Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-six)
Annie, rebellious, sat upright on the chaise-longue. “But the war is over! The poilus, do they rest?”
“They no longer feel their fatigue. They are marching to victory. But you, dear lady of letters, that I have the honor of caring for, if you have the heart of a soldier, you haven’t the physique. You have gone to the end of your strength.”
“Like many other nurses. For five weeks I’ve lounged on the sidelines, waited on and kept waiting, and useless! I want to go back to my work in the ambulance.”
“Very well! I will give you leave. Before five days are out, you’ll be on the stretcher yourself, a hindrance to those you’re pretending to aid…”
This firm prediction fell as a challenge to her recalcitrance. She feared she could not argue against it. She was recovering, but her wracked body still felt incapable of effort.
Since the war’s beginning, Annie, like the women of all nations, had refused to think of herself. Carried by the great current of anguish and horror, she had vowed to serve the wounded, and pushed herself without counting the cost. And in the infirmary sponsored by the Gazette Féminine, she had collapsed in exhaustion, before the Armistice was declared.
It was the director of the revue who had carried her zealous second-in-command to Orleans, placing Annie in the care of an expert surgeon, her own relative. Dr. Faure had ordered treatment at the field hospital of his clinic. Annie was just beginning to rise from the bed where death had nearly claimed her.
She told herself again all she owed to this blunt and genial man’s solicitude. She gave him her hand in silence, to express her gratitude.
“Ah!” he beamed. “You are a bit ashamed of yourself. You were unwilling to live. In the ramblings of your delirium you called out for death, you cried for it, and I ordered you to live! Life is good, mademoiselle. All the injured men you have watched over, however pitiful their state, however wretched their infirmity, it was life they sought, yes?”
Annie nodded, but spoke in a murmur, her eyes distant. “If I’m not allowed to make myself useful, what will I do? I’ll be eaten up with worry… I’ll sink lower than ever!”
“You have other means of keeping busy than your ambulance work. Your appeals to charity, in the Voix de Paris and the Féminine, weren’t they always heeded? And wasn’t it you who risked the knives of the bistros, writing of alcoholism as a social plague? Regain your strength, it will counter your nervous depression. The great mission will arrive soon enough, when the cannons are still. Then, those with courage and sense must make themselves heard. All that hasn’t been demolished has been dislocated. And so we have the task of rebuilding our society, our way of life; but a larger-minded and more generous one.”
“Doctor, you preach a marvel!”
“I heard Larcordaire in the prime of my youth, mademoiselle,” said the good old man. “And as a laureate of the Institute, I must give my eloquence a fresh airing, to retain my standing as an intellectual. Now, in seriousness, find a peaceful place to spend the beautiful autumn days, until the summer of St. Martin, at least. Absolute rest, easy walks, amiable friends, if you can. Calm, calm, and again, calm. After that, your spirit will rise and take wings! And at that greater peace, that approaches by the road to victory, you will feel ten years younger.”
Smiling a little painfully, Annie said: “That would carry me back to twenty. I can well do without it. Spare me the specter of that girl!”
He did not question her. A sadness and disillusion often broke through his patient’s efforts to be cheerful. Whatever his interest and sympathy, he avoided drawing her out, not wanting to cause her distress.
“And so…” He got to his feet. “I put myself behind schedule, chit-chatting. And I’ve barely begun my rounds! They in the next room will reproach me. Remember my most important prescription…rest! Rest!”
“Easier said than done.”
At the door, Dr. Faure added, with a twinkle, but with official weight as well: “And get yourself gone as soon as possible, mademoiselle! We are all fond of you here, but your bed is waited upon.”
“I know. I have been told, by Sister St. Eulalie.”
He left. Annie fell into sober reflection. Necessity commanded she vacate this bed at once. And then where would she go; at what door of asylum could she knock?
Calm and peace. Friendly society. He spoke of this glibly, the good doctor with his wry humor. That morning Annie had received a card from Mme Fougerays. Would she be found at her villa in Biarritz, where at the start of the war she had gone to earth?
Caught at Spa during the first invasion, Christiane had narrowly escaped the blockade, and for this adventure she retained a dread that kept her in voluntary exile. She paid great sums to the relief works, taking sufficient part, so she believed, in the common ordeal.
Annie never doubted her welcome at Hortensias. The last letter had even contained a sort of invitation:
At the moment your illness is no longer contagious, and you pose no danger to the neighborhood (because there are many children about), I will receive you with the greatest pleasure, be sure of it!
Poilu was the term used in France for the infantrymen, chiefly of the Franco-Prussian war and World War One.
Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique Larcordaire (1802-1861) was a Dominican priest, journalist, and social activist, best exemplified by his famous statement: J’espère mourir un religieux pénitent et un libéral impénitent. I hope to die a religious penitent and an impenitent liberal.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)