The clock began to toll the dinner hour. She wasn’t there.
The Beast considered his options for a brief moment. He could let this first night go, let her stew in the room he had left her in, and speak with her about their arrangement after he had finished his own meal.
The Beast swept his dinner off the table and took satisfaction in the noise the flatware made as it clattered onto the dining room floor. “Lumiere!” he boomed.
His servants cowered as he stomped into the fire-lit kitchen. All but one, that is: “Ah, Master!” his maitre’d exclaimed with false exuberance. “Are you not enjoying dinner?”
“Where. Is. She?”
Cogsworth offered himself up as he waddled forward. “Well Master, you see. It’s ah, well. Circumstances, being what they are-“
The Beast raised one thick eyebrow.
Cogsworth visibly wilted. “She’s not coming.”
The Beast’s response echoed through the castle. “WHAAAT?!”
Chapeau was dozing off in front of the main doors when he heard the roar. The coatrack scurried into a corner as the Master bounded toward the stairs on all fours, while Cogsworth waddled after crying, “ Your Grace! Please, wait!”
Thankfully, Mrs. Potts rattled by on her tea trolley with Luminere, pausing just long enough for the majordomo to hop on, before trundling up the stairs as fast as the ancient cart would allow. They came upon the Beast just as he raised a fisted paw to the girl’s door. The resounding boom shook the paintings hanging in the corridor.
“Open up!” he commanded.
“No,” came a remarkably poised reply.
The Beast was not used to being denied, and it showed in his bafflement. “You will join me for dinner!” he raged.
“No thank you!” came a polite but defiant voice from the other side.
“Master!” Mrs. Potts whispered. He whipped around to glare at his servants. “Gently!” she chided.
Huffing irritably, the Beast tried again. “It would give me great pleasure,” he began, twisting the shredded ends of his cape together as he spit out the words, “If you would join me for dinner.”
“Ah, hem: please?” Cogsworth coughed behind his tiny gold knobby hand.
The Beast rolled his lips back over his teeth. “Please,” he bit out grudgingly.
The servants began to edge back as their Master appeared ready to huff and puff like the Big Bad Wolf of children’s stories. “You come out of there, or I’ll, I’ll break down the door!”
“Master, forgive me, but perhaps that is not the best way to win the girl’s affections?” Lumiere offered. The Beast shook his head.
“You can’t stay in there forever!” he shouted.
“Oh yes I can!”
“Fine! Then go ahead and starve!” he screamed. He spun around, searching for his loyal servants. “If she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all.”
That would show her who was the master around here, he thought to himself. He was a Prince once, and no commoner was going to push him around in his own castle. It just wasn’t done.
He stomped back to his chambers. How dare this, this prisoner argue with him after he offered her a beautiful room and a warm dinner? Who did she think she was? After pacing around for a few minutes, he gave in to his curiosity and picked up the enchanted mirror. “Show me the girl,” he sighed, defeated. The surface shimmered.
The enchanted mirror revealed a truly lovely girl. One that could surely never be anything but repulsed by a beast such as himself.
It wasn’t fair, Belle thought. The world was dark, and unkind. The strongest used their power to dominate in cruel and unjust ways, and the small and the meek could do nothing but cower. It wasn’t fair that her father struggled to make ends meet, pushing himself to the brink of his health year after year to provide for the two of them and never getting ahead. Look at what happens even when you mind your own business, she thought. Imprisonment. Loneliness.
A life sentence for desiring just a little bit of beauty.
Belle’s stomach rumbled as she bound the strips of silks and satins together. It was a long drop to the bottom, and it seemed even farther once she’d dropped her makeshift rope out the window. She inspected the scraps remaining, and deliberated over the length she’d made thus far. ‘It’ll have to do,’ she decided, just as a knock sounded.
“I told you to go away!” She said with much more confidence than she felt.
“Just me, Mrs. Potts, dearie,” said a kind voice from beyond the door.
If she kept refusing to see anyone, they might get suspicious, she thought. “Come in,” she called, hastily kicking the fabric rope out of sight. She tried to look casual as the door sprung open on its own, although she wasn’t sure exactly what a prisoner in an enchanted castle would behave like, this being her first time and all. Even her beloved stories hadn’t quite prepared her for her own adventure.
Belle startled terribly when the cart rolled in on its own. Mrs. Potts turned out to be a beautifully etched teapot. ‘Is a talking beast more of an oddity than a talking object?’ wondered Belle, before her attention was captured by the trays of sandwiches and cookies stacked on the tea trolley.
“I thought you could use a spot of tea,” Mrs. Potts said with a wink of one gilded eye.
“But I thought he said-“
“Just a spot of tea,” Mrs. Potts repeated loudly. She urged the plates to slide off the trolley and across the floor to where Belle stood by the bed. Then she noticed what Belle had been trying to hide. “Oh. Well, that’s a long drop down, isn’t it love?”
For some reason Belle felt a little embarrassed. She had given the Beast her word that she would stay forever. But could she really be expected to keep a promise that was exacted under such circumstances?
Mrs. Potts solved the problem for her by tutting gently. “Now, that’s a long journey back to the village, is it not? A cold one too, I’d wager, especially at this late hour.”
Belle nodded. “What if he comes back?” She didn’t mean to whisper, but the threat of the Beast looming by the door frightened her.
“Oh, no. He mostly locks himself away in the West Wing. You have no need to fear the Master, dear. For all his temper he’s really a sweet boy on the inside.”
Belle snorted. Then, realizing her rudeness, tried to cover it with a cough. If it were possible for a teapot to look disapproving, Mrs. Potts had managed it. “Rest here tonight, Miss. Things will look different in the morning, I can promise you that.”
Belle watched the trolley roll away and the door click shut after it. She sighed. She was tired, and hungry, and truthfully she knew it might be more dangerous to throw herself out the window and cross the forest in the middle of the night than to wait one more day. At least she wasn’t in the prison cell anymore. She thought about that. Gathering her courage, Belle quickly went to the door and peered out.
No one was standing guard. Slowly, she eased into the hallway and waited. Nothing but silence greeted her. Perhaps she could just… walk right out? Elated, Belle walked quickly down the dimly lit hallway before she stopped suddenly. It was still too late to travel except under the most dire of circumstances. Was there no other choice for her? She looked back to see the warm light of her room shining out on the carpet of the dark hallway.
Belle considered her options as she stood in the darkness. She could flee the castle right this instant, if of course no one stopped her. It would be a long journey through the woods back home. And then what? Her father would rejoice to have her back so soon, it was true. But then, the morning would come. She’d be up at dawn with the rest of the town: the baker with his trays of bread and rolls, the women washing their laundry, the same books to borrow, the same overtures from Gaston.
Urgh, Gaston, Belle shuddered. The thought of him actually had her turning back and taking a few steps towards the room. She shivered in the dark cold of the hall, and decided this debate would be better settled in the warmth of her room where hot tea and sandwiches waited for her.
Belle took off her shoes and settled on the big soft bed with a triangle of cheese sandwich. The castle wasn’t too frightening. ‘In fact, this would all be very thrilling if it weren’t for that Beast,’ she thought. It surprised her that he had transferred her from a cold cell to this lovely room. But the way he had ordered her around was not on. If she was to be a prisoner, then so be it. She would not play games or be his… whatever he thought she could be to him. No, Belle thought as she torn into another sandwich, I will not be ordered around like a puppet to indulge his whims.
But was he worse than Gaston? Belle considered as she sipped her tea. “He’s certainly louder,” she said to herself. Gaston was quieter in his attentions, but perhaps that was because he was so close when he paid them. Belle shuddered again. She detested the way Gaston would edge into her space. It sickened her the way he’d say suggestive things to her in a tone low enough that only she could hear. It was a perverted intimacy that she rejected and he delighted in subjecting her to at every opportunity. Somehow, Belle knew the Beast would never behave in that way. He seemed the type to shout and bluster, like a little babe would. She laid back on the fluffy pillows to think some more about this Beast.
He was coarse, and unrefined in his manners. And mean! Imprisonment for picking a single bloom was just plain mean, if not a form of insanity. Belle punched a pillow into a softer shape and rolled onto her side. Was the Beast insane? It seemed plausible. But, what was this Beast? He looked nothing like any animal she had ever seen. Sleepily, Belle wondered if he was some odd King’s pet that had learned to speak and then grew, and grew, until…
Belle was asleep.
“We must charm her,” Lumiere began.
“Oh, not this again,” groaned Cogsworth.
“But how?” Lumiere continued, undeterred. “Fine dining? Romantic candlelight?” he asked with a wink. “Music? Oh, Lumiere, you imbecile! But of course!” He spun around, gesturing to the castle as a whole. “We must make her fall in love with the castle itself, and then she cannot help but fall for the Master, no?”
The maitre’d wasn’t the only one obsessed. All of the servants were excited. “A visitor,” they exclaimed amongst themselves. That the visitor was a woman at all was exciting enough, but that she was also a beautiful young woman threw them into a frenzy. No one but Lumiere had the courage to say it out loud, yet each one of them hoped. Maybe, this girl could be the One.
Mrs. Potts came to put a damper on the excitement. “She assumes she’s a prisoner. Moss doesn’t grow on that one, she’ll try to escape, you mark my words.”
“She’s not a prisoner,” Cogsworth blustered.
“Exactly!” Lumiere cried. “She is simply our guest!”
The others nodded in agreement.
“Who cannot leave lest we become antiques,” Lumiere continued under his breath.
Chapeau spun his hooks around in distaste.
“Now, now! We mean her no harm of course! We must simply charm her-“
“Oh leave off it man!” Cogsworth exclaimed.
“Excuse-moi! But we must enchant the poor girl so that she doesn’t ever want to leave. Surely you see that Cogsworth? If she wants to leave, what can we do to stop her? But if she wants to stay, well, that makes it easier, no?”
The others nodded in agreement.
“Then it is settled. If we want to be human again, we must first convince this girl she is our new Mademoiselle.”
Belle awoke at dawn, as she usually did but her motivation on this morning was different. The prospect of a day in an enchanted castle excited her greatly. She hopped out of bed and searched for her shoes, but they were no where to be found. Confused, she looked under the bed, and the chair, and the side table, and then finally she reached into the dark shadows under the armoire in the corner, thinking perhaps that she had kicked her shoes off harder than she’d realized.
As Belle stooped low enough to peer underneath, the doors above flung open. “Bonjour!” boomed a voice.
Belle screamed as she tumbled backwards.
“Oh, I apologize, Mademoiselle. I am Madame de Garderobe.”
Belle tried to get her breath back. She must remember that any piece of furniture or knick-knack might be more than it appeared. “No, it is fine, really. I was looking for… have you seen my shoes?”
“Yes, my dear, the maid took them to be polished. But for now, I am to dress you.” The armoire slid a drawer open to reveal glossy brown leather slippers. A lovely green dress hung on the inside of one door, with an embroidered wool shawl hanging on the other.
“Oh,” Belle exclaimed. She reached towards the delicate embroidery. “I don’t think I should,” she said as her hand fell.
“Should? What is this, should?”
Belle squared her shoulders. “I just don’t think it would be appropriate, as a prisoner, to accept, well, niceties such as these.”
The armoire waited.
“Doesn’t it send the wrong message?” Belle asked anxiously.
“Does it mean you are accepting kindness, you mean?”
“No, I don’t think that this is, exactly, a kindness.”
“Do you think it is a game?” The voice spoke with great theatricality, but now its tone was low and probing.
“Well, yes,” Belle answered, as one who had been the mouse in such games understood all too clearly.
“And if it is a game, what do you think would prove more disarming, child?”
“I’m not a child,” Belle flushed.
“Then, as one woman to another,” here Madame de Garderobe shifted on her spindles, “know that a woman is never undermined by looking her best. Beauty is not weakness. It can be a weapon, yes outward, and distressingly, inward. But do not forget it is the wit underneath a pretty face that hits its target.”
Belle considered this. “Maybe another time,” she conceded.
Madame de Garderobe shut her cabinets with a neat click. “Fine. But at least the slippers, yes?”
The Beast actually made it down the West Wing corridor to the grand staircase before remembering his prisoner, and that was only due to him catching a whiff of her scent.
Over the years he’d notice himself settling into his visage as a beast. He had known about his increased strength right away of course; that had been immediately apparent when he’d rampaged through the castle that fateful night and reduced half the castle’s un-magic-ed upholstery to splinters.
The faintest scent of something lush and deep caught his muzzle as he reached the top of the staircase. “Oh,” he rumbled lowly, the events of the previous day catching up to him and giving him pause. Then the Beast remembered his decree from the night before. His loyal servants wouldn’t be serving her breakfast without him, surely?
Belle had just unrolled her napkin when the dining room doors flew open. She froze as the Beast stomped in, his eyes landing on her immediately. Her heart beat faster as he came closer, his eyes never leaving hers. A few steps away he paused, then bent down to retrieve the napkin she hadn’t realized she’d dropped. He wordlessly held it out to her.
Belle took a fortifying breath before attempting to pluck it out of his paw, and in her haste forgot to mind the claws. The lacy edge caught on one razor-sharp tip and made a tearing sound, causing her to flinch. She tried to regain her calm as he strolled to his place setting at the far end of the long table.
The Beast was taking a twisted pride in the fear his presence obviously caused her. He knew what he looked like, the horns and fangs and grotesque body that took up too much space. Let her stare, he thought viciously.
The breakfast meal passed in relative quiet. Belle kept her eyes lowered to her plate, and the Beast was too unsettled to eat properly. The reason why came to him suddenly: he hadn’t dined with anyone for years. The servants had no need for food, and they’d had few travelers over the years. He had refused to show himself to any of them.
“Master,” Lumiere whispered from the tea cart parked near the Beast’s elbow. “Perhaps you could offer to show the girl the grounds?”
The Beast humphed and buttered a roll, determinedly not looking at his meddlesome maitre’d. Lumiere wasn’t to be put off so easily. “Do you not think the grounds are lovely this morning, Master?” the candelabra insisted more loudly.
Belle glanced up from her plate where she was toying with her breakfast, searching for the speaker. She wasn’t sure what the proper decorum would be for dining with one’s warden, and hoped the Beast would trudge off soon so that she might go exploring.
Lumiere caught her eye. “Does Mademoiselle agree?”
Belle wasn’t prepared to make conversation with a candlestick over breakfast, but she supposed she should have known something like this was bound to happen after her life lesson on the womanly arts from an armoire earlier that morning.
“I’ve yet to see them.” Belle looked down to her plate. “Perhaps I should walk the gardens this morning and see for myself, if you recommend them?” she added hopefully.
Lumiere nearly lit the Beast’s beard on fire with his excitement. Before he could volunteer his master as an escort, the Beast quickly responded with, “I do. Recommend them, I mean.” He cleared his throat, which sounded more like a low rumble than anything. “You are free to wander anywhere on my domain, except-“
“-The West Wing?” Belle finished, finally looking at him again.
“Yes,” the Beast continued, surprised she had the audacity to interrupt but not displeased. Her face did not look as fearful as it had before. No doubt she would prefer to be allowed to move about as she wished. He decided to press his advantage. “I only ask that you will dine with me each night. Dinner is served precisely at seven.”
The implication of his request hung in the air. Freedom to roam in exchange for companionship? Belle toyed with the fork she held as she considered her options. “What else?”
“What do you mean?”
Belle blushed. “What else do you expect from me?”
At first he didn’t understand. Then with a rush of blood to his head he did. “Excuse me,” he grunted as he fled the room.
The lack of an answer left Belle feeling queasy.
The Beast told himself he was above watching her from the shadows like some particularly large and loathsome gargoyle. He told himself it was no concern of his if she found his garden paths lovely, the frozen pond a vision of icy perfection, or if she had dressed warmly enough for this eternal winter.
He grumbled to himself about thieves and foolish girls needing to look out for themselves before he dropped the edge of curtain he was peering out from behind. If the girl had any sense at all she would flee while there was still daylight. Not that her wellbeing was any concern of his.
“Lumiere!” he called.
“Master?” his servant responded from the desk beside him.
The Beast startled. He hadn’t realized how close at hand his maitre’d had been. If he had been more aware of his surroundings, he certainly wouldn’t have been caught sneaking around trying to see what the girl was doing through dirty windows. “Lumiere. See to it that the girl is dressed properly from now on,” the Beast said with as much poise as he could muster.
“As you wish,” Lumiere said as he bent into a low bow. The Beast worried he would ignite the books if he wasn’t careful.
The majordomo of the castle was a clock. Belle wondered if the man had had an affinity with time schedules before this mysterious enchantment befell him, as she believed trotting all over a castle of this size reminding people of the time must be a special kind of torment.
Belle appreciated that Cogsworth had let her know it was nearly time for dinner. She didn’t appreciate the implication that she was unsuitable for dining with company in her current attire. It was a small matter to ignore his hints; she had never dressed specially for the dinner hour before and she refused to start now.
She looked for the Beast as she entered the cavernous dining room, and was surprised to find him with his back to her as he faced the fireplace. The light played across his fur. Belle wondered why he was staring so pensively into the bright flames. “Good evening,” she offered with some hesitation.
He didn’t respond. Belle decided to take her seat at the table without him, as she was hungry after spending most of the morning getting lost amid the maze of shrubbery.
She had fulfilled her part of the deal by showing up. It didn’t particularly matter to her if he proved to be terrible company, so long as he stayed on his side of the table. Belle broke open a warm roll to dip into her stew and sighed as she breathed in its yeasty fragrance. She dipped a chunk into the meaty broth and hastily popped it into her mouth before the soggy bits fell into the bowl. She closed her eyes in pleasure as she chewed.
Belle continued to enjoy her meal with gusto until she realized she was being watched. The Beast had turned from the fire and was watching her, his blue eyes glowing in his shadowy face.
Belle popped another bit of roll into her mouth. “Join me?” she asked, gesturing to other place setting. The Beast shook his head. Belle took a sip of wine. “Why?” she asked, the flavor dry on her tongue.
He turned back to the fire. “I doubt my manners would please you,” he answered simply.
“Hm.” Belle felt oddly disappointed. “What about this morning?” She pressed.
The Beast said nothing and Belle finished her meal in silence. As she stood up to leave, she could have sworn he said, “Until tomorrow.” Just before she stepped through the door to the hall she paused, and quickly answered, “Tomorrow.”
Belle had given into Madame de Garderobe’s insistence, mainly because her blue dress was fashioned of rough homespun cloth meant for warm provincial summers, not enchanted winters of ice and wind. That her current bodice boasted intricately embroidered flowers was not a discouragement either. Belle had quickly tied her hair back with a length of ribbon before hurrying out her bedroom door for breakfast. She nearly ran straight into the Beast’s broad chest.
In his alarm at her sudden appearance he almost clutched her shoulders, but then remembered himself and dropped his paws to his sides. The Beast cleared his throat.
“Um. I thought that I might escort you to breakfast,” he explained while looking everywhere except her face. He reached out to fiddle with a filagreed door handle.
Belle had hoped to sneak out to the stables to see Felipe first, but decided to see where this new sign of hospitality might lead. “That would be fine,” she acquiesced.
Surely this truce could not last.
Belle waited. Each morning she dressed, finding herself more and more often giving in to wearing the warmer dresses and shawls and cloaks that Madame Garderobe offered. She would walk to the wide curving staircase where the Beast would be waiting. Usually they would nod in greeting before descending the main staircase in tandem. He would keep his distance, and she in return would give him comfortable silence over breakfast.
Her mornings were spent in the library. Around midday Mrs. Potts would bring her tea and bread with butter. She’d browse the titles looking for nothing in particular. One might jump out at her, but it did not matter if its subject was concerning history, or gardening, or politics. She could read for hours at her leisure, finishing the book or discarding it as it suited her. She’d never experienced such a luxury.
The Beast would come. She might be stretching for a thick volume just out of reach when his paw would suddenly appear, and pluck it off the shelf for her. Or perhaps she would have once again grown drowsy in front of the warm fire, when she would sense a shadow falling upon her person.
On one memorable occasion, she’d spread cartography books over the entirety of the small desk in the corner and nearly knocked her teacup over the far edge by accident. She found herself bent fully over the desk with the delicate teacup clutched between her fingertips when she heard a lowly growl. Startled, she spun around quickly but found herself alone.
They had reached a cautious amicability with each other, and the Beast despaired.
It wasn’t going to be enough. His mother and father had simply tolerated each other with a studied nonchalance, but that was not what the Enchantress demanded from him. The Beast knew that he and Belle had already reached the level of emotional commitment his parents had modeled. They might, with time, even be moved to friendship. Yet even lasting companionship was not love.
Was love a thing that could be earned? Trust, of course. Respect, yes. But love?
In the romances his mother had adored love was near an unstoppable force. The people of those stories were powerless to resist it, to resist each other. That magnetism was not achieved through the giving of coins or by brave acts; love was not a matter of checks and balances. Such irrepressible urge was the stuff of animals.
‘And are you not an animal?’ His mind whispered.
‘No,’ he snarled aloud.
‘Not quite?’ His mind prodded.
He rolled over with a huff that caused the bed to creak in protest. That incriminating sound coupled with his chain of thoughts led him down a dark path. An animal isn’t concerned with love, but with procreating, the continuation of its lineage. Was he?
The Beast was surprised by his certainty. Yes, prideful, vain, selfish — he’d heard the insults whispered behind doors and from around corners, and sometimes even spat at him by a tear-stained face. It had occurred to him many times over the years that his family line would likely wither and die with him. Sometimes he even thought that perhaps it should, as it seemed even Providence itself was going out of its way to decree.
But now Fate was playing its cruelest trick: it had given him hope.