“And that…that is what happened.”
Sir Benjamin was gasping the last of the story before he took a gulp from the wine glass. He was sitting in his favorite chair that was situated in the drawing room, and surrounding him were his children, Lady Nicole, and Sir Maxwell Winterbottom, who was visiting with young Benjamin when the patriarch returned. The merchant had made no attempt to hide the news once he had collapsed after the hard ride home, and for the last hour, he had – in explicit detail – told of his adventure: the arrival at the castle during the storm, a description of the great wealth and beauty he had seen, his overnight stay, and finally, the incident that had sealed his doom.
After the wine had finished coating his throat, he looked at Isabelle, who was kneeling just in front of the right side of his chair. Sitting forward, her father ran a gentle hand over her head and sighing, opened her hands so that he might place the precious rose within them. By now, the flower was in full bloom, its’ beauty nearly breathtaking.
“This…is for you, dearest Belle….Treasure it – for it has been bought at a high cost.”
“No…” She was shaking her head, unwilling to accept what he had told them.
“It is not your fault, Belle. How could I have known?”
“Not her fault, Father?!” Julia shouted. “Of course it is her fault!”
“Stupid girl! This is what one gets when asking for something as ridiculous as a silly flower,” Gwyneth screamed.
“If only you had asked for something more worthwhile, as did the rest of us!” Julia continued, her lean face red with anger.
“I’ve always told you she was a disappointment Father.” Young Ben – who was feeling left out – decided that he must add to the attack, although he felt a nudge from his friend as though to indicate that he must not criticize too harshly.
“Do you have any idea what you have done, Isabelle!? Any at all?!” Gwyneth admonished. “We have lost our father because of your stupidity!”
“Gwyneth…Julia…Benjamin…you will not speak of your sister in this manner,” the merchant commanded, his voice strong. “She could not know. I did not know. None of us could know this would be the result! I will not permit you to hold her responsible.” He particularly stared at Julia, who had taken several steps, her hand raised as if to strike the youngest girl. “I have sworn an oath to the Beast…and I will return when the seven days are at an end.”
“It is simply not fair.” Now it was Lady Nicole’s time to simper as she buried her face within a dainty handkerchief. “You are such a good man. It is not right that this...Creature should treat you in such a manner. As if you were some common thief, to be executed on the outskirts of town.”
“Forgive me for being so blunt, sir,” Sir Maxwell decided to add, “but it shall most definitely burn within the fires of Hell for the disgrace it is bringing upon you.” Not that he believed in a Heaven or Hell, or God or the Devil, but it seemed to be the right thing to say at this moment.
“Then it should take Isabelle with it.”
“Julia!” the older Benjamin shouted, which immediately caused him to cough. Isabelle jumped to her feet, and avoiding her siblings, snatched up the bottle of wine that was on a nearby table so that she might pour her father another glass.
“I will not deny it, Father!” his eldest daughter proclaimed as soon as the man had calmed. “None of us will deny it. This is all her fault! All hers – no one but hers. And if you think you are going to shut me up, you are very wrong. I have been waiting for this moment!”
“Oh God!” Gwyneth screamed, and once again she pretended to weep.
“You could offer me the entire world and I would not keep still! It is her fault and she should be made to pay!”
“Julia is right, Father.”
“Isabelle! Oh no…no, this was through no fault of yours.”
“But she is right,” the girl softly said as she knelt beside him again. “They all are, Father. I was the one who asked you to bring me the rose…”
“Your ridiculous rose,” Gwyneth felt she needed to add, but was startled when Sir Benjamin hushed her.
“And since this Creature…this…Beast…has asked for either your life or that of one of your children…then I gladly give it mine if that is what it desires.”
“Oh no, no, no, I will not permit you to do such a thing, Isabelle.”
“But it is not right for you to suffer on behalf of me. I asked you; you were being kind to find me one, and now you are paying the price. I cannot let you sacrifice…”
“You are my daughter, Belle. A parent sacrifices all the time in the name of love for their children.” At this, Lady Nicole, Julia and Gwyneth launched into their feigned bawling. ” I have lived my life…and you have barely begun yours. It is time I joined your mother at any rate. I have missed her so.”
“Now is not the time, Father – and not like this!”
“Isabelle! The matter is at an end. I shall return to the Creature in seven days’ time and accept the fate it offers me.”
“And you wish for us to not speak?” young Ben shouted. “You will be so forgiving of her when she has given you your death?”
“The discussion is at an end,” his father firmly admonished him.
“The discussion is not at an end! Let Belle go to him! Let him have his way!”
“I have heard the end of it!”
“No Father…we…we have not heard the end of it. Do not protect her any longer!”
“That’s the way, Benjamin,” Julia encouraged under her breath. It was about time her brother revealed his backbone and took his place as the head of the household. Already she could see that this incident with the Beast had weakened their father and it was time to take advantage of it.
“She is guilty,” the young man exclaimed. “She is guilty and she knows it, so send her to the Beast.” He was somewhat startled when the merchant suddenly rose from his chair.
“I said that the discussion is at an end! I will settle my affairs as I see fit and then depart this life. I am more than prepared.”
At these words, the feminine wailing intensified as the two sisters and their friend gathered into a tiny circle in order to embrace. Benjamin grumbled – although part of him was anticipating this step that would make him patriarch and finally give him his inheritance. He wondered whether Lady Nicole could think as highly of him as she had his father; after all, he hated the thought of losing the additions of such funds in the family….And Isabelle….If the little bitch was not going to face the fate she deserved, then he would find another way of making her suffer. The death of their father and her guilt at her role in that would tear her to pieces. Marriage to one of his friends would destroy her forever, and he knew exactly the one of whom she was worthy.
“She would make the Creature a nice meal,” Gwyneth declared as the small group watched Isabelle escort Sir Benjamin out of the room, taking him upstairs to his bedroom so that he might get some rest.
“She’s fat enough, isn’t she?” Julia guffawed. “She might make it one or two decent meals if it was careful.”
“Better than a scrawny hen with barely enough meat on the bones,” Sir Maxwell argued. “Two scrawny hens in fact and he would still be starving,” deciding to add Gwyneth to his menu.
“How dare you!” Julia countered. “Go with her then. You would make it a delicious meal as well!”
“You will not speak to my friend this way – either of you!” Benjamin squeaked.
“Please!” Gwyneth rolled her eyes. “It is no wonder Matthew will have nothing more to do with you.”
“And if you were a man,” Maxwell declared, “I would remove my weapon and challenge you.”
Both Julia and Gwyneth went “Hah!”
“Oh please, please, stop it, all of you!” They all turned at Lady Nicole’s words, seeing that she, too, was trembling, her own tears as genuine as those that Gwyneth shed. “I have been waiting for Sir Benjamin’s return…to declare my own…feelings to him. In my heart…” and she dramatically pounded at her chest, “I have prayed day and night for his return. In my heart I have written letters that expressed what I felt. ‘Come back to me. Come back to your family. I began by counting the hours, then the days. I don’t count on anything anymore except the hope that you will return, and the silent fear that in the weeks since we saw each other, our circumstances…these awful circumstances…will have changed us both beyond all reckoning. The times I have spent with you…have been…have been like small diamonds. I will not leave St. Regis Park. My last thread of courage is to wait…for you. Yesterday…I saw you walking back to me. I hope that is true, my friend….If you are working, stop working. If you are negotiating, stop negotiating. Come back to me. Come back to me is my request.‘” And with those words, she collapsed into the nearest chair as Julia and Gwyneth ran to console her.
“I say…she is quite something, is she not? She could give Sarah Siddons a challenge, could she not?”
“Undoubtedly….But…if our father is about to return to this Beast…then we must make arrangements as to what we must do upon being left to fend for ourselves.”
“I will of course stand by your side, Benjamin, as I have done through all of this. You have been one of my most avid supporters.”
“Yes, yes and…it is only proper that I reward you.”
“No…of course not, Ben. I have money enough to…” He was interrupted by another display of weeping and gnashing of teeth from the three women. “I have money enough to do the things I desire, particularly in Parliament…” he added, winking, “but my desire…my greatest desire…” He rubbed a hand over his massive belly, unconsciously allowing it to drift downwards and in a way that indicated the source of imaginings.
“Yes, yes, of course. I know your feelings quite well, my lord and…once a decent period of mourning is over…we shall talk more…regarding…everything.”
“Everything?” The greed was openly on his face.
“Why of course everything. Would I even attempt to deceive you on such a matter?”
And they both softly laughed, a contrast to the whimpering on the other side of the room.
It was also the reason why none of them – so involved in their own concerns – realized that Isabelle had returned and was standing just outside the doors, listening to all of their chatter since Nicole had cried In my heart I have written letters that expressed what I felt. She sighed, their conversations turning her stomach, and let the one door quietly close back into place. She knew exactly what she had to do.
Dawn was not for another hour and before anyone – even the servants – were awake, Isabelle had quietly washed, dressed quite simply, made her way from her chamber and with the greatest care, slipped outside and down to the stables. Magnifique was being kept in his own stall, away from the Hewitt horses, and when he heard her enter, nearly on tiptoe, his ears perked up; he looked in her direction, curious and almost pleased, if such a thing could be told from watching an animal. He did not move again until Isabelle had opened the door, and after feeling her cautiously taking the reins in her hands, permitted himself to be led out into the yard.
The young woman glanced about her again, and positioning a stool at the horse’s side, climbed onto him, adjusting herself as she rode side-saddle. One last time she looked at her family home and the grounds, remembering happy times in her childhood when her mother still lived, when her parents had been together…. Things had changed so much once she had died, and there had been many times when Belle longed to do nothing but hide.
/Now…I can do this for my father…allow him a few more years…and perhaps I might find some peace as well. Farewell Father// and with a deep sigh she leaned over the horse’s head and whispered, “Magnifique, tu connais la route, allez va… va.” Magnifique jumped to attention and with a soft whinny, galloped forward – feeling the firm, experienced hand upon his reigns. He leapt across the stone fence and was soon carrying Isabelle away from her home…and towards her own fate.