The Blue Rose, by Humberto de Campos

(My translation of the short story A rosa azul, which was published in the collection A serpente de bronze in 1921.)

W

hen I met Knight Commander Luiz de Faria, he was waiting for his carriage at the door of the funeral directors. It wasn’t long since he’d closed the eyes of the old Marchioness of São Justino, having sweetened the moment of her death with the auspicious – if untrue – news that her grandson, Guilherme de Araújo, a student, was now a completely reformed character. Still downcast by the emotions of that moment, when he’d had to resort to a falsehood to perfume the last breath of a life of virtue and suffering, the former peer of the Portuguese realm accepted a lift in my vehicle and confided in me along the way:

‘A lie is necessary at times, my friend. The lie I availed myself of half an hour ago, to soothe the death of a saint, of a lady whose main hope was the future of a grandson who’d renounced his home, was just as necessary as the lie the Carthusian prior told to assuage the death throes of the famous monk Bussaco.’

I looked enquiringly at my companion and when, surprised, he realised I didn’t know what he was talking about he exclaimed:

‘So you don’t know the legend of the blue rose?!’

When – to his continuing surprise – I confirmed my ignorance, the Knight Commander rested his strong hands on the gold pommel of his dress cane and set forth:

‘Many, many years ago, in the Carthusian monastery in Bussaco, in Portugal, there lived a pious, saintly monk who devoted his whole life, equally, to prayer and roses. A gardener of the soul and of flowers, he used to spend the morning on his knees in the silence of the nave, at the feet of Christ crucified, and the afternoon in the small monastery garden, bent in front of the rose bushes, which he planted and watered himself.’

The Knight Commander paused for a moment, shifted himself against the backrest, and continued:

‘However, he’d dedicated his gardener’s patience to an idea, to a dream: to grow the legendary oriental blue rose which he’d read about one night in Latin poems written by mediaeval monks. That was why he hunted for seeds, for offshoots, grafted them, prepared the soil in which he planted them and the water with which he moistened them, anxiously awaiting the appearance, at the top of the stem, of the longed-for blue flower!

‘After sixty years of experimenting, and of dreams in which the red wounds of Christ melded, in his imagination, with the cerulean hues of his enchanted rose, there finally appeared, crowning a stem of the rose bush, a bud cocooning a flower as blue as the sky. The frail centenarian succumbed to emotion: he became ill. After he’d been led back to his cell, he knelt, sighing deeply, before the crucified Christ and prayed, as a reward for his saintly life, not to have to close his eyes for ever without the joy of seeing his blue rose in bloom.’

He paused again before resuming:

‘In his spartan monastery bed, the saintly old man was surrounded by tearful faces. And it was then that the news began to pass from mouth to mouth until it eventually arrived at a nearby convent, where a beautiful Portuguese infanta was spending her time praying and dreaming. In the garden of her dreams, the little nun – not only young and beautiful, but also a Portuguese noblewoman – understood the value of illusion. She ran to her cell and passed the whole night making, with her snow-white fingers, a resplendent blue silk rose, which she herself perfumed with geranium essence. And the next day, in the morning, he died in his bed, smiling amidst tears of joy, because, by some miracle of heaven, he was holding – in his trembling hands – his blue rose!’

As the tilbury drew up at the kerbside, the Knight Commander shook my hand, thanked me, and added:

‘My friend, happy the person who, like that monk or like the Marchioness, dies clasping the rose – even if duplicitous – from a rosebush tended all life long.’

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