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The Bells of Bruges

Author: Georges Rodenbach

Translator: Mike Mitchell   Cover illustration: Frans Masereel  


Joris had a dream of taking Godelieve up into the tower. All lovers like to show each other the places where they live. They need to know everything about each other. And the cherished presence will sanctify the surroundings.
Godelieve agreed to the plan joyfully, though not so much for the pleasure of seeing the mysterious belfry, nor even of hearing the carillon from closer to, of watching Joris sit down at the keys and bring into bloom the nostalgic flowers of sound which she had so far only known from the petals falling upon her and the town. It was above all because in that way she would enter a little more fully into Joris’s life, would see the glass chamber, of which he so often spoke, which he called the most intimate chamber of his life and where he must have spent so much time thinking, regretting, hoping and, doubtless, suffering. Up there, in the enclosed air, there would be something of him which she did not yet know.
However, one anxiety tormented her: ‘What if someone should see me?’
Joris persuaded her that it would be easy to enter the tower without being seen. Anyway, he argued, there would be nothing odd about her having the idea that she would like to see the bell-tower and accompanying him . . .
They climbed the tower together. Immediately Godelieve was filled with dread at the impenetrable darkness, the crypt-like chill. She had the feeling they were setting off to die together. At first, because of the tight turns of the spiral staircase, she bumped against the wall and almost stumbled. Joris placed her hand on the rope, a rough, thick cable serving as a banister, which she used to guide her. She pulled on it as if it were an anchor, hoping to find herself on terra firma soon, at the top, in the light.
The ascent took a long time. They crossed wide landings with empty rooms opening off them, the granaries of silence. Then they had to set off again on a further climb through the gloom. Godelieve did not dare look, being afraid of falling, of the bats brushing against her — she could hear the muffled sound of their wings as they flew back and forth. She felt as if she were in a nightmare in which the colours curdle, the shapes and sounds match and distort. Joris talked to her, tried to reassure her, joked to keep her spirits up. Godelieve replied and went on like a sleepwalker. What frightened her most of all was that she could no longer see Joris, who merged into the shadows, and that she was no longer aware of herself, as if she had lost herself.
All that was left was their voices groping for each other in the dark.
Godelieve saw mysterious doors go by, as if lit by the flashes of a nocturnal thunderstorm, beams inspiring the fear and terror of a gibbet, overhanging bells, above all the Bell of Victory, alone in its large dormitory, a bronze gown almost touching the floor, the black habit of a damned monk.
They kept on climbing, captives of the stairs and the tower. It was like an uphill exercise yard, a vertical prison. Godelieve had never felt such fear, an attack of panic, of physical terror she could not keep down. When would deliverance come? Soon brightness appeared up above; there was more light around Joris’s voice, ahead of Godelieve. Then she felt a great dawn break over her head. At the same time a strong wind blew, sweeping the dark away from her face.
They had reached the platform and were in the glass chamber, the windows of which opened onto a circular view of the town, the immense green landscape of Flanders, the North Sea gleaming in the distance. In one corner was the clavier of the carillon, the yellowing ivory of a keyboard waiting.
Immediately Godelieve was filled with amazement, with wonder. ‘This is where you play?’
‘Yes. You’ll hear it soon.’
‘I’m glad I came now,’ she went on. ‘That endless staircase is terrible, but it’s beautiful up here, it’s good to be here.’
She wanted to look at the horizon all round, but Joris drew her to him, kissed her.
‘I’m so happy to see you here. Though in a way,’ he added, ‘you’ve already been here. You remember what you said at the beginning: “If only it had been God’s will,” those few words that decided everything? The next day was a day for the carillon. Climbing the tower I felt as if your words were coming up with me, climbing the stairs in front of me, running on ahead, coming back. After that I was never alone. The words, which were your voice, were up here, close to me.’
‘Oh my darling!’ Godelieve cried, flinging her arms round his neck.
Then she added, ‘And it was here that you suffered as well?’
‘Suffered so much. If you only knew,’ Joris replied. ‘My life was like the black ascent we’ve just made. But it always ended in the light. It’s the tower that saved me.’
Then he told her how he had comforted himself, repeating, ‘High above the world,’ over and over to himself until he was carried away, as if he were escaping, leaving his sorrows behind, looking down on them from such a height that they were no longer visible and therefore no longer existed.
‘See how small everything is down there.’
And he showed Godelieve the world spread out below, the town remote, the beautiful countryside forming tapestries. He pointed out the Minnewater, so dear to them from their evening walks. How narrow it looked, how straight! The lake was like a poor woman’s mirror, a humble side-altar with its water lilies as votive offerings. What? That was it? So little space for love?
He also pointed out, almost opposite them, their old house on the Dijver, blackened and emblazoned behind the curtain of trees along the canal. It was tiny, casting a shortened shadow in front of it, thin and contorted like a piece of iron jewellery. However the details could still be made out. They counted the windows, suddenly looking at each other in agitation, their eyes burning, lips ready. They had just stopped, both together, at the casement of the unforgettable room. Through that permanent communion of lovers they had both thought the same thing at the same moment. Immediately all their memories rose up to them from below. The panes of the nuptial chamber sparkled, transparent, willing accomplices in the passionate evocation of their first night, their first kisses.
They fell into each others’ arms. It seemed to Godelieve that the town receded, grew even smaller, ceased to be, while they, together, entwined, rose higher, were no longer in the tower but merging under the caresses of the winds and the clouds, touching the sky . . .
But the time for the carillon had come. Joris sat down at the keys. Godelieve listened, disappointed at first. It was just a concert of shrill, strident voices that only sounded so sweet in the the town below because they were far away. It is distance that creates nostalgia. Up there the bells were singing out loud, fit to make themselves hoarse, a village choir, cantors giving the notes at random.
Yet Joris was doing his best, putting all his heart into his playing in honour of Godelieve. The basses came in with the old Flemish songs he played. Better than the sopranos of the little bells, which only took on angelic tones when heard from a distance, the big bells sang their noble dirges, with murmurs of organs and the forest, which moved Godelieve. She let herself be carried away by the vast hymn which Joris was creating for her, a stream of notes into which he seemed to pour his whole self.
The whole tower was singing of love.
The only ones who noticed this rejuvenated music, the renewed freshness of these flowers of sound floating down on the roofs and streets, were a few passers-by in the squares, a few townsfolk idling in their homes. What unexpected spring was blossoming up there? What was the matter with the old bells, what was making them sing faster, as if their black bronze was tinged with a feverish flush?
When Joris had finished he took Godelieve up the small staircase leading to the upper platform, a few more steps to climb . . . They were going higher . . . Then Godelieve saw the bells’ dormitories, all the bells aligned with their inscriptions, their dates, their coats of arms cast in the metal. And the differing patina of age: the tones of etchings, the strange oxidations, the rust like a chiaroscuro by Rembrandt. The metal was still vibrating, still quivering from having sung. One large bell above all attracted Godelieve. It was taller than she was and hanging from massive beams. It was embellished with relief ornamentation. Godelieve wanted to go over to it, but Joris brusquely drew her away.
‘No! Not over there!’
His voice was trembling with sudden emotion. It was the horrible bell, the Bell of Lust with all the ecstatic bodies and breasts picked like fruits, the vase full of sins, the ciborium held out by hell. Godelieve must not partake of that sacrament. Her eyes were too pure to contemplate that frozen orgy. And then the Bell of Lust was Barbara’s bell. The sensual pleasures of its bronze dress were the sensual pleasures of Barbara’s dress. It was the bell that had tempted him, had connived with Barbara and caused all their unhappiness. Godelieve must not go near it now.
He led her away, towards another bell, the one that sounded the hours, for he had heard the grinding of the rods that operated the clappers. A moment later the huge hammer rose, then came down on the sonorous metal. It was like a blow from a crozier striking the silence. The hour rang out, entire, episcopal.
Joris and Godelieve listened, suddenly serious. It was the passing of the hour, irrevocable, an hour they would never be able to forget, nor begin again, the most beautiful hour of their lives, the hour of the high point of their love, which had climbed to the top of the tower with them.
And when they found themselves hurrying down the stairs as they returned, already assailed by their fears for the future, they were well aware that they were coming back down from the summit of their love.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 244

Publication date: 18.07.2007

Re-print date: 18.08.2023

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 54 3
978 1 909232 05 1

World English Language in the translation.