“The passing poet has a duty to collect what remains of human joy, the sadness that is like the dregs of happy things; and from them he makes verses.” Catulle Mendès

Le Soir d’une fleur

 

Catulle Mendès (1887)

On l’avait jetée, pendant cette fête, de voiture en voiture ; lancée au hasard, attrapée, lancée encore, elle avait été comme le volant de ces exquises raquettes que sont les mains des Parisiennes ; puis, un badaud l’ayant mal agrippée, elle tomba dans la boue, parmi l’herbe rase et humide ; et personne, d’abord, ne s’inquiéta d’elle ; et, plus tard, dans la fête mouillée, mille pieds la piétinèrent, sous la gaieté languissante des lampions et des verres de couleur, tandis que sonnaient les grosses caisses et les trombones des baraques foraines. C’était une toute petite églantine rose, presque en bouton encore, avec une longue tige épineuse.

Comme je passais, hier soir, à travers la foule, je vis, dans la grisaille de la fange, une petite rougeur pâle qui était cette fleur morte ; tout de suite je devinai quel avait été le sort de l’églantine, triomphante, puis mélancolique, pendant la journée de plaisir et de folie : elle était là maintenant, souvenir, entre deux petits tas de boue, comme entre deux feuillets d’un livre, déjà flétrie, charmante encore, relique souillée et parfumée. J’eus la pensée de la ramasser, de la conserver ; savais-je si je n’y retrouverais point l’odeur qui m’est chère entre toutes, l’odeur que j’ai aspirée, une seule minute, de mes lèvres rapides, sur le bout d’un petit doigt ganté, dans l’antichambre, après le thé de cinq heures, tandis que l’on remet les manteaux ? Et puis, cette rose, c’était tout ce qui restait de la gaieté d’une heure, de la promenade enrubannée et fleurissante, où Paris avait imité la fantaisie et les rires d’un Corso d’Italie. Le poète qui passe a pour devoir de recueillir ce qui demeure de la joie humaine, cette tristesse qui est comme la lie des choses heureuses ; et, après, il en fait des vers.

Je me baissai donc, pour prendre la fleur.

Mais une main avait devancé la mienne, une toute petite main, celle d’une fillette mal vêtue, sordide, presque en haillons, l’air d’une mendiante. Je laissai faire cette enfant, je ne lui disputai point la morose épave qu’elle saisit et qu’elle mit dans son corsage, sous le bâillement de l’étoffe sans boutons, très vite, furtivement. La pauvre mignonne ! cela lui plaisait, habituée à marcher dans la boue, d’y cueillir une fleur.

A Flower’s Evening

 

Catulle Mendès (1887)

It had been thrown from carriage to carriage during the racing festival; tossed at random, caught and tossed again, it was like a shuttlecock, and the hands of Parisian women were the exquisite rackets. Then an onlooker had clumsily let it slip and fall into the mud and wet mown grass. And no one, at first, bothered with it. Later in the damp festival, hundreds of feet trampled it beneath the flagging cheer of lanterns and coloured glass, while large drums and trombones played in the stalls. It was a tiny wild rose, hardly more than a bud, with a long thorny stem.

Yesterday evening, as I was passing through the crowd, I saw in the greyness of the mire something small and blush that was this dead flower. I guessed at once what had been the fate of the wild rose, triumphant, then melancholy, during the day’s pleasure and folly. And there it lay, a memory between two small heaps of mud, as between two pages of a book, already wilted, still charming, a soiled, perfumed relic. I had the thought of picking it up and keeping it. Might I not have found in it the scent dearest of all to me, the scent I breathed in for just one brief moment when my quick lips touched the end of a small gloved finger in the foyer after five o’clock tea while we were putting on our coats? And besides, this rose was all that remained of an hour’s gaiety, of a promenade decorated with ribbons and flowers where Paris had imitated the fantasy and laughter of a Corso in Italy. The passing poet has a duty to collect what remains of human joy, the sadness that is like the dregs of happy things; and from them he makes verses.

So I bent down to pick up the flower.

But a hand had got there before mine, a tiny hand, that of a grubby, poorly dressed little girl, almost in rags, with the air of a beggar. I let the child have the flower, I did not challenge her for the sullen castaway that she grabbed and put inside her bodice, under the gaping buttonless cloth, very quickly and furtively. Poor little darling! She found pleasure in this, accustomed to walking in the mud, and there finding a flower and picking it up.

Translated by Patricia Worth ©2019

Catulle_Mendès chez lui

Catulle Mendès

Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), a French writer of Portuguese descent, was allied with Parnassian poets who advocated restraint and technical perfection in writing, using fantastic tales to criticize bourgeois values. Mendès wrote prolifically, producing among other works a number of original and reworked fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership.

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Patricia Worth is a literary translator. Her published translations include George Sand’s novel, Spiridion (2015), two bilingual books of New Caledonian stories (2017, 2018), a small collection by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, Winter Tales (2018), and Jean Lorrain’s Stories to Read by Candlelight (2019). Several short stories have appeared in journals in Australia, New Caledonia and the U.S., including Bewildering StoriesSunspot LitThe AALITRA Review and Eleven Eleven.

The short story, ‘Le Soir d’une fleur’, is the first in a collection of fairy tales, Les Oiseaux bleus (The Bluebirds). While the rest of the stories include fairies or some kind of magic, the characters in this one are realistic; there is no supernatural intervention. However, the child’s imagination regarding this flower helps her to forget her grim life for a while. The flower is her fairy. She keeps it tucked inside her bodice and touches it every now and then. Later she finds an old newspaper and hides under a table among the legs of some gamblers, tears out some pages and folds them to make two carriages. She tosses the rose from one carriage to the other as she had seen the rich people do. -P-W.

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