“Beauty and the Beast” by Nicole Boucher

Once upon a time , there was an old man who lived with his three daughters. The older two were typical: neither entirely good, nor entirely bad. They did their chores with the normal amount of grumbling, but also with dutiful attention. They enjoyed sneaking downstairs at midnight from their pretty bedroom to steal biscuits from the kitchen. The youngest girl, Bea, was no sneak. If she wanted a cake, or a book, or a new dress, she would contemplate how best to approach Papa to get what she wanted. She knew it was wrong to be selfish, so she would do extra housecleaning, or cook an especially delicious meal for her father, or bring him some tobacco from the village shop. Once her father was sated with rosemary chicken, or his pipe, Bea would sigh sweetly and casually mention her lack of gloves, or a fan, for the next dance. Her father, being kindly, would grant her wish, and so, Bea had a good life.

One day, Bea’s father announced to his daughters that he would be leaving them for a month to conduct some business in a distant town. Bea had never been away from home before, and she wanted very badly to go with him. So, she baked him an apple tart, mended all his socks, and helped her older sisters wash all the quilts in preparation for autumn, for it was harvest time. After the washing, and mending, and baking of tart, Bea stayed up late, having told her sisters that she would make the sacrifice of reading to Papa that evening. (He only liked boring natural history books about the mating calls of rare birds, the hunting strategies of wolves, and suchlike things.) After lulling her father nearly to sleep with her melodious voice, Bea asked him very sweetly if she could accompany him on his journey. “Oui,” he replied, “Oui, ma belle…” as the pipe slipped from his fingers. Bea caught the pipe, saving the Turkish carpet, and ran upstairs to her little room. She packed her few but fine belongings and wrote a note to her sisters, commending them to God. At dawn, Bea and her father began their journey while her sisters (who have no names, because, being typical, they no longer matter to us; they will survive to make decent marriages, contribute responsibly to village life, and die in childbed within a year of one another in their late thirties) were still asleep.

Bea was an attentive traveling companion, and she helped her father with his business negotiations. They went so much more smoothly when she looked intently at the merchants through her long eyelashes; indeed, things went so well that Bea’s father was soon a much wealthier man.

On the third evening of their return trip, still a few days from home, Bea’s father fell ill on the forest road. It was fast becoming dark, being moonless, but Bea could smell woodsmoke, and she followed its scent until she came to a fine stone chateau in a clearing. Bold, she hit the door with the round, brass knocker. An old woman opened the door, and Bea begged for assistance. The housekeeper drew the supplicant into the hall, and told her to wait there for a moment. Bea looked around the hall. It was lit generously with beeswax candles. Fine furniture. Rich carpets. A good smell, of cleaning oils, and dry burning wood, and meat.When the housekeeper returned, she was accompanied by a tall, broad-shouldered man in a hooded cloak. Bea could not catch his face in the shadow of the cloak, but his voice was low and sonorous when he said, “I will help you, Mademoiselle. Take me to your father.”

Bea curtsied, and walked straight out the door without reply. In the dark, she could sense the man’s heavy, but not clumsy, footfall behind her. She found herself walking just a little slowly, a little delicately, as if she were not as sure-footed as she really was in the excellent boots her father had bought for her in town. Bea glanced back a few times, but it was no use; her helper’s face was hidden too well. When they finally reached Bea’s father, he was in bad shape, but the tall man lifted the old one in his arms as if he were a child, and carried him back to the chateau. Bea made sure to lead her father’s horse, laden with their new wealth, carefully through the forest.

When they reached the chateau, the guests were each given a room, adjoined by a small wooden door. The housekeeper and Bea attended to her father, making him as comfortable as possible, but it was no use. He was dead by morning. The chateau’s owner, concerned for Bea, sent the priest to comfort her after performing last rites. Bea was dry-eyed as she thanked the priest and sent him away richer by exactly one silver coin. Bea wrote a letter to her sisters, explaining that the trip had been a disaster: father had lost nearly all his money. She, wanting to not be a burden on them, would see to their father’s burial and then find a position in town, perhaps at the convent. They knew how much she enjoyed domestic work, and how pious she was. She asked only that, when they married, that they send her a little money from the sale of their family home.

Then Bea herself fell into a deep, death-like sleep. Nothing could wake her for three days, and only the touch of the tall man on her cheek could make her shift under the bedsheets, revealing a bit of arm or flushed neck. Her eyes sometimes released tears, as if burdened by bad dreams, but she never opened them to see his face.

On the fourth morning, Bea woke to a note next to her pillow. It explained that the sealed letter to her sisters had been sent, and that she was welcome to stay and recover for as long as she liked. Bea smiled, and her teeth glistened in the sunlight.

You can imagine the rest. The host falls in love with the guest. She, being clever, and youthful, and pretty, gets what she wants. Within a year she marries him, bears him twins, and finds herself mistress of a fine, good-smelling lair in which to raise these beautiful children. For the man, whose face she did not see until after she desired him, is beautiful.

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