Chapter One: In Which Our Story Begins
Once upon a time, in the beautiful French city of Amiens, there lived a wealthy and happy merchant. Though his wife was long dead, he was content because she left him with four wonderful children. The two oldest were twin girls on the cusp of womanhood, of proper manners and proud temperament. The middle child was the merchant's only son, who was studying at University in Paris. Now, the youngest daughter was the merchant's favorite child, though he would rather lose all his fortune and die before admit it and wound the feelings of the others. She had the loveliest golden tresses of all the village women, and she was sweet-natured in all things. She was aptly named: Beauty.
The older sisters were very pleased to be wealthy, and reveled in attending parties, balls, concerts, plays, and the like, no matter how far they need travel to attend them. They dressed in their finest every day and laughed at their sister, for she tended to stay at home with her father and read books rather than mingle with good society.
A great many eminent gentlemen courted the eldest daughters, for they were pretty enough, but being rich was their greatest asset. Beauty, too, was made addresses to, but she unfailingly declined their offers of marriage, claiming that she was much too young to marry. In truth, Beauty didn't like any of the preening peacocks that came to call. She often felt that they were too dull and shallow for her liking, and felt a pang of lonesomeness for her absent brother, who was always engaging and could make her laugh no matter what. No doubt he would have dozens of stories from Paris. She wished that the men who courted her were more like her brother Brendan, for he was sincere, intelligent, and kind.
It was known throughout the town that the merchant had a penchant for gambling, and so the gossip spread like wildfire when he lost his entire fortune at one go in an unlucky card game. He told his daughters, shame-faced and teary-eyed, that they must move into a smaller house in the country, and he could no longer pay for Brendan's education. The older sisters wailed and bemoaned their fate, that they would no longer be among the social elite, and that they must all pawn their fine clothes and all but the most modest of belongings to pay the family's debts. Both sisters claimed that their suitors would marry them, and they need not suffer such a fate as poverty, but they were mistaken. Their lovers slighted and forsook them in their misfortune. Beauty, meanwhile, wrote a regretful letter to her brother explaining the calamity and requesting that he return home. She was at first very grieved at the loss of her good fortune, but she took one look at her poor father, who seemed greatly aged, and put on a brave face for him and went about packing what few items were left after the auction.
So the now poor and unhappy merchant and his three daughters moved into a small country house in the rolling wooded land in southern France. Not near enough to the sea nor any grand city for the twins' tastes. Their new home was small and thatched, and in need of much repair. And while the merchant went about the business of learning to make a living in the country, Beauty set herself to the household tasks, since they of course no longer had servants. She made many mistakes and it was hard for her at first, but she quickly learned the proper ways to cook, clean, and run a household. The older sisters applied themselves to gardening and husbandry, complaining loudly all the while.
It was many weeks before their brother could make his way to his new home. They saw him come up the dusty road, bags in hand, and they all ran out to greet him. Beauty was much taken aback at her initial sight of him, for it had been two years since she had last looked upon him and Brendan looked very much like a man.
"My sisters! You look more radiant than ever," exclaimed Brendan, embracing his older sisters with a smile. "Father…" He stood silent, for a minute, in front of the merchant who cleared his throat and clapped his son heartily on the back.
"I'm glad you are returned, my son." He said nothing more, but even Beauty could hear the silent apology in her father's voice.
"It's good to be with my family again," Brendan said noncommittally. His face brightened considerably when he looked upon Beauty, and they embraced with enthusiasm, Brendan even picking his little sister up and swinging her about joyfully.
"Beauty! Look how tall you are! Just look at you, the pretty little maid. Country life suits you."
"Paris must have suited you as well, brother! You've grown! And your hair is so much longer…" She pulled impishly at a long curling strand of his chestnut hair.
He smiled widely and ruffled her golden hair teasingly, and said, "Why in Paris it's the only way to wear it! If you are a young gentlemen, and your hair is not long? It speaks more ill of you than any lack of breeding ever could." The young man threw a small wink to Beauty, and turned again to face his family.
Beauty watched her brother with a smile as he acquiesced to the twins' pleas and told them of Paris fashions. She had missed him. She knew him so well. It must have pained him to receive the letter announcing his schooling in the city was over before its due time. But he put on a braver, happier face than she ever could! She admired him so; he would put to rest her father's guilt, and help her sisters adapt in this place that was so different, and where life was so hard.
In fact, Brendan did help, more even than his youngest sister had ever suspected. Not just in acquainting the family with their new life, but with turning their small, barren cottage into something more than livable. It fast became a home. He had taken a job in the village as a clerk at the local general store, and with the money from his pay, began to bring home to his sisters small luxuries he knew they missed.
For his eldest sister, he brought home one day a bolt of plain, soft cloth, and not much of it, though it was a pretty color and supple to the touch. For his second eldest sister, he brought home a wristlet of simple silver make, adorned with a single, river-smoothed stone the color of the night sky. And for his youngest sister, he kept her in good supply with the things he knew she would appreciate most.
The family had been getting along swimmingly for a few months, when just as the seasons were changing from warm to cool, a letter arrived for Beauty's father. She returned that day with her brother, having walked him back from the village when his day's work was finished. They approached the front door of the cottage, and Brendan opened the door for his sister. As she entered, he surreptitiously pressed a candle from the store into her hand. This was the fifth candle he had given her to read by at night. She was very grateful, for oil lamps were hard to come by and she often went without any light at all, reading by the window in the waning light until her eyes hurt from the squinting as the night descended. But they two siblings shared a passion for the written word, and he understood her need exactly.
They were greeted in the small parlor to the left of the entrance by their smiling, seated father, and their two sisters.
"Good news," Beauty's father said, holding up an opened envelope and a folded piece of parchment. As Beauty and her brother soon learned, in a joint narrative by her father and two sisters, a shipment of valuables their father had invested in had just arrived in a port on the Mediterranean. He would have to travel there to retrieve them, and when he did, "We will be served a new fortune, my children. It will not be near so much as we once had, but I promise you…Jubilation! Our fortune is remade!"
The very next morning, barely after the sun had crested the trees that surrounded the hills, the siblings stood outside their home and watched as their father hitched up a their only horse.
"Father, won't you take a cart along?" Brendan asked, for what was probably the fifth time. His father barely cast him a sideways glance.
"No. When I obtain our properties, I will hire a cart at the port. The cart we have is rickety and unreliable." Once their father had mounted, and had his traveling items secured to the horse's saddle, he looked down at his four children with fondness.
"I wish," he said, "to bring you each back a gift from the city. Tell me one thing you wish for, my children. After this venture, I am sure I will be able to afford it." Brendan, standing behind his sisters, cast a doubtful glance towards the ground. If this 'venture' was anything like the last one, they were going to end up not only poor, but seriously in debt. His first sister, filled with blind optimism, had already stepped up.
"Oh, dearest Father, bring me back some silk slippers and velvet hair ribbons. I am tired of looking like a milkmaid."
The second sister broke through her two sisters to look up at her father, batting her eyelashes. "Father, bring me back a brocaded dress! White, father, with glass beads sewn in!"
"White for purity, no doubt." Brendan muttered, wryly. She shot him a venomous look.
"Yes," she said, pointedly, through clenched teeth. Her father peered past her two taller sisters at Beauty.
"And you, ma chere Beauty. What is it you desire?" Beauty ducked her head a moment in thought, and looked up with most humble disposition at her father.
She contemplated only a moment before answering. "A fine reading lamp, father."
"Yes." She nodded. "And if we got a yoke for the horse, we could start a garden next spring."
Her father smiled indulgently, and nodded. Such a modest request. Such a sweet girl, his youngest Beauty. He would bring for her the finest lamp in the city. He readied to leave, when Beauty piped in, "Brendan, what would you like Father to bring back for you?"
Brendan said nothing for a long moment, and then looked and met his father's gaze, who had halfheartedly stopped to hear his son's request. They held a shared, wary look for a moment, Brendan's eyes conveying clearly his lack of faith in his father's ability to keep a hold on anything of value.
"If Beauty wants a garden, then I ask for a single rose, Father, to clip and plant beneath my sisters' windows," he said, quietly. "That is all I request from you." His father spared his son a momentary glance, nodded, tapped his heels against his horse's flanks, and started along the dusty path towards the sea.