Authors: Robin McKinley
Beauty by Robin McKinley
“Good evening, Beauty,” said a great harsh voice.
He straightened himself slowly, but I shrank back. He must have been seven feet tall at full height, with proportionate breadth of shoulder and chest, like the great black bears of the north woods. With a sigh as deep as a storm wind, he raised the candelabrum from the table. It lit as he brought it to shoulder
level, and I was staring suddenly into his face. “Oh no,” I cried. When I heard him take a step toward me, I leaped back in alarm.
“You have nothing to fear,” the Beast said, as gently as his harsh voice allowed.
He was still standing, watching me with those eyes. I realized that what made his gaze so awful was that his eyes were human....
“A FULL-FLEDGED FANTASY NOVEL.... I WAS IMMEDIATELY CAPTURED....
IS A WONDERFUL BOOK.”—
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
To my mother,
because it will be a long wait for
and to both Mr. Rochesters,
for aiding Mahomet to go to the mountain.
I was the youngest of three daughters. Our literal-minded mother named us Grace, Hope, and Honour, but few people except I perhaps the minister who had baptized all three of us remembered my given name. My father still likes to tell the story of how I acquired my odd nickname: I had come to him for further information when I first discovered that our names meant something besides you-come-here.
He succeeded in explaining grace and hope, but he had some difficulty trying to make the concept of honour understandable to a five-year-old. I heard him out, but with an expression of deepening disgust; and when he was finished I said: “Huh! I’d rather be Beauty.” He laughed; and over the next few weeks told everyone he met this story of his youngest child’s precocity. I found that my ill -considered opinion became a reality; the name at least was attached to me securely.
All three of us were pretty children, with curly blond hair and blue-grey eyes; and if Grace’s hair was the brightest, and Hope’s eyes the biggest, well, for the first ten years the difference wasn’t too noticeable. Grace, who was seven years older than I, grew into a beautiful, and profoundly graceful, young girl. Her hair was wavy and fine and luxuriant, and as butter-yellow as it had been when she was a baby (said doting friends of the family), and her eyes were long-lashed and as blue as a clear May morning after rain (said her doting swains). Hope’s hair darkened to a rich chestnut-brown, and her big eyes turned a smoky green. Grace was an inch or two the taller, and her skin was rosy where Hope’s was ivory-pale; but except for their dramatic colouring my sisters looked very much alike—Both were tall and slim, with tiny waists, short straight noses, dimples when they smiled, and small delicate hands and feet.
I was five years younger than Hope, and I don’t know what happened to me. As I grew older, my hair turned mousy, neither blond nor brown, and the baby curl fell out until all that was left was a stubborn refusal to cooperate with the curling iron; my eyes turned a muddy hazel. Worse, I didn’t grow;
I was thin, awkward, and undersized, with big long-fingered hands and huge feet. Worst of all, when I turned thirteen, my skin broke out in spots. There hadn’t been a spot in our mother’s family for centuries,
I was sure. And Grace and Hope went on being innocently and ravishingly lovely, with .every eligible young man—and many more that were neither—dying of love for them.
Since I was the baby of the family I was a little spoiled. Out mother died less than two years after I was born, and our little sister Mercy died two weeks after her. Although we had a series of highly competent and often affectionate nursemaids and governesses, my sisters felt that they had raised me.
the time it was evident that I was going to let the family down by being plain, I’d been called Beauty for over six years; and while I came to hate the name, I was too proud to ask that it be discarded.
wasn’t really very fond of my given name, Honour, either, if it came to that: It sounded sallow and angular to me,
as if “honourable” were the best that could be said of me. My sisters were too kind to refer to the increasing inappropriateness of my nickname. It was all the worse that they were as good-hearted as they
were beautiful, and their kindness was sincerely meant.
Our father, bless him, didn’t seem to notice that there was any egregious, and deplorable, difference between his first two daughters and his youngest. On the contrary, he used to smile at us over the dinner
table and say how pleased he was that we were growing into three such dissimilar individuals; that he always felt sorry for families who looked like petals from the same flower. For a while his lack of perception hurt me, and I suspected him of hypocrisy; but in time I came to be grateful for his generous blindness. I could talk to him openly, about my • dreams for the future, without fear of his pitying me or doubting my motives.
The only comfort I had in being my sisters’ sister was that I was “the clever one.” To a certain extent this was damning me with faint praise, in the same category as accepting my given name as an epithet accurately reflecting my limited worth—it was the best that could be said of me. Our governesses had always remarked on my cleverness in a pitying tone of voice. But at least it was true. My intellectual abilities gave me a release, and an excuse. I shunned company because I preferred books; and the dreams I confided to my father were of becoming a scholar in good earnest, and going to University. It was unheard-of that a woman should do anything of the sort—as several shocked governesses were only
too quick to tell me, when I spoke a little too boldly—but my father nodded and smiled and said, “We’ll see.” Since I believed my father could do anything—except of course make me pretty—I worked and studied with passionate dedication, lived in hope, and avoided society and mirrors.
Our father was a merchant, one of the wealthiest in the city. He was the son of a shipwright, and had gone to sea as a cabin boy when he was not yet ten years old; but by the time he was forty, he and his ships were known in most of the major ports of the world. When he was forty, too, he married our mother, the Lady Marguerite, who was just seventeen. She came of a fine old family that had nothing but
its bloodlines left to live on, and her parents were more than happy to accept my father’s suit, with its generous bridal settlements. But it had been a happy marriage, old friends told us girls. Our father h ad doted on his lovely young wife—my two sisters took after her, of course, except that her hair had been red-gold and her eyes amber—and she had worshiped him.
When I was twelve, and Grace was nineteen, she became engaged to our father’s most promising young captain, Robert Tucker, a blue-eyed, black-haired giant of twenty-eight. He set sail almost immediately after their betrothal was announced, on a voyage that was to take three long years but bode
fair to make his fortune. There had been a Masque of Courtesy acted out among the three of them—Robbie, Grace, and Father—when the plans for the voyage and the wedding had first been discussed. Father suggested that they should be married right away, that they might have a few weeks together (and perhaps start a baby, to give Grace something to do while she waited the long months for his return) before he set sail. The journey could be delayed a little.
Nay, said Robbie, he wished to prove himself first; it was no man’s trick to leave his wife in her father’s house; if he could not care for her himself as she deserved, then he was no fit husband for her.
But he could not yet afford a house of his own, and three years was a long time; perhaps she should be freed of the constraints of their betrothal. It was not fair to one so fair as she to be asked to wait so long.
And then of course Grace in her turn stood up and said that she would wait twenty years if necessary, and it would be the greatest honour of her life to have the banns published immediately. And so they were; and Robbie departed a month later.
Grace told Hope and me at great length about this Masque, just after it happened. We sat over tea in Grace’s rose-silk-hung sitting room. Her tea service was very fine, and she presided over the silver urn like a grand and gracious hostess, handing round her favourite cups to her beloved sisters as if we too were grand ladies, I put mine down hastily; after years of taking tea with my sisters, I still eyed the little porcelain cups askance, and preferred to wait until I could return to my study and ring for my maid to bring me a proper big mug of tea, and some biscuits.
Hope looked vague and dreamy; I was the only one who saw any humour in Grace’s story—although I could appreciate that it had not been amusing for the principals—but then, I was the only one who read poetry for pleasure. Grace blushed when she mentioned the baby, and admitted that while Robbie was right, of course, she was a weak woman and wished—oh, just the littlest bit!—that they might have been married before he left. She was even more beautiful when she blushed. Her sitting
room set her high colour off admirably.
Those first months after Robbie set sail must have been very long ones for her. She who had been the toast of the town now went to parties very seldom; when Hope and Father protested that there was no need of her living like a nun, she smiled seraphically and said she truly didn’t wish to go out and mix with a great many people anymore. She spent most of her time “setting her linen in order” as she put it; she sewed very prettily—I don’t believe she had set a crooked stitch since she hemmed her first sheet at the age of five—and she already had a trousseau that might have been the envy of any three girls.
So Hope went out alone, with our chaperone, the last of our outgrown governesses, or sponsored by one of the many elderly ladies who thought she was just delightful. But after two years or so, it was observed chat the incomparable Hope also began to neglect many fashionable gatherings; an incomprehensible development, since no banns had been published and no mysterious wasting diseases were whispered about. It was made comprehensible to me one night when she crept into my bedroom, weeping.
I was up late, translating Sophocles. She explained to me that she had to tell someone, but she couldn’t be so selfish as to bother Grace when she was preoccupied with Robbie’s safety—“Yes, I understand,” I said patiently, although I privately thought Grace would be the better for the distraction of
someone else’s problems—but she, Hope, had fallen in love with Gervain Woodhouse, and was therefore miserable. I sorted out this curious statement eventually.
Gervain was an estimable young man in every way—but he was also an ironworker in Father’s shipyard. His family were good and honest people, but not at all grand, and his prospects were no more than modest. He had some ideas about the ballasting of ships, which Father admired, and had been invited to the house several times to discuss them, and then stayed on to tea or supper. I supposed that this was how he and my sister had met. I didn’t follow Hope’s account of their subsequent romance very well, and didn’t at all recognize her anguished lover as the reserved and polite young man that Father entertained. At any rate, Hope concluded, she knew Father expected her to make a great match, or at least a good one, but her heart was given.
“Don’t be silly,” I told her. “Father only wants you to be happy. He’s delighted with the prospect of Robbie as
son-in-law, you know, and Grace might have had an earl.”
Hope’s dimples showed. “An elderly earl.”
“An earl is an earl,” I said severely. “Better than your count, who turned out to have a wife in the attic. If you think you’ll be happiest scrubbing tar out of burlap aprons, Father won’t say nay. And,” I added thoughtfully, “he will probably buy you several maids to do the scrubbing.”
Hope sighed. “You are not the slightest bit romantic.”
“You knew that already,” I said. “But I
remind you that Father is not an ogre, as you know very well if you’d only calm down and think about it. He himself started as a shipwright; and you know that still tells against us in some circles. Only Mother was real society. Father hasn’t forgotten. And he likes Gervain.”