Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Georges Rodenbach's Hans Cadzand's Vocation and Other Stories


At the same time every morning Mevrouw Cadzand and her son, Hans Cadzand, made their way back from eight-o'clock mass in the Church of Our Lady to Blinde-Ezelstraat, where they lived.

Bruges, the old grey town, was just waking. Passers-by were rare, only a few early beguines or the occasional peasant woman leading a dog-cart from door to door and selling milk out of gleaming copper jugs, patches of moonlight amid the fog. For the mists cleared very slowly, mist of the north breaking up, deathly pale morning twilight.

Bruges had the air of a ghost town. The high towers, the trees along the canals withdrew, absorbed by the same muslin: impenetrable fog with not a single rift. Even the carillon seemed to have to escape, to force its way out of a prison yard filled with cotton wool to be free in the air, to reach the gables over which, every quarter of an hour, the bells poured, like falling leaves, a melancholy autumn of music.

Hans Cadzand and his mother made a silent couple as they walked along the canals, taciturn. She was always dressed in dark material, he in black with something a touch old-fashioned, timeless, about the severe cut of his clothes, something self-enclosed and a little ecclesiastical. He looked still young, this side of thirty, with a nobility of feature which was dazzling. It was astonishing that one so handsome could be so sad: eyes blazing feverishly in a dull complexion and a turbulent mass of blond hair with a mingling of honey, amber and dead leaves.

His mother, already growing old, made her way beside him but, close to each other as they were, in reality they seemed very distant. The quais run parallel, but separated by all the cold water of the canals, and they too seemed each to be pursuing reflections without mixing them. Between them was a great, mournful mystery, cold and impenetrable as the water itself. What could it be? Public curiosity was aroused. As they passed, people often spied on them from the stillness of their homes, from behind the tulle of the curtains; and, thanks to those indiscreet little mirrors called busybodies that are fixed to the outside of the window frames, they continued, as the pair went on, to watch for a gesture, an exchange of glances, a sign, the slant of a profile which might throw some light on their secret.

The enigma of this pensive pair seemed all the more inexplicable to the inhabitants of Bruges in that life had been kind to Mevr. Cadzand and her son. They belonged to an old family, they had inherited ample resources, but they lived a reclusive life, cloistered, humble, reduced to the bare necessities. They spent their income on good works, on charity.

What had happened for them to cut themselves off from the world like that?

Especially the son! His behaviour did not conform to what was expected, to what was usual for his age. True, his mother, for her part, had suffered a great misfortune in the past, being widowed after only a year and a half of marriage. But time heals all wounds, consigns such grief to oblivion, freezes the most ardent tears in the fine hail of funerary pearls with which tombs are decorated.

And then, Mevr. Cadzand had had the compensation of this model son.

Even now he never went out except with her. He had no friends, no business outside the house. The women looked with envy on this mother who was always escorted. It is the great sorrow of all women that their children go their own way, leaving their bosom as sad as a country from which one is departing. But this mother had realised the mother's dream. She was entirely devoted to her son. Her son was entirely devoted to her.

But it was precisely that which seemed strange. Why, being so united, did they appear to be so unhappy?

Without suspecting that they were attracting attention, that all eyes, lacking occupation in this dead town, were fixed on them, they continued to walk back along the canals after mass each morning, at such a funereal pace and so shut off from everything outside their own selves that even the swans on the canals, sensitive as they were, did not take fright, did not feel the shadow of the couple in black stain their white silence with mourning.