Beauty and the Beast

 "Be well…my dearest son!"

 by Marianne Mercenary


The elderly lady was milling around in a strange tunnel with a growing despair. She had not wanted to go there; she really did not! She was new in this house near Central Park; she went there to work as a housekeeper, and she had started working only last week. Her employers weren’t at home, and she had gone to the basement to bring firewood to the flat. The owners of the flat, Mr. Walters and his wife, had asked her to light the fire in the fireplace after cleaning their flat. It was cold, and they wanted to enjoy the warmth of the flames at home after work.  

So the elderly lady, Leonora Ward, went to the basement, and when she was searching for firewood, she found a large number of boxes piled atop each other. She moved them – who knew, maybe behind them she would find that firewood? – and to her great surprise, she found a door there! Leonora opened it, and entered a tunnel!  

At first she was positive that this tunnel was an integral part of her employers’ basement, because she had entered the tunnel from there, but it became clear to her soon that this rambling, winding tunnel couldn’t be a part of their basement. But then… where was she now? And how would she find her way again to the flat? What if her employers thought that she simply escaped from work? And she hadn’t even found the firewood! The fireplace was cold. What would happen if she didn’t fulfill her duty?  

A bit later, Leonora was not worried only about her work. What if she never found her way out of this strange labyrinth? She would die here without food... Leonora was near to tears, but immediately she heard voices and footsteps. There was somebody coming – yes, and not alone! There were at least two of them; they were having a conversation. Yes, a man and a woman!  

Leonora turned in the direction of voices, hoping that they would not be some villains. Maybe they wouldn’t hurt or rob her, but show her the way out of here, back to her employers’ flat…  

The two people were approaching slowly. They hadn’t seen the elderly lady yet who was standing hidden by a projection, but Leonora could see them from where she stood very well. And… the last drop of blood drained from her face! She stared at them terrified, rubbed her eyes, and then she stared at them again.  

No, it was not a dream or a hallucination! One of the two people was a woman - a young, well-dressed, and beautiful woman. And the other one... It was a man - a very tall man who looked like an ancient Greek sculpture. He had very long, beautiful ginger hair, and gentle sky-blue eyes…and the rest of his face looked – except for some small parts – like a real lion!  Leonora wanted to scream, seeing Vincent – because, of course, needless to say, it was them, Vincent and Catherine – but not because of horror or disgust… There was a very different reason for her dismay.  

Something occurred in front of Leonora’s blurred eyes. Vincent and Catherine stopped, continuing their conversation. The elderly lady gained time to pull herself together. What was this lion man doing here? Did he live here? And that beautiful woman? And… can it be…? Was it possible…? But… But… There could not be another one.   

Leonora swallowed hard; she felt a pain in her parched throat – but she had a much stronger pain in another place. She sighed deeply, and took off in the direction of Vincent and Catherine.  

“Please,” she said, desperately trying to keep her voice from trembling, “would you help me?” 

Catherine turned in the direction of Leonora’s voice as fast as lightning, unable to hide her surprise. Vincent winced, too, and then he turned away and put up the hood of his cloak.  

“Do not turn away, sir,” said Leonora, with a trembling smile. “I have already seen you from my vantage point near that projection. There is no need to hide your face, I really don’t find you frightening or ugly. On the contrary, I am glad to see you!”   

Now Vincent was the very surprised one.  He turned obediently, and removed his hood.

“You are very kind, my lady,” he said, smiling. “What can we do for you? And… what are you doing here?”  

“Oh, I haven’t even introduced myself,” said Leonora apologetically. “My name is Leonora Ward, and I work here in Central Park, at 545, as a housekeeper.” And then she told them how she had been searching for firewood, how she entered the tunnel accidentally, and how she lost her way. “You were sent for me by God, really. I was very frightened and worried! First I thought, what would my employers say, and that I would lose my job for not fulfilling my duty, but then I was afraid of a slow but certain death.” 

“Don’t be afraid, dear Leonora,” answered Vincent encouragingly. “We will help you. On the basis of the address, I think I know how to help you to find your way home…I think it isn’t a long way behind you.”

“And we haven’t introduced ourselves to you either,” laughed Catherine. “My name is Catherine Chandler.”  

“My name is Vincent. Follow us, Leonora!”  

“Oh,” Leonora said to Vincent, “and… what are you doing here? Do you live here, underground…?” 

Vincent hesitated for a moment, and then he answered with great determination. “Only me. Catherine lives Above like you, Leonora.” 

“Interesting… And what are you doing here, Vincent? Oh, maybe I ask too much… Forgive me, I’m just a curious old woman.”  

Vincent told her his story, the one that Father often told to the children, about how he was found at St. Vincent’s Hospital on the coldest day of the year, half-dead, wrapped in rags like a present, and that he was named Vincent because of it.  

Leonora became very pale. “Oh, dear God,” she whispered in a flat voice. “Near St. Vincent’s Hospital… wrapped in rags… like a present….” She staggered, clutching her heart with one hand, grabbing the tunnel wall with the other one.  

Vincent and Catherine jumped to her simultaneously, to catch her, frightened. 

“Ms. Ward,”’ Catherine cried out, “what happened? Are you OK?” 

“Yes, I am OK…” whispered Leonora. “I only tripped on that stone. You know, I am getting old, and it is not too easy to walk. Thank you, everything is all right; don’t worry about me, please!”  

“Take my arm, Leonora!” suggested Vincent, and Leonora gladly accepted his offer.  

They were walking towards her employers’ basement entrance. “And are there any more of you, or only you two?” asked the elderly woman curiously.  

“Oh, yes,” answered Vincent, “but… I don’t know if I should speak to you about it… because this place is a sanctuary for many good people.” 

Leonora stopped and looked directly into Vincent’s eyes. “You can trust me,” she exclaimed firmly, like a rock. “I will never betray your trust. I would rather tear off my arm! So help me God!” 

As the woman looked into his eyes, those sky-blue eyes which were so similar to hers, Vincent clearly felt, as in the case of Catherine when he saved her, that this woman would never betray them, just as Catherine never did. 

“All right,” he answered, and he told her many things about Father and their life Below.    

“I see,” said Leonora, and then she looked at Catherine. “And you, young lady? What are you doing here? I noticed that the two of you are greatly in love. Sorry if I am indiscreet and inconsiderate, saying many silly things. I don’t deserve your confidence...” This last thing she said very bitterly, as if she hated herself. 

“Oh, don’t say that,” smiled Catherine. “I like to talk about it! It began awfully, but on the contrary, it was the most wonderful event in my life, because I would have never found Vincent without it!” After that she told Leonora how the thugs attacked her by mistake, how Vincent found her near the drainage pipe, and how he saved her from certain death.  

Leonora listened silently, and tears were streaming down her face. “It is very nice,” she whispered then, “very nice. It is so good to see that you love each other so very much! Maybe it is not only in fairy tales when the good ones gain their reward, and the villains get their punishment.  You are very happy, my dearest children, aren’t you?”  

“Yes, yes, we are!” nodded Catherine, with eyes shining with happiness, and suddenly she started bragging to Leonora about how intelligent and clever Vincent was, and how beautifully her could read the sonnets of Shakespeare to her, and how they liked to listen to classical music together.  A very strange expression appeared on Leonora’s face: she looked simultaneously very happy, and heart-broken.  

In time, they arrived at the door where Leonora could go back to her employers’ flat. “Here,” Vincent showed her. “You can go back from here to the basement of your employers, dear Leonora!” 

“It looks the same as in my case,” smiled Catherine. “Vincent led me on a very long, rambling way, and then he told me, ‘You can go out here!,’ and to my great surprise, we were standing at the basement of my apartment!”  

“Then it is really the same.” Leonora tried to smile. “I can never thank you for your kindness. Please, take care of each other, love each other forever, and be very, very happy! And I promise once again that I never will tell your secret to anyone! Maybe… nobody would believe me…”  Then Leonora suddenly wildly embraced Vincent, and after that she stood on tiptoe and kissed the surprised Vincent’s face.  

They said goodbye to each other, and then Vincent and Catherine went away, hand in hand.  

Leonora was standing, her feet rooted to the ground. And she started crying hard. “Yes,” she whispered, “then I was not mistaken, it was you. Yes, good people gain their deserved rewards, and bad people get their deserved punishment. I don’t know how I will live with the terrible remorse and self-recrimination, but I am so happy that you are among people who love you, and you have found your love, your real other half. I threw you away on that cold day, and now I have to live knowing that I will never see you again, and that was our last kiss. I could never have told you the truth. I could never look into your eyes again, knowing that I threw away a real treasure. Be well, and be happy with your Catherine, Vincent…my dearest SON!”  



The End