The Only Beautiful Woman

*

I

In those days in this country, girls and young women rarely knew they were pretty, and then it was only through hearsay. All mirrors, large and small, were no sooner attached to a wall or held in the hand than they would shatter and scatter in glittering debris, with no visible blow, as if by themselves. And do you know why they broke like this? Because they were desperate not to be the glass that reflected Princess Amaranth, with her lips like a flower, her eyes like the sky, her hair like the sun.

For a hundred leagues around, one would have searched a long time and not met a lady or a maiden who, for beauty, was comparable to the princess: she enchanted all that surrounded her: men, animals, and things. Neither her father the king nor her little dog ever grew tired of admiring her. If, for a few hours, she did not pass through the room where the Gentlemen of the Court would while away time, they would fall ill with misery. On days when she had not taken her usual stroll in the park, the impatiens and hyacinths falling asleep in a rustling of leaves would say to one another, even after the most beautiful day: “What miserable weather we’ve had!” But she was at least as wicked as she was beautiful. She may have had deep blue eyes where the light was deliciously softened, but she also had angry outbursts that made everyone tremble. Her desire was more often to bite than to smile, although her mouth had the sweet loveliness of a small fresh rose. And anger was not her greatest fault: she was envious–she who possessed in chests of jade and gold so many diamonds and pearls–to the point where she would blanch with rage if she saw one or two dewdrops on a morning primrose, or a few glass beads around the neck of a poor woman. And there is more: with a heart closed to all tenderness, she had reduced to despair the handsomest and richest princes on earth who could not see her without loving her. Up to twelve suitors were said to have died of sorrow from not being able to win her hand in marriage.

 

II

Once, when she was on the lawn with her maids of honor playing berlurette–a game of illusions and trifles, a very fashionable game at that time in the court–she heard two pages strolling along a nearby lane behind a lilac bush, talking about a marvelous bird that resembled, according to travelers’ tales, a rosy blaze of gems in flight, and had its nest on the highest peak of a wild mountain in the country of the Algonquins! Straightaway–despite having, in twenty aviaries, hoopoes, swifts, finches, amethyst and emerald hummingbirds, budgerigars, wild pink songbirds, firecrests, bellbirds and female nightingales–she wanted this unusual bird. She called for a prince who for the love of her had been staying at court for more than a year, in deep melancholy. He was the very nephew of the Emperor of Trebizond. He was young, and as beautiful as a spring morning. To please the princess, he had accomplished the most perilous exploits and triumphed in the harshest trials, but she never rewarded his love and devotion, which he ceaselessly declared, with anything but rebuffs.

When the prince came, she said:

“My lord, you will please go and get for me the bird like a rosy blaze of gems, which has its nest on a mountain in the land of the Algonquins! And if you bring it back, I will perhaps let you kiss the tip of the nail of my little finger.”

“Oh, madame!” cried a maid of honor, “Don’t you know that this bird, in its distant solitude, is guarded by a thousand ferocious eagles with iron talons and iron beaks? They would soon tear to pieces anyone insane enough to approach them, be he the strongest and most courageous of fellows.”

Amaranth, with a furious hand, had already broken the stem of the nearest rose bush!

“What does this have to do with you, mademoiselle?”

Then, turning to the prince, she said:

“I thought, my lord, you had already gone.”

He bowed and left with a hasty step. Such was his bravery, and especially such was his desire to earn the promised reward, that he was victorious over the thousand ferocious eagles. After only a few days–the mountain was perhaps not as far off as was thought–he reappeared, and on his fist, like a friendly falcon, was the splendid bird made of living gems. The princess, with an air of contempt, declared that the little winged animal was not worth the reputation that people gave it. Yet she agreed to stroke it, two or three times. But the cruel, forgetful woman did not give her pink nail to the nephew of the Emperor of Trebizond to be kissed, and she did not even notice that the forehead, cheeks, neck, and hands of the eagle conqueror were all gashed and still bleeding! He withdrew, without complaint, resigned.

 

III

And this was not the only peril to which she exposed the prince. Because she longed for an exceptional emerald, he had to descend into the bowels of the earth and triumph over a multitude of gnomes armed with flaming torches. He returned with burns still smoking! The princess was happy to accept the precious gem, but of the promised little finger, there was no mention. Another time, she demanded he go to the property of a greatly feared sorcerer and pick for her a flower that sang like a nightingale, and this flower was blooming in the clearing of a great forest where all the branches were couched lances. He returned, with more than a thousand stabs, all red with wounds, almost dying! The princess consented to listening to the flower’s song, but as for saying to the Emperor’s nephew: “Here is my pink nail,” she was inclined not to. And he did not complain, happy perhaps to suffer, even without a reward, always sad and always kind to her, such a cruel woman.

 

IV

One morning in a gallery among her maids of honor when she was playing baguenaudier, a game of silliness and time-wasting–it was a game which in those days at court was not less fashionable than berlurette–she heard two officers of the palace talking to each other behind a door curtain about a young girl, more exquisite than all women and all fairies. An African giant was keeping her captive in a bronze castle. She was so perfect that she was called “Beautiful” simply because she was the only beautiful woman in all the world. And the officers, thinking they could not be overheard, added that Amaranth, next to this young person, was nothing but a homely puss. Four Chinese vases shattered beneath the small furious fists of the princess! A living girl, prettier than she, that was something she could not bear! The idea came to her immediately to put to death, with the most frightful torture, this girl who had the strange impudence to surpass her in beauty.

She called for the nephew of the Emperor of Trebizond.

“My lord,” she said, “you will please go and get for me the woman called Beautiful whom an African giant is keeping captive in a bronze castle, and, if you capture her, I swear to you that this time I will not refuse your lips a kiss on the pink nail of my little finger.”

“Oh, madame!” cried a maid of honor, “Don’t you know that in this far-off castle, Beautiful is guarded by a thousand warriors with heads of lions and tigers who tear apart and devour the foolish men prowling in the neighborhood in less time than it takes a vulture to gobble down a lark? A great army of heroes, brandishing, not lances, but thunder and lightning, would not defeat these monsters who never sleep! It will be all over for the prince if he does not refuse to submit to your whim.”

Amaranth slapped the cheeks of the wretched maid of honor. Then, turning to the prince, she said:

“What! How is it, my lord, that you are not back yet?”

He bowed his head and left. But it was only after an absence of several months that he appeared again before the princess, on a day when she was crossing the palace courtyard. He was in a state that would have softened the most horrid hearts! His clothes were hanging in shreds; all his flesh was gouged with deep teeth marks; one of his arms was missing; he had probably left it in the mouth of one of the warriors with the head of a lion or tiger. But, with the pride of victory glowing in his eyes and floating around his disheveled hair, he was superb, magnificent! And behind him, on the back of an elephant, amid some slaves, there was a palanquin of yellow velvet with long golden fringes.

“You are welcome,” said Princess Amaranth, “if you are bringing me Beautiful!”

“I am bringing her,” said he.

“In this palanquin?”

“Yes.”

“Hurry up then, have her descend from it.”

The prince approached the elephant which had gone down on its knees, and when the yellow velvet was drawn aside, those present saw such an admirable person, all snow and gold, that they were dazzled by her, as one is when looking at the glory of the sun. Princess Amaranth shouted with joy and rage, so happy was she to have this woman in her power, to make her the plaything of her hatred, the one who ridiculed her with such an incomparable beauty! And, whether her horrible contentment evoked in her a certain goodwill toward anything that was not the woman called Beautiful, or whether she could not help admiring the obedience and victorious bravery of the prince after all, she exclaimed:

“My lord! It is not only my little finger I will give you, it is my whole hand, it is my whole person, in return for Beautiful, whom you have captured. You will be the king of my kingdom and the husband in my bed!”

And she was already gesturing to the officers and servants to deliver the prisoner to her.

But the prince said:

“I have indeed captured Beautiful. Unfortunately, madame, I captured her for myself, not for you; for my love, not for your hatred. Since you, in your barbarity, too often refused me the nail of your little finger after so much toilsome trouble whereby you endangered my life, I don’t want your whole person. I’m taking to my palace in Trebizond one who is more beautiful than you, who is as kind to me as you were cruel!”

With that, he climbed up into the palanquin, its curtains closed again, and the enormous elephant, swift as a light-footed antelope–for it was, I think, some enchanted elephant–disappeared into the sunlit dust of the road, while Princess Amaranth, to overcome her rage, sank her teeth into the arms and shoulders of her maids of honor.

Bios

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 writings, a number of original and reworked fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership.

Patricia Worth

Patricia Worth has a Master of Translation Studies from the Australian National University. Her translated stories from the 19th and 21st centuries have been published in Australian, New Caledonian, and US literary journals, including The AALITRA Review, Sillages d’Océanie 2014Eleven Eleven, and The Brooklyn Rail. Worth’s translation of George Sand’s Spiridion was published by SUNY Press in 2015. She can be contacted at worth.patricia@gmail.com.

English translation copyright (c) Patricia Worth, 2016.