Chapter Two

Bella fingered the hyacinths bordering the dense greenery of the birch wood ahead. The rhodendrons loomed above, the finery of their blooms competing in riotous shade her modest but vibrant summer dress. A straw hat drooped over her shoulders, failing to contain her hair which swam here and there in the breeze. It was the first time in a long while that she felt alive. Almost whole. The death of her husband was difficult. Change would be good, she had told herself as she sold the estates and moved East to this quaint lumber and straw affair.

She heard of the cursed Arlington manor bordering her property. Overspilled it, actually. She dismissed it as local superstition of the largely uneducated farmers. The owner probably just wanted to be left alone. She was trespassing on the Arlington estate, but she couldn't help herself. What trouble could befall a woman on a day as beautiful as this? She was admiring the roses when something pressed against her shoulder.

As Amandus went into the garden to dispatch the widow, Arlingcroft moved to the second floor sitting room window. He pulled aside the royal blue velvet drapes, nervously fingering a bronze bust he had absentmindedly plucked from a table. He could see the flashes of gold that were her hair through the scree of wind tossed trees. There was a scream and starlings took to the sky.

“Oh, you startled me!” Bella gasped, fanning herself with her hands.
“Milady, I did not mean to frighten you--” began Amandus.
“No, no, it is I who should apologize!” interrupted Bella. “I shouldn’t be here on account it’s your lands, Mr. Arlington.”
Amandus smiled. “It is my master’s land--”
“Oh! I’m sorry--”
“--but it is no trouble, milady. Please. Feel free to explore the grounds.”
Amandus turned to the manor and straightened a bony claw. “My master vishes to extend to you an invitation for dinner tonight.”
“Tonight?” Bella whispered.
“Lord Arlington hopes you will forgive him his eccentricities if you do so choose to come.”
She was intrigued. “Yes. Yes, I will be there!”
“Eight o’clock, milady. ”Amandus bowed deeply from the waist and returned to the manor.

At precisely 8 o’clock, the large lion’s head knocker at the door boomed. Amandus cordially answered the door and escorted her to a long dining hall. The walls glittered with heraldic crests and heirloom weapons. The heads of hunting trophies gaped in intervals. At one end of the long table at the room’s centre heaped with fine cuisine. Vegetables drowning in butter. Foie gras. Consomme. Veal and aspic. Wine. Red velvet cake. Mincemeat pies. Bella settled into the ornate seat Amandus had pulled out for her. She tugged at her unruly locks which shone brightly in the sea of light that blazed at her end of the table.

“Hello, Bella.”
“Oh! Mr. Arlington!”
“Please call me Leonard.” The voice came from the opposite end, which was drenched in shadow. “I hope you will forgive me if I do not reveal myself. I am... afflicted and find it easier for my guests to acquaint themselves with me... before furthering our relationship. Now, please eat. Amandus is a fine cook, though you won’t hear him talk of it.”
Their conversation was easy and spontaneous. Amandus had discovered her name; it was a small town after all, and decided to extend a neighborly welcome, Leonard explained. They discussed current events. They speculated on the future of the steam engine. The impending call for war unsettled them both. She insisted on calling him Mr. Arlington. She spoke haltingly of the circumstances bringing her here. He expressed his condolences. They discussed the local sports and the local rumors. They shared an interest in amateur horticultury.
“Mr. Arlington, the hour is late, and it is unbecoming of a woman in my position to remain so long at a gentleman’s place.” Bella rose and smoothed her dress. “I would like to continue this at another time. Dinner was delicious and I enjoyed our conversation.”
“And I as well.”
“Good bye, Mr. Arlington.”

Arlington watched Bella pass through the garden, led by Amandus and his lamp. Fireflies swirled lazily in their wake. The night drew itself into the house, bringing with it the fecund smell of rotting blooms. He turned away forcefully, taking a lamp from the foyer table, and went to the library.

Amandus found him facing a bookcase filled with leatherbound volumes. They were diaries, arranged chronologically from top to bottom, from the first brittle and yellowing volume to the crisp cut of the newest volume, Arlington’s own diary.

“Are you having second thoughts, Master?” Amandus asked.
Arlington answered with a growl.
“She must love you, before you are free. You know that.”
Arlington snarled at the old man. “Damn you, Amand! I l know that!”

Amandus approached the beast, and in that moment, the dichotomy of master and servant fell away and they were something more. “Do you remember when you first came here?”
Arlington nodded. His eyes glistened in the moonlight flowing through the windows.
“You helped me, and I loved you for that. Then...”
“I told you my story, of the curse that binds me and the beast.”
“Oh, how I hated you.”
“You can go back to who you were.” Amandus pointed to the name engraved on Arlington’s journal.
“You can be Rosalina Cornelius again.”

Amandus gently gripped Arlington’s jowls and pulled his head down until their eyes met. “You can return to the voman you were, and Bella vill take your place.”
“What about you?” Arlington was openly weeping.
“I am Amandus and Arlington vill alvays need me. It is my penance.”
“Don’t you tire of it, old friend?” asked Arlington.
Amandus gave no reply.
Arlington walked to the window and buried his whiskers in his hands.
“The problem, Amand, is I think I love her!” he cried.
“Master,” Amandus said quietly, and not without pity, “Vhat makes you think you are the first to feel as such?”

The End

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