Translated by J. R. PLANCHÉ
In a country very far from this is to be seen a great city wherein trade flourishes abundantly. It numbered amongst its citizens a merchant, who succeeded in all his speculations, and upon whom Fortune, responding to his wishes, had always showered her fairest favours. But if he had immense wealth, he had also a great many children, his family consisting of six boys and six girls. None of them were settled in life: the boys were too young to think of it; the girls, too proud of their fortunes, upon which they had every reason to count, could not easily determine upon the choice they should make. Their vanity was flattered by the attentions of the handsomest young gentlemen. But a reverse of fortune which they did not at all expect, came to trouble their felicity. Their house took fire; the splendid furniture with which it was filled, the account books, the notes, gold, silver, and all the valuable stores which formed the merchant's principal wealth, were enveloped in this fatal conflagration, which was so violent that very few of the things could be saved. This first misfortune was but the forerunner of others. The father, with whom hitherto everything had prospered, lost at the same time, either by shipwreck or by pirates, all the ships he had at sea; his correspondents made him a bankrupt, his foreign agents were treacherous; in short, from the greatest opulence, he suddenly fell into the most abject poverty. He had nothing left but a small country house, situated in a lonely place, more than a hundred leagues from the city in which he usually resided. Impelled to seek a place of refuge from noise and tumult, he took his family to this retired spot, who were in despair at such a revolution. The daughters of this unfortunate merchant were especially horrified at the prospect of the life they should have to lead in this dull solitude. For some time they flattered themselves that, when their father's intention became known, their lovers, who had hitherto sued in vain, would be only too happy to find they were inclined to listen to them. They imagined that the many admirers of each would be all striving to obtain the preference. They thought if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion. They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father's splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it. Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them. Their friends were not more generous than their lovers. From the hour they became poor, every one, without exception, ceased to know them. Some were even cruel enough to impute their misfortunes to their own acts. Those whom the father had most obliged were his most vehement calumniators: they reported that all his calamities were brought on by his own bad conduct, his prodigality, and the foolish extravagance of himself and his children.
This wretched family, therefore, could not do better than depart from a city wherein everybody took a pleasure in insulting them in their misfortunes. Having no resource whatever, they shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world. What misery they had to endure in this frightful solitude! They were forced to do the hardest work. Not being able to have any one to wait upon them, this unfortunate merchant's sons were compelled to divide the servant's duties amongst them, as well as to exert themselves in every way that people must do who have to earn their livelihood in the country. The daughters, on their part, had sufficient employment. Like the poor peasant girls, they found themselves obliged to employ their delicate hands in all the labours of a rural life. Wearing nothing but woollen dresses, having nothing to gratify their vanity, existing upon what the land could give them, limited to common necessaries, but still retaining a refined and dainty taste, these girls incessantly regretted the city and its attractions. The recollection even of their younger days passed so rapidly in a round of mirth and pleasure was their greatest torment. The youngest girl, however, displayed greater perseverance and firmness in their common misfortune. She bore her lot cheerfully, and with a strength of mind much beyond her years: not but what, at first, she was truly melancholy. Alas! who would not have felt such misfortunes. But, after deploring her father's ruin, could she do better than resume her former gaiety, make up her mind to the position she was placed in, and forget a world which she and her family had found so ungrateful, and the friendship of which she was so fully persuaded was not to be relied upon in the time of adversity?
Anxious to console herself and her brothers, by her amiable disposition and sprightliness, there was nothing she did not do to amuse them. The merchant had spared no cost in her education, nor in that of her sisters. At this sad period she derived all the advantage from it she desired. As she could play exceedingly well upon various instruments, and sing to them charmingly, she asked her sisters to follow her example, but her cheerfulness and patience only made them more miserable. These girls, who were so inconsolable in their ill fortune, thought their youngest sister showed a poor and mean spirit, and even silliness, to be so merry in the state it had pleased Providence to reduce them to. "How happy she is," said the eldest; "she was intended for such coarse occupations. With such low notions, what would she have done in the world?" Such remarks were unjust. This young person was much more fitted to shine in society than either of them. She was a perfectly beautiful young creature, her good temper rendered her adorable. A generous and tender heart was visible in all her words and actions. Quite as much alive to the reverses that had just overwhelmed her family as either of her sisters, by a strength of mind which is not common in her sex, she concealed her sorrow, and rose superior to her misfortunes. So much firmness was considered to be insensibility. But one can easily appeal from a judgment pronounced by jealousy.
Every intelligent person, who saw her in her true light, was eager to give her the preference over her sisters. In the midst of her greatest splendour, although distinguished by her merit, she was so handsome that she was called "The Beauty." Known by this name only, what more was required to increase the jealousy and hatred of her sisters? Her charms, and the general esteem in which she was held, might have induced her to hope for a much more advantageous establishment than her sisters; but feeling only for her father's misfortunes, far from retarding his departure from a city in which she had enjoyed so much pleasure, she did all she could to expedite it. This young girl was as contented in their solitude as she had been in the midst of the world. To amuse herself in her hours of relaxation, she would dress her hair with flowers, and, like the shepherdesses of former times, forgetting in a rural life all that had most gratified her in the height of opulence, every day brought to her some new innocent pleasure.
Two years had already passed, and the family began to be accustomed to a country life, when a hope of returning prosperity arrived to discompose their tranquillity. The father received news that one of his vessels, that he thought was lost, had safely arrived in port, richly laden. His informants added, they feared the factors would take advantage of his absence, and sell the cargo at a low price, and by this fraud make a great profit at his expense. He imparted these tidings to his children, who did not doubt for an instant but that they should soon be enabled to return from exile. The girls, much more impatient than the boys, thinking it was unnecessary to wait for more certain proof, were anxious to set out instantly, and to leave everything behind them. But the father, who was more prudent, begged them to moderate their delight. However important he was to his family at a time when the labours of the field could not be interrupted without great loss, he determined to leave his sons to get in the harvest, and that he would set out upon this long journey. His daughters, with the exception of the youngest, expected they would soon be restored to their former opulence. They fancied that, even if their father's property would not be considerable enough to settle them in the great metropolis, their native place, he would at least have sufficient for them to live in a less expensive city. They trusted they should find good society there, attract admirers, and profit by the first offer that might be made to them. Scarcely remembering the troubles they had undergone for the last two years, believing themselves to be already, as by a miracle, removed from poverty into the lap of plenty, they ventured (for retirement had not cured them of the taste for luxury and display) to overwhelm their father with foolish commissions. They requested him to make purchases of jewelry, attire, and head-dresses. Each endeavoured to outvie the other in her demands, so that the sum total of their father's supposed fortune would not have been sufficient to satisfy them.
Beauty, who was not the slave of ambition, and who always acted with prudence, saw directly that if he executed her sisters' commissions, it would be useless for her to ask for anything. But the father, astonished at her silence, said, interrupting his insatiable daughters, "Well, Beauty, dost thou not desire anything? What shall I bring thee? what dost thou wish for? Speak freely." "My dear papa," replied the amiable girl, embracing him affectionately, "I wish for one thing more precious than all the ornaments my sisters have asked you for; I have limited my desires to it, and shall be only too happy if they can be fulfilled. It is the gratification of seeing you return in perfect health." This answer was so unmistakeably disinterested, that it covered the others with shame and confusion. They were so angry, that one of them, answering for the rest, said with bitterness, "This child gives herself great airs, and fancies that she will distinguish herself by these affected heroics. Surely nothing can be more ridiculous." But the father, touched by her expressions, could not help showing his delight at them; appreciating, too, the feeling which induced her to ask nothing for herself, he begged she would choose something; and to allay the ill-will that his other daughters had towards her, he observed to her that such indifference to dress was not natural at her age--that there was a time for everything. "Very well, my dear father," said she, "since you desire me to make some request, I beg you will bring me a rose; I love that flower passionately, and since I have lived in this desert I have not had the pleasure of seeing one." This was to obey her father, and at the same time to avoid putting him to any expense for her.
At length the day arrived, that this good old man was compelled to leave his family. He travelled as fast as he could to the great city to which the prospect of a new fortune recalled him. But he did not meet with the benefits he had hoped for. His vessel had certainly arrived; but his partners, believing him to be dead, had taken possession of it, and all the cargo had been disposed of. Thus, instead of entering into the full and peaceable possession of that which belonged to him, he was compelled to encounter all sorts of chicanery in the pursuit of his rights. He overcame them, but after more than six months of trouble and expense, he was not any richer than he was before. His debtors had become insolvent, and he could hardly defray his own costs. Thus terminated this dream of riches.
To add to his disagreeables, he was obliged, on the score of economy, to start on his homeward journey at the most inconvenient time, and in the most frightful weather. Exposed on the road to the piercing blasts, he thought he should die with fatigue; but when he found himself within a few miles of his house (which he did not reckon upon leaving for such false hopes, and which Beauty had shown her sense in mistrusting) his strength returned to him. It would be some hours before he could cross the forest; it was late, but he wished to continue his journey. He was benighted, suffering from intense cold, buried, one might say, in the snow, with his horse; not knowing which way to bend his steps, he thought his last hour had come: no hut in his road, although the forest was filled with them. A tree, hollowed by age, was the best shelter he could find, and only too happy was he to hide himself in it. This tree protecting him from the cold, was the means of saving his life; and the horse, a little distance from his master, perceiving another hollow tree, was led by instinct to take shelter in that.
The night, in such a situation, appeared to him to be never-ending; furthermore, he was famished, frightened at the roaring of the wild beasts, that were constantly passing by him. Could he be at peace for an instant? His trouble and anxiety did not end with the night. He had no sooner the pleasure of seeing daylight than his distress was greater. The ground appeared so extraordinarily covered with snow, no road could he find--no track was to be seen. It was only after great fatigue and frequent falls, that he succeeded in discovering something like a path upon which he could keep his footing.
Proceeding without knowing in which direction, chance led him into the avenue of a beautiful castle, which the snow seemed to have respected. It consisted of four rows of orange-trees, laden with flowers and fruit. Statues were seen here and there, regardless of order or symmetry--some were in the middle of the road, others among the trees--all after the strangest fashion; they were of the size of life, and had the colour of human beings, in different attitudes, and in various dresses, the greatest number representing warriors. Arriving at the first court-yard, he perceived a great many more statues. He was suffering so much from cold that he could not stop to examine them. An agate staircase, with balusters of chased gold, first presented itself to his sight: he passed through several magnificently furnished rooms; a gentle warmth which he breathed in them renovated him. He needed food; but to whom could he apply? This large and magnificent edifice appeared to be inhabited only by statues. A profound silence reigned throughout it; nevertheless it had not the air of an old palace that had been deserted. The halls, the rooms, the galleries were all open; no living thing appeared to be in this charming place.
Weary of wandering over this vast dwelling, he stopped in a saloon, wherein was a large fire. Presuming that it was prepared for some one, who would not be long in appearing, he drew near the fireplace to warm himself; but no one came. Seated on a sofa near the fire, a sweet sleep closed his eyelids, and left him no longer in a condition to observe the entrance of any one. Fatigue induced him to sleep; hunger awoke him; he had been suffering from it for the last twenty-four hours. The exercise that he had taken ever since he had been in this palace increased his appetite. When he awoke and opened his eyes, he was astonished to see a table elegantly laid. A light repast would not have satisfied him; but the viands, magnificently dressed, invited him to eat of everything.
His first care was to utter in a loud voice his thanks to those from whom he had received so much kindness, and he then resolved to wait quietly till it pleased his host to make himself known to him. As fatigue caused him to sleep before his repast, so did the food produce the same effect, and his repose was longer and more powerful; in fact, this second time he slept for at least four hours. Upon awaking, in the place of the first table he saw another of porphyry, upon which some kind hand had set out a collation consisting of cakes, preserved fruits, and liqueurs. This was likewise for his use. Profiting, therefore, by the kindness shown him, he partook of everything that suited his appetite, his taste, and his fancy.
Finding at length no one to speak to, or to inform him whether this palace was inhabited by a man or by a God, fear began to take possession of him, for he was naturally timid. He resolved, therefore, to repass through all the apartments, and overwhelm with thanks the Genius to whom he was indebted for so much kindness, and in the most respectful manner solicit him to appear. All his attentions were useless: no appearance of servants, no result by which he could ascertain that the palace was inhabited. Thinking seriously of what he should do, he began to fancy, for what reason he could not imagine, that some good spirit had made this mansion a present to him, with all the riches that it contained. This idea seemed like inspiration, and without further delay, making a new inspection of it, he took possession of all the treasures he could find. More than this, he settled in his own mind what share of it he should allow to each of his children, and selected the apartments which would particularly suit them, enjoying the delight beforehand which his journey would afford them. He entered the garden, where, in spite of the severity of the winter, the rarest flowers were exhaling the most delicious perfume in the mildest and purest air. Birds of all kinds blending their songs with the confused noise of the waters, made an agreeable harmony.
The old man, in ecstasies at such wonders, said to himself, "My daughters will not, I think, find it very difficult to accustom themselves to this delicious abode. I cannot believe that they will regret, or that they will prefer the city to this mansion. Let me set out directly," cried he, in a transport of joy rather uncommon for him; "I shall increase my happiness in witnessing theirs: I will take possession at once."