March 3rd, 1751
Sofia's illness quickly worsened in the weeks following her collapse. She spent the majority of her time in bed as she no longer had enough energy to walk around for significant periods of time. Maurice and Belle never left her side for more than a few moments. Belle's lessons did not cease, however. Every evening, Sofia would lie in bed listening to Belle read books and recite the multiplication tables while Maurice made dinner for them.
On this particular morning, Sofia, who had grown concerned about the amount of time that her daughter had been spending indoors lately, had sent Belle outside to play. Maurice sat in a chair next to her bedside, holding his wife's hand as she ran her fingers through his hair.
"You're going grey, dolce," Sofia commented absent-mindedly.
"I am?" asked Maurice. He touched the top of his head worriedly.
"I think it looks rather distinguished actually. You should grow a moustache as well," said Sofia, brushing her hand against his lips. "You'd look cute with one."
"Perhaps I will," said Maurice, touching his face thoughtfully.
"Maurice, promise me you'll look after Belle. Promise me you'll make sure she marries a good man. I don't want her to be alone, and I definitely do not want her to be trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who treats her like a slave."
"I promise," he whispered. "I promise I will find her a good husband."
"You won't have to do much looking," said Sofia. "Belle will no trouble attracting men, believe me. Unfortunately there will be a lot of bad eggs in that lot. I want you to make sure that the man she eventually does marry is good, honourable, and loves her for more than just her looks."
"I'll do it," Maurice promised, giving his wife a comforting kiss on the cheek.
"This is the end, Maurice," said Sofia solemnly.
"I know," Maurice admitted tearfully as he pressed his face into Sofia's stomach.
"Please don't cry, dolce" whispered Sofia. "I don't like seeing you upset. I am not afraid of death any more. I have grown to accept my fate. We all have to go sometime. There are just so many things that I know I am never going to get to experience. You and I are never going to grow old together, I'm never going to cry at Belle's wedding, and I'm never going to hold my grandchildren in my arms."
"I'll give them an extra hug every time I see them, and I will tell them it's from their grandmama," promised Maurice.
"I love you so much, Maurice," said Sofia. "I am so happy I married you instead of that awful Aristide. I'm lucky I got out of that relationship while I still could. I made some terrible decisions in my youth. That's why I'm so worried about Belle. I won't be around to give her relationship advice in a few years. She could end up making an awful mistake. I made some awful decisions when I was younger. Marrying you, however, is one decision that I do not regret."
"But you had to give up your career," said Maurice. "I still feel bad about that. You could have been a world famous ballet dancer if it weren't for me."
"Trust me, Maurice, I'm much happier as a simple wife and mother than I ever was as a dancer," Sofia assured him. "I mean, I had to practice nine hours a day, I had to maintain a very meagre diet, and I got a new injury every week. My feet are still horribly disfigured."
"I think your feet are beautiful," said Maurice, squeezing his wife's hand.
"That's why I love you, Maurice," said Sofia. "You always know how to make me feel special."
"You could have had any man you wanted, and yet, you chose me," said Maurice. "I still can't believe it."
"But I didn't want any other man, Maurice," said Sofia, smiling. "I just wanted you. There isn't a single part of our marriage that I regret. I just wish we had more time together. Fifteen years wasn't nearly enough. And I wish we could have had Belle sooner. I hope our daughter can have a love like ours someday. I haven't told anyone this before, but when Belle was first born, I had this really strange feeling about her."
"What do you mean?" asked Maurice, his heart pounding.
"There was just something not quite right about her," said Sofia. "She didn't feel like my daughter. Thankfully, that feeling didn't last all that long. I love her more than anything else in the world now."
Maurice pursed his lips. He had never told Sofia about the night he had met the enchantress and the true story behind Belle's conception. He had always felt uncomfortable about this. Sofia had a right to know, but he had never been able to tell her. He was afraid that the news would break her heart. Perhaps she would be even be angry that it had taken him so long to tell her. Would she even believe him? But he had to do it, and if he didn't tell her now, she would probably never know.
"Sofia," he began, after taking a deep, hesitant breath. "There's something I need to tell you about-"
Belle bounded into the room carrying a big bouquet of daisies in her hands.
"I picked these for you, Mama," she declared, proudly showing the flowers to her mother.
"Did you steal these out of the Legrands' garden again?" asked Sofia, raising an eyebrow.
"Madame Legrand told me I could pick them! I asked her," Belle explained. "Do you like them?"
"They're beautiful, darling," said Sofia. "Tell Madame Legrand that I said thank you, okay?"
"I'll put them in some water," said Maurice. He took the flowers from his daughter and shuffled out of the room. Belle took her father's place in the chair next to Sofia's bedside.
"Belle, come here," ordered Sofia softly. "I want to hold my little girl in my arms."
Belle climbed into bed with her mother and rested her head on her shoulder. Sofia put her arm around Belle and lovingly stroked her daughter's hair.
"Promise me you'll be a good girl for Papa when I'm gone, Belle."
"I wish you wouldn't say things like that, Mama. You're going to get better. I know you will."
"Belle, we've talked about this," sighed Sofia.
"We shouldn't give up hope, Mama," said Belle.
"Oh, Belle. I love your optimism, darling, but I want you to think realistically," said Sofia, cupping her daughter's face with her palm. "Life isn't a storybook, you know."
"I know that, Mama," Belle admitted. "But that doesn't mean I can't dream."
"You know, Belle, you were born in this room."
"Uh-huh. On this very bed, in fact. I went through so much pain and heartbreak before I had you, tesorina, but you were worth every second of it," Sofia told her. "I just wish you had been born sooner. It breaks my heart to know that I am not going to be there to guide you on your journey into womanhood, but at least I got to spend eight and a half wonderful years with you."
"Don't talk like that, Mama," said Belle softly. "Think positively."
Sofia smiled weakly at Belle and brushed a stray piece of hair away from her daughter's face. She closed her eyes and nestled her head against her pillow. She had a contented smile spread over her face. Belle settled her own head on Sofia's chest. It took a few moments for her to realise that something was not quite right. Her mother's familiar heartbeat was gone. Belle sat back up immediately.
"Mama?" she whispered, gently patting Sofia's face. "Wake up, Mama."
It was no use. Her mother was gone. Belle sat on the bed staring down at Sofia's unresponsive body for a few more moments before the situation finally sunk in.
"Mama, no!" Belle screamed as she felt warm tears slide down her cheeks. She pressed her face against her mother's bosom. "Please don't leave me! I need you, Mama."
Maurice raced into the room, tore Belle off Sofia's body, and hugged his sobbing daughter to his chest as tears began to roll down his own cheeks.
Belle wrapped her arms around Maurice's stomach and rested her head on his shoulder as they watched six pallbearers carry the coffin containing Sofia's body to her final resting place. After the funeral service, Maurice had asked to have ten minutes alone with the body. He spent the next two and a half hours silently stroking Sofia's cheek as Belle watched him awkwardly. By the time he was finally ready to say good bye to her, the rest of the mourners had already left. The only people around were the pallbearers.
"Wait!" Maurice called. "Let me take one last look at her."
The pallbearers carefully placed the coffin on the ground and stepped away from it. Maurice took Belle's hand and led her slowly towards the coffin. After a few brief moments of hesitation, Maurice relinquished the grip he had on Belle's hand, knelt down, and slid the lid of the coffin open. A peaceful, happy smile was spread over Sofia's face. She held a bouquet of red roses, pink azaleas, and white daisies in her hands. Her long, blonde hair was tucked under a bright red bonnet that matched her dress. She had worn the dress at her wedding to Maurice, and had always claimed that it was her favourite item of clothing. Belle reached down and quickly touched her mother's ice cold hand. Maurice leaned into the coffin and planted a soft kiss on Sofia's lips. He stared at the body, as if he expected her to come back to life and ride off into the sunset with him.
"She looks so peaceful," he whispered. "I can't believe that she's really-"
Maurice stopped. He couldn't even bear to finish that sentence. His entire body started to shake. He burst into a loud wail and pressed his face against Sofia's chest.
"Come on, Papa," whispered Belle. She took her father's hand and slowly led him away from the coffin.
The pallbearers lowered the coffin into the ground and a graveyard worker began to fill in the grave. Belle hugged her father tightly and fixed her eyes on her mother's tombstone.
SOFIA VALENTI DESROSIERS
BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER
BORN: MAY 26 1712
DIED: MARCH 3 1751
That was it. Her mother's life summed up in fifteen words. It all seemed wrong to Belle. She was more than just a wife and mother who died young, yet that was how people were going to remember her for the rest of eternity. The graveyard worker patted down the newly filled in grave and made his way back into the church along with the pallbearers. Maurice and Belle continued to stare at the tombstone.
"It's getting dark, Papa," said Belle softly. "We should go home ourselves."
Maurice allowed Belle to take his hand and lead him out of the graveyard. They walked home together in silence. As soon as they stepped through the front door of their house, Belle broke down in tears.
"Don't cry, Belle," Maurice whispered gently as he enveloped Belle into a soothing hug. "Everything is going to be alright. We are going to get through this together."
"No, we aren't," sobbed Belle. "You're going to get married again and your new wife is going to hate me, and she's going to send me off to live in an orphanage. That's what always happens."
"Belle, you read too many storybooks," sighed Maurice.
"It's not just books, Papa," said Belle. "Monique, one of the girls I play with sometimes, lives in the orphanage a few blocks away. She's actually from Strasbourg. She was the only child of a milliner and his first wife. Her mother died when she was five, and her father got married to another woman. The milliner's new wife couldn't stand the sight of Monique because she looked exactly like her mother and her father spoiled her. The new wife eventually gave birth to twin boys, but they didn't have enough money to look after all three children, so she managed to convince the milliner to send his daughter to live with her grandmother here in Paris. The grandmother died a few months later. Monique didn't have any other relatives in Paris, and she didn't enough money to travel back to Strasbourg, so she had to go live in the orphanage."
"That is not going to happen, Belle," Maurice assured her. "I am not going to get married again. I could never love anyone as much as I loved your mother, and even if I did find someone I wanted to marry, she would have to love you just as much as I do. There isn't a single human being alive who could tear us apart. You're not going to end up in an orphanage."
"I promise," said Maurice, squeezing his daughter's hand. "There are so many things I regret now, Belle. I wish I had told her I loved her more, and I wish we had moved out of the city like she wanted to. We probably would have been a lot happier there."
"Papa, it's my fault Mama died, isn't it?" asked Belle. That was the other thing that had been plaguing her mind over the last couple of days.
"What do you mean?" asked Maurice, confused.
"If I hadn't run away, Mama wouldn't have gone out looking for me, and then she wouldn't have collapsed," Belle explained.
"No, Belle, it's not your fault," Maurice sighed. "Please don't blame yourself, little doe."
"It is my fault, Papa, admit it!" Belle yelled. "If it weren't for me, Mama would still be here with us."
"For the last time, Belle, no! No good will come from you blaming yourself," said Maurice exasperatedly.
"It is my fault!" Belle screamed again. "It's all my fault!"
Maurice tried to pull his daughter into a comforting hug, but she resisted and pushed him away from her. She wiped her tear-stricken face on the skirt of her dress, ran up the stairs, and slammed the door of her room. Maurice sunk into the settee and buried his face in his hands.
Belle threw herself headfirst into her books after Sofia's funeral. They were the only things that helped her ease the pain. Every morning she would gallop down to the library and return home with an enormous bag of books slung over her shoulder. She would devour each one as if it were a delicious slice of cake. The books never lasted long, either. She would always run out of stories to read just before dinner time. That was when she had to start dealing with her own problems, rather than the problems of Hamlet and Don Quixote. Every night, she would lie awake in bed clutching her toy bunny as she worried about her and her father's mortality.
Maurice, however, was dealing with his grief in an entirely different way. He had seemed to age ten years overnight, and his hair had turned completely white within weeks. He couldn't muster up enough enthusiasm to work on any of his inventions. He hadn't even gone down into the cellar since Sofia's death. All day long he would sit on the settee and stare at the painting of Sofia and Belle that Celine had given him for his birthday. Every morning he would give Belle some money and send her down the street to buy pastries for breakfast. He never had enough energy to cook, so he and Belle survived mostly on generous donations of food from kindhearted friends and pain was so unbearable that, truth be told, if it hadn't been for Belle, he would have chosen to join Sofia a few weeks after her death.
One early June afternoon, as Belle was studying and Maurice was moping on the settee, they heard a knock at the door.
"Do you want me to get that, Papa?"
Maurice grunted. Belle closed her book, stood up, and strode to the door where she found her Celine and an enormous pot waiting for her.
"Oh, good afternoon, Aunty Celine."
"Good afternoon, Belle," greeted Celine. "I hope I didn't interrupt anything."
"No, it's okay. I was just studying," Belle assured her. "Come in."
"Good afternoon, Maurice," called Celine as she stepped into the living room. Maurice grunted again.
"Papa hasn't said anything all day," said Belle quietly.
"What were you studying?" asked Celine.
"English," answered Belle. "I have to teach myself now that Mama's gone."
"My husband is from England, you know. You could come over and talk to him sometime," suggested Celine.
"Thank you, Aunty Celine," said Belle gratefully. "You are very kind."
"I brought you some soup," said Celine, holding up the pot.
"Thank you. Come with me," Belle said as she her into the kitchen. She opened up a large metal box, took the pot from Celine, and place it inside.
"What's this?" asked Celine, gesturing to the box.
"Oh. It's something my father made," explained Belle. "It keeps food fresh for long periods of time."
"That's ingenious," gasped Celine. "I can't believe he always loses those competitions he enters."
"I know, I know. I hope the world will recognise him as a genius someday," said Belle.
"'Do you visit her often, Belle?" asked Celine.
"Papa and I bring fresh flowers to Mama's grave every Friday morning."
"Your poor father hasn't been coping well, has he?" observed Celine as she peered out into the living room. "Poor Maurice. He loved your mother so much. How have you been, Belle? I feel for you, you poor little thing. My mother died when I was seventeen. It's not the same, but I know what it's like to lose a mother. I can't even begin to imagine how awful it must be to lose a parent at your tender age, though."
"I try not think about Mama," answered Belle solemnly. "It's too painful for me."
"Oh no, Belle! You mustn't hide from your feelings like that!" gasped Celine. "Sooner or later you are going to have to deal with them. Ooh! I have to go home and get dinner started. I should be going now. Sorry, Belle."
Belle walked Celine to the front door and opened it for her.
"Ooh! Just a minute, I want to talk to your father," said Celine just after she had stepped outside. Belle stepped aside to let her back into the house. A whole flood of painful memories flooded over her as her eyes fell on a mother playing with her young daughter across the street. Belle closed her eyes and pushed the memories to the back of her mind. Suddenly, she felt a hand tuck a piece of her hair behind her ear. Her mother used to do that. Belle's heart stopped. She opened her eyes and spun around to see Celine staring at her with concern.
"Are you alright, sweetheart?"
"I'm fine," answered Belle quickly. "My mother used to tuck my hair behind my ear, and I thought for a moment... Never mind. I thought you were going to talk to Papa?"
"He doesn't appear to be in a very responsive mood at the moment," said Celine worriedly. "Well, I have to go now. Take care, Belle."
Maurice opened his eyes and looked around blearily. It was still too dark to see anything. His stomach rumbled. He leaned over to his nightstand and lit a candle. He pulled the blankets back and lowered his feet to the ground where one of them collided with something small and soft.
"Belle? What on earth are you doing down there, little doe?"
"I couldn't sleep," murmured Belle.
"I am afraid you're going to get sick and die too, Papa," confessed Belle. "I don't want to lose you as well. I came in here to listen to you snore so that I could be sure that you were still alive."
"I promise I am not going to die, Belle," said Maurice. "Not while you still need me around anyway. Now, go back to bed. It's late."
"I'm not tired," said Belle.
"Would you like me to read to you?" asked Maurice.
"No, thank you."
"Are you hungry?" asked Maurice."Do you want some milk and bread?"
"I used to listen to Mama's heartbeat when I couldn't sleep, but I can't do that anymore," said Belle sadly.
"You could listen to my heartbeat," suggested Maurice.
"I could try," said Belle doubtfully. She climbed up onto Maurice's knee and pressed her ear to his chest. She pulled her head away several moments later. "I'm sorry, Papa. It's just not the same."
Belle climbed off Maurice's knee and onto the bed. Her hand slipped on a big piece of cotton fabric that had been lying next to her father.
"What's Mama's nightgown doing here?" she asked, holding the nightgown in her hands.
"It still has her scent on it. I can't sleep without it," admitted Maurice.
"Oh. You know, Papa, you might not have Mama any more, but you still have me."
"I know, Belle," he said quietly. "I am so lucky I have you to help me through this. If I didn't have your cute little face to look forward to, I probably wouldn't even get up in the morning."
"And I'm lucky I still have you," said Belle. " But, Papa, I have to be honest with you, I don't think you are dealing with Mama's death properly. You need to get on with your life. That's what she would want. Of course, I don't think I am dealing with it well either. Aunty Celine is right. I should be dealing with my grief, not repressing it. The problem is, I don't know how to feel about it. I've been looking through my books for answers, but so far I haven't found any that work for me. Seneca wrote that death is the wish of some, the relief of many, and the end of all, and Francis Bacon once said it is as natural to die as to be born. I know that I should be happy that Mama isn't suffering anymore. I just can't accept that it was natural for her to die. Old people die naturally. Mama was still quite young. I needed her."
"I don't know how to feel about it either, little doe," admitted Maurice. "Sofia had so much to live for. I would do anything to bring her back to us, but at least she isn't in pain anymore."
"We will get through this together, Papa," said Belle smiling.
"Come with me," Maurice said, taking Belle's hand. He picked up the candle from the nightstand and his daughter over to the chest of drawers. He forced the bottom drawer open and pulled out a small wooden box. "I was planning to give you this when you were a little bit older, but now is as good a time as any," said Maurice, handing his daughter the box. "I gave this to your mother on our seventh anniversary. It was only a few days before you were born, actually. I can still remember that day perfectly."
Maurice gently closed the front door and stepped into the living room where his wife was fingering her enormous stomach. Sofia looked up and eyed him with disdain. Maurice approached her nervously.
"Where have you been?" she demanded. "Dinner's getting cold."
"I've got a present for you," announced Maurice. Sofia's eyes lit up. He handed her a small, wooden box. "I have been saving up for it ever since we lost our first baby. I've been doing some extra carpentry work on the side. That's why I've been gone so much lately."
"You didn't need to get me a present, dolce," gasped Sofia. "You should have saved that money and spent it on stuff for the baby."
"We've already got everything we need for the baby," said Maurice, taking a seat on the settee next to her. He rubbed her abdomen lovingly. "These last couple of months have been tough on you. I wanted to get you something to make you feel special. Walter made it, and he only charged me for the cost of the materials. Open it."
Sofia rested the box on the her stomach, pushed the lid open and inspected the contents. Inside, sitting on purple velvet, was a beautiful, shining red garnet pendant dangling from a very thin gold chain.
"It's beautiful, Maurice. I love it," breathed Sofia. Her eyes went wide and placed a hand on her belly. "The baby likes it too."
Maurice reached out and placed both of his hand's on Sofia's globular stomach.
"She's strong, isn't she," he said, grinning from ear to ear.
"It could be a boy, you know," warned Sofia.
"I know for a fact that the baby is going to be a girl, Sofia," Maurice told her. "Ooh! She's energetic too."
"You can say that again," groaned Sofia, rubbing her bulbous abdomen. "The little thing won't stop kicking me. I haven't had a full night's sleep in months."
"Sounds like she's going to be a great dancer like her mama," said Maurice. Sofia beamed, carefully placed the necklace back in its box, and attempted to heave herself out of the settee, but to no avail.
"Can you help me up, dear?" she asked. Maurice hastily obliged. "Our dinner's getting cold. I made chicken and potatoes, and I didn't burn a single thing," she said proudly, taking Maurice's hand as she waddled into the kitchen with him.
"Mama showed this to me once," Belle said as she fastened the necklace around her neck and admired herself in the mirror. "It's beautiful. She told me it meant more to her than any other thing she had ever owned. She said she had never worn it because she didn't feel right about wearing something so grand and expensive when she had never given you anything in return. She was saving up enough money to buy you a gold pocket watch."
"Promise me you'll take good care of it, Belle," said Maurice, as an enormous grin spread over his face. It was the first time he had smiled in months.
"I will," yawned Belle.
"Sounds like it's time you went back to bed," said Maurice, smiling.
"Good night, Papa," Belle whispered. "I love you."
Belle kissed her father on the head, picked up the candle, and headed towards the door.
"Yes, Papa?" Belle turned around to face her father.
"I hope you're not still blaming yourself," said Maurice. "It really wasn't your fault. Your mother was already very sick. Her death... It was inevitable."
Belle looked awkwardly down at the floor, turned around, and left the room without saying a word. She made her way into her own bedroom, carefully removed the necklace, and gently placed it back into the box. She opened, her mother's lace fichu, her pointe shoes, the doll Maurice had brought back from the fair, and a lock of Sofia's hair tied up with one of her red hair ribbons. She removed the fichu from the drawer and put the jewellery box in its place. She gently closed the drawer and crawled into bed with the fichu. It still smelt like her mother. She pressed it to her face and curled up into a ball.
"I am so sorry, Mama," she whispered.