Chapter 10- Life goes on in the Village

Gaston had been dead and buried for nearly a month, and most of the villagers were adjusting to life without him and moving on. Gilles and Stanley still had a decent venture with the farm and the butcher shop. Because of the sheep incident, they were able to do just as well, if not better, than before. Two of Gilles' ewes gave birth to a litter of unusually large lambs, and he also decided to invest in some new cows. Stanley had been visited by Andre's two sons, who were regularly bringing in some delectable wild turkeys.

Andre and Marie were very busy making refreshments for the royal wedding; something Andre was reluctant to do at first, but after his wife's convincing, he realized it was in his own best interest. A mysterious, elegant lady by the name of Madame de la Grande Bouche, a representative of the palace, had come in to order a croqembouche cake to be made, much to Marie's delight. The whole town was beginning to feel in a festive mood, being so closely tied now with the Lost Prince's upcoming nuptials.

The Beaudette girls sat in their cottage, commiserating as usual. "Madame Desjardins said she was visited by members of the Prince's staff today," announced Mimi, nervously. She felt at the moment like she was a traitor to her own sisters.

"Why do we care? Snooty little Belle and her Prince, that's all the other ladies around here want to talk about!" spat Fifi.

"I could care less about the royal wedding!" agreed Gigi.

"But don't you think it's an opportunity?" said Mimi, brightening. "If we attend, we may have a chance at meeting other men someday-"

"I don't want another man! I only loved Gas-"

"Stop it, Gigi! We need to go on with our lives. Do you want to end up like Lefou is right now, going half-crazy?" argued Mimi.

"No." Gigi squeaked.

"I haven't wanted to go in the tavern anymore either. Too many sad memories," sighed Mimi. "But one day I walked in to bring some flowers to that memorial thing he has set up, and he was talking to Gaston's painting. I think it's harder for him, since we all have each other. Gaston was like a brother to him, really. I'm…so glad to have you both as sisters!"

"Lefou has a sister," Fifi offered.

"Yes, but she's awful. Gaston was much nicer to him than she is. But I was saying- you are such wonderful sisters, Fifi- Gigi! It's like we are three people in one! No one can take that away!"

"Group hug!" squealed Fifi. The sisters all jumped up and collided into each other, embracing.

Gigi wiped her eyes. "It's so hard," she sobbed, "we all miss him so much, but we are all in this together. Maybe someday, we could be happy again."

"Gigi, I ... don't want to be a spinster forever, and I'll always remember Gaston, but-" Mimi widened her eyes in a realization of hope. "We might meet some dreamy gentlemen at the royal wedding ball! There will be a ball, you know."

"A ball?" asked Fifi, blankly.

"Yes! You know what a ball is, right?"

"Of course I know what it is, Mimi! What should we wear?"

"I'm wearing red, what else?" Gigi said, still sniffling, but trying desperately to cheer herself up.

"I think I'll go! Light green, like spring!" declared Fifi. "What about you, Mimi?"

"Purple!" declared Mimi.

"What? That'll confuse Maman! She has color-coded us since we were babies!"

"Let's go out!" said Gigi. "I know this town doesn't think too well of us, but I don't care. We are the Beaudette Triplets, and we were the beautiful mistresses of Gaston! They're all just jealous!"

The triplets left their cottage and sashayed, arm in arm, over to Madame and Monsieur Fortier's tailor shop.

The tavern was starting to pick up business again as well. Lefou was making two different flavors of homemade ale, and his father, Henri-Claude, never saw him much. He worked at brewing from sunup to sundown, putting some of the flavorful liquor in the tap barrels and some in glass bottles to save for later, as well as evening bartending. When he ran out of barley, he would often use old ripe apples and various fruits from Gilles' farm and throw together a tasty brew that resembled apple cider. One day, Andre brought over some of his delicious cinnamon rolls, and so Lefou decided to pick some up every day from the bakery and serve them in the tavern as well. Every night the tavern smelled delightfully of apples and cinnamon.

The men who came in the evenings liked the taste of the new ales, despite their not having as high of an alcoholic content as Gaston's favorite old beer. Because of this, the mood of the patrons changed. There was less brawling, less fighting, and less drunken foolishness. Lefou himself was feeling more clear-headed, which made him miss Gaston even more, but instead of drowning in drink, he used the portrait on the wall for a therapeutic outlet daily. He was not going insane. At least he hoped he wasn't. It was just the only way he could deal with life at the moment.

He only tried to talk to Gaston's image when he was alone. Once in a while, he was caught, and one morning was a prime example.

"You lunatic!" screeched a loud, brash woman's voice.

"Huh? Uh, hello, Iolanthe."

He greeted his sister, not too enthusiastically. Iolanthe Lefou was older than her brother by several years, a spinster in her mid-thirties. She was five-foot-eleven and built like a barge, with unfortunate, mannish features. Tall, large people did appear in Lefou's family tree, but by some odd joke of nature, it was always the girls.

He quickly stepped away from the picture and went back to dispensing ale in glass bottles. Iolanthe followed him, ranting.

"So, I go out to the marketplace, trying to find some decent bacon for a change, but all there is is old fish, like always! And fish seller Gauthier says 'Bonjour, aren't you the sister of the new tavern keeper, who was Gaston's friend?' I say 'yes, I unfortunately am.' He says, 'He's half-cracked, he talks to himself in the pub all day when it's closed!'"

"Huh? I'm not 'cracked!' I'm not loony! Who's saying that stuff?" he replied, irritably.

"This is just what I hear around town...even back when Gaston was still alive! I remember last St. Valentine's Day, at the church tea. My friends were talking about you standing in the snow for so long that some of their kids made you into a snowman! And Cecile said that she was glad, at least Gaston didn't tell you to stand in the fountain wearing nothing but angel wings and holding a crossbow! Oh yes! Maybe you're not fit to run a business! Best piece of real estate in town, and it belongs to the town fool!"

"Guess so," said Lefou. He didn't look up, busying himself with arranging bottles in a neat stack on the bar, lining them up exactly two inches apart.

"I'm getting to be the laughingstock of this village! You know why?" the tall woman pressed.

Lefou finally looked up at her. "Your unibrow?"

"NO! It's because of your insanity! I am on good friendly terms with Paul d'Arque,"- her younger brother smiled a little at the thought they'd be a perfect couple- "and I might have to tell him that you need some serious help! You need all the help you can get! I ought to be the one running this tavern!" After this loud declaration, Iolanthe turned on her heel and stomped out the front door. Lefou watched her and turned to the painting.

"Ah nuts, Gaston! I guess I'm going to the Maison des Lunes, all because of you."

He found himself collapsing in chuckling laughter, which turned to maniac laughter, and he could almost imagine Gaston's loud booming guffaw coming from the large painting over the fireplace.

The next Thursday was marketplace day in Molyneux. Springtime was in the air; the sun thawed the land and most of the snow had melted. Everyone who had a product to sell had set up booths in the village square, hoping to entice customers to buy more than usual and introduce new products.

Lefou was trying to sell his homemade ale and other drinks in the market square as well, since the weaker cinderkin made from apples could be drunk by women and children, who were obviously not evening patrons of the tavern. Being away from the early day solitude of the tavern and the comforting presence of Gaston's portrait surrounded by roses, Lefou was irritated and saddened by the bustling and happiness of everyone milling about the town square. It seemed like no one else was grieving over Gaston anymore.

Stanley and Andre came over and purchased several bottles of ale, then went back to work. The triplets skipped by, giggling, arms locked together just as they used to when they were innocent maidens pining for Gaston.

"Hi!" chirped the one in yellow. Mimi, he was sure. She was always the one who would at least gave him the time of day.

"Hello," he answered quietly, looking down intently at the wood grain patterns on the table.

"We will buy some ale from you! We're sooo thirsty!" offered the one in green. Fifi, thought Lefou. She was the one who always had the most empty-headed facial expressions. They tossed some franc-pieces on the table, took three bottles of mild barley ale, then strode away happily.

"Mmmm, tasty!"

"Hope you sell some more!"

"Good luck!" they called back to him cheerily.

He didn't understand why they could be recovering so. They could not possibly have met new men- at least no one who could be as tall, or as strong, as... Well, he had learned from Gaston the last winter that they were the type that his father would call 'soiled doves.' In that case, maybe they just didn't care now.

From where Lefou was standing in the marketplace, he could see up the hillside where Saint Lucien Church stood, its graveyard certainly there behind it. Gaston was there, physically. Forever. He wondered where his soul was.

He hoped and prayed that Gaston had gone to Pere Gerard-Emile for confession, because he had certainly done bad things in his life. But couldn't the good things- like pulling Lefou from the water when he was a boy, providing so well for the village, and trying to protect the village from a Beast- outweigh the bad things Gaston had done?

There was what he had done in the upstairs room with the triplets without marrying any of them, his blackmail plot (did he care about the girl's feelings? He never had to. Caring about people's feelings was something regular people had to do. Gaston was above and beyond regular folks, and that was that.) And finally, there was his arranging for the harmless oddball, Maurice DeFleur, to be thrown in the asylum.

Now, that one was something Lefou had been dragged into, and he knew in his heart it was wrong. Maurice, crazy as he was, wasn't such a bad old guy. But come on- who could say no to Gaston? Well, he knew who could, and she had vanished to the mysterious castle. Andre was saying something about her being engaged to a prince. So that was probably it. Gaston wasn't good enough for her! The great hunter had tried to slay the Beast, tried to get some sense back into that deluded girl, and died as a result. This was what Andre, Gilles and Stanley had opined at the tavern one night. And now, where could he have gone after death?

Wishing for a sign, Lefou looked up at the blue sky, filled with fluffy white clouds. One cloud was curiously shaped like a giant sheep. He imagined Gaston up somewhere beyond that cloud, chasing after the giant sheep that Lefou had sent into the afterlife. Maybe he'd been given a new blunderbuss by angels, perhaps? That thought was comforting. But then, how could Gaston kill an animal that was already dead? How could his soul be happy if he couldn't hunt?

Lefou needed to stop thinking so much.

A group of laughing children ran by. Jacques Jauquet, the rotund cheesemaker, and his new wife Colette, the red-haired former barmaid, walked by, hand in hand. Lefou felt like he was going to be sick if he saw one more happy person. He looked down at the table and counted francs for a minute, then glanced up again.

Another happy person, skipping merrily toward him, swinging a basket filled with baguettes. Will this day ever end?

At first glance, he thought it was Andre's wife Marie. Great, I have to say hello to her and she will talk my ear off. Maybe I'll buy a croissant. I'm starving. But as the woman came closer, he realized it wasn't Marie, she was younger, about his own age, with light blonde hair falling in waves to her shoulders. He had never seen her before.

Lefou studied her as she bounced on by, a glow of pure joy on her apple-cheeked face. He lapsed into the old habit of assessing a girl and guessing if Gaston would pursue her or not. She didn't have the type of looks Gaston would have desired. She was short, ample and rounded, a cute dumpling of a girl in a cranberry-red skirt and white apron. She glanced directly at him, spotted the ale bottles he had in front of him, and made an abrupt turn, right to his sales booth.

"Oh! Hi, I was looking for some beverages. I need to purchase a great amount of them, there is a very important VIP affair that my boss needs it for. How much- monsieur?" she inquired in a sweet voice.

"Um...uh, it's two sous a bottle- how many do you need?"

"All of it!"

"Everything here?" He had about two large wooden crates full. If he sold them all to her, he could be done with this tedious day and go back to the tavern, be alone with the portrait, and maybe sleep.

"If you can, monsieur," she said. She was fumbling with a coin bag filled with money, and she set it upon the table, trying to count her coins awkwardly. One coin dropped, and she picked it up. When she stood again, he noticed that she could only be about one or two inches taller than him.

"I- I only have ten francs left," she said. A little shy smile played on her lips, her cheeks turning pink. Lefou wondered where she was from, but didn't think it was his business to ask.

He had priced each crate at ten francs, which put the whole stock at twenty. If he cut the price in half for her, he could be done. He felt the need to be chivalrous. He never got the chance to be chivalrous toward a lady who would appreciate it. He'd tried to open doors for the triplets hundreds of times, only to have them yank the doorknob away from him and slam him between the door and the wall.

"You can have it all for that. Ten francs, I mean. I'll cut the price in half for you." He couldn't help it, but he smiled back at her, knowing it was probably his dumb dopey smile showing the gap between his two front teeth.

The woman's face lit up even more. "Really? Wait- how do I know it's any good? Could I taste a sample, or do I need to ask a man around here to taste it for me?"

"You can taste some. I don't make my ales very strong. Well-" he added sheepishly- "this stuff here is mostly apple juice." He uncorked a bottle for her. "Why, are you here in town alone?"

"You are too inquisitive for a peddler," she answered with a little laugh. She took a sip. "This is really good! You are very talented." She was beaming at him with delight, almost admiration, and Lefou felt a bit taken aback. That expression on a girl typically used to be seen on the Beaudette triplets, and it had been the expression always aimed at Gaston.

He could feel his cheeks feeling warm as he collected her ten francs and carried first one crate of ale, then the second to a wagon she led him to, where a big, cream-colored Shire horse was hitched. She pet the horse's pale mane affectionately, and talked to it while he loaded her wagon, which was filled with baskets of bakery items and vegetables. She climbed carefully up to the buckboard, and set to leave.

"You're driving this wagon all alone?" he managed to ask. Handling a big horse seemed an impressive task for a short woman like her. He was still a little nervous around Garçon-de-Tonnerre, Gaston's feisty and rather sinister-looking black stallion he had inherited and was planning to sell.

"No, Antoinette is with me."

"Your sister? Friend?"

"She's right in front of me," she replied, pointing to the horse. "We could pass as sisters, don't you think?"

"Um- no," said Lefou. He chuckled a little, and she giggled, grinning warmly at him. "Well, thank you, and goodbye!" The young woman shook the sturdy horse's reins and sped off.

The ale now sold, Lefou headed back to the pub. In a few hours, he would open it and hope that the two tap barrels were enough for the men that night. He glanced back at the blonde woman, trying to race her horse and loaded wagon out of the village. Those few minutes spent in her company had felt like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day.

And she was a girl!

Was this how it felt? Liking girls?

Lefou might have just been a late bloomer. At twenty five, he had never truly 'liked' a girl. Perhaps all those fervent prayers with Maman's rosary had worked. His shameful, secret 'curse' held a looser grip on Lefou now that Gaston was dead.

Perhaps he was having feelings the way a man was supposed to. The only feelings that he'd ever had were for...Gaston. But perhaps this was different. He had a special feeling about this strange girl. Not as strong or as intense as how he'd felt for Gaston, but more like a warm ray of sun on his face instead of that familiar, burning hellfire.

The sky became overcast and dull, and the painful, Gaston-sized void returned to the little tavern keeper's heart. Yet somehow, this day, it didn't hurt quite as much. He realized now that he possessed things that his best friend, who he'd spent years longing to be like, would never have- hope, life, and a future.

Lefou glanced up at the portrait and sighed. "Gone a month now, Gaston. I still can't believe it," he said as he got ready to make it through another 'put on a smile and fill a tankard' evening, in the provincial little town of Molyneux.