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Bruges-la-Morte

Author: Georges Rodenbach

Translator: Mike Mitchell, Will Stone   Edited by: Alan Hollinghurst   Cover design: Marie Lane  

II

Every evening Hugues retraced the same route, following the line of the quais. His gait was uncertain, slightly hunched already, even though he was only forty. But widowhood had brought an early autumn. His hair was receding, with a copious scattering of grey ash. His faded eyes were fixed on a distant point, a very distant point, beyond life itself.
And how melancholy Bruges was, too, during those late afternoons! That was how he liked the town! It was for its melancholy that he had chosen it and had gone to live there after the great catastrophe. In those happy times when he was travelling round with his wife, living as his fancy took him, a somewhat cosmopolitan life, in Paris, abroad, by the sea, he had passed through the town with her, but its profound melancholy had not had the power to affect their joy. Later on however, once he was alone, he had remembered Bruges and had immediately and instinctively known he must settle there. A mysterious equation gradually established itself. He needed a dead town to correspond to his dead wife. His deep mourning demanded such a setting. Life would only be bearable for him there. It was instinct that had brought him here. He would leave the world elsewhere to its bustle and buzz, to its glittering balls, its welter of voices. He needed infinite silence and an existence that was so monotonous it almost failed to give him the sense of being alive.
In the presence of physical pain, why must we keep silent, tread softly in a sickroom? Why do noises, voices, seem to disturb the dressing and reopen the wound?
Those suffering from mental anguish can be hurt by noise too.
In the muted atmosphere of the waterways and the deserted streets, Hugues was less sensitive to the sufferings of his heart, his thoughts of his dead wife were less painful. He had seen her, heard her again more clearly, finding the face of his departed Ophelia as he followed the canals, hearing her voice in the thin, distant song of the bells.
In this way the town, once beautiful and beloved too, embodied the loss he felt. Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.
That evening, as he was making his haphazard way, more than ever the dark memory came to haunt him, emerging from under the bridges, where faces weep tears from invisible springs. The closed houses exhaled a funereal atmosphere, window-panes like eyes clouded in death throes, crow-steps tracing stairways of crepe in the water. He walked along the Quai Vert, the Quai du Miroir and continued out towards the Pont du Moulin, melancholy suburbs lined with poplars. And everywhere the chill spray, the little salt notes of the parish bells on his head, as if sprinkled from an aspergillum for some absolution.
In this solitude, that was both evening and autumnal, with the wind sweeping up the remaining leaves, he felt more than ever the desire to have finished with life and impatience for the tomb. It seemed that a shadow was cast from the towers over his soul, a word of counsel reached him from the old walls, a whispering voice rose from the water — the water coming to him as it came to Ophelia, according to what Shakespeare’s gravediggers tell.
More than once he had felt this seduction. He had heard the slow persuasion of the stones, he had truly discerned the nature of things there, not to survive the death all around.
He had thought long and hard about killing himself. That woman, oh, how he had adored her! He still felt her eyes on him, still sought after her voice, now fled to the far horizon. What was it his dead wife had had, to have attached him to her so entirely, to have cut him off from the whole world since she had gone? There is a love, then, which, like the Dead Sea Fruit, leaves nothing but an ineradicable taste of ash in the mouth.
If he had resisted his obsessive thoughts of suicide, then that, too, was for her. Together with the lees of his grief, the residue of his religious childhood had resurfaced. With his tendency towards mysticism, his hope was that life did not end in nothingness and that he would see her again one day. Religion forbade him to kill himself. It would have meant exclusion from heaven and ruled out the vague possibility of seeing her again.
So he lived on. He even prayed, finding consolation in imagining her waiting for him in the gardens of some heaven or other, in dreaming of her in the churches, to the sound of the organ.
That evening, as he made his way round the town, he went into Notre Dame. He liked to go there often because of its sepulchral nature: everywhere, on the walls, on the floor were grave-slabs with skulls, chipped names, eroded inscriptions like stone lips . . . death itself erased by death.
But, alongside them, the emptiness of life was illuminated by the consoling vision of love enduring in death, and that was why Hugues so often made a pilgrimage to this church: the famous tombs, deep within a side chapel, of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy. How touching they were! She above all, her fingers placed together, her head on a marble cushion, in a gown of copper, her feet resting against a dog symbolising fidelity, the gentle princess, rigid on the slab of the sarcophagus. Just as his dead wife was resting for ever on his black soul. And the time would come when he in his turn would lie, like Duke Charles, and would rest beside her. Sleeping side by side, in the safe haven of death, if the Christian expectation of being reunited should not be fulfilled for them.
Hugues left Notre Dame more melancholy than ever. Since the time when he usually returned home for his evening meal was approaching, he set off in the direction of his house, seeking within himself the memory of his dead wife in order to apply it to the form of the tomb he had just seen and picture the latter complete with a different face. But the faces of the dead, which are preserved in our memory for a while, gradually deteriorate there, fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse. Thus, within us, our dead die a second time.
All at once, while he was making an intense mental effort — looking within himself, so to speak — to reconstruct her features, already half erased, Hugues, who usually hardly noticed the rare passers-by, felt a sudden shock on seeing a young woman coming towards him. He had not seen her at first, as she approached from the end of the street, but only when she was quite near.
At the sight of her, he stopped short, as if transfixed; the woman coming in the opposite direction had passed close by him. It was a jolt, an apparition. For a moment Hugues seemed about to swoon. He put his hand over his eyes, as if to ward off a dream. Then, after a moment of hesitation, turning towards the unknown woman as she continued on her way with a slow, fluid gait, he retraced his steps, abandoned the quai he had been going along and suddenly started to follow her. He walked quickly, in order to catch up with her, crossing from one pavement to the other, getting closer, looking at her so persistently it would have been unseemly had it not been for the mesmerised look in his eyes. Hugues seemed more and more strange and distraught. Already he had been following her for several minutes, from street to street, now coming closer, as if for a decisive scrutiny, now moving away again, apparently stricken with terror when he came too near to her. He seemed attracted and apprehensive at the same time, like someone trying to make out a face in a deep well . . .
Yes! This time he had definitely recognised her, it was undeniable. That velvety complexion, those eyes, the blackest, dilated pupils set in mother of pearl, they were the same. And as he walked along behind her, the hair emerging at the nape of her neck, from under her black hat and veil, was definitely of a similar gold, the colour of amber and raw silk, of a fluid yellow texture. The same clash between the night-dark eyes and the blazing noon of her hair.
Was his mind giving way? Or was it his retina which, from the effort of retrieving the image of his dead wife, had started to identify passers-by with her. Whilst he was searching for Her face, this woman had abruptly appeared, presenting him with its double, too similar, too alike. A disturbing apparition! An almost frightening miracle of resemblance that went as far as identity.
Everything: her gait, her figure, the rhythm of her body, the expression of her features, the inwardness of her look, things not merely of shape and colour, but expressions of a person’s spirituality, movements of their soul — all that was given back to him, had returned, was alive!
With the air of a sleepwalker, Hugues continued to follow her, though mechanically now, without knowing why and without thinking, through the misty labyrinth of the streets of Bruges. Coming to a crossroads, a tangle of streets running in several directions, and walking some way behind, he suddenly lost sight of her — gone, vanished down one or other of these twisting alleys.
He stopped, surveying the distance, scanning empty space, the tears welling up . . .
Oh, how she resembled his dead wife!

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RRP: £7.99

No. of pages: 166

Publication date: 10.11.2009

ISBN numbers:
Paperback
978 1 903517 82 6
Ebook
978 1 907650 20 8

Rights:
Dedalus World English language rights in this translation