The years had lain heavily on the ancient home. The grime and rain and mold of hundreds of years stained the once bright stones, crumbled and decayed now. The walls were wearing away at the edges, and the highest, most outer wall seemed sometimes to be held together by little more than the thick green ivy which grew over it closely, almost protectively.
Sometimes, a wandering or particularly brave hunting party might penetrate that deeply into the forests and, if especially observant, might even note the signs of former cultivation--the low, tumbled walls, the old fruit tress standing in unnaturally straight rows above all the wild saplings in between. A few even found the ancient fountain, long broken and reclaimed by the woods. It is doubtful if any of them recognized that paved pathways and broad, once-smooth avenues lay far beneath the leaves and undergrowth their horses trod so quietly over. But for those who found the ivy-grown walls there was mystery and a sense of foreboding. Even the venturesome could find no way to ascend the wall, or to look over it, and attempts to follow it showed only that it ran on a long way indeed, turning eventually, but then getting lost in a perfectly impenetrable bramble of bushes, trees, and vines. In the end, they all left it with a shiver and the story spread throughout the nearby villages of the mysterious green wall and lost park that lay around it.
In light of all this, it remains a mystery indeed how the steps of one errant traveler led him there, late one winter's night, or how he found the great iron gates that lay beyond the brambles, covered themselves until they were indistinguishable from the wall on either side, but--he did. He did and this is the story of what he found within them, and how his coming brought peace at last to the long tortured soul who lived within.
Alexander Germond was a perfectly respectable, and prosperous, tradesman. He was a hearty man, hale and strong at fifty. He was accustomed to travelling by himself on business trips, but on this occasion a series of mishaps led to his getting lost in the forest. Bad weather and tardy partners had delayed him in the city too long. His oldest daughter was expecting her first child any day, and being a fond family man, he was naturally anxious to return quickly. In addition, he had news--news that could affect his business for years to come, and precious papers to be signed. That is why he pushed on when he would have ordinarily stopped, and why, finding a narrow road in disrepair, he decided to chance a short cut though the forest. His sense of direction was good, he reasoned, and would guide him.
Soon, however, the trees closed over him so that he couldn't see the stars and in the darkness he and his horse became hopelessly lost. For hours he wandered in the deepening cold, hoping to find some trail or sign of habitation. When at last he had decided that he had no choice but to stop until morning, cold as it was, he lifted his lamp high--and saw the gate. Afterward he could never explain how he knew it was a gate, but he did. He approached it and somehow in the mass of leaves he saw the great iron ring, and he grasped it and pulled. Silently, as silently and smoothly as if it had been oiled yesterday, it swung just open enough to admit them. He and his horse passed through.
In the darkness he could not see much but a winding pathway and the dark bulk of a great house looming against the sky. And one lighted window.
He felt, he said later, like he was in a trance, or a dream. His heart beat heavily, but he wasn't scared, just drawn forward with inevitable fascination to the heavy, carved door that sat at the top of those board, shallow steps. It, too, swung open at his touch. Inside, he knew he stood in a large, open hall and dimly perceived a staircase ahead. To his right warm firelight spilled through a doorway. He walked in and immediately the sense of unreality vanished, to be replaced by very real astonishment.
Here was as cozy a gentleman's study as you could desire, with books and armchairs and a roaring blaze in an old-fashioned fireplace. By the fire was set a table, freshly laid with a spotless linen tablecloth, and a small banquet of food ready, next to a sliver tea service and a crystal brandy decanter. Someone lived here--someone was expected.
"Hello?" He called out tentatively, glancing around nervously. Now that he was here, in the prosaic reality of hearth and food, he felt quite astonished at himself, that he would have come in so boldly. Whoever lived behind that wall could not want company. "Hello?" he said again, louder this time. "Is anyone home? I'm--I'm terribly sorry to intrude," he continued in an elevated voice. "I lost my way--and it's terribly cold outside--the door was open--do you mind if I stay a bit?" He fidgeted anxiously, looking back toward the darkened hall. What should he do? "I say," he resumed, "my horse is outside. Do you have anywhere she can shelter? I hate to be a bother, of course, but--is anyone home?"
For a few more minutes he stood, torn between hunger and the desire to run. Hunger won. Tentatively he drew closer to the fire, took a grape and ate it quickly. It tasted so sweet his mouth watered for more, and before he knew it he was consuming all of it--the fruit, the fresh bread, the cheese and cold meat, well seasoned and carved. He touched the teapot--it was hot. He was just wondering if he dared pour himself a cup before fleeing, when a voice came from the corner of the room. "Welcome," it said.
Germond blanched and fell back, stuttering apologies and explanations. The voice cut him short.
"You have no need to apologize. The food was here for you."
The man faltered, his eyes trying to discern who it was. "I don't understand."
"Every night I leave a fire in this room, and food for wondering travelers who might need shelter or sustenance. That is why the door is never locked, or the gate." The voice paused. "Although it has been--many years--since anyone has stopped here."
At last Germond's eyes had found the figure, standing in the very furthest corner of the long room, well out of the reach of the firelight. He looked tall, and broad shouldered, but that was all he could discern. The voice, though, was deep, pleasant and cultured.
"My horse--" the man began, but the stranger cut him off.
"I have already seen to her. She is fed and warm."
"Sir, I have to thank you--this is kindness indeed. Can I--can I know to whom I owe such a debt?"
"There is no debt. You may stay here until morning. All I ask is that you remain in this room, and that you leave at first light, without going to any other part of the house or grounds. Your mount will be ready for you."
"Yes, yes of course, but--can I know your name? I am--I am Alexander Germond, at your service. And you--sir?"
There was a long silence and then, ever so softly, came the words, "I have no name." And the black figure disappeared into the greater blackness behind it.
There did not seem to be anything left for Mr. Germond to do but obey the stranger's orders. He could not leave without his horse even if he wanted to. He felt, to be sure, very nervous for the first hour, but eventually the warm, placid fire, working together with the brandy he had felt in need of, and of course his own exhaustion, overcame him, and he fell into a deep sleep, sitting in a soft armchair.
When he woke up, full daylight streamed through the window behind him. Jumping up with a start, he stared around him. In the morning light now he could see the cracks on the walls, age stains, the old-fashioned ornate molding around the high ceiling, and the dust that seemed to lay over everything beyond the area around the fire. A whinny made him turn his head, and he saw his mare standing at the foot of the steps outside, harnessed and saddled, stamping the ground impatiently.
On the table next to him the previous night's meal had been replaced by a new one. He touched the tea pot--it was cold. He had overslept, then. He remembered the stranger's injunction to leave at first light, and snatching up a piece of bread and his hat and gloves, hastened out, full of dread for what he might have done.
Refusing to so much as look around him, he ran through the hall, out the door and down the stairs to his horse. He placed his hand on her saddle and was about to mount when he looked up and stopped dead, staring in wonder.
Before him stretched a vast garden unlike any he'd ever seen. It clearly had been untended for many years because everything was overgrown--but it was nonetheless, indeed all the more, beautiful.
Down sloping and terraced hills flowed rivers of flowers. Great flowering bushes had entirely taken over the beds they were planted in and the flowers themselves rioted together joyously over the lawns and pathways, brilliant and thriving even for lack of care. Here and there pieces of graceful statuary peeked out and a flowing stream wended its way back and forth across--no, several streams ran, from the house, down toward the distant wall, pausing in ponds and even a working fountain or two. Half-fallen down graceful gazebos had been built throughout and little bridges and stepping stones and everything whimsical and beautiful had been added at sometime by someone. Add to all this the untamed splendor of those flowers, with dancing butterflies and birds singing to each other from tree to tree and it is no wonder that our weary traveler paused to gape.
As he continued to look, he saw the house, large, symmetrical, built grandly and beautifully once, though now unmistakably decaying. It looked all the more desolate in contrast to the thriving life outside of it. It was a house that bore all the signs of being uninhabited.
But--someone lived here. Someone had laid that meal for him last night and spoken to him from the darkness. Who? And why? Why did he live here alone and hide in the shadows like that?
Now, Alexander Germond was a very sensible man and should, based on everything he'd ever done, have gotten on his horse and ridden away at that point. In fact, he was just about to do so, when he heard something. He heard music.
It was harp music, and it was more beautiful, he thought, than any he'd ever heard before. Mr. Germond had two daughters who played the harp, but neither of them had ever sounded like this. This was sweet and haunting and sad and hopeful and sighing and weeping and dreaming all at once. It seemed the kind of song that would drive you mad if you listened to it too long, but that you couldn't bear to stop listening to.
Insensibly, hardly knowing what he was doing, Germond began to follow that music, walking away from his horse down a crumbling path through all those exquisite flowers. He followed it, searching, until he came to an open area, where a sun dial lay (cleared of overgrowth), surrounded on each side by a curving stone bench. On one of these, his back toward Germond, and head bowed, sat a man.
He knew he was a man by the shape of his body and his clothes, but even then he knew something was wrong, although he couldn't say what. But the music came from him, for it ceased the moment Germond's foot fell on the ground behind him. Then, without moving, he spoke, and it was the voice of the Stranger. "Why have you come here?"
"I--I'm sorry," mumbled Germond, backing up and suddenly feeling very foolish. "I heard the music and--it was so beautiful--I hardly knew what I was doing. I'll leave now, immediately." He turned to go, but the voice again arrested him.
"I asked you to leave at first light. Why did you not do as I said?"
He could tell if its tone was sad or angry, but something about it made his blood run cold. "I overslept!" he said imploring. "I'm sorry. I did not mean offense. I will leave immediately."
"You cannot!" All of a sudden, the Stranger stood up and turned to face him, and Germond shrank back in fear, for he saw that it was not really a man at all, but some sort of man-beast, with enough of man's form to walk up right and wear his clothes, and use his hands--but for the rest, an animal. Not just a man covered in hair, but something altogether different--a beast.
And yet that elegant, well-bred voice spoke on, though now so full of sorrowful doom that Germond began to really tremble all over and nearly fell to the ground in fear. "You cannot leave now," he said, "because there is a curse on this place, as there is on me, and now that you have seen it and seen me, you must stay. If you had left when I bid you all would have been well, but now that you have walked in this garden and seen me, you must stay. This is the curse that is on this place, that any who see me must remain here with me, until death."
"No!" Germond cried. "No!" He turned and ran as fast as he could, back to his horse. He leapt on her and urged her quickly to a gallop, racing down the long driveway to the high gates. He could see them somewhat from this side, the rusted black iron in intricate patterns.
The gates were locked. They were locked by some means he could not discern, though long and frantically he searched for the secret. When that failed he tried to climb it, but only ended up back on the ground, panting and exhausted from his efforts.
"You will not get out that way." The voice of the Beast aroused him. And now that he saw the creature walking toward him he saw that he did not move quite like a man, but more like an animal might, if it could walk on two feet.
"Unlock the gate, you foul thing!" he cried at him. "Let me out! You must let me out!"
"I cannot," it replied implacably, folding its muscular arms. "No more than I can myself leave this place."
"But you don't understand!" Now he flung himself down on the ground before him, begging him on his knees. "I have a family--children, a grandchild perhaps. They need me! Without me they will diminish into poverty. My daughters will have to work, my sons be apprenticed out, even my son-in-law depends on my return for his business. You must have pity on them, if not me. You must have pity!"
"I have told you I have no power!" Now the Beast's voice flashed out angrily, merging into something very near to a snarl. "It is you who have done this, not me. You disobeyed me, you overstayed your welcome. I gave you food and shelter and you did not even respect my wishes!"
"Oh that you had never done so!" replied the wretched man bitterly. "What did I ever do to you, that you should lay such a trap for me?"
The creature seemed about to answer, but instead moved to the horse, and taking its bridle, began to lead it back towards the house. The man trailed despairingly after him.
The next few days passed dream-like for our friend Germond. The Beast entertained him in solitary, decayed splendor. His best guess was that everything in the house--the furnishings, the hangings--were at least a hundred years old, probably more, and the house itself seemed much older. Only the books were more recent. When he asked the Beast once where they came from, he replied, "They were brought here by others."
"Others who have accepted my hospitality," with an ironic twist in his voice.
Germond turned away muttering, "Poor devils."
He never knew where the food came from--he just knew that it was there, four times a day, spread out on the table, fresh and well-cooked and fit for a nobleman. Not that he never had stomach to eat much.
At first, he avoided the Beast and would not speak to him, but eventually the grim loneliness of the house got to him and he was willing to accept almost any company. And, surprisingly, he found the Beast to be very good company indeed--if one looked past his hideous appearance. He could talk learnedly on almost any topic, and moved his conversation easily wherever Germond seemed to want it to go. He seemed especially interested in news of the world events, both current and past. Then, when he had questioned Germond to the limit of his political knowledge, he would subside into gloom and grim silence, and Germond wouldn't see him again for many hours.
One day, after more than a week had gone by, Germond sought the Beast out. "I can't stand this," he said. "I can't say here, I can't! My family must think me dead by now. It would be better if I was!" he added bitterly. "Rather than rot here. Is there no way out for me--no way at all?"
The Beast stood silent, his head turned away. At last he said, "There is a way."
"Thank heaven!" he gasped. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Because it is one you may not want to take… whose consequences may be more than you can bear."
"I can bear anything rather than this!" Silence. "Come one, what is it? Tell me!"
"The only way you can leave here is if someone--or something--takes your place."
The man frowned. "What do you mean?"
"When you reach your home, the first living thing you see--whether it be animal or man--must return here to take your place. If you do not chose to have this--creature--to take your place, then you must return yourself within thirty days and live out the rest of your natural life here."
"And if I don't?"
"If you don't… well, there is a curse on this place, and now it is on you. You will take it with you when you leave, and if you do not abide by its rules… then I do not think you will care for the consequences for you, or your family."
A chill ran over Germond. After a week in this enchanted place, he had no trouble believing the Beast's words. In his mind's eye he saw himself riding up the treed avenue to his home… he saw the house and the yard, and, as he drew near, from around the corner came running… his two favorite dogs. They came running to greet him before he ever reached the house, and behind them, servants and children, looking out of windows and immerging from doorways. He opened his eyes. "My dogs," he said. "My dogs are always the first living creatures I see when I go home. My dogs, one of them at least, can take my place."
The Beast bowed. "If that is your decision. But you must give me your word--your word, Alexander Germond, and I believe you to be an honest man--that you will not defy this curse--that you will return, either you or your replacement--within the month! Do you swear it?"
"I swear it," he promised eagerly. "But--how do I know that I can find this place again? I don't even know where it is."
"You will find it. Just as found it once, you will find it again. Do not doubt that."
Marianna had not always been beautiful. Growing up, she seemed the plain and awkward one in a family of handsome, blooming children. But--as sometimes happens in these cases--somehow, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen she blossomed. The curves she had long given up on developed; her sunburned skin cleared to a milky fineness, and she learned to move with grace. Her eyes had always been her greatest beauty--wide, very dark grey, mysterious eyes, thickly lashed and arresting. Her hair was what is today called strawberry blond--pale, half red, half gold. Growing up it had seemed faded in comparison to the rich brunette locks of her sisters, but again, once she had stopped romping in the sun so much and learned to cover her head more--the color of it had somehow changed, deepened, and grown more lustrous. It hung past her waist, with the bleached ends a pale, almost ashy gold, while that around her face was vivid and reddish. Not that she wore it down much, but rather coiled it at the back of her neck in a heavy mass.
So it was that, at nineteen, Marianna Germond was not at all used to thinking of herself as a beauty. Nor was her family, for that matter, though even they couldn't help but see how much she had improved. But they were a beautiful family, generally, out-going and spirited, accustomed to admiration. After all, she was still just Mary, the middle child of a large family, the tomboyish, quiet one who would rather read a book in a tree than go to a party. She had had a few suitors come around in the last year, but had not been interested, and her parents being indulgent ones and very fond of her, no one pressured her to receive them. One daughter was married already, another engaged, and still another entertained endless beaus, so they were well content to keep her with them, an able help and willing babysitter for all the young ones. Certainly, she did not seem the adventurous type.
When Marianna's father did not return home as expected, there was initially little alarm. He had been delayed, likely as not. But when Lianna had her baby and still there was no word for him, they became concerned. That mounted as the days went by, and still nothing. They sent word to the city--heard back that he had left long before. Now the alarm increased. Marianna's oldest brothers set out along the road to look for him, asking in every town and hamlet, expecting to find him gravely injured--or worse.
It was a full two weeks since he had first been missed, while her brothers were still out seeking word of him, that Marianna went wondering through the woods near their house. She was almost sick with anxiety for her father, to whom she was very close and, unable to sit still at home, she had come out here to walk off her nerves.
She had just turned back towards the house when she heard the distant whinny of a horse. Turning, she shaded her eyes, gazing down the lane. The horse was walking slowly, a man slumped low in the saddle. Even at this distance, there was no mistaking either the horse or the rider, for her. "Papa!" she cried, picking up her skirts and running. "Papa! Papa!"
The man lifted his head as she approached, but his reaction was not what she was expecting. Instead of smiling, he blanched, and drew back. "Mary! No!" he cried. "No, no!"
Slowing to a walk, panting, Marianna came along side of his horse. "Why do you say that, Papa?" she said anxiously. "What's wrong?" She saw that his face was drawn and pale, his clothes stained, and he swayed in the saddle. "You're sick!" she cried, reaching toward him.
He drew back and seemed like he would thrust her away. "No!" he murmured feebly. "It can't be you. It wasn't supposed to be you."
"You're raving, Papa," she said, and caught him as he half-slid out of the saddle. "Help!" she began to shout toward the house, desperately holding him. "Help! Someone help!"
For two and a half weeks he lay in a fever. The doctor came and said that he seemed to have sustained a nervous shock. "He doesn't appear to have been starved," he said, "although he was chilled and exhausted. Something is troubling him--something that made a simple cold develop into a rheumatic fever."
Marianna would have stayed with him and nursed him, but her mother banished her from the sick room because whenever her father saw her he became agitated. "He keeps saying, 'It was supposed to be Bong and Cad, not Mary,'" her mother said.
"Bong and Cad? The dogs?
"Yes. And he rambles on about a house, and a garden, and a… beast. Who knows what terrible thing must have happened to him out here?" She shuddered, wiping away tears, and her daughter put her arms around her for comfort.
When at last Mr. Germond opened his eyes and was himself again, he was very weak. At first he seemed content to look at his wife and be waited on. But when he heard what day it was, he struggled up, filled with alarm. "I have to go back!" he said urgently. "I have to go back now!"
"You're not going anywhere, Alex!" his wife told him. "Don't be ridiculous. Go back where?"
"Back to the house," he murmured, his voice dropping. "Back to him. I promised. I must go."
"No, Alex!" her voice grew stern. "You are not going anywhere in this state."
"But you don't understand. I must!" He grew so upset that she devoted herself to soothing him, and promised he would tell his story later, after he had rested some more.
So it was that afternoon, with his family around him, that Mr. Germond told his story, and of the fearful promise he had made to secure his freedom. As she listened, Marianna felt shivers running over her. She believed him. Somehow, incredibly, she believed every word he said. And looking around then, at the room that was so familiar, and her family she loved so well, it was as if they were strange to her--as if she didn't belong there any more. Rather, there swept over her a great longing to see the ancient house, and the wild garden; to hear the sweet, dreadful music for herself.
"I got lost in the forest again, coming out," he concluded his tale. "For days I tried to find my way out, but it was as if everything conspired to keep me back; to prevent my escape. Then, when finally we made it out, and home again--" his gaze turned to Marianna. "I wasn't supposed to be you," he repeated for the hundredth time. "It was never supposed to be you. That is why I have to go back."
"No." Suddenly Marianna felt very calm. She stood up, and took his hand. "No, what you told him was true. The family here needs you--all of them. You must stay. I'll go." The family members gasped.
"Marianna, I won't let you!" her father cried.
"You can't stop me," she answered back, smiling tenderly down at him. "Because you're not strong enough to travel, and there's no time to wait."
He was cut off by his wife. "There is no way that I am going to allow you to go into that forest," she declared, "either of you. I don't believe in curses--unless it's the curse of overly gullible and superstitious men," she added, frowning at her husband. "Now, everyone out! Your father has to rest, and I'll hear no more of this until morning." She hustled everyone out. "As for you, young lady," she said to Marianna as she shut the door, "You father has been a very sick man. I'm surprised at you, for encouraging him like that."
"Mama, he hasn't lost his mind," replied Marianna. "And when did you ever know Papa to make anything up? He's the most honest, sensible person I know."
"Just the same, you can't go running off to any forests based of this wild tale of his. Giving yourself up for life! I never heard of such a thing." And with that the good woman turned and bustled away.
Marianna worked quickly. She packed only a small bag--one extra dress, a few essentials. Miniatures of her parents, and siblings. Then she sat down to write a letter. It read thus:
Dear Mama, Papa, Hugo, Brianna, George, Adrian and Alanna,
I have gone to find the house in the forest and fulfill Papa's promise. I really do believe that what Papa told us is true, and I am sure he will say that I am right. I know that you will miss me, but not nearly as much as you would have missed Papa if he had been gone, and I feel very certain in myself that this is what I should do. In a strange way, I feel like this is what I have been destined for.
Do not worry about me. I have taken plenty of food and water, and the compass Mama gave Hugo last Christmas, so that I will not get lost in the forest. You know I know how to travel well, and take care of myself outdoors. If I cannot, after all, find the house, or if nothing is there when I find it, then I will of course come back. If you do not see me again, please know that I love you all very much, and believe that I have gone very willingly to do this. I am not afraid.
With all my love,
So with such provisions she rode quietly away from the house that night. There was no time to be lost, she knew, before the full thirty days would be up, and she feared that if she did not go tonight, she never would.
With her compass to guide her, she cut across country, staying away from the main roads where she knew her brothers would certain go seeking her. She knew the forest her father spoke of, and she knew the area quite well, having grown up there, and travelled often with him. Fortunately, the nights were already much more mild than they had been when her father passed through, and she slept soundly in her cloak on the ground, unmolested. In due time she found herself deep into trees, and it was there that she packed her compass up, and began to ride on in blind faith only. The Beast had said that she would find it. She could only trust to his word.
It was late afternoon on the second day when she found it--the same high wall of ivy with a glint of iron beneath that her father had seen. Trembling slightly, she dismounted. There was the heavy iron ring beneath the leaves that he had spoken of. Grasping with both hands, she pulled hard, and it swung open silently. Leading her horse, she walked through.
It was all as he had described it. The dark, grand building just tumbling down in places--the riotous, beautiful gardens that grew around it. They were, if anything, more beautiful than they had been a month ago. Her heart beat faster at the sight of them, and something inside her seemed to sing for joy--but still she continued up the long pathway to the house. It drew her, cavernous and blighted, but still somehow compelling in its grandeur. Leaving her horse to graze the overgrown grass, she climbed the mossy and leaf-strewn steps to the tall front doors. They looked implacable and stern, but yielded quietly, as the gate had, to her touch.
"Hello?" Here was the great hall, with high vaulted ceiling, intricately carved and painted (though faded and dirty now), and the marble staircase at the far end. The timbers beneath her feet squeaked. She looked to her right, and saw the study where her father had spent his first night. She thought of him as she looked at it, her heart pounding within her, and her hands beginning to tremble. She had not been afraid, when she started, but now that she was here, the enormity of what she had done was hitting her.
"Hello?" she said again, and her voice echoed against the walls. She remembered how her father had been heard by a figure in the shadows, and raised her voice, forcing herself to speak firmly, and clasping her hands together. "My name is Marianna Germond. I have come in fulfillment of my father's promise. I was the living thing he first saw when he got home." The echo died out, and for a long time there was silence, as she stood there in the shadows by the door. Long shafts of afternoon light came in through high widows, and struck the floor, setting myriads of dust particles dancing.
Finally, as she just about to move--as she took her first step--the Voice spoke to her. "Your father sent you in his stead?" it asked.
Quickly, her eyes found the cloaked figure standing in a particularly dark recess, not too far from her. "No," she answered, "He wanted to come himself, but he was too ill to travel, and besides--my family needs him. So I came."
She could not clearly see the figure in the shadows, but felt this eyes scrutinizing her. "Come into the light where I can see you," he said.
Gripping her hands together until they hurt, and thrusting her chin forward, she did so. Her hair had come undone during the long ride through the forest, and streamed in waves over her shoulders and down her back. As the sunshine hit it, it flamed out, gleaming and shining around her lithe young body like a sheath. Her dark, mysterious eyes flashed a little, while a vivid color rose to her cheeks.
From the shadows there came the sound of a quickly drawn breath, and the figure seemed to shrink back a little further.
When he at last spoke again, his voice was different--gentle and low. "What is your name, child?"
"And you are Alexander Germond's daughter?"
"Marianna." He spoke the name as a whisper. "How old are you?"
"I am nineteen, sir."
"Nineteen." Then his voice changed again, became rough. "So, Marianna, you've come here to live with the Beast in atonement for your father's wrong?"
"I--I suppose so."
"And do you understand what it is that you have undertaken to do?"
"I think so."
"Well, you will soon enough." He drew back even further. "You have the freedom of the house and grounds. There is a room prepared for you, upstairs, on the right. The door is open. I hope it will suit you."
"But aren't you going to--" but he was, she realized, already gone. How he had gone was as mysterious as how he had come.
Left alone, Marianna, slowly trod the length of the great hall. Slowly she mounted the staircase, running her hand along the chipped and stained balustrade. To her right a long hallway stretched, the walls cracked and cobwebby. She picked her way gingerly past closed doors, until at last she came to an open one.
The room was clearly meant for a woman. The aged furnishings were yet distinctively feminine in style; the faded hangings had once been decorated with brightly colored flowers and birds. And although everything was as worn and threadbare as in the rest of the house, here there was a difference: it was all clean. It was all very clean. She walked across to the window, and pulled back the curtains. Below her, the garden lay spread out in all its glory. Near the window sat a dressing table, with a yellowed but highly polished mirror. Spread out on the table were combs and bushes with intricately carved silver backs. She picked one up, feeling it in her hand wonderingly. It's as if he knew I was coming, she thought.
The next few days passed quietly, dreamily. She roamed in the gardens by day and the house by night. She ate the food that appeared four times a day in the little room off the terrace. But she did not see (if indeed, she could have been said to have seen him) the Beast again. She had assumed, based on what her father said, that she would be spending much of her time with him, but this apparently was not to be the case. Sometimes, indeed, while she was pacing a long room or blooming garden path, she would feel like she was being watched, and, looking up, would see a shadow at a window or in the corner--a shadow that always vanished immediately. She wondered why he was so much more reticent with her than with her father--and why he never played his music during the day. Only at night sometimes she would awaken to hear the haunting, exquisite strains from outside her window, and, sitting by the sill, would listen for hours until they lulled her back to sleep.
She never saw anyone else there either, but whether it was the Beast himself who did it all, or some other unseen agent, somehow things got done: the food, the fires, the hot water that appeared by her door every morning and evening. The morning after her coming, a bouquet of roses had also appeared. She placed it on her dresser. She wanted to thank him, but never got the chance. How long would this go on, she wondered?
The turning point came one afternoon when she was exploring a great gallery that ran the whole length of the house. The house itself absolutely fascinated her, and this room especially, because of the portraits that lined both walls. They were magnificent--cobwebby, but magnificent. No names appeared on them, but that many of their subjects were related was clear--her eyes easily picked out the common features: noses and chins and eyes that reoccurred from one generation to another. She could trace their chronology by their clothes, and the style of the portrait. The oldest seemed to date back many centuries. When she had worked her way down to the most recent--even they were at least a hundred years old--she was intrigued to discover an empty spot on one wall, where it looked as if a painting had once hung--although a very long time ago now, judging by the grime on the wall.
It was while she was contemplating this enigma that she had again that sudden sense of being watched. Turning quickly, she saw a cloaked figure moving swiftly away. "Oh, stop, please!" she cried. "Don't go away!" The creature froze, but did not turn.
"I've been meaning to thank you for the services you've done me," she began brightly stepping hesitantly forward. "The wonderful meals, and hot water and--"
"Is that all?" His voice sounded hard.
"All?" she faltered.
"Is that all you want of me--to thank me for some trivial services as anyone could do?"
"Of course not!" she cried, stung. "I want to talk to you. I know my father talked to you, and he said you were very polite and even kind in a way. He told me what you are--I'm not afraid. But--"
"Why?" he asked unexpectedly.
"Why aren't you afraid of me?" He managed to sound slightly menacing.
"Well.. you haven't given me any reason to be," she said reasonably. "And you treated my father well, as I said. He seemed to think that you were almost as much a victim of this--this curse--as he was. I didn't think when I came here that I would be completely alone; I thought I would have you, at least, to talk to."
He paused, and then shook his head and started to walk away again. "Please!" she cried out desperately. "I don't want to spend my life alone!"
Again he stopped, and spoke harshly. "No one wants to spend their life alone," he said.
"Well then, since I am here, why can't we be companions to each other?"
"Companions?" He turned his head towards her, face still shadowed by his hood.
"Yes," she insisted. "Why not?"
"You would take a beast as a companion?"
"If he's kind to me."
"Will I be kind to you?"
"If you please, sir."
That last disarming answer seemed to decide him, for said softly, "Then I will try, Marianna," and turned around slowly, pulling his hood down.
Marianna's heart was pounding, and as he began she clasped her hands together tightly, willing herself to remain stoic.
And she saw his face finally, and to her surprise she felt a sense of relief. She had spent so long imagining what he might look like, and building up ideas of his fearsomeness and ugliness, that inevitably the reality failed, in comparison, to horrify her. It was indeed a fearsome face, and ugly enough mounted such a nearly human form, but his eyes were clear and intelligent and--and sad. For a moment she stood there staring, pondering the strangeness of those very human eyes in such a bestial face, and that cultured voice from such a throat.
The features twisted, and grimaced. "Well, Marianna," said that voice that hardly seemed to be from him, "am I as hideous as you imagined me?"
"No sir," she answered truthfully.
Slowly, he extended one hairy, clawed hand toward her. She took it, and shivered slightly at its touch, but did not draw back. They stayed thus, awkwardly shy, for several moments, then Marianna on impulse said, "I wish--"
"I wish that you would tell me--"
"What?" The word came out sharply, and he drew back his hand.
"--about these paintings," she continued. "I think they're wonderful, but I haven't any idea who they are. I would love to know about them."
"They belong," he answered her in a gentler tone, "to an ancient family that has long since died out. I do not think their stories would interest you."
She wanted to protest, but could not summon the courage. The Beast looked like he was about to leave again, so she said quickly, "Would you play your harp for me some time? I hear you at night in the garden. It's so beautiful."
An expression that could have been pleasure crossed his face. "Perhaps--perhaps after dinner then," he said, "if you'll have it with me," and turned quickly to go.
"What time?" Marianna called after him.
"Seven," he replied over his shoulder, "In the dining room." And then he was gone.
Marianna let her breath out slowly. She felt excited and nervous--exhilarated, almost. The much anticipated first meeting had finally taken place and there would be another. This strange creature represented a mystery--one she hoped very much to unravel.
That evening when Marianna entered her room to start getting ready for dinner, she found a bathtub sitting by a lit fire, with jugs of hot and cold water standing by. She grimaced ruthfully as she glanced down at herself, wondering if that was meant to be a hint. With a happy sigh she undressed, readied the bath, and sank into it. Certainly she was delighted to be given the opportunity.
When she got out, Marianna looked uncertainly at the two dresses she had brought from home with her. Besides the fact that neither of them had been washed recently, they just seemed… inadequate for a place like this, especially a formal dinner (as she felt this to be). Crossing the room to a large wardrobe that sat against the wall, she opened it. She had never looked inside it before, but was delighted to find that it was filled to overflowing with gowns. They were very old fashioned, archaic even, but beautiful. Made of stiff brocades, velvets and silks, with yards and yards of fabric, richly laced and ornamented by fine lace and intricate embroidery, they were unlike anything she had ever worn, or dreamed of wearing, and yet--she glanced back at the plain dress laying on her bed--here they seemed fit. She began to pull them out, one by one, studying them. They looked as if they would fit her. Finally she chose one, the simplest gown of the collection, green, with gold laces across the bodice, and long sleeves that fell away at her elbows. The gold color was a little tarnished, and the velvet a little worn, but really it was in astonishingly good shape considering the state everything else was in.
She had some trouble figuring out how to put it on, but eventually got everything in place as it was supposed to be (she hoped), and sat down at the dressing table to brush her hair. Sitting there before the mirror, in that room and in that dress, she felt different--as if she had stepped back in time; as if she was different. She braided a portion of her hair and wound the braids around her head like a crown, leaving the rest to stream down her back. Looking in the mirror, she had to admit she looked well: a delicate color was in her milky cheeks, and her deep grey eyes shone. But something was missing--some ornament. Looking around she saw the vase of roses--white roses, blooming and fragrant. Picking one exquisite, half-open blossom, she tucked it securely into her coronet of hair. Well, she thought, that will have to do.
Alone she slowly descended the grand old stairway, and paced through the shadowy hall. She knew where the dining room was already from her explorations and it did not surprise her to see the warm glow of firelight coming from it.
Pausing at the doorway, she surveyed the room. The long table was already set, with food spread over it, and china and crystal. He was there, too, standing by the fireplace, one arm leaning on the mantle, his eyes on the flames. Looking at him, Mariana was struck once again by the incongruity of his seeming man-beast mixture.
He wore a suit of clothes from the same time as her dress, very fine, but ill-fitting, as if cut for someone else entirely. They did not sit well on his animal-like form--but his stance was uniquely human.
As if sensing her gaze, he glanced up, casually at first, and then again, quickly this time, and stared. She blushed slightly, suddenly very self-conscious. "I'm sorry, I found it in my room," she said. "I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not," he said. "You may use anything you want in this house." Then he stretched out one hand towards her, and gestured to the table with the other. "Would you care to dine, my lady?" he asked with a bow.
Marianna had good cause to appreciate the courtliness of his manners that night. He served her himself, and when they were settled and began to eat he asked her, "You told me that your father was sick. It wasn't serious, I trust?"
"I don't believe so," she replied. "He was recovering when I left--but it had been two weeks since he first came home, and he had been unable to tell his story." She described how her father got lost coming out, and how she had been the first to see him when he came.
"So that's how that happened," he murmured. "I had wondered. He seemed so positive that one of his dogs would be first."
"Ordinarily he would be right. They always run when they hear his horse--only this time it was me."
"This time it was you," he echoed softly, staring across the table at her with glowing eyes. "Are you sorry, Marianna?"
She flushed at the sudden question, her eyes falling before his, and he threw up his hand. "Don't answer that," he said. "I shouldn't have asked. Forgive me, please."
When dinner was over he took her to a sitting room where another fire was laid, and played for her. His furred and clawed hand looked like they should be awkward plucking the strings of a small harp, but they moved with skill and grace. The music made her want to laugh and weep at the same time and she wanted it go on forever, but all too soon he laid it down. Then they both stared at the dancing flames for several minutes. "Tell me of your childhood," he said finally. "Please. I want to hear a story of happy times--it has been so long since I heard any, or knew any myself."
So she told him. She told him of her father and mother and the house where they lived. She told him of her many siblings, and the games they had played as children; of the antics her little brothers got into, and her sister Brianna's endless stream of boyfriends. As she did so, the Beast's face slowly relaxed, and his eyes lost, for a time, their haunted look. Only once did he interrupt her, when she began to describe her older sisters by telling him, "They're the really beautiful ones--"
"They're the beautiful ones?" he asked with some astonishment.
"Why yes," she replied innocently. "I always wanted to look like them, especially Alanna." Then something in the quality of his gaze made her blush again. "I know I'm a lot better looking than I used to be, but if you saw them you'd realize that I'm not really much in comparison." He didn't reply so she went on again, weaving a story of her family and their home life. When at last she fell silent the fires had burnt down to a great glowing bed of embers.
After several long moments, he sighed and stirred. Looking up he saw her watching him, and smiled (or she thought he smiled). "What do you want?" he asked her--and it was not as if was demanding an explanation, but rather offering a gift.
"Well," she said slowly, "I have so many questions--about this house, and about you, and the food, and the magic."
"No." The world was harsh and uncompromising and the old fierceness and melancholy settled back on him.
"But only if you could…."
"I can't tell you. I can't tell you, and you mustn't ask. But only this: something terrible happened here, a long time ago--something that sprang from one heartless act--and ever since then there has been a curse on this place, and a curse on me." He transferred his gaze gloomily back to the coals. "I am accursed," he whispered, "and I have suffered more bitterly than death itself."
Marianna set silent, tears standing in her eyes. He looked back at her, and his expression softened somewhat. "I pray that the day will never come that you count yourself accursed on my behalf, Marianna," he said. "If you don't already, that is. I am sorry that you and your father were dragged into this. I would have prevented it if I could."
"I know," she whispered, and stretched out her hand to him in comfort. Hesitantly, he took it, and they sat that way together in silence until all the embers died out.
That was the beginning. Throughout the rest of that spring, and the golden summer months that followed, Marianna and her Beast walked and talked and ate together for many hours each day. At first he seemed hesitant to intrude on her much, but soon Marianna came to expect him as he waited for her every morning in the breakfast room, or sometimes even at the foot of the stairs, to watch her make her morning walk down. She had taken to wearing the dresses in her wardrobes daily, after that night. They were a little heavy and cumbersome, at first, but they just seemed to fit here, and she took an enjoyment in them that she had never really had from the pretty clothes at home. Then, with further exploration, she found some summer gowns, folded carefully in a deep cedar chest, in layer within layer of tissue paper. How they had escaped the ravages of time she knew not, but they had for the most part. The lace was a little yellowed, and they smelled musty until she took them all outside to air, but the colors remained bright and unfaded, and the fabric untouched by moths. She felt like they were a gift to her, from across time, and wore them with glee.
As the days went by, Marianna noticed that the Beast seemed to grow progressively gentler, and happier, and somehow younger. He began to laugh--at first occasionally, and then often, and he walked more upright, with a lighter step, and the sadness was not often in his eyes. Soon, she forgot that the Beast was a beast at all, remembered only that he was her Friend.
The name came about one morning soon after their initial dinner together. They were walking together in the garden when she suddenly asked, "What do I call you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What can I call you? You won't tell me any name, but I must have something I can call you by."
He considered deeply, his head bent low. "As you say. I have no name--now. But if you would like to call me something, then may call me your Friend."
"Friend." She tried it out doubtfully. "Is that all?"
"That is all."
"Well then, I suppose it will do."
And Friend he remained.
One day he came to her, bringing a large box covered in wine-colored velvet. Inside were jewels of the sort Marianna had only heard about: earrings and necklaces and bracelets and even one coronet, intricately worked in gold and silver, and encrusted with jewels of many kinds. She gasped when she saw them.
"Oh, I could not!" she cried. "They're--exquisite," she reached out a hand as if to touch them, and then drew it back, "but I could not. They don't belong to me."
"They belong to me," he replied. "And I want to give them to you."
"Please," he said softly, insistently. "I want to give you something, and this is little enough for all that you have given up for me. They need cleaning," he added, "but I think I can find something for that, if you want to do it. It would… it would give me pleasure to see you wear them."
There was nothing she could do but accept. She took them in her hands wonderingly. "Where did they come from?" she asked.
"They--they once belonged to a very great lady," he replied. "But she has not had need of them for many years. They are mine indeed," he added, as she sent him a questioning glance. "I came by them honestly, and you need feel no guilt about taking them."
She carried them back to her room, and true to her word, he produced a small jar of some cleaning substance, and with that and old rags, she soon polished them into shining splendor again, and wore them to dinner in the evenings, feeling more than ever like some princess out of a fairy tale.
In her explorations around the old house, Marianna penetrated deeper and deeper into its lower levels. She found the large deserted kitchens, where obviously nothing had been cooked for a long time, and a rabbit's warren of pantries and storage rooms, mostly empty or filled with discarded trash. Only the wine cellar seemed complete, and covered in a thick, undisturbed layer of dust. Where then did the wine so often at their table come from? She knew there would be no answer to that, either.
It was with great satisfaction that she finally discovered the cleaning supplies. They were filthy themselves, of course, but at least intact, and surely soap didn't go bad. The fact was, Marianna had the cleaning bug. She had already began to throw back the long drapes, letting light into many rooms that hadn't seen it in years. She opened windows and doors, bringing in fresh air. But the problem with light was that it showed all the dirt and dust, and having been raised in a clean house by a meticulous housekeeper, she could not feel satisfied until she had done something about it.
There was one room in particular that she loved--a little sitting room, or parlor, that opened right out into the roses. It had been beautiful once, and she was determined to make it that way again. Dressed in her old travelling frock and with a scrap of fabric around her hair, she fetched a bucket of water from the stream outside, and set to work.
It was while she was scrubbing away at the floor, humming softly to herself, that the Beast discovered her. She jumped at the sound of his voice, resounding with an angry growl around the room. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
She looked up and stared, drawing back. "I--I'm--" she stammered.
He strode into the room, and grasped her by the forearm, pulling her to her feet. "Do you think I brought you here to work and clean for me?" he demanded.
"No, of course no, but--"
"Well I didn't!" he snapped. "Stop it immediately! I won't have you doing such things." And he turned to leave.
Drawing her arm back, tears in starting in her eyes, Marianna began to turn away too, and then suddenly her eyes flashed and she threw her shoulders back. "You can't tell me what to do!" she snapped.
He stopped and turned back, astonishment on his face. "What?"
"You told me I could do whatever I wanted here, and I could have whatever I wanted, and I want this room, but I can't use it when it's filthy like this, and besides, I wanted to clean it, I like having something to do--just sitting around and looking pretty gets boring sometimes, you know. So what if I decided to scrub the floor?" she flung at him. "Does that mean I'm not good enough to eat fancy dinners with you any more?"
As she spoke, the look of anger faded from his eyes, to be replaced by remorse and laughter. He held up his hand. "Truce!" he cried. "I didn't mean that. You know I didn't mean that. I just--I don't want you to think that you have to work for your keep."
"Well, I don't," she replied, a little stiffly, nodding her head, and then a reluctant twinkle appeared in response to him. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to put up with all this dust just to please you."
He looked around the room. "I'm sorry. I should have thought of that. I've just--grown used to it, I guess. No one's cleaned these rooms for a very long time."
"My room was clean," she offered softly.
"Well that--that was another matter." Then his eyes shifted to her arm, which she still cradled in the other. "Did I hurt you?" His voice sharpened again in sudden concern.
She looked down at it, and let go, stretching it out. "Not much," she murmured.
He came back to her, taking her hand softly between his two hairy ones. She saw, with surprise, the sparkle of tears in his eyes. "How can I apologize to you?" he asked softly.
"It's all right." She reached out her hand to touch his cheek comfortingly, and he closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Then he opened them, looked into the smoky depths of hers for a moment, and was gone.
From then on Marianna was allowed to clean to her heart's content, and although the great mansion was much too large for one little woman, bit by bit its rooms began to grow brighter and fresher, and now at last laughter echoed against its walls again.
Something else happened to Marianna over the spring and summer, something that she did not speak to her new Friend about. She began to have dreams--not the sort of ordinary, mixed up, unpredictable dreams she usually had, but repeated ones, over and over again, and very real and vivid they were.
They had started, she thought, the night of her first dinner with the Beast, although perhaps even before then, in little glimpses, on those nights she fell asleep listening to the music. As the months went by they seemed to grow more frequent and real, and when she went to sleep at night she didn't know if she hoped for or dreaded them.
She dreamed about a man. A young man, and handsome, with thick brown hair that curled around his neck and fell over his brow, and laughing brown eyes. He was tall and strong and full of a vitality that seemed so real that when she woke up she could at first scarcely realize that it was only a dream. In her dreams, they were at the house, but not fallen down and decayed as now, but rather bright and new--the way it should have been, the way it had once been, she felt sure. The gardens outside were manicured, and the gates stood wide open, leading to orchards and parks and boulevards beyond. She and the mysterious man rode together, walked together, danced together in the ball room. They talked of a thousand things and laughed a thousand laughs. Then every dream, as her sleep grew lighter, he would take her hands in his and look pleadingly into her eyes with his own--his eyes--what was it about his eyes that seemed so familiar?--and whisper, "Stay with me, Marianna."
"I want to stay," she would tell him, as the dream began to fade and she began to wake up. "I want to stay, but I can't… I can't." And then she would immerge into a foggy awakeness and lie there wondering what had happened until full awareness came back to her.
As the summer progressed the ending of the dream changed a little, so that now the man came and took her in his arms; and she longed to be in his arms. Always she would hope he would kiss her; would wait trembling for the moment, but just as he drew her close, it would begin to fade, and she would hear his voice again, urgently saying, "Why do you leave me, Marianna? Why won't you love me?" And just as she slipped into consciousness she would hear her own voice whispering back, "But I do…."
Needless to say she did not discuss them with her Friend, although sometimes she had the impulse to do so--to ask him if he thought that they might be a part of whatever enchantment possessed the place. But she knew without being told that the subject would be sure to pain him immensely, so she said nothing. Instead, getting up in the morning after a particularly vivid night time encounter, she would give herself a shake and say, "It's just a dream, Marianna! Forget about it!"
"It's this house," she muttered to herself on more than one occasion, while getting dressed in the morning. "It's my fascination with this house that makes me want to see what it was like in its heyday, and so my imagination is supplying that, that's all. Instead of day dreaming it I'm night dreaming it."
As for the nameless young man… she smiled to herself. "Just wishful thinking, I guess," she decided.
One pleasant afternoon late in the summer, Marianna and her Friend sat together in the shade of an old oak tree that spread its benevolent branches over much of the south lawn. The lawn itself, of course, was very overgrown, but she didn't care about that. It had been claimed by wildflowers, and she loved wildflowers. She had taken off her shoes to wade through the long grass, and that was where the Beast had found her, and they fell to talking.
They had been talking about--oh, nothing really--little, inconsequential things, with the casual ease of close friends who need very little to make a good conversation, and no little laughter. Marianna leaned back against the broad trunk, and sighed deeply, looking out over the field. She made a remarkably pretty picture as she sat there amid the flowers, her face flushed with happiness, her smoky-blue gown intensifying her eyes and her skin, while rosy bare toes, a little grass stained, peeped out from under its hem. A silver net she had found bound the thick coils of her hair, but a breeze was the stirring little wisps about her face. It is perhaps not surprising that the man within the Beast lost his head a little.
When his hand first touched hers, she did not react, thinking little of it, but then she heard her named whispered, and turned her head slightly, and realized that he was bending over her, closer and closer, his eyes burning with purpose. He's going to kiss me, she thought with shock. Although she was unable to tell what she thought about this, inadvertently her head jerked back, her eyes widening in alarm. The movement was slight, but it was enough to bring him to his senses. He pulled back and sprang to his feet, taking his furry head between his hands. His mouth opened and closed again. "Forgive me," he finally got out, and then turned and almost ran back toward the house.
Marianna watched him go, pity churning her heart. Oh, that she could have given him the kiss that he so much wanted! She would have--with all her heart, for the affection and gratitude that she bore for him--but how was such a thing even possible? How could one even kiss a mouth like his? Then she felt angry at herself for thinking such things, for not yet being above considering his appearance. Hadn't she decided that such things did not matter between them? But--in her deepest heart of hearts she knew that they did matter. Oh, not in friendship, but in other things. Other more precious things. He was not, in the last analysis, a man. What he was or where he came from she had long since given up trying to figure out, but she did feel sure that as a woman, she could give her heart only to a flesh-and-blood man.
The happiness had gone from the day after that. She made her way back to the house, and upstairs, where she sat by her window with a book but did not read. Her thoughts and emotions were so mixed up, and her concern for her Friend so real, that even when it came time to go down to dinner she had not yet sorted it out.
She wondered if he would even be there that night, but he was. Their greeting was awkward and constrained, and they ate mostly in silence. Trying to put him at ease, Marianna several times tried to start some strain of conversation, but his answers were monosyllabic. Finally she gave up. I'll ask him to play after supper, she thought. That should shake him out of it.
But when she made her request in the sitting room later, he shook his head. "Not tonight," he said. "I have--I have something I want to talk to you about."
Worry gripped her heart, but she looked at him calmly enough, questioningly.
He stood up abruptly, and began to stride around the room as if too full of nervous energy to contain himself. For several minutes there was silence, and she sat in her chair with her hands folded, waiting. Finally, he turned to her and asked, "Have you been happy here with me, Marianna?"
She flushed a little. "You know I have," she answered steadily.
That seemed to please him, but he went back to pacing. "Are you…" a long pause, "are you happy enough to want to stay here with me?"
She looked at him in confusion. "Of course I'm going to stay here with you," she said. "That's the whole point, isn't it?"
"No," he said impatiently. "I mean--"
"If--If you didn't have to stay, if you could choose to stay or go, would you be willing--would you want to stay with me anyway?"
Her confusion increased. "I don't understand. What is it that you are trying to ask me, my Friend?"
For once the title did not seem to please him and he turned his head away, as he always did when speaking of his own emotions. "If you didn't realize before that I love you I'm sure you do now," he said. "It seems impossible to me that every man you've ever met hasn't fallen in love with you." A great crimson wave broke over Marianna's face, and she reached out her hands as if to stop him, but he continued heedlessly. "I know I'm only a miserable beast," he said, his cultured voice grown rough with emotion, "but I have a heart as true as any man's, and it will always be yours." He forced himself to face her, and took her hands gently, going down on his knees at her feet. "Marianna," he whispered desperately, "sweet Marianna, please will you marry me?"
Then the blush receded, and her face grew pale, and she shut her eyes, trembling. He let go of her hands, stood up and walked away quickly. For a few moments he stared pointlessly at the darkened window, and then said, in a carefully controlled voice, "It's all right, you don't have to say anything. Your face has answered for you."
Marianna put her hands to her face as the tears began to slide helplessly out from under her eyelids, and her whole body shook with suppressed sobs. She must of made a pitiful sight, because a few minutes later she heard him say, in a very gentle and much more natural tone, "Don't cry, my darling, not for my sake. I don't ever want to make you cry." She took her hands from her face and accepted the handkerchief he brought her, wiping them away rather futilely.
"I'm sorry," she managed to whisper.
"Don't be. It was unfair of me to put you in such a position. And I wasn't really expecting, you know--just hoping."
Staring at the sodden bit of cloth in her hand, she said, "I wish… I wish--"
He cut her off. "Let's not wish anymore tonight. I've had had all I can take, I think." She hesitantly raised her gaze to him at last. He met her eyes for a moment, then turned away. "I'm going to bed," he said, sounding very tired. "Tomorrow we'll pretend this never happened."
That night, when at last she fell asleep, she dreamed that the man came to her, and pled with her, asking her to marry him, asking her why she was breaking his heart. Now it was not only his eyes that haunted her, but his voice, too. Even there, in dream world, she could do little but cry.
© 2011 Copyright held by the author.