IN the East, in a city not far from Baghdad, there lived a man who had many possessions and might have been envied by all who knew him had these possessions been less by one. He had fine houses in town and country, retinues of servants, gold and silver plate in abundance, coffers heaped with jewels, costly carpets, embroidered furniture, cabinets full of curiosities, gilded coaches, teams of Arab horses of the purest breed. But unluckily he had also a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that every woman wanted to scream and run away at sight of him.
Among his neighbours was a lady of quality, who had two sons and two daughters. Upon these two damsels Blue Beard cast his affections, without knowing precisely which he preferred; and asked the lady to bestow the hand of one of her daughters upon him, adding, not too tactfully, that he would leave the choice to her. Neither Anne nor Fatima was eager for the honour. They sent their suitor to and fro, and back again from one to the other: they really could not make up their minds to accept a husband with a blue beard. It increased their repugnance (for they were somewhat romantic young ladies) to learn that he had already married several wives; and, moreover, nobody could tell what had become of them, which again was not reassuring.
Blue Beard, to make their better acquaintance, invited them, with their mother and brothers and a dozen or so of their youthful friends, to divert themselves at one of his country houses, where they spent a whole fortnight, and (as they confessed) in the most agreeable pastimes. Each day brought some fresh entertainment: they hunted, they hawked, they practised archery, they angled for gold-fish, or were rowed to the sound of music on the waters of their host’s private canal, they picnicked in the ruined castles, of which he owned quite a number. Each day concluded, too, with banqueting, dancing card-parties, theatricals; or would have concluded, had these young people felt any disposition to go to bed. They preferred, however, to sit up until morning, joking and teasing one another. Blue Beard, who had arrived at middle age, would have been grateful for a little more sleep than they allowed him, but showed himself highly complaisant and smiled at their pranks even when—their awe of him having worn off—they balanced a basin of water above his chamber door, to fall on his head and douch him, or sewed up his night-garments, or stuffed his bolster with the prickly cactus (an Eastern vegetable, of which he possessed whole avenues); nay, even when, for the same mischievous purpose, they despoiled his garden of an aloe which was due to blossom in a few days’ time, after having remained flowerless for a century, he betrayed no chagrin but merely raised the wages of his head-gardener, heart-broken over the loss of a plant so economical in giving pleasure. In short all went so smoothly that the younger daughter began to find their host’s beard not so blue after all.
She confided this to her mother. “Dear mother,” she said, “it is doubtless nothing more than my fancy, but his beard does seem to me to have altered in colour during the last ten days—a very little, of course.”
“Then you, too, have observed it!” the lady interrupted delightedly. “My dearest child, you cannot imagine how your words relieve me! For a week past I have accused my eyesight of failing me, and myself of growing old.”
“Then you really think there is a change?” asked Fatima, at once doubtful and hoping.
“Indeed, yes. Ask yourself if it be reasonable to suppose that our eyes are playing a trick on both of us? Not,” her mother went on, “that I, for my part, have any prejudice against blue. On the contrary, it is a beautiful colour, and considered lucky. The poets—you will have remarked—when they would figure to us the highest attainable happiness, select a blue flower or a blue bird for its emblem. Heaven itself is blue; and, at the least, a blue beard must be allowed to confer distinction.”
“A greyish-blue,” hazarded Fatima.
“A bluish-grey, rather,” her mother corrected her: “that is, if I must define the shade as it appears to me.”
“And,” still hesitated Fatima, “since it has begun to change, there seems no reason why it should not continue to do so.”
“My darling”—her mother kissed her—“that is precisely the point! Its colour is changing, you say. But for what reason? Obviously because he is in love; and what love has begun, love can carry to a conclusion. Nay, but put it on the ground of pity alone. Could a feeling heart set itself any task more angelic than to rescue so worthy a gentleman from so hideous an affliction—if affliction it be, which I am far from allowing?”
Fatima reflected on her mother’s advice, but thought it prudent to consult her sister Anne and her step-brothers before coming to a decision which, once taken, must be irrevocable.
They listened to her very good-naturedly; though, to tell the truth, all three were somewhat jaded, having sat up all night at the card-tables, playing at ombre, quadrille, lasquenet, and Heaven knows what other games.
“My dear Fatima,” said her sister Anne with a little yawn, “I congratulate you with all my heart on having made a discovery which, beyond a doubt and but for your better diligence, I should have had to make for myself before long.”
As for her step-brothers, they were in the best of humours at having won a considerable sum of money from their host by superior play; and they answered her, quoting a proverb, that “at night all cats are grey, and all beards too,” and seemed to consider this very much to the point.
Fatima was greatly relieved by these assurances. On the evening before the company dispersed Blue Beard again sought a private interview and pressed his suit. She accepted him without further ado, and as soon as they returned to town the marriage was concluded.
They had been married little more than a month when Blue Beard came to his wife one morning, and told her that letters of importance had arrived for him: he must take a journey into the country and be away six weeks at least on a matter of business. He desired her to divert herself in his absence by sending for her friends, to carry them off to the country if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.
“Here,” said he, “are the keys of the two great store-chambers where I keep my spare furniture; these open the strong-rooms of my gold and silver plate which is only used on state occasions; these unlock my chests of money, both gold and silver; these, my jewel coffers; and this is the master-key to all my apartments. But this little one, here, is the key of the closet at the end of the great gallery on the ground floor. Open all the others; go where you will. But into that little closet I forbid you to go; and I forbid it so strongly that if you should disobey me and open it, there is nothing you may not expect from my displeasure.”
Fatima promised to obey all his orders exactly; whereupon he embraced her, got into his coach, and was driven off.
Her good friends and neighbours scarcely waited for the young bride’s invitation, so impatient were they to view all the riches of her grand house, having never dared to come while her husband was at home, because of his terrifying blue beard. They overran the house without loss of time, hunting their curiosity from room to room, along the corridors and in and out of closets and wardrobes, cabinets and presses; opening cupboards, ferreting in drawers, and still exclaiming over their contents as each new discovery proved more wonderful than the last. They roamed through the bedrooms and spent a long while in the two great store-chambers, where they could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestries, beds, sofas, consoles, stands, tables, but particularly the looking-glasses, in which you could see yourself self from head to foot, with their frames of glass and silver and silver-gilt, the finest and costliest ever seen. They ceased not to extol and to envy their friend’s good fortune.
“If my husband could only give me such a house as this,” said one to another, “for aught I cared he might have a beard of all the colours of the rainbow!”
Fatima, meanwhile, was not in the least amused by the sight of all these riches, being consumed by a curiosity even more ardent than that of her friends. Indeed, she could scarcely contain herself and listen to their chatter, so impatient she felt to go and open the closet downstairs. If only Blue Beard had not forbidden this one little thing! Or if, having reasons of his own to keep it secret, he had been content to take the key away with him, saying nothing about it! At least, if he wished to prove whether or not poor Fatima could rise above the common frailty of her sex—and he was, as we shall see, a somewhat exacting husband—he should have warned her. As it was, her curiosity grew and possessed her until at length, without even considering how uncivil it was to leave her guests, she escaped from them and ran down a little back staircase, in such haste that twice or thrice she tripped over her gown and came near breaking her neck.
When she reached the door of the closet she hesitated for a moment or so, thinking upon her husband’s command, and considering what ill might befall her if she disobeyed it. While he uttered it his look had been extremely stern, and a blue beard—for after a month of married life she could no longer disguise from herself that it was still blue, or at any rate changing colour less rapidly than she or her mother had promised themselves—might betoken a harsh temper. On the other hand, and though she continued to find it repulsive, he had hitherto proved himself a kind, even an indulgent husband, and for the life of her she could not imagine there was anything unpardonable in opening so small a chamber. The temptation, in short, was too strong for her to overcome. She took the little key and, trembling, opened the door.
At first, shading her eyes and peering in, she could see nothing, because the window-shutters were closed. But after some moments she began to perceive that the light, falling through the shutters, took a reddish tinge as it touched the floor. So red it was—or rather, red-purple—that for a moment or two she supposed the closet to be paved with porphyry of that colour. Still, as she stared and her eyes by degrees grew accustomed to the gloom, she saw—and moment by moment the truth crept upon her and froze her—that the floor was all covered with clotted blood. In the dull shine of it something horrible was reflected …. With an effort she lifted her eyes to the wall facing her, and there, in a row, on seven iron clamps, hung the bodies of seven dead women with their feet dangling a few inches above the horrible pool in which their blood had mingled …. Little doubt but these were the wives whom Blue Beard had married and whose throats he had cut, one after another!
Poor Fatima thought to die of fear, and the key, which she had pulled from the lock, fell from her hand. When she had regained her senses a little, she picked it up and locked the door again; but her hand shook so that this was no easy feat, and she tottered upstairs to recover herself in her own room. But she found it filled with her officious friends, who, being occupied with envy of her riches and having no reason to guess that, in a husband’s absence, anything could afflict so fortunate a wife, either honestly ignored her pallor or hoped (while promising to come again) that they had not overtired her by their visit.
They promised, too, to repeat their call very soon, at the same time inquiring how long her husband’s journey might be expected to last. It was plain that they feared him, one and all. Half an hour ago she might have wondered at this.
They were gone at last. Fatima, drawing the key from her pocket, now to her horror observed a dull smear upon it, and remembered that it had fallen at her feet on the edge of the pool of blood in the closet. She wiped it; she rubbed it on the sleeve of her robe; but the blood would not come off. In a sudden terror she ran to her dressing-room, poured out water, and began to soap the key. But in vain did she wash it, and even scrape it with a knife and scrub it with sand and pumice-stone. The blood still remained, for the key was a magic key, and there was no means of making it quite clean; as fast as the blood was scoured off one side it came again on the other.
She was still scouring and polishing, when a horn sounded not very far away. In her flurry she paid little heed to this, or to the rumble of wheels she heard approaching. Frightened though she was, she supposed that she had still almost six weeks in which to restore by some means the key to its brightness. But when the wheels rolled up to the porchway and came to a stop, and when the horn, sounding again, blew her husband’s flourish, then indeed the poor lady’s knees knocked together and almost sank beneath her. Hiding the key in the bosom of her bodice, she tottered forth to the head of the stairs, to behold Blue Beard himself standing beneath the lamp in the hall below.
He caught sight of her as she leaned over, clinging to the balustrade; and called up cheerfully that he had received letters on the road with news that his journey was after all unnecessary—the business he went about had been settled, and to his advantage. Still shaking in every limb, Fatima crept downstairs to give him greeting. She ordered supper to be prepared in haste; and while he ate, forced herself to ask a hundred questions concerning his adventures. In short she did all she could to give him proof that she was delighted at his speedy return.
Next morning, having summoned her to attend him on the terrace, he asked her to render back the keys; which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.
“How is this?” said he. “Why is not the key of my closet among the rest?”
“I must have left it upstairs on my table,” said Fatima.
“Fetch it to me at once,” said Blue Beard. “At once, and without fail.”
She went, and after a while returned, protesting that she could not find it.
“Go back and seek again,” commanded Blue Beard, dangerously calm.
After going backwards and forwards several times, she could pretend no longer, but brought him the key. Blue Beard examined it closely, and demanded—
“How came this blood upon the key?”
“I do not know,” answered poor Fatima, paler than death.
“You do not know!” cried Blue Beard in a terrible voice. “But I know well enough. You have chosen to enter that closet. Mighty well, madam; since that poor room of mine so appeals to your fancy, your whim shall not be denied. You shall go in, and take your place among the ladies you saw there!”
Fatima flung herself at her husband’s feet, and wept and begged his pardon with every sign of truly repenting her disobedience. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful she was; but Blue Beard had a heart harder than any rock.
“You must die, madam,” said he, “and that presently.”
“Since I must die,” she answered, looking up at him with eyes all bathed in tears, “grant me a little time to say my prayers.”
“I grant you,” replied Blue Beard, “ten minutes, and not a second more.”
As she went from him, and through the house towards her own apartment, at the foot of the great staircase she met with her sister Anne, who (unaware of Blue Beard’s return) had just arrived to pay her a visit.
“Ah, dear sister!” cried Fatima, embracing her. “But tell me, oh, and for Heaven’s sake, quickly! where are my brothers Selim and Hassan, who promised to come with you?”
“They are at home,” said Anne. “They were detained at parade, and I have come ahead of them. I could wait for them no longer in my impatience to see you; but just as I was starting they arrived back from the parade-ground, and sent word that they will follow as soon as they have groomed their horses, and spend a happy day with you.”
“Alas!” sobbed Fatima, “they will never see me alive in this world!”
“But what has happened?” asked her sister, amazed.
“He—Blue Beard—has returned …. Yes, and in a few minutes he has promised to kill me. But ah! ask me no questions—there is so little time left. Dear sister, if you love me, run upstairs and still up to the top of the tower, look if my brothers are not coming, and if you see them, give them a signal to make haste!”
Her sister Anne left her and ran up, up, to the roof of the tower; and from time to time as the minutes sped, the unhappy Fatima cried up to her:—
“Anne, Sister Anne, do you see any one coming?”
And Sister Anne answered her:—
“I see nothing but the noon dust a-blowing, and the green grass a-growing.”
By and by Blue Beard, who had pulled out his huge sabre, and was trying its edge on the short turf of the terrace, shouted to her:—
“Wife, your time is up. Come down, and at once!”
Then, as she made no answer, he shouted again, and as loudly as he could bawl: “Come down quickly, or I will come up to you!”
“A moment—give me a moment longer!” she answered, and called softly to her sister: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see any one coming?”
And Sister Anne answered: “I see nothing but the noon dust a-blowing, and the green grass a-growing.”
“Come down quickly,” shouted Blue Beard, “or I will come up to you!”
“I am coming,” answered his wife; and again she cried: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see any one coming?”
“I see,” answered Sister Anne, “yonder a great cloud of dust coming.”
“Is it my brothers?”
“Alas! no, sister. I see a flock of sheep.”
“Will you not come down?” bawled Blue Beard.
“Just one moment longer!” entreated his wife, and once more she called out: “Anne, Sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”
“I see,” she answered, “yonder two Knights a-riding, but they are yet a great way off …. God be praised,” she cried a moment after, “they are our brothers! I am waving my handkerchief to them to hasten.”
Then Blue Beard stamped his foot and roared out so terribly that he made the whole house tremble. The poor lady came down and, casting herself, all in tears and dishevelled, at his feet, clasped him by the ankles while she besought him for mercy.
“This shall not help you,” said Blue Beard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair and twisting her head back, the better to expose her beautiful throat, he exclaimed: “This be the lesson I read against curiosity, the peculiar vice of woman-kind, and which above all others I find detestable. To that most fatal habit all the best accredited religions, in whatever else they may differ, unite in attributing the first cause of all misfortunes to which the race is subject ….” In this strain he continued for fully three minutes, still grasping her hair with one hand while with the other he flourished his sabre.
As he ceased, poor Fatima looked up at him with dying eyes. “Ah, sir!” she besought him, “if this curiosity be, as you remind me, my worst sin, you will not be so cruel as to destroy me before I have confessed and asked pardon for it. Grant me, then, just one moment more to fix my thoughts on devotion!”
“No, no,” was his answer; “recommend thyself to Heaven,” and he swung up his sabre to strike.
At that very instant there sounded so loud a knocking at the gate that he came to a sudden stop. His arm dropped as the gate flew open and two cavaliers ran in with drawn swords and rushed upon him. Loosing his hold upon Fatima, who sank fainting upon the grass, he ran to save himself, but the two brothers were so hot on his heels that, after pursuing him through the vineries and the orange-house, they overtook him just as he reached the steps of the main porch. There they ran their swords through his body, and, after making sure that he was dead, returned to their sister, who opened her eyes, indeed, as they bent over her, but had not strength enough to rise and embrace them.
Blue Beard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estates. She employed a part of her wealth to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to purchase captains’ commissions for her two step-brothers; and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman who made her forget the short but unhappy time she had passed with Blue Beard.
(For Curious Wives)
Wives should have one lord only. Some have reckon’d
In Curiosity t’ enjoy a second.
But Scripture says we may not serve two masters,
And little keys have opened large disasters.
(For Chastising or Correcting Husbands)
The very best sermon that ever was preach’d
Was a thought less effective the longer it reached.
Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur. The Sleeping Beauty and Other Tales From the Old French. Edmund Dulac, illustrator. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910.