Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part forty-nine)
“The man who is lying at Kervenno was gassed. He would have been retired from the service,” explained M. Le Goël.
“But if it were M. Conan,” said Annie, “his wife and son must be with him.”
“Well, no one has mentioned a woman and a boy.” Her host bent to attend the fire.
“I’ll find out,” said Mme Le Goël. “The next time I see someone from Kervenno.”
Annie let the subject drop. But her silence betrayed her…the mystery at Kervenno was troubling. She had excuse, being under strict orders to keep her days short, and soon she had withdrawn to her bed.
Yet all she could think of was what she longed to avoid.
How she had been humiliated and embarrassed for severing ties with the Conans! The awkwardness of her ignorance that evening, as to the doings of the family…
The memories forced themselves.
She had never again met with Patrice. She had sent him her novel, and received only a visiting card, with bland thanks jotted. She had convinced herself a visit to rue Saint-Simon must be risked. But Mme Conan’s glacial welcome told Annie she was regarded a defector, and that her leave of absence was permanent.
The secretary of her husband meant no more to Joséphe than a beast put out to pasture. Annie was an ingrate, a chaser after a better place. She knew appearances in this were against her, and she could not explain; she could only bow to the injustice. But the thought of being cut dead by them, when for their peace she had burned every bridge of her own, still came as a cruelty—and that night her fever recurred.
Towards morning Annie fell into a heavy sleep. When she was up and dressed, she escaped the house to climb the hills. An autumn mist crawled between earth and sky… And vague through the gauzy greyness, the prominence of Saint-Michel could be seen. The ancient sepulchre seemed to spread a funereal gloom over the veiled land. Annie shuddered, straining to detect where, in this confusion of indecisive masses, must be the woods of Kervenno. Was it possible Patrice was there, ill and alone?
Alone. This seemed to her so unbelievable, she wanted to stop herself thinking of it. Slowly she went down to the sea, by the little rocky paths that snaked among dry stone walls. Images of the past raised themselves at every turn…reminders of him. Restless, apprehensive, she tried to resist this backsliding.
At the port, a lucky tumult of Americans, fraternizing with vacationing students, all animating the saddened village with the joy of youth, distracted her. Then Mme Le Goël exited a shop, and caught Annie. “Are you coming home, mademoiselle? We’ll go together.”
Once they had climbed the hill, and Mme Le Goël had her breath, she took up in a low and confidential voice: “I have just spoken to the gardener at Kervenno. It is M. Conan at the manor.”
“But why is he alone?” Annie blurted. “Mme Conan…?”
“She had taken their son to visit an aunt, when things were calm. To the islands of the Americas, and crossing, Madame took such a fright she would not dare expose herself again. Now her husband may die without seeing her.”
“My God! Is he so gravely ill?” whispered Annie, her heart racing.
Mme Le Goël nodded. “They say it! He is not completely bedridden, but he is dying. He has made his last wishes known to those around him. M. Conan is at peace, and the rector visits him often.”
Annie no longer had questions. All reason, all will, was annihilated by disordered feelings, and a stab of suffering. Her mind was blank, and her desire was clear, unswayable, irrepresible. To see Patrice.
Lunch became an ordeal. But Annie’s pallor and sadness surprised no one. And when, without finishing, she stood from the table, and put on her coat, no one asked why. Their kind hearts understood without words.
Her antic pace brought her shortly to the edge of the woods. Through broken clouds came the sun, shining its rays on buried things, misted from sight that morning. Warm scents passed in the air, and a strong, earthy odor, unleashed by the plowing, rose from the fields.
But Annie could not be charmed; all she felt was fear. “Will he see me?”
She could see herself on the steps, dickering with a servant, who had the right to spurn her, to claim she acted for the patient’s good. But worse, suppose Annie sent her card, and was categorically refused? The thought was staggering. How could she bear it?
She entered the grand march of beech and fir, that followed the edge of the plain above the coast. And here, his head under a felt hat, a cloak over his shoulders, a man leaned against a tree, gazing into the distance.
He was colorless, unfleshed, bent at an emaciated waist by his illness.
Annie froze, stricken.
But under her shoes the crunch of leaves had alerted him. The man turned.
Recognition came, of this pale figure, who trembled and stared, and stood apart. For a few seconds both stayed as they were, mute.
Then low, Patrice breathed: “Annie!”
He half-closed his eyes. In a rush, she was at his side. He lifted his gaze to hers, and said, “Forgive me.”
He struggled, then, against a congestion, and instinctively flung an arm to support himself. The hand found Annie’s shoulder…and as his living prop, very gently she drew him to a mossy bench, where he must have sat for some time, for here were an open magazine and a blanket, thrown aside.
When the fit had passed, he found her eyes again, and saw the tears there. The bony fingers sought hers, and in a ruined voice, he said: “You have divined it, how I wanted to see you. Before it’s over for me. And the last memory I leave, when you remember me, will be redeemed… Please, I ask again, forgive me.”
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)