The story of Beauty and her terrible Beast, the story of love and sorrow and mystery, almost always fails to mention the most important part. No one knows exactly who it was who cursed the Beast, or why he was cursed. No one knows how Beauty came to love such an ugly creature. Falling in love is only ever a small part of the whole story. There is always that which happens afterward, and that which came before. Let me tell you the tale of beast in Beauty and beauty in Beast. Let me tell you the true story.
It is very hard to tell exactly when a story properly begins. There are so many places one could start, but I believe the best place to start is in the raised beds of Granton Castle garden, where a slim young woman with plaited black hair and a very dirty dress once knelt in a bed of borage, uprooting the stubborn weeds in a last effort to beautify the garden before autumn’s first frost.
|View of St Bartholomew's Church, a photo by Sue H J Hasker on Flickr.|
No one thinks of the girl who weeds the garden. No one considers what she might hear. Lords and ladies tramp the paths, swishing their important robes, certain that they are far from attentive ears and prying eyes and saying all manner of things without thinking of the girl clipping the boxwood. That was how Cecily Lockton saw great enemies conversing cordially in the dark corners of hedges, great friends threatening each other with daggers in the sunken orchard, and discreet young ladies acting very indiscreetly indeed behind the topiaries. When she picked up her knife and spade and began to work, she entered a world where nothing is sacred.
On this day Cecily was working in the herber—Lady Mallkyn’s personal portion of the extensive gardens—not far from where Old Rivens (a white-haired man with a gnarled walking stick, witty tongue, and decades of garden lore packed into his head) was trimming up the privet hedges that had been wrecked by the pestilential garden faeries. The faeries always grew more unruly just before the hard cold set in; Rivens insisted that he could tell exactly when the first frost would come, just judging from the damage done to the forsythia bushes.
This part of the garden was full of raised beds arranged in a square pattern and interwoven with a short clipped hedge grown in a complicated pattern of knots. A few conventional bits of statuary and a fountain or two added to the purely artificial look of the place. Most of the gardens were quite like this one. The only one Cecily really liked was the little walled garden beside the village chapel. Ancient yew trees branched over it and in spring the ground was carpeted with bluebells and frothflowers. In summer you could smell the pungent scent of thyme from half a mile away.
She had been ripping up the pesky weeds for a few hours, every now and then sharing some humorous local anecdotes with Rivens, when Cecily thought she could hear murmuring sounds coming from behind the stone wall directly in front of her. It wasn’t the sound of water in the fountain, for that had mysteriously gone dry some time ago, and she didn’t think it sounded like any of the servants. The longer she listened, the more one of the voices sounded like Lord Geoffrey. It was not altogether unusual that the earl should be walking in his own garden, but she could not make out who he was talking to. She sat still, glancing up at Rivens to see if he had heard anything, but he was blithely lopping privet.
The placid silence of the garden was broken with the earl’s voice ringing out loud and clear over the wall, “I’m not having that boy in my castle!” Startled, Cecily could not help sitting up. Rivens, too, stopped his trimming to look around. No more sounds for a minute, and then the faintest whisper of what might have been sobbing. Knowing what she did of Lady Mallkyn’s ways, Cecily imagined that she must be trying to have her way. She grinned a little as she moved to the next bed, remembering the time when the lady insisted on the herber being planted over entirely with red orcepts and borage, much against her lord’s wishes and her gardener’s advice. She got her way in the end, however, with several well-placed fits of weeping and perhaps a few threats. Much to the detriment of this part of the landscape.
This conversation, however, seemed to be a bit more serious than orcepts. The indistinct murmurs continued to rise and fall, escalating at times into a deadly fervor, then mellowing till Cecily could hardly make them out. She heard snatches of words, “reputation,” “your sister,” “darling Geoffrey,” “indecent.” Curious, but of course not wishing to appear so, she continued to move down the line of beds closer to Rivens, who eyed her skeptically. “Ye’re not eavesdroppin’, I hope?” he whispered.
Cecily gave him a look of offended dignity and leaned in closer to catch the sounds. Suddenly a small iron gate slammed open and the earl, puffy and red-faced, waddled jerkily out and burst into a torrent of profanity. “You will always have your way, woman! I know there is no bargaining with you. You will have that loose-living coxcomb come here under my care. My care! The man who is almost directly responsible—” Sir Geoffrey proceeded to burst into an explosive fit of coughing. Lady Mallkyn stood in the gateway, looking wonderfully innocent in her starched veil and wimple, tearfully wringing her hands in a delicate handkerchief. Her green eyes were wet and swollen, but looked especially keen at that moment. It was the look of a cat, satisfied that it has gotten away with the best fish after all.
The earl, sobered by his cough, looked long and hard at his wife for a few moments, then collapsed onto a garden bench. “I suppose the boy must come here. There’s no getting around you. Never mind my objections! But I can hardly tolerate him as a nephew, how much less as a son. He’ll be the ruin of us.” His voice was defeated and melancholy.
The countess began to simper. “Geoffrey, darling, you know it’s what your sister would have wished! You know how much she wanted you to know him. To have her son safely under our care after her death would be exactly what she wanted. And I am in such need of company….”
“I know what you’re wanting him for. You’ve got your own plans hidden up your sleeve, haven’t you? Another pretty bird to add to your collection.” The lady looked hurt and indignant. “Ah, well. You will have your own way. There’s nothing I can say against you.”
Cecily could not imagine what they were talking about. She had never heard of Geoffrey having a sister, much less a nephew. And why was he talking as if the man would not be welcome at Granton? Just then her metal mattock fell and clanged against a rock. Lady Mallkyn flinched, gave a piercing glare to the girl, then turned meaningfully to Geoffrey. He pivoted on his seat, looked the gardener over, and harrumphed. “Best get out, girl; these matters are not for your ears.” He glanced up and noticed Rivens. “Best that you shouldn’t go repeating things, eh, old man?” Cecily ceased weeding, nearly finished after all, and left the herber by another little gate with the Rivens close behind.
“Old man indeed!” he wheezed in his rough, low voice that sounded like an ancient pair of bellows.
She let him catch up and then whispered, “What do you think of that? What could they have been talking about?”
“Ah, it is best not to talk of such things, girlie. What’s dropped by the eaves should stay there.”
Cecily smiled and rubbed an itchy bit of dirt off her nose. “You’re far too cautious, you know.”
“Aye. How do ye think my hair has had time to get as white as it has? ‘Twasn’t by takin’ chances and liberties.”
With little surprise Cecily noted two or three other servants hovering nearby, supposedly working and running errands, but with ears turned rather pointedly towards the wall and the little gate near the bench. Much as the vicar might rail against eavesdropping as a nasty vice, it was just too much of a rare treat to avoid overhearing a conversation like that one. No doubt it would be fodder for gossips for weeks to come. A few words filtered out as Cecily and Rivens continued down the garden path to other duties, “Wretched woman,” “darling,” “of course.”