Catulle Mendès (1885)
Translated from French by Patricia Worth (©2018)
She sang songs the birds taught her, but she sang them far better than the birds; he played the tambourine like a dancer from Bohemia, but no gypsy had ever run his fingertips as lightly over the tightly stretched skin, jingling the little brass plates. And they went along the country lanes with their music. Who were they? This question would have greatly puzzled them. What they remembered was that they had never slept in a bed nor eaten at a table. People who dwell in houses or dine on tablecloths were not of their family; indeed, they had no family at all. When they were small, so small they could hardly speak, they met on a road, she, coming from a bush, he from a ditch – what bad mothers had abandoned them? – and then and there, laughing, they took each other by the hand. It rained a little that day, but in the distance below a parting of the clouds the hills were golden, and they walked towards the sun. From then on they never had any plan for their journey but to go wherever the weather was fine. They certainly would have died of thirst and hunger if streams were not flowing through the watercress beds and if good women in the villages did not from time to time throw them a bit of crust that was too hard for the chickens. It was a sad thing to see these vagabond children so scrawny and pale. But one morning – now rather grown up – they were very surprised, as they woke in the grass at the foot of a tree, to see they had slept mouth on mouth. They found it good to have their lips joined, and they continued, eyes open, the kiss of their sleep. Thenceforth, they worried no more about their hardship. It was all the same to them to be in an unhappy situation, since they were happy; no poverty is as cruel as love is sweet. Barely clothed in a few tattered garments through which the sun burned them and the rain soaked them, they were not at all envious of people who wear cool cloth in summer and fur coats in winter. There is nothing unpleasant about old rags, even full of holes, when under those rags you are pleasing to the one you love; and many a great lady would exchange her most beautiful dress for the skin of a poor but pretty girl. The whole day long they would go from village to village, and in the squares they would stop before houses of the rich where windows were sometimes open, before inns where good-humoured peasants were sitting down to table. She would sing her songs, he would jingle and rumble his tambourine. If they were given a few pennies – as happened more than once, for they were enjoyable to see and hear – they were quite content, but they did not feel too sorry if no one gave them anything. They simply had to go to bed hungry. It is no great matter to have an empty stomach when the heart is full. Starvelings cannot complain when love offers, at night, under the stars, the divine feast of kisses.
Once, however, they felt dreadfully sad. It was in cold weather, for the north wind was blowing, and having received no alms for three days, stumbling with weakness, each finding enough strength only to support the other, they had taken shelter in a barn open to all the winds. Though entwined in each other’s arms, most ardently embracing, they shivered pitifully. Even when they kissed, their mouths remembered they had not eaten. Ah, poor things! And with the despair of today they had the worry of tomorrow. What would they do, what would become of them if charitable people did not help them? Alas! Would they have to die so young, abandoned by all, on a pile of hard stones on the road, but not as hard as the hearts of men?
“What!” said she. “Will we never have what all others have? Is it too much to ask for a little fire to warm ourselves, a little bread for the evening meal? It’s cruel to think that so many people sleep comfortably in nice warm houses, and here we are, shivering with cold like fledglings without feathers or a nest.”
He did not reply; he was weeping.
But all of a sudden they might have fancied they were already dead and in paradise, so magnificent was the light all round them, and so radiant, like the angels, was the lady coming towards them in a dress of vermilion brocade, a golden wand in her hand.
“Poor little things,” she said. “I’m touched by your misfortune and I want to come to your aid. After being poorer than the most wretched, you’ll have an abundance greater than the richest. You’ll soon have so much treasure that you won’t find enough chests in all the country to contain it.”
Hearing this, they thought they were dreaming.
“Oh, my lady! How could such a thing happen?”
“I want you to know I am a fairy for whom nothing is impossible. For each of you from now on, when you open your mouth a gold coin will come out of it, and another, and another, and another. It will thus be up to you if you wish to have more riches than you could imagine.”
With that, the fairy disappeared. And because of this wonder, they were dumb with astonishment, their mouths wide open, and from their lips fell ducats, sequins, florins, doubloons, and so many beautiful coins that it seemed to be raining gold!
Time passed, and now, throughout the world, there was talk of nothing but a duke and duchess who lived in a palace as large as a town, as brilliant as a starry sky; for the walls, built of the rarest marbles, were encrusted with amethysts and chrysoprases. The outer splendour was nothing compared with what could be seen inside. I would tell you of all the precious furniture, all the golden statues that decorated the rooms and all the bejewelled chandeliers that sparkled on the ceilings, but there would be no end to it. The eyes were blinded from gazing on so many marvels. And in that palace the masters held feasts that everyone agreed were beyond compare. Tables so long that an entire population could sit at them were laden with the greatest delicacies and the most famous wines. On golden platters the carvers carved the Tartary pheasants, and into cups made from a single fine stone the cupbearers poured wine from the Canary Islands. If some poor devil – not having eaten since yesterday – had suddenly entered the dining room, he would have been astonished and overjoyed! As you can imagine, the guests admired and praised in every way the hosts who treated them so royally. And the duke and duchess contributed not a little to putting people in a good mood, for as soon as they opened their mouths to eat or speak, out tumbled gold coins that servants collected in baskets and distributed to all the persons present, after dessert.
The fame of such great riches and generosity spread so far and wide that it even reached the land of the fairies. One of them – she who had appeared in a brocade dress in the barn open to all the winds – decided to pay a visit to her protégés, to see up close the happiness she had given them, and to receive their thanks.
But when, towards evening, she entered the sumptuous bedroom where the duke and duchess had just retired, she was strangely surprised, for far from exhibiting their joy and thanking her, they threw themselves at her feet, their eyes filled with tears as they sobbed in anguish.
“Is it possible?” said the fairy. “What is this I see? Are you not satisfied with your lot?”
“Alas, my lady, we’re so unhappy that we’re going to die of heartache if you don’t take pity on us!”
“What! Do you not find yourselves rich enough?”
“We’re only too rich!”
“Could it be that it displeases you to see nothing but gold coins always falling from your lips, and, feeling the need of a change, you would be pleased if I brought forth diamonds or sapphires as big as turtle eggs?”
“Ah, do not do such a thing!”
“Tell me, then, what afflicts you, for I cannot guess it.”
“Great Fairy, it’s very nice to warm yourself when you’re cold, to sleep in a feather bed and to eat your fill, but there’s one thing better still than all these. It’s to kiss on the lips when you love each other! Now, sadly, since you made us rich, we no longer have this pleasure! For each time we open our mouths to join them, out come detestable sequins or horrible ducats, and so it’s gold we kiss!”
“Ah!” said the fairy. “I had never thought of this inconvenience. But there is no remedy for this, and you would do well to accept it.”
“Never! Soften your heart. Can you not take back the awful present you gave us?”
“Yes, I can. But I want you to know you will lose not only the gift of distributing gold, but, with it, all the riches acquired.”
“Oh! That would not matter to us!”
“Let it be, then,” said the fairy, “as you wish.”
And, touched by the magic wand, they found themselves in cold weather with the north wind blowing, in a barn open to all the winds. What they once were, they were again: starved, half-naked, shivering from cold like fledglings without feathers or a nest. But they were careful not to complain, and considered themselves very happy, lips on lips.