Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-seven)
The letter recalled to Annie that period of living in Christiane’s orbit, five years past. For the length of a spring and a summer, the two women had traveled as companions. Companionable they were together, and their respect for each other had not lessened, but a heartfelt friendship had not been possible. Christiane was in constant motion, impulsive, a slave to her caprices. She seemed to live by the motto: If existence is hollow, let our senses be so surfeited that we never know it.
Lacking any taste for the arts, she considered travel a sort of cinema, where the spectator, rather than remain in her seat, moved in her own right through an endless film-reel—the fancy of a child, who from a window watches fields pass, and counts telegraph poles.
They had toured the Midi, Algeria, and Tunisia. They had entered Italy by way of Sicily, made north through Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice. Never had Christiane consented to set foot in a church or art gallery.
She had warned her companion: “My dear, I have a phobia of museums, paintings, sculptures. I have only to think of such things and my head spins, my feet begin to ache! So don’t hope to drag me along, but go yourself, and soak it all in at your ease.”
For some time, this reluctance had been a blessing to Annie. She still felt herself in crisis, but was able with solitude to find an illusion of forgetting. Once she began to recover, though, she was struck by the falseness of the situation, despite the willing purse of Christiane, and her loyal discretion. Annie did not possess that lamblike passivity of Winifred, the good nature to indulge Mme Fougerays with endless patience.
At length it became a rebuke to her, the elegant, wandering existence; and saddening, the arid philosophy, the dilettante’s egoism. At last, it was a monotony, such extravagance of locomotion, such emptiness at the center.
Annie’s first novel had been published that April, a time when she hadn’t dared return to Paris, to the pain of a chance meeting. But it was her literary career that paid the price of her absence. Each day she made brief notes; all other work was impossible. The vagabond’s life had to end.
She grew preoccupied with a means of escaping what was truly subjection in charitable disguise, without hurting the woman she owed so much to. An unexpected event gave her the chance.
Clélie had died. To the niece whose childhood she had darkened, she left all she possessed: around thirty thousand francs. This news reached the travellers at Lucerne. The inheritance and its formalities made excuse for a return to France. And Christiane at that moment had been captivated by a fresh rara avis, an Armenian dancer producing a sensation at the hotel—an erudite woman, versed in several languages. The disappearance of Annie scarcely left a void.
She found herself moved by the thought of her onetime jailer become her liberator, even to the sparing of material worries. The modest capital insured security for the morrow, while also it supplied that moral independence Annie had once thought of, necessary to create art.
With a few pieces of furniture saved by her aunt, she organized a modest home, in a picturesque corner on the heights of old Saint-Cloud. From there she overlooked Paris, and could with no difficulty descend. How good to think deeply, and to work in a nest of her own, arranged to her own taste, far from noise and nuisance, and petty distractions.
But for barely a year had she enjoyed this tranquility, with time only to finish the story of Alban of Kerbestous. Her second work had been set to appear in bookstores that October of 1914.
The world caught fire, and no poetic dream could be sustained.
Her little apartment now sheltered a temporary household. Poor M. Hérrison, the paleographer, had been blinded in the war. He had found a guardian angel in the gentle Winifred…
Saint-Cloud must be thought out of the question, then. Should she go to Biarritz?
Calm, calm, the doctor had advised.
A smile, a touch ironic, tweaked Annie’s pale lips. The undemanding life necessary to convalescence could not be looked for near the skittish and stimulus-seeking Christiane. But a sweet memory, like a refreshing breeze, came to her. Her gaze had wandered to the window, where beyond the garden terrace a line of hills faded to the color of heliotrope, a wave of them, faintly seen, carrying to the valley of the Loire. Annie had followed that road, long ago, to reach Bretagne.
Then why not return? She had seen many places, and nowhere else had she felt the air bring that vitality, so abundant in Kergrist.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)