It had taken an hour to return to sleep, and even after she did, she had not rested well, spending most of that time going over each moment of the scene, and deciding what must be done. She could not spend the day indoors with any activity when she needed to find him, to make certain that all was well, so after going through her now normal toilette – and being dressed in an elegant morning gown of pure white with silver threads – Isabelle passed over breakfast to go in search of the Beast.
She walked quickly through the grounds, finding areas she was discovering for the first time, but it was difficult to pay them attention when her mind was elsewhere. The only time she stopped was to think, to attempt to recall places he might have mentioned in their conversations – a place he might have loved…a hiding place…
Her search took her nearly a half-mile from the castle, across well-tended lawns broken by smooth man made paths…arbors of white roses and elegant fountains…until she came to a high red brick wall, the barrier separating a small expanse she had not realized existed.
Drawing closer, Belle placed a hand against the intricately carved oaken door, believing it locked, but was surprised when it quietly parted so she might peep inside. She stared upwards at the trees, the branches so heavy with leaves that some bent near the dark-green grass; noticed the abundance of roses in variations of white; saw the little angled stone bridge that crossed a small pool and intersected with a fountain crowned by The Three Graces. It was a world unto itself, the sunlight dancing through the leaves like golden rain, and that was when she saw him, a frisson of surprise rushing down her spine.
The Beast – wearing only an open white shirt and sand-colored breeches – was at the edge of the clear blue pond, down on his hands and knees, his tongue flicking at the water as if he was a true animal. He lapped hard, thirsty, a soft growl often emitted, and occasionally he would remove the droplets by shaking his head, much as she might see one of her father or brother’s dogs do. At last, he fell onto his belly so he might get to the water better and after drinking his fill, knelt while cleaning his face with his paw and arm….
Belle blinked, attempting to reconcile this image with the one she saw every evening, even when he had displayed the attributes of an animal, but now he appeared completely in his element, despite the human clothes he wore. Soundless, she slipped back across the doorstep and permitted the opening to seal once again, trembling hands easing to her mouth as she fought back her tears. The shock of what she had viewed should have sent her running away – it did not. Instead, she slowly retraced her steps, her heart heavy with concern….
That evening, when he made his usual seven o’clock appearance, Beast was touched to find that his goblet of wine had been poured and the normally empty plate was brimming over with slices of roast, a small leg of lamb, and a whole roasted chicken. He stared at the portion, perplexed, his attention so upon this detail that he almost started at the sound of piano keys forming into a complex piece.
“Isabelle,” he said softly, only now realizing that she was playing upon the pianoforte, her form nearly hidden in the shadows. His catlike vision sharpened and he saw her clearly, the shimmering silver of the needlework in the white gauze evening gown giving it an even more gossamer air, and he realized, on easing closer, that she wore the pearl and diamond necklace about her throat, the one he had given her the night before during that ill-timed visit to her chamber.
“Good evening, Beast,” she greeted, never pausing in her music.
“You know him then?”
“Very well,” he hoarsely replied, leaning his ‘hands’ upon the instrument. “It…was once a favorite….I no longer know why…or when…like the Mozart.” He straightened himself, smiling down at her as he did. “It is lovely, Belle – thank you for the sweet greeting.”
“You are most welcome…and – as you can see – I’ve gone ahead and put out some dinner for you. I will not take ‘no, I am not hungry’ as a proper answer. You will dine with me tonight…please? I…always feel so ill-at-ease when I eat and you simply…watch…as if you wish to join me but feel…I do not know…perhaps awkward in my presence.”
“I am not a proper gentleman, you realize that, Belle. My behavior last evening…”
“Has been forgiven,” she assured him, her fingers still not stopping. Recalling the image of young Benjamin and some of his friends cavorting about her family’s home, she smiled at her host. “Honestly…you are more a gentleman than most, I have told you that more than once.”
“Indeed,” he quietly answered.
She finished the measure and stood, taking his left ‘hand’ when it was offered. He was not as he had been that afternoon, truly part-man and chiefly animal, and as was now common with her, she felt no fear. She permitted him to take her back to the dining table and for the first time in their relationship, Isabelle was pleased to see that he would finally eat with her.
He was careful, taking his time as if afraid to embarrass himself, but only because of her did he feel at ease. When he had finished what he could – knowing that even that much would not satisfy his appetite – he was touched when Belle used a napkin and a finger bowl filled with fragrant water to clean his paws, and he sat there, watching the great care she put into this simple duty. His protests were quieted and he waited patiently until she had finished before he spoke again.
“Now…you will not be able to excuse yourself and say you cannot dine with me each evening,” she cheerfully told him, her voice insistent. ” I shall expect to join me, and not only that we may meet and talk.”
“It has been enough,” he commented as he politely stood when she did, making her way back to the pianoforte, “that you would even permit me to share your company.”
“You underestimate yourself, Beast, do you realize that?” Isabelle told him, smiling her prettiest. “Now…before you came, I was trying to rehearse something to perform for you…and not simply the Locatelli.”
“You…have something else in mind then?” He hesitantly drew closer.
“Handel….Do…Do you like Handel, Beast?” He nodded and Isabelle warmed up by playing a few casual notes. “He has always been a favorite of mine and…I found some music sheets in the library earlier today and thought…well, I thought it might be nice…well…I hope it would be…if I performed one of his pieces for you. I read over it and…” She shrugged.
“Well…I thought of you when I did.”
“I cannot imagine….Yes Belle…please…I would very much enjoy hearing it.”
She smiled broadly and withdrew her music from a leather folder on top of the instrument.
Placing it on the stand she softly announced, “It’s from The Messiah in case you wondered.”
The Beast nodded his reply; Belle cleared her throat, and moments later, a clear strong soprano filled the Hall:
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd:
And He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
with his arm.
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd:
And He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
with his arm.
And carry them in His bosom,
and shall gently lead those that are with young.
And gently lead those…
And gently lead those…that are with young.
Come unto Him,
all ye that labour
and are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Give you rest.
Come unto Him,
all ye that labour
and are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him;
for He is meek and lowly of heart:
and ye shall find rest
and ye shall find rest…
unto your souls.
He had remained until midnight. In the short time they had known one another, it was the latest the Beast had stayed with her, and they were both so startled when they heard the chiming of the bell, neither could imagine how they had missed the earlier alarms.
“It matters not,” Beast declared as Isabelle escorted him to the end of the Hall, from where he normally departed. “If this was to be my final evening on Earth…”
“Beast!” She did not like hearing him speak that way.
“I am simply saying that if this was to be my final evening, then sharing my time with you was worth more than all the jewels in the kingdom. You have been priceless beyond words…”
Priceless beyond words.
Even as Isabelle strolled a path amongst the hedges and then carefully made her way up a hillock surrounded by stone columns and a balustrade, she wished he might have stayed the entire night. She could have done without sleep. She could have slept during this very day if it meant a few more minutes with him, but as usual, he revealed his affection for her and sent her to bed.
But that was after the successful dinner and Isabelle singing to him. That had followed a game of piquet, during which the two had often laughed and joked as if they were any couple in the outside world. Only once had the diversion grown serious…and that was when the Beast had reflected too long upon the cards clutched in his paws and the young woman had teased him, asking whether he had dozed.
There was that sound again, like a deep chuckle. “Sleep? No…no dear Belle….” It was then that the girl had noticed pensiveness in the blue-green eyes. “I was…I was…in…thought….Remembering….”
He nearly spoke, but then stopped, obviously puzzled by the inquiry. “I…I dream…did you know that Belle?”
“But I do….Animals dream….Have you never watched them?”
Isabelle thought of the cats she had seen ‘chase’ mice in their sleep, or the dogs that contentedly ‘ate’ some savory meal, their eyes shut in pleasure. “I know they do….At least…I…I think they do.”
“So do I…and I realized…this is very…familiar….”
Distracted, he bowed his head. “It must have been a dream I had…I cannot recall when….I was playing piquet…at…perhaps a club. A gentlemen’s club. Human males have such things, do they not?”
“Indeed they do….My father, my brother…my sister Julia’s late husbands…they have all been members of London clubs for it is quite the thing to do….So…they had permitted you to enter?”
“I was there….A Beast among men…and…I sat at a table in a room with a large fireplace….I was surrounded by others…other men I should say, and one sat across from me and we played piquet….Hand after hand after hand…and…he declared he was ‘over the Rubicon’…” which Isabelle knew meant the mystery man in the Beast’s dream had scored more than one hundred points, “and that I had lost to him again….And I realized…” He stopped, as though straining to recollect every pertinent detail.
“I realized…I knew…I knew I was right.”
“That the man had cheated; had been cheating from nearly the very start of our game.”
“Oh my Lord.”
“And I called him out and although I was an animal, the others believed me and…and…and….”
“I…remember nothing more….I called him out….The men declared him a cheat.”
“Was that all? Of the dream I mean?”
He slowly shook his great head. “There was…I believe there was…Was there more? I am certain…there was more.”
“Was he angry with you? Yes, I suspect he would be, but I wondered…”
“You are right – he was, but what he said….What he said….” His voice drifted off as he rubbed a ‘hand’ over his face. “There was…something….Vengeance….He mentioned vengeance….”
“For calling him out…yes. Whether we dueled, fought, argued….I do not know. If I did…it is all gone….”
Isabelle finally released her own cards, placing them on the tabletop. “Oh Beast…I am so very sorry.”
“I had thought…had…hoped…that the game would lighten your heart…but instead it has only brought you bad…”
“Nothing. It has brought me no heartache, no anger or shame….I simply realized that…odd that an animal would have a dream such as that, but no Belle, do not blame yourself for this. In fact…I would rather play against you….You are far lovelier than the cheat in my dream….”
With those words they had both let it go and moments later had returned to their game, but it did not mean that Isabelle felt any better about causing him pain. That was why, as twilight drew near the following day, she had left the castle’s walls in search of him, deciding that for once she would seek him out before the appointed time. It seemed that each time she went walking, she made new discoveries, but although she had taken another direction upon beginning the search, the way circled about a newer area…and deposited her quite near where she had seen Beast the previous morning.
He was there however, standing between a row of marble and stone hunting dogs and lions, watching the western sky and the diffused lights in reds, purples and golds as they danced across the land and played upon his face. His figure was imposing, striking – despite the simple cut of his fashionable coat and waistcoat, the design revealing his powerful build, from his shoulders to the muscles in his strong legs, shown to great advantage in the revealing breeches.
Momentarily, Isabelle concealed her presence by standing behind a tree so that she could observe him, thrilled at the expression of sheer joy that she saw from his profile. Why he delighted in the sunset she did not know, but he was at peace in a way she normally saw…well, when he was with her. And he was smiling! Once – especially as a child – she had wondered if animals could smile, for there were times a kitten or a puppy might gaze up at her when they, too, were content, and she could have sworn….Well, perhaps it was simply an unintended muscle reflex, but to her…My God…there is a smile on his lips…
But she also caught herself thinking that no matter how monstrous they believed him, despite how ugly he was declared, in that instant, he was honestly handsome in the oddest way, this noble beast-man. Her cheeks grew heated, inflaming her bosom and the depths of her belly, the feeling causing part of her to contract as she closed her eyes, shaking her head as if to waken from a trance.
It was not fair, she thought, that he was trapped this way and meant to be unloved forever, having only her friendship to console him. But besides the love my father feels for me, I am in the same condition….We have only one another, Beast. There is…will be no one else…
She took a step, her slippered foot crunched a twig and he twitched, immediately alerted to the approach, his stance becoming tense as if expecting attack. When he saw it was her, he at once relaxed.
“Isabelle….” His blue eyes sparkled and he took in the golden-peach hue of her gown which was an unrestricted, gauzy creation inspired by the previous century; the way her reddish-blonde hair tumbled to her shoulders, and there, about her neck, she again wore the new pearl and diamond necklace he had given her.
“I thought…are you not preparing to dine? I had fully intended to come to you at our…”
“I could not wait,” she softly responded, blushing slightly. “I hope you don’t mind if I sought you out.”
He blinked, surprised. “I….No…No…of course I do not mind.”
“I simply thought…It’s silly but…I thought – before dinner – we might walk together…if you would like my company and not prefer to be alone during this time.”
“Your company? Belle…Belle…you are doing me a great honor,” he replied in a soft voice as he tenderly took one of her hands in his, his heart glowing when she did not flinch at his touch. For the first time, she noted that he was wearing a pair of white full-dress gloves trimmed in gold, the soft fabric a contrast to what she had grown accustom to when they held hands. Together, they descended the stone staircase that extended from the balustrade. “A very great honor.”
“I prayed you would not mind….Even your voice seems gentler and I have heard it at the quietest moments of the evening.”
“It makes a great difference…having you here – not waiting for seven,” he told her. “The hours are always so long for me…until we meet.”
“For me as well,” she confessed, glimpsing his face and then looking away.
“Then your days are tedious?”
She sighed, shaking her head. “I do often find the days long…although I manage to find diversions here, wonderful diversions…but I must admit…more and more I find myself looking forward to seven o’clock.”
“You are so kind, Belle. You…have shown me more kindness than I deserve….That is why…” He sighed. “That is why…I can hardly bring myself to ask you the question which torments me so.”
“Oh Beast….Ask – I know you must…you have told me you must…but I shall always give the same reply.” She saw his crestfallen look. “But please, Beast…let us be friends…always….Do not ask any more of me than that.”
They walked in silence for a short time longer, simply enjoying each other’s company, so it was for Belle to finally say, “You ask me if my days were long.”
“How do you pass yours, Beast? I don’t believe you have ever told me.”
He started to speak but then paused, his ears perking up as he looked to the east of them. A deer had leapt through the bushes, and Beast stared greedily, watching its’ movement as it disappeared into the woods. His heartbeat raced and without meaning to, he growled softly and nearly roared, excited at the prospect of the hunt, at the taste of the raw warm meat in his mouth. He was so intent that he did not hear Belle speaking to him.
“Did you hear me, Beast? Beast?! Did you hear me?”
“I’m…What was that?” He could barely tear himself away from the sight, but her voice brought him back. “Belle?”
“I was talking to you and…Are you alright?”
“For…forgive me.” His words were obviously troubled, and Belle placed a petite hand on his nearest arm.
“Beast? What is it?”
The Beast dropped his head into his hands and turned away, ashamed that he had such thoughts while Isabelle was there. He had learned such control, but there were moments when he could not help himself and the last thing he wanted …is for Isabelle to think me nothing but a selfish animal with nothing more on its’ mind than to kill and devour….She would grow frightened of me; not wish to be with me….I could not bear it if she despised me… “Forgive me…please forgive me….It is…nothing.”
“You are certain?”
“It is nothing….Forgive…my inattentiveness to you.”
Nodding, Belle eased out her hand once again, indicating that she wished him to take it again and he did, holding it high in a most stately manner as they continued down the staircase.
Just below them was the wall and behind it, the beautiful fountain where she had seen him. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him smack his lips, but then – embarrassed – look away from her.
“Beast? Is something wrong? What’s the matter?”
He gazed longingly at the water, knowing he could not do as he normally did by dropping to his belly, not in front of her. But this was where he was coming when Belle joined him and now…. “I…I am thirsty, Belle.”
Without a word, Isabelle rushed to the fountain and cupping her hands, allowed the water to fill the hollow. “Here Beast…before it slips out….Drink from my hands.”
Eagerly lowering his head, the Beast lapped the water from her hands, not once noticing a flinch at the touch of his rough tongue against her smooth skin. When the liquid had vanished, the girl immediately fetched more and smiling, waited until that, too, was gone.
Only now did the creature raise its’ head and for the first time, his eyes did not recoil at the sight of Belle’s beautiful brown ones meeting his. At any other time he would have made his eyes find a way of looking at her without looking at her – anything to avoid her understanding gaze, but instead they were frozen, a strange tableau of a beast and the beautiful woman in his life. It was finally the loud chirping of a pair of birds high above them that startled them back to reality, but the eye contact was not severed.
“Belle…doesn’t it revolt you to give me drink?”
Isabelle smiled tenderly and shook her head, still looking him straight in the eyes. “No Beast…it gives me pleasure….I would never wish to cause you any pain. You were thirsty….Why would I stand here and refuse to do such a small thing for you because others might consider it…revolting?”
“And yet your dream is to be far away from me…is it not?”
Belle’s lips parted, but nothing emerged…only the tears in her eyes gave any response. The Beast nodded, understanding and said nothing more, but he had no way of realizing that the unspoken answer – had it emerged – would have amazed him beyond his wildest dreams.