Collected French Translations: Proseby John Ashbery, Eugene Richie (Editor), Rosanne Wasserman (Editor)
An essential, vibrant collection of masterful translations by one of the finest poets at work today
Collected French Translations: Prose, the second volume in a landmark two-volume selection of John Ashbery's translations, focuses on prose writing. Ashbery's own prose writings and engagement with prose writersthrough/i>/i>/b>/b>
An essential, vibrant collection of masterful translations by one of the finest poets at work today
Collected French Translations: Prose, the second volume in a landmark two-volume selection of John Ashbery's translations, focuses on prose writing. Ashbery's own prose writings and engagement with prose writersthrough translations, essays, and criticismhave had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of the past half century. This book presents his versions of, among others, the classic French fairy tale "The White Cat" by Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, as well as works by such innovative masters as Raymond Roussel and Giorgio de Chirico. Here are all of Roussel's Documents to Serve as an Outline and extracts from his Impressions of Africa; selections from Georges Bataille's darkly erotic first novella, L'abbé C; Antonin Artaud's correspondence with the writer Jacques Rivière; Salvador Dalí on Willem de Kooning's art; Jacques Dupin on Giacometti; and key theoretical and conceptual texts by Odilon Redon, Jean Hélion, Iannis Xenakis, and Marcelin Pleynet. Several of these twenty-nine prose pieces, by seventeen fiction writers, playwrights, artists, musicians, and critics, are previously unpublished or have been long unavailable. Many are modern classics, such as Pierre Reverdy's Haunted House. This book provides fresh insight into the range of French cultural influence on Ashbery's life and work in literature and the arts.
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Read an Excerpt
THE WHITE CAT
There was once a king who had three sons, stout and courageous lads; he feared that the desire to reign might seize hold of them before his death; there were even rumors that they were seeking to acquire vassals, so as to deprive him of his kingdom. The king felt his age, yet he was still sound of mind and body, and by no means inclined to surrender a position he filled with much dignity; therefore he concluded that the best way to live in peace was to tease them with promises which he would always be able to avoid fulfilling.
He summoned them to his chamber, and after having spoken to them in a most kindly manner, he added: You will no doubt agree with me, dear children, that my advanced age no longer allows me to pursue affairs of state with the zeal of times gone by; I am afraid that my subjects may suffer because of this, and wish to place my crown on the head of one or another of you; but it is only right that, in view of such a prize, you seek various ways of pleasing me, even as I prepare my plans for retiring to go and live in the country. It seems to me that a little dog, one that is faithful, clever, and pretty, would keep me company very well; hence without choosing my eldest son, neither my youngest, I declare to you that whichever of you three brings me the most beautiful little dog will at once become my heir. The princes were surprised by their father’s inclination to have a little dog, but the two younger ones might turn it to their advantage, and accepted with pleasure the commission to go look for one; the eldest was too timid or too respectful to argue his rights. They took leave of the king; he gave them money and jewels, stipulating that they return without fail in a year, on the same day and at the same hour, to bring him their little dogs.
Before setting out they traveled to a castle at only a league’s distance from the city. They brought their closest confidants with them, and, amid much feasting, each brother swore eternal loyalty to the other two, that they would proceed to act without jealousy or bitterness, and that the most fortunate would always share his fortune with the others; finally they went away, promising that on their return they would foregather in the same castle before going together to meet their father; they wanted no one to accompany them, and changed their names so as not to be recognized.
Each journeyed by a different route: The two eldest had many adventures; but I am concerned only with those of the youngest. He was gracious, with a merry and witty temperament and a handsome mien; his body was nobly proportioned, his features regular, he had beautiful teeth, and much skill in all the activities that befit a prince. He sang agreeably; he plucked the lute and the theorbo with a delicate touch that people found charming. He knew how to paint; in a word, he was highly accomplished; and as for his valor, it verged on fearlessness.
Hardly a day passed without his buying dogs, big ones, little ones, greyhounds, mastiffs, bloodhounds, hunting dogs, spaniels, barbets, lapdogs; no sooner had he found a handsome one than he found one handsomer still, and parted with the first so as to keep the other; for it would have been impossible for him to travel with thirty or forty thousand dogs, and he wanted neither gentlemen-in-waiting, nor menservants, nor pages in his retinue. He kept pushing forward, with no idea of where he was going; suddenly he was overtaken by darkness, thunder, and rain, in a forest whose paths he could no longer distinguish.
He took the first road he came to, and after walking for a long time he spied a dim light, which convinced him that there must be a house nearby where he might take shelter until the morrow. Guided by the light, he arrived at the gate of a castle, the most magnificent one that could ever be imagined. The gate was made of gold, studded with carbuncles, whose pure and vivid glow illuminated the whole countryside. It was the one the prince had glimpsed from far away; the castle walls were of translucent porcelain in which various colors were mingled, and on which was depicted the history of all the fairies, from the creation of the world down to the present: The famous adventures of Peau d’Âne, of Finessa, of the Orange Tree, of Graciosa, of the Sleeping Beauty, of the Great Green Worm, and of a hundred others, were not omitted. He was delighted to recognize the Goblin Prince, for the latter was his first cousin once removed. The rain and the stormy weather prevented him from tarrying further while getting drenched to the bone, besides which he could see nothing at all in places where the light of the carbuncles didn’t penetrate.
He returned to the golden gate; he saw a deer’s hoof fastened to a chain made entirely of diamonds; he wondered at the negligence of those who lived in the castle; for, he said to himself, what is there to prevent thieves from coming to cut away the chain and rip out the carbuncles? They would be rich forever.
He pulled on the deer’s hoof, and at once heard the tinkling of a bell, which must have been gold or silver judging from the tone; after a moment the door opened, but he saw naught but a dozen hands that floated in the air, each holding a torch. He was so astonished that he paused at the threshold, and then felt other hands pushing him from behind with some violence. He went forward in trepidation, and, as a precaution, placed his hand on the hilt of his sword; but on entering a vestibule all encrusted with porphyry and lapis, he heard two ravishing voices singing these words:
Fear not these hands in the air,
And in this dwelling place
Fear naught but a lovely face
If your heart would flee love’s snare.
He could hardly believe that such a gracious invitation would bring him harm; and feeling himself pushed toward an enormous gate of coral, which opened as soon as he approached, he entered a salon paneled with mother-of-pearl, and then several chambers variously decorated, and so rich with paintings and precious stones, that he experienced a kind of enchantment. Thousands of lights attached to the walls, from the vaulted ceiling down to the floor, lit up parts of the other apartments, which were themselves filled with chandeliers, girandoles, and tiers of candles; in sum, the magnificence was such that he could scarcely believe his eyes, even as he looked at it.
After he had passed through sixty chambers, the hands ceased to guide him; he saw a large easy chair, which moved all by itself close to the hearth. At the same moment the fire lit itself, and the hands, which seemed to him very beautiful, white, small, plump, and well proportioned, undressed him, for he was drenched as I have already said, and feared he might catch cold. He was given, without his seeing anybody, a shirt splendid enough to wear on one’s wedding day, and a dressing gown made of cloth-of-gold, embroidered with tiny emeralds which formed numbers. The disembodied hands brought him a table on which his toilet articles were laid out. Nothing could have been more elegant; they combed his hair with a deft and light touch which pleased him mightily. Then they clothed him anew, but not with his own clothes; much richer ones had been provided. He silently admired everything that was happening around him, and sometimes he succumbed to shudders of fear that he was not quite able to suppress.
After he had been powdered, curled, perfumed, decked out, tidied up, and rendered more handsome than Adonis, the hands led him into a salon that was superbly gilded and furnished. All round the room one saw the histories of the most famous Cats: Rodillardus1 hanged by his paws at the council of rats; Puss-in-Boots of the Marquis de Carabas; the scrivener Cat; the Cat who turned into a woman, witches turned into cats, the witches’ sabbath and all its ceremonies; in a word, nothing was more remarkable than these pictures.
The table had been laid; there were two places, each set with a golden casket which held the knives, forks, and spoons; the buffet astonished him with its abundance of rock-crystal vases and a thousand rare gems. The prince was wondering for whom these two places were laid, when he saw cats taking their place in a small orchestra set up just for the occasion; one held up a score covered with the most extraordinary notes in the world; another a scroll of paper which he used to beat time; the others had small guitars. Suddenly each one began to miaow in a different key, and to scratch the guitar strings with their claws; it was the strangest music ever heard. The prince would have thought himself in hell, had he not found the palace too wonderful to admit of such an unlikely circumstance; but he stopped his ears and laughed uncontrollably as he watched the various posturings and grimaces of these newfangled musicians.
He was reflecting on the queer things that had already happened to him in this castle, when he saw a tiny figure scarcely a cubit in height entering the room. This puppet was draped in a long veil of black crepe. Two cats attended her; they were dressed in mourning, wearing cloaks, with swords at their sides; a large cortege of cats followed; some carried rat traps filled with rats, others brought mice in cages.
The prince was struck dumb with amazement; he knew not what to think. The black figurine approached, lifting its veil, and he perceived the most beautiful White Cat that ever was or ever will be. She appeared to be very young and very sad; she began to miaow so gently and sweetly that it went straight to his heart; she spoke to the prince: Welcome, O king’s son; my miaowing majesty is pleased with the sight of you. Madam Cat, said the prince, you are most generous to receive me with so much hospitality, but you seem to be no ordinary beastie; your gift of speech and the superb castle you own are evident proofs of this. King’s son, replied the White Cat, I pray you, pay me no more compliments; I am simple in speech and my manners, but my heart is kind. Come, she continued, let dinner be served, and let the musicians cease, for the prince doesn’t understand what they are saying. And are they saying something, Madam? he inquired. I am sure they are, she continued; we have poets here gifted with infinite powers of wit, and if you rest awhile among us, you will have cause to be convinced. I have only to listen to you to believe it, said the prince gallantly; but then, Madam, I consider you a rare Cat indeed.
Supper was brought in; the hands whose bodies were invisible served it. First, two bisques were placed on the table, one of pigeon, the other of well-fattened mice. The sight of one prevented the prince from tasting the other, for he supposed that the same cook had prepared them both; but the little Cat, who guessed what his thoughts were from the face he made, assured him that his meal was cooked separately, and that he could eat what was served him, in the certitude that there would be neither rats nor mice in it.
The prince didn’t have to be asked twice, sure in his belief that the pretty little Cat had no intention of deceiving him. He noticed a tiny portrait painted on metal that she wore at her wrist, which surprised him. He begged her to show it to him, imagining that it must be a portrait of Master Minagrobis,2 the king of the Cats. What was his astonishment to find it that of a young man so handsome that it seemed scarcely possible that nature might have formed another like him, yet who resembled him so strongly that one couldn’t have portrayed him better.
She sighed, and becoming more melancholy, kept a profound silence. The prince realized that there was something extraordinary in all this; however, he dared not inquire what it was, for fear of displeasing the Cat, or distressing her. He chatted with her, telling her all the news he knew, and found her well versed in the different interests of princes, and of other things that were going on in the world.
After supper, the White Cat invited her guest into a salon where there was a stage, on which twelve cats and twelve monkeys were dancing a ballet. The former were in Moorish costume, the latter in Chinese. It is easy to imagine the sort of leaps and capers they executed, while from time to time clawing at one another; it was thus that the evening came to an end. White Cat bade good night to her guest; the hands that had guided him thus far took over again and led him to an apartment that was the exact opposite of the one he had seen. It was not so much magnificent as elegant; the whole was papered with butterfly wings, whose diverse colors formed a thousand different flowers. There were also feathers of extremely rare birds, which perhaps had never been seen except in that place. The bed was draped with gauze, attached by thousands of knotted ribbons. There were huge mirrors extending from the ceiling to the parquet, and their borders of chased gold depicted an immense crowd of little cupids.
The prince lay down without saying a word, for there was no way of making conversation with the hands that waited on him; he slept little, and was awakened by an indistinct noise. The hands immediately drew him from his bed and dressed him in a hunter’s habit. He looked out into the courtyard of the castle and saw five hundred cats, some of whom had greyhounds on a leash, while others were sounding the horn; it was a great celebration. White Cat was going hunting; she wanted the prince to come with her. The officious hands presented him with a wooden horse which galloped and cantered marvelously; he was somewhat reluctant to mount it, saying that he was far from being a knight-errant like Don Quixote; but his resistance was useless, and they placed him on the wooden horse. It had a cloth and a saddle made of gold-lace embroidery and diamonds. White Cat mounted a monkey, the handsomest and most superb ever seen; she had removed her long veil and wore a dragon’s hood, which lent her an air so resolute that all the mice in the region were afraid. Never was a hunting party more agreeable; the cats ran faster than the rabbits and hares, so that when they caught one, White Cat had the spoils divided up before her, and a thousand amusing tricks of dexterity were performed; the birds for their part weren’t too secure, for the kittens climbed the trees, and the chief monkey bore White Cat up as far as the eagles’ nests, so that she might dispose of the little eagle highnesses according to her whim.
Once the hunt was over, she picked up a horn the length of a finger, but which gave out such a high, clear sound that it was easily audible ten leagues hence; no sooner had she sounded two or three fanfares than she was surrounded by all the cats in the land; some traveled by air, ensconced in chariots; others by water in barques; in a word, so many cats had never been seen before. Almost all were dressed in different costumes; she returned to the castle in pomp with this cortège, and invited the prince to come too. He was willing, even though all this cat business smacked a bit of sorcery and the witches’ sabbath, and the talking cat astonished him more than anything else.
As soon as they were back at the castle, her great black veil was placed over her head; she supped with the prince, who was hungry; liqueurs were brought which he drank with pleasure, and instantly they blotted out the memory of the little dog which he was to bring back to the king. He no longer thought of anything but miaowing with White Cat, that is, of being her good and faithful companion; he spent the days in agreeable pastimes: Sometimes he went fishing or hunting; or ballets and chariot races would be staged, and a thousand other diversions to his liking; often the beautiful Cat would even compose verses and ditties in a style so passionate that one might have thought her in love, that one couldn’t speak as she did without being in love; but her secretary, an old cat, wrote so illegibly that, even though these works have been preserved, it is impossible to read them.
The prince had even forgotten his country. The hands of which I have spoken continued to serve him. Sometimes he was sorry not to be a cat, so as to spend his life in such delightful company. Alas! he said to White Cat, how sorrowful I shall be when I leave you; I love you so dearly. Either become a girl, or turn me into a cat. She found his request most amusing, and gave only obscure answers, of which he understood almost nothing.
A year passes quickly when one has no cares or worries, when one is happy and in good health. White Cat knew the date when he must return, and as he no longer thought about it, she reminded him. Do you know, she said, that you have but three days to find the little dog that the king your father wants, and that your brothers have found very handsome ones? The prince came to his senses, amazed at his own negligence: By what secret charm, he exclaimed, have I forgotten the thing in the world that matters most to me? My kingdom and my glory depend on it; where will I find a dog that will win me a kingdom, and a horse swift enough to travel such a long way? He began to worry, and was sore aggrieved.
White Cat told him, in gentler tones: King’s son, cease lamenting, I am on your side; you may stay another day here, and, although your country is five hundred leagues distant, the trusty wooden horse will bear you there in less than twelve hours. I thank you, lovely Cat, said the prince; but it isn’t enough for me to return to my father’s house; I must also bring him a little dog. Ha! replied White Cat, here is an acorn inside which you’ll find one more beautiful than the dog star itself. Oh, said the prince, Madam Cat, your majesty is making fun of me. Put the acorn next to your ear, she continued, and you’ll hear him yap. He obeyed: At once the tiny dog began to yip and yap; the prince was transported with joy, since a dog that can be contained in an acorn must be tiny indeed. He wished to open it, but White Cat told him the dog might catch cold during the trip: It would be better to wait until he was in the presence of his father, the king. He thanked her a thousand times, and bade her a most tender adieu; I assure you, he said, that the days with you have seemed so short that I quite regret leaving you behind, and though you be the sovereign here, and all the cats who attend to you are much wittier and more gallant than our courtiers, I cannot resist inviting you to come with me. The Cat replied to this suggestion with nothing more than a profound sigh.
They took leave of each other; the prince arrived first at the castle where the meeting with his brothers was to take place. They arrived soon after, and were astonished to find a wooden horse in the courtyard who pranced better than any of those in the riding academies.
The prince came out to greet them. They embraced each other several times and recounted their various travels; but our prince took care not to tell the true story of his adventures, and showed them an ugly cur that was used for turning a spit, saying he had found it so pretty that he had decided to bring it to the king. Despite the affection that united them, the two brothers felt a secret joy at their brother’s ill-advised choice; they were at table and trod on each other’s feet, as though to tell each other they had nothing to fear from that quarter.
The next day they left together in the same coach. The two elder sons of the king had little dogs in baskets, so beautiful and so delicate that one would scarcely have dared to touch them. The youngest brought his poor turnspit, so filthy that no one could stand him. Once they were inside the palace, everyone gathered around to welcome them; they entered the king’s apartment. He couldn’t decide which of them to favor, for the little dogs that the two eldest proffered him were almost of equal beauty, and already they were arguing over which of them would inherit the crown, when the youngest settled their dispute by drawing from his pocket the acorn that White Cat had given him. He opened it at once, and everyone saw a tiny dog lying on a bed of cotton wool. He stepped through a finger ring without touching it. The prince set him on the floor, and at once he began to dance the saraband with castanets, as deftly as the most renowned Spanish dancer. His coat was of a thousand different colors; his fur and his tail trailed along the ground. The king was profoundly abashed, for it was impossible to find anything to criticize in this beautiful doggie.
And yet he had no wish to part with his crown. Its least rosette was dearer to him than all the dogs in the universe. So he told his sons that he was satisfied with their efforts, but that they had succeeded so well in the first task he had set them that he wanted to test their cleverness further before keeping his word; and so he was giving them a year to search by land and sea for a piece of cloth so fine that it would pass through the eye of a Venetian lacemaker’s needle. All three were sorely distressed at being obliged to set out on a new quest. The two princes, whose dogs were less handsome than their younger brother’s, gave their assent. Each went off in a different direction, with fewer friendly effusions than the first time, as the turnspit had somewhat cooled their affections.
Our prince set off on his wooden horse, and without caring to seek other help than that he could expect from the White Cat’s friendship, returned to the castle where she had so cordially received him. He found all the doors open; the windows, the roofs, the towers, and the walls were lit by a hundred thousand lamps, which produced a marvelous effect. The hands that had served him so well before came to meet him, took the bridle of the excellent wooden horse and led him to the stable, while the prince entered the chamber of the White Cat.
She was lying in a little basket, on a mattress of spotless white satin. Her nightcap was somewhat askew, and she seemed dejected; but when she noticed the prince she did a thousand leaps and as many capers, to show him how happy she was. Whatever cause I might have had, she told him, to hope for your return, I admit, king’s son, that I dared not flatter myself that you would; and I am usually so unlucky when I long for something, that this event surprises me. The grateful prince lavished a thousand caresses on her; he told her of the success of his trip, of which she knew more perhaps than he, and that the king wanted a piece of cloth that could pass through the eye of a needle; that in truth he thought such a thing impossible, but that he had determined to attempt it, placing all his faith in her friendship and help. White Cat assumed a solemn air, telling him that it was indeed something to ponder seriously, that fortunately there were cats in the castle who were excellent weavers, and that she herself would put her claw to the task and help to further his quest; thus he could set his mind at rest and not think of seeking elsewhere what he would find more easily in her domain than anywhere else in the world.
The hands appeared, bearing torches; and the prince followed them along with White Cat; they entered a magnificent gallery that bordered a great river, over which an immense and astounding display of fireworks was set off. Four cats were to be burned, whose trial had been in due accordance with the law. They were accused of having devoured the roast intended for White Cat’s supper, her cheese, her milk; of having gone so far as to conspire against her person with Martafax3 and Lhermite,4 two famous rats of the region, and named as such by La Fontaine, a most reputable author: But with all that, it was known that there had been a great deal of intrigue in the affair, and that most of the witnesses had been tampered with. However that may be, the prince obtained their pardon. The fireworks harmed no one, and such beautiful skyrockets have still to be seen again.
A dainty midnight supper was served, which pleased the prince more than the fireworks, for he was very hungry, and his wooden horse had brought him more quickly than any coach could have traveled. The days that followed were like those that had gone before, with a thousand different celebrations that White Cat devised to amuse her guest. He was perhaps the first mortal to be so well entertained by cats, without any other company.
It is true that White Cat had a pleasant, good-natured, and almost omniscient mind. She was more learned than a cat is permitted to be. This surprised the prince sometimes. No, he told her, it’s not natural, all the marvelous qualities I behold in you: If you love me, charming puss, tell me by what marvel you think and speak so accurately, that you could easily be received in the most learned academies? Enough of your questions, king’s son, she would say; I am not allowed to answer, and you may push your conjectures as far as you like, without my preventing you; let it be enough that for you I shall always keep my claws drawn in, and that I interest myself tenderly in everything that concerns you.
Imperceptibly this second year flowed by like the first; the prince had scarcely to wish for something when the diligent hands would bring it to him then and there, whether it were books, jewels, paintings, antique medals; in fact he had but to say, I want such and such a jewel, that is in the treasury of the Great Mogul or the king of Persia, such and such a statue from Corinth or Greece, for whatever he desired to materialize before him, without his knowing who had brought it nor whence it had come. Such distractions are scarcely wearisome; and when one is in the mood for amusements one is sometimes more than pleased to find oneself master of the most beautiful treasures on Earth.
White Cat, who always kept an eye on the prince’s interests, advised him that the time for his departure was approaching, that he need not concern himself over the piece of cloth he wished for, and that she had made him a marvelous one; she added that she wished this time to provide him with a retinue worthy of his rank, and, without waiting for his reply, she bade him look down into the great courtyard of the castle. There stood an open barouche made of flame-colored enameled gold, with a thousand emblematic figures which pleased the mind as much as the eye. Twelve snow-white horses, four abreast, hauled it, fitted with flame-colored velvet harnesses embroidered with diamonds and embellished with gold plaques. The barouche was similarly upholstered inside, and a hundred coaches with eight horses, crowded with noblemen of superb mien, magnificently clad, followed the barouche. It was further accompanied by a thousand foot soldiers whose uniforms were so densely embroidered that the cloth could not be seen underneath. What was singular was that wherever one looked, one saw the portrait of White Cat, whether in the emblems of the barouche or on the foot soldiers’ uniforms, or attached with a ribbon to the jerkins of those who completed the procession, like a new order of merit that had just been bestowed on them.
Go, she told the prince, go and make your appearance at the court of the king your father, in a manner so sumptuous that your lordly air will sway him, so that he may no longer refuse you the crown you deserve. Here is a walnut; make sure you break it only when you are in his presence; you’ll find therein the piece of cloth you asked me for. Adorable Blanchette, he said to her, I confess that I am so saturated with your kindnesses, that if you cared to consent, I would prefer spending my life with you to all the grandeurs that I have reason to anticipate elsewhere. King’s son, she replied, I am persuaded of your goodness of heart, it is a rare piece of merchandise among princes, they want to be loved by everyone and to love nothing; but you are proof that the general rule has its exception. I take note of the attachment you display for a little White Cat, who is by nature good for nothing but catching mice. The prince kissed her paw, and left.
One could scarcely believe the speed at which he traveled, did we not already know how the wooden horse had borne him in less than two days more than five hundred leagues from the castle; the same power that animated the horse urged the others on so relentlessly that they took but twenty-four hours to make the journey; they made no halt until they reached the king’s domain, where the prince’s two elder brothers had already arrived; they, noting that the young prince still hadn’t appeared, congratulated themselves on his negligence and muttered to each other: Here is good news; he’s dead or sick, and won’t be our rival in the important matter we have come to settle. Thereupon they unfolded their cloths, which in truth were so fine that they passed through the eye of a large needle, but not through that of a small one; and the king, greatly relieved by this pretext for a squabble, showed them the needle he had proposed, and which the magistrates, following his orders, had brought from the city treasury where it had been carefully locked up.
There was much murmuring over this dispute. The princes’ friends, and especially those of the elder, for his cloth was the more beautiful, argued that this was a piece of outright chicanery, into which much pettifoggery and hair-splitting had entered. The king’s supporters maintained that he was scarcely obliged to hold to conditions which he hadn’t proposed; finally, to settle all their bickering, a charming sound of trumpets, oboes, and kettledrums was heard; it was our prince arriving in pomp with all his retinue. The king and his two sons were all equally amazed by such splendor.
After he had respectfully greeted his father and embraced his brothers, he withdrew the walnut from a ruby-encrusted casket and cracked it open; he supposed he would find the much vaunted piece of cloth within, but instead there was a hazelnut. He cracked again and was amazed to find a cherry stone. Everyone exchanged glances, the king was laughing quietly and thought his son a ninny for having the naivety to think that he could transport a piece of cloth in a walnut, yet why wouldn’t he think so, since he had already brought him a little dog that fitted inside an acorn? Accordingly he cracked the cherry stone, which had a solid kernel; at that an uproar broke out in the chamber, everyone was saying that the prince had been duped in his adventure. He replied nothing to the courtiers’ malicious pleasantries; he opened the kernel and found a grain of wheat and inside that a millet seed. Ha! Now it was his turn to be suspicious, and he muttered between his teeth: White Cat, White Cat, you have tricked me. At that moment he felt a cat’s claw on his hand, which scratched him so forcefully that his hand bled. He couldn’t decide whether this scratch was meant to encourage him or make him lose heart. Nevertheless he pried open the millet seed, and great was the astonishment of all when he withdrew from it a piece of linen four hundred ells long, of such extraordinary stitchery that all the birds, animals, and fish were depicted on it, along with the plants of the Earth, its rocky peaks, the curiosities and shellfish of the sea, the sun, the moon, the stars, the heavenly bodies and planets of the heavens; as well as the portraits of the kings and other sovereigns who reigned on Earth at that time; those of their wives, their mistresses, their children, and all their subjects, down to the last street urchin. Each one according to his condition was portrayed with the character that suited him, and was dressed according to the fashion of his native land. When the king saw the piece of linen he grew as pale as the prince had blushed red while he was searching so long for it. The needle was presented, and the cloth was passed and repassed through it six times. The king and the two princes maintained a gloomy silence, even though the beauty and rarity of the piece of linen forced them to acknowledge from time to time that everything else in the universe was inferior to it.
The king heaved a deep sigh, and, turning toward his sons, said: Nothing can console me in my old age as much as the spectacle of your deference to my wishes; therefore I wish to put you to one more test. Go once more on a yearlong journey, and whoever returns at the end of the year with the most beautiful maiden shall wed her and be crowned king on his marriage; it is of course imperative that my successor have a wife. I swear and promise that I shall no longer postpone the recompense I have offered.
The injustice of all this stunned our prince. The little dog and the linen cloth were worth ten kingdoms rather than one; but he was so well bred that he in no way wished to oppose his father’s will, and, without hesitation, climbed back into his barouche; all his retinue followed, and he returned to his beloved White Cat; she knew the day and the moment he would arrive; the road was strewn with flowers, and a thousand incense-burners were smoking on every side, and especially within the castle. She was seated on a Persian carpet, beneath a tent made of cloth-of-gold, in a loggia from which she could see him approaching. He was received by the hands which had always served him. All the cats climbed up to the eaves, so as to congratulate him with a desperate caterwauling.
How now, king’s son, she said to him, so you have returned without a crown? Madam, he replied, your favors would indeed have gained it for me; but I am persuaded that the king’s distress at parting with it would be greater than my pleasure in possessing it. No matter, she said, you must neglect nothing to deserve it; I will serve you on this occasion; and since you must lead a beautiful maiden back to your father’s court, I’ll look for one who will win you the prize. Meanwhile, let’s rejoice; I have ordained a naval battle between my cats and the terrible rats that infest the region. My cats will be at a disadvantage, perhaps, for they are afraid of the water; but otherwise their superiority would be too great, and one must, insofar as possible, let equality reign in all things. The prince admired the probity of Madam Kitty. He sang her praises, and accompanied her onto a terrace which looked toward the sea.
The cats’ vessels consisted of large chunks of cork, on which they sailed along quite easily. The rats had joined together several eggshells, and these were their warships. The combat was cruelly unsparing; the rats dived into the water, and swam much better than the cats, so that the latter were twenty times victors and vanquished; but Minagrobis, admiral of the feline fleet, pursued the rattish hordes to their ultimate débâcle. He devoured the general of their navy with his sharp teeth; it was an old, battle-scarred rat who had gone thrice around the world in stout vessels, wherein he was neither captain nor sailor, but merely an uninvited scrounger.
White Cat did not desire the total destruction of these unfortunates. Well versed in politics, she understood that if there were neither rats nor mice in the land, her subjects would lapse into a state of idleness that might be detrimental to their well-being. The prince spent this year doing what he had done in the preceding ones, that is to say in hunting, fishing, and gaming, for White Cat was an excellent chess player. From time to time he couldn’t resist plying her with new questions, so as to know by what miracle she was able to speak. He asked her if she was a fairy, or whether someone had transformed her into a cat; but as she never said anything but what she wished to say, neither did she answer anything but what she wished to answer, which were random words signifying nothing, so that he had no trouble concluding that she didn’t choose to share her secret with him.
Nothing flows faster than days that pass without care and without chagrin, and if the Cat hadn’t been so careful to remember the time for his return to the court, it is certain that the prince would have forgotten it absolutely. She advised him on the eve that it was only up to him to carry away one of the most beautiful princesses in the world, that the hour to destroy the fairies’ fatal handiwork had at last arrived, and that he must resolve to cut off her head and tail and throw them immediately into the fire. Me! he exclaimed. Blanchette! My love! Me, a barbarian who would slay you! Ah, no doubt you wish to put my heart to the test, but rest assured that it is incapable of lacking in the love and gratitude it owes you. No, king’s son, she continued, I suspect you of no ingratitude; I know your worth; neither you nor I may control our destiny in this affair. Do as I wish and we shall each of us begin to know happiness, and you will understand, on my honor as a cat, that I am truly your friend.
Tears came two or three times to the eyes of the young prince, at the mere thought that he must cut off the head of his little pussycat who was so graceful and pretty. Again he said everything he could think of to dissuade her; she replied obstinately that she wished to die at his hand; and that it was the only way to prevent his brothers from assuming the crown; in a word she urged him with such ardor, that trembling, he drew his sword and with an unsteady hand cut off the head and tail of his good friend the Cat; at the same moment he witnessed the most charming metamorphosis imaginable. White Cat’s body grew tall, and suddenly changed into a girl. It would be impossible to describe how perfect she was in every detail, how superior to all other maidens. Her eyes delighted all hearts, and her sweetness gave them pause: Her form was regal, her manner noble and modest, her nature affectionate, her manners engaging; in a word, she towered above all that was most lovable in the world.
Seeing her, the prince was overcome with surprise, a surprise so delightful that he thought he must be under a spell. He was unable to speak; his eyes weren’t big enough to look at her; he was too tongue-tied to explain his amazement, but even this paled when he saw an enormous crowd of ladies and lords enter the room, each with their cat’s skin slung over their shoulders: They knelt before the queen and expressed their joy at seeing her again in her natural state. She received them with tokens of kindness which bore ample witness to the goodness of her heart. And after holding court for a few moments, she ordered that she be left alone with the prince, and addressed him thus: Do not imagine, my lord, that I was always a Cat, nor that my condition among men was a lowly one. My father was the ruler of six kingdoms. He loved my mother tenderly, and gave her absolute freedom to do as she wished. Her chief passion was for travel, and so it came about that while she was carrying me she undertook to go and see a certain mountain, of which she had heard tell surprising things. As she was on her way there, she was told that close to the place she was passing through was a fairy’s ancient castle, the most beautiful in the world, or at any rate so it was supposed to be, according to legend, for since no one ever entered there, no one could be sure; but what was known with certainty was that in their garden those fairies had the finest fruits, the tastiest and most delicate that ever were eaten.
Immediately my mother the queen had such a violent urge to taste them that she made straight for the castle. She arrived at the gate of that magnificent edifice, which glittered with gold and lapis on all sides, but she knocked to no avail; no one at all appeared; it seemed that everyone inside was dead. Her appetite whetted by frustration, she called for ladders to be brought so that she might climb over the walls into the garden; and this would have happened, but the walls grew taller before their very eyes, even though nobody was seen at work on them; ladders were joined together; they collapsed under the weight of those ordered to climb them, who were injured or killed.
The queen was in despair. She saw great trees laden with fruits which she imagined to be delicious, she would eat of them or die; thus she had gorgeous tents pitched before the castle, and remained there six weeks with all her court. She neither ate nor slept, but sighed unceasingly; she spoke of naught but the fruits of the inaccessible garden; at last she fell dangerously ill, without anyone’s being able to supply her with the slightest remedy, for the inexorable fairies hadn’t even made an appearance since she installed herself near their castle. Her officers were all deeply distressed: One heard nothing but sobs and sighs, while the dying queen demanded fruits of those who served her, but would have only those that were denied her.
One night when she had dozed off a bit, she saw on waking a little old woman, ugly and decrepit, seated in an armchair by her bedside. She was surprised that her ladies-in-waiting would have let a stranger come so close, when the woman said: We find your majesty most importunate, to wish so obstinately to eat of our fruits; but since your precious life hangs in the balance, my sisters and I have consented to give you as much as you can carry with you, and for as long as you stay here, provided you make us a gift. Ah! good mother, speak, I’ll give you my kingdoms, my heart, my soul, if only I may have fruits; I couldn’t buy them too dear! We wish, she said, that your majesty give us the daughter you are carrying in your womb; as soon as she is born, we shall come to fetch her; she will be well cared for with us, there are no virtues, no beauties, no sciences with which we shan’t endow her: In a word, she will be our child, we shall make her happy; but note that your majesty will not see her again until she be wed. If this proposal suits you I shall cure you straightaway, and lead you to our orchards; in spite of the night you will see clear enough to choose what you like. If what I tell you displeases you, good evening, your highness the queen, I am going to sleep. However harsh the law you impose upon me, replied the queen, I accept it rather than perish; for it is certain that I haven’t a day left to live, thus I shall lose my child in losing myself. Heal me, wise fairy, she went on, and let me not wait a moment before savoring the privilege you have just granted me.
The fairy touched her with a little gold wand, saying: May your majesty be free of all the ills which bind you to this bed. At once it seemed to her that a harsh and heavy cloak that had been crushing her was lifted from her shoulders, and that there were places where she felt it still. It was apparently these places where the evil was the most severe. She had her ladies summoned, and gaily told them how well she felt, that she was going to rise from her bed, and that at last the fairies’ palace gates, so strongly bolted and barricaded, were to be opened for her to eat the lovely fruits, and take away as many as she pleased.
All of her ladies-in-waiting supposed that the queen was raving, and that at this moment she was dreaming of the fruits she had so longed for; so that instead of replying they began to weep, and had the physicians awakened so they could see the state she was in. This delay drove the queen to despair; she at once demanded her robes; they were refused her; she grew angry, her face reddened. They said it was because of the fever; but now the doctors arrived and, after they had taken her pulse and performed their usual rigmarole, were obliged to admit that she was in perfect health. Her ladies, realizing the error their zeal had caused them to commit, sought to repair it and lost no time in dressing her. Each begged her pardon, the matter was settled, and she hastened to follow the old fairy who was still awaiting her.
She entered the palace, where nothing could have been added to make it the most beautiful place in the world; you will believe it easily, my lord, added Queen White Cat, when I tell you that it’s the very one in which we are at this moment; two other fairies a little less aged than the one who led my mother met them at the gate, and welcomed her most kindly. She beseeched them to lead her directly to the garden, and toward the espaliers where the finest fruits were to be found. All were equally good, they replied, and if it weren’t for your wanting to have the pleasure of plucking them yourself, we should have only to call out for them to arrive here. I beg you, ladies, to let me have the satisfaction of seeing such an extraordinary sight. The oldest stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled three times; then called out: Apricots, peaches, clingstones, nectarines, cherries, plums, white cherries, melons, pears, muscats, apples, oranges, lemons, currants, strawberries, raspberries, come when I call! But, said the queen, all those you have just called for ripen in different seasons. That is not the case with our orchards, they told her; we have all the fruits that exist on Earth, always ripe, always good, and they never spoil.
And at that very moment they arrived, rolling, creeping, pell-mell, without getting bruised or dirty; in such wise that the queen, anxious to slake her craving, flung herself on them, seized the first that came to her hands, and devoured rather than ate them.
Feeling a little sated now, she begged the fairies to let her go and see the espaliers, so as to have the pleasure of inspecting them before making her choice. We are happy to let you, said the three fairies, but remember the promise you gave us; you will no longer be allowed to retract it. I am persuaded, she replied, that life here with you is so agreeable, and this palace seems so fine to me, that were it not for the love I bear my husband the king, I would offer to remain here; for this reason you must never believe that I would take back my word. The fairies, delighted, opened all their gardens and enclosures to her; she stayed for three days and three nights without wishing to leave, so delicious did she find everything. She gathered fruits for her provision, and since they never spoil, she had four thousand mules brought to her and laden with them. The fairies added gold baskets of exquisite workmanship to hold them, and several rarities whose price was excessive; they promised to raise me as a princess, to make me perfect, and to choose me a husband; that she would be notified of the wedding and that they sincerely hoped she would attend.
The king was delighted by the queen’s return; the whole court bore witness to his joy; there were balls, masquerades, tilting at the ring,5 and feasts at which the queen’s fruits were served as a sumptuous treat. The king ate them in preference to everything that was served him. He knew nothing of the bargain she had struck with the fairies, and often asked her in what country she had found such delicacies; she replied that they came from an almost inaccessible mountain; another time she said they came from valleys, and then from a garden in the depths of a vast forest. The king was surprised by so many contradictions. He questioned those who accompanied her, but she had so sternly forbidden them to tell anyone of her adventure, that they dared not speak of it. Finally, disturbed by what she had promised the fairies, and sensing the time of her confinement fast approaching, she sank into a frightful state of despondency, so that even her appearance was altered. The king was distressed, and urged the queen to tell him the cause of her sadness, and after much shedding of tears, she told him everything that had happened between herself and the fairies, and how she had promised them the child she was expecting. What! cried the king, we have no offspring, you know how much I long for a child, and for a matter of two or three apples you are capable of giving yours away? Obviously you love me not at all. Thereupon he overwhelmed her with a thousand reproaches, causing my poor mother to feel she would die of grief, but not content with this, he had her shut up in a tower with guards on all sides to prevent her from having commerce with anyone in the outside world, save the officers who waited on her, and even so he removed those who had been with her to the fairies’ castle.
The bad blood between the king and queen plunged the court into deep consternation. Everyone doffed their rich robes to dress in a manner more suited to the general sorrow. The king, for his part, appeared inexorable; he no longer saw his wife, and as soon as I was born he had me brought to his palace to be nursed, while she remained a prisoner and crushed by misery. The fairies were ignorant of nothing that had happened; they grew irritated, they wanted me, they considered me their property and that they had been robbed of it. Before mapping a vengeance which would be proportionate to the crime, they sent an illustrious embassy to the king, warning him to release the queen and restore her to favor, and to beg him also to hand me over to their ambassadors so that I might be raised and educated by them. The ambassadors were so stunted and deformed, for they were in fact hideous dwarfs, that they were in no way able to persuade the king to do their bidding. He refused them rudely, and if they hadn’t left posthaste they might have met with a worse fate.
When the fairies learned of my father’s actions, their indignation knew no bounds; and after dispatching into his six kingdoms all the ills that could render them desolate, they unleashed a horrendous dragon who scattered venom wherever he passed, devoured grown men and children, and with his breath caused trees and plants to die.
The king was sunk in the deepest despair; he consulted all the sages in his realm to learn what he should do to protect his subjects from the misfortunes in which he saw them engulfed. They advised him to seek throughout the world for the finest doctors and the surest remedies, and, on the other hand, to release criminals condemned to die so that they might combat the dragon. Quite satisfied with this opinion, the king acted on it but received no consolation, for the death toll continued to grow, and no one could approach the dragon without being devoured, so that at last he had recourse to a fairy who had protected him from his earliest childhood. She was very old, and scarcely ever left her bed anymore; he betook himself to her dwelling and reproached her a thousand times for having let destiny persecute him without coming to his aid. What do you want me to do, she said, you have annoyed my sisters; they have as much power as I, and it is very rarely that we act against each other. Think of appeasing them by giving them your daughter, that little princess belongs to them. You have shut up the queen in a prison cell: What has that lovable woman done to you for you to treat her thus? Decide then to keep the word she gave, and I guarantee that you will be showered with blessings.
The king my father loved me dearly, but seeing no other way to save his kingdoms and be rid of the fatal dragon, he told his old friend that he had resolved to believe her, that he would agree to hand me over to the fairies, since she assured him I would be cherished and raised as a princess of my rank; that he would also send for the queen, and that the old fairy had only to tell him to whom he should deliver me to have me brought to the fairies’ castle. She replied that I must be carried in my cradle to the top of the mountain of flowers; you may even stay in the region, she said, to be a spectator of the celebration that will be held there. The king told her he would go there in a week’s time with the queen, and that she should notify her sister fairies, so that they might do whatever might seem fitting to them.
No sooner had he returned to the palace when he had the queen summoned with a tenderness and pomp equal to the wrath and fury with which he had her made prisoner. She was so changed and dejected that he could scarcely recognize her, had not his heart assured him that this was the same person he had loved so much. With tears in his eyes he begged her to forget the grief he had caused her, assuring her that it would be the last she would ever suffer on his account. She replied that she had brought it on herself through the imprudence of promising her child to the fairies; and if anything could plead in her behalf, it was the state she was in; at last he informed her that he would place me in their hands. The queen in turn fought against this proposal; it seemed that some fatality must have been in all this, and that I would always be an object of discord between my father and my mother. After she had wept and moaned for a long time, without his granting her wish (for the king saw only too well the tragic consequences, and that his subjects would continue to die, as though it were they who had brought misfortune on the family), she agreed to everything he wanted, and preparations for the ceremony began.
I was placed in a cradle made of mother-of-pearl, ornamented with as much elegance as art can summon. Garlands of flowers and festoons hung round it, and the flowers were precious stones of different colors which flashed so brightly when the sun struck them that one had to look away. The magnificence of my costume surpassed, if it were possible, that of the cradle. My swaddling bands were fashioned from enormous pearls; twenty-four princesses of the blood carried me on a sort of finely wrought litter; their robes were unmatched, but they were allowed to wear no other color but white, in keeping with my innocence. The whole court accompanied me, each according to his rank.
* * *
As we all started up the mountain, a melodious orchestra was heard approaching; at last the fairies appeared, thirty-six in all; they had invited their closest lady-friends to accompany them; each was seated in a shell of pearl, larger than the one on which Venus emerged from the sea; sea-horses, which travel with difficulty on land, drew them in their chariots; they acted more pompous than the greatest queens in the universe, but were in fact exceeding old and ugly. They brought an olive branch, to show the king that his submission found favor with them; and when they held me, they caressed me so fondly that it seemed they no longer wished to live with any goal but that of making me happy.
The dragon they had employed to avenge themselves on my father followed behind them, bound with diamond chains; they held me in their arms, bestowed a thousand caresses on me, and endowed me with numerous advantages; then began the fairies’ dance. It was a sprightly one indeed; and it was amazing to see these old ladies hop and gambol. Thereupon the dragon who had devoured so many people approached. The three fairies to whom my mother had promised me perched on him with my cradle between them; he spread his enormous scaly wings, finer than crêpe and shot through with a thousand bizarre colors, and thus we traveled back to the castle. My mother, seeing me in the air, exposed on the back of that furious dragon, couldn’t prevent herself from uttering several piercing cries. The king consoled her, reminding her of the promise his friend had given that no harm would befall me and that they would take as good care of me as I would receive in his own palace. She calmed herself, even though it was most painful for her to contemplate losing me for so long, and to be the only cause of it; for if she hadn’t desired to eat the fruits in that garden, I would have remained in the kingdom of the king my father, and would not have had to endure all the sorrows that I have still to recount to you.
Know then, king’s son, that my guardians had had a tower built expressly for me, in which there were a thousand handsome apartments for all the seasons of the year, magnificent furniture, delightful books, but no door: One could enter only through the windows, which were prodigiously high. There was a lovely garden on top of the tower, decked with flowers, fountains, and nooks of greenery which protected one from the heat of the most scorching dog days. It was here that the fairies brought me up with attentions that surpassed all that they had promised the queen. My clothes were of the latest fashion, and so magnificent that, seeing me, one would have thought it were my wedding day. They taught me everything suitable to my age and rank; I gave them very little trouble, for I learned almost everything with great facility; they found my gentle temperament most agreeable, and since I had never seen anyone but them, I might have stayed quietly in this situation for the rest of my life.
They always came to visit me astride the furious dragon of whom I have already told; they never spoke to me of the king or the queen; they called me their daughter, and I thought I was. Not a soul lived with me in the tower, except for a parrot and a little dog that they gave me for my playmates, for they had the gift of reason and were marvelously well spoken.
One side of the tower was built alongside a sunken road, so encumbered with trees and ruts that I had never seen anyone on it since they had confined me there. But one day, as I was at the window chatting with my parrot and my dog, I heard a noise. Looking around I perceived a young knight who had stopped to listen to our conversation; I had never before seen a man except in pictures. I was by no means vexed that a chance encounter provided me with this opportunity, so that, not fearing in the least the danger that comes with the satisfaction of seeing an amiable object, I drew closer to look at him, and the more I looked at him, the more pleasure I experienced. He made me a deep bow and fixed his gaze on me, seeming at a loss how to converse with me, for my window was so high up that he feared being overheard, and he well knew that I was in the fairies’ castle.
Suddenly, night fell; or rather, it arrived without our noticing; he blew two or three times on his horn, and delighted me with several fanfares, then he left without my being able to discern even the direction he took, so thick was the darkness. I remained plunged in a waking dream; I no longer experienced the same pleasure in chatting with my parrot and my dog. They recounted me the most delightful things imaginable, for fairy animals become very witty, but my thoughts were elsewhere, and I hadn’t learned the art of controlling myself. Sinbad the parrot noticed this, for he was clever, and didn’t mention what was on his mind.6
I didn’t fail to arise at daybreak. I ran to my window, and was agreeably surprised to find the young knight at the foot of the tower. He was sumptuously clad, and I flattered myself that I was partly the cause, nor was I mistaken. He spoke to me through a kind of trumpet which carried his voice up to me, and by this means he told me that, having been indifferent until now to all the beautiful women he had seen, he suddenly felt so powerfully stricken with me that he couldn’t live unless he were to see me every day of his life. I was highly pleased by this compliment, and most disturbed that I was unable to respond to it, for I should have had to shout at the top of my voice, and put myself in danger of being heard better by the fairies than by him. I was holding a few flowers which I threw down to him; he caught them as though they were a distinguished favor, kissed them several times and tendered me his thanks. Then he asked me if I thought it wise that he come every day at the same time and stand beneath my windows, and that if I did so, to throw him an object of some kind. I had a turquoise ring which I quickly removed from my finger and threw down to him in haste, signaling him to go away as fast as possible, for I had just heard the fairy Violenta on the other side of the tower, who had mounted her dragon to bring me my breakfast.
The first thing she said on entering was: I smell a man’s voice here: Dragon, look for him. Ah! I had guessed right! I was terrified that the beast might fly through the other window and follow the knight, in whose fortunes I already took a lively interest. Truly, good mother, I said (for the fairy wished that I address her thus), you are making sport of me. Does a voice smell of something? And if it did, is there a mortal bold enough to venture to climb this tower? You speak truly, child, she replied, and I am delighted to see you reason so prettily; I suppose it must be the hatred I have for all men that sometimes persuades me they can’t be far off. She gave me my breakfast and my distaff. When you have eaten you must get back to your spinning, she told me, for you did nothing yesterday, and my sisters will be angry. In truth, I had been so preoccupied with the stranger that it had been impossible for me to spin.
As soon as she left I threw down the distaff with a mutinous little gesture, and climbed up to my terrace to gaze as far off into the countryside as I could. I had an excellent telescope; nothing blocked my view, I peered about on all sides, and discovered my knight at the top of a mountain. He was resting under an opulent tent made of cloth-of-gold, and was attended by a large retinue. I had no doubt that he was the son of some king of the region of the fairies’ castle. Since I feared that if he returned to the tower he might be discovered by the terrible dragon, I picked up my parrot and told him to fly as far as the mountain, that he would find the stranger who had spoken to me there, and to beg him on my behalf not to come back again, for I dreaded the vigilance of my guardians, and feared lest they cause him harm.
The parrot fulfilled his assignment with his inborn cleverness. Everyone was surprised to see him fly straight to his destination and perch on the prince’s shoulder so as to whisper in his ear. The prince experienced the joy and pain of this embassy. The precautions I had taken for him flattered his heart; but the obstacles that prevented him from speaking with me crushed him, without being able to dissuade him from carrying out the plan he had devised for pleasing me. He asked Sinbad a thousand questions, and Sinbad for his part asked him a hundred others, for he was by nature inquisitive. The prince gave him a ring for me in exchange for my turquoise; it too was a turquoise, but much more beautiful than mine; it was carved into a heart shape and set with diamonds. It is only right for me to treat you as an ambassador, he added: Here is my portrait; take it and show it only to your lovely mistress. He fastened the portrait under Sinbad’s wing and placed the ring in his beak.
I awaited the return of my little green messenger with an impatience I had never felt before. He told me that he to whom I had dispatched him was a great king, that he had received him as hospitably as could be, that I could be sure he no longer wished to live except for my sake, and that despite the great peril of coming to the foot of the tower, he was determined to undertake anything rather than renounce seeing me again. This news intrigued me very much, and I started to cry. Sinbad and Fido consoled me as best they could, for they loved me tenderly; then Sinbad presented me with the prince’s ring, and showed me the portrait. I confess I had never been so delighted as I was at being able to contemplate close up him whom I had hitherto perceived only from a distance. He seemed even more attractive than before; a hundred thoughts flooded my mind, some agreeable, others sad, giving me an appearance of extreme restlessness. The fairies who came to see me noticed this. They told each other that doubtless I was growing bored, and that it was time to think of finding me a husband of the race of fairies. They mentioned several, and settled on little King Migonnet, whose kingdom lay five hundred thousand leagues from their palace, but that was of scant importance. Sinbad listened to this learned council and came to tell me of it, saying: Ah! how I pity you, dear mistress, if you become Queen Migonnet! He’s a frightful-looking scarecrow, I regret to tell you; in truth the king who loves you wouldn’t have him as his flunkey. Then you’ve seen him, Sinbad! I should say I have, he continued; I was brought up on a branch alongside him. What, on a branch? I continued. Yes, he replied, for he has the claws of an eagle.
Such a tale afflicted me strangely; I gazed on the charming portrait of the young king, I esteemed that he had given it to Sinbad only so that I might find a way to see him; and when I compared his face with Migonnet, I no longer hoped for anything from life, and resolved to die rather than marry him.
I slept not a wink all night. Sinbad and Fido chatted with me; toward morning I dozed off a little; and, since my dog had a keen nose, he sensed that the prince was at the front of the tower. He woke Sinbad: I’ll wager, he said, that the king is down there. Be still, chatterbox; since you almost always have your eyes open and your ears cocked, you’re annoyed when others sleep. But let’s wager, brave Fido insisted, I know that he’s there. And as for me, I know he’s not; haven’t I forbidden him to come here on behalf of our noble mistress? Ah, this is too much, you’re getting on my nerves with your excuses, cried my dog; a man of passion consults only his heart; and thereupon he began to tug so hard at Sinbad’s wings that the parrot grew furious. Their quarreling awoke me; they told me its cause; I ran or rather flew to the window; I saw the king stretching out his arms to me, telling me with his trumpet that he could no longer live without me, beseeching me to find a way to leave my tower or to let him enter it, that he called on all the gods and the elements to witness that he would marry me at once, and that I would be one of the greatest queens in the universe.
I ordered Sinbad to go and tell him that what he wished seemed all but impossible; that nonetheless, in view of the promise he had given me and the oaths he had tendered, I would work diligently to help him realize his wishes; that I begged him not to come every day, lest he be finally spied by someone, and that the fairies were pitiless.
He withdrew overcome with joy, thanks to the flattering hopes I held out to him while I found myself in the worst predicament I had ever known, when I reflected on what I had just promised. How could I leave this tower, which had no doors? And with only the help of Sinbad and Fido? And I so young, so inexperienced, so fearful? I therefore resolved not to undertake anything which had no hope of success, and I sent Sinbad to tell the king. He was ready to kill himself before Sinbad’s very eyes, but finally he ordered him to persuade me either to come and watch him die, or to comfort him. Sire, cried the winged ambassador, my mistress is sufficiently convinced, she lacks only power.
When he came to tell me all that had happened, I was more afflicted than before. Fairy Violenta arrived; seeing how my eyes were red and swollen, she said that I had wept, and that if I didn’t tell her why she would burn me, for all her threats were always terrible. I answered, trembling, that I was tired of spinning, and that I longed to have nets to catch the little birds who came to peck at the fruits in my garden. What you desire shall cost you no more tears, my daughter; I shall bring you all the cords you need; and in fact I received them that very evening; but she cautioned me to think less of work and more about making myself beautiful, since King Migonnet would soon be arriving. I shuddered at this disturbing news, and answered nothing.
As soon as she left I began to work on two or three bits of netting, but my real endeavor was to fashion a rope ladder which would be skillfully made, even though I had never seen one. It is true that the fairy never supplied me with as much cord as I needed, and she kept repeating: But daughter, your weaving is like Penelope’s, it never progresses, and you are continually asking me for more supplies. O! Good mother, I said, it’s easy enough for you to talk! Can’t you see that I’m inexperienced, and that I keep spoiling my work and throwing it into the fire? Are you afraid of my impoverishing you with my string? My simple airs delighted her, even though she had a most disagreeable and cruel nature.
I dispatched Sinbad to tell the king to come one evening beneath the tower windows, that he would find a ladder there, and that he would find out the rest when he came. As a matter of fact I anchored it firmly, resolved to flee with him; but when he saw it he climbed it in haste, without waiting for me to come down, and burst into my chamber while I was preparing everything for my flight.
The sight of him so filled me with joy that I forgot the peril both of us were in. He renewed his gallant vows, and beseeched me to delay no longer in accepting him as my husband; we enlisted Sinbad and Fido as witnesses of our marriage; never was a wedding between persons of such high rank celebrated with less noise and festivity, and never were hearts happier than ours.
Day had not yet come when the king left me: I told him the fairies’ frightful plan of marrying me to little Migonnet; I described his face, which horrified him as much as me. Hardly had he left when the hours began to seem like days; I ran to the window and followed him with my gaze despite the darkness; but what was my amazement on seeing in the distance a chariot of fire drawn by winged salamanders, traveling with such speed that the eye could scarcely follow it! The chariot was escorted by a quantity of guards mounted on ostriches. I had barely time enough to glance at the ugly sprite who was traveling through the air in this fashion; but I concluded at once that it was a fairy or an enchanter.
Soon after, fairy Violenta entered my chamber: I bring you good news, she said; your lover arrived a few hours ago; prepare to receive him; here are some jewels and finery. What! I cried out. And who told you I wished to be wed? It’s not my intention at all; send King Migonnet back where he came from; I won’t add so much as a pin to my dress; let him find me beautiful or ugly, it’s all the same to me. Ah, ah, replied the fairy, such a little rebel, such a harebrain! I’m in no mood for jokes, and I’m going to … You’ll do what to me? I retorted, blushing at the names she had called me. Can one be more dismally treated than I, shut up in a tower with a parrot and a dog, having to look several times a day at the frightful face of a dragon? Ha! Ungrateful wretch, said the fairy, and what did you do to deserve so much care and trouble on the part of others? I’ve said it all too often to my sisters, that we shall have but a sad recompense. She went to find them and tell them of our quarrel, and all were equally shocked.
Sinbad and Fido pleaded desperately with me, saying that if I continued in my refractory ways, they foresaw that harsh treatment would be visited on me. I felt so proud at possessing the heart of a great king that I scorned the fairies and the advice of my little friends. I refused to don my finery, and purposely coiffed my hair awry, so that Migonnet might find me displeasing. Our interview took place on the terrace. He arrived in his chariot of fire. Never since there were dwarfs was such a tiny one to be seen. He walked on his eagle’s claws and his knees at the same time, for there were no bones in his legs, so that he was obliged to support himself on two diamond crutches. His royal robe was only half an ell long, and a third of it trailed on the ground. His head was as big as a bushel basket, and his nose so large that a dozen birds perched on it, whose chirping delighted him; he had such an enormous beard that canaries had made their nests in it, and his ears overtopped his head by a cubit, but this was scarcely noticeable thanks to the high pointed crown that he wore so as to appear taller. The flame of his chariot roasted the fruits, withered the flowers, and dried up the fountains of my garden. He approached me with open arms to embrace me; I stood up straight, and his first equerry was obliged to lift him; but as soon as he drew near I fled into my chamber and slammed shut the door and the windows, so that Migonnet returned to the fairies’ abode extremely vexed with me.
They asked him a thousand pardons for my brusqueness, and to calm him, for he was very powerful, they resolved to lead him into my chamber at night while I was asleep, to bind my hands and feet and put me with him in the burning chariot, so that he might carry me away. Once this plan was agreed upon, they hardly even scolded me for my insolent behavior. All they said was that I should think about making amends. Sinbad and Fido were surprised at such mildness. You know, mistress, said my dog, my heart tells me no good can come of this. My ladies the fairies are strange personages, especially Violenta. I made fun of his warnings, and awaited my beloved husband with wild impatience. He himself was too impatient to put off seeing me again; I threw down the rope ladder, fully resolved to run off with him; he climbed it nimbly and proffered me such tender words that I still dare not summon them to memory.
While we were speaking together with the same tranquility we would have had in his palace, the windows of my chamber were suddenly battered in. In came the fairies on their terrible dragon, followed by Migonnet in his fiery chariot and all his guards on their ostriches. The king, fearless, put his hand to his sword, thinking only of saving me from the most horrible misadventure that ever was, for, would you believe it, my lord? those barbarous creatures unleashed their dragon on him; he was eaten up before my very eyes.
In desperation at his fate and mine, I threw myself into the jaws of that hideous monster, hoping he would swallow me, as he had swallowed all that I loved in the world. He would have liked to, but the fairies, even more cruel than he, wouldn’t let him. She must be kept for more lingering torments, they screamed; a speedy death is too gentle for this shameless creature! They laid hands on me; at once I saw myself turn into the White Cat; they brought me to this magnificent palace of my father and metamorphosed all the lords and ladies of the kingdom into cats; they spared those whose hands alone would remain visible, and reduced me to the deplorable state in which you found me, informing me of my birth, of the death of my father and of my mother, and that I would never be released from my feline condition, save by a prince who would perfectly resemble the husband they had torn from me. ’Tis you, my lord, who possess that resemblance, she continued: the same features, same aspect, even the same voice; I was struck by it the moment I saw you; I was informed of everything that would happen, and I know as well what will happen: My torment will end. And my own, lovely queen, said the prince, throwing himself at her feet, will it be of long duration? Already I love you more than life itself, my lord, said the queen. We must go to see your father; we shall judge of his feelings for me, and learn if he will consent to what you desire.
She went out; the prince gave her his hand, she mounted into a chariot with him; it was far more magnificent than those he had had before. The rest of the cortège matched it to such a degree that all the horseshoes were made of emeralds, and their nails were diamonds. Perhaps it was a sight never seen before or since. I pass over the agreeable conversations that the queen and the prince were having; if she was matchless in beauty, she was not less so for her mind, and the young prince was as perfect as she, so that they thought only of charming things.
When they were near the castle where the brothers were to meet, the queen entered a rock crystal whose facets were adorned with gold and rubies. Its interior was curtained so that none could see her, and it was borne by beautifully formed and superbly clad youths. The prince remained in the chariot, from which he saw his brothers strolling with princesses of extraordinary beauty. As soon as they recognized him they asked him if he had brought a fiancée; he told them that he had been so unlucky that throughout his travels he had encountered only ugly women, and that the only thing of rarity he could find to bring was a little White Cat. They began to laugh at his innocence. A cat, they said, are you afraid the mice will eat our palace? The prince replied that in effect it wasn’t wise to offer such a present to his father; thereupon they set out on the road to the city.
The elder princes rode with their princesses in barouches made of gold and lapis lazuli; their horses’ heads were adorned with plumes and aigrettes; in short, nothing on Earth could surpass this brilliant cavalcade. Our young prince followed behind, then came the rock crystal, which everyone stared at admiringly.
The courtiers hastened to tell the king that the three princes were arriving. Have they brought beautiful ladies with them? he retorted. It would be impossible to find anything that could outshine them. This reply seemed to annoy him. The king greeted them cordially, and couldn’t decide on whom to bestow the prize; he looked at the youngest and said: So, this time you have come alone? Your majesty will find inside this rock crystal a little White Cat, who miaows so sweetly, and draws in her claws so nicely, that your majesty will surely approve of her. The king smiled, and was about to open the crystal himself, but no sooner had he approached it than the queen, using a spring, caused the whole thing to fall in shards, and appeared like the sun after it has been for some time veiled in clouds; her blond hair cascaded over her shoulders and fell in thick ringlets down to her feet; her head was wreathed in flowers, her fragile white gown was lined with pink taffeta; she arose and made a deep curtsey before the king, who, overcome with admiration, couldn’t prevent himself from crying out: Here is the incomparable one, and it is she who deserves the crown.
Your highness, she replied, I haven’t come here to deprive you of a throne which you occupy with so much dignity; I was born with six kingdoms; allow me to offer you one of them, and one to both of your sons. All I ask for in recompense is your friendship, and this young prince for my husband. We shall still be well provided for with three kingdoms. The king and all the court uttered long shouts of joy and astonishment. The marriage was celebrated at once, and those of the two princes as well, in such wise that the whole court spent several months in pleasures and diversions. Each then left to govern his realm; the lovely White Cat was immortalized, as much for her kindness and generosity as for her rare merit and her beauty.
This young prince was lucky indeed
To find in a cat’s guise an august princess
Whom he would later marry, and accede
To three thrones and a world of tenderness.
When two enchanting eyes are inclined
To inspire love, they seldom find resistance,
Especially when a wise and ardent mind
Moves them to inspire lasting allegiance.
I’ll speak no more of the unworthy mother
Who caused the White Cat so many sorrows
By coveting the accursed fruits of another,
Thus ceding her daughter to the fairies’ powers.
Mothers, who have children full of charm,
Despise her conduct, and keep them from all harm.
Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment, ed. Marina Warner (London: Chatto and Windus, 1994; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996; New York: Vintage, 1996).
Translations copyright © 2014 by John Ashbery
Introduction and selection copyright © 2014 by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie
Meet the Author
John Ashbery's latest book of poems is Quick Question. From 1960 to 1965, he was the International Herald Tribune art critic and ArtNews Paris correspondent. France has named him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Officier of the Légion d'Honneur. He has received a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and President Obama awarded him a National Humanities Medal. Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie's latest poetry book is Psyche and Amor. They have edited Ashbery's essays in Other Traditions and in Selected Prose, as well as his translations of Pierre Martory. She teaches at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; he is the director of writing at Pace University.
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