tell…
All her being rebelled. No, she would never run that risk, of making a wife cry, of drawing curses from a child.
Still breathless, her nerves still making painful starts, Annie in the silence of the holy place, tried to calm this heightened state. Removed here from present realities, she faced her conscience, and with rigor reviewed her life.
What, through all her trials, had sustained her? Respect for herself, fear of being unjust or disloyal to others. In Mme Conan’s salon she had first been warned, hearing the frivolous talk…
And seeing the stare of Mme Bittersweet…
That, she had understood, was how they might speculate about her own role.
She had questioned herself, and in perfect faith the next day had spoken against little Olga, weak and besotted. For Christiane’s hearing, she had taken Winifred’s side, and affirmed her principle: No one has the right to build her life on the destruction of another’s happiness.
But since, there had been the enchantment of evenings and summer mornings at Kergrist. To share thoughts with an elevated mind, to pity him that inner self, unknown to his wife and son… It had been intoxicating, a triumph, a thing having greater power than infatuation alone, on a woman’s heart…
Someone leaving a confessional came to kneel near Annie. The girl prayed fervently, and lifted to the vaulted ceiling eyes that glowed with the joy of absolution. All her face spoke abandonment, to an innocent faith. Taken out of herself, Annie admired and envied her. Surely, though timid, the girl was confident…she knocked, that the door be opened unto her; she asked, that her desire be given.
Ah! If Annie, the unbeliever, could only touch that source, that vibrancy. In her weakness and suffering, would the supernatural help, that this young Christian was so certain of, be hers as well?
Her hands clasped on her knees, Annie bent double, and murmured: “Hidden God, I seek you, as I have been told to. But my intelligence falls short of understanding…I cannot untangle your designs. Forgive my doubt. I am in pain. I believe that bad luck is my destiny, but…the burden of harming anyone, of doing evil… Spare me that, at least. Sustain me. Inspire me. Strengthen me!”
A clemency of the divine, perhaps, through this ardent supplication, already had been granted her. When she rose to her feet, Annie found an unhoped-for purpose. The line she must follow appeared to her, clear and neatly-drawn.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)