The Love of Beauty

mad_ancestor_createspace_yb_finalK.J. Bishop is an Australian writer and artist. In 2004, her neo-Decadent novel The Etched City was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and she won the William L. Crawford Award, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel and the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. Her work has appeared in several publications including Leviathan 4, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean. Most infamously, her novella “Maldoror Abroad” appeared in Album Zutique; the story riffed off of the original Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Isidore Lucien Ducasse under the pen name “Comte de Lautréamont.” Her tale “Saving the Gleeful Horse” (2010) was recently reprinted in The Weird. The following story, “The Love of Beauty,” was originally published in 1999 in the Australian speculative fiction magazine Aurealis and can be found in her recent collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote. “The Love of Beauty” showcases Bishop’s flexible, vivid style in service of a story equal parts fairy tale, grotesque, and Decadent. — The Editors

***

Some souls lose all things but the love of beauty;

And by that love they are redeemable

– P.J. Bailey, Festus

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

He took three slow breaths, then stepped through the arch.

Immediately he was struck by cold, a sensation he remembered from his single prior excursion into the Ravels. He had gone in with a few others after an evening of drinking, and they had ventured only a few blocks into the worming scrawl of alleys before their liquid courage ran out.

Tonight he had to go in much further, and all alone. His poet friend Stroud had urged him to refuse the commission, but Seaming had argued that an artist should welcome all experiences, even dangerous ones. Stroud had solemnly clasped his hand and promised him a flattering elegy.

Seaming had no intention of putting Stroud to the trouble of composing any such work. Indulging a secret taste for cloak-and-dagger aesthetics, he had prepared a disguise, scouring the riverside flea markets until he found a heavy black coat and a stovepipe hat which, he hoped, combined to give his unimposing person a grim and sinister air. To add some further menace to his costume he had borrowed an imitation pistol from an acquaintance who ran a small theatre, and a sturdy knife from Stroud, who had a fetish for sharp objects and owned a collection of various blades. He felt more secure knowing that he had one real weapon, even if he had no idea how to use it. With his small drawing case clutched under his arm, the other hand shoved in the trouser pocket where he had stowed the knife, he plunged ahead.

The cold was soon joined by a burning smell – this, too, he remembered from before – as if there were a fire nearby, but he could see no sign of smoke or flames. The sounds of Cake Street dwindled away behind him, while the darkness thickened in the streets – so small that they seemed like tunnels in a mountain of brick. In the absence of street lamps, only occasional dull lights in the tenement windows, brown with oil and dust, confirmed the presence of living beings.

Seaming kept his eyes averted from the windows as, following the directions he had memorised, he crept along by the general faint light of the city, which streaked the cloudy March sky with a gravy of ruddy greys and left enormous enclaves of shadow unprodded.

He began to fancy that he could hear constant movement – mostly animal scrabblings, but sometimes human footsteps. These never came from ground level, but always from somewhere above or below. He formed an impression of a world of rooftops and sewers, a world more three-dimensional than the ordinary one, where human beings had learned the insect trick of making all surfaces serve as the ground plane. To distract himself, he tried to concentrate on this aesthetically interesting aspect of his surroundings; however, as distractions went, it fell some way short of ideal.

He wished he had a lamp, or even a candle; but his visitor had warned him that a light carried in the Ravels identified its bearer as a mucker, with no legitimate business being there – as legitimacy was esteemed by the locals – and thus fair game for any bored or idle cut-throat.

*

She had been fair and slight, and wore a sequinned mask that covered her whole face. He felt that she must be a gentlewoman who had fallen on hard times, for she was well-spoken, and her dress, though years old in style, was of fine make and fabric.

She had come to his studio hoping, she said, that he could help her. Showing him a cutting from a recent magazine article on local painters in which he had been featured, she had indicated a heavily underlined paragraph:

Alfred Seaming’s portraits could be images of saints. He perceives an urgent need for a new idealism. ‘What is the point of merely reproducing the commonplace world, with all its banality and vice? I wish to paint my sitters’ noblest qualities, which, I believe, are the qualities of their true selves.’

‘Yes,’ he said hurriedly, ‘quite so.’ While he stood passionately by the words, he was embarrassed by how pompous they looked on paper. The truth of the matter was that he delighted in painting flattering portraits, and knew he had a knack for doing so that amounted to a kind of genius, while remaining modestly unwilling to take an interest in how high or low the flag of that genius might fly on the walls of civilisation when all was reckoned. The academic art establishment had made him into something of a mascot, and encouraged him to make much of his philosophy.

She inspected his studio thoroughly, the glittering face making a study of each and every painting. At last she said, ‘Yes. You do have a talent for idealisation. But you will also need courage. If you have it, it does not show in your work. So, Mr Seaming, are you braver than you look?’

He was taken aback by her bluntness, though he couldn’t deny the accuracy of her assessment. He hazarded a guess that the mask might be hiding not only her identity, but a face scarred or deformed. Still, what sort of horror could be under there that he would need more than ordinary bravery to look at it? He felt she was being overly theatrical. Somewhat on his dignity, he replied that while he was obviously not any sort of hero, he was not a craven man.

‘Prove that,’ she said, ‘and I will commission you. Whatever your usual fee is, I will pay triple. Danger should offer rewards, after all.’

Seaming inquired what kind of proof she had in mind: was he to fight a duel? Walk slowly across Tourbillion Parade in the evening rush hour with his eyes shut?

Nothing so foolish as either, she informed him. He had only to visit her in three nights’ time at a certain address in the Ravels, which she handed him on a plain card. If he would simply arrive there, at an hour after midnight, she would consider that proof of sufficient courage. He must also, she said, bring the tools of his trade.

He came close to telling her that he was too busy. But his pride balked and his avarice flinched, and even his curiosity, usually a rather passive organ that functioned merely as an adjunct to his imagination, made small murmurs.

Seaming found himself saying yes, she could expect to see him there.

Later that day, feeling nervous and depressed, he had told Stroud the particulars of the situation. Stroud, whose father had probably been a count, had reminded him that he was merely a common man and had no obligation to be brave.

Seaming had argued that even a common man should avoid hypocrisy. Lack of adventurous spirit surely fell among those tedious, petty and banal things he had always professed to despise.

Stroud shrugged and said that he personally had never bothered to refrain from hypocrisy, but if Seaming wanted to worry like a poor hound and chase himself into uncomfortable corners, it was his business. This goading had galvanised Seaming’s spirit: he would not decline the dare.

*

The air was no longer cold, but humid and greasy.

He had just suffered down a pitch-dark, sludge-bottomed defile between blind walls, where he had had to feel his way to a covered stair. The stair had brought him to a derelict quadrangle, down the middle of which he now hurried, favouring that exposed route over the shadows in the cloisters. Oppressed by the sense that calamity was imminent, it was only the fear of betraying himself as an outsider that kept him from breaking into a run.

Calamity refrained from occurring. Beyond the quadrangle there was an area, ascending a hill, of more prosperous if not much more pleasant appearance. The modestly wide street into which he stepped was a grand boulevard by comparison with the alleys below the stair, and the increased space brought a dilution of the darkness. He found himself among the ornate facades, as showy as they were cast down by the ravages of neglect and vandalism, of once-desirable addresses. But if the residents were better off than those below, they were no more open about their presence. There were only the same infrequent window lights, all heavily cloaked behind curtains and blinds, and the same dislocated sounds. Amongst the latter he heard an accordion playing, as if at a great distance. The music brought back to him, in a strange intense rush, memories of old gypsy men and their dances on the common in the village where he was born. He felt again his childish fear of the sounds and smells of their camp, his terror of everything about them.

Seaming caught his imagination before it ran away with him completely. He told himself to at least be rationally afraid, if he was going to be afraid at all.

According to the directions his visitor had given him, he was nearing his destination. He counted streets until he reached the one he was to turn up, and after climbing the hill for ten minutes he found the house.

It stood on the corner of a cross street, on the other side of which was a kind of overgrown, heavily wooded park. His nerves gave pitiful thanks that he did not have to go any closer to the pitch-black massif of trees.

The name ‘Park View’ was spelled out in rusty iron letters on the portico. A sullen glow penetrated the fanlight. Seaming pulled the bell-rope and waited. No one came. He gave the rope another tug. He couldn’t hear the bell ringing. He knocked, feeling that he was being watched from all directions, particularly from the park, which looked more like some wild ancient forest, harbouring primitive evils, than anything remotely civic. He waited again, for as long as he could endure, then knocked with more force, deciding that if no one answered this time it would not be at all dishonourable to leave his calling card and make his way back on the double. This time, however, he heard the sound of someone approaching, followed by the decisive clicks of more than one lock.

The door opened.

In the hall, holding a bunch of keys, was a child in a carnival costume.

No.

Not a child. It was some kind of old circus grotesque, an ancient stunted woman. What Seaming had at first taken for a mask was thick, white, dry makeup. Her black hair was piled up in a lacquered dome half as tall as herself. A wide-skirted dress belled from her waist to the floor.

She bowed stiffly. As she straightened, she said in a voice atonal and distorted, ‘How can I help you?’

Her mouth had remained shut as she spoke. Seaming stood dumbly, his muscles and thoughts gone slack.

She bent forward and straightened again. The question repeated itself, in exactly the same mechanical monotone. He realised that she had a false voice box like that of a talking toy.

Seaming had always had a slight horror of dolls and automata. Even as a child he had associated them with fetches, the undead, the diabolical. Now he felt suddenly terrified that whatever had been done to her might also be done to him. He thought of the other woman’s mask. Perhaps there was a plague here that destroyed bodily tissues. He imagined his face and throat rotting, caves opening in his flesh and filling with dust and spiders.

She bent and repeated the phrase a third time.

Embarrassed, Seaming fumbled in a pocket and presented his card. ‘The lady of the house is expecting me,’ he said.

The dwarf turned her head to the right. Her voice box grated, ‘Come this way.’

Seaming followed her. He avoided looking at her by studying the hall. It was papered in red flock and lit with weak brass lamps, which together created an ugly, heavy atmosphere, aggravated by a smell of dampness and animals, with a chemical note of furniture polish. She turned left into another passage, which ended at a flight of stairs. She pointed up to the next floor. Seaming found himself imagining a past for her. He could only think of sad and sordid things, and again his thoughts embarrassed him.

He wanted both to run from her and to say something civil and friendly. He managed to thank her.

She turned her head to the left. ‘You’re welcome.’

He thought she smirked a little; then she left him.

*

The woman was waiting for him at the top of the stairs. She was wearing another old, out-of-repair gown, this one of dark gold velvet with panels of seed pearls. Her mask glittered like a glimpse of metal in a mine.

She undid the ribbon securing the mask and removed it.

Seaming held his breath, steeling himself for whatever aberration or scarring might be revealed.

When the mask was gone, he forgot to breathe entirely.

Hers was the very face of loveliness.

No odalisque, no great lady, no madonna, no serene and enigmatic muse upon any pedestal had a face to compare.

‘Welcome, Mr Seaming,’ she said. ‘My name is Beauty.’

Seaming felt the urge to kneel. Standing, as he was, on the stairs, he managed a sort of half-curtsy.

‘I have worshipped you,’ he whispered. ‘I have sought you all my life.’

‘You and thousands of others, Mr Seaming,’ she said in a dry tone that he found painful to hear coming from such a face. ‘The mask allows me to live a life of my own; to seek rather than be sought, and to find rather than be found.’ She re-attached the mask. ‘I believe you should be able to look at me from a rational perspective again now.’

‘You cannot be mortal,’ Seaming faltered.

He sensed that she smiled.

‘There are few things more mortal than I.’

Seaming swallowed. ‘Why did you show me?’ His senses and emotions had in no way stopped reeling.

‘Because to understand my husband, as you must, you should see what he has seen and feel what he has felt. It is he whom you are to paint.’

‘He must be a god, then. No mortal man could look at you and live as a man. He would be a slave.’

Now she laughed. ‘My husband is very far from being a god, though I have seen pictures of ancient gods whom he somewhat resembles, in his present state. But that is only a coincidence. He is not a man either, however, though he has taken to living more like a man than anything else.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t understand you.’

‘Are your eyes the only sense you use, Mr Seaming? His presence pervades this house. Scent the air.’

At first he did not know what she meant, but he soon noted how markedly more potent and acrid the animal smell became upstairs. It was an odour of hide, musk and gamey meat. It grew even stiffer as Beauty led him along the corridor.

Seaming’s reason told him that the conclusion he drew was the only logical one. It gave his system another severe shock. ‘You keep company with a beast,’ he murmured. Then he turned red, as forbidden perverse images flocked into his mind. Women with swans. Women with serpents. Pubescent witches rutting with jaguars and hogs.

‘I see you understand,’ she said, as if he had made some completely ordinary comment. ‘The subject of maidens and monsters has a long and varied history. Not all stories end in the popular fashion, with the maiden rescued. Some of them have more elaborate outcomes. Our tale is such a one.’

With a dry throat Seaming stammered, ‘The old woman downstairs…her injuries…did your husband cause…?’

‘He has nothing to do with her condition. But the damaged have a sense by which they seek each other out, Mr Seaming.’ Beauty stopped in front of the door at the corridor’s end. ‘My beast is potentially dangerous, but only if you get too close to him. Otherwise, you may be certain that you will be quite safe.’

‘He is chained?’

‘He is confined.’ She produced a key and turned it in the lock. ‘You know, I think you may like him.’

Seaming doubted that, but he kept silent.

She led him into a dark parlour. By the light from without, Seaming saw old, elegant furniture and paintings in gilded frames. The opulence of the decoration vaguely surprised him, but he had little attention to spare for it, as Beauty unlocked a further door.

The stink in the next room was part kennel, part sickroom, part abattoir.

The room felt large, but its corners were smoothed in darkness, leaving its dimensions indistinct. It was given only a dim and unpleasant illumination by a ceiling lamp of emerald-green glass. The slimy colour of the light, and the degraded lustre of the metallic upholsteries, gave the room the ambience of a sideshow tent.

On a daybed in the green and dark centre of this room lay a gigantic black wolf.

The beast’s head was four or five times the size of a large dog’s. The skull was angular and long, the fur thick and coarse, the ears tall like a jackal’s. The eyes were as large as billiard balls and as yellow as dandelions.

For the space of a few moments Seaming was aware of nothing but the animal’s presence. The beast was splendid. He exuded enormous vitality. If his physical impression had none of the elevating effect of the sublime, it nonetheless had the force of some great mountain or cruel storm. He was perhaps, after all, a more equal match for Beauty than any man could have been.

Seaming might have remained mesmerised, but certain details broke the spell. The wolf did not lie like an animal, but like a man, sitting straight with pillows behind his back and a brocade cover over his legs. A velvet blanket draped the massive shoulders and chest. A portable games table rested on his lap. A heavy paw extended and nudged a turquoise rook forward.

‘Check.’

The voice was deep and damp and it stretched and chewed the word. But it was not unintelligible. Somehow the animal mouth made a human sound. The wolf was only half beast. The shape of the legs under the cover was human. In proportion to the giant torso they were narrow and short.

Beauty leaned over the board, studied it, and moved a coral bishop.

The huge eyes widened a little, and the wolf’s face looked eager. Then the black brow furrowed. ‘But I will be able to take that. Promise you are not letting me win?’

‘I promise,’ Beauty said.

The eyes narrowed. ‘Then you are setting a trap. But I cannot see it.’

Beauty scratched behind his ears. ‘Let’s leave the game for a while. We have a guest. This is Mr Seaming, the artist who is going to paint your portrait.’

The wolf’s nose wrinkled. The lips drew back, displaying plentiful rough teeth, and curled up at the corners in an approximation of a smile.

‘I can see you are asking the same question I ask myself every day, Mr Seaming. What am I – man?’ – the paw lifted up a pawn, then one of the horse-shaped knights – ‘or beast? We all belong to the animal kingdom, but there is a question of degree, is there not? At least, there is the question of species.’

‘You speak like a man,’ Seaming said faintly.

The wolf howled, to shattering effect on Seaming’s ears, then growled, to the same effect on his already racked nerves: thunder had never rumbled deeper, brute had never so threatened. He felt the fear of being eaten alive. He had to force himself to stand where he was.

‘Could a man make such a sound?’ the wolf purred in his throat.

‘If a man were in rage or pain enough –’

‘Enough, you mean, to lose his faculties and move closer to the nature of a beast?’

Seaming gathered his own faculties. ‘Your intelligence is a man’s, not a beast’s.’

The wolf leaned forward and exhaled with might. His breath was putrid. Seaming involuntarily stepped back.

‘You smell me, but I smell you far better.’ The wolf snuffled loudly. ‘You ate semolina pudding for breakfast this morning. Last night you ate fish and drank wine so bad that it was almost vinegar. You slept alone in sheets you have not washed for two months. Your cloak is not your own. It was recently worn by a man who suffered from a cancer of the kidneys. You know nothing of a beast’s intelligence, Mr Seaming, any more than you know how limited your own intelligence is.’

Looking satisfied, the wolf leaned back again. He licked his jowls with the tip of a grey tongue. ‘I was a man once. I wronged a woman. I thought myself ensorcelled by her loveliness, but the only spell was the spell of my own lust. To punish me she enchanted me in truth. She turned me into a beast in body and mind. The one thing I retained of my human nature was my desire for beauty. The woman was not only an accomplished witch, but a great ironist.’

Beauty spoke: ‘In the second half of our history, I became the protagonist. Circumstances threw me into the beast’s company. I loved him, Mr Seaming. You are looking judgemental. Are you appointed to decide where love should be given and where it should not? I loved him, and uncovered the final subtlety of the spell: if a woman could love the beast he would become the thing she most desired. He would always be at her mercy. His substance would be hers to mould. I desired the beast, but I also desired a man that I could love as a man. At the instant I proved my love, the change occurred.’

‘I had no human speech to tell Beauty of the curse,’ the wolf rumbled. His jaw gnashed from side to side. ‘I am neither man nor beast now, Mr Seaming. I have human shame, but if you must see the rest of my body, you may.’

At this, Seaming realised the obvious. He berated himself for not having understood sooner – the human-sized legs beneath the covers could not possibly support the massive body above. The beast’s power was a sham. Seaming was suddenly overwhelmed with a compassion that negated all fear and judgement.

‘I had always hoped,’ he was moved to say, ‘that beyond the mundane world there was another and better one. I had not thought there could be one worse. I was wrong. You are from that worse world.’

The wolf nodded and showed his teeth. ‘The laws of nature, also known as the laws of desire, are different for us, Mr Seaming. In this room, your talents can serve a far more important purpose than any to which you have previously applied them.’ There was a bullying humour in the yellow eyes. ‘I smell your confusion, even under the reek of your pity. Tell us this, then, artist: what is art?’

‘Many things,’ Seaming began. ‘There is considerable discussion –’

The wolf cut him off with an impatient snarl. ‘Art is lust! As a man I collected art and thought myself above the crowd. As a beast, without a man’s talent for self-flattery, I acquired a better understanding. Art is the voluptuous language of the senses. The artist is a pornographer. The connoisseur is a voyeur. Art is a euphemism that permits humans to indulge all their lusts, however base or alarming, while imagining that they are using their highest and holiest faculties. Man can’t decide whether he wants to be an angel or an ape. Art lets him be both.’

‘I know a man who would agree with you,’ Seaming said, thinking of Stroud. ‘Perhaps he is a more sophisticated man than I.’

‘We do not need a sophisticate,’ Beauty said. ‘We need a simple idealist. We need a person whose philosophy opposes our own.’

Again the wolf loomed forward and breathed the stench of his gullet over Seaming. ‘A beast knows its desires. Only humans do not know what they want. Because I am this much a man, my desires are complex and conflicting. I do not know, now, if I would rather be man or beast.’

‘And I,’ Beauty said sorrowfully, ‘still condemn him to be neither. Since he has become part man, I cannot help but love that man, too. My desires are as tangled as any human being’s. But you can enable me to untangle them, Mr Seaming. Like you, I do not love ordinary things. I loved one extreme, but perhaps I could love another. Create two images, man and beast, neither having any quality of the other, each an opposite ideal. Then I will know which one I love more. My choice will make my husband a whole creature, one way or the other.’

Seaming admitted that he knew nothing of magic. ‘And I do not want to know,’ he said. ‘But when it comes to painting, I stand on firmer ground.’ He said that he believed he could do as she asked.

‘Then practice your craft, Mr Seaming,’ the wolf panted. ‘From my perspective there is nothing to be lost, and the peace of my soul to be gained.’

Beauty brought Seaming a bright lamp to work by, while he unpacked his small portable easel. The wolf proved to be an excellent sitter. His nose and ears twitched a little to begin with, but soon he ceased to move at all, other than to breathe. As Seaming sketched he hesitatingly remarked on this to Beauty.

‘He sleeps with his eyes open,’ she explained.

Seaming made several studies in ink and chalk. When he was satisfied that he had enough material from which to produce the actual canvases, he asked to take his leave.

Beauty escorted him out, leaving the beast asleep, statue-like.

At the top of the stairs Seaming blurted, ‘Why do you love him?’

Again he had the sense that she was smiling. ‘He was the only creature I ever met who was as beautiful as I. The only being who ever fascinated me. Without him, I would wither from boredom. Human love is selfish, Mr Seaming.’

He wrenched himself away, but not before his eyes had filled with tears of loss. Once out of the house, he all but fled the Ravels. When he at last arrived, breathless and exhausted, within sight of Cake Street, he thought the still-carousing nightspots had never looked anywhere near as welcoming and homely; nor had they ever looked as drab.

*

‘She’s right, of course. A woman after my own heart. What an escapade, old friend!’ Stroud lit a cigarette with a flourish. ‘I must say, I’m rather jealous. I should have liked to meet this beast myself.’

‘I think you would have got along well,’ Seaming said, though he privately thought that Stroud would have felt uncomfortably upstaged.

They were in Seaming’s studio. Stroud waved the cigarette at the finished portrait of the wolf. ‘That’s quite spectacular. I wouldn’t have guessed you had it in you to paint such a thing. Outrageous, of course – but hang me if it isn’t handsome, too!’

‘He looks a lot like that. I didn’t have to alter much.’ Seaming had invented powerful haunches, long flanks and a thick tail, and had scrupulously erased any hint of human sentience from the wolf’s expression. He was fully animal, a fact emphasised by his rearing stance and carefully depicted, outsized canine genitalia.

Stroud went on admiring the portrait. ‘He shows the human race up, doesn’t he? Rather an undistinguished lot we are, compared with that. I don’t mean just the pizzle.’

‘If taken only as physical objects, perhaps you’re right.’

Seaming felt rather little towards his painting of the beast. It had gone against his grain to execute it; he was the opposite of the dramatist who does great things with his villain and gives his hero nothing interesting to say. Had he written plays, he would have lavished care on the most humane characters and left the brutal and ignoble ones dimensionless. Painting the beast had been, for him, a strictly technical exercise. But either his genius was more flexible than he had supposed, or else a decade of professional practice had stood him in good stead, for he had captured (without caging it, as Stroud said) the raw fearsomeness of the predator. It would not have done to paint a false gentility into the beast’s features, and he had strenuously refrained from doing so.

On the other hand, Seaming was immodestly proud of his portrayal of the man. Having no actual face to base it on, he had been unable to resist the temptation to use Beauty’s own, altered to be recognisably masculine. Every time he looked at the canvas, he felt more reluctant to part with it. For this reason he had draped it with a sheet, but Stroud uncovered it.

‘A bit sterile,’ he offered. ‘Still, it looks like a much more congenial creature for a lady to keep in her boudoir. Which one do you think she’ll choose?’

Seaming was well used to Stroud’s offhand manner and had long ago stopped letting it bother him.

‘It was a beast that she fell in love with,’ he replied. ‘But I think my human is inhuman enough that she may be moved to feel something for him.’

‘My friend, don’t be mistaken into believing that everyone is as intrigued by goodness and purity as you are.’

That evening a thickly cloaked and muffled figure came to Seaming’s studio in a gig. It dropped his payment into his hands and took the paintings away.

Seaming was depressed. Stroud suggested Cake Street for supper and drinks. Seaming wasn’t particularly keen to go so near the Ravels, but he never liked to appear timid in front of Stroud, so he pretended enthusiasm.

Over their stewed peaches and anisettes, Stroud asked him why he had not attempted to persuade Beauty away from her monstrous husband entirely.

There was no need whatsoever, Seaming felt, to say how little chance he would have given himself in that venture. ‘Because I’m not the kind of fellow who sees a marriage as crockery to be broken. Besides, whatever the difficulties of their relationship, there was love of a sort in it.’

‘Love is rarely wise.’

‘Love is rare. It should not be disturbed, lest it be destroyed.’

‘You love the notion of love too much, Seaming.’

‘And you wish that you had been in my place, so that Beauty might have fallen out of love with her beast and into love with you.’

Stroud looked uninterested in the theory.

Seaming swirled his drink around in the glass. ‘I hope they found a happy ending.’

‘Thus speaks the idealist.’

‘I suppose you’d prefer tragedy?’

‘A bitter finish suits my palate best,’ Stroud admitted.

‘Then you can console yourself that though I viewed my heart’s desire, I’ll never see her again, and no longer really have anything to hope for.’

Stroud made a face. ‘I’m afraid that’s a lot closer to melodrama, old sausage.’

*

In the green-lit room, Beauty lay with the wolf. On the wall before them were the two portraits.

She scratched his bearded chin. ‘I would have given you what you wanted for yourself. If you can remember anything, remember that.’

He nuzzled her hand. ‘I want beauty,’ he growled. ‘I want only beauty.’

‘I loved a strange beast. I couldn’t love an ordinary man, and that painted saint is remote and abstract. If he were real I think he would love God and the whole world, and love me no more than anything else.’ Beauty dug her fingers into the long rough fur on his head. ‘I always loved you because you were a beast, not despite it. I suppose your mind will change again with your body. Look, you’re getting more beautiful already.’ She shifted as long, strong legs grew under the covers. ‘I’ll have to find someone else to play chess with, won’t I? But I’ll always look after you. I promise you that.’

The wolf whimpered in pain as his bone structure altered. Beauty soothed him with long strokes of her fingers down his neck. She farewelled the human intelligence fading from his features.

‘And what of your heart,’ she said, her voice dropping low, ‘does it still love me?’

The grey tongue licked her hand. The huge head laid itself in her lap.

‘If I change my mind, perhaps I can turn you into a man again, eh?’

A cunning, hungry glow came into the yellow eyes.

‘Is that a “no”?’ she murmured. Then she had to quickly get off the bed, for the wolf was rising.

As she let him out to hunt, he turned and gave her a look that she could not fathom. It might have been fierce adoration; it might have been something else entirely. It was the look of a nature alien to her own. He was again an unfathomable creature, again a riddle and a mystery, like all animals. Standing in the doorway, she watched him lope towards the dark forest of the park.

For him, Beauty mused, if life and love continued to have complexities, they would be complexities beyond her ken.

‘Forever, Beast,’ said Beauty, knowing that he would hear, even though he would not understand.

When she could no longer see him, she beckoned to the old servant, who came forward, and to whom she said, ‘His room should be cleaned and aired. It may as well be done tomorrow.’