Once there was a little village hidden away in a green valley, with a river rippling through it on one side and an old railway siding beside it on the other. The river rippled so slowly that, it was said, if you dropped a stick into it from the old stone bridge at one end of the village, it would take a week to arrive at the small wooden footbridge at the other end. The railway was almost as slow – or so it was said.
It was, as you can see, a beautiful village – really the most beautiful in the whole world according to the people who lived there – a strange and wary people, much given to disapproval.
They were right in a way too. “We have the most beautiful thatched roofs too,” said M. Le Trésourier, who was hoping to be the mayor. “And the most beautiful birds, and – let’s face it – the most beautiful cows too. I mean, look at that one! You see what I mean?”
“What we need is a beautiful princess to complete the scene,” said his wife Claudine.
“Aren’t the cows enough?” M. Le Trésourier was apt to speak a little sharply to his wife – it was another habit in the village. “I don’t know where we’ll find a princess these days. Or do you have one stashed away somewhere?”
“No, my dear, I do not. Only we need something like that. If not a real princess, then someone who looks like a princess. You must admit, most of our neighbours are not exactly oil paintings.”
M. Le Trésourier was thoughtful for a moment. He could see immediately the sense in what his wife said, but was determined not to let on.
“Pshaw! The very idea! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous,” he said, with some conviction.
Actually, M. Le Trésourier was thinking hard. They did need someone to raise the tone a little, didn’t they. A May Queen or something similar. You can’t be the most beautiful village in the world if absolutely everyone who lives there is as ugly as sin.
And, come to think of it, he did have someone in mind.
It was the little daughter of M. and Mme. Lapin, both schoolteachers, who were themselves minor celebrities in the village for their alleged blood relations with the local counts in the chateau on the hill.
And here lies the heart of our story, because their daughter Régine was no ordinary child at all. She might well have been beautiful; or she might not. Nobody really knew, because since the age of seven – almost from the moment she had been given a bedroom of her own – Régine had refused to leave her room.
The Lapins reasoned with her outside the door for weeks – no for months, honestly – sometimes logical, sometimes demanding, sometimes just pleading, and in very extreme moments, very angry. These were very extreme moments because M. and Mme Lapin were never angry – they didn’t believe in it, they said – it was just that very occasionally, they despaired of ever seeing their daughter again, and lost their temper. But when either of them did so, the other would be so shocked that they would go silent for the rest of the day and leave copies of books about the evils of rage lying around the house, open at pointedly relevant pages.
It was all to no avail. They left Régine’s meals on a tray outside her bedroom door, and peered hopefully towards the French windows, with the curtains drawn, that marked her access to the garden.
But they also left hints for the neighbours, who were aware that Régine was no ordinary child, that her peculiarity lay not just in her behaviour, but in her extraordinary beauty. “Ah well, it’s so difficult for her,” they would sigh, as they watched the ducks fly in down the river for the night, and the darkness spread down the narrow streets. “It’s so hard for her because of her gift.”
“Her gift, yes,” agreed M. Lapin, listening carefully, as if he had thought of it for the very first time.
The neighbours would nod their heads gravely, as if they believed it. Then they would walk slowly back indoors and agree that the Lapins had been too lax in their upbringing and that they didn’t believe a word of these ‘gifts’.
“All those fancy ideas! Her own bedroom at her age! Leading out into the garden, if you please! Why at her age, I was still sleeping on straw at the end of the stables. If I was given a sheet occasionally, I was very grateful, I can tell you.”
Week in, week out, Régine would stay in her room, demanding things from her poor parents by writing on small pieces of paper and slipping them under the door.
“She wants another tube of ultramarine. Come on, come on, woman! I warned you we would run out,” shouted M. Lapin in impatience – and Mme. Lapin would hurry out, whatever the time, a fetch her another tube of paint. Régine’s work came first.
It nearly always was paints she demanded. Because Régine – young though she was – was determined to be an artist. And she churned the paintings out with a passion. Sometimes at dead of night, while the foxes wandered through their overgrown garden, the Lapins would hear the splash splash, scrape scrape noise, as their daughter set to with another canvas, another work of art. And they glowed with the special pride of parenthood.
“Your last picture showed real promise – the one with the green haystack,” said Mme Lapin tentatively through the door one morning, in an attempt to strike up conversation.
“What do you know about it, Maman?” said Régine. “Just get the paint I asked for, OK?”
“And she’s only eight!” said her mother proudly.
“Yes,” said M. Lapin sadly. “If only she dealt with the garden with the same enthusiasm.”
The one thing that upset Régine’s father wasn’t so much the enforced separation from his daughter – there were compensations about that, after all – but the fact that by barricading herself into what had originally been a guest bedroom some years before, she had also shut off the only access to the garden, which rapidly became packed with the most unusual trees, with just enough space between them for the most exotic butterflies to flit between them, and birds with songs nobody had heard for a century or more gathered happily in the branches.
Régine sat on her bed by her easel, reading books about girls with ponies and painting, painting, painting, staring out at the birds and smiling to herself, and deciding which finished canvasses she would next slip under the door.
“Haystacks! What a stupid idea!” she said out loud to herself. Because, as Maman really should have known, every last one of her paintings was of the same thing: herself.
They were, in short, all self-portraits. Sometimes the paintings were obviously of her, with her hair piled high on her head, or a multi-coloured blouse, and rosy cheeks. Sometimes they were as she imagined she would look like wearing blacksmith’s overalls or armour, or as a fine lady with poodles, from the olden days. Sometimes they were more like approximations – experiments: what she might look like inside out, or in the dark, or when she was in the womb. When they were dry, they were slipped under the door and her parents framed the ones they liked the best. Régine could sometimes hear them pointing them out to neighbours, making sure they appreciated the use of colour and contrast, or the sharp lines and shading.
But she never came out. Her old friends, her favourite cousins came and went, but Régine stayed behind the door with the curtains over the French windows kept firmly drawn. “If they want to know me, they can look at my pictures,” she said to herself, and she was pleased with the sound of it.
And so the years went by, and the grass grew even longer in the garden – it was sometimes now even hard for the butterflies to flit between the trees, hard even for the sound of the railway engine puffing by to filter through the undergrowth. M. and Mme. Lapin became fatter and more respected in their professional lives, and more and more proud of their daughter – the less they could recognise her, the more proud of her they were.
But Régine stayed put. She was 18 years old when M. Le Trésourier was having his conversation with his wife about princesses.
“Mon Petit Choux,” said M. Le Trésourier to his wife, in a craven, wheedling voice. “I believe I have an idea. I know where we can find your princess. And I’ll tell you where. It’s that girl who never goes out. The one that paints.”
“What do you mean? What a silly idea! She could look like the back of Bertrand the Bullock for all we know.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it,” said M. Le Trésourier, looking smug. “We don’t know – and neither does anybody else. Nor will they. They will imagine it. Do you understand? And what they imagine will far surpass even the most beautiful princess we could ever lay our hands on. If you see what I mean,” he said, with great delicacy.
So M. Le Trésourier set about spreading the rumour that, not only was theirs the most beautiful village in the whole wide world, but the most beautiful young lady lived there who ever lived anywhere – the beautiful, mysterious and elusive Régine – who, if not exactly a princess in the strict sense, was one of nature’s true princesses, a princess to the roots of her hair and to the ends of her toenails.”
The news began to spread, first to the nearest market town, where the farmers discussed her as they prodded their fat pigs at market, and then to the city, where the students and professors debated Régine’s beauty and made up Latin epigrams about it. And then to the palace itself, where the king and queen mentioned the mysterious beauty in passing over breakfast one morning, before moving on to the subject of their own children.
It was inevitable that soon the visitors would start to arrive: the farmers’ sons in search of wives from the town, the young bucks from the colleges, the merchants, the bakers, the furniture-makers, the young and the old, the printers, the sprinters, the hot and the cold – and they all made their way in hopeful ones and competing twos, down the slow railway to the village, just in dribbles and first and then in a flood.
M. and Mme Lapin moved away and employed an agent to look after the house and sell Régine’s paintings of herself. M and Mme Trésourier built a fine guest house to accommodate all the visitors, and became rather wealthy and a little plump. He and his wife greeted them with a tricolour sash – even though he wasn’t yet the mayor – and a handshake tough enough to remove a doorknob.
The money poured in. Soon the village shops were doing a powerful trade selling reproductions of Régine’s more famous pictures, the little train was puffing itself hoarse and M. Le Trésourier was finally and triumphantly appointed to the position that he had so desired, of mayor of what was now truly the most beautiful village in the world.
But for Régine, little of the hubbub she could sometimes hear through the curtains made much sense to her. Her parents’ agent and his gigantic wife, the housekeeper, were a ferocious pair and they refused to let anyone into the house.
They would stand, their arms folded, at the door, refusing gifts and flattery and even bribes. The young men, Régine’s fascinated admirers, would be directed to the nearest shop and they would be ushered into the back room to see the paintings, which were priced higher and higher as the years went by. Or if they were just passing, or just parsimonious, they could buy small postcards of the most famous ones and would go home happy, and with an erotic glow inside that they had visited the most beautiful place and touched genius.
Failing that, they were directed to the river which flowed slowly along, and urged to throw a few twigs in.
“This won’t do, Régine,” said her mother through the door, on one of her rare visits to see her daughter. “I know you’re contented in there, but haven’t you ever thought you would like to fall in love, or get married, or even just travel to the end of the road.” M. Lapin hushed his wife: they were certain that their daughter did actually venture out at dead of night when only the ducks and the occasional fox could see her profile etched in moonlight on the road.
“Haven’t you any needs, if you know what I mean?” Mme Lapin emphasised the word ‘needs’, but didn’t elaborate. “Oh dear, it’s no use. No use at all,” she said, dabbing her eyes a little. But actually, it was some use, because although she had devoted herself to recreating herself on canvas, Régine did have a weakness – she did want to be loved.
She wanted to be loved for her paintings, of course – that’s what she always said. They were her, after all. But in the back of her mind there was a nagging doubt. She knew the paintings were successful because people wrote to tell her – the lifelike ones from her youth as well as the wild ones with ribbons from her teenage years. Even the black ones of her own intestines from when she was 19, and now her strange abstract ones in perfumed denim. But she felt sure there was something else she needed, as if maybe somebody could adore her when they had never seen her pictures – who didn’t even know about them, didn’t care whether she painted or not. Was that silly? It was a ridiculous luxury, when she had devoted her life to perfecting herself, but the thought just wouldn’t go away. And when her mother talked about ‘needs’, it enraged her because it struck a chord.
“Very well, Maman, very well,” she snorted impatiently next time her mother talked like that through the trusty oak of her bedroom door. “Get me the mayor!”
“My dear, there really isn’t any need for such an outburst. I was merely suggesting that you might perhaps think about marriage. Before it’s too late.”
“Just get him, OK?” said Régine, her heart in her mouth.
M. Le Trésourier arrived with his long black moustache and ingratiating manner, and made a great fuss about keeping his trousers straight and uncreased as he bent slowly down to speak through the keyhole.
“My dear girl. This is a great honour. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Is there anyone there with you?” asked Régine suspiciously.
“Just my dear wife and the town clerk. And my secretary, oh and the coach of the victorious boules team – who must by statute attend the mayor at all official…”
But Régine cut him short. “Get rid of them. I want to speak to you alone,” she hissed.
There was a flurry of hands as M. Le Trésourier hussled them down the stairs and out of the house. Then, very carefully, brushing imaginary dust from where his knees would meet the carpet, and unhitching imaginary quirks in his sock suspenders, the mayor bent down again, ready to find out the will of the princess.
His face turned slowly red, and then a big smile grew to rival even his moustache.
“What was it? What was it, my dear? You did promise to tell me first?” whispered his wife as they walked home together. M. Le Trésourier made the most of his knowledge, breathed into his chest and strode tall with his new importance.
“She wishes,” he said very slowly and confidingly, as if he had received secret instructions from the countess. “To get married.”
Mme Trésourier gasped. “But how wonderful! What a spectacle! How delightful!”
But of course there was a snag. Before there could be any spectacle at all, any revelation of the mysterious Dauphine aux Peintures, she would need to find a husband. And since she didn’t intend to leave her room to find one, that seemed an unlikely prospect.
“Well, not unlikely. Difficult, I would prefer to call it – yes I would accept that,” said M. Le Trésourier judiciously. “Luckily I have an idea – or to be quite accurate – she had an idea. We will get the husband to come to her!”
Enjoying the look of confusion on his wife’s face, the Mayor explained that there would be a simple test for anyone romantic or foolhardy enough to propose his hand in marriage to the Dauphine. They would have to choose which of all her paintings of herself she had ever finished came closest to portraying the real thing.
“Mais, c’est impossible!” exclaimed Claudine.
“Not impossible, my dear,” said the Mayor. “Difficult, certainly, but for romance all things are possible. I don’t believe the girl knows which painting is best herself, after all. So it’s a question of whether a young man’s choice takes her fancy somehow.”
“But which young man? Can you imagine what kind of young man would submit himself to such a lottery?”
Mme Trésourier couldn’t imagine, and yet the young men came, quietly some of them, others with great pomp and ceremony, down the old railway to stay at the Mayor’s guest house – and would wander among the paintings staring wildly, or making pages of notes, or aimlessly and nonchalantly picking at random. They came, and they failed.
There was the merchant’s son, who gazed dreamily at the river and then gave the Mayor ten bags of gold to buy some of Régine’s most spectacular works. After a weekend’s contemplation – interspersed with throwing the occasional stick at the ducks on the river – he chose an early version of her with hair swept back and a retroussé nose that rather excited him.
“Non!” said Régine when she heard the news.
There was the young philosopher who discussed the problem at great length with anyone who would listen. “It is a fascinating question,” he told passers-by at the railway station. “First it is a matter, I think, of drawing some conclusions from the – how might I put it – totality of the work. Then applying that knowledge in such a way that it is possible to choose which one seems, in that light, the most representative work. Most intriguing. No, thank you, I’m not collecting – but thank you for the thought…”
He chose an interesting version of Régine obscured by bold blue and yellow stripes.
“Non!” said Régine when she heard. “Certainly not.”
Then there was the prince himself, who arrived quietly one morning and asked for the guest house. M. and Mme Trésourier were sent into a flurry of belated preparations when they recognised him climbing the stairs, with a shifty looking man in a bowler hat carrying his luggage up behind him. They both waited on him at breakfast, having prepared an enormous meal of braised kidneys and water melon, but he waved it away.
“Oh no, thank you so much. Just, if it wouldn’t be putting you to too much trouble perhaps, a small boiled egg and a piece of dry toast.”
“I can’t believe you’re here to marry our princess!” blurted Claudine Trésourier, in raptures before being hurriedly shushed by her husband. “That is, if I may be so bold, your highness.”
“Well, you know,” said the prince with suavity and graciousness. “One wants to do what one can.”
But it was all no use. The prince chose a large canvas of Régine when she was a girl, with plats, in traditional pose. But when Régine was told about his choice, all she said was “Pfh!”
All day in the guest house, another young man had been getting under the feet of M. Le Trésourier as he struggled to serve the prince – and as he plucked up courage, supported by his wife, to inform him of Régine’s response. Once the prince had departed in his coach, the Mayor finally exploded: “Young man, will you get out of my way!” he shouted. “I said before: I do not need another kitchen hand. You don’t what? Well, what do you want then?”
“I want to do the marriage test,” he said nervously. “For La Dauphine des Peintures.”
M. Le Trésourier looked at his unkempt hair and food stains on his neck. “You want what?”
“I want to do…”
“I heard, I heard. It’s really quite out of the question.” Really, said M. Le Trésourier to himself, what was the village coming to?
The young man slunk away, but returned the following week with a large juicy ham, earned in return for helping with the vine harvest. And he presented it to the gigantic caretakers who guarded the home of the Lapins and Régine’s room. They looked a little bewildered, and perhaps just a little suspicious, but were soon clapping him on the back and offering him a drink.
The following week, he was back again, with a goatskin full of wine – which he again carried round to the home of the Lapins.
“What is that noise, mon ange?” Mme Le Trésourier asked her husband. “They seem to be carousing at Régine’s home. I believe I can hear singing.”
“Scandalous!” said the Mayor. “What are they thinking of? What about her work? I shall speak to them in the morning.”
The following week, the young man returned with a flagon of paté, and spent the morning drawing a beautiful sketch of one of the birds in Régine’s garden, and put in a rough score for the music of one of the songs that nobody had heard for a century or more. And he wrote a note at the bottom: “Cher Dauphine de les Peintures. Today your picture feels like No. 364 (Portrait in Black with Dots and Hairband). Your friend, André.” And as a special favour, he asked the guardians to put it under Régine’s door – and as a special favour, the taste of paté still on their back teeth – they did.
A little later they could hear laughter inside.
“That note you gave Régine was a success,” they told him the next day. “We could hear her laughing about it. Why not write another? She laughs little enough, poor girl.”
So for the rest of the day, he sketched another of the birds. And scribbled their song in words, and at the bottom he sent her a message: “Cher Mademoiselle,” he wrote. “I know you change from day to day like the wind. I know those who seek to pin you down like hopeless butterfly collectors, and that they can never capture you. But I feel things no prince can feel: I sense the changes as you breathe, and know that today you feel like No 621 (‘Régine with Eyes and Daffodils’).”
“Can it be true?” wondered Régine joyfully to herself. “Can he really feel my moods as they change, like the swaying of the poplars?” She remembered ‘Eyes and Daffodils’, and she did feel a little like she had when she painted No 621.
Again, the large couple who guarded her privacy heard her laughing at the note. They did not hear her pin it to the wall with all her most precious things.
The next day, the young man wrote again, and for the rest of the week, he correctly felt his way into her moods and picked the changing portraits to represent it. It was almost as if he could feel his way into her head. Régine was enchanted and, at the end of the week, she demanded to see the mayor again.
“I shall marry nobody,” she informed him, “but the boy who signs himself André. Because he’s done better than pick the right picture.”
“What do you mean, better than picking the right picture?” said an increasingly nervous M. Le Trésourier. “That was the test! We agreed it!” The mayor became increasingly indignant as he also realised he was expected to preside in his blue, red and white sash and chain of office, and his tricorn had with plume, at the wedding of their princess with a boy who he suspected had aspired to little more than washing bottles.
“My dear Régine,” he said, masking his rage with increasing difficulty. “I simply cannot allow you to…”
“Cannot? I can’t believe you said that, M. Le Trésourier. There is no cannot. That young man hit a moving target. Please tell André to talk to me.”
And so it was that a nervous young man, dressed in the best-ironed clothes he had ever worn, walked up the bedroom stairs that afternoon. Behind him strode and red-faced M. Le Trésourier, who knocked on the door and witnessed for the first time in two decades the door prised open before his very eyes, dust falling from the doorframe, a few balls of ancient fluff bursting out from underneath, and one dead moth falling briefly onto the Mayor’s spotless suit.
Then there she was, a little pale perhaps, but her cheeks glowing and her paint-bespattered smock – and the detritus of 20 years of relentless creativity – a testament to what she had made of herself. The couple stood staring happily at each other, then the boy put out both hands and grasped hers and somehow their smiles were infectious. Soon M. and Mme Le Trésourier were smiling too, and the large couple who looked after her too, and M. and Mme Lapin, her parents, were smiling and a smile seemed to creep across the village, bending the old bridge just a little, stiffening the railway lines, and sending flocks of Régine’s beloved birds joyfully into the air.
“But you can’t give up painting!” said a shocked M. Le Trésourier to her later – the second time that day he had felt his heart palpitating during an uncomfortable interview with the princess. “What about us? What would happen to the village?”
“But it’s time to change, Monsieur. Or rather it’s time not to change,” she said. “It’s time to live in the world like a human being.”
Desperately, he sent her parents to remonstrate, but Régine was adamant.”
“You see, I have hidden all these years behind my pictures,” she told them. “Now I want to be myself. I don’t want to be a work of art any more. I want to be real.”
“Oh Régine, that is so childish,” said her mother. “How can you be yourself? We all need a little help to face the world.”
But as always, Régine got her own way. She stared a long time at herself in the mirror, locked the door of her bedroom – her home for so long – behind her and dressed the following week finally in white, with just a feather in her hair. And she walked down the aisle on the arm of her father, towards a waiting M. Le Trésourier and a patient André smiling back at her.
Later he carried her laughing over the threshold. Then she went back upstairs and came back down in an ordinary skirt of sackcloth and a rug. “This is me,” she said, leaping lightly into the room. He hugged her close to him, and outside the birds sang with redoubled force.
She wore the same thing the next day, as they walked arm in arm down the river. And again the day after as they wandered into the forest. And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that. At last I can be myself, she told herself.
Régine rejoiced at her stillness, her sense of permanence, and her feeling of herself unmediated through pictures. She felt like the real thing for the first time in her life. But she couldn’t help noticing a kind of far away look in her husband’s eyes.
She thought little about it until one morning she came down early, jauntily as usual, fed the songbirds and then saw a single sheet of notepaper on the table waiting for her.
“Dear Régine,” she read.
“This note is to say that, though it breaks my heart to do so, I must leave. I love you from my head to my toes, and yet I find I am living with someone I don’t know. I felt my way into your changeability for that wonderful week because you were a mystery, and now I find myself confronted every day by your unchangability, and I fear for myself. I waft this way and that like the poplars, but you stay still like a strange stone. I am the changing sea that breaks on your rock. I can hardly bear to hurt you, and yet I have changed and must go. May God be with you.”
Régine screwed up the paper, walked slowly upstairs, unlocked her bedroom door, waved to the birds, squeezed out a tube of yellow oil onto her palette and began to paint. And as she did so, the great wave of sadness that hit her suddenly began to disappear, and she found herself whistling the songs of the birds outside and painted like she had never painted before – and not just herself, but the world outside.
So the mayor was happy again that the famous daughter of the village had returned and was turning herself back into a work of art.
The large couple came home and they were happy. Even M. and Mme Lapin were happy that their daughter was home and secure.
Only André, the changing boy, sat thousands of miles away dreaming of his weeks with the great Princess of the Pictures – whose creations he saw reproduced wherever he went – and longing to see her just once more. But as she really was.