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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

The Beast of Versailles

The Beast did not have to pay for the gloves.

True, many aristocrats did not settle their bills, on principle. True, residents of Versailles could not have their houses seized for non-payment of debt. True, no one could force the Beast to do anything, except perhaps the King, Louis XV, known to the French people as the well-beloved.

And these were not ordinary gloves, not just because they were made of the finest calfskin, or because of their intricate, bewitching embroidery, or because the beast’s flippers were much larger than the dainty hands of other courtiers.

The Beast did not have to pay for the gloves, because these gloves had been commissioned by the tailor’s guild as a gift for the Beast. Any tradesman in Versailles would have pawned their teeth for the prestige of supplying the smallest article of the Beast’s caparison, and so they were unique gloves, of uncommon quality.

Even so, the Beast pulled them off with his fangs, and tossed them onto the floor of the kitchen. He had luxurious gloves and other apparel enough, gifted by so many soldiers and spinsters, and even the King’s mistress. He needed to be untrammeled for the delicate work of finishing the wedding feast’s pastries and cakes, and he did not trust the kitchen staff to meet his standards.

Prior to the Beast’s appearance at court, the height of culinary fashion had been sculptures of heroes and beauties in lard and marzipan. These were captivating enough in their artistry despite insipid flavour and a tendency to melt in summer. But novelty for the eye did not please the Beast’s carnal hunger.

To the Beast, food was more important than festivals or finery. He could smell the vitality in cuts of beef as it swelled with age. The bold colours of ripe strawberries and oranges flared for him with incandescent beauty. The flaky texture of grilled fish massaged his forked tongue like the nimble fingers of a mermaid courtesan. Guided by crisp senses, the Beast educated the kitchen staff on the preparation of dishes that could mollify the animal within.

The Beast’s presence in the kitchen was not challenged. Much like the menagerie of animals that roamed the palace grounds, the Beast had the prerogative to linger where he pleased, without seeking the King’s permission.

And to question the Beast’s authority was inconceivable. Even stout hearts quailed at the Beast’s frightening appearance, and beyond that he held the wealth, estate and privileges of a Marquis. He had learnt to soothe company with a show of politeness and easygoing magnanimity, but he knew the feline fire in his eyes and the jungle rumble in his voice conveyed a slumbering menace. He could smell the skitter of human fear, and it was Bordeaux wine.

Take the servant girl slicing radishes for salad. She trembled in dread of the Beast, but was fascinated by his bulk and power, tossing him reckless glances. Perhaps, after the wedding, he would take her to bed, if Griselda also took a fancy to her.

And so the Beast fussed over the wedding banquet alongside the kitchen staff. He needed every detail of this day to be perfect, for this was the day he would marry his love, and be human again.

The Beast had once been a clever and beautiful youth. His mother placed a haggard fairy in charge of his education, and this fairy grew to worship him as his limbs lengthened and his voice deepened. She finally insisted they marry, deeming a fairy bride an irrefusable honour. Innocent of passion, the youth told her he was too young to marry, and loved her only as a foster mother. The fairy took this as a cruel comment on her withered appearance, and cursed him with a monstrous form, declaring that only love would undo the spell.

The Beast recalled his horror at the transformation, hunched over his reflection in a dirty, frosted puddle in his garden, clawing the trunk on his face and prying the scales on his back. He stumbled out of the castle gates into the snow-choked forest where he had so often hunted deer with his hounds, smashing his way through the foliage with ape-like arms, wildly courting death.

He collapsed in the peasant village where the castle’s busy tenants huddled against the bite of winter. He unleashed a wail of anguish, and the farmers began to peer from their hovels, bolder spirits clutching shovels and pitchforks.

He hoped the mob would fall on him and end him, sparing him life as a beast.

Instead, they assembled in rows, knelt and bowed their heads.

As revolting as his physical transformation was, they still knew him as their lord from his opulent clothing, and gave him their customary deference. He was the one who claimed a share of every harvest, the one who exacted fees for the use of the mills, the one who forced them to hard labour on the roads, and the one who controlled the outcomes of lawsuits and trials. Against all that, what horror was fur and fangs? They did not need to fear him as a monster, for they already feared him more as their lord.

Ambling back to the castle to ponder his future, he sniffed a deer somewhere in the falling darkness. He chased it down through the forest, seized it, and feasted on its carcass in the snow. He howled into the night sky, exultant at the hot life wet on his chin, imagining new pleasures in every sparkle of the stars

That night, he ordered a trembling servant to pack a trunk, and prepare his coach for travel the next day.

Versailles was open to anyone, for majesty was always on display, and the mercenary Swiss guards were armed and watchful. Those close to the King might be granted entry to his private chambers at the waking or bedding ceremonies, or a place near him at chapel prayers. The whispered conversations of those precious furtive moments shaped destinies.

For other courtiers, they would wait for days or weeks in the endless corridors of the palace in anticipation of passage of the King, hoping he would bestow a word on them and take a petition. All the Beast had to do was walk into the palace, take a place in one of the busy thoroughfares, and wait.

The courtiers kept their distance from him, and gossiped with hushed frenzy about this malefic visitor. The Swiss guards, normally so assured, felt their dominance evaporate, and prayed the monster would not call on them to earn their pay.

The Beast did not have to wait long. Louis XV passed through the corridor, accompanied by his beautiful mistress, the playful and artistic Madame de Pompadour. The people in the hall were silent, for nobody could speak to the King before he addressed them. The only sound was the gentle twang of strings outside the windows, from the four-piece orchestra that followed the King everywhere.

Only a year before, the King had presided over the troops that seized and occupied Brussels, humbling Austria before the glory of France. With the war over, all that remained was to stitch a lasting peace, and the court buzzed with the energetic monarch’s schemes for tax reform and sprawling colonies.

The King stopped at the Beast, and asked him where he was from, and the nature of his unusual appearance. The Beast bowed low. In perfect manners he outlined his title and hereditary, including a few of the services his ancestors had performed for the monarchy as nobles of the sword. He explained the curse, and his hope to be of assistance to the crown in the future.

Madame de Pompadour whispered a few words to the King, and the King chuckled. Louis XV told the Beast that they would talk more that night, at the King’s weekly private salon for supper and games.

It was that simple. Where the fairy took away the Beast’s ability to coax love with a pretty face, she magnified his ability to inspire horror, teaching him that with fear came power, and from power, pleasure. The Beast could not say who admired him more in his years at court, the women for his disarming moments of tenderness, or the men for his daring and bravado. Given a monster’s face, and a monster’s fierce vitality, he would grow a monster’s ravenous heart.

And so began the Beast’s wild days of feasting, drinking, courtesans and mischief, in the company of a clique of bright young things attached to the court. They explored the crannies and temptations of Paris at night, and the Beast earned a reputation as an imaginative gourmet of lurid experience.

By day, he was a menacing curiosity, in demand as an attraction in the salons of politicians and philosophes. The sacrilegious pamphleteer Diderot scoffed at the Beast’s account of a fairy curse, jesting that it must be a birth defect. One scowl from the Beast, and Diderot escaped through the nearest window. The wasp-tongued reformer Voltaire was more sympathetic, asking penetrating questions about the nature of the curse and the politics of fairyland, and afterwards penned a hot satire calling on the parliaments to enforce the law against the caprices of wayward faeries. The dotty, nature-loving Rousseau praised the Beast as a magnificent specimen of authenticity, uncorrupted by civilisation.

The Beast agreed with Rousseau’s assessment.

The King also sought the Beast’s counsel at times, and perhaps their conversation turned towards affairs of state, the nature of power, and France’s ambitions in the world. Who can say?

But the games of youth do not keep their savour forever, and for those who live with energy, life plans humbling pratfalls. After fast-passing years of frolics the Beast came to a fateful costume ball held at Versailles’ room of lesser pleasures.

The Beast did not come in costume, arguing that he was always in disguise, a proposition that delighted the other guests. He chatted and flirted at his pleasure, and soon met Griselda.

While most guests were in elaborate costumes with beehive hairstyles, Griselda had her hair loose and wore a tattered peasant dress, claiming she had traded clothes with a dairymaid. Her physique could not be called voluptuous, but she was tall and assured, with long, spider-like fingers. Her costume veered into scandal, but her snapping wit bit off the tongue of criticism. Some said that she had once been a prostitute, and that she had secured her fortune by seducing and dispatching an old and foolish noble. And yet Griselda was welcome everywhere, for she was kindred to the aristocracy in a stern respect for the ruthless laws of survival, and clever enough to flatter and charm the right people. A knowledgeable and canny expert on men, and having seen much worse than the Beast in her time, she was able to look past his appearance towards his ample possibilities.

Recognising his own animal nature in this sharp and bold woman, the Beast fell in love.

These became the happiest days of the Beast’s life. They walked the Tuileries gardens together, inventing playful and wicked stories about the other wanderers. On one noteworthy trip to the Fair of St. Germain, an ambitious pickpocket took Griselda’s purse, full of coins for the lotteries, only for the Beast to sniff him out and pounce on him. She received her restored purse with a show of mock chivalry that gratified the Beast’s cynical heart. And the pair even spent some lively nights with the King and his mistress, exploring the secret bedroom tunnel the King used to escape the court’s attention, and uncovering other interesting facets of the royal person.

In time the Beast proposed to Griselda, to her immediate acceptance. She jested that with a beast as a husband, life would be an adventure, but there would always be so many interesting places to hold on.

The King was delighted to host the wedding for this unique vassal at Versailles, and even ordered a gift of money towards the cost of the wedding. The Beast scrambled on the day of the wedding to make sure everything was perfect, consumed by a lover’s anxiety. Once he was done with the feast in the kitchen, he checked the array of fireworks, and even fretted over the minute details of the flower arrangements.

And so the hour came for the ceremony, to an audience of courtiers in the exquisite gardens of Versailles, with the Archbishop of Rheims presiding as a favour to the King. The Beast and Griselda pledged themselves to each other in the fashion of good Catholics. In lieu of a wedding ring, for the beast’s flippers were not suited for rings, Griselda fastened an ornate collar on the Beast’s neck. They kissed. The onlookers cheered.

The fairy had been clear that love would break the curse. The Beast’s transformation had been swift, and he was not sure if he would just as quickly find himself human again, or if there would be a few magical pyrotechnics. And yet, even though he had married his love, his hands were still the flippers of a beast, and his voice was still the growl of a beast. He had not changed, even at this supreme moment of love triumphant. He insisted that Griselda kiss him again. Nervous at his growing agitation, she agreed. They kissed again. Still nothing. The crowd began to murmur.

The Beast knew that he loved Griselda with all his heart… And yet… And yet…

He asked her.

“Do you not love me?”

Griselda replied.

“Darling, what an odd question! I find you such pleasant company. And we have the most mad fun. You’re always so clever and dashing. Remember when we were at the fair and you jumped on that nasty pickpocket for me, you were just so heroic. And, darling, remember that we have tied the knot now, in front of so many important and useful people. The King rather expects us to be happy, not unseasonably morbid. You know how it works here, same as I do. That’s what makes us so good together. We’re the best of teams. We can sort anything out later, just the two of us. Don’t give our marriage a bad start when it’s all been so very nice up now, and we have so much to look forward to. You know, altogether, I really don’t think I could ever love anyone as much as I like you, if that’s what you mean, my naughty Beast.”

And with that, the Beast knew that he was not loved, and never would be.

After what happened next, the Beast would have had his welcome at Versailles revoked, if it were possible to bar the Beast from anywhere. Panicked aristocrats fell blind into the fountains, and more than a few toy dogs escaped their hustling owners, never to be seen again. A few guards took potshots with their rifles, only to be grabbed and hurled into the air, some landing in the branches of trees. For the first time in the history of Versailles, the orchestra that followed the King everywhere stopped playing without his express order. Worst of all, the fabulous wedding buffet the Beast had lavished so much care on was spoiled when the Beast hurled the tables onto the fireworks, setting off the fuse of a bright orange Catherine Wheel.

The Beast left the court without saying a word, leaving behind all the gifts he had received, from gloves to walking sticks to jewels. A few murmured about a military reprisal on the Beast's castle, but the King, after consultation with his mistress, declared that it would be wisest to forget this unhappy victim of a fairy’s wrath.

Griselda, it is said, moved into a nunnery to nullify her short marriage, although gossips say she later fled the nuns and then France, taking with her a captivated novice and a respectable tithe of the church’s silverware.

And so the Beast returned to his castle. He chased off the castle’s servants, and barred his gates against the teeming peasants who came to offer their feudal dues in awe-churned worship of their secretive and terrible deity.

He lived a solitary life, rancid with contempt for shallow, brittle, capricious humans. He let his castle and garden fall to ruin, no longer concerned with polite appearances. He whittled his days in the endless castle library, and in cruel hunts in the castle’s forest. At times, he called on the peasant village to provide a companion, but they were always returned untouched after a few days, and generously compensated for their time. Although she had never loved him, he could not yet forget Griselda.

One night, ruminating in his garden, the fairy appeared to him.

She had only intended to humble his vanity, not to darken his heart. Regretting the consequences of a reckless spell on one she adored, she offered to restore him to the vivacious and handsome young man he had once been.

“No,” the Beast growled. “Better an honest Beast, than a false human.”

And so a Beast he chose to remain, alone and full of hate, for he could no longer believe in beauty.

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