The romance of Rêve de Burchell


Madame M ran her pen over a still blank page, searching for some inspiration. From her windows, the reflections from the Seine produced sparkling metallic glints on the imposing architecture of Pont Alexandre III.

She placed the tip of her pen on the paper and began.

‘At last!’, she could see him over there …

Madame M waved her hand in the direction of Ernest Hemingway and saw him run to meet her. Her heart beat quickened.

For a moment, the image of Pauline haunted her. Furtive, but real. She had never seen her, just in a photo. Of course Ernest’s wife was not aware that she and her husband had planned to meet here, on the coast of Zanzibar.

What they were doing there was clearly forbidden, and this very idea filled here with loquacious excitement, making the hairs on her forearm stand erect with delicious shivers. In the eyes of the world, she was nothing, a nobody, just his lover, his beautiful lover, and this anonymity crept through her, bubbling over; her blood was becoming effervescent. Passion was taking hold of her head, her body and each part of her bare skin. She was alive.

– « Madame M », said Ernest said with feigned deference, bowing gallantly.

– Enough … she murmured with emotion, embrace me !

The bags crashed to the floor, making almost no noise, given the situation. Ernest had forgotten everything: his hat, his suit tightened at the neck and even his modesty. Their embrace made them forget all the vows of discretion that they had agreed to bide by. The taste of Ernest’s lips and his musky smell banished Madame M’s last doubts.

Around them the hustle and bustle of the port punctuated their reunion, without disturbing them in any way. In the bay, like large hippos, the cargo ships were ferrying the wonders from the famous Spice island to the Mainland.

Finally Ernest released her from his arms.

– Have you not brought Capucin with you?, stuttered Madame M, still troubled by his kisses.

– My wife is looking after him.

– Oh! … Yes, of course

– I’ve hired a Jeep, said Ernest abruptly to change the subject. Do you fancy a quick tour? The sun will soon be setting.

How could she refuse? Everything went on and M’s gaze never left Ernest. It was only when the Jeep entered a long, unending track that she lifted her eyes for the first time.

Despite its sturdiness, the car lurched in all directions, and it became a real swing to which both of them danced to the rhythm of the jolts. Startled by the powerful throbbing noise, here and there, rock hyraxes came out of their holes.

The first village soon came into view. Dozens of Swahili children joined them, surrounding the car, accompanying their jolts with crystal clear laughter; while their wooden sticks rang hollow against the ground.

M closed her eyes and let her imagination run wild. The elusive Swahili imprint and soul poured joyfully, frivolously out, in the Tanganyikan air. She breathed more deeply, filling her lungs with this magical and pure air. The children were still laughing, she tried to connect to their pulsating frequency. Her thoughts pranced behind them, then with them, as they hung on to the car’s chassis. For a brief instant, she became one with their Maasai thoughts.

They went past the village. The laughter faded. Soon, they were alone. Them and the Savannah. Breathtaking scenery.

As the sun sunk in the sky, the arid land of the tenth parallel south became suffused with golden tints. A wave of burning humidity breathed out gently over the earth as if a hundred thousand pearls of warm dew were unfurling their glistening bodies.

The closeness of the air gripped them like a vice, sticking to the clothes, turning their white skin red. M used her silk scarf to lift up her hair and tie it behind her, in the hope of capturing a hint of freshness: this was the epitome of the flapper fashion that was taking Paris by storm. Ernest stroked her cleared face.

– As beautiful as ever, M, even in extreme conditions.

M blushed. Fortunately, under her complexion, already pink with the ambient heat, Ernest saw nothing but fire.

– Look! exclaimed M.

The Safari was taking place before them. The hot air pulsated with a symphony of animals. The savannah was coming to life, more melodious than the la Cigale , more deafening than the café du Dôme or la Coupole in Montparnasse.

At this end of this afternoon, one might think that the ostriches had begun to dance a Charleston together. They were flapping their feathers like the great Mistinguett used to do at the Folies Bergères.

A king cheetah went passed them like a jazz star galloping at more than eighty decibels per kilometre; dispersing this meeting of feathered beauties in a dignified cacophony.

Some Burchell’s zebras  galloped alongside the Jeep, showing off their black and white striped, art deco flanks, for the benefit of M’s brand new Leica camera. This was the first year it went on sale. She was very proud of it.

The herd of Damaliscus, those antelopes with long twisted horns, converged towards the water hole, cutting off the car’s path.

– You would think we were on the Boulevard Parnasse in a Saturday rush hour’, quipped M.

– I hate those Montparnos, Hemingway replied, mockingly.


He scattered them with his horn. M laughed. Under the setting sun, the shimmering shadows parted with impassive grace. Ernest stopped the Jeep at the side of the lake and took M by the waist.

The waltz of the crocodiles surprised them since they thought they were alone. The scaly monster of an alligator sprung up and snatched a young Damaliscus standing on the shore into its gaping mouth. Ernest caringly placed a hand in front of M’s wide eyes. They hurriedly returned to the Jeep. The monster’s yellow eye followed them for a moment.

Finally, Africa’s Great Rift valley lay before them, and the picture moved M even more than one of Apollinaire’s poems. Beyond the valley, on the other side of the Rift, the outline of Mont Mahale was visible in the glowing sky. At its peak, the sun was slowly disappearing, as though it was incubating a thousand smouldering embers, in an endless rhythm.

Like one of Stein’s dreams – what a woman, that Gertrude! – M saw beauty well up in its purest state before her astounded eyes. Her heart burst in an infinity of twilight colours. Surely neither Cezanne nor Matisse could have done better on their canvases. Ernest took her hand. It was a perfect painting.

I would like to keep it like freeze-frame this, she mused, for thousands of years to come…

Madame M put down her pen thoughtfully. Her character was fortunate.

She raised her head and glanced out the window. Night had fallen. She hadn’t noticed. Outside, the lights of the City of Light sparkled with copper and gold tints, now bathing the Pont Alexandre in a golden, mystical phosphorescence that was reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties.

It was time. Night would not wait. Nor could she.

Hastily, she pulled on her coat and slipped out like a shadow, the diary remained open; her next literary adventure suspended on the last page.


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