She was uncertain how far they had ridden from her family’s property or where in the world she was, but – since she had no other choice – Isabelle permitted Magnifique to find his way through glades, through small streams, and finally through forests. None of it was familiar to the young woman, who had ridden miles outside the Hewitt estate and had not led an altogether sheltered life, but she nearly felt as though she was entering another world. Although she was sure they had not been riding for long, she could tell – from the position of the sun – that it had quickly segued into late afternoon, and the deeper they rode into the woods, the more the mists increased, causing her to draw her cloak more tightly about her as the air cooled. And yet she remained quite calm, although she was well aware that at the conclusion of her journey, her life would end….
The castle suddenly appeared out of the fog, behind a cluster of heavy branches that seemed to part just as Isabelle and Magnifique emerged from the western edge of the forest. Taking a deep breath, she carefully studied everything her father had described: the long road midway a great emerald green lawn lined with massive trees, the stone entrance that indicated the main gate, a building that seemed to merge the architecture of several generations. Upon passing beyond the gate, she turned slightly, her heart sinking at the sight of the white roses bathed in a setting sun, the flowers that had doomed her father and resulted in her arrival at this place, and briefly closing her eyes, she whispered a prayer in an attempt to give herself some peace.
Magnifique stopped. He was before the main entrance, looking back at Isabelle as if to tell her that they had arrived.
“I had thought as much,” she told him softly, patting the back of his head. “You…You have been a good protector to me throughout all of this. Your master would be proud. Thank you….I wish I had something to give you, but I’m certain you will be rewarded.” Dismounting near the stone staircase so that she would not have far to land, she approached the double doors and trembling, pulled them apart.
Her world seemed to slow once she entered the darkened passage, barely noticing what her father had – that the candles in the scones appeared to light themselves with each step she took. Uncertain why, she did not pause upon coming to the Great Hall where her parent had dined and slept, but continued on, ascending the massive main staircase to the second floor, where a black drape separating the landing and the corridor beyond now opened, drawn apart by the male appearing marble hands attached to each side of the entrance.
/Why am I not afraid?// she asked herself as she slowly moved along the dimly lit passageway, feeling as though she was gliding past the billowing white draperies being gently tossed in a breeze from the open windows. The fabric would come within her touch – material so thin, so delicate, it was like nothing she had ever known. /Why has this Beast not appeared? Why do I feel so…I haven’t really been afraid since the moment I arrived, but I should be. I thought he wanted me to…//
Her thoughts ended as she suddenly stopped in front of a gold and silver door to her left. She glanced about. The hall was empty except for the windows and drapes, the exquisitely done furnishings and the marble statuary (was it her imagination that the eyes seemed to observe her movement, or that the sculptures appeared to breathe?) – no humans…no Beast….
Isabelle turned back to the door, realizing that the quiet female voice seemed to come from the woodwork itself!
Belle. I am the door to your suite. Enter and make yourself comfortable, for this is now your home.
The door opened and tentatively, Belle peeped inside, taking hold of the frame as she did for she was unwilling to cross the threshold just yet.
“Hello?” she cried out, remembering how her father had spoken of calling out but receiving no answer. Perhaps this time it would be different.
Another voice – male this time.
Belle. I am your suite and here no harm shall befall for you are at home. Enter and rest. This is now your home.
“Now my home?” she asked aloud. “I came here on behalf of my father, Sir Benjamin Hewitt. Where is your master? Why has he not appeared?”
Belle. It was both voices now. No harm shall befall you. Do not fear.
/What else am I to think? The Beast wants to slay my father, I come here in his place and now I am being welcomed?// “It does not make any sense,” and yet her apprehensions vanished and she moved further inside an apartment that was the most beautiful she had ever seen in her life. She doubted even a member of the royal family or one of the wealthiest aristocrats in the kingdom had anything this magnificent. She stood in the bedroom – overflowing with small vases and urns of white roses – the centerpiece of which was a beautiful four-poster bed of the palest wood, the linen and pillows in variations of white. There were more chiffoniers and cabinets than she could have imagined, some in the English style of the last century and others in Italian and French designs, and elegant mirrors. Adjacent to the bedchamber was a sitting room for she could see it when she shifted position. It, too, was not lacking in beauty, not with thick light-colored carpeting, not with the pale walls trimmed in gold, not with lovely, tasteful furnishings such as a chaise longue and a Viennese pianoforte, an instrument she loved due to its’ Mozart connections, but was rarely able to play any longer.
Refocusing on the bedroom, she slowly walked to the other side, discovering the balcony, inhaling the scent of jasmine and roses, of lavender and herbs, but a sound behind her caused her to quickly turn. Several doors within the walls unexpectedly opened to reveal row upon row of the most beautiful clothing she had ever seen. There were day gowns, walking gowns, riding gowns, evening gowns and elaborate ball gowns; dozens of shoes and boots to match the wardrobe. The drawers slid open one after another, and Isabelle could see lingerie of the finest needlework….Trays containing chains, trays containing necklaces and bracelets, trays filled with earrings and rings….Diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies, amethysts, sapphires….
All yours, Isabelle. This was another voice – male, yes, but different: a baritone, obviously English, and with such a timbre that she was both intrigued and touched, her heart beginning to race.
“Not all mine,” she disagreed, shaking her head and speaking into the air. “Why would this be mine?!”
You deserve such things. You have neglected yourself for too long.
“Who are you?”she asked the disembodied voice.
You have walked in the shadows of your sisters because of their undeserved fame, only because they fear you, Isabelle. But here…
“Who are you?!” she cried out again.
Here you will see that you are more deserving than they….Now rest. You must be exhausted and there is time to refresh yourself before supper. Rest dear Belle and welcome home.
“Welcome…” Isabelle stammered, and without hardly realizing it, she collapsed into a gold armchair, burying her face in her hands as she attempted to think things out. She felt herself so prepared for the end, but now she was being granted a reprieve….
This time a soft male voice came from within the silver framed mirror that sat before her on the elegant vanity. She took hold of it with both hands and stared at her reflection as she listened:
I am your mirror. When you look upon me you will only hear the truth…see the truth….
And seconds later, the image of the Hewitt family drawing room appeared and she could see Sir Benjamin, sitting in his favorite chair near the fireplace as he openly and unashamedly wept. She could see the servants in the background, retainers she had known from birth, and they, too, were in tears. Only her siblings and Lady Julia were calm, their eyes revealing their calculating minds….
“Father.” Isabelle touched the glass as if to comfort her parent…and the picture faded, replaced once again by her reflection.
That was enough. Springing to her feet, she rushed out of the suite, ran down the hallway and within moments, was down the stairs and racing towards the main doors.
She was outside now, but Magnifique was no where to be seen. She had no choice: she would need to look for the stables and then ride the horse home in order that her parent could see she was well. For some reason she knew – in her heart based on what had evolved since her arrival — the Beast intended her no harm, but she had to make Sir Benjamin aware so he would no longer worry.
An expanse of gardens, hedges and trees stood before her, some beautifully landscaped while other parts grew wild and natural. She continued along the path, hurried down another set of stone steps, and glanced back to see that she was not far from the castle. Belle turned into a section heavy with the fragrance of lavender, she ran a few meters more…and came skidding to a stop.
The heavy oaken doors guarding a gate into another section had flown open and a being blocked her way: a tall, well-built being that was half-man, half-creature, the golden cat-like fur revealed by the open white shirt in the latest style. In fact, it was dressed like a man, down to the light-colored breeches and the riding boots she realized as her eyes swept over the figure, finally landing upon his face, one in which human features seemed quite obvious and yet were buried under the mask of what resembled a lion or some other large, powerful cat. She was shocked and intrigued simultaneously….
“Isabelle – where are you going?” It was the baritone she had heard within her chambers, the voice even more powerful than she realized, but it did not scold her – in fact, there was a gentleness about it, concern for her welfare.
Before she could stop herself, Isabelle gasped…and crumpled to the ground.
The Beast dropped to one knee and bent nearer, one paw hesitantly stroking the soft reddish gold hair that fanned out around Belle’s head. Then in one swoop she was in the strong arms and being carried along the same avenue, her body limp.
Back through the gardens and once more into the castle…
Along the corridors in which numerous more candles came to light…and the sculptures cautiously moved their eyes to watch the progress of their master….
The door to Belle’s new chamber opened wide and the Beast slowly moved across the threshold, still gently cradling the young woman in his arms, and he glanced down, his lips parting into a gentle smile as the transformation began. Her auburn blonde hair was first, the strands now smoother and in place as soft curls cascaded about her shoulders, tiny spirals crowning her lovely face, the features now enhanced with the slightest of cosmetics intended to accentuate and not conceal. A string of pink pearls appeared about her neck, and now little by little, the plain brown gown and beige cloak dematerialized, almost simultaneously changing into a magnificent peach hued gown of Turin gauze, the needlework done in gold thread, while the brown riding boots became peach colored kid slippers. With that final touch, the Beast proceeded to the large bed, and very tenderly placed Belle’s still body upon it, resting her head against several satin pillows.
Only now did she stir, curling up at first and then stretching slightly in the manner she did upon awakening each day. She sighed, several fingers drifting over her lashes, and then the brown eyes blinked open…
/I’m…Where…The castle….I’m in the Beast’s castle….I was…The gardens…I was trying to find the stables…Magnifique…and…// Her thoughts paused and she moved her head so that she was now looking upwards towards the ceiling – only her view was obstructed by the face of the creature, which was now staring down at her, its’ eyes seemingly ablaze with wonder.
Belle emitted another gasp and threw her hands over her face, and with that action, the Beast – startled – sprang from his bent position and moved from the side of the bed as if hurrying to the door.
It was Belle’s voice that commanded him to stop and he did, turning slightly in obedience, noticing that she was sitting upright, her legs drawn beneath her. She was not even aware of the difference in her clothing or her appearance.
“I…” his voice gruffly began, “must leave….I did not mean for you to find me here,” and he made to depart again.
“No! Wait! Please…wait.” At the sound of her gentle bidding, he paused yet again.
“I…did not mean….You looked into my eyes.” His words were filled with despair. “Deep into my eyes…and…I could not bear it….You have seen me…and it was not the time…and…and I am sorry…”
“For frightening you in the gardens. It was…It was never my intent to frighten you on our first meeting.”
Belle swallowed hard as she scooted forward across the fine bed linen. “I should not have…” She paused, feeling the need to tell him more.
“I should not have fainted as I did. It is not like me….It is not like me at all.” There was nearly a small laugh in her voice, and the Beast wondered if she was attempting to make him know that she would not cringe in fear if he looked at her again. Warily, he faced her again and saw that she was smiling at him – and looking even more beautiful than he ever realized.
“But very understandable…when one is confronted by a monster. No…” He raised one paw before she could respond (well, Belle would have called it a paw, but there still were human qualities to it as well so that the claws seemed almost finger-like). “I am a monster…an animal. You have no need to apologize, Belle. Were I in your place….” He cleared his throat. “I spoke the truth when you first arrived. I mean you no harm. This is now your home…and you are mistress of this castle as I am master. Everything will be at your command…exactly as it is with me.”
“But I don’t…” She nearly said that she did not understand, but somehow she did. “Very well, my lord.”
“I ask one thing of you, Isabelle.”
“Belle…you must never look me in the eyes. Never directly into my eyes. Do not fear…you will never see me, except every evening at seven, when you dine. I shall join you in the Great Hall.”
“Of course,” she stammered, not knowing why he was so adamant in his directions regarding the eyes, for although she had only briefly seen them, she thought them intense and beautiful beyond words.
“The days shall be yours….I only ask to spend the evening in your company…nothing more.”
“Yes, my lord.” She was uncertain what more to say as she watched him back across the room.
“You must not…never look into my eyes,” he repeated, now at the threshold. “And now…I know you are exhausted after your ride. I only hope that your apparel meets your approval.”
“My…?” Only now did she glance down to see what she now wore; reaching up she felt at her hair and the jewels about her throat and in her earlobes, and apprehensively, she looked at one of the numerous mirrors about the chamber to see the change in her appearance. Her body felt refreshed and clean, the scent of lavender rising from her skin, the creamy cafe au lait complexion radiant. The figure her sisters insisted be hidden beneath the simplest or ugliest of clothes was now emphasized, each womanly curve, the full bosom – a body she was certain no man would ever want for she had been told she was too fat. There was no ugly fat, only the body of a curvaceous young woman who was not slender or boyishly thin…She could have been a princess….In fact, the image across from her was that of a princess, not the youngest daughter of Sir Benjamin Hewitt.
“I told you that you have been neglected for too long; that your sisters attempted to hide your beauty out of fear of you. You are so much more deserving than they…” She glanced again at the Beast, but he ducked his head. “Rest….I will see you at seven….Rest…” and Isabelle felt her eyes droop and she laid back onto the bed, the last words she heard as she drifted into sleep being “You must not look into my eyes….” before the door closed silently behind him.