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The Beauty and the Fool by Rupert Hughes

 

There was once a beautiful woman, and she lived in a small town, though people said that she belonged rather in a great city, where her gifts would bring her glory, riches, and a brilliant marriage. In repose, she was superb; in motion, quite perfectly beautiful of form and carriage, with all the suave rhythms of a beautiful being.

Her beauty was her sole opulence; the boast of her friends; the confession of her enemies; the magnet of many lovers; the village's one statue. She had an ordinary heart, quite commonplace brains, but beauty that lined the pathway where she walked with eyes of admiration and delight.

In her town, among her suitors, was one that was a Fool—not a remarkable fool; a simple, commonplace fool of the sort that abounds even in villages. He was foolish enough to love the Beauty so completely that when he made sure that she would not love him he could not endure to remain in the village, but went far away in the West to get the torment of her beauty out of his sight. The other suitors, who were wiser than he, when they found that she was not for them, gave her up with mild regret as one gives up a fabulous dream, saying: “There was no hope for us, anyway. If the Fool had stayed at home he would have been saved from the sight of her, for she is going East, where there are great fortunes for the very beautiful.”

And this she made ready to do, since the praise she had received had bred ambition in her—a reasonable and right ambition, for why should a light be hidden under a bushel when it might be set up on high to illumine a wide garden? Besides, she had not learned to love any of the unimportant men who loved her important beauty, yet promised it nothing more than a bushel to hide itself in.

So she made ready to take her beauty to the larger market-place. But the night before she was to leave the village her father's house took fire mysteriously. The servant, rushing to her door to waken her, died, suffocated there before she could cry out. The Beauty woke to find her bed in flames. She rose with hair and gown ablaze, and, agonizing to a window, leaped blindly out upon the pavement. There the neighbors quenched the fire and saved her life—but nothing more.

Thereafter she was a cripple, and her vaunted beauty was dead; it had gone into the flames, and she had only the ashes of it on her seared face. Now she had only pity where she had had envy and adulation. Now there was a turning away of eyes when she hurried abroad on necessary errands. Now her enemies were tenderly disposed toward her, and everybody forbore to mention what she had been. Everybody spared her feelings and talked of other things and looked at the floor or at the sky when she must be spoken to.

One day the Fool, having heard only that the Beauty was to leave the village, and having heard nothing of the fire, and not having prospered where he was, returned to his old home. The first person he saw he asked of the Beauty, and that one told him of the holocaust of her graces, and warned him, remembering that the Fool had always spoken his thoughts without tact or discretion—warned the Fool to disguise when he saw her the shock he must feel and make no sign that he found her other than he left her. And the Fool promised.

When he saw her he made a pretense indeed of greeting her as before, but he was like a man trying to look upon a fog as upon a sunrise; for the old beauty of her face did not strike his eyes full of its own radiance. She saw the struggle of his smile and the wincing of his soul. But she did not wince, for she was by now bitterly accustomed to this reticence and self-control.

He walked along the street with her, and looked always aside or ahead and talked of other things. He walked with her to her own gate, and to her porch, trying to find some light thing to say to leave her. But the cruelty of the world was like a rusty nail in his heart, and when he put out his hand and she set in his hand what her once so exquisite fingers were now, his heart broke in his breast; and when he lifted his eyes to what her once so triumphant face was now, they refused to withhold their tears, and his lips could not hold back his thoughts, and he groaned aloud:

“Oh, you were so beautiful! No one was ever so beautiful as you were then. But now—I can't stand it! I can't stand it! I wish that I might have died for you. You were so beautiful! I can see you now as you were when I told you good-by.”

Then he was afraid for what he had said, and ashamed, and he dreaded to look at her again. He would have dashed away, but she seized him by the sleeve, and whispered:

“How good it is to hear your words! You are the only one that has told me that I ever was beautiful since I became what I am. Tell me, tell me how I looked when you bade me good-by!”

And he told her. Looking aside or at the sky, he told her of her face like a rose in the moonlight, of her hair like some mist spun and woven in shadows and glamours of its own, of her long creamy arms and her hands that a god had fashioned lovingly. He told her of her eyes and their deeps, and their lashes and the brows above them. He told her of the strange rhythm of her musical form when she walked or danced or leaned upon the arm of her chair.

He dared not look at her lest he lose his remembrance of them; but he heard her laughing, softly at first, then with pride and wild triumph. And she crushed his hand in hers and kissed it, murmuring: “God bless you! God bless you!”

For even in poverty it is sweet to know that once we were rich.

 
 
 

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