Purporting to be the translation of a lost original Die kurzsichtige Prinzessin
Once upon a time there was a princess. She was very beautiful and very short-sighted. She possessed a kind heart, fine sensibility, good taste, great intelligence, and significant reserves of energy. She was much loved in the kingdom where she occupied herself with the concerns of her elderly father’s subjects, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged among them.
No one knew whether the Princess minded being short-sighted. She, though, made no attempt to hide the fact, and treated the many pairs of glasses she possessed like a rich and varied wardrobe of clothes. Exactly how many pairs she possessed was a matter of much speculation at court. Each pair had its distinct qualities. In heavy black frames she looked her most handsome and decisive. In grey she appeared serene and a little scholarly. Behind the tinted lenses of her numerous blue pairs her eyes became enigmatic and questioning. And when she chose from her assortment of pinks and mauves, she looked gentle and pretty. In rimless glasses, however, the Princess considered herself to appear a little vulnerable, and no one at court, or anywhere else, had ever seen her wear them.
In no circumstances did she permit herself to be seen without glasses, and when she changed one pair for another, which she did often, as her task, or the light, or mood determined, she insisted on privacy. Usually, she retired at such moments. Occasionally, an official of the court would be on hand to convey the Princess’s wish to be alone and people would be shepherded away. The idea of not being able to see others when they could see her, even for the briefest of moments, appalled the Princess. Fond though she was of her father’s subjects, whom she met in all kinds of situation, she would not tolerate the slightest possibility of impropriety. In fact, it was rumoured that no one apart from her maidservant, who was devoted to her, and whose several duties included the cleaning, storage and general upkeep of her glasses, knew what she looked like without them.
Over the years she received many princely suitors. However, not even her suitors were allowed to see her without glasses, hard though they pursued that quest in their different ways: some hasty, some lofty, some diffident; others measured and ponderous; still others plaintive, even wheedling. All sought to prevail upon the Princess to take her glasses off. It was rumoured that one of their number had once made a wild and frantic snatch at them; which ended badly for him. This though was just rumour.
To her suitors, unhesitatingly, the Princess replied: “I am a woman who wears glasses.”
Indignant in some cases, perplexed in others, her suitors sought to persuade her with a variety of pronouncements and exhortations: “But you are a Princess!” or “Deny not your most passionate admirer!” or even “Pray do not seek to hide your greater beauty from us!” These and other stilted phrases were repeated over and over again. The Princess tired of their remarks, but said little.
The years went by. The Princess continued to serve her father’s subjects. She grew ever wiser and more beautiful. Her dresses grew longer and their fabrics softer. She acquired still more pairs of glasses in many styles and shades. Opticians came from far and wide, solicitous and obsequious, seeking to tempt her with their latest designs. The Princess chose from among them with impeccable taste, and allowed herself to be photographed for trade magazines. As she grew older, the opticians sometimes brought her varifocal lenses, which the Princess graciously accepted, and tiny frames with very fine glass, which she did not. “You wish to make my glasses invisible,” the Princess told them, thinking of a certain emperor.
On a windy day one March there was a calamity. The Princess, walking with her maidservant by a brook near the palace, lost the pair of glasses she was wearing. A branch, caught by a sudden gust, struck them and swept them into the stream. Nothing like this had ever happened to the Princess before and she was distraught. To the casual passer-by, it might not have seemed that anything was amiss as the Princess and her maidservant, concluding that retrieval was impossible, began the slow journey back to the palace from where their walk had begun.
However, to her maidservant the Princess whispered: “I cannot see! I am exposed! I am naked! I must not be seen!! …And besides, I was fond of that pair.”
A Prince, an older man, a man perhaps half a dozen years older than the Princess who was herself, I repeat, an exquisitely beautiful woman in her middle years, …a Prince walking the other way along the bank, who saw the two women approaching, one of them resting her hand lightly on the forearm of the other, …this Prince knew very well that something was the matter. As he came near to the couple, he removed his hat, bowed slightly, and asked if he could help.
The Princess, scarcely able even to discern his outline across the blurred expanse which separated them, and entirely unable to make out his features, let alone expression, held her silence, although his voice, which was calm and kind, said much about him. The maidservant spoke instead: “My mistress has lost a thing of great importance!”
“Pray, tell me - if you will - what this thing is,” said the Prince.
The maidservant, who uncharacteristically had forgotten to pack another pair, looked in consternation at the Princess, who in turn looked a little faint.
“My mistress has lost her glasses in the brook. The wind came and blew them away!”
“I will retrieve them,” the Prince said simply. “Show me the place. Rest assured, I shall return the glasses to you. ”
“I am afraid, Sir, you do not know us!” said the maidservant. She knew that her mistress would not allow her to say who they were, because no one was allowed to see the Princess without her glasses.
The Prince looked quickly at the Princess, registering her plight. He gave no sign of recognizing the lady who since childhood had never been seen in public without glasses; in fact had never been seen anywhere without them, not even in photographs. He spoke again, addressing his words to her maidservant: “I shall return your mistress’s glasses to her,” he said. “Don’t be distressed. Can I perhaps be of some assistance to you both now?”
“No,” said the Princess with a certain abruptness, but no further loss of composure. And thus it was that, escorted discreetly by her maidservant, with care being taken to avoid deceiving edges and treacherous surfaces, the Princess returned to the palace by a less travelled path, one known to the two of them but few others; and there with considerable relief selected and put on another pair of glasses from her large collection.
A day or two later, towards the middle of the afternoon, the Prince came to the palace on horseback. He was met by a succession of guards and flunkies, to whom he declared: “I have something personal of the Princess’s which I wish to be allowed to return to her myself.”
He was admitted finally to the office of the Princess’s chamberlain. The chamberlain was a steady sort of fellow, not easily ruffled. He eyed the newcomer with a degree of curiosity.
“Exactly what have you personal of the Princess’s?” he asked.
“I have a pair of the Princess’s glasses,” said the Prince.
The chamberlain signally failed to suppress his astonishment. “That I admit is most personal,” he spluttered. “Will the Princess be aware that the pair in question is missing?” The Prince nodded. The chamberlain bade him wait.
When some time later the Princess’s maidservant came to the door of the anteroom in which the Prince was seated, it was to invite him into the Princess’s company.
The Princess was sitting at a writing table brightly illuminated by a standard lamp. She had an attaché case beside her and appeared to have just returned from an official engagement. She was wearing a dark costume with a white blouse and a large brooch. Her hair was up, and she had on a pair of large black framed glasses. From behind these she regarded her visitor. Her gaze was quietly appraising and dispassionate.
“You found them,” she said finally. “Indeed, you found me.”
“Indeed,” said the Prince. He handed the Princess’s lost glasses, now in a shining red case embossed with a princely coat of arms, to the maidservant. She clutching the case to her breast curtseyed to the Prince; then, stretching over, placed it carefully on the corner of the Princess’s writing table. The Princess almost imperceptibly pressed the large black glasses she was wearing a little further up her nose, while continuing to observe the Prince as she did so. The red case remained where it had been put, unopened.
There was a moment or two more of silence and then conversation began between them. The Princess found the Prince knowledgeable on matters of welfare and thoughtful about other topics close to her heart. The afternoon passed by. The maidservant, who had been sitting quietly by the door to the anteroom, left and returned shortly with pieces of Apfeltasche and a pot of tea. The conversation continued into the evening. Perhaps this was longer than the Princess had originally intended, but charitable affairs always held her attention.
The Prince was invited back. On his next visit, the Princess was wearing grey. Her glasses were grey too, their frames as large as before. Attired in this colour, the Princess conveyed a sense of stillness and containment. Again, the maidservant provided tea; and on this occasion there were some soft Makronen on an elaborately decorated plate of Turkish origin. Again, their talk went on well into the evening. And, again, the Prince was invited back.
The visits continued. Their conversations began ever earlier and ended ever later. The Princess continued to wear the pair of large grey glasses which she had adopted for the Prince’s second visit. Sometimes, her maidservant sat as before near the door to the anteroom, but the Princess by now was sending her hither and thither, finding errands of ever greater length for her to perform on the afternoons the Prince came.
One day the Princess said suddenly to the Prince: “Please occupy yourself with your noblest thoughts for a moment.” With that she opened the drawer of the writing table and took from it a black case. Inside it there was a pair of blue rimmed glasses with blue tinted lenses. She inspected them closely and put them on the table. Then with both hands she quickly took off her grey glasses, placed them beside the blue pair, picked the blue ones up, and began to put them on….
Did the Princess’s visitor swallow slightly as his eyes remained resting on hers, oblivious of his, during that fleeting moment she wore no glasses at all?
“Forgive me for this interruption, but I am becoming somewhat troubled by the brightness of the light,” explained the Princess with the merest degree of fluster a moment later when the tinted blue pair was safely in place and she once more equipped to continue their conversation.
From that day, whenever the Prince visited, the Princess would be wearing one or another from among a selection of pairs of blue framed, blue tinted glasses. He may have wondered why, irrespective of the weather which was unseasonably dull, this degree of protection thenceforth seemed always necessary. He might have noticed too that the dresses she now wore were a little darker in hue, a trifle longer in length, and a fraction higher at the neck. However, no further explanation was forthcoming from the Princess who through lenses, never lighter than sky blue and sometimes darker than ultramarine, continued to look enquiringly at the Prince, as she sought his views on matters of concern to her, or met his gaze quizzically as she challenged an opinion she judged ill formed.
The Princess and the Prince now began to see more of each other. Sometimes he accompanied her on visits to the various schemes and projects which she nurtured. Occasionally, she came to see what he did. The two of them continued to meet frequently at the palace, but by now the Princess’s maidservant was rarely in attendance, although tea things were always left on a tray. Once in a while there was a delicious Obsttorte to eat.
One day, when he came to visit, the Princess, hitherto scrupulous, almost fastidious in matters of dress when receiving the Prince, was dressed almost entirely in gentle shades of pink. Her shoes were pink. Her skirt was pink. Her blouse was pink. The long woollen cardigan she wore over her blouse was fluffy and pink with large pink buttons. She had a shawl draped around her, and that was pink. The frames of her glasses were pinkish in colour, as was their tint. They were every bit as large as her previous pairs; in fact every bit as much a force to be reckoned with. Their mistress blinked enchantingly from behind them.
The Prince and Princess sat down and began to talk as usual. After a while the Princess said suddenly: “Pray, come close, but don’t touch me.” Taken aback, the Prince stood up and took a step forward. He was a yard or so from her. “Not close enough,” said the Princess. “Come closer still.” He moved nearer. By now he was no more than two feet from her. The Princess cautiously removed her glasses and rested them in both hands on her lap. She looked up towards the Prince. Her eyes, now very large, began to blink more quickly. “You are still very blurred,” she said. “I daresay you don’t know quite how blurred. But you are at least familiar.”
The next moment, abandoning any further effort to bring the Prince into some approximation of focus, appearing in fact rather to forget he was standing there, the Princess took her glasses from her lap and puffed on the lenses. She then began intently to rub them on her shawl, leaning far forward to within a few inches of them, better to see what she was doing. The Prince stood still, very upright.
“Do tell me,” she said as she rubbed away a little absently, “how you found me afterwards.”
“I found you long before,” said the Prince. “I awaited a breath of wind.”
“Oh!” she said. “I see….” She had instantly stopped rubbing, hurriedly put her glasses back on, and was now looking up at him again. “I am afraid you are still standing. Do please sit down.”
The next day he came again. This time the glasses she had on were huge, uncompromisingly thick, but entirely rimless with no tint at all. She was wearing a long white dress, and over it a coat or jacket, also rather long and in the same white material. She sat not on the chair by the writing table with the single drawer, but on the sofa away to one side of the room.
“Sit beside me here,” she said. “Then, in your most courtly manner, take my glasses off.” As she spoke, her hands strayed to the sides of the pair she was wearing, where they lingered for a moment before she let them drop slowly back into her lap. The Princess looked demurely down at them, then inquiringly up at the Prince.
The Prince, stirred by her words, strode across the room and sat down beside her. “Princess,” he began. “They are a part of you. I do not believe I should take them off.”
The Princess, turning towards him, seemed to take a moment to collect her thoughts. “Dear Prince,” she said at last. “When we met by the brook you were to me the faintest grey shadow. Later, with assistance, I was able to see you much better and in no great length of time you appeared altogether solid, no matter where or when or how I looked at you. A princess as short-sighted as I am is grateful to have a large collection of glasses at her disposal to enable her to distinguish the many qualities of a Good Prince; a prince whose gaze she has permitted to dwell upon her without her glasses, though without them she can indeed neither see nor hide… Dear Prince, I am, as you found me, a really very short-sighted princess, and rather attached to her glasses, but I do believe that you will make sure that I am never parted from them for long.”
After that, the Prince leant towards the Princess. He very gently took off the huge rimless pair, sensing their great weight and all that connected the Princess to them. He put them somewhere safe. At first, he just held her very close to him, close enough to allow her to see him almost clearly. Then he drew her another few inches towards him and kissed her. After that he replaced her glasses, making sure they did not become entangled in her hair. At which point the Princess, at last, permitted herself a small sigh.
The two of them sat together for a long time holding hands, the Prince looking at the Princess in her huge rimless glasses, the Princess looking at the Prince through her huge rimless glasses.
In this way were certain matters settled between them. There was more for the Prince to do before the Princess and he were at last united. When that day came, the Princess again wore white and, of course, a new pair of glasses. The collection continued to grow, but now when the Princess went to meet the opticians - as solicitous and obsequious as ever - her Consort came too.
The years passed and the love between the Prince and Princess grew ever stronger. Many good works were done as the two travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom. And thus they dwelt the remainder of their lives together and lived happily ever after.
January, 2006; with subsequent revision