by Anxious Owl
What if Cinderella thought she was the ugly stepsister? A twist on a classic fairytale.
Early the next morning I had already run to the post office and back and was ready to begin the work of the day. I made breakfast for everyone, with toast and fried eggs and sausage. When that was all eaten I washed the dishes and put them away. Then I set about going to each room and collecting the dirty laundry before carrying it all to the back patio where the two big wash tubs were waiting. I dreaded laundry day. I had to take water pails to the pump and haul them back and forth to fill the giant tubs before I could even begin. To make things worse, as I was lugging the last bucket of water I slipped and fell into the muddy ground next to the pump. My dress was ruined.
Frustrated, I quickly pulled it off and dunked it into the soapy water, hoping to save it from staining. Once I had hung it to dry, the dress was saved but my sour mood remained. I ran towards the house in nothing but my petticoats to fetch a clean dress. As I was running though, I caught a glimpse of someone through the brush of our overgrown garden. I almost continued to run, fearful that mother or Fred were out in the gardens. But I caught a second glimpse through the trees and it became clear, the person lurking in the gardens was Bella.
I stopped and peered at her. She was sitting on our swing, the one she had shown the prince. She was just sitting there, staring at her shoes. Perhaps it was unjustified but an anger boiled up inside me that I could not, or did not want to contain. How could she just sit dreaming in the garden when I had to work hard to clean the clothes and ruin my dress in the process? Why could she not do her fair share?
I stomped through the brush and into the clearing with the swing.
“Bella! Don’t you have something you should be doing?” I glared at her. She looked up at me calmly.
“Where did your clothes go?” she asked and giggled. I was not amused.
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t you have some chore to be doing? Everyone else is doing their job why do you get to just sit there?”
“I was just thinking about the prince.”
“And you can’t multi-task?” I spat out. Bella was angry now.
“Don’t you ever think there’s more to life than just chores Izzy? Don’t you want something more for yourself? Don’t you dream? Who cares about whether the floors are scrubbed now or later or tomorrow or never?”
“I care!” I said. “I have to walk on them every day. And I work all day to do my share for this family, why can’t you?” Frustration I hadn’t known I’d been pushing down came rushing out of me, and I couldn’t stop it.
“Doing your fair share? I am the one that everyone is depending on to marry the prince,” Bella jammed her thumb into her chest. “I am the one whose love life is going to get us out of this mess and save the house. So in the end, it only matters whether I mess up or not. If you don’t do the laundry you can always do it tomorrow, but if I don’t get the prince to marry me, we will be on the street! So don’t talk to me about doing my fair share!”
She threw her hands in the air. I could see angry tears pooling at corners of her eyes. She batted at them and then stalked away, leaving me alone, and naked in the garden.
“And you wonder why I worry when you can’t even complete simple chores!” I called after her, but my true anger was gone.
I hadn’t thought of how much pressure she must have felt. To think her family’s fate was resting on her like that, and at barely sixteen…. I was suddenly overcome with guilt.
I went inside and put on a dress. Then I searched the house, until I found in her the basement, clearing out the cobwebs around the furnace.
“Bella?” I said softly. She turned around, and brandished her broom at me. “I’m sorry,” I said. Bella gulped and lowered the broom. I rushed in and hugged her, hard.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again. She dropped the broom and hugged me back. We stayed that way for a long time.
After a while I pulled away and picked up the broom.
“Why don’t you go rest?” I told her. “I can do this.”
“But what about the rest of your chores?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll manage,” I smiled at her. She gave me a grateful look and left.
It took me till well into the night, but I finished both my chores and Bella’s. I didn’t mind it. It was nice to know I was finally doing something to help.
It was not long before Eloise responded to my letter.
How wonderful to hear from you! It has been far too long. You must forgive me for dropping our correspondence. I have been quite busy running the household lately. However, I expect that our communication would have resumed shortly even if you had not written me such a lovely note, for I have such news! I am with child! I have been these seven months. You will, of course, be invited to the christening. But I have been confined to my chambers now and oh how lonely it is! I would love if you would come to visit and keep me company, and we may chat and carry on as we always used to. Come at your earliest convenience, for I have little to do but rest and await your arrival.
I took the letter straight to Mother.
“Oh please,” I said before she had even finished reading, “Please, I could really use the change of scenery. I’ll do extra chores before I leave and when I come back, the house will be fine for a few days or a week without me.”
“A week?” Mother lifted an eyebrow. I blushed.
“Well I don’t see why not. I would not mind a vacation either if I had the opportunity,” Mother looked back down at the letter and continued to read. “Didn’t Eloise marry the Count de la Tour?” she asked.
“What a match,” she tutted. “I expect that since Eloise will so soon have a child that some of the Count’s relatives will be paying him a visit to celebrate the birth,” she eyed me over the top of the page. “It would do you no harm to make their acquaintance, Drizzella.”
Her stern look was hard to deny. However, it may have been equally difficult to keep the look of disgust off my face.
“Of course, Mother,” I said, while wrinkling my nose. “Then I shall write to Eloise that I will visit her in three days time?” I turned the conversation back to my point of interest.
“As you wish.”
Before I could receive further advice I fled to write my response and begin to make arrangements for my departure.
As I was leaving to post my letter, I came across Ana on our front stoop. She was holding a broom, but not using it. She stared into the ground without moving.
“Ana?” I called to her. She jumped, but gave a weak smile when she saw me.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine, just fine. I miss Fred but I’m all right,” she swept a little just to move about.
“Did you talk to him? How did he take it?”
“He understood. Of course he understood, he’s so good. He thought it was practical.”
“Well, it is,” I said gently. “You two will be back together and wed soon enough”
Ana smiled, truly this time.
“I know. It will all be fine soon. I’m just being silly.”
I looked at her sympathetically.
“I’m going into town. Would you like to walk with me?”
So Ana and I had a pleasant walk into town and I gave my letter to the postman and walked home in the evening air. We walked in silence most of the way, but being in each other’s company seemed to do us good.
Before I could believe it, it was time for me to leave. I had brought my trunk down into the foyer and was waiting for Fred to bring the carriage to the front door when I heard a sound. I pulled a curtain aside and looked through the window, expecting to see Fred, but I was wrong. I quickly dropped the curtain. It was the royal coach, rolling down the road, on its way to pay us a visit.
My mind jumped back to the prince smiling at me as we stood on his balcony. Immediately, panic set in. I was supposed to be gone!
“Mother!” I shouted through the hall. “I’m leaving! I’m going to meet Fred in the stables! Goodbye!”
I could hear shouting to wait behind me but I was already out the door and dragging my trunk behind me. I suddenly could not remember why I needed so many things- the trunk was absurdly heavy. Still I lugged it along as quickly as I could, heading for the stables.
I made it through the stable doors, just as the royal coach pulling up in front of our house.
“Miss Drizzella?” Fred was confused to see me there. I gulped and smiled, catching my breath.
“I would have brought the carriage around, it’s only just now ready. I was about to head over to fetch ye.”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I enjoyed the walk. And now we can make better time!”
Fred did not seem less confused but lifted my trunk onto the coach and secured it, then helped me in.
“Off we go, miss,” he said, and drove the carriage out of the stables.
In no time, we were had come to the house of Eloise. It was more of a small palace than a house. It was a big, square, stone building with turrets at each corner. The Count’s ancestral home was, in a word, monolithic.
I found Eloise in her large bedchamber presiding over a mini-court of women. Her mother and mother-in-law stood by on either side of her bed, fussing over her and ordering frightened and rushed maids about for more water, or another pillow. A club of bored young girls, cousins and nieces most likely, sat in the corner yawning and pretending to work on their embroidery. I smiled at them.
“Izzy!” Eloise cried out when she saw me. “Izz you’ve come!” Eloise spread her arms out to me and the women that surrounded her formed a path to let me there.
“Eloise,” I hugged her.
“How are you darling?” she touched my face.
“I am very well. But look at you!”
She laid a hand reflexively on her pregnant belly and smiled. Even pregnant and swollen Eloise was very pretty, with raven hair and long eye-lashes.
“She’s carrying low. It’s bound to be a boy,” Eloise’s mother-in-law offered.
“No, no. She’s craving meat and potatoes. That means it’s a girl,” her mother chimed in.
“Craving meat? It’s a classic sign she’s going to have a little boy! How could meat be a girl?”
“That is the tradition! It will be a girl, mark my words.”
Eloise looked at me, smiled and shrugged. She patted the bed next to her, and I sat.
“Really Izzy, how are you?” she asked.
Eloise looked at me with an evil gleam in her eye.
“Oh come now, I know you are keeping things from me. I hear the most scandalous rumors from the palace.”
“I hear you danced with the prince! Is it true Izz? Is it?”
“Well, sort of.”
“Well. We danced half a song.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then Bella walked in the room.”
Where I expected to find sympathy on her face, I only found determination. She continued on.
“Well, I further heard, that you and the prince were alone in his chambers just this past week.”
My jaw dropped.
“We were not alone!” I could feel my face turn hot.
“So it’s true!” she proclaimed gleefully.
“Oh, Izzy, who would have thought- you and the prince! What a match. Who would have known?”
I was certain now, that if I hadn’t been before, I was bright red. I shook my head.
“You are mistaken.”
Eloise stopped mid-giggle.
“There is nothing between the prince and I. He is courting Bella.”
“Yes, he has been to our house several times. Nothing is certain, mind you, but he seemed quite taken with her at the ball.”
“Then what were you doing in the prince’s chambers?”
I honestly had no idea why I had been there. I shrugged.
“His tutor is a friend of mine, and thought his future sister-in-law’s presence would force him to take a break from his work and keep him from becoming overly fatigued,” I paused, then added. “And Mr. Rudding was there the entire time!”
“Well this is much less interesting news,” Eloise said. I wasn’t sure it was because Eloise and Bella had never been close, or because it would be much more shocking if the Prince had been interested in someone as plain as me. She made a sort of half smile to show her dissatisfaction.
“I’m not sure I believe it. But what of our dear Ana?” she pressed on. “Has she made a match yet?”
“No,” I lied immediately. Eloise was many things, but good at keeping secrets was not one.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Georgina is pregnant as well though!”
“Oh is she?” Eloise beamed. She had often joined my sisters and I in our lessons. Eloise had a much harder time keeping a governess than we had and often went long periods without her own.
“Yes, she’s only a few months behind yourself I think!”
“It is,” I agreed.
“But what about you Iz?”
“What will you do? If you are not destined for the prince will you marry another?”
I sighed and squeezed the place on either side of my nose, between my eyes, the way Mother sometimes did.
“Probably not,” I admitted. Eloise took my hand.
“Then what will you do?”
“I think I will become a governess,” I said.
“A governess?” Eloise’s mother echoed.
“A governess?” her mother-in-law repeated.
“A governess?” the chorus repeated itself throughout the room of busybody women.
“Oh Izzy you shall be my baby’s governess!” Eloise held my hand to her stomach. I smiled. I could think of nothing worse than being employed by my friend.
“I would love nothing more,” I said. “But your child will need a nurse long before a governess. I will need to find a position sooner than that.”
Eloise made her disappointed half-smile again.
“I suppose you’re right. Well perhaps something nearby then. Then I can steal you away when little Benjamin is old enough,” she rubbed her stomach.
“Benjamin?” her mother said, affronted.
“Benjamin?” her mother-in-law said, hopefully.
“Benjamin?” the name echoed around the room.
Eloise sighed, then looked at me giggled. I cracked a smile as well. At that moment the door opened. A man with a blonde mustache and big broad shoulders entered.
“Darling!” Eloise exclaimed. “My dear husband, are you finally come to see me in all my state?” she teased. The man smiled. I jumped up and scooted into the corner as he approached. He kissed Eloise on the head.
“Of course, dear, I come every day to see you. You know I am hopelessly devoted to you.”
Eloise smiled her smug contentment.
“Darling, what do you think of the name Benjamin, if it’s a boy?” she asked.
“Benjamin?” The count mused. “My grandfather was named Benjamin. I think it would be perfect,” he smiled at her again.
“Oh good, I love the name Benjamin.”
Eloise stretched upwards and kissed her husband on the cheek.
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, dear. Drizzella is here to visit me,” she motioned towards me.
“Drizzella?” the count turned towards her wave. I gave a quick curtsy.
“You remember Drizzella? My dear childhood friend?”
“Oh yes of course. How nice of her to visit. You are very welcome Miss Drizzella.”
Eloise pulled her hulking husband closer to herself and whispered in his ear. When he straightened up he said,
“I think that can be arranged.”
Eloise winked at me. She then continued to tell her husband each minute of her day in detail and everything her mother had said and everything his mother had said and all the preparations that were being made for the baby. I smiled. I had missed Eloise.
The next night the entirety of Eloise’s entourage gathered in the great hall for supper. I suddenly felt exposed. With Eloise confined to her chambers, I was completely alone. There was a comfortable rumble of conversation as the soup was served. On my right a woman in a deep purple dress chatted with the man on her other side. On my left sat a middle-aged man with dark blonde hair, spectacles and a mustache. A lady with dark hair and pretty features sat on his other side. They were silent as they ate. I decided to follow suit and focused on my soup.
I watched the woman on my right but she seemed to be telling a story about her grandchildren that sounded much like any other story about grandchildren. So, I watched the other man out of the corner of my eye instead. I wondered how he was content to simply eat in silence. Perhaps he had as little idea what to say as I did.
Finally, just when I thought I was doomed to spend the entire meal in silence the man turned to me.
“I’m not sure we’ve been introduced,” he said. I noticed that his posture was impeccable, though he nodded his head as he spoke.
“I don’t think so, no,” I smiled.
“I am Lord Fontainbleu, this is my wife,” he gestured to his left. His words were formal but he smiled and I felt much more at ease.
“I am Drizzella Tremaine,” I bobbed my head.
“Drizzella, what an interesting name,” Lady Fontainbleu said. I blushed.
“It’s a family name,” I mumbled.
“What brings you to La Maison de la Tour Miss Tremaine?” Lord Fontainbleu asked.
“The Countess and I were childhood friends,” I answered. “I am paying her a visit.”
“How nice of you,” Lady Fontainbleu answered. When she smiled, she pressed her lips tight together. I could not tell if she was sincere.
“May I ask the same of you, my lord?”
“Eloise’s mother is my cousin,” the lord answered. “We have been visiting her this past month.”
“How exciting, I wish I had the honor but my stay must be shorter.”
“It can be quite difficult to be away for so long,” Lady Fontainbleu sympathized.
“It is most difficult being away from the children for so long,” she sighed.
“Oh, you have children?”
“Yes, a little girl and a little boy,” she smiled at me.
“How lovely. What are their ages?” I asked.
“Collette is eight and Mathieu is six,” Lord Fontainbleu puffed up as he spoke about his boy. “He’s just begun to learn to ride. He is a natural.”
“Collette is quite good as well,” Lady Fontainbleu added.
“That is wonderful. You children sound very accomplished.”
The Fonatinbleus both nodded happily.
“They will soon be needing a governess, however. I afraid it’s high time they began to study in earnest.”
I perked up.
“Yes,” Lady Fontainbleu sighed. “It has been quite difficult finding anyone sufficiently qualified in the countryside. They all wish to stay in the capital.”
A huge grin spread across my face.
“Well, this is quite a coincidence!” I said, though I knew Eloise had planned this very event. “It so happens that I am looking to find a position as a governess, and am quite fond of the countryside.”
The Fontainbleus brightened.
“Really?” said Lady Fontainbleu.
“It seems unlikely that someone of your station would be seeking a position as a governess,” Lord Fontainbleu commented. I was sick of hearing such things, but simply said,
“Education is my passion”
The Lord and Lady looked at each other.
“Well perhaps we are very lucky tonight,” the Lord said.
“You shall have to visit us at our house sometime soon,” Lady Fontainbleu said.
“I would be honored,” I smiled.
We spoke of small the things the rest of the night and then I saw myself to my chambers.
I pulled out The Iliad read for a while. When I was sleepy, I closed the book and ran my hand over the cover that Andrew had bound it with for me. I wondered how his visit to my house had been. I wondered if going to see my sister set him back much in his work, and what sort of sacrifices to his time he made to see us. I imagined that, at that very moment, he was bent over his desk, working late into the night, with his doublet flapping open and only socks on his feet, just as I had seen him before.
I wondered if he ever thought of me. Or wondered what I was doing. I ran my hand over the cover of the book again. Probably not. I sighed, and turned out the light.
The next day I joined Eloise in her room.
“Thank you,” I said, and squeezed her hand. She winked at me. The rest of my visit, I was largely lost in the shadow of Eloise’s popularity. I had small conversations with her each day, but little more. I spent a good deal of time reading, wandering the halls of the great house, and wondering about Andrew. I hoped that when I was away from him, I would be able to put him from my mind, but nothing was further from the truth. I learned from the Fontainbleus that he was indeed in the South, negotiating with the rebels, and I worried for him in spite of myself.
I thought of him daily. I replayed all of our encounters in our head, picking through the details of each one. I imagined future encounters, and had pretend conversations with him. Each time, I forbade myself from thinking of him anymore, but somehow he would always find his way into my mind.
I tried to distract myself by worrying about my family instead. I wondered if Bella would enjoy being a princess. I worried about her being a queen. I was not sure she had the temperament for it, but she was still young. Perhaps she could grow into it. I worried for Ana too. I hoped she was not fighting with Mother while I was gone, or breaking her promise to keep her distance from Fred. I hoped Mother would not worry too much, either.
I thought about the Fontainbleus as well. I wondered if their children were pleasant, and what their house was like. Over the next week I saw them a few times. We were often seated together at dinner and we spoke of little Collette’s love for dolls and how Mathieu had always been fond of rocking horses but said he would no longer ride them since he was now able to ride a real horse. We discussed the weather and Eloise’s health. Occasionally, the conversation would turn to literature, or art, and I was pleased to find that I could easily follow the conversation, even contribute.
They were very nice people, perhaps a bit stiff, and formal. But they were kind, and polite. At the end of the week, I was sad to leave them.
“I hope I will see you again soon,” I curtsied.
“I’m sure you will,” Lord Fontainbleu told me, bowing. Lady Fontainbleu hugged me, and smiled her tight-lipped smile.
“Till next time,” I said, and then left to say goodbye to Eloise.
“I wish you wouldn’t go,” Eloise told me, clutching my hands as I stood over her bed. I could see tears forming in her eyes. “I saw you so little this week. Are you sure you can’t stay longer?”
“I wish I could. But I am needed at home.”
“Oh, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind you staying a few more days!”
“I have to go back,” I told her. Then leaned in and whispered. “Our family is having tea with the queen this week.”
“Really?” her tears had completely disappeared. I nodded.
“I guess she wanted to meet Bella.”
“But then he must want to marry her!” Eloise whispered, though she was so excited anyone could hear her. I nodded.
“I don’t think it will be long now.”
“You don’t look very excited,” she narrowed her eyes at me, studying me.
“I’m just sad to leave you,” I smiled. Eloise did not believe me, but she could not interrogate me with everyone watching. Instead, she asked,
“Did you enjoy meeting the Fontainbleus?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Thank you,” I said, “You can’t imagine how much this means to me.”
“What are friends for?” she said cheerily.
“How did you know it would work?”
“People with children always mention their children,” she said. She laid a hand on her stomach, “I know I will at least.”
“I’m not sure I ever told you congratulations,” I squeezed her hand. Eloise smiled back at me.
“I will miss you,” she said, tearing up again.
“I will see you in no time, I will be back for the christening,” I told her. She nodded.
I hugged her one final goodbye, and left.
Fred was waiting by the carriage outside for me. He lifted my trunk onto the carriage and then we were bouncing down the road towards home.
When we arrived, Mother, Ana and Bella were all waiting for me. Bella gave me a big hug.
“We missed you Izzy!” she squealed.
“I missed you too,” I said. But I was watching Ana. She was looking at Fred, drinking in the sight of him. I saw Fred briefly make eye contact with her, nod, and then drive away.
I gave Ana a big hug next.
“Hi,” I whispered.
“Hi,” she smiled at me.
“How are you?” I asked, hoping she knew what I really meant. She shook her head.
“I’m all right.”
I smiled sympathetically, then went to give Mother a hug.
“How are things?” I asked.
“There is much to do! You have been gone quite a while,” she said. I could see in her eyes though that she was glad to see me. I smiled and went to put my things away.
Ana joined me in my room.
“How is Eloise?” she asked. I laughed.
“Just as you would expect. As lively as usual, and loving all of the attention”
Ana smiled and nodded.
“But I have better news” I whispered to her.
“What is it?” Ana asked.
“I met a very nice family in need of a governess,” I said.
“Yes, they live in the countryside, not far from here. They said they would like to meet with me again” I beamed at her.
“Well that is quite lucky.”
“It must be fate” I sighed. “But how are you Ana? Have you seen Fred lately?”
She shook her head.
“I have not even been riding. I feel trapped inside the house.”
I patted her arm sympathetically.
“It will be over soon. If the queen wishes to meet Bella, it won’t be very long before she and the prince are engaged.”
Ana smiled bravely.
“I know. I know.”
“I wouldn’t tell Bella how you feel though. I think she worries about letting everyone down.”
“She hasn’t quite been herself lately. I think we will all be happier when this is over.”
Later that day, a note arrived from the palace. It was addressed to Miss Tremaine.
A scrawling hand wrote,
I look forward to seeing you at tea in the gardens on Friday. Clara is excited to see you as well. I am sorry I have been absent these few days, but I am on my way back from Toulon as I write this. Being home shall be a great comfort, as will seeing you. Looking forward to the day
Bella read her note out loud to us.
“He must miss you to write you when he was just here last week,” Ana said.
“What trade agreement?” Bella said. I smiled to myself.
“The prince is often involved in international negotiations,” I told her. “I’m sure they are very trying.”
Bella frowned. Ana peered at the letter.
“His handwriting isn’t very nice,” she commented.
“I like it,” I said. It was not very pretty, and the note appeared to be hastily written, but the writing seemed confident and comfortable.
“I’m sure it would be quite lovely if he had more time for writing,” Bella said. I shrugged.