He was lost. There was no other way around it. He was hopelessly lost.
The journey – before now — had been a great success. There was Portsmouth where he was able to learn just what sort of bounty his surviving ships had brought home. After four days there, he had ridden to London on additional business, his days filled with long meetings at the bank and at his main offices, so that the arrangements for the Season were made by trusted assistants and reviewed by him during the evenings. One duty he did take on himself was the purchasing of the gifts he had promised his children, but he delighted in such things, and for him, it was a pleasant task to take him away from everyday business, even briefly. But a month following his arrival, a letter was dispatched home that he would be leaving London shortly and giving the approximate date of his return.
It should have been a simple trip, one he had made perhaps a hundred times in his life, but he had not counted on a sudden thunderstorm sidetracking him and flooding one of the roads he normally used. He stayed at an inn before striking out again…and once more a storm drove him away from yet another familiar route and then another and another, until it had grown so dark, that had it not been for checking the time on his watch, he would have sworn it was midnight.
“We will drown if we do not find shelter somewhere for I fear you will not continue much longer,” Sir Benjamin mumbled into his horse’s ear, for he could tell the mount was resisting more and more. “And why do I fear that we have been moving in circles for some time now?”
The stallion whinnied a response, his hooves scuffing through the mud, and his rider knew that if they did not find some sort of protection soon, they might never find their way home.
That was when it appeared, through the sheets of rain and the darkness – a glade where he had remembered none before, but considering the conditions, it would not have been impossible to miss. But he knew – as he rubbed his eyes – that he must have been exhausted, for the heavy foliage had appeared to divide of its’ own accord, allowing him to see the clearing for the first time…and beyond it….
“By St. George,” he whispered, incredulous, as he realized that there – against the sky – was the silhouette of a castle a short distance away, the image of it growing larger and more vivid the nearer he and Ajax drew. He had known which county he was in upon leaving the inn, but considering all the detours, he felt he could be almost anywhere – it was simply that he could not recall, in all his many visits to this area, that he had seen this particular castle.
That puzzle was of little concern now, however, and Sir Benjamin urged his horse forward, praying to himself that the building was not abandoned. /Still…anything would be better than remaining out in this// he thought, shivering and drawing his cloak even tighter around him, for what good it did.
Five minutes later, he dismounted before what appeared to be the main entrance, and he stared upward at the front, unable to distinguish many details in the heavy rain. “I suppose I should try to find you some shelter as well, old friend,” he said to his horse as he removed the leather protective pouches that carried the jewels and other smaller gifts he was giving his family, but was surprised when a breeze that seemingly did not belong brushed across his face and he heard Ajax will be well taken care of for the night….Enter – find shelter. You are most welcome.
He watched as Ajax neighed and with a shake of his head, moved away. Benjamin started to call him but again the words Ajax will be well taken care of for the night….Enter – find shelter. You are most welcome.
The oaken doors behind him creaked and he turned sharply, realizing that he was being given entry, but he approached cautiously, uncertain from where the voice had come and where the person who had opened the doors might be.
Welcome – welcome. Find shelter from the cold and the storm the voice said again, and the merchant realized that on either side of him, the darkness of what appeared to be a long corridor faded, replaced on either side of him by one flaming sconce after another, each one finding light with each step that he took. Momentarily…Well, it was likely his imagination, but he could have sworn that the candelabrum – instead of actually being attached to the wall – were being held by pale, muscular, human arms that extended from the stone instead.
Yes…his imagination, although he could not explain the candles coming to light without being lit or the source of the mysterious voice that….
“Hello?!” he cried out, even as his eyes settled upon a massive dining table at the end of the hall, every inch of it filled with silver pitchers and bottles of wine, with trays of food and fresh fruits, bowls of steaming vegetables, and a large loaf of bread beside which was a container of butter. The utensils, cutlery and each plate were either of sterling silver or…
“Solid gold,” he whispered as he lifted one, his reflection glimmering in the soft glow from the fireplace .
Welcome….Find warmth, eat and drink and find rest. Take what you need, but leave all as it is.
“‘Take what you need, but leave all as it is,'” Benjamin repeated to himself as he peeled off his outer garments and placing them before the roaring fire. (Funny…he could have sworn that the eyes in the faces of the marble statuary that adorned the fireplace were watching his movements, but no, no, it was the lighting, the shadows playing tricks on him). Now down to his shirt and breeches, he collapsed in the comfortable seat at the head of the table and sighing, attempting to relax at last – despite his many questions – he reached forward to get hold of a carafe filled with red wine.
A breeze stirred his hair and he fell backwards, a small scream emerging from his lungs. The carafe was already in motion, a white hand disconnecting from its’ position near the centerpiece, and taking the silver handle within its’ grasp. While Sir Benjamin watched, eyes wide and mouth agape, the ruby liquid was poured into the golden goblet, the decanter was carefully replaced upon the tabletop, and the hand returned to where it had been.
“I have gone mad,” the merchant said, glimpsing under the tablecloth and finding nothing there. “Mad from exhaustion….Hello!? Is anyone there?! Hello!!!”
No answer, but yet the food was here, the drink, the fire. Perhaps the owner was simply a kind eccentric….
Benjamin was too tired to work out the logic and eagerly, he cut a thick slice of the meat and snatched nearly half the chicken apart….
He awoke with a start, bent over in the chair, realizing that it was a loud roar penetrating the castle that had been his alarm. The candles were extinguished and the fire in the hearth burned low. He stretched and looked about, realizing that the Great Hall – which was beautifully and tastefully appointed with the finest furnishings and decor – was filling with soft daylight and the rain had finally stopped.
“At last, thank God.”
And it was amazing how differently things appeared , now that it was morning. The statuary that he could have sworn was moving – it was quite still and just like any other sculpture he had seen. The candelabrum were supported by ‘human arms,’ but upon closer examination, discovered that these were made of marble or plaster, exactly as were the figures about the fireplace. He imagined that the candles were already lit when he walked inside, and his exhaustion had ignited his imaginativeness. Although the ‘hand’ lifting the carafe was another matter, as was the source of the voice….
A porcelain bowl containing hot water enabled him to quickly freshen himself, then he was dressed and outside, where Ajax patiently awaited him, tethered to a post.
“You look none the worse for wear, my friend,” he said as he rubbed the silken coat, noticing that the horse had been carefully groomed. “Did you have a good night? So did I. So…did…I.”
He patted the leather pouches. “Well…the family will be worried. It is time we were away from this…wherever we are. I should like to thank…someone, anyone…but I’ve yet laid eyes upon a single soul.” And once more he shouted “Hello!!” but received no reply. “Ah well….God bless the owner of this house for his kindness upon a poor traveler.”
Minutes later, Sir Benjamin was riding along the avenue that led from the entranceway to the main gates. He looked back once, then twice, studying the castle as it shrank behind him, seeing only now how beautiful it was, a combining of various influential ages throughout the history of the nation: the Plantagenets, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the time of William and Mary, the more recent reigns, so that soft whites, grey and golds blended with the famous Tudor red. He could see what was likely the original keep, then the buildings and walls extending from it, but it was obvious this castle was constructed more for livability than defense. He honestly wished he might have seen more….
“But we must move on and find how far we are from home,” the merchant muttered, half to himself and partially to Ajax, “before we become lost for yet another….Why hello?” Pulling on the reins, he brought the stallion to a halt and smiled on seeing a series of trellises just off to his right, each one creaking under the weight of various fragrant blooms. “I’ll be…I had nearly forgotten in all my….Belle – Belle asked for a white rose. Nothing more, can you believe that? She so deserves more but…”
His voice trailed as he jumped down from the horse, securing him to a nearby tree before the elder Benjamin carefully approached the dozens of rose blossoms that cascaded over every inch of the iron frame. Some were pale peach, some pale pink, many were white and trimmed in a particular color, and others nearly transparent in a way he had never seen before. But it was the ivory ones that caught his attention, the ivory ones that he could imagine his daughter finding the most beautiful, especially since they carried the scent of honey and fresh fruit – an almost perfect English rose.
“Like my Belle,” he recollected, feeling that he was so far from her right now. Removing the dirk from his leather belt, the merchant reached upwards and with the greatest care, cut the stem with a magnificent bloom that had not yet opened, certain that it would be in full flower by his arrival at home. He smiled, adjusted his hat, and was turning to return to Ajax….
The wind tossed his cloak about him, whipping at him so roughly that he thought it would knock him off his feet. He opened his mouth as if to speak – and that was when the air was pierced by the sound of a great roar, one that made the older man tremble in his riding boots. His eyes widened, he gasped “My God!” and fell back against the trellises, not even noticing that the thorns were pricking at his clothes and skin.
For there before him was what at first glimpse seemed to be a man, but upon more examination was not a man, except in physique and that it walked on two legs. The hands – paws – were layered in soft golden fur and were raised before him in anger, however most of all he noticed the catlike face, the mane indicating that this was no household animal but a powerful lion in his prime. A lion, Benjamin thought as he clutched the shirt fabric around his heart; a lion built like a man, wearing the clothes of a man, standing and walking upright as would a man. The only thing human about its’ face were the eyes that now glared at him, striking Benjamin with such fear that he felt he would faint then and there if he didn’t die first.
“Oh God,” the old man managed, shaking.
Only now did he seem to comprehend that the creature was speaking in a strong, deep voice and in English at that.
“I…I…I…No, no…Thief? No…I…No…I am not…Thief? Why? What…? What did I…?” He thought of the dinner, the welcome into the castle; his mind – stricken with fear – tried to quickly retrace every moment of the previous evening, wondering where he might have been at fault so that this THING was accusing him of larceny. “What did I…?”
“THIEF!!” it shouted again, moving even nearer, teeth bared. “I offered you hospitality, allowed you to share my warmth, my food, some shelter from the storm, and you…you show your appreciation by doing this!”
“Wh…Wh…What?” Benjamin stammered, realizing that the Beast was pointing behind him. He turned slightly, now remembering the trellis of roses, then saw that still clasped in his hand was the long stemmed white rosebud. “You…You…You mean…You mean…th-th-this. The…The…You mean…the…rose?”
The Beast’s human-like lips turned up into a sneer. “‘You mean the rose?'” he mockingly repeated. “Yes, the rose! My rose! My roses!! Of all things here, I will share anything…but I am selfish,very selfish when it comes to my roses. These I prize above all things! They are the one thing of beauty I cherish here. Nothing…nothing here means more to me. And you destroy it…”
“You destroy it with your meanness, your selfishness…your greed!”
Benjamin was crying as he dropped to his knees, his hands extended. “Please…” His entire view was filled with the Beast’s raging features.
“‘Please?’ You beg?”
“I…I did not…I did not…realize…I didn’t know! Please…I did not know!”
“Ignorance of my rules is no excuse,” the creature snarled. “This is your response to my hospitality…and for that…you…will…die.”
“No! Please…sir…I did not know! I did not know! I…” He now held the rose before him, as if it was an offering. “I only wanted it…” His voice began to drop to a near whisper. “…for my daughter.”
“My…my daughter….My youngest…My youngest…daughter. I promised…I promised…I…I…promised…that I…that I would bring her a…a…a rose. A…white…rose. I…I saw…I saw those…and I thought of her…and…I didn’t mean to show you disrespect! I beg of you!” It was as though he discovered new strength as he looked the Beast in the face. “It was all she asked of me! I asked my children what gifts I might bring them upon my return. She only asked me for a rose…a white rose. She…You cannot know how much she loves them.”
“And you have none of your own so that you feel yourself welcome to steal mine?”
“That was why she asked me to bring her one as a gift. The white roses at our home…they have not done well this year. She missed them so. Her mother…Her mother was the same.”
“Then you have sealed your death!”
“No! Please! Please sir!” He was not sure what else to call it and at this point, he wanted to be more humble, more respectful than he would even be to the King himself! “It was only a rose – a rose for her, but if I have done wrong by you, then I ask your forgiveness…”
“And will receive none.”
Benjamin straightened his shoulders. “Very well sir. Very well. I…I understand the violation I have committed against you, but…and…may…I at least ask one request of you?”
“One request before you die at my hands?” Benjamin nodded. “You are asking much, old man….You are asking for benevolence that I never…” He paused and the merchant was uncertain if the creature meant to say ‘that I never gave’ or ‘that I never received.’ For some reason, he detected that it might be the latter…. “What request do you wish of me?”
“Please…sir…my lord…Permit me to return home…to say farewell to my children…To manage any final affairs…and then I promise…I swear upon St. George and the grave of my beloved wife…I will return to you…and you may penalize me however you see fit. I will not deny…I cannot deny that I have any desire to die…but I have always believed…wrongdoing should be punished, and if this is the penalty for my crime, then I will return so that you may do as you see fit.”
“And how will I know that you shall return?”
“Because…I have already sworn to you: upon St. George, upon the grave of my beloved wife who left this world too soon, and now let me swear upon my fortune and the lives of my children. You have my word…as an Englishman.” He had thought the creature would tell him that he was ridiculous in asking this, but for the first time, he saw what appeared to be compassion in the green eyes. The time seemed interminable, but finally it spoke.
“You have placed a strong argument before me, sir. I am not usually so…magnanimous…but you have accepted your fate…as I have accepted mine….What is your name?”
“Your name, sir. What is it so that I may know the guilty party?”
“Hewitt, my lord. Sir Benjamin Hewitt.”
“Then Sir Benjamin Hewitt…depart for home. Manage your business affairs and bid farewell to your family, then return to me in seven days…”
“I will spare your life…on one account.”
Benjamin’s eyes glowed with optimism. “My lord?”
“I will grant you your life…if one of your children will agree to die in your stead.”
“One of my…”
“It is the only way.”
“But…But I could never…”
“Then return in seven days to face your fate. Now go!”
“Go! I will be…counting the hours until your return so I might enjoy your company once more…and do not think that once you have departed, you may avoid me….” The face moved closer. “There are things about me of which you have no idea.” It seemed to smile when Sir Benjamin swallowed hard.
“But…But…how shall I find my way home? And how shall I find my way back here? I stumbled upon your castle, purely by…”
“Ajax will take you home….Magnifique shall bring you back.”
“Magni…” But he did not finish, for at that very moment, a horse the pure white hue of the rose he still held, cantered beside them, his gear all in place.
“This is Magnifique. When your seven days are at an end, you will climb upon him and say the words ‘Magnifique, tu connais la route, allez va… va. (Magnifique…you know the way. Go, go, go.)’ Do you have that?” he impatiently asked.
“Yes…yes….Magnifique, tu connais la route, allez va… va.”
“Then I shall see you seven days from now. Away with you!”
Benjamin jumped to his feet and – legs wobbly – managed to climb onto his own horse, for the first time feeling as though he was dominating the Creature, although that was hardly the case. But now he could see him in better detail: his height, the broadness of the shoulders, and for the first time noticed the clothing – a white shirt and pale colored breeches. He was dressed like a human male, and yet, the older man was uncertain what It might be considered. Had it been an animal partially transformed into a man…or a man partially transformed into an animal. The thought of those possibilities was too mind-boggling and frightened him upon considering that somehow, in these modern days, dark magic or sorcery still existed, for surely It had not been born this way.
But he would delay no longer in case his ‘host’ changed its’ mind. He respectfully nodded his head and urging Ajax on, the pair galloped towards the main gate, Magnifique keeping pace.
He did not see the Beast place his hands on his hips as he watched them depart, unmoving until they had vanished from sight….