"The Night and Its Prestiges" translated by Eli Wallis (Aloysius Bertrand)

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor


LA NUIT ET SES PRESTIGES

or

THE NIGHT AND ITS PRESTIGES

by Aloysius Bertrand 1807-1841.

Translated from French by Eli Wallis.

O Typekey Divider

I.

The Gothic Chamber

Nox et solitudo plenae sunt diabolo.

-Fathers of the church.

Night and solitude are full of devils.

“Oh! The earth,” murmur I to the night, “is a fragrant chalice, and the moon and the stars are its pistil and stamen!”

And, eyes weighed with sleep, I close the window with its Cavalry cross, black in the halo of stained glass.

 

Still— if it was not midnight— hour blazoned by dragons and devils!—  is the gnome drunk by the oil of my lamp!

If it was but the wetnurse who rocks with a monotone song, in my father’s cuirass, a stillborn child!

If it was but the lansquenet’s skeleton emprisoned in the panelling, banging his skull, elbow and knee!

If it was but my forefather descending in his wormeaten frame, beating his gauntlet in the blessed water of the font!

But it is Scarbo who bites at my neck, and who, to cauterize my bloody wound, plunges his red iron finger into the hearth!

 O Typekey Divider

II.

Scarbo

 

My God, grant me, at
the hour of death, the prayers of
a priest, a soft shroud, a coffin
of fir in a dry place.

-Orison of Monsieur Maréchal

“Whether you die absolved or damned,” whispers Scarbo to my ear tonight, “You shall have a spider’s web for a shroud, whose maker I will bury with you!”

“Oh! The least veil I should have,” respond I, eyes red from the crying, “Is an aspen leaf from which I may draw the breath of the lake.” 

“No!” giggles the dwarf jester, “You will be the pasture of dung beetles who chase, at night, sheep blinded by the sleeping sun!”

“Does this please you?” ask I, always tearful, “Does it please you that I be sucked like a tarantula by an elephant’s trunk?”

“Oh well,” he adds, “Console yourself, you will have for a shroud bandages spotted with the golden skin of a serpent, and in them I shall wrap you like a mummy.

“And in the tenebrous crypt of St. Benignus, where I will lay you before the mural, you will hear at your leisure the infants crying in limbo.”

 O Typekey Divider

III.

The Madman

 

A carolus, or better yet,
If it please you, a golden lamb.

-Manuscripts of the King’s library

The moon combs her hair with large-toothed ebony which silverizes a rain of verses that shine the hills, meadows and woods. 

 

Scarbo, gnome teeming with treasures, creaks on my roof, in the cry of the weathercock, ducats and florins dropping in candence, false pieces sprinkling to the street.

The madman giggles like the waves, each night, by the deserted city, one eye to the moon and the other— burst!

“Hay of the moon!” grumbles he, collecting the coins of the devil, “I’ll buy a pillory to sun myself!”

 

But it was always the moon, the moon who sleeps— and in my cave Scarbo discretely mints ducats and florins with the strikes of the pendulum.

All the while, both horns ahead, a snail lost in the night finds his way ‘cross my luminous stained glass.   

 O Typekey Divider

IV.

The Dwarf

 

You, mount up!
Eh! Why not! I have so often
galloped on the greyhound of the laird of
Linlithgow!
-Scottish Ballad

I caught in my seat, in the shadow of my curtains, this furtive moth, hatched from a ray of the moon or drop of dew.

Palpitating phalaena who, to free its captive wings from between my fingers, paid me a ransom of parfum!

Suddenly the beastial vagabond took off, abandoning in my lap— oh horror!—  a monstrous larva deformed with a human head!

 

“Where is your soul, that I had straddled!” “My soul, hackney wracked with fatigues of the day, rests now on the dream-gilded litter.”

And she escaped from dread, my soul, by way of the livid web of the twilight spider, over black horizons jagged with gothic bells.

But the dwarf, hanged for his own wailing escape, twists like a spindle in the distaff of her white criniere.

 O Typekey Divider

V.

Light of the Moon

 

Awake, you who sleep,
And pray for your transgressions.

-Cry of the night-crier

Oh! It is sweet, when the hour trembles with bells, the night, to look at the moon who has a nose like a gold carolus!

 

Two lepers are lamenting under my window, a dog howls in the intersection, and the cricket of my hearth prophesizes for all below.

But soon my ear questions nothing but deep silence. The lepers have returned to their kennels, with the strikes of Jacquemart beating his wife.

The dog humped a tramp, before the partisan watch rusted by the rain and dejected by the wind.

And the cricket fell asleep, since the last trifle put out its last glimmer in the chimney cinders.

And me, it seems to me— as the fever is incoherent— that the moon, making her face, pulls her tongue at me like a hanged-man!

 

To M. Louis Boulanger, Painter

 O Typekey Divider

VI.

The Circle Below the Bell

 

There was a heavy building,
almost square, surrounded by ruins, and
whose principal tower, holding
still its clock, dominated all the
quarter.

-Fenimore Cooper

Twelve magicians dance in a circle below the great bell of St. John. They evoke tempests one after the other, and in the depths of my bed I count with terror twelve voices in procession about the darkness.

Immediately the moon runs to hide behind the clouds, and a rain battled with lightnings and whirlwinds besieges my window, while weathercocks cry like guardian cranes who weather the shower in the woods.

The chanterelle of my lute, hung by the septum, shatters; my goldfinch beats her wings in her cage; some curious spirit turns the page of the Roman de la Rosa which sleeps on my desk.

But suddenly lightning growls from the top of St. John. The enchanters vanish to strike at death, and I see in the distance their magic books burning like a torch in the black bell.

This ghastly glowing combs the red flames of purgatory and from hell the murals of the gothic church, projecting on the neighbouring houses the gigantic shadow of St. John.

The weathercocks roll; the moon finds the clouds grey with pearls; the rain falls but drop by drop from the roof, and the wind, opening my poorly closed window, throws to my pillow the petals of my jasmine shaken by the storm.     

 O Typekey Divider

VII.

A Dream

 

I have dreamed so much and more, but I
never hear a note.

-Pantagruel, Book 3

It was night. There was around me,— what I saw, I’ll recount— an abbey of murals basking in the moonlight,— a forest pierced by tortuous paths,— and the Morimont swarming with hats and capes.

There was next,— what I heard, I’ll recount— the death knell of a bell to whom responded the funereal sobs of a cell,— doleful shouts and ferocious laughter shivering each leaf along the row,— and the buzzing prayers of black penitents that follow a criminal to torment.

There was at last,— what finished the dream, I’ll recount— a monk who expired asleep in the cinders of agony,— a young girl who debated the boughs of an oak,— and I who the executioner laid dishevelled on the spokes of the wheel.

Dom Augustin, the late prior, will have, in cordelian habit, the honours of the ardent chapel; and Margaret, whom his lover killed, will be buried in her white dress of innocence, between four cierges of wax.

But I; the helm of the executioner was, at first strike, shattered like glass, the black penitents’ torches died under the torrents of rain, the crowd was flushed with gorged and rapid streams,— and I followed other dreams to wakefulness.

 O Typekey Divider

VIII.

My Great-Grandfather

 

All in this room was still
in the same state, if the
tapestries were not in tatters,
and the spiders had not weaved
their webs of dust.

-Walter-Scott, Woodstock

The venerable people of the gothic tapestry, stirred by the wind, greeted one another, and my great grandfather entered the room— my great grandfather late ninety years!

There,— it is before this prie-dieu he kneeled, my great grandfather the counselor, lowering from his beard this yellow missal spread in the place of this ribbon.

He whispered orisons throughout the night, without for a moment crossing his violet silked arms, without casting a look to me, his posterity, who was sleeping in his bed, his powdery baldaquined bed!

And I remarked with horror that his eyes were void, while he seemed to read,— while his lips were still, while I could hear prayer,— while his fingers were charred, while he sparkled with gems!

And I asked myself if I was seeing or dreaming,— if it was the pallor of the moon or Lucifer,— if it was midnight or midday!  

 O Typekey Divider

IX.

Undine

 

.................I believe I hear
A vague harmony enchating my sleep,
And near me pours a murmur like
Songs intersected with a voice sad
and tender.

-Ch. Brugnot, Two Genies

“Listen!— Listen!— It’s I, it’s Undine who brushes from these water droplets the sonorous rhombi of your window illumed by the mourning rays of the moon; and here is, in a moire robe, the mistress of the house who on her balcony contemplates the starry night and sleeping lake. 

“Each wave is a mermaid who swims in the current, each current is a path which slithers to my palace, and my palace is made of fluids, in the depth of the lake, in the triangle of fire, of the earth and the air.

“Listen!— Listen!— My father beats the croaking water with a green alder bough, and my sisters caress with their arms of foam the cool grass isles, of water lillies and gladioli, or mock the balding willow fishing with its beard and rod and line.”  

 

Her song murmured, she provided me with her ring for my finger, to be the groom of an Undine, to visit her in her palace, to be the king of lakes.

And when I responded that I loved a mortal, sulky and vexed, she cried a few tears, let out a burst of laughter, and fainted into a downpour that ran white down my blue stained glass.

 O Typekey Divider

X.

The Salamander

 

He throws in the hearth several
leaves of blessed holly, which
crackle as they burn.

-Ch. Nodier, Trilby

“Cricket, my friend, are you dead, do you stay deaf in the noise of my whistle, and blind in the glow of the fire?”

And the cricket, whose voice is adored by the salamander, does not respond, for he sleeps a magic sleep, or at least has the fantasy of sulking.

“Oh! sing me your song of each night in your stall of cinders and soot, behind the iron plaque carved with three heraldic fleurs de lis!”

But the cricket still does not respond, and the tearful salamander listens if it was not his voice, then sulks with the flame changing colours pink, blue, red, yellow, white and violet.

“He is dead, he is dead, the cricket my friend!” And I hear his sighs and sobs, while the flame, now livid, shrinks in its saddened hearth.  

“He is dead! And as he is dead, I want to die!” The shoots and kindle are consumed, the flame drags out in its embers to say goodbye to the trammel, and the salamander dies of emptiness.

 O Typekey Divider

XI.

The Sabbath Hour

 

Who passes so late in crossing the valley?

H. de Latouche, The King of Alders

It’s here! and already, in the thick of shrubbery, lit in pain is the phosphoric eye of the savage cat crouched beneath the row;

In the flanks of rooks who soak in the presipice of night their underbrush-hair, dripping with dew and glistening verses;

On the side of the torrent that spurts white foam to pines, and drizzles grey mist before castles;

A crowd gathers innumerable, who the old lumberjack delayed by his path, his load of wood on his back, can hear and not see.

And oak to oak, hill to hill, reply a thousand shouts confused, mournful, fearful: “Hum! hum!— Schup! schup!— Cuckoo! cuckoo!”

The gallows are here!— And here appears in the haze a jew who seeks something amidst the wet grass, in the golden splendour of a glorious morning.

 

--Poems translated by by Eli Wallis
***
--Background & Foreground photo by Ira Joel Haber