The arrival of Mme. Nettoyage made all the difference in the world. Now Belle could focus on the things she loved – her teaching and her family – without the stress of household drudgery. Mme. Nettoyage came on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays to clean the house thoroughly, wash all the clothes, and cook a big dinner. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Belle just did basic tidying up. If there were leftovers from the dinner Mme. Nettoyage had made the night before, they ate those; if not, Belle just threw together something simple and easy.
During the week, she taught school in the morning, then spent time with the baby when she got home. Belle's teaching was going well: the students were progressing at a remarkable rate in reading, writing and math, and they were eager to read books and discuss the stories afterwards. And Alain was thriving, growing quickly and discovering new things every day.
On Saturdays, they spent time together as a family. Maurice had invented an ingenious pouch that Belle could strap on to carry the baby in front, leaving her hands free. Sometimes she and Gaston would go riding in the woods – no galloping or jumping, since Belle had the baby with her, but they would explore all the secret glades that Gaston knew, or get off the horses and track silently to see the wildlife. Little Alain loved to look at birds, waterfalls, and all the other sights of the forest.
Other times, they would take a carriage to Clermont-Ferrand. There they would browse through the bookstore for new novels for Belle to read herself, action/adventure stories she and Gaston could enjoy together, and picture books for the baby. Belle also enjoyed picking up books about other countries; Gaston had promised that when Alain was older, they would take a big trip to whatever exotic place Belle wanted to see. After the bookstore, they would go to other stores and buy hunting supplies for Gaston, or items for the horses, or clothes for Alain, who seemed to outgrow them every day. After shopping, they would have a relaxing lunch in the café.
On Sundays, Maurice came to dinner. He was doing very well for himself now; his woodcutting invention was now being used in all the local villages, and he was planning his own trip to Paris to meet Jacques de Vaucanson, who was going to introduce him to important investors and inventors in the capital and help him expand to all of France. But lately, Maurice was devoting most of his inventing efforts to building ingenious toys to amuse his little grandson, whom he adored. Every Sunday, Belle would put effort into making a special family dinner – she did like the satisfaction of cooking a meal for her family, as long as she didn't have the pressure of doing it every day. She and Gaston also began to socialize more with their other married friends – LeFou and Amelie, Jacques and Monique, Emile and Cecile, Gerard and Josette. Life settled into an enjoyable routine.
But one day in November, when Alain was six months old, Monique didn't show up as usual. Belle was dressed and ready to go, and she worried she was going to be late. "Where can she be?" she fretted.
Then there was a knock at the door. It was Jacques. "Belle, Monique sent me to tell you that she's sick," he said apologetically. "She can't watch Alain today."
"Oh," Belle said sympathetically. "I hope she feels better soon! Does she need me to take Anne later?"
"No, that's all right. Monique's sister took Anne to her house for the day, so Monique could get some rest."
"Oh, that's good," Belle said. "But I'll stop by to see Monique later in the afternoon. I'll bring her some chicken soup."
"Thanks," Jacques said. "She'll appreciate that." He left.
"What are you going to do now?" Gaston asked.
"I don't know!" Belle said, trying to think. "It's Tuesday. Mme. Nettoyage won't be here today. And I'm late for school as it is!" She looked at Gaston. "Look, you'll just have to watch him today."
"Me?" Gaston was startled.
"Why not? You're his father. You play with him, don't you?"
"Yeah, I play with him – but you're always right there! You're the one who takes care of him if he needs something!" Gaston protested. "What if he starts crying and won't stop?" He was nervous at the very idea of being alone with Alain. Belle was the mother – she was the expert on taking care of him.
Belle sighed. "Gaston, it's not that hard! He'll nap for a couple of hours anyway. When he wakes up, just play with him till I get home."
"But what if—"
"Look," Belle said in exasperation. "If he starts crying and you really can't handle it, just take him to Amelie's or Cecile's – I'm sure they wouldn't mind watching him for an hour or two. Okay?"
"Why can't you take him there now?" Gaston suggested.
"Because I'm already late as it is!" Belle said impatiently. "Besides, he's sleeping now. If I try to take him somewhere, he'll wake up and be cranky. Just deal with it for today, all right? After school I'll ask Amelie if she can watch him for the next few days until Monique is better. But right now, I really have to go!"
Gaston took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll watch him."
"Thanks," Belle said, and hurried out the door.
For the first two hours that Belle was gone, Alain slept quietly in the cradle. Gaston began to breathe easier. Watching a baby wasn't so hard after all, he decided, starting to feel a bit cocky.
Then, at 10:00, Alain woke up crying. Gaston had been sitting at the table cleaning his rifle, and was startled by the sound. What should he do now? True, he often played with his son, but as soon as the baby started crying, Gaston would immediately hand him over to Belle, and she magically calmed him down and knew just what he wanted. But Belle wasn't here now. Gaston began to panic. He had no idea what to do.
Then he remembered what Belle had said: if Alain started crying and Gaston couldn't handle it, he should bring the baby to Amelie or Cecile's house. Gaston breathed a sigh of relief. He was off the hook.
He scooped up Alain and started for the door – but then stopped as realization struck him. If people saw him rushing through the village with a crying baby, they'd run up to him and ask what was wrong, if there was an emergency or the baby was injured. And what would he say? "No, everything's fine. It's just that the baby is crying and I don't know what to do." He'd look like a complete idiot! It would be utterly humiliating.
He gritted his teeth. No. He was Gaston! The strongest, bravest man alive! He could hit a bulls-eye from an impossible distance, climb mountains, tame wild horses, lift the heaviest weights. He had even fought wolves single-handedly! He could handle anything!
Even something as terrifying as a crying baby.
"It's okay! Don't cry!" he said anxiously to the baby. He tried to think. Why did babies cry? Sometimes because they were hungry…but Belle had given Alain a good feeding before she left. Along with nursing, she had recently started giving him mashed banana and oatmeal, and he'd had quite a few spoonfuls of it this morning. Belle had said he wouldn't be hungry again till after she got back.
Then he had another thought. Hesitantly, he pulled back the corner of the cloth fastened around the baby's bottom, and peered in. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. That's it, he thought with a grimace.
Well, it wasn't the pleasantest of tasks…but then again, he did muck out his horses' stalls every day, he reminded himself. Alain's tiny "output" was nothing compared to what Tristan and Etoile could produce. He could get through this.
Gaston went to get a rag and dipped it in a bucket of water. He clumsily wiped off the baby's bottom, then threw the rag and cloth away. He found the drawer full of cloth squares that Belle used for diapers. He took one, put it on the table, set the baby on top of it, then folded the front up between the baby's legs and over his tummy. So far, so good. Then he frowned. How to keep it in place? Belle used pins, but there was no way Gaston was going to try to fasten sharp pins next to the baby's tender skin when he had no idea what he was doing. Much too dangerous!
He thought a moment, then lit up, having an idea. He went to the closet where he kept his fishing tackle and hunting gear. With his hunting knife, he cut a length of twine. Then he came back to Alain, wrapped the twine all around his tummy and back and between his legs, and tied it securely in an expert knot. Pleased with his ingenuity, he stepped back to admire his handiwork with satisfaction. That would hold the cloth in place!
Now that he was clean, Alain wasn't crying anymore. He looked at up at his father curiously. Gaston put a blanket on the floor and set the baby on it with some of his rattles and little toys. "There you go!"
He sat down in his chair and went back to cleaning his rifle. Seeing the baby watching him curiously, he began to talk as he worked. "See this, son? It's a rifle. A hunter's best friend. You'll have one too, when you're older. But you'll have to learn how to take care of it. That means cleaning it. First step is to unload it – that's very important. Otherwise you can accidentally shoot your foot off! Don't want that! Then you remove the bolt, and hold the muzzle up towards the light to inspect the bore…" He kept chattering away as he swabbed out the bore, cleaned the receiver and breechblock, and applied a coat of oil to the rifle. "All done! Now I just put it back together, see?" Gaston was enjoying himself now. The baby was a good audience, watching him with interest.
But then, out of the blue, Alain started crying again. His tiny face screwed up into wrinkles and he let out a wail. "What's wrong?" Gaston asked in concern, as though the infant could answer. He grabbed a rattle and shook it hopefully in front of the baby, but Alain only cried louder.
Gaston looked at him helplessly, feeling at a loss. What did Belle do when Alain started crying? He tried to think. She usually nursed the baby to settle him down, but that wasn't an option now, Gaston thought with a grimace. The baby's diaper had already been changed, so that wasn't the problem…what else was there to do?
The only other thing Gaston recalled Belle or Monique doing to soothe the baby was to rock him and sing to him. Should he try that?
Awkwardly, Gaston picked up the screaming baby. "Take it easy, son!" he said anxiously. He struggled to remember what songs the women sang to calm Alain down. They were mostly sentimental lullabies about butterflies and moonbeams and such. But Gaston had never paid close attention. He didn't know any lullabies. The only songs he really knew well were drinking songs.
Still…a song was a song, right? "Okay, Alain, pay attention!" Gaston said. He cleared his throat. Bouncing the wailing child slightly, he began to sing:
"Let's be jovial, fill our glasses,
Madness 'tis for us to think
How the world is rules by asses—"
He broke off guiltily. Belle probably wouldn't approve of him using that kind of language in front of the baby. "Pretend you didn't hear that," he told Alain. He tried another one:
"Give me but a friend and a glass, boys,
I'll show you what 'tis to be gay,
I'll not care a fig for a lass, boys,
Nor love my brief youth away…"
The song caught Alain's attention. He was used to Belle and Monique's sweet, high voices singing to him. Gaston's deep, rich baritone was a novelty. He stopped crying to listen.
Gaston grinned at the baby. "You like that, huh? A lot better than all those silly songs about buttercups and fairies your mama sings, right?" He shifted the baby in his arms. "One day you'll be old enough to go to the tavern with me. We'll have a time then, won't we?"
He launched into another drinking song. Forgetting that lullabies were supposed to be quiet, he belted it out lustily at the top of his lungs, just like he did at the tavern, but the baby didn't seem to mind. After walking around and singing for awhile, Gaston sat down in the rocking chair, rocking as he continued to sing.
Alain yawned and blinked sleepily. Gaston yawned too. Taking care of a baby was tiring! But Alain seemed calm now. It would probably be all right if Gaston just rested his eyes for a moment…
O o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o oo o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
As soon as school was over, Belle hurried home, hoping everything was all right. She felt a little guilty leaving Gaston alone with the baby. She half-expected to return to find Alain screaming and crying, and Gaston frazzled and angry at her for putting him in this position.
But as she approached the house, all seemed silent. Gaston must have taken her advice and brought Alain to Amelie's or Cecile's house, she thought.
She entered the living room…and stopped, a smile slowly spreading over her face. Gaston was in the rocking chair, asleep. Nestled comfortably in the crook of his arm was Alain, also asleep. They looked utterly peaceful. Belle's heart swelled with love for them. There was just something so sweet about a big, muscular, tough guy tenderly holding a tiny baby. Then she noticed with amusement that Alain had some kind of rope tied around his diaper. Apparently Gaston had found his own way of doing things.
She walked over and kissed Gaston's cheek. He stirred slightly but didn't wake. Then she gently kissed the top of the baby's head.
She was about to go into the kitchen to fix lunch…but then paused. There was no rush, she decided. When Gaston awoke, they could have soup and sandwiches. That only took a few minutes to fix.
But right now, her two boys were napping peacefully, the house was clean (thanks to Mme. Nettoyage's efforts the previous day), and all was blissfully quiet. Belle realized, with a little thrill, that she actually had a rare moment to herself. Why not take advantage of it?
She put on a pot of water, and when it boiled, she made herself a cup of tea. Then she went to fetch the book she was in the middle of reading. She sat down in the overstuffed armchair, took a sip of tea, and set the cup on the little table next to her.
Before opening the book, she took a moment to simply sit and marvel at how unexpectedly her life had turned out. Two and a half years earlier, she had been miserable. She had felt like an outcast in the village, she was terribly lonely, her life seemed unbearably dull, and the only pleasure she had was in reading. She longed for adventure, but there seemed no way to get it outside of her books. And she was being pestered by a man whom she thought was the most arrogant, conceited, selfish, brainless oaf she'd ever met, she recalled, smiling in amusement.
Yet now, here she was: married to that very man, and feeling more of a connection with him that she'd ever felt with anyone else…a man who truly loved her and appreciated her for who she was. She had a fulfilling, rewarding career that she enjoyed, in which she was making a difference and passing her love of books on to a new generation. She was still living in the tiny village – yet now she was accepted, and had good friends she could count on. And now, she had a baby, a new little life to nurture and watch grow into a real person, with his own unique personality and ideas.
She used to believe that adventure could only be had by traveling to far-off places. But now, she realized that life itself was the biggest adventure of all. You never knew what would happen next.
She gazed fondly at her husband and son, dozing in the rocking chair. Then, with a sigh of contentment, Belle opened her book and began to read.
Author's note: And...that's the end! Before I go on, I must show you an ADORABLE photo that perfectly illustrates this last chapter. It's from a wonderful Dutch BATB site run by Dutch FF-Lover. Go to w w w . beautyandthebeast . nl slash germany59 . htm (but without any spaces, and a real slash instead of the word "slash.")
Now, then: I just want to a say a huge, heartfelt "Thank you!" to everyone who reviewed this story (either the first time this was posted, or the re-posted one). When I first started writing this story, I was afraid that people would throw rotten tomatoes at me for daring to pair up these two! So I really appreciate readers being willing to give it a chance and suspend disbelief. I'm very happy that so many people liked the story, and especially that they felt that I kept Belle and Gaston in character, because that was the real challenge. I'm so glad it worked. Thanks so much for all the comments - they mean a lot to me!
This story now has a sequel called "This Idyllic Scene"- click on my profile if you want to check it out.. :) The sequel takes place 13 years later, so just pretend that time goes really fast over these next couple of weeks, LOL.
Well, I guess that's about it. Thanks again so much to all readers and reviewers! You rock!