Once upon a rosemary, there was a young man who…no, wait, that’s wrong. Sage? Parsley? Thyme? Time! That’s it! Once upon a time! (Gee, you’d think I’d be able to remember that by now) Anyway, once upon a time, there was a young man named Gustavson Von Hildergrandenfösen, III. But most people just called him “Gus.”
Despite his super-fancy name, Gus was not very fancy. Indeed, he was just the son of a poor miller. And yet, every Friday in the nearby village of Neerbeigh, the young ladies all made themselves as pretty as possible and lined the streets awaiting Gus, who came once a week to deliver flour to the baker. Because despite his being poor and everything, Gus was known throughout the county as a real cutie.
And he was. Very cute. Almost too cute. Like, even some of the guys of the village watched him walk by and then went home and asked themselves some pretty searching questions but that’s not really what this story is about.
Every Friday, Gus would load up a wheelbarrow with some sacks of flour and push them all the way to Neerbeigh because he and his father were too poor even to afford a mule to carry the load for them. And as soon as he set foot within the city limits…
“Good morning, Gus!”
The single women (and more than a few married ones come to that) swarmed him immediately. He smiled politely at them but he sort of wished they would leave him alone. You see, he knew that the only reason any of them liked him was because of the way he looked. And yet, if he had proposed to any of these girls, they would instantly say yes, even though they didn’t know anything about him. So Gus just had to smile and say “good morning” and try to get in and out of town as fast as possible.
Far away from Neerbeigh, on the road from the village of Pharraufff, a large, cloaked traveler was riding on a massive horse. The traveler passed another traveler walking the other way and asked him, “Excuse me, sir, is this the way to the village of Neerbeigh?”
“Yes it is, stranger,” said the second traveler.
“Do you know the village well?”
“I ought to. Lived there all my lie.”
“Then you would know if there was, by chance, a handsome young man living there?”
“Oh, you mean Gus?”
“Gus? And he is handsome?”
“Probably the hottest guy in the entire world. Yeah, any girl in Neerbeigh would let a horse kick their teeth out for a chance at marrying Gus.”
“Thank you,” said the cloaked traveler. “Here’s a coin for your assistance.”
The second traveler smiled then looked aghast as the cloaked traveler held out a hand. But what a hand! Huge and covered in black fur, except the palms, which were sort of gray. The hand was clenched in a fist but opened to drop a gold coin in the hand of the man who had told the stranger about Gus.
“Erm…thank you?” said the second traveler, then ran down the road screaming until he arrived at a tavern where he used the coin to buy a few stiff drinks.
The very next day, there was a knock on the door of the mill. The Miller opened it and the large, cloaked figure was standing there.
“Can I help you?” asked the Miller.
“I believe,” said the cloaked figure, “that we can help one another. I understand you have a son named Gus. A strong, hard-working young man.”
“I happen to be in need of someone like that to serve me in my castle. I would like to hire your son as my valet.”
“I’m sorry, stranger, but I couldn’t part with Gus. He’s all I have. I couldn’t run this mill without him.”
“I understand. But, perhaps, you could afford to hire some more hands…with this?”
The stranger once again extended the hairy, black hand to drop a bag of gold coins at the Miller’s feet. “This,” the stranger continued, “would be in addition to Gus’ wages, of course.”
Well, father and son discussed the matter and ultimately decided to accept the stranger’s offer. The mill would flourish with the help of that gold and Gus would finally be free of those annoying girls in the village.
“Sir,” said the Miller at last. “You have a deal.”
“Thank you, Miller,” said the figure, two hands reaching up to hood of the cloak, “but it’s not sir…” The Miller and Gus were shocked as the figure lowered her hood to reveal the head of a huge, black ape! “It’s ma’am,” she continued, though her voice sounded slightly more feminine now, as though she had been pretending before. “Madame Viulinu, if you please.”
So that’s how our cute friend, Gus, found himself riding in a coach to the far off kingdom of Pharrauff with an ape called Madame Viulinu.
“I am sorry to take you away from your home,” said Madame Viulinu who, despite being a gorilla, was very elegant and well-spoken.
“No,” said Gus, who was still kind of freaked out by all this. “Not at all. I was never really happy there. I’ll miss my father, of course, but little else.”
“No friends? No sweetheart?”
“Not really. People in town are polite and everything, but I was never exactly friends with any of them. And, no, no sweetheart. The girls in that village were…not exactly my type.”
“And what is your type, if I may ask?”
“Well…someone who wants to get to know the real me, I suppose. Not just marry me because of how I look.”
“I see,” said Madame Viulinu and was silent for the duration of the journey.
It did not take long for Gus to settle in at Castle Viulinu. There was a small staff already in place and he was made to feel welcome by almost all of them. The only one who seemed to resent Gus’ presence was the cook, Bruno, who wasted no time in antagonizing the newcomer and, in particular, making fun of him for his looks.
“I don’t suppose a man like you is used to hard work,” said Bruno instead of the more conventional, “nice to meet you, Gus.”
“I’ll have you know I worked very hard at my father’s mill.”
“Don’t mind him,” said a pretty chambermaid named Hortensia. “He’s like that with everybody. I’m sure you’ll get along here perfectly.”
“Thank you…look, I hate to be so blunt about this, but if no one else is going to mention it, I’m going to have to do it myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your mistress is a monkey!”
“No, she’s not…She’s a gorilla.”
“Yeah, fine, whatever. Do you really not find that unusual?”
“Well, I suppose it is a little. But she’s still, you know, nice and everything. Just because she’s ugly doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“After all, you’re gorgeous and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.”
“Fair enough, but…wait, what was that?”
“Oh, come on! Don’t be modest. You know perfectly well that you’re stunningly beautiful.”
“Well…okay, I guess I am good-looking. The girls in my old village used to say I was a cutie.”
“Hmm, that’s funny. So, did the boys in my old village. How about that?”
The work was much easier than what he was used to at the mill. In fact, Madame Viulinu mostly looked after herself. Gus found that he had much of his time free to explore the magnificent castle. There was a lot that was worth looking at. The architecture, the grounds, the tapestries…Hortensia.
Yes, she was easily the most beautiful part of Castle Viulinu. Gus found himself gazing at her the way the girls in his village used to gaze at him. She was undoubtedly aware of his attention, and seemed to enjoy it, returning the favor every chance she got.
“Enjoying the view?”
Gus was shocked to hear Madame Viulinu’s voice from behind him. He was watching Hortensia polishing the banisters when his mistress had snuck up behind him (surprisingly gracefully for an ape).
“Forgive me, madam,” he said, hastily. “I was just…”
“I know what you were just, and it’s all right. I’m not angry at you. I just thought it was a little odd, is all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m surprised that you’re interested in Hortensia.”
“Are you kidding? Look at her!” Gus immediately regretted saying this to a creature as ugly as Madame Viulinu. But she smiled.
“Yes, she is beautiful…but you once told me that you wanted to be with someone who was interested in getting to know you. Not just the way you look. Tell me: Have you and Hortensia gotten to know each other at all in the week since you’ve been here?”
“Well…no, I suppose not.”
“Then how are you any different from those girls in your village?” Without waiting for an answer, Madame Viulinu walked away, but she had given Gus a lot to think about. He was being sort of shallow. So, he asked Hortensia to have dinner with him that night.
“I hear you and Hortensia had a date last night.” Gus was clearing away Madame Viulinu’s breakfast tray the following morning when the ape said this to him. “How did it go?”
“It was…it went…fine.”
“Yes. Really. It was…no, it wasn’t fine. It was bad.”
“Really? What went wrong?”
“Well, she didn’t really want to talk at all. I asked her questions about herself, she barely answered them and never asked me anything about myself. It seems like her ideal date would have been the two of us staring at each other all night and then back to her place for…well, never mind.”
“I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t have a good time.”
“Not at all. In fact, I was going to thank you.”
“For what you said to me yesterday. You were right. I was being just as shallow as those girls from the village. I think I’ll be a bit more cautious in the future.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Do you ride, Gus?”
Madame Viulinu loved to go horseback riding, but she never had anyone to go with her. Gus was only too happy to accompany her and they spent many happy hours riding together.
Riding was just the beginning. More and more often Madame Viulinu asked Gus to join her for a game of croquet or chess or some other activity. And they always had a lot of fun together. They even began discussing books they had each read and recommending books to one another. After only two months of living in Castle Viulinu, Gus was already more of a friend than an employee. Which was good news for everyone…except Bruno.
“Who do you think you are?”
Madame Viulinu had already gone to bed at this point and Gus was helping himself to something to eat in the kitchen when Bruno cornered him.
“Spending so much time with the mistress. What are you playing at?”
“What are you talking about?”
“A man as good-looking as you, spending all of his free time with that beast?”
“Hey! She’s not a beast. And you would do well to remember yourself.”
“Don’t give me that! She’s a monster and you know it. The world is full of beautiful women and you spend every waking minute with a gorilla! What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing is wrong with me. I like Madame Viulinu. She’s the first person I’ve ever met who likes me for who I am. She’s…she’s my friend.”
“You really mean that don’t you?” said Bruno, suddenly more subdued. “You really…just…like her?”
“Yes! What’s so hard to believe about that?”
“Nothing. Not a thing. Gus, I’m sorry. I’ve misjudged you.” With that, the cook left Gus alone in the kitchen, feeling very confused.
The next morning, as he always did, Gus went to clear away his mistress’ breakfast tray. When he entered her bedroom, he found the tray sitting on the end of the bed, but Madame Viulinu was nowhere to be seen.
“Madame Viulinu?” he asked the empty room.
“I’m in here,” came a voice from the bathroom. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“I can come back later, if you…”
“No, it’s fine. I have something to tell you. Bruno quit this morning.”
“Yes. Apparently he’s a pretty sore loser and couldn’t take it that I’d won. But after the fight you two had last night, he knew that I had and so he told me this morning and—”
“Wait, wait, wait…won what?”
“Our bet. We made it a few months ago when he asked me to marry him.”
“He…he what? What are you talking about?”
“Let me explain,” said Madame Viulinu and stepped out of the bathroom where Gus could see her. Except it wasn’t Madame Viulinu. Not the Madame Viulinu that Gus knew. The one who had come to hire him all those months ago. There was no great, black ape, but a woman. A beautiful human woman in a silk bathrobe. A woman Gus had never seen before…and yet he had. Every single part of her was different, and yet somehow exactly the same as…
“It’s me, Gus. The real me. I’m not really a gorilla. I am, however, a very powerful sorceress.”
“Okay…no, sorry, that still doesn’t make anything clearer.”
So, Madame Viulinu (whose first name is Nicole, by the way) explained: About a week before she had knocked on Gus’ front door, she had been talking with an old friend (who was also a sorcerer) named Bruno. Bruno had asked for her hand in marriage, but though his proposal was eloquent, all he said was that she was beautiful. He didn’t seem to care about anything else except how she looked. She told him as much and he laughed at her.
“That,” he said, “is what love is! All anybody wants is someone beautiful.”
“That’s not true! Love is much deeper than outward beauty.”
“Nonsense! No man in the world cares about a woman who’s not beautiful. That’s a fact of life.”
So, Nicole made a bet with Bruno that she could make herself ugly and still find someone who would care about her. If she had not won the man’s affections in three months, she would agree to marry Bruno. If, however, she succeeded, he would have to marry Hortensia.
“Hortensia?” asked Gus.
“Oh, right,” said Nicole. “She doesn’t really look the way you think she does. Actually, she’s sort of overweight and plain. But Bruno used his power to make her look more beautiful in the hopes that it would distract you from getting to know me.”
“Which I guess it did.”
“For a little while. But, you learned your lesson. So, there you go. I turned myself into a gorilla to see if you would still like me for who I was, even if I wasn’t beautiful. And, from what you said to Bruno last night, I know that it worked. Which means now I can go back to being a girl, which will be a great relief to my horses.”
Gus laughed. “I just have one more question.”
“Well…I know you only hired me as part of this bet of yours…do you still want me to stay? This is the best job I ever had and I’d hate to lose it.”
“Of course you can stay. Now that my cook and chambermaid have quit, I can’t have my valet quitting too.”
So Gus stayed on at the Castle and his friendship with Nicole blossomed into love which, as you probably already guessed cuz this is a fairy tale, blossomed into marriage. There were, it must be said, some side effects from the spell she cast on herself. She ate bananas more often than she used to and she tended to be a bit…hairier than before. But, apart from these little niggles, Madame Nicole Viulinu and Gustavson Von Hildergrandenfösen, III (and, after a few rough years, Bruno and Hortensia) lived happily ever after.