It took a little time for their relationship to return to normal after his proposal. He tried and she tried to act the same, but still it hung between them. Finally they both discovered that rather than pretending it had never happened, the better thing was to acknowledge that it had. The Beast would not retract his profession of love, but she found that she could accept it and go on, even as he accepted her refusal. After all, what else could they do? They had no one else but each other, and they had grown too dear of friends to be happy apart for long.
So another month or two passed, and fall began to set in. Marianna was sorry to see the summer flowers go from the garden, but autumn had its own beauties. The old house grew cold quickly, but they kept fires burning in many rooms, and her seemingly bottomless wardrobe yielded fur coats and woolen undergarments that kept her warm even on cool nights.
One day when the wind was blowing hard outside, she went back again to pace the long gallery and stare at the pictures. Her curiosity was still unsatisfied where they were concerned; she had tried to pry a little information out of the Beast at times, but he always laughed and put her off. Still she walked, and studied each face in its turn, wondering at the stories behind them.
Near the end of the gallery she stopped before the portrait of a middle-aged woman, still regal and beautiful. Her eyes roamed over it, taking in every detail. There in the background was the mantle from the small sitting room in the east wing--it was no surprise that it had been painted here. Surely she must have lived here once. Her clothing was rich and beautiful, not unlike Marianna's own gowns she wore now, and there… Marianna stopped and looked more closely. Yes, she was certain. There reposing on her breast was a necklace of emeralds that she herself had worn.
With sudden awareness now, she started back, looking at every woman's jewels, searching for more of hers in them. She found two other familiar items--a ruby broach, and a pair of pearl earrings.
Well! Marianna sat down on an accommodating bench to think. She remembered her Friend's words to her when he brought her the jewelry: "They once belonged to a very great lady." Several very great ladies, from what she saw here. They were family jewels, ancestral jewels, just like this was an ancestral home. And they were both in the possession of her Beast. "I came by them honestly," he told her. She believed him, but--but--how? What was he doing here? How had he come here? What was his relationship to the family depicted on these walls, and how had their possessions fallen into his hands, and then been cursed? Did the curse come before or after? Maybe the house had been cursed, and then he came here and was cursed because of it, like her father had been. How long had he been here, anyway? How old was he? Shivers went up and down her spine as she contemplated these things. The word enchantment lay heavy on her.
Yet, there was something here, something she was missing, she felt sure of that--some key to the puzzle that would make it all clear. What was it that she couldn't see? It was probably really obvious, she thought, but still it eluded her.
Finally abandoning attempts to sort it out as hopeless, she transferred her attention back to the place of the missing portrait. She knew one had been here because the brackets in the walls to hang it were still there. No one would put those up until they actually had something to hang, right? So where was it? She couldn't say why it interested her so, but it did. There was, after all, little else to occupy one around here sometimes.
Suddenly she thought of the storerooms downstairs, cluttered with this and that. It seemed a long shot, but if she was to go looking for the picture, surely that was as good a place to start as any.
She had not seen the Beast since breakfast. In fact, the last few days he had seemed to be drawing away from her a little, retreating back into his shadowy shell. Perhaps it was the weather change that triggered it, she thought, or maybe he's getting bored with my company after all. Either way, she wasn't going to push him. They had plenty of time to come when they could be together. In the mean time, she had some freedom.
She set to work without delay. The downstairs cellars were dark and dusty, but she changed her clothes and lit lamps, and started sorting. It was mostly junk, she found, although a fascinating relic or two showed up--some ancient bit of machinery, or the missing serving bowl to the china set in the breakfast room. Her interest in the project remained high through the first storeroom, and the second, but by the time she came to her fourth, she gazed around a little drearily, and looked down at her dirty dress and hands. I must look a fright, she thought. How ever will I ask for some extra hot water for a bath when I don't really even want to tell him what I've been doing? Instinctively she felt he might not approve of her quest.
With little enthusiasm she poked around the room, glancing at this or that, but not expecting much. With a sigh, she turned away. She no longer could remember why she had felt so strongly about this anyway.
As she passed the wine cellar, she thought of her father, and his love for fine wine. He had not seen it while he was here, she felt sure. How excited he would be if he could! Perhaps he could even find a few of those rare bottles he was always talking about.
On the impulse of the moment she turned into the room, climbing down a few steps, and began to peruse the dusty bottles. But she soon had to acknowledge to herself that she had no real idea where to look, or even what she looking for. But the dark , low-ceilinged room was rather maze-like, and it took her a few minutes to find her way out again. She ran straight smack into one wall, realized where her error was, and was about to turn back, when the light of her lamp glanced off of something, and she turned her head.
It was definitely not a wine bottle, or a rack. In fact, it was propped up against the wall half-way behind a rack that looked like it had been moved. It was flat and rectangular, and it was... the shape of a painting.
Excitement surged through her. It was the right shape all right, and just the right size for the large portraits that hung in the gallery. Although it faced the wall and was covered, she could see the curve of the frame.
The cellar was too dark, so she dragged it out, huffing, to the kitchen, where at least she could get some light through the windows. It was heavy, but she managed to get it up onto the table. It had been carefully wrapped in a heavy cloth--a tablecloth, perhaps. Awkwardly, and with great excitement, she managed to take off the wrappings, and held her lamp up eagerly to gaze on the painted countenance.
It was the man in her dreams.
Marianna gasped and fell back, dropping her lamp. After a moment she recovered herself, picked it up again, and bent forward. Surely she had been mistaken.
No, there he was--the face she had seen so often: the same jaw, the same nose, the same sensitive mouth, and those warm, compelling eyes--what was it about those eyes? Even the way his hair fell over his forehead, the way he was dressed, and carried himself--it all matched.
It can't be, she thought in unbelief. My brain is playing tricks on me.
It was. Even as she tried to argue with herself, tried to convince herself that dreams are so vague, and she didn't really remember what the man in them had looked like, she knew it was untrue.
Maybe I saw another painting of him somewhere else, she thought, and I've forgotten about it. But as she thought about it she knew that excuse would never do either. If there was such a painting in this house, she would have noticed it long ago.
If chills had run over her before, now they fairly possessed her. For several minutes she sat on the rickety old stool in the kitchen and shivered, staring at the painting before her in mingled fascination and horror. Was it a ghost that was haunting her dreams, then? Again the word enchantment sprang to mind, increasing her sense of horror.
Finally she was able to gather her thoughts well enough to move. She must speak to the Beast about this. He might be upset, she knew, but she had to ask. Perhaps finally he would tell her something.
But there were things to do first. Somehow she managed the lug the heavy painting up the stairs. She left it in a small antechamber, turned against the wall again. Then she went up to her room to clean up and try to make herself presentable. She would need all of her beauty and charm that night to persuade him.
Dinner that night was a poor affair. Both creatures were distracted and withdrawn; despite Marianna's resolve to be charming, she found she neither ate much or talked much. And the Beast didn't have much to say either, but was content to watch her with smoldering eyes.
When it became clear that neither of them were going to eat any more, she finally decided to plunge in. "I found something today," she began brightly. He looked at her silently. "I was poking around the wine cellar, actually. My father used to talk about certain kinds of wine he wished he could have, so that I thought I would see if I could find any--but when I got there I found I couldn't remember their names anyway. I was about to leave, when I noticed something leaning against the wall, and thought I would bring it out and look at it." She paused. He was still listening courteously, but without signs of real interest. "You don't mind, do you?"
He turned his gaze towards the fire. "No, why should I?"
"Oh, no reason, but I wanted to be sure." She paused. "I thought it was very interesting. I thought you might like to come see it."
At that his eyes moved back to her, a sudden look of curiosity in them. "What's going on here, Marianna?" he asked her.
"What do you mean?"
"Something's happened--something having to do with the thing you found, hasn't it? What was it?"
She stood up. "I think you'd better come see for yourself."
"Why?" he insisted. "Why should I want to see this more than any other relict in this old place?"
For a moment her heart quailed. "Just come, will you?" she pleaded. "I'll explain when we get there."
Throwing his napkin aside, he shrugged and stood up. "Very well."
She led the way through the dark hall to the little antechamber where she had left it. His footfall sounded heavy behind her. Once they got there, she moved forward quickly, before she could change her mind, and grasped the heavy frame. "Do you remember that empty space in the gallery, the one I was always so curious about? Well, you're never going to believe this, but I think I found the picture that used to hang there."
"What?" He almost roared the word, and she jumped.
"You said you didn't mind," she reminded him defensively. "You said I could do as I pleased. And I want to know about it," she continued, almost begging now, and turned the painting to face him. "Please! I want to know about him."
For a long moment he stared at the painted face with candlelight dancing over it. Then when he looked up at her Marianna saw, for the first time ever, a look of pure rage on his animal features.
"Him?" he cried, "You want to know about him?" In a single movement he grabbed the picture away from her, and threw it against the wall with such force that the frame splintered. Despite herself, she cried out in alarm at the sight. Then turning on her vengefully, the Beast--and for the first time in a very long time she thought the word Beast suited him--backed her into a corner.
"Why couldn't you leave well enough alone?" he demanded. "Why do you always have to go prying, pushing, asking questions I can't answer, digging up the past?" Tears sprang to Marianna's eyes, and she pressed herself against the wall behind her. "Haven't I suffered enough without you adding to it?" the creature moaned. "Haven't I been cursed enough without having you--you bring that into my presence?"
He took a few impatient steps around the room, pausing to stare a moment longer at the broken portrait. "You want to know about him?" he said on a growl, turning back to the trembling girl in the corner. "Then I'll tell you about him! He," he spat the word out with bitter emphasis, "he was a selfish, foolish, vain man! He was heartless and heedless, and it's because of him that I am the way that I am." He stared down at his hairy hands, and then looked at her with a sneer. "Are you satisfied now?"
Anger was replacing the shock Marianna had felt. She didn't understand all his words, but she felt sure that she hadn't done anything to deserve such treatment. Whoever or whatever that man had been in life, it was just a painting, after all--wasn't it?
Standing up right and squaring her shoulders, she faced him. "Can I go now?" she asked levelly.
He turned away. "As you wish."
She walked past him to the door, and then suddenly turned. "You say that you love me," she said coldly, "but what kind of love is this? If this is how you treat those you love, it's no wonder that you ended up cursed." She saw him flinch, but continued relentlessly anyway. "If you really loved me," she vowed, the tears rising up again, "then you would find a way for me to leave this place, so that I could go back to my family--where I belong!" Loosing all control she turned on a sob, and ran away, across the hall, and out the first door that she found.
It was an unseasonably warm night out, or the cold would surely have driven her back inside again soon. When she bolted out the door she had some wild idea of trying to get out the gate, but she hadn't gone halfway through the garden before she knew that that would be pointless--hadn't her father tried it? Her anger ebbed quickly, and left only a feeling of grief. For the first time in a long while she thought of her family at home; of her parents, and her little brothers and big sisters, and she longed, all at once, to be there with them again, where life was free from mysteries and enchantments.
After wandering aimlessly for an hour or so, unwilling to go back in, she finally lay shivering down in the grass beneath the big oak tree, and cried herself quietly to sleep.
In her dreams, the young man came to her as she slept under the tree, and he picked her up, and carried her back to the house in his arms. He laid her on a couch before a fire, and wrapped a blanket gently around her, and when he had finished he sat beside her, and caressed her face, and combed her hair gently with his fingers. Then she dreamed that she heard the sound of weeping.
Marianna awoke with a start. She was lying on the couch in the sitting room where she and her Friend so often sat after dinner. The ashy remains of a fire lay cold in the grate, and morning light streamed in through the windows. With difficulty she struggled out of the blankets tucked around her, and sat up. Her hand went to her hair. It was loose and disheveled. Brushing it back, she looked around her.
Off to her left a small table had been set with a tea pot and some food. Beyond it, staring moodily out the window, stood the Beast. He was wearing, she noticed, the same suit of clothes he'd had on the night before.
At the sound of movement, he turned around, an enigmatic expression in his eyes. Marianna murmured a greeting and tried to smile, but it wobbled a little bit.
Without comment he went to the table, poured a cup of tea, and brought it to her. She accepted it with quiet thanks, and sipped at it. "Are you hungry?" he asked her in a quiet voice.
"No, no, I…" then she realized that she was actually starving. "Yes, thank you." Returning to the table, he fixed her a plate, placed it on a small table, and moved it where she could reach. Then he returned to his post by the window.
More touched than she could say by his small acts of kindness, Marianna ate in silence, trying to summon the courage for an apology of sorts. His words to her last night may have been inexcusable, but so were hers to him.
Swallowing the last crumbs and wiping her mouth with her napkin, she picked up her now cool tea again. "It seems you must have brought me in last night," she began quietly. "I appreciate your care--"
He swung around to face her, cutting her off. "I think it's time you left," he said.
Marianna stared. "What?"
"It's time," he repeated roughly, "for you to leave me and go home, back to your family."
"But, but--" she gasped, her thoughts whirling, "I thought I couldn't--"
"There is a way." The same words he had spoken to her father, softly.
"A way?" She sat her cup down, gazing at him in painful confusion. "Then why did--why am I here?"
"Because I can only use it one time, for one person, and at a price. Until now, I was never willing."
"A price?" she asked. "What price?"
"One I'm willing to pay," he replied evenly. He turned back to the window. "You have to go home, Marianna. You have to go today."
"But--but--" Quick tears sprang to her eyes, and an overwhelming sense of loss washed over her. "This is because of what I said last night, isn't it? I didn't mean it, you have to believe me! I was just--angry, and confused and--"
"No," he cut her off again. "It's not that. I've been thinking about this for awhile, actually."
Her tears ran over, and she went on heedlessly. "I'm sorry I found the picture, I'm sorry I made you look at it, I didn't know--"
"Marianna!" He strode to her side and placed one hand on her shoulder. "It's not your fault, Marianna, it's mine. It's all always been my fault." Then, in a gentler voice he said to her as he had once before, "Don't cry, darling. I don't want you to cry."
The endearment just made her want to cry harder, but she made an effort and dried her eyes. "Do you want me to go?" she asked.
The question dragged an unwilling half-laugh out of him. "Want?" he exclaimed. As if unable to look at her any more, he moved away again, turning his face. "Of course I don't want you to go. You should know that. " He stared sightlessly out at the gardens beyond, speaking in a low, rough voice. "Marianna, you brought light, and life, and laughter where I didn't believe they could come again. You have brought me more happiness in the last few months than I ever thought to have. But--it can't go on like this. Surely you must see that."
"Why?" The question was a whisper.
"Because this is no life for you here, shut away in this place. You should go back, to those who love you and can give you what I can't. You should find a man who will make you love him." He paused and swallowed hard. "As for me--well, even a beast can't bear to be so close to the woman he loves and not be able to have her."
That almost silenced her, but still she wouldn't, couldn't give up. "But--"
"Do you think I want to watch you die?" he cried fiercely, swinging around. "Do you think I want to watch you grow old and wither and die, like all the others who have gone before you here? And then bury your body where I buried theirs? No." He turned. "No one is strong enough for that."
There was nothing she could say to that. Winking back the tears she answered numbly, "Then I guess I'll get ready." Dazedly she stood up and began to smooth out her dress, then stopped and headed for the door. At the doorway she paused and asked, "So do I just get on my horse and ride out--just like that?"
"Just like that," he answered, without turning around.
Slowly Marianna walked through the hall, and up the stairs to her room. She felt numb all over as she undressed and hung up her gown in the closet where it came from, then put on her one shabby, travel-stained dress. The other was still crumpled in a corner, covered in the dust and dirt of the downstairs store rooms. She was going to leave it, but finally decided that she didn't want the sight of it to add to her Friend's distress. So she stuffed it in, dirt and all, with her other belongings.
There wasn't much to pack. Even less than she came with, she thought. The velvet box of jewels sat on the dresser--not her dresser anymore, she thought--but she did not touch them. They belonged here, with the house.
A soft knock sounded on her door, and she went to answer it. The Beast stood there. "I've brought you something," he said, and held out his hand to her. In its palm lay a gold ring, very plain except for one small red jewel on its band.
She picked it up and looked at him questioningly. "Take it with you," he said. "If ever--if ever you decide that you want to come back, turn it on your finger twice, and it will bring you here. But don't--don't come back unless you're sure you--you really want to." His words were poignant with unspoken meaning, and she nodded speechlessly. Then the Beast did something he'd never done before: he took her face between his two furry hands, and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. "Good bye, my love," he whispered. By the time she opened her eyes he was gone.
The same sense of unreality that pervaded her when she first came returned in her leaving. She couldn't believe that she was leaving, but still her feet somehow took her down the stairs, and out the front door. It was a gloriously sunny, cool day outside, rich with autumn leaves just turning. Birds sang and water murmured, and it was just too heartbreakingly beautiful to leave behind, but still she knew she must.
Her horse stood ready, as she knew it would be. A glance in the saddlebags was enough to satisfy her that he had provisioned her well. Mounting, she rode down the long drive way, and out the gate she never thought to pass again. It was already open, but after she went through, it swung noiselessly shut behind her. He's all alone in there, she thought. He'll be alone forever now. And the tears ran unchecked down her cheeks.
After a while, though, as the peaceful woods soothed her, her thoughts began to turn towards home. I'm going home, she suddenly realized, with a lightening heart. I'm going to see father again, and mother, and little George and Alanna, and the others. It was strange how little she'd really thought of them since she came to live with the Beast, and when she had it was more with affection than longing, but now that the prospect of a reunion lay before her, she realized how badly she needed it. All the homesickness of the last several months seemed to come upon her at once, and she urged her horse faster.
Two days later, the Germond family was electrified by the sudden return of their lost daughter. As she rode into the yard family members and servants seemed to pour out of every building and door way, shouting, waving hats, running. Gathering them all in her arms, she heaved a deep sigh. I have missed them, she thought. I've missed them badly.
Of course her mother wept, and also her sisters, while her little brothers seemed to climb over each other for a chance to wrap their arms around her, but it was the meeting with her father that effected her the most deeply. He immerged from the house after the others, his eyes wide, and she saw that he had grown greyer and feebler since she left. "Mary?" he whispered. "Is it really you?"
She came to him and embraced him. "Of course it's me, Papa," she said. "I'm home again. I'm home again now." And then her father, her sensible, practical, undemonstrative father, wept, in great heaving sobs while she held him in her arms.
"My child, I thought I would never see you again," he said at last, when he could speak. "I thought he would hold you forever."
"I thought so too, Papa--although it was not he who was holding me, you know," she said, taking his arm and moving toward the house. "It was he who let me go, though."
Walking into the sitting room with him, she looked around with fond eyes at the cozy house. "It's good to be home," she said, smiling at them all. "It is."
And for a time, she was happy. They all urged her to tell her story, of course, but she found she could tell them only parts. Of her dreams, of the portrait, of her Friend's love for her, she said nothing. Just what good friends they had been, and how she had enjoyed her time there, and that he had agreed to some mysterious bargain to send her back. Her mother, who could still not quite bring herself to believe it all, dismissed the subject as soon as she could, and Marianna was happy to let it drop. She was home now--that's all that mattered.
Her first days were filled with so much catching up, and so much happy activity, that she didn't have time to think much about the lonely creature she had left behind, though she hoped with all her heart that he was not too unhappy. But by the time she had been home for a week, she found her thoughts turning with longing back to the old house in the woods. She missed the gardens, she missed her old room, and her old clothes, but most of all, she missed her Friend. She felt that now, that as much as she loved all her brothers and sisters and friends of old, none of them seemed to touch the same cords within her that he had. Talking with them was fun--but not quite the same as talking with him.
By the time she'd been home for two weeks, she was already fighting a growing discontent, and--well, yes, homesickness. And she worried. She worried more every day about the Beast, and what would happen to him, and what the price was that he had to pay to send her off. Her dreams at night were confused, disturbed, and sometimes the young man would come to her briefly, calling to her, but she could never reach him.
Finally, one night, when she had lain awake for a long time thinking about the Beast, and trying to remember the songs he had played her, and wondering if she should go back, she fell into a deep sleep, and she saw the man again, more substantial and real this time, as he had been in her dreams at the mansion. "Marianna," he spoke to her, and his voice was so familiar. "Marianna, I love you!--I need you!"
"And I love you," she found herself saying back to him.
"Come back to me Marianna," he pleaded. "Come back to me or I'll die!"
"I want to come," she said. "But who are you?"
"Don't you know me?" he asked.
"No! Who are you?"
"Don't you know?" he asked again, and looked into her eyes with his own glowing brown ones, and suddenly she saw him back in the portrait again, looking at her from the canvass, and then, all at once, she knew where she had seen those eyes.
They were the eyes of the Beast--of her Beast. Coming together with that realization was the one that his voice, too--the voice she had dreamed of so long--it was the Beast's voice.
"Why you--" her dream self said. "You're the Beast!"
Marianna sat straight up in bed, gasping. Awareness was immediate. "Of course," she breathed out. "It's him. It's always been him." With that one bit of understanding, she had her key, and all the pieces fell into place before her. Every question she had asked seemed answered all at once. The family on the walls was his family. The portrait was his portrait. It was that curse that had turned him into what he was now. "What a fool I've been!" she whispered. "How could I not have seen it before?"
Climbing out of bed, she began to dress feverishly. She never doubted that she would go to him--that she would run to him. She didn't know if her knowing would change anything for him, but she had to tell him that she did know, that she understood. She had to tell him that…. She left that sentence dangling in her mind.
Pausing only long enough to slip on some shoes and throw a warm cloak around her shoulders, Marianna looked down at the ring on her finger. She had never taken it off since he had given it to her. Now it winked at her in the moonlight. She closed her eyes, and turned it twice.
Something like a strong wind swept over her, and when she opened her eyes, she was standing the great hall, lit only by bars of moonlight from the windows. "Friend!" she called, and her voice echoed back to her. "My Friend, I'm back! I've come back!" There was no answer.
She turned towards the library--the room where, every night she had ever been there, a fire had burned. Now it was dark and cold. A sudden fear gripped her heart, and, grabbing a lantern, she began to run from room to room, calling. Still no sight or sound of him.
She climbed the stairs, and went down the hallway on the left, where she knew his room was. She had never gone into it before, but now she did, with only a hesitant knock.
The room was large and crowded. The bed was empty, and unmade. There were dressers and tables heaped with all sorts of curious things, but she did not take time to study them. All she cared about now was finding him.
Back to the hallway, and she began checking rooms. He wasn't to be found anywhere. Then she thought of the garden, and hurried down the stairs and out. Bright moonlight lit the landscape up, throwing everything into stark relief. She began her search, moving systematically around, calling for him.
She found him at last laying on the ground amid the rose bushes she had loved so much. In the shadows she would hardly have seen his black-clothed form, but as she called and listened, she thought she heard her name, spoken very softly, and by following the sound she discovered him.
If it hadn't been for that sound she would have thought him dead, he lay so still, and was so cold to her touch. "No!" she cried, pulling him into her arms. "No, no, no!" He was breathing, she realized, but just barely.
"Maria--" he breathed out her name with effort.
"This is it, isn't it?" she said, tearfully bending over him, caressing his face. "This is the price you paid to send me away. Why did you do it? Couldn't you see I didn't want to go?" His eyes closed at her touch, and he leaned his face against her breast, like a child.
"I know," she told him. "I know that you're really that man in the portrait. I realize that now! It's you who's been in my dreams all this time. It's you that I've been wanting."
He reached a weak hand to touch her face, and murmured, "See."
"See?" She drew back a little. "You want to see me, you mean?" He seemed to consent, and somehow she pulled him with her out of the shadows and into full moonlight. Then she sat the lantern to shine on her face. He sighed as if happy, those eyes she loved caressing her, and whispered one last word: "Love…"
As he sank out of consciousness she began weeping again. "Don't leave me," she begged him. "Please! I love you. Even--even in this form I love you." As she said the words she knew they were true, and wondered how long she had really loved him without being able to admit it. But it was too late, and he was gone.
Cradling the limp body in her lap, she closed her eyes, struggling with tears. Then, somehow, something seemed to change, and when she drew back and looked down, she saw the face of the man in the portrait--the man of her dreams--pale and still before her.
This sad confirmation of all her beliefs was too much for her, and she broke down completely, and with longing arms she gathered him against her, and she stroked his hair and touched his face; then she kissed him, on his forehead, on his cheeks, and on his mouth.
It was at this point that, unseen by her, the eyes of the man in her arms opened for a moment, and then shut again, and Marianna felt the lips beneath hers move, and his free arm came up and around her neck, pulling her down, and she found herself being passionately kissed.
"What!" She drew back with a startling exclamation, staring.
The young man lay against her arm, laughing up at her. "But--" she sputtered. "But you're--you're--"
"No," he said. "Thanks to you, I'm not. And I'm--" he sprang to his feet so quickly it startled her, and stood there in the moonlight, looking at his hands and body, and touching his face. She watched him speechlessly.
"It's broken," he said finally, turning to her. "Sweetheart, the curse is broken! You broke it!"
"Me?" she asked wonderingly.
"You!" And he pulled her to her feet and into his arms, and kissed her like she'd always dreamed of being kissed. "You must love me," he finally whispered against her hair. "You must love me or this would not be possible."
"I do love you," she answered, realizing he had not heard her earlier words. "I do love you. I've loved you for a long time, I think, but I just didn't realize it."
With a kind of inarticulate shout of suppressed joy he let her go and turned away, as if he didn't know what to do with himself in this new happiness. "I can't believe it!" he cried, his hands going again to his face. "At last! After so long! At last," he turned to her, "I'm a man again. I'm a man." She thought for a moment that he must take off running or do cartwheels or something, but instead he seemed to decide that the most appropriate expression of joy he had was to kiss her again.
She let him, her own heart thundering with joy. When at last she could speak again she said, "But I still don't understand. I don't know anything!"
"Well, now at last I can tell you," he said. "But first let's go inside. Gosh, I'm cold!" They ran inside hand-in-hand like two children, laughing the whole time.
"We need to get a fire going," he said, "but first--" he led her up the stairs and to his room. From off a table he picked up a certain white china plate with golden letters in some strange language picked out around the rim. She recognized it easily--it was always on the table when they ate. He tucked it under his arm, and at her questioning look, explained, as they made their way back downstairs, "I was given this by the same old witch who cursed me. I guess she didn't want me to starve to death and escape the curse. She gave me a few other things like it, too. The magic will begin to fade now, but I think it will still work for a little while."
He took her to the study, and started a fire in the grate. She watched him wonderingly the whole time, wondering if it was possible that they were still in the middle of one of her dreams. No, he wasn't quite like the dream version of himself--he was paler, and a little thinner, and his clothes were worn and shabby. But he was still just as handsome, and much more dear.
As if feeling her gaze, he looked up at her, smiling. "What is it?" he asked.
"I just… I just can hardly believe you're real," she admitted.
He drew near. "Neither can I, my darling," he said, taking her hands. His eyes wandered over her disheveled hair and tear-stained face. "You are so beautiful," he said. "Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?" She shook her head and clung to him, fighting back more tears.
"Now," he said at finally, drawing himself back gently. "I think I must eat something. I didn't really eat much after you left," he admitted softly, "and even though I am no longer dying, I am still very hungry." She nodded her strong agreement, and he took the white plate, and sat it down in the middle of the table, holding it in both hands. "Dinner," he said, "and--" he glanced at her, "are you hungry?" She shook her head. "Some tea then?" She nodded. "Dinner and tea," he instructed the plate, and before their eyes a tea set and laden table appeared. Marianna gasped.
"It gets old quickly, believe me," he told her. Sitting down with a sigh in an armchair, he began to eat. Marianna took her tea and sat down on the floor next to him, but she could not take her eyes off of him long enough to drink much. Her whole being was thrilling with joy, her eyes shining luminously.
The man glanced casually down at her, but seeing her face, he pushed his plate away, and slid off the seat to the ground beside her. "I can eat later," he said with a smile, taking her back into his arms, and stroking her hair away from her face.
"Do you know that I don't even know your name?" Marianna asked him, touching his cheek hesitantly.
His smile went a little twisted. "My name is--or was a long time ago--David DeVigny."
"David," she tried it out. "And is that the DeVigny family gallery that is upstairs?"
"Why couldn't you tell me these things before?"
"Because that was a part of the curse. I couldn't tell anyone anything--not my name, not my history, not who I really was. I just had to be--the Beast." His eyes grew dark again, and he looked away to the fire.
"How long ago was this?" she asked him softly.
"What year is it again?" She told him. "Then it was… it was one hundred and thirty two years ago." She drew back a little, her eyes wide, but he pulled her close. "It doesn't seem possible," he said, still staring at the fire. "The years just ran together after awhile, until you came. I don't feel old. Do I look old?" he asked her with sudden anxiousness. She shook her head speechlessly. "You don't mind, do you, darling? I'm only a hundred and twelve years older than you."
She had to laugh at his dry, ironic tone, and shook her head again. "How old where you when this--curse--happened?"
"Then I think you're twenty-six still," she said with conviction. "I mean, wasn't that the whole point--that time stood still for you?"
"Well, I hope so," he replied. Turning his eyes back to her, he studied her, stroking her cheek, and pulled her close to kiss her again. "I used to dream of kissing you," he whispered against her mouth. "It almost drove me mad." Marianna shut her eyes, and willed him to draw comfort and healing from her lips.
It was some time later when he finally got around to telling her his story. He had moved back into the chair by now, and she convinced him to eat a little more, and then he pulled her into his lap, and it was as she sat there in his arms, her head on his shoulder, that he began to tell her about what had happened so many long years before.
"My family used to own all the land around here for miles," he told her. "We were the local lords. And this house was really something to see back then. I, alas, was the last of my line, and I was spoilt, and selfish. I didn't care for much but my own pleasure. I'll spare you a recitation of my sins, but I believe they were many. Well, one night I was hosting a party here for my friends--some of the same friends who had helped lead me down those crooked paths. But I thought the world of them, then, and so I invited them out here to show off the ancestral home--to impress them. It was a wet night, very cold and rainy. Right when we were in the middle of dinner, my butler came in to tell me that an old lady--a 'tramp' I believe he called her--had knocked on the door seeking shelter. Ordinarily he would have turned her away, he explained, but on a night like this--. He spoke softly, of course, but one man next to me, the one I wanted above others to impress, over heard it, and snickered. I told the butler to send her away, and not bother me again over such trivialities. A few minutes later he was back, most apologetic. He said the woman had broken down weeping and shaking, and asked my permission just to send her to the kitchen for some milk and bread--but I felt like I was being embarrassed, so I waved him away and told him sternly to put her out."
He paused. "It's strange," he said, "but I've never even been able to figure out how I thought I would impress them all by such behavior anyway. But, it's what I did, and if I could take it back I would have done it a hundred thousand times by now." Marianna buried her head closer in his shoulder, touching his cheek comfortingly. He smiled a swift smile at her, his arms tightening.
"That old woman," he continued, "turned out to be none other than the witch herself. She came back--not that night, but several nights later, after everyone had left, and I was alone, and reasonably sober. I was… I was in the gallery upstairs where we met that time. I was feeling very proud of my name and my heritage and my wealth. And then, all of a sudden, she was there, and she was old and ugly, and I laughed at her at first, but--well, when I found myself covered in hair, I started to believe. She told me what I had done, and then she told me that because I turned her away and denied even what would have cost me nothing, she was going to curse me. And boy, did she curse me." His mouth hardened bitterly. "It wasn't enough for her to turn me into some kind of beast, she had to add rules. She added so many rules. I couldn't leave the grounds. I couldn't tell anybody. I couldn't allow anybody to see me, or they would have to stay here too--but I had to leave the gate unlocked, and food always out, for travelers. I would never die, I would live forever, but those who lived here with me would die. So many of them," he whispered. "The older servants, who lived here and were caught here with me--they died, one by one. The travelers--there were two, before your father. One lived here for ten years before he caught pneumonia and I had no medicine, and no doctor to take him to. The other went mad and hung himself after six months." Marianna blanched as she listened to him, thinking of the horror he had endured. "I was glad, really, when the visitors stopped. In the early years, they came quite regularly at night, but I still had the servants then, and they managed them. It was later on that it became difficult, but I got good at hiding myself."
"How did you ever survive it," she whispered. "All those years?"
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "I think things just became--a habit after awhile. I mean eating, and sleeping. As I said, she gave me enough magical implements that I could get what I needed pretty easily. That left me nothing but a few books, and my music. Actually, I think it was the music that saved me." They both sat in a reverie for several minutes before he roused himself, and continued.
"One of her rules was the substitution thing for my 'prisoners.' Neither of the other two had anyone to offer in substitution. Then there was the last rule--but we'll get to that later. When your father arrived, he was the first living soul I had seen for--fifty years? Sixty years? It's so hard to remember. I was still the same outwardly, but inwardly I was mostly dead. When he came into the garden and saw me--so help me, I was glad." Tears came to his eyes now, and he clasped his beloved tightly. "I was glad, although I swear I did nothing to cause it. I warned him away like I had done all the others."
"I know," she whispered.
"I guess I felt like my despair was so much greater than his possibly could be. It meant so much to have someone else here again, especially someone who was intelligent, and decent." He transferred his gaze back down to the woman in his arms. "I liked your father," he said simply.
She nodded. "I think he liked you too--as much as he could under the circumstances."
"When he begged me for a way out, I knew I had to offer it to him--that too was one of the rules--but at least I knew I would get something in exchange. Even a dog seemed like good company. Of course," he admitted, "I did remember what he said about his daughters, and although I thought it was a crazy, vain hope--I did hope."
"So you were expecting me!" she exclaimed, sitting up. "I thought someone must have come in and cleaned that room and gotten it ready for me."
He grinned a little sheepishly. "What else did I have to do?" Then he grew more serious. "In the early years, I actually had that room kept constantly ready, waiting and hoping."
"For what?" she demanded. "A--woman?"
"Not just a woman," he corrected her, pulling her back tight against him, "but the woman--the one, the only person would be capable of breaking the curse."
Her eyes widened, remembering his earlier words to her. "How?"
"By loving me," he replied simply. "The witch told me that the curse would be lifted when I met a woman I loved more than myself, and when she learned to love me too--even in my bestial form." He looked adoring down at her, his eyes shining with unshed tears. "I had given up hope," he whispered. "I had decided her promise was a taunt, because she knew it would never come to pass. Even in fixing up your room I felt like I was just mocking myself. I didn't even know why I bothered to do it.
"And then you came. You came, and you stood in my hall, young and fresh and sweet, with your hair that's red and gold and silver, and those--unfathomable eyes." He paused to press his lips to them. "I came alive when I saw you, Marianna. I remembered what it felt like to be a man. I had forgotten, you know. But--it was your very beauty that terrified me."
"Is that why you avoided me?" she asked shyly.
"Of course. I dreaded seeing your face when you saw how hideous I was. I thought you might faint, or run away. At the least, I never imagined that you'd actually want to spend time with me. But you changed all that, didn't you?" He placed his hand tenderly on her cheek, and she kissed it.
"But you watched me," she said teasingly.
"Every chance I got," he smiled, pulling her closer. "You were more than I ever expected, Marianna," he whispered. "Instead of running away from me, you came to me--and for that I will never cease to love you."
"And I love you," she reiterated, and he sighed deeply.
"It was enough, at first--being with you. Just talking to you and looking at you was heaven compared with the hell I had been living in. Not just your beauty, but your sweetness, your spirit, your warmth--I felt more alive every day, and more human. I almost forgot, sometimes, that I wasn't a man any more. That day I tried to kiss you I did forget, for a few moments--but your face reminded me."
"I'm so sorry, David," she said. "I felt terrible about it even then."
"No," he shook his head. "It was natural. What else were you to do? But that was when I realized that I couldn't hide my feelings for you much longer, and that your friendship wasn't enough any more. I should never have asked you to marry me, though. That was wrong."
"David--" she objected.
"No," he insisted, "it wasn't fair to you and it wasn't right. Even then I knew it, but I was so desperate. I had this crazy idea that maybe if you said yes then that would break the spell right then. But I would never have wanted you to accept out of pity. No man would, for one thing. For another, what good would that have done us, even if we could have found a way to perform the ceremony? I would still be a beast, and I could never have kissed you, like this--" he kissed her lingeringly, "--and I could never have--" he paused, and she flushed slightly. "I could never have been a proper husband to you," he continued. "What kind of life would we have had then? Oh," he pressed his lips against her hair, "but those last two months were enough to drive man or beast wild. I was so close to you sometimes I could smell the fragrance of your hair, and hear you breathing, but I couldn't hold you, or kiss you, or--"
This time it was Marianna who cut him off, by the simple expedient of turning her head until her mouth met his. For a long time he kissed her hungrily, and when at last he drew back she lay against his arm, her face flushed and rosy, and her eyes half-closed. Her hair glittered in the firelight. With a groan he buried his face against her. "If there were any way to manage it, I would beg you to marry me tomorrow," he said. "How much torture can a man take?"
She laughed contentedly. "Is this torture?" she asked David, running her hands through his hair. He smiled.
"You know it's not," he whispered.
For awhile they stayed thus, wrapped in each other's arms. Marianna was the first to rouse herself. "But what about the dreams?" she asked.
He looked puzzled. "What dreams?" She told him, and his jaw dropped. "Sweetheart, I had no idea, really. You--are you sure it was me you were dreaming about?"
She nodded. "That's why, when I found that painting, I was so--dumbfounded, and, and electrified." She laughed at her own choice of words. "I was frightened, too. I thought some ghost had come to inhabit my dreams."
He shook his head, and then suddenly laughed. "Well, by all that's holy! Maybe that old witch didn't hate me so much after all!"
"Well you know, I think you may be right," she said seriously, "because it was that dream that brought me back here." Then she told him that story. By the time she finished David was staring off with a distant look in his eyes.
"I wonder if she knew," he mused. "I wonder if she knew all along how it would be. And that provision--that suffer-a-lingering-death-to-send-her-home provision she gave me--she must have known that I wouldn't use it until I had already fallen in love myself. Maybe it was always meant to be the trigger for everything else."
"I still can't believe you thought I would want you to give up your life that way," said his lady reproachfully. "I didn't want to go as it was."
He shrugged. "There was nothing left that I could see to do. You didn't love me--as I thought," he added with a smile, "and I didn't know how much longer I could stand the status-quo anyway, so…. I thought that if I could ensure you a full and happy life by giving up my own miserable one, then that would be a pretty good bargain," he concluded, and Marianna cried for a moment into his shoulder before he kissed her into smiles again.
By this time light was beginning to dawn outside, and they both started to yawn, but neither one wanted to leave the other, so they stayed that way, in the chair together, murmuring and whispering to each other until they both fell asleep.
It was only a few hours later than Marianna woke up again, but she felt immediately full of energy and eagerness. She climbed carefully out of David's lap and arms, shivering. The fire had burned out, she saw. David himself still slept, his head resting on the wing of the chair. One wavy lock of brown hair fell over his forehead. Her fingers itched to sweep it back, but she didn't want to risk disturbing him. If anyone ever needed sleep it was probably him, she thought. Looking around for something to cover him with, she saw her own woolen cloak, discarded the night before. She draped it around him carefully.
On the small table sat the remains of last night's dinner. She wasn't used to seeing left-overs in this house. She looked at the plate, remembering what he said about its magic. Shrugging her shoulders, she grabbed a few stale bites, drank a swallow of cold tea, and went upstairs.
There was no hot water waiting by her door, of course. She fetched herself some from the old pump out back, and washed quickly. Then she dressed herself in her favorite court gown, and brushed her hair until it shown. It was so good to be back, she thought. It was so good to be home.
While she twisted her long tresses into braids, she hummed to herself and thought dreamily of life to come. Now that the curse was lifted, they would be free. They would get married in the great hall, with her family there, and they would restore the old house to its former magnificence. The images of it from her dreams rose to mind. We'll make it that way again, she promised herself. We'll rebuild the walls and redecorate the rooms, and even fix the cracks in the walls, somehow.
Her hair finished, she reached into the jewelry box, brought out the emerald necklace, and clasped it about her throat. His mother's necklace, she thought with deep satisfaction. Her face in the mirror smiled back it her. It was a beaming, blushing, happy face, with eyes like dark stars, and the braided coronet of hair a reddish-gold crown.
Ready at last, she stood up, smoothed her dress, and went down stairs and into the garden to sit amid the flowers, and wait for him.
When he came (as he most certainly did), she watched him stride across the grass to her and thought how much younger and more carefree he seemed already. It was like the long years were falling away from him as a garment. He had told her as much, the night before. "I don't think I can't even remember it all as well as I could when I started talking," he confessed, passing a hand across his eyes. "It's blurring, and fading." She felt glad, and especially glad, now that she saw him in the morning sunshine, looking so happy and eager.
She ran to meet him, and he caught her up, and twirled her around, then kissed her joyously. "When I woke up this morning I thought for a moment that I dreamed it all," he said, pulling back. "And then I looked at my hands and realized I hadn't. You know," he confessed, "I had to hunt for a mirror this morning. I broke them or put them all away long ago. But I thought it would be nice to see my face again after all this time."
She laughed. "There's one in my room."
"I may come look at it later. The only one I could find was really small, and I didn't really get a good look, except to see that I need a hair cut and some sun." He rubbed a hand across his chin. "I'm going to have to find a razor, too."
She smoothed his hair back with a smile. "I think you look fine," she said.
"Well, that's a mercy at least." He smiled back at her, touching her face and hair lightly. "You are always exquisite."
She shook her head. "You just think that because you haven't seen another woman in the last hundred years."
He had to laugh at that, but said, as he drew her arm through his and they began to walk, "My love, it is not the least of your charms that you have no idea how beautiful you really are. I remember the women I once knew, and many of them were beautiful, but in my opinion, not one of them rivaled you." She blushed, and said no more.
When they came to a point where the house could be seen in its entirety, he stopped to study it, wrapping an arm around her waist. "What a derelict," was his verdict. "Never mind, sweetheart, we don't have to live here. We can get some place near to your parents instead."
"But I want to live here, David," she protested. "I love this place. And now that the curse is lifted, we can restore it, don't you see? We'll make it beautiful again."
He scratched his head. "Well, about that, darling, I think we need to talk." He led her over to a bench, and they sat down together. "I've been thinking about this ever since I woke up this morning," he began. "The fact is that…" he faltered a moment under her wide, puzzled gaze. "The fact is that my family's money always came from the surrounding lands that we owned. Everyone for miles paid us rent, or tribute, or something. And that… well, that's not how it is anymore. I don't really know what all happened around here after I 'went mad'--I believe that's the story that got out--but by now it's all owned by the state, or the farmers themselves. I don't really know. The important part is that it doesn't belong to me any more. And even if it did--who would know? Our name is probably forgotten by now. Had you ever heard of the DeVignys?" She shook her head. "Exactly. Probably no one has but historians." He sighed. "I was a profligate man, Marianna. I spent the money as quickly as it came in--quicker. Any fortune we had was probably almost spent by the time this happened. Even if there was a bank account somewhere with my name on it still, how could I prove my identity? They would never believe that I'm the same man."
Marianna pondered these things while he watched her face anxiously. "But don't you have a--treasury, or something?" she asked.
"You've been all over that house. Did you ever find a storeroom of treasures?" She shook her head again. "That's because it isn't there."
"I'm sorry, darling," he said remorsefully, "I know this isn't what you expected. I wish for your sake I could have it all back again--although it never brought me any happiness. You know the truth now: I'm not a prince from a story book, but just a man who loves you. We won't be paupers," he continued quickly. "There are many valuable things in the house that we could sell, but now that the magic is gone we really have no way of supporting ourselves here. I'm going to have to make my own way in world, like everyone else--like your father has." He sighed again. "We've been living in a fairytale, my love, and now we have to go back to the real world."
Marianna thought about this for a minute more, and then she shrugged, and smiled. "Oh well," she said prosaically. "I expect Papa will give you a job in his business--and we can always come back for summer holidays, can't we?"
He burst out laughing, and gathered her up in his arms. "Yes, we certainly can," he said.
Four days later two people rode down the lane to the Germond family home. They were a bit of an odd sight, both wearing far outdated clothing (Marianna had insisted that at least one of her beloved gowns was going back with her), and the man riding a rather inferior animal they had bartered for at the first village they came to. Their saddlebags bulged with all sorts of strange items, including a small harp strapped to one side and bouncing comically against the horse's haunch. But they were still, it must be admitted, a very handsome couple.
Once again the house discharged its remarkable load of human souls into the front yard. "Mary's back, Mary's back," her younger brothers shouted, dancing around. There was perhaps less surprise this time, but no less interest, as they all surveyed the pale, handsome man who stood so quietly by his horse while she greeted them all. "Everyone," she announced, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "I would like you to meet David. We're going to be married."
Great was the clamor that arose then! For David, so long used to silence and solitude, it was overwhelming at first, but as he looked around the ring of smiling, laughing, jesting faces, the realization came to him that he had, at last, found a family.
A hush fell over the group as her father, called quickly by messenger, rode up. He climbed off his horse, and took Marianna in his arms. "Thanks be to heaven that you're home again, daughter," he said.
She took him by the hand, and led him over to where her love stood. "Father, I want you to meet someone--although really, you've met him before. This is David DeVigny."
Her father extended his hand uncertainly, and David grasped it. "I hope you will forgive me for all the sorrow that I've caused to you and your family, sir," he said in a low voice. Mr. Germond started, and stared. "I don't quite look the same as I did the last time you saw me," David explained.
The man shook his heard, unable to believe what the familiar voice was telling him. "It can't be," he said. Marianna grasped his arm.
"It is, Papa," she whispered. "It's him--it really is."
He turned his bewildered eyes on her. "But--how?"
"He was under a curse, Papa, remember? That's what made him what he was--or seemed. Underneath it, he was always a man." She turned her shining gaze back to the man she loved. "Underneath it, he was always David."
Mr. Germond looked from him, to her, and back to him, and then swallowed hard. "Well, you've better come inside," he said.
Once again the family circle gathered to hear the fantastic tale. Once again Mrs. Germond shook her sensible head at it, and then dismissed everything but what were, to her, the salient points: Her daughter had come home, and brought a young man with her. She had a wedding to plan.
The two of them were married soon in her parent's home, with her family around her. Marianna wore an ivory satin dress modeled after ones she used to wear, with roses at her breast, and silver lace over her hair. Around her neck glimmered the green of her favorite emerald necklace. David looked at her adoringly. The young ladies present sighed sentimentally over the tall, handsome stranger, while the local lads wondered why they hadn't taken more of an interest in Mary Germond while she was available. After the ceremony, one long-time friend of the family came bustling up. "Your parents told me you went to spend time with your cousins up north. If I'd known they had such men up north, I'd have gone there a long time ago myself." She laughed a tinkling laugh, and Marianna smiled politely. "Tell me, dear," she continued, "where exactly did you find him?"
"Behind a wall in an enchanted house," replied Marianna promptly.
The woman shook her head. "Such a tease," she admonished her, and bustled away to tackle the groom. Across the room, David's bemused eyes found hers, and she smiled reassuringly at him. He smiled back, and they shared a look full of promises of all to come.
Mr. Germond did, as Marianna had predicted, give David a job in his business. The young man had much to catch up on in the way of modern developments, but he learned quickly, and it wasn't long before his breeding, education, and innate charm were proving themselves a great asset to the merchant. He applied himself to this first real profession he'd ever had, wanting to prove his worth, and soon found that deep satisfaction that all true men take in successful work. He and Marianna made their home in a pretty little house near by to her parents, where brothers and sisters were constantly dropping by. They grew roses in their garden, and their door was always open, and no one was ever turned away who came asking help. When in time children swelled their number, they moved to a larger house, but always remained near her family.
As they had hoped, the memories of the bad years continued to fade for David, like the terrors of a nightmare fade, and in time almost passed away completely. He continued to play his harp all the years of his life, but, although he was skillful, his music never again had quite that same haunting quality that it had before. Marianna and he talked about it, and decided that that too must have been a part of the enchantment.
As for the house, they went back to it--all of them went back to it, the whole clan. Marianna and David could always find it. At first, the family wandered around in amazement, staring at the walls and the furniture and the flowers, but then Mrs. Germond's cleanly soul began to protest, and she rolled up her sleeves and began to scrub. It was, of course, a very large house, but with half-a-dozen energetic women working away on it, it soon lost its unkempt aspect and began to shine. In time even many of the fabrics and drapes were replaced. Some of the young men took a look at the outside walls, and set skillfully to repairing the worst of them. Alanna, Marianna's younger sister, who loved flowers almost more than life itself, took an unspeakable joy in working in the gardens. They were much too large to be easily tamed, of course, but she industriously weeded and pruned all the areas that needed it most, and by the time the men carted in a load of lawnmowers and mowed down the deep grass, the place began to look almost civilized again. And for many, many summers to come the Germond and DeVigny children and grandchildren ran and played and laughed in its halls and lawns, and in that way they banished the shadows of the past, and brought love and peace to all that had waited so long for them.
© 2011 Copyright held by the author.