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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Mirror
By Catulle Mendès (1841–1909)
 
From ‘The Humor of France’: Translation of Elizabeth Lee

IT was in a kingdom in which there was no mirror. All the mirrors—those you hang on the walls, those you hold in your hand, those you carry on the châtelaine—had been broken, reduced to the tiniest bits by order of the Queen. If the smallest glass was found, no matter in what house, she never failed to put the inhabitants to death with terrible tortures. I can tell you the motives of the strange caprice. Ugly to a degree that the worst monsters would have seemed charming beside her, the Queen did not wish when she went about the town to run the risk of encountering her reflection; and knowing herself to be hideous, it was a consolation to her to think that others at least could not see their beauty. What was the good of having the most beautiful eyes in the world, a mouth as fresh as roses, and of putting flowers in your hair, if you could not see your head-dress, nor your mouth, nor your eyes? You could not even count on your reflection in the brooks and lakes. The rivers and ponds of the country had been hidden under deftly joined slabs of stone; water was drawn from wells so deep that you could not see their surface, and not in pails in which reflection would have been possible, but in almost flat troughs. The grief was beyond anything you can imagine, especially among the coquettes, who were not rarer in that country than in others. And the Queen did not pity them at all; but was well content that her subjects should be as unhappy at not seeing themselves as she would have been furious at sight of herself.  1
  However, there was in a suburb of the town a young girl called Jacinthe, who was not quite so miserable as the rest, because of a lover she had. Some one who finds you beautiful, and never tires of telling you so, can take the place of a mirror.  2
  “What, truly?” she asked, “there is nothing unpleasant in the color of my eyes?”  3
  “They are like corn-flowers in which a clear drop of amber has fallen.”  4
  “My skin isn’t black?”  5
  “Know that your brow is purer than snow crystals; know that your cheeks are like roses fair yet pink!”  6
  “What must I think of my lips?”  7
  “That they are like a ripe raspberry.”  8
  “And what of my teeth, if you please?”  9
  “That grains of rice, however fine, are not as white.”  10
  “But about my ears, haven’t I reason for disquiet?”  11
  “Yes, if it disquiets you to have in a tangle of light hair, two little shells as intricate as newly opened violets.”  12
  Thus they talked,—she charmed, he more ravished still; for he did not say a word which was not the very truth. All that she had the pleasure of hearing praised, he had the delight of seeing. So their mutual tenderness grew livelier from hour to hour. The day he asked if she would consent to have him for her husband, she blushed, but certainly not from fear; people who seeing her smile might have thought she was amusing herself with the thought of saying no, would have been much mistaken. The misfortune was, that the news of the engagement came to the ears of the wicked Queen, whose only joy was to trouble that of others; and she hated Jacinthe more than all, because she was the most beautiful of all.  13
  Walking one day, a short time before the wedding, in the orchard, an old woman approached Jacinthe asking alms; then suddenly fell back with a shriek, like some one who has nearly trodden on a toad.  14
  “Ah, heaven! what have I seen?”  15
  “What’s the matter, my good woman, and what have you seen? Speak.”  16
  “The ugliest thing on the face of the earth.”  17
  “Certainly that isn’t me,” said Jacinthe, smiling.  18
  “Alas! yes, poor child, it is you. I have been a long time in the world, but I never yet met any one so hideous as you are.”  19
  “Do you mean to say that I am ugly—I?”  20
  “A hundred times more than it is possible to express!”  21
  “What! my eyes?”  22
  “They are gray as dust; but that would be nothing if you did not squint in the most disagreeable way.”  23
  “My skin?”  24
  “One would say that you had rubbed your forehead and cheeks with coal-dust.”  25
  “My mouth?”  26
  “It is pale like an old autumnal flower.”  27
  “My teeth?”  28
  “If the beauty of teeth was to be large and yellow, I should not know any more beautiful than yours.”  29
  “Ah! At least my ears—”  30
  “They are so big, so red, and so hairy, one cannot look at them without horror. I am not at all pretty myself, and yet I think I should die of shame if I had the like.”  31
  Thereupon the old woman, who must have been some wicked fairy, a friend of the wicked Queen, fled, cruelly laughing; while Jacinthe, all in tears, sank down on a bench under the apple-trees.  32
  Nothing could divert her from her affliction. “I am ugly! I am ugly!” she repeated unceasingly. In vain her lover assured her of the contrary with many oaths. “Leave me! you are lying out of pity. I understand everything now. It is not love but pity that you feel for me. The beggar-woman had no interest in deceiving me; why should she do so? It is only too true: I am hideous. I cannot conceive how you even endure the sight of me.” In order to undeceive her, it occurred to him to make many people visit her: every man declared that Jacinthe was exactly made for the pleasure of eyes; several women said as much in a fashion a little less positive. The poor child persisted in the conviction that she was an object of horror. “You are planning together to impose upon me!” and as the lover pressed her, in spite of all, to fix the day for the wedding, “I your wife!” she cried, “never! I love you too tenderly to make you a present of such a frightful thing as I am.” You can guess the despair of this young man, so sincerely enamored. He threw himself on his knees, he begged, he supplicated. She always answered the same thing, that she was too ugly to marry. What was he to do? The only means of contradicting the old woman, of proving the truth to Jacinthe, would have been to put a mirror before her eyes. But there was not a mirror in the whole kingdom; and the terror inspired by the Queen was so great that no artisan would have consented to make one.  33
  “Well, I shall go to court,” said the lover at last. “However barbarous our mistress is, she cannot fail to be moved by my tears and Jacinthe’s beauty. She will retract, if only for a few hours, the cruel command from which all the harm comes.” It was not without difficulty that the young girl allowed herself to be conducted to the palace. She did not want to show herself, being so ugly; and then, what would be the use of a mirror except to convince her still more of her irremediable misfortune? However, she finally consented, seeing that her lover was weeping.  34
  “Well, what is it?” said the wicked Queen. “Who are these people, and what do they want of me?”  35
  “Your Majesty, you see before you the most wretched lover on the face of the earth.”  36
  “That’s a fine reason for disturbing me.”  37
  “Do not be pitiless.”  38
  “But what have I to do with your love troubles?”  39
  “If you would allow a mirror—”  40
  The Queen rose, shaking with anger.  41
  “You dare to talk of a mirror!” she said, gnashing her teeth.  42
  “Do not be angry, your Majesty. I beseech you, pardon me and deign to hear me. The young girl you see before you labors under the most unaccountable error: she imagines that she is ugly—”  43
  “Well!” said the Queen with a fierce laugh, “she is right! I never saw, I think, a more frightful object.”  44
  At those words Jacinthe thought she should die of grief. Doubt was no longer possible, since to the Queen’s eyes as well as to those of the beggar she was ugly. Slowly she lowered her eyelids, and fell fainting on the steps of the throne, looking like a dead woman. But when her lover heard the cruel words, he was by no means resigned; he shouted loudly that either the Queen was mad, or that she had some reason for so gross a lie. He had not time to say a word more; the guards seized him and held him fast. At a sign from the Queen some one advanced, who was the executioner. He was always near the throne, because he might be wanted at any moment.  45
  “Do your duty,” said the Queen, pointing to the man who had insulted her.  46
  The executioner lifted a big sword, while Jacinthe, not knowing where she was, beating the air with her hands, languidly opened one eye, and then two very different cries were heard. One was a shout of joy, for in the bright naked steel Jacinthe saw herself, so deliciously pretty! and the other was a cry of pain, a rattle, because the ugly and wicked Queen gave up the ghost in shame and anger at having also seen herself in the unthought-of mirror.  47
 
 
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