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While Beauty Slept
by Elizabeth Blackwell

Published: 2014-02-20
Hardcover : 432 pages
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Historical fiction at its best ? The Brothers Grimm meets The Thirteenth Tale 

I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.   And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a ...
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Introduction

Historical fiction at its best ? The Brothers Grimm meets The Thirteenth Tale 

I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.
 
And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a tower, it pushes open a door to the past, a door Elise has long kept locked. For Elise was the companion to the real princess who slumbered?and she is the only one left who knows what actually happened so many years ago. Her story unveils a labyrinth where secrets connect to an inconceivable evil. As only Elise understands all too well, the truth is no fairy tale.

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Excerpt

One

a Destiny Revealed

I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told. Those of humble birth suffer their heartbreaks and celebrate their triumphs unnoticed by the bards, leaving no trace in the fables of their time. Raised on a meager farm with five brothers, I knew that the expected course of my life was to be married off at sixteen, to work a similarly poor piece of property with my own brood of underfed children. It was a path I would have followed without question, had it not been for my

mother.

I must start my tale with her, for all the events that followed, all the wonders and horrors I have witnessed in my many years upon this earth, began with a seed she planted in my soul almost from birth: a deep-rooted, unshakable certainty that I was meant to be more than a peasant’s wife. Every time Mother corrected my grammar or admon- ished me to stand up straight, it was with an eye to my future, a re- minder that despite my ragtag clothes I must comport myself with the manners of my betters. For she herself was proof that great changes in fortune were possible: Born into a poor servant family and orphaned at

a young age, she had risen to a position as seamstress at the castle of

St. Elsip, seat of the king who ruled our lands.

The castle! How I used to dream of it, envisioning an edifice of soar- ing turrets and polished marble that bore little resemblance to the hulking fortress I would later know so well. My girlish fascination ex- tended into imagined conversations with elegant ladies and gallant knights, fantasies my mother did her best to suppress, for she knew all too well the dangers that came from putting on airs above one’s station. My mother rarely spoke of her youth, but I hoarded the few stories she told me like a ragman collecting scraps, wondering why she had given up her position as a cosseted royal servant for a life of crushing drudg- ery. Once her slim fingers had caressed silk threads and rich velvets; now her hands were chapped and reddened from years of scrubbing, her face set most often in an expression of weary resignation. The only times I remember her smiling were during the private moments we stole together, in between the baby feedings or during the planting or the harvesting, those precious hours when she taught me to read and write. Most of my practice was done in the dirt at the side of the house, using a stick to form the lines and swirls of the words. If I spotted my father approaching, I would hastily rub out the scribbles with my feet and scramble to find a chore to occupy myself. To him an idle child was a wicked one, and a daughter had no cause to learn her letters.

Mert Dalriss was known in our parts as a hard man, and the de- scription was apt. His eyes were the cold gray-blue of stone, and his hands had been gnarled and roughened by a lifetime of physical labor; when he slapped me, it felt like a blow from a shovel. His voice was gruff and harsh, and he used his words sparingly, as if uttering each one caused great physical effort. Though I felt no affection for my father, I did not hate him either; he was simply an unpleasant feature of my exis- tence, much like the mud that clung to my feet each spring or the hun-

gry ache that filled my stomach instead of food. I took his harshness as nothing more than the usual resentment of a poor man toward a daugh- ter who will cost him a dowry.

It was not until I was ten years old that I learned the true reason he had never loved me and never would.

It was a Saturday morning, and I had accompanied my mother to the weekly market at our local village, a gathering of some dozen houses a half hour’s walk from our ramshackle one-room cottage. Farmers and townspeople would gather to haggle over a meager range of scraps: a few turnips or onions, small sacks of salt or sugar, perhaps a pig or a lamb. Rarely did coins change hands; more often meat or eggs were ex- changed for pieces of cloth or barrels of ale. The luckiest sellers claimed a spot in front of the church, where they could stand on the clean, dry flagstones; the rest simply stopped their carts in the middle of the muddy road that passed through town. A few of the more prosperous farmers would tap into their ale barrels and remain there most of the morning, laughing and slapping one another’s backs as their faces grew redder. My father was never among these men, drunkenness being one of the many weaknesses he despised in others.

The market was a place to exchange gossip as much as goods, for which reason most women lingered longer than it took them to stock up on supplies. My mother never paused after her business was con- ducted; it seemed she had taken my father’s disparagement of the villag- ers’ idleness to heart. I would move slowly from cart to cart, hoping to drag out the visit, but she passed me by with brisk efficiency, nod- ding at neighbors but rarely stopping to talk. Usually I hurried to follow her, ignored. Until one day when I froze in front of the baker’s cart. The smell of fresh rolls was so tempting; I thought I could satisfy my cramp- ing stomach by drinking in the aroma. Perhaps, if I smelled it long enough, I might fool my appetite into thinking it had been sated.

I turned around to find my mother gone. Not wishing to be left be- hind, I pushed my way through the huddle of people gathered before the baker’s wares, stepping on a boy’s foot in the process. No one there was a stranger, for we all worshipped at the same church, but I could not remember his name, only that his family worked a farm substan- tially larger than ours on the other side of the village, where the land was more fertile. He had the ruddy, round cheeks of someone well fed. “Watch it!” he scolded, then rolled his eyes toward a friend standing

at his side.

Intent on finding my mother, I paid him no mind. And that would have been the end of it, had the boy not said one thing more.

“Bastard.”

I do not think he intended me to hear. The word was whispered rather than shouted, but it had slipped from his mouth like a dangerous, powerful incantation. When I found my mother a few moments later, searching for me from the church steps, I asked her what it meant.

She caught her breath, then glanced around to make certain I had not been overheard. “That’s a nasty word, and I won’t have you utter it again!” she whispered vehemently.

“A boy said it to me,” I protested. “Why did he call me that?”

Mother pursed her lips. She pulled me by the wrist with one hand, clutching her basket under her other arm. We walked away from the church, along the road leading back to the farm, without saying any- thing for some time. When we could no longer see the village behind a hill in the distance, she turned to me.

“That word,” she said. “It is used for children who are born out of wedlock.”

“Are you not wed, Mother?” I asked.

She sighed. I can still remember the look of defeat that settled over

her, and my own apprehension at seeing my strong, determined mother reduced almost to tears.

“I had hoped you would never know,” she said quietly, looking away, over the fields. Then, collecting herself, she continued in her usual brisk, no-nonsense tone. “If my life remains village gossip after all this time, I suppose it’s best you hear the truth. I gave birth to you before I met Mr. Dalriss.”

I knew enough by then to understand how a man and woman beget a child; farm girls who see animals rutting in the fields do not stay in- nocent for long. Shock mixed with exhilaration as I realized that my mother had lain with someone other than the man I called Father. Who? And why had he not claimed me? My mind reeled, each question leading to another as I tried to piece together what little I knew of my mother’s youth in the light of this revelation.

“Is that why you left the castle?” I asked. “Because of me?”

“Yes.” There was no bitterness in her voice, no reproach. Simply a weary acceptance.

She turned away and started back on the path, as if nothing had changed. Yet, for me, everything had. It was that moment, I realize now, that started me on the fateful path toward the castle, toward the king and queen and Rose, toward Millicent’s dark powers. I could have ac- cepted my mother’s wish to wall off her past and followed her home in silence. I could have made what would have been considered a good marriage, to a prosperous farmer’s son or a village shopkeeper, and lived out the rest of my life within a few miles of the place where I had been raised.

Instead I galloped to my mother’s side, eager to extend the brief glimpse she had granted into her life before the farm.

“Did you not wish to raise me there?” I asked.

Mother did not slow her pace, but she glanced at me, mouth tight- ened disapprovingly. I braced myself for a telling-off, but instead she answered my question with unexpected directness.

“It was not my choice,” she said. “The castle was the most wondrous place I have ever seen. I would have stayed forever if I could. But the man who fathered you would not make an honest woman of me, and I was turned out in disgrace. I was deceived, as many foolish women are, and I paid a heavy price.”

I did not completely understand; the nature of relations between men and women was unclear to a girl of my age. But I can still hear the harshness in her words. She blamed herself for what had happened, per- haps even more than the man who had cast her aside. How I wish I could reach back in time and release the burden of guilt that weighed so heavily upon her! Had I been older, more compassionate, she might have told me everything and found some measure of peace in the con- fession. But perhaps it was for the best that the secret of my parentage remained hidden. What would a girl of my age have done with such dangerous knowledge?

“So I was not born at the castle?” I asked, a child still, and concerned above all with my place in the story.

Mother shook her head. “No, you were born in town, in St. Elsip.” “At your sister’s?”

My aunt Agna was the wife of a cloth merchant, a mysterious figure who sent rolls of wool each Christmas, allowing us to make new clothes when our old ones were shredded with wear. But I had never met her. Having come up in the world, she preferred to keep her distance from our family’s poverty.

“Agna did her best,” Mother said. “She gave me money and some swaddling clothes. But she would not have me in her home. She was a

respectable married woman with children of her own. I did not want her reputation to suffer for my mistake.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I found a rooming house, run by a woman who had once found herself in the same state,” Mother said. “She was kind, in her way, and helped you come into the world. Without her you might never have lived past a few days. It was there that I met your father.”

“You mean Mr. Dalriss?”

“Father,” she hissed. “You will call him Father, miss. He saved us from starvation, never forget that. Every time you bite into a crust of bread, you should be thanking him.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I feared she was angry enough to walk the rest of the way home in silence, so it was a relief when she continued her story.

“You were two years old. I had sewn a few dresses for my landlady to pay my keep, but after a time there was nothing more I could barter. She allowed us to sleep in her kitchen, provided I help with the cooking. Mr. Dalriss came to town to buy a new horse and heard that my landlady ran a clean house. He saw me serving at dinner, inquired about me, and I suppose he thought he might as well come home with a wife as well. The first time he spoke to me was to ask if I would marry him. I said yes immediately, and gratefully. Not many men would take a penniless girl with a bastard child. And here was a man who owned his own farm, his own land. I had prepared myself to accept far less promising offers.”

Perhaps he had been kinder then, less worn down by disappoint- ment. But I could not imagine that Mr. Dalriss was ever an appealing prospect. Mother must have been desperate indeed for her to have ac- cepted him.

“I worked so hard to show him he had made the right choice,”

Mother said. “When I told him I was with child not four months after our marriage, it was the first time I saw him smile. He told me, ‘I knew you were good breeding stock.’ I will always remember that, because it was the closest to a kind word I’ve ever gotten from him.”

He had chosen my mother as he would a cow. She had already proved she could bear a healthy child, so he felt confident she would produce a pack of children to work the farm. And Mother had kept her side of the bargain. Did she ever regret the choice she’d made?

“The man, my true father . . .” I began.

Mother twisted around and slapped me hard on the cheek. “You are never to speak of him,” she said. “He would not call you daughter. He would spit on you.”

The cruelty of her words brought tears to my eyes, more than the blow. Father would have beaten me again for crying, but my mother softened at the sight of my misery. She wrapped her arms around my body, pressing my face against her chest, something she had not done since I was a small child.

“There, there,” she murmured. “You must hold your head high. I will see you make something of yourself, no matter what the circumstances of your birth.”

“Do you think I might be accepted in service? At the castle?”

I could imagine no greater accomplishment, so I was surprised to see my mother hesitate, her face tense with concern. She does not want me to go, I thought, seeing her reaction as a mother’s natural inclination to keep her child close to home. Now, so many years later, I wonder if she was planning to warn me away. Given her own sad history, she knew only too well the malevolent intrigues that hide behind courtly man- ners. Had a cart not come rattling up behind us, causing Mother to ex- tract herself from our embrace and offer a curt nod of greeting to the farmer who passed us by, what might she have said?

“Come along,” she urged, self-consciously straightening her sleeves as the cart rumbled off. “Your father will be expecting his dinner.”

My heart sank as I imagined his harsh complaints if we were late. Mother ran a finger gently along my cheek.

“Your face is so browned from the harvesting,” she said. “Time your brothers took on more of the field work. I won’t have you grow up with the skin of a country bumpkin.”

“Then you agree?” I asked hesitantly. “That I might find a place at court one day?” My stomach fluttered with expectation.

“Now is hardly the time for such a discussion,” she said. “We shall see, when you are older.”

At ten years old, I felt my future stretch before me as an unending horizon, with the years of my adulthood impossibly distant. There was time enough to ponder my prospects, to plot the course of my life. But whenever I tried to raise the subject of going into service, Mother changed the subject, and in time I stopped asking.

We did not speak of the castle again until the day she died.

The spring I turned fourteen, fierce rainstorms turned our fields into rivers of mud, delaying the planting even as our winter food stores dwindled. Father had begun to speak of marrying me off early, saying that it would be one less mouth to feed, and such was my hunger that I might have said “I do” to any man who offered me a warm meal. While some trade on their looks to improve their marriage prospects, I did not think such a tactic could work in my favor. When I gazed at my re- flection in the river, I saw no signs of the beauty that was remarked upon in certain other girls of the village. While their hair was golden blond and their eyes blue or green, my thick, wavy hair was a deep

chestnut brown. My dark eyes, while large and pleasingly framed by long lashes, were incapable of mimicking the flirtatious glances other women had perfected; I looked upon the world with a direct, forthright gaze. I did note a few marks in my favor: My complexion was clear and even, and the curves of my hips and chest gave my body a healthy solid- ity. With the right clothes, I might make a fitting shopkeeper’s wife, a fate that had become the height of my ambition.

In the end another village wedding allowed me to delay my own. A wealthy landowner’s wife hired Mother to embroider linens for her soon-to-be-married daughter, saving us from starvation. I shouldered as much of the burden as I could, sitting by the fireside well into the night with a needle in hand, squinting at the flowers I created with colored thread. Life in our one-room cottage revolved around the fireplace, the only place one could be assured of warmth. My mother spent hours there, cooking and heating water for washing; when it was too cool to dry laundry outside, damp underclothes hung on a line in front of the hearth, and we had to fight with the swaying fabric to claim a spot for ourselves. The flour, salt, and oats we were paid for the needlework al- lowed our family to survive another month, and we thought the worst behind us.

Then the cows fell sick.

We had three, an ancient bull that Father used in the fields and two milk cows. I was the first to notice the red scabs on their teats as I milked the cows early one morning. They felt scaly but showed no signs of blood, and I gave them no further thought. It wasn’t until the next day, when one of the cows stared at me with dazed eyes, leaning against the side of the barn, that I realized something was terribly wrong.

As I went outside to tell my father, I saw him coming toward me, muttering with frustration. He used to hang his head low when he was angry, hurling curses to the ground as he walked, and he did so now.

“Father . . .” I began.

“Hush!” he spat at me. “Sukey’s dead.”

My heart dropped. Sukey was the name we used for the biggest of our pigs; whenever one Sukey died, the next largest took the name, and so the cycle progressed. This latest Sukey had given birth to a litter of pigs not a week before. If she were not alive to suckle them, they might all die, and with them went our meat for the rest of the year.

“What happened?” I asked, trailing after him on the way to the house.

“The pox.”

It was all that needed to be said. The pox was an ailment that swept through farms with no warning, sickening livestock and people with alarming fickleness. It might be mild and merely weaken creatures for a few days, but it also could prove devastating. It was reputed to have killed entire families in the village once, years before I was born.

It was my mother who first noticed the spots on my face the follow- ing day. I had woken with a dry, raspy cough and a fever, but that in itself was no reason for me to be excused from my daily labors. Only com- plete infirmity merited a rest in my parents’ bed, with its feather-stuffed mattress. Usually we children slept packed together in a loft under the eaves, a bleak expanse of wood topped with a pile of straw and worn blankets. It was tolerable when I had to share it with only Nairn, the brother closest to me in age, but as a new sibling appeared almost every year, it grew steadily more crowded. I was often startled awake in the middle of the night by a foot kicking my stomach or an arm flung across my face.

“What is this?” Mother asked, peering at my cheek. “What?” I asked.

“These spots.” She pushed the hair away from my face and put her palm against my forehead. “You’re burning up.”

I was ready to protest that I felt well enough, until I saw the fear in her face. She was holding my youngest brother in one arm, and she pulled him closer to her body, away from the threat of my illness. The heat I had tried to ignore flashed through my body, leaving a chill in its wake. My skin prickled as if the pox were about to burst through in angry red eruptions.

Mother laid the baby down in the cradle by the fireplace and pulled my wool dress off, leaving me in my chemise.

“You must rest,” she urged, pushing me toward her bed. “If you take care, I have heard that the pox can pass without lasting harm.”

I chose to believe her. What girl, at fourteen, ever thought she was mortal?

The following days passed in an eternal hazy twilight, for the illness tormented its sufferers with a wakefulness that allowed no respite from its horrors. My body blazed with pain as the pox erupted across my skin, yet I was unable to escape into the oblivion of sleep. Delirious, I saw visions of the castle and imagined myself walking along its wide corridors. It was warm, always warm, as I passed one fireplace after an- other. I gawked at the flames, amazed by the extravagance that allowed hearths to burn day and night. I have dim memories of my mother sit- ting on the edge of the bed, leaning over to wipe my forehead with a wet cloth. Then leaning forward to do the same to my brother Nairn beside me and another brother beside him. Mother watched us without expression, staring as if the heat of our fevers had scorched her eyes to blindness. The baby lay in her lap, ominously still. I closed my eyes, re- signed to death.

Yet that was not to be my fate. After what might have been hours or years, I became aware of the sweat-stained pillow against my cheek, felt the weight of the blanket spread across my chest. My eyes burned with

exhaustion, yet the fever that had so tormented me had subsided. I saw Nairn lying next to me, his face red and distorted with swelling. I heard his breath laboriously draw inward, then wheeze out. The rest of the bed was empty. Across the room faint embers glowed in the fireplace. Our house, usually bustling and crowded, was silent.

I sat up too quickly, for my head pounded with the effort and I had to shut my eyes to block out the swimming images before me. After the rushing sensation quieted, I looked again. By the dim light of the dying fire, I saw a pile of clothes thrown on the floor. Again Nairn took a shuddering breath and seemed as if he might expire from the effort. I looked at the heap of clothes and saw a movement.

A rat, I thought. They made their way into the house from time to time but rarely lingered, as we ate every crumb we had. I pulled myself from the bed, willing myself the strength to stand and shoo the intruder away. It was not until I had walked unsteadily across the room that I re- alized the pile of clothes was my mother.

I collapsed next to her. She was wrapped in her cloak, with the hood pulled over her head. Her legs were pressed up against her chest, her hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. I plucked the hood away and was confronted with a terrible sight: my mother’s face, drawn and tired in all the time I had known her but with faint traces of loveliness still, had been transformed to that of a monster. Red sores that oozed pus and blood had erupted from her skin. Her neck was disfigured by a massive swelling, and her lips, stained with blood, were frozen in a rigor of pain. Her eyes slowly opened. They had once been blue and kind; now they were pink and empty of all feeling.

“Mother.” It was all I could think to say. I was not sure she knew me. Her body did not move, but one hand emerged from the fabric and reached toward me. Her lips parted slightly, and a sound escaped. It

could have been my name, it could have been a moan of pain; I could not tell.

“Please, come to the bed,” I urged. I could not think of any way to tend to her, but it sickened me to see her there, lying on the floor like an animal. She deserved better than such a fate.

“Elise.”

This time I recognized my name, and I smiled. If she still knew me, there might be hope yet.

“Come.” I pulled at her shoulders. She lifted them slightly and reached toward me with her arms, but she was not strong enough to stand. I dragged her as best I could across the room, hoping her skirt would lessen the impact to her legs, but she did not complain. I draped her head and arms against the side of the bed, then leaned over to lift her lower body upward. My head ached with the effort, and by the time I had laid her next to Nairn, I was afraid I might faint. I crawled into the bed beside her and began stroking her arm.

“Mother, the others . . .” I began, then stopped. Her watery eyes stared into mine, confirming what I could not put into words. They were dead. In the time I’d been lost to fever, my family had vanished. I remembered seeing the baby in her lap, so small and so still. I hoped it had been quick for him at least.

Yet I lived. Which meant this pox, this terrible scourge that had laid waste to my family, could be conquered. Weak as I was, I could feel my head clearing, my body gathering strength. I wrapped my arms around her body—so very thin, little more than bones—willing the life to re- turn to her.

“Please,” I begged, “do not leave me. I cannot bear it here with- out you.”

“Agna.” She said it so slowly and quietly, barely even a whisper. The

swelling in her neck must have made speaking unbearably painful, and I

could feel her suffering with every word. “You must go.”

I leaned my head closer to hers, so she would not have to make an effort to be heard. A thin stream of blood trickled from her nose, and I wiped it gently with the edge of my sleeve.

“Yes, I will go to St. Elsip,” I agreed, “but not till you are well. We can go together.”

Her hands fumbled laboriously in the folds of her skirt. I clutched them in my own, as if my touch could prevent her from leaving me. Her fingers pulled away from my grasp and plucked at her ragged dress. Fol- lowing her gaze, I looked toward the hem. She nodded, moaning with the effort, and I ran my fingers along the bottom of her dress until I found a hard lump. I could make out the shape of a metal coin, then another and another. Money she had hidden away, unbeknownst to my father. Money that would allow my escape.

The thought of starting a new life alone, without her, brought tears streaming down my cheeks. A keening sound, hardly louder than a whisper, rumbled from Mother’s throat, and I realized she was trying to comfort me, that witnessing my sorrow brought more pain than the torments of her body. Determined not to add to her suffering, I sup- pressed my sobs and forced a smile.

“Do not worry,” I said. “I will find a place at the castle. I will do you proud.”

Her hands suddenly gripped my forearms, and I flinched at the sharp pressure of her fingernails. My fever had not yet fully subsided, but her skin felt like fire against mine. She could no longer speak, only breathe quickly and shallowly, as one does when climbing a steep hill. I can hardly bear to think upon the memory: my beloved mother, so close to death yet so desperate to protect me. A single word escaped her parched

lips. It sounded like “pell,” though it might just have easily been “bell.” Was she warning me away? Urging me to go? Frantic, I asked her what it meant, but she could emit no more than a hoarse rasp.

“I will fetch water,” I said, frantic to do something, anything, to ease her distress.

I struggled up from the bed. One of my brothers’ first duties in the morning had been to fetch water from the well, but when had that last been done? The pail stood between the doorway and the fireplace, as if it had been dropped in a rush. I peered inside and saw a shallow pool of water barely covering the bottom. It was enough to wet a corner of my chemise, and I carried it, dripping, to the bed.

But I was too late. My mother’s eyes were closed, and she lay mo- tionless, her face horribly altered by the ravages of disease but free of the rigor of pain. She was at peace. I crumpled by the side of the bed, surrendering to despair. Grief and shock weighed down my weakened body, and I might have been a newborn again, unable to speak or stand. Without my mother, my protector, I had nothing. I sat slumped on hands and knees for what felt like hours, so drained by the ordeal of her death that I could not even cry.

The only sound in the room came from Nairn’s shuddering breaths. One after the other they came, slow but increasingly steady. Grimly, I forced myself to rise from the floor. My brother’s face was flushed, but his skin did not blaze with heat as my mother’s had. I might yet salvage one life.

I picked up the pail and stumbled toward the door, intent on fetching fresh water from the well. When I walked outside, it was a surprise to be greeted by daylight. The closed-up house had seemed to exist in an eternal night. I heard sounds coming from the barn; the horse at least might have survived. As I approached the building, the door was flung open, and I stood face-to-face with my father.

“Elise!” He froze in place, astonished. I must have presented quite a sight in my chemise, flushed and filthy, but his appearance was even more shocking. For the father I had taken for dead looked the same as ever. Weathered, as always, with bent shoulders and a suspicious frown. But healthy.

“I thought . . . I thought you were dead,” I said.

“I thought the same of you.” We stood staring at each other, two ghosts.

“Mother,” I mumbled, “she said . . .” “She lives?” Father asked, surprised.

I shook my head, and my voice trembled. “She is gone.”

“Aye, it’s as I expected. I thought she might have passed on yesterday, but I couldn’t be sure.”

How could he not know if his wife lived or died? “Were you not tending to her?” I asked.

His face settled into the dark cast it took before I got a beating. “I did my best, missy. I watched my livestock die off, one by one, till I was left with but a few chickens and a horse. I buried my boys, four of them, while you lay abed!”

It did not escape me that he spoke of the livestock before his children. “Should I have stayed in that house and risked dying myself ?” he asked. “Who do you think left water and food at the door each morn-

ing? How dare you say I did not look to my family!”

He might have helped us live. But I would not bow in gratitude for his feeble offerings.

“I bedded down here in the straw,” he continued, “but now you’re better, you can get the house sorted. Just as well that I sleep in my own bed for a change.”

“You forgot to ask after Nairn.”

Father watched me, neither mournful nor hopeful. Simply waiting.

“I think he will live.”

“Good,” Father said. “He’s a strong one. I’ll need his help clearing the fields.”

“He’s in no state to plow,” I said sharply. “He cannot even stand.” “He’ll be well soon enough. You can see to him until then. A few

other farms lost animals, but none as bad as us, and those who were spared have sent meat and pies, enough to keep us from starvation. I’ll show you what I’ve got stocked away in the barn, and you can take on the cooking for this evening. Start by cleaning yourself; find something of your mother’s to wear.”

She was not yet in her grave, and already he was urging me to rifle through her things. The anger I had kept tamped down for so many years swelled up, a river overflowing its banks.

“I will set the house in order for my brother’s sake, not yours.” He stared, caught short by my defiance.

“As soon as the funeral is held, I will leave for St. Elsip. Mother ar- ranged a place at court for me.” The lie slipped so easily from my lips that I almost believed it the truth.

“Court?” He came the closest I ever saw to laughing—his eyes wid- ened and his mouth hung open. “They’ll slam the door in your face.”

“I’ll find a better living there than here,” I said.

To this he had no reply. I spent the rest of that endless day cleaning until my hands were raw and stinging, stopping only when my head spun with fatigue and I feared I would faint. Father wrapped Mother’s body in a sheet, grumbling about the cost of replacing it, and said she could lie in the barn until a funeral service could be arranged with the village priest. Before Father did his grim duty, I asked for a moment alone with her to pray. As he paced outside the door, I knelt alongside Mother and whispered what was in my heart: how much I loved her, my vow to do her proud. All the while my fingers crept along the hem of

her underskirt, my nails cutting through the thread that held it together, until I felt the smooth metal disks slip into my hand. Five silver coins. All that my mother had to show for a lifetime of labor. I slid them into my shoe and rushed from the house before Father could see my red eyes and wet cheeks.

During the following days, as my strength gradually returned, I saw Father only for meals. I ate more from determination than hunger, but I was heartened to see Nairn’s vigor return, and I sometimes set an extra portion aside for him to eat after Father had returned to the fields. I never saw my brother cry. As soon as he was able to walk, he spent most hours in the animal paddocks or helping Father clear out weeds. I did not begrudge him the wish to escape a house that had seen so much death.

Mother was laid to rest on a bright, clear day, her body buried beside those of her sons in the village churchyard. I had never attended a fu- neral before, and only in hindsight did I realize that the priest performed the quickest rite possible, most likely because my father had skimped on the fee. Rushed as the ceremony might have been, I felt the weight of my grief lighten for a moment, as if God himself were urging me to lay it down. Mother and the boys had been welcomed into heaven. Their suffering had ended.

The next morning, as dawn started to push aside the darkness, I climbed down from the sleeping loft, past Father snoring in the bed. I gathered the small bundle that held my few possessions: a chemise, a pair of winter stockings, a few needles and some thread, and a small loaf of bread. I carefully opened the chest that held my parents’ clothing and took out Mother’s best dress, the one she had saved for Sundays. With the years it had become worn and stained, marked forever as a peasant’s garment. Still, the fabric was of better quality than that of my tattered clothes, and I pulled it on.

I heard a rustle of straw behind me and turned to see Nairn peer- ing down from the loft. I offered a smile, but he only nodded somberly before turning away. Perhaps, given the losses he had already suffered, he could not summon the will to grieve my absence. Such was my leave- taking from the only home I had ever known.

I headed for the cart path that led toward the village, the lure of what lay before me overpowering my fear. Where did I find the strength to take step after step into the unknown, alone and unprotected? To this day I cannot explain why I set my sights so single-mindedly on the cas- tle. All I can say is that I felt called, whether by devilish temptation or God’s will I’ll never know.

Or do I?

Is it possible that Millicent, on the hunt for an acolyte, sent out a call that only I was capable of hearing, a call I was powerless to resist? It would be madness to believe such a thing. Yet what else could explain the unshakable certainty that drew me forward? Every great legend is at its heart a tale of innocence lost, and perhaps that was the role I was destined to play. I was ignorant indeed of the choices that lay ahead, choices that would raise me to heights I never imagined and others that pierce my heart with anguish to this day.

Two

to the castle

Two days later, squeezed in the back of a jostling cart with an assortment of hogs and sheep, I arrived in St. Elsip. Good for- tune had hastened my journey, for I had not walked more than

a mile when I was offered a ride by a passing farmer and his wife who were traveling in the same direction. My anticipation rose so high that the first sight of our destination came as a crushing disappointment: The ramshackle buildings on the outskirts of town were not much dif- ferent from the humble country shacks I had left behind. But then the cart turned a corner and I saw it: a soaring fortress of stone encircling the top of a rugged hill. The castle. From that distance only the outer walls were clearly visible, yet my heart leaped all the same. I could hear Mother’s words, as clearly as if she sat beside me: It was the most won- drous place I have ever seen.

How I ached for her in that moment! It is only now I realize that my hunger to enter those gates was fueled by grief. Deep down I hoped that some trace of my mother’s spirit would linger in those grand halls.

On we drove, as modest dwellings gave way to solidly built homes that pressed up against one another. Taverns began to outnumber view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. The author tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of a maid, a character who is not part of the original fairy tale. Why do you think she made this decision? How would the book have been different if it had been told in Rose’s voice?

2. The narrator never specifies the country or year in which the story is set. Did you picture a particular place or historical era while you were reading? Why did the author chose to omit those details?

3. Elise is raised in rural poverty, yet she becomes the queen’s personal servant at a very young age. Did you find her rapid rise believable? What talents allow her to thrive in a royal household?

4. Elise first hears Millicent described as an “old witch” by Petra and admits she is “shaken” by their initial encounter. Why, then, does she crave Millicent’s approval? Is it possible to fear and admire someone at the same time?

5. Why does Elise reject Marcus’s first offer of marriage? Does she make the right decision?

6. After accepting Dorian’s proposal, Elise admits, “I did not love him, and I did not entirely trust him.” Yet she seems very attracted to him. Does she make the right decision in agreeing to marry him? How do her feelings for Dorian change during their marriage? Did your opinion of him change during the course of the book?

7. Consider the role Flora plays in her family’s fate. How does she influence the way in which things turn out? Is she an admirable character? Why or why not?

8. During their final, deadly encounter, Elise says of Millicent: “Had she not been born a woman, what a ruler she might have been! Freed of the bitterness that had so corrupted her soul, she would have been capable of greatness.” Do you agree? To what extent are Millicent’s actions driven by frustrated ambition—ambition that might be admired if she were a man? Do you think she is inherently evil?

9. The castle is a rigidly hierarchical society, where women and servants are expected to live within very restricted roles. Which characters are able to go beyond the limitations of their position? How do they do it? What does the book reveal about the not-so-glamorous realities of living in a royal family?

10. How do the book’s events differ from your own memories of the Sleeping Beauty story? Were you surprised by the author’s decision to turn the traditional tale on its head by making Rose unable to sleep? Were you struck by any other differences from the story as it is usually told? What is this fairy tale’s enduring appeal?

Suggested by Members

what choices women had then vs nowaways
love vs passion - then vs now
role of duty to family vs seeking your own destiny
by barbchickweed (see profile) 04/28/14

What constitutes love? Is passion a form of love?
Would you choose duty over love? Was Elise's choice a different form of love?
Treatment of women, then and now.
by bayleaf (see profile) 04/28/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Elizabeth Blackwell is a story-telling genius. Her mesmerizing writing weaves a spell that will enchant you. While Beauty Slept breathes new life into the fairytale genre with a historical twist that will take your breath away. —Meg Cabot, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Princess Diaries and Heather Wells mystery series

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by mamabearreads (see profile) 05/15/14

 
by barbchickweed (see profile) 04/28/14

While Beauty Slept is a back story telling of the fairy story (or is it the Disney story) of Sleeping Beauty. While it starts off a bit slowly establishing necessary linkage and character and history,... (read more)

 
  "While Beauty Slept"by bayleaf (see profile) 04/28/14

I recommend as a book club read with reservations. It's an easy book, slow at time, but an interesting take on a much-read tale. My reservation is that there isn't a lot of material for discussion or... (read more)

 
  "while beauty slept"by Carolynr (see profile) 05/01/16

Elise hears her great granddaughter recount a tale about a beautiful princes awakened by a handsome prince. It pushes open door to the past. For Elise was the companion to the real princess... (read more)

 
by vernandglen (see profile) 06/13/14

 
by Bether (see profile) 05/22/14

 
by Neverdust (see profile) 05/13/14

 
by lnemeth80 (see profile) 05/13/14

 
by hc9smith (see profile) 04/07/14

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