Edmund Dulac's picture-book for the French Red Cross/Blue Beard
AN OLD TALE FROM THE FRENCH
Think of it! A man rich as a prince, of fine upstanding presence and commanding manner; a man of great moment in Baghdad!
Think of it again! A man cursed by nature with a beard that was quite blue, from the roots of the hairs to their very tips!
To be sure, he had three alternatives in the matter. First, he might shave it off, thus avoiding earthly ugliness while renouncing all hope of a place in Paradise; secondly, he might marry a scold, and so become prematurely grey; and last, he might keep his blue beard and remain the ugliest man in all the world. There was no other alternative, for the beard was so deadly blue that no dye could touch it.
He had staked his chances on the second point: he had married, and more than once; but, although his wives had disappeared mysteriously, his blue beard still remained, as blue as ever. How it was that he had ever found any woman blind enough to marry him it is difficult to imagine, for he was so frightfully ugly that most women at sight of him ran away screaming, and hid in the cellar. But it is only fair to say that Blue Beard had such a way with him that, given two hours' start, he could snap his fingers at any rival.
Now it so happened that in his neighbourhood there lived a lady of quality, who had two sons and two daughters; and, in his walks abroad, Blue Beard often met the two girls, and soon fell into the lowest depths of love. Both were adorable, and he really could not decide which one he preferred. Always in exquisite doubt on the point, he finally approached the mother and asked her for the hand of one of her daughters, leaving the choice to her. And she, like a wise woman, said nothing, but simply introduced Blue Beard to Anne and Fatima, and left the rest to nature and their own fancies.
But neither Anne nor Fatima fell in love with their admirer at first sight. His beard was so blue that they could not endure it, and, between them, they led him a dance. Neither was inclined to marry a man with a beard like that, and, what made matters worse, they soon learned that he had already been married several times, and that his wives had disappeared mysteriously. This was rather disconcerting, and each was angling for a brother-in-law rather than a husband.
But, as already stated. Blue Beard had a way with him. He did not expect to be accepted at first asking. Indeed, when he proposed, first to one and then to the other, they both said, 'Oh! you must see father about it.' Now Blue Beard knew very well that their father, having led a very wicked life, was dead and gone; and, as he pondered over it, stroking his beard the while, he began to realise what they meant when they said, 'You must see father about it.'
But Blue Beard did not despair, he merely altered his plan. He invited the whole family, with some of their chosen friends, to one of his country houses, where he gave them the time of their lives. Hunting, hawking, shooting with the bow, or fishing for goldfish in the ponds, they enjoyed themselves to the full, especially in the evenings, when they were rowed upon the lake to the sound of beautiful music, and made moonlight excursions to some of Blue Beard's ruined castles, of which he possessed quite a number. Whatever the nature of the day's pleasure-party, the night hours were taken up with banqueting, dancing, or some other form of revelry, until such a late hour that Blue Beard said to himself, 'Only wait till I marry one of them, then we shall see who is master.' For the present he was content to take their pranks in good part. When he found himself trying in vain to get into an apple-pie bed he merely laughed; when he found his pillow stuffed with prickly cactus, or the sleeves and legs of his garments stitched up so that he could not put them on, he swore merrily and fell more deeply in love than ever. One day they cut down the stem of an aloe that was about to flower—a
SEVEN AND ONE ARE EIGHT, MADAM!
thing which happened only once in every hundred years. The head gardener, who had been listening every day for the loud report with which the aloe blossoms burst their sheath, was heart-broken when he saw what had been done; but Blue Beard consoled him by raising his wages, saying that in a hundred years' time, when every one was bald, the plant might blossom again,—what did it matter? In fact, things went so smoothly, and everything in the garden was so very lovely, that the younger daughter, Fatima, being the more poetical and impressionable of the two, began quietly to think what a splendid beard their host's would be if it were not so blue. From this—for you know that love is colour-blind—she began to see the beard in a different light. Like a dutiful and affectionate daughter she spoke to her mother upon the point.
'Mother,' she said, 'it may be only my fancy, but I really think his beard has changed a little in colour during the last few days. Perhaps it's the country air, I don't know; but it doesn't seem to me quite so blue, after all.'
'My darling child,' replied the mother, 'it is strange that you should have mentioned that. I had also noticed it, but, thinking my sight was failing me, I feared that old age was creeping on, and so held my tongue on the matter.'
'That settles it, dear mother. Sooner than believe that you are growing old and your sight is failing I prefer to believe that what we have both noticed is an actual fact. But mind you, though there is a slight change, it is still horribly blue, mother.'
'Yes, dear; but blue's a very nice colour. It's lucky to some people. The eyes of the Goddess of Love were blue; the sky above is blue; the bird of paradise is blue; the deep sea is blue. Press your thumbs on your eyes and what do you see? Blue—the deepest blue imaginable: it is the light of the mind and soul burning in your head, dear; and that is why poets and singers are so fond of blue.'
'Then you think——'
'Think? I know, child. Besides, a man with a blue beard is different from all other men; and besides, again, in the dark all beards are black.'
'But even in the light, dear mother, you think it is changing—just a little?'
'Yes, my darling, I do. And the reason I know full well. He has fallen in love, dear; and I think I know with whom. And love can work wonders. Just as grief can turn black hair grey, so can love turn a blue beard——'
'Not grey, mother. Say a greyish blue.'
'I was going to say a bluish grey. But there;—if this worthy gentleman suffers from an affliction,—which, mind you, I am far from allowing,—what could be sweeter in a woman than to pity him? And pity, my darling, sometimes leads to love.'
Fatima then sought her sister Anne, and told her what was on her mind. 'Oh, well,' said Anne when she had heard all about the wonderful change, 'your having discovered it now saves me the trouble of finding it out later on. Not only do I thank you, Fatima, I congratulate you.'
Greatly relieved by her mother's and her sister's attitude, Fatima decked herself out in her best, and waited for Blue Beard to come and find her, which she felt sure he would do. And she was right. That very evening Blue Beard led her aside from the others into the garden, where the moon was shining and the nightingales singing. And there he spoke soft words to her, and wooed and won her for his wife. As soon as they returned to town the wedding was celebrated, and there were great rejoicings over the happy event.
Now, shortly after the honeymoon was over. Blue Beard was called away into the country on matters of urgent importance, which would occupy his attention for at least six weeks. And when Fatima, on hearing this, pouted and began to cry, he sought to console her by suggesting that she should amuse herself among her friends during his absence.
'See now, my dear,' he said, 'these keys will unlock all the doors for you so that you shall want for nothing. These two are the keys of the store-chambers, and these others open the strong-rooms where the gold and silver plate is kept. These here are the keys to my money chests, and these smaller ones fit the locks of my jewel coffers. But this little one here'—he separated a curious little key from the others and showed it her—'is the key of the little room with the iron door at the end of the great corridor. Do what you will with all the rest, but, I warn you, open not that door. Now, I have trusted you with everything: if you disobey me in this one little matter you will incur my gravest displeasure.'
'That will I never do,' said Fatima as she took the keys from his hand. And she meant it at the time. Blue Beard kissed her, embracing her fondly. Then he entered his coach and was driven away.
Fatima, in her grand home, eagerly welcomed the chance of holding high revelry and playing hostess to her friends. They all came running at her invitation, and were immediately shown over the great house. Rooms, cupboards, wardrobes, closets, cabinets and presses were opened by the aid of keys on the bunch, and they went into ecstasies over the wonderful treasures the house contained. There were magnificent pictures, tapestries, costly silk hangings, gold and silver ornaments, the loveliest soft carpets, and, best of all, gold-framed looking-glasses reaching from floor to ceiling. These last, which cast one's reflection taller and fairer than the original inlooker, were the subject of long and careful admiration. All spoke with rapture of the splendid luxury of the place, and congratulated Fatima on her great good fortune.
'For my part,' said one, 'if my husband could give me such a magnificent house as this, I would not trouble about the colour of his beard.'
'You're right,' said another. 'Why, for half this grandeur I would marry a man even if his beard were all the colours of the rainbow, especially if he went away and left me the keys of the whole house.'
'The whole house,' thought Fatima; 'nay, this little key here he has forbidden me to use. I wonder why!'
But he had been so stern about it—and his beard got very blue when he was angry—that Fatima put her curiosity away, and continued to entertain her guests. Still, the temptation to slip away and open that forbidden door returned again and again; but always she said to herself, 'Nay; I have the run of the whole house beside: is it a great matter that I am forbidden one pokey little room at the end of a dark corridor?' Then, having triumphed for the twentieth time, she fell at last the more easily;—at least she fell to this extent, that she slipped away from her guests and ran along the corridor, just to go and take a peep at the door.
There was nothing unusual about the door. It was of plain, solid iron, and the key-hole was very small. She wondered if the little key would fit it. She tried, and found that it went in quite easily; yet, remembering her promise, she would not turn it, but pulled it out again and tore herself away. But, after all, she could not see what possible harm there could be in opening a small room like that and just having one look inside. Besides, if her husband had been really serious he would have kept the key himself and not given it to her with the others. To be sure, he was a kind, indulgent husband, and would not be so very angry; and then, again, he need never know that she had opened the door.
With thoughts like these passing quickly in her mind she hesitated, paused, and finally turned again to the door. Her disobedient hands trembled as she selected the key a second time, detached it from the bunch, and inserted it in the lock. In another moment she had turned it and pushed the heavy door open.
At first, as the shutters were closed, she could see nothing; but gradually her eyes became accustomed to the dim light and she saw that the floor was of porphyry,—at all events, it was red. Then, as she shaded her eyes from the light creeping through the chinks of the shutters, and peered more closely, she discovered to her horror that what she had taken for porphyry was nothing of the kind—it was blood!—Here it had clotted in dark crimson pools, and there it had run in little streams along the irregular stone floor. Quickly she traced those streams to their source by the opposite wall, where, as she raised her eyes, she discerned seven dark forms hanging feet downwards from seven spikes driven through their necks into the masonry.
Her first impulse was to flee from the spot;—then there came a dreadful thought, and she stayed. Whose bodies were those hanging in the forbidden cupboard? She took a step forward and inspected them more closely. Yes, they were women, and they had been young and beautiful. O horror of horrors! Could it be true? Were those the bodies of Blue Beard's wives, who had disappeared, one after another, so mysteriously? There they hung, spiked through the neck, their feet dangling above pools of their life's blood,—mute evidence of foul murder.
As Fatima stood gazing at the scene before her, her eyes dilated with fear, and, her breath coming in gasps, the little key fell from her fingers and clinked upon the floor. The sound recalled her to her senses, and she picked the key up hastily. Then she turned and rushed out; and, having locked the door,—no easy feat with such trembling hands,—she ran upstairs, her face as pale as death She thought to escape and regain her composure in her own room, but, when she arrived there, she found it full of her guests, who were so busy admiring its luxurious appointments that her pallor went unnoticed. One by one, however, perceiving that she was tired, they melted away, promising to come again on the morrow,—unless her husband was expected to return. It was evident they feared him; so did she, now.
At last they were all gone, and, as soon as she was left alone, she bethought her of the key and drew it from her pocket. What was her horror to observe the dull red stain of blood upon it, which she had not noticed when she picked it up from the blood-smeared floor of the dreadful chamber. Quickly she seized the nearest rag, thinking to wipe off the stain; but, rub as she might, it would not come off. As she scoured and polished without result, terror slowly grew on her face. 'Alas!' she cried, there is Blue Magic in this. Now I know my husband has consorted with fiends: his beard for one thing, this bewitched key for another. If I am not mistaken, nothing will remove the stain of foul murder from this key.'
Nevertheless, she bethought herself of many things: of sand, and pumice, and strong acid, and she tried them all upon the key; but though she wore the metal away by hard rubbing, the bloodstain still remained, for, being a magic key, it had absorbed the blood of Blue Beard's victims, and was saturated through and through with it.
She was just beginning to realise that the task was hopeless when she heard the rumble of wheels, but she still went on polishing the key, for, whatever coach was approaching, she assured herself it could not be her husband's—thank Heaven, he was not due to return yet for six weeks, and by that time she might contrive to have a new key made, exactly like the old one. But presently, when the coach drew up at the gate, and the horns sounded in her husband's style and manner, she started up with a cry of dismay, and her knees trembled with sudden fright.
Her first care was to hide the key in her bosom; then she ran out, but, for very fear, could get no farther than the head of the main stairway, where she stood clutching the stair-rail, and quaking in every limb. There, in the hall below, stood Blue Beard giving some final orders to the coachman. With a quick movement he turned, and, looking up, perceived her standing irresolute.
'Yes, it is I, my darling,' he called up gaily as he advanced to the foot of the stairs. 'Some letters reached me on the road, showing me that my long journey was unnecessary. So, you see, I have returned to your arms.'
By this time Fatima was tottering down the stairs, bent on giving him a fitting welcome; for, though she feared him more than aught else, she must try not to show it. 'Seven of them!' she kept saying to herself, as she gripped the balustrade, 'and seven and one are eight! And I have a throat as well as they, as sure as iron spikes have points.'
There was only a dim light in the hall, so that Blue Beard could not see her trembling condition; and if, when she greeted him, he felt that her body was quaking, he was fond enough to put it down to joy at his unexpected return. And Fatima, taking cover in this, behaved in an excited manner, like one so delighted to see her husband back again that she did not know what she was doing. She ran hither and thither, ordering this and that to be done, and then countermanding the orders, doing this or that herself, and then immediately undoing it again,—behaving, in short, like one demented with excitement, until Blue Beard smiled and stroked his beard, and thought she was a wonderful little bundle of delight.
And so, through such artfulness long sustained, it transpired that the question of the keys did not arise all that night, nor, indeed, until late the following day, when, as ominous as a thunder-clap, came a summons from Blue Beard that Fatima should attend him immediately on the terrace. With a wildly beating heart she hastened to answer the summons.
'I want my keys,' he said in the usual manner of a man. 'Where are they?'
'The keys?—Oh yes; the keys. I—I will go and fetch them immediately.'
Fatima ran off, and you can imagine her thoughts and feelings as she went. Blue Beard remained—he was always a grim figure — standing as she had left him,—just waiting: his thoughts and feelings were in his beard.
Presently Fatima returned, purposely out of breath in order to hide whatever confusion she might feel, and handed the bunch of keys to her husband. He took them without a word, looked at them carefully, and then slowly turned his eyes upon her.
'The key of the room at the end of the corridor,' he said grimly, 'it is not here: where is it?'
'The key of the—— Oh; you mean the key of the——'
'I mean the key of the——; yes, that's what I mean. Where is it?'
'Oh! I remember now. You said I was not to use it; so, to make sure, I took it off the bunch and put it away in a drawer of my dressing-table. I will run and fetch it.'
'Do,' said Blue Beard, and, while she ran off, he stood there looking for all the world like a blue thunder-cloud before the lightning comes.
Once out of sight Fatima paused to collect her wits. Then, having made up her mind, she ran twice up and down stairs, and finally rejoined her husband, panting heavily.
'It is not there,' she cried in dismay. 'I put it in my jewel case,—of that I'm sure,—but now it's gone. Who can have taken it? '
'Go look again,' replied Blue Beard, dangerously calm.
She ran away again, and again came running back. 'No,' she said, 'it is not there. Who can have——?'
'Silence, madam!' broke in Blue Beard. 'That was no ordinary key; and something tells me it is in your bosom now.' And, with this, he gathered her shrinking form in his rough arm, and with a rougher hand searched for, and found—the key!
'So!' he said. 'You lied to me. And—what is this? How came this blood upon the key?'
Fatima was very pale, and trembling like an aspen leaf. 'I do not know,' she replied. 'Perhaps——'
'Perhaps nothing!' roared Blue Beard in a terrible voice. 'Madam! your face tells me you are guilty. You have presumed to disobey me; to enter that room at the end of the corridor. Yes, madam; and, since you would sooner indulge your fancy for that room than obey my commands, you shall go there and stay as long as you like. Seven and one are eight, madam!'
'Mercy! Mercy!' cried Fatima, flinging herself at Blue Beard's feet. 'Do what you will with me, but do not put me in that room.'
She looked up sobbing, imploring his forgiveness; and, if a woman's beauty in despair could have melted a heart of stone, the sight of her would have melted his. But it will not astonish you to know that his heart was as flinty as his beard was blue, and Fatima realised this as she looked again at his terrible face.
'I have said it, madam,' he replied to her pleadings. 'None can disobey me and live. Prepare, then, for death.'
'Then,' said she, her imploring eyes brimming with tears, 'you will give me a little time to prepare? If I must die, I must say my prayers.'
'Ten minutes will suffice for that. Not a second more.'
Fatima hurried away towards her own room, but on the way she met her sister Anne, who was looking for her.
'Oh! dear Anne,' sobbed Fatima, as she embraced her sister; 'ask me no questions; there is no time. My husband has returned, and, because I disobeyed him, he has threatened to kill me. Oh! where are my brothers? If they were only here!'
'They are on the way hither,' said Anne quickly. 'They were delayed, but promised to follow me very soon.'
'Then run, dear sister, if you love me; run to the top of the tower, and, if you can see them coming, make a sign to them to hasten; for in ten minutes I must die.'
Quickly Anne ran up and up until she reached the roof of the tower; and Fatima, standing at the foot, called up to her:
'Sister Anne! Dear sister Anne! Do you see any one coming?'
And Anne answered her:
'I see naught but dust a-blowing, naught but the green grass growing.'
Presently Fatima called up again:
'Sister Anne, can you see no one coming? '
'Nay, I see naught but dust a-blowing, naught but the green grass growing.'
Fatima, in despair, continued to call again and again, but always the same answer came down from the roof of the tower.
And so the ten minutes ran out, and Fatima wrung her hands and groaned.
Meanwhile Blue Beard, having sharpened his sword, was trying its edge on the greensward of the terrace below. Fully satisfied with it, he strode into the house, and, standing at the foot of the stairs, shouted, 'Madam, your time is up. Come down at once!'
'One moment,—just one moment,' she replied, then called softly to her sister: 'Anne, sister Anne, do you see any one coming?'
'Nay, naught but dust a-blowing, naught but the green grass growing.'
'Madam,' roared Blue Beard, 'if you do not come down quickly, I will come up and drag you down.'
'I am coming,' she replied; and again she called softly to Anne: 'Sister Anne, do you see any one coming?'
'Sister, I see a great cloud of dust.'
'Raised by galloping horses?'
'Alas! Nay, it is but a flock of sheep.'
'Will you come down?' bellowed Blue Beard, 'or by——'
'I am coming in another moment.' Then to Anne: 'Sister Anne, can you see anybody coming?'
'Yonder I see—God be praised—I see two knights in armour, riding fast. … Yes, they are my brothers. … I am waving my kerchief to them. … They see me. … They spur and hasten. … Sister, they will soon be here.'
Then Blue Beard stamped his foot and roared out so terribly that he made the whole house tremble. At this his poor wife, wholly fascinated by terror, crept down to her doom. Her face was stained with tears, her long hair was dishevelled; she flung herself at his feet and besought him to take pity on her.
'Pity!' he thundered; 'I have no pity. You must die!' He seized her by the hair and twisted her head back to expose her beautiful throat; then, flourishing his sword, he went on: 'This is my last word on the abominable crime of curiosity as practised by women. By that detestable vice misfortune and grief came into the world, and we owe our present state of evil to the first woman, whose daughters greatly resemble her in that peculiar gift of prying into matters forbidden. …' And so he continued to harangue his poor wife, grasping her hair with one hand while he flourished his great sword with the other.
When at length he paused for want of words to describe the horrible crime he was about to meet with punishment, Fatima wailed, 'O sir! wilt thou punish me before I have recommended myself to Heaven? One moment, I implore thee, while I turn my soul to God.'
'Nay, thy prayers are said.' And he raised his sword to strike But the sword remained in air, as Blue Beard, startled by a loud battering at the gate, turned his head. Then, as the gate was burst in, and two knights came running with drawn swords, he loosed his hold upon Fatima, who sank in a huddled heap like one already dead. Turning quickly. Blue Beard fled, but the two brothers were hot upon his heels; and, after a rapid chase through the house and garden, they came up with him just as he reached the steps of the main porch. There they ran their swords through and through his body, and left him dead in a pool of blood.
When Fatima opened her eyes and saw her two brothers and her sister Anne bending over her, she thanked Heaven for her deliverance. With a sword all dripping red one brother pointed towards the porch, and Fatima gave a deep sigh of relief. She knew, and was satisfied to know, she was a widow.
Now, as Blue Beard had no children by any of his wives, his sole surviving wife became mistress of all that had been his. All his vast estates and treasures came into her possession, and she was young and beautiful into the bargain. The first thing she did was to purchase commissions for her two brothers in the army; next, she bestowed a splendid estate and a large sum of money upon her sister Anne as a wedding present on the occasion of her marrying the young man of her choice. Then Fatima fell in love with, and married, a worthy gentleman who adored her, and these two lived out their lives in one continuous hour of happiness.
His beard was black, and, when at length it grew grey, and then silvery white, she only loved him all the more. Even in the first year of her marriage she had quite forgotten the dark cloud cast upon her early life by that terrible man, Blue Beard; and ever afterwards she never had the slightest cause or reason to remember him.