by Anxious Owl
What if Cinderella thought she was the ugly step sister? A twist on a classic fairy tale
On Friday, the house was buzzing with excited activity as we got ready for tea. Bella put on the dress she and Mother had bought for the occasion. She looked like a perfect doll when she was dressed with golden curls framing her face. I put on my best dress, and Ana wore something decent, but when we came down the stairs Mother cooed,
“Oh no no no no, not those dresses!” She dragged us back up to our rooms. She rummaged through my closet before thrusting a voluminous dress in my arms. I looked at it.
“This dress?” I hissed. It was hideous. Mother nodded eagerly before leaving to pick out Anastasia’s dress. I heard her say something about how wonderful Bella would look as she left. I frowned at the dress but put it on. Ana wore the dress Mother picked out but sullenly. She shrugged when I saw her.
“If it helps them get married sooner,” she mumbled as we went down the stairs. I nodded.
Finally, we were all jammed inside our carriage and speeding towards the palace.
When we arrived, an usher wearing a white wig met us. We were quickly escorted through the palace, which a whirl of gold and velvet and dark regal portraits. I thought I recognized some of the rooms and hallways, but every time I thought I knew where we were, we would turn a corner and I would realize I had been completely wrong. Soon, though, we were whisked into the gardens and lead down a short path. A small table was set up in a little clearing among the rose bushes. The last pink and yellow roses of summer grew up high around the little alcove, giving a sense of privacy. Meanwhile, little paths lead off through the flowerbeds in every direction.
Her majesty rose to greet us when we arrived. Her hair was silver- not grey- and face was kind but her blue eyes twinkled cleverly. She stood in such a way that you could feel the weight of her presence. I gulped and backed up slightly. Then, from behind her purple skirts bounded a small creature. The princess skipped forward to meet us. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen, with mouse brown hair, and the same twinkling blue eyes.
“Hello, I am Clara. Do you like my dress?” she did a little twirl for us. She was dressed in a pale yellow dress with a pink sash.
“We like it very much,” Bella smiled at her.
“I wore it so I would look like you did at the ball,” she beamed up at us.
It took me a moment to realize that she was speaking to me.
“Why?” slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it.
“Because you looked beautiful at the ball. I must say you’ve made an interesting fashion choice today, though, my dear,” the queen said, coming forward. “I dare say you look like a pumpkin!”
She was right. My dress was orange with balloon sleeves and a poofy skirt. To top it off, the sleeves and waist had large green bows on them. Despairingly, I realized I looked exactly like a pumpkin. The queen did not point it out with any malice though. She had a way of saying things that should be offensive, without actually offending you.
“Bella has always been the beautiful one,” I finally murmured blushing.
Just then, Andrew emerged from a garden path. The sight of him had a physical affect on me. It had been weeks since I had seen him, and I had forgotten exactly how blue his eyes were, and how strong his shoulders were and how confidently he walked. I shook myself out of these thoughts and realized he was speaking.
“Hello everyone, I’m sorry I’m late, I was just finishing with the Scandinavian ambassadors, celebrating our success. They were kind enough to wait for my return to finalize the agreement, just this morning. It was actually amazing, I was going to tell you, that in the end we agreed-“ Andrew looked at me and stopped. “Why are you dressed as a pumpkin?” he asked. My blush deepened.
“Your mother was just mentioning that,” I was staring at my shoes as I said it. I could tell Mother and Bella were staring at me, not altogether pleasantly. They could not comprehend how the conversation had managed to focus on me. Neither could I.
Andrew laughed though, and that made things easier.
“Of course she was,” he said. “I’ll have to finish telling you about it later. Shall we sit?”
Mother and Bella released me from their gaze, but I could feel their annoyance with me pricking at me. We sat.
“Yes, I should have invited you to sit sooner, how rude of me,” the queen said as we settled in at the table. She waved and a maid came forward and began pouring the tea.
“I hope you all had a comfortable journey?” she asked.
“Yes, your majesty,” we all murmured in unison.
“Now, Lady Tremaine, I am told you are a widow. Is that so?”
I was shocked by her directness. I’d had no idea this tea would be an interrogation. Mother seemed un-phased however.
“Yes, your majesty,” Mother sipped her tea coolly. I marveled at her poise.
“And why have you not remarried?”
“I have already been married twice, your majesty.”
“Twice? And what became of your first husband?”
“He died as well, your majesty, when Anastasia and Drizzella were very young.”
“Then Isabella is the daughter of your second husband?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
I imagined it would be very tiring to live in the court, if you had to say your highness or your majesty after every sentence. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with that when I was a governess.
“How old are you then, Isabella?” the queen asked.
“I go by Bella, your majesty. And I am almost seventeen.”
“So young,” she tutted. “And you are the oldest,” she looked over at Ana.
“Anastasia your majesty. Yes. I am twenty-five.”
Anastasia visibly prickled at this comment. I could see her freckles standing out against her face. I could tell she wanted to defend herself, to tell her, and Mother that she was in fact engaged. Instead though, she nodded. I gave her a sympathetic smile. She smiled back.
“Then how old are you, Drizzella?”
I jumped. The queen knew my name?
“Twenty-two, your majesty.”
“Closest in age to my Andrew,” she smiled at her son. He smiled back. I could feel Mother and Bella glaring at me.
“I hear that you and my son had a lovely visit to the library recently,” her majesty continued. My heart started pounding hard in my chest. Mother was going to kill me. I could see from the corner of my eye that she was already turning purple.
“Well how could I refuse an invitation from his highness,” I tried to salvage the situation. I looked sidelong at Mother, and she seemed to be returning a bit to her normal color. However, I also noticed Andrew looking at me strangely. I suppose I might have offended him as well. “But I did have a lovely time,” I added. I was never going to survive this tea, trying to navigate between Mother, Andrew and the queen.
“What is your favorite book?” Clara chimed in.
“I’m not sure how I could choose!” I said honestly. “Although, I have been quite enjoying The Iliad.”
Andrew relaxed, and smiled at me then. I blushed, again, if that was possible.
“And you’ve been educated in all of the traditional arts? Do you paint?” Her majesty resumed her interrogation.
“I paint, but poorly. Bella is quite good, though, your majesty,” I tried to divert the conversation from myself. The queen would have none of it, though.
“And how many languages do you speak Drizzella?” she continued.
“Only French and English, your majesty,” I suddenly began felt inadequate. All ladies of any breeding spoke French and English, it was hardly impressive.
“Now, I understand that you also help to care for you own home! Forgive a, perhaps, impertinent question, but you also cook, and clean and do laundry and tend the garden?” her majesty asked.
I looked around exasperated. How could I answer? That particular fact of our existence had always been understood but unspoken. Was I meant to admit to her majesty that my sisters and I lived as little better than maids? Undoubtedly she already knew, was she trying to embarrass us? I looked to Mother, but she was just as bewildered as I was; Bella was horrified. I didn’t know what to say.
“Yes, your majesty. Drizzella makes wonderful cakes, and has such a small stitch that you can hardly see her work when she mends clothes. She is also excellent at embroidery,” Ana stepped in. I looked at her, shocked and grateful. Somehow she had turned a difficult answer into a compliment. Mother glared at her anyways for praising me. Anastasia just smiled back at her. After a moment the queen finally spoke.
“Oh dear. I see I’ve made you uncomfortable. I apologize. You seem like an accomplished, well bred lady,” the queen said to me. Andrew squeezed my hand in apology under the table. It sent shivers up my arm.
“Perhaps we should take a walk in the gardens if everyone has finished their tea,” Andrew said. I hadn’t touched my tea, but gratefully, stood.
The prince offered his arm to his mother and they began to lead the party down one of the pathways. I went to Ana’s side.
“Thank you,” I whispered. I wanted to ask her what she had thought of this strange meeting, but there was a tug on my dress.
“Walk with me Drizzella!” Clara said.
“Um. Of course your highness,” I said. So I followed her little majesty into the garden, leaving Ana to walk behind with Mother and Bella.
“She seems lovely,” I heard the queen say ahead of us. I did not want to hear her praise Bella so I began to talk to Clara.
“Princess Clara, I hear you are very good at chess,” I said. She beamed up at me.
“Not as good as Andrew, though,” she replied.
I cocked an eyebrow at her. She returned a mischievous smile.
“Do you play?” she asked me.
“I have never tried,” I said.
“I can teach you,” she offered. Perhaps having the prince as a brother-in-law would not be so bad. I could spend my visits to the palace with Clara. “I can also teach you how to win,” she whispered to me.
Suddenly, voices from the pair in front of us floated into our conversation.
“I do not care,” the queen was saying.
“Mother, I do not think the timing-” Andrew tried to say.
“Your country does not have time for your timidity, Andrew. Do it now.”
“What other games do you like to play?” I asked Clara, trying to talk over their conversation. It was clearly not meant for us to hear. Before she could answer, though, the queen called,
“Clara! Clara, come walk with me.”
“It was nice talking with you,” Clara curtsied.
I curtsied back. Then she skipped ahead. Andrew fell back and came to walk with me. Shyly, I took his arm.
I could feel Mother and Bella’s glaring into my back, like daggers. Why was the prince paying so much attention to me? Maybe he wanted to ask me something about Bella. I would tell him good things about Bella I promised myself. My family needed this marriage, and I would make sure that Bella seemed wonderful. She was wonderful, of course, I reminded myself. She was my baby sister and she was sweet and good. I would tell the prince so and then when I got home I would tell Mother what I had told the prince. Then, she would be pleased with me instead of angry.
As I was thinking all of these things, it occurred to me that I was walking in silence with the Prince. He was staring at the ground, in thought. Perhaps he thought me rude.
“I’m glad your trade negotiations went well,” I said. Andrew nodded distractedly, but continued on silence. Finally he said,
“Drizzella,” but, then he seemed to get distracted. “Drizzella sounds like ‘drizzle’, like rain,” Andrew said. “Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem to suit you. Does anyone ever call you anything else?”
“Sometimes my sisters call my Izzy,” I told him.
“Izzy,” He tried it out, considering it. After a moment of silence, he changed the subject. “I hope my mother did not frighten you too much, with her questions.”
“It’s a shame you don’t speak German. Mother grew up in Germany and would love someone to speak her native tongue with,” he continued.
“I suppose I could learn,” I mumbled, wondering when I would be talking to the queen again. We walked in silence again. I wished he would go walk with Bella already. Every moment he spent with me would make it harder to watch him marry my sister. I reminded myself that I would soon be gone, though.
“Do you ever think about the future Drizzella?” he asked me.
“Oh yes!” I said.
“Really? And what do you think?” he smiled at me.
“Well I don’t just think, I do,” I told him.
“Then what do you do?”
“Well, while I was away, I met a family I hope to take up a governess position for,” I told him happily.
“A governess position?” he stopped walking.
“Yes,” I told him. “I am going to be a governess.” I waited for him to congratulate me, but he did not. Instead, a little crease appeared between his eyebrows and bewilderment covered his face. He could only stare at me for a moment.
“Drizzella,” My name seemed to scrape its way out of his throat. “I thought- You don’t need to-” He struggled with his words before finally asking, “Why?”
I could see my mother and sisters catching up to us on the path, so I tugged his arm and started us walking again.
“It seemed like a good life for me,” I explained to him. “I can study as much as I want, and be free and independent. You see, Ana and I, I think, have always been content to live a simple life. I would be happy to be a governess and earn my own way in the world. We’ve spent so long pretending to be high born that it’s quite exhausting. Bella, I think, is the only one who really dreams of claiming the life she was born to. She’s delicate, and refined. She would do well at court, and her marriage, we hope, will save the house.”
“Save the house?” Andrew asked. I blushed. I hadn’t meant to tell him the extent of our financial trouble, but I supposed it didn’t matter anymore. He knew we were poor. I nodded.
“The bank will take the house soon,” I told him. “So you see, I can help make money, and do everything I like, instead of being confined by the life of a gentlewoman,” I explained.
Andrew was very quiet. A darkness had come over his face, and the laughter I had come to know there was gone.
“Your highness, are you alright?”
He thought a minute more instead of answering. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I waited.
“So you have no wish to marry?” he finally asked me. Images of him finding a suitable duke or count to marry me, once I was the sister of the princess, played in my mind. It was more than I could bear. I took a deep breath to make myself brave and said
He seemed to take this in for a moment. Then he stood up straight and seemed to shrug off his darkness.
“Well that’s exciting,” he said. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m glad you’re finding what you want. Now, I best go speak with your sister,” he let go of my arm and went to find Bella.
I was finally left to walk with Ana.
“What happened?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I told him that I am going to be a governess soon, and he did not seem to support the idea,” I wasn’t sure how to describe his reaction.
“Huh,” Anastasia looked forward at him. “He didn’t seem like a snob.”
“He’s not!” I jumped to his defense instinctively. “I’m not sure why he disapproved though,” I said.
“It certainly has been a strange tea,” Ana said. “The queen almost attacked you.”
“I suppose I deserve it for daring to appear before her looking like a pumpkin,” I joked.
“We do look quite ridiculous,” Ana acknowledged. She was wearing a white dress covered in tiny red flowers and bows.
“We do,” I smiled. “But Bella looks wonderful.”
“True. I don’t blame the prince for loving her at all.”
I looked sadly at them, walking ahead of us. They made a handsome couple.
“I hope they’re happy,” I said.
“Well at least one person will be happy for certain,” Anastasia pointed out.
“Mother?” I guessed.
“Yes,” Ana nodded, pursing her lips. I laughed.
“Don’t worry, soon, Bella will be married, then you’ll be married, I’ll be a governess,” I said. “And we’ll all live happily ever after.”
“Yes,” Ana sighed.
By then we had returned to the place where we had had tea.
“Well this has been lovely,” the queen said, folding her hands. “Lady Tremaine, you have charming daughters.”
Bella smiled at her majesty, then at Andrew. She looked at him with big puppy-dog eyes. It was clear she adored him. Who could blame her? I could not blame her for loving him anymore than I could blame him for loving her.
“Now, I am quite tired. I hope you all have a pleasant journey home,” she said, excusing us from her presence.
“Thank you, your majesty,” Mother said. We curtsied. A manservant appeared out of nowhere to escort us back to our carriage. Reluctantly, Bella untangled her arm from Andrew’s. He smiled as he watched her go, until his eyes found mine. Then he frowned, and turned away.
“What was that?” Ana whispered as we walked back to the carriage.
“I’m not sure,” I told her honestly.
When we returned home, there was a letter waiting for me from the Fontainbleus.
We were quite pleased to make your acquaintance last week at the home of the Count de la Tour. If you are still interested in becoming a governess, we would love for you to visit us at your earliest convenience and meet the children. We look forward to seeing you again.
I hugged the letter to myself. It was finally happening. There was one last hurdle, though. I had almost forgotten. I still had to ask Mother.
After we returned from tea, I changed, and then tiptoed into her study.
“Mother?” I said quietly, shutting the door behind me.
“Just a minute Drizzella,” Mother was shuffling through the papers at her desk. She always seemed to be standing behind her big wooden desk, never sitting. It was as if she was much too energetic, or much too worried, to ever sit in Papa’s big velvet chair. After a moment, she found what she was looking for and set it aside.
“Yes?” she looked at me through her spectacles.
I held up the letter from the Fontainbleus, unsure of how to begin.
“You’ve received a letter?” Mother began for me after watching me flounder for a few moments.
“Yes. From the Fontainbleu family, in the countryside about a day’s ride from here.” I finally said. I ran my fingers along the edge of the letter.
“And why would they write to you?”
“They are friends of Eloise’s… and they are in need of a governess.”
“A governess?” she said with a bemused expression.
“Yes. A governess,” I looked her in the eye.
“And who is going to fill this position?”
“I am. I hope,” I did not let my gaze leave hers. She crossed her arms. “They have asked me to visit for a few days. I intend to go,” I informed her.
“Drizzella,” she sighed. “Once your sister marries the prince, you won’t have to work another day in your life. You may be under the impression that you won’t like the life before you, but you don’t know that. You are trying to choose a very hard path for yourself, and it’s not necessary.”
“Please Mother,” I begged her. “I want to control my own life. I want this, I really do.”
“Why?” she gazed down at me.
“I want to study. I would spend my life reading,” I told her. She was not satisfied.
“And you could not do that comfortably married?” she asked me. I stared at my shoes.
“I need to get away,” I confessed, quietly. She regarded me for a moment then, understanding came into her face. She nodded and came out from behind her desk.
“Alright,” she assented, and hugged me. “Go.”
I spent the next day preparing to leave again. I packed a small suitcase of luggage, just enough to last me a few days, and a lunch for the trip.
Mother, Bella, and Ana saw me off.
“I’m sorry I’m going for so long,” I whispered to Ana as I hugged her good bye.
“Fred will take good care of you,” she told me. Then she slipped me some papers. “Could you give these to him?” I slipped the papers in my pocket and nodded.
Then I hugged Mother.
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” Bella smiled at me when I told her goodbye. Her face was heartbreakingly pretty. I hated how jealous it made me.
I got in the carriage, Fred whipped the horses, and we were gone.
As we drove away, it occurred to me that I was going to spend the entire day with Fred. I also realized, unfortunately, that I had no idea what to say to my future brother-in-law.
“Have you met the horses?” Fred shouted back from the driver’s seat.
“What?” I yelled back. I couldn’t quite hear him over the jangling of the carriage. Fred pulled the carriage to a halt.
“Would you like to come up front?” he asked me, through the small window in the front of the carriage. I nodded and got out.
Fred helped me up in the seat next to the driver’s seat, and then got back in himself.
“It’s so high up here!” I squealed as we started off again. Fall was beginning and a biting wind slapped against my face as we went. But I could see a million miles in every direction. Gold fields of wheat, green woods, silver lakes and distant purple mountains spread out before me.
“Not a bad view,” he grinned a crooked smile at me. “So. This brown beauty on the left,” he said, gesturing to the horse with his whip, “Is Berta. She’s a good steady girl, but she’s got some weak knees now, she’s gettin older, so you can’t push her too much,” he told me. “On the right here, though, is Jeannette. She’s young, I just bought her a few months ago. She still isn’t fully trained, so I apologize if the ride is a bit rough, she likes to pull. Now, most horse trainers wouldn’t put the two together for a trip like this but I…”
Fred proceeded to tell me about his horse training techniques. Normally, I would not have been very interested in horses, but he was lively and excited about his work and it was contagious. He told a funny story or two, as well, and even a joke, about horses of course. The time passed quickly as he chattered to me.
As dusk began to fall, I could just make out the Fontainbleu estate. It was a long low house that sprawled out in front of their property.
“It’s quite large,” I breathed to Fred.
“Is that a good or a bad thing?” Fred asked.
“I don’t know.” For the first time, it occurred to me to be nervous. This big house, in the middle of nothing but fields, could very well be my future.
Fred pulled us up to the front door, an imposing wooden monstrosity that rose up almost as high as the ceiling.
“It looks like a draw bridge,” I mumbled as Fred helped me down. There was a little rope to the side of the door and I pulled. A bell tinkled far off.
Fred had hardly taken my luggage down from the carriage when the gigantic door creaked open. A butler emerged through the crack.
“Miss Tremaine?” he had a friendly smile.
“Yes,” I curtsied.
“I am Mr. Colligne. I will show you to your room, then Lord and Lady Fontainbleu are in the drawing room, and would like to welcome you.”
I hesitated, and turned to Fred. He nodded and smiled at me.
“I’ll be back in a few days for you, miss.”
I nodded and smiled back nervously.
“Thank you Fred.”
I gulped and turned towards the house. Colligne disappeared into it, and I followed. He took my luggage and briskly made his way down one corridor, then another. I couldn’t keep track of all of the twists and turns but, finally, he led me into a room of decent size.
“This is the room that has been prepared for you,” he announced, setting my trunk down in the corner. I immediately noticed how clean it was. The wooden floors shined and the bed sheets were pulled taught across the mattress. The room seemed a bit empty with only a small bed, an empty wardrobe, and an empty desk in it. It seemed to be waiting to be filled.
“I’ll leave you here, then,” Colligne told me. “The drawing room is down the hall on the left,” he shut the door and left. I took The Iliad out of my bag and set it on the desk, along with a few other odds and ends. I hung up my dresses in the wardrobe, then headed down the hall.
Before long I found my way into the drawing room. It was a large room of dark wood furnishing in which the walls were covered by heavy tapestries. Lord Fontainbleu stood when I entered, followed by his two children who jumped off the settee and raced to me. At the last moment, they remembered themselves and stopped short of tackling me. They stood in front of me, hands behind their backs and rocked back and forth on their heels.
“Welcome Miss Tremaine,” said Lady Fontainbleu, “We’re so glad to see you again,” she pressed her lips together in a smile.
“And so are the children!” Lord Fontainbleu added, chuckling and coming to stand behind them. “As you can see, they are excited to meet you. This is Collette,” he placed his hand on the little girl’s head, and she bobbed a curtsy. The large bow in her curly hair bounced as she did so. “And this is Mathieu,” Lord Fontainblue placed his other hand on the boy’s head. He shook it off by giving a curt bow. Curiously, the looked me up and down. I smiled at them.
“You have funny teeth,” Collette said. My mouth snapped shut.
“Collette!” her mother scolded. “Forgive her, Miss Tremaine, you see why we are in need of your services.”
I smiled again, with my lips shut tight.
“You may call me Drizzella if you like,” I said, trying not to show the gap in my teeth as I spoke.
“Drizzella, then,” said Lord Fontainbleu. “Won’t you sit?”
I joined them around a small table, and Lady Fontainbleu poured me a cup of tea. I thanked her and sipped quietly.
“I hope your journey was pleasant?” Lady Fontainbleu asked. I nodded.
“Very pleasant,” I answered.
“Mr. Colligne informed me that you have a very nice set of horses for your carriage,” Lord Fontaibleu commented. I nodded again.
“Our stable hand was very thorough in researching them before their purchase. The black horse is a fairly new acquisition,” I informed her.
“Wonderful,” he said, drinking his tea. We were startled from our small talk as a loud whinny sound emanated from the settee. We looked up to see Mathieu making horse noises as he galloped a toy horse across his lap. Collette was busy fidgeting and toying with the lace on her dress.
“I’m afraid it might be time for the children to go to bed,” Lady Fontainbleu said. “They are quite tired but I wished them to be here to greet you.”
As if by command Mathieu let out a great, wide-mouthed yawn.
“I am sorry my arrival was so late,” I said.
“Nonsense. The journey is long and we are glad that you can come all this way,” Lady Fontainbleu answered.
“You must be tired as well!” Lord Fontaibleu commented. Collette had caught Mathieu’s yawn by then and passed it on to me. I stifled it, hoping not to appear rude.
“Perhaps I am a little tired,” I admitted.
“Then perhaps we shall all go to bed soon. If you’ll excuse me, I must attend to the children,” Lady Fontainbleu said. She rose and ushered the children out of the room.
“I hope you found your room suitable?” Lord Fontainbleu asked when she had left.
“It was very nice,” I said.
“Very good. And was your time at home pleasant? I’m sure your family was glad to have you back after your visit with the Countess,” he said.
“Yes. My time at home was very pleasant.” My mind wandered back to standing in the garden with Andrew, and the way his face had changed when I told him I wanted to become a governess.
“Are you alright, Drizzella?” Lord Fontianbleu asked me. I shook myself out of my reverie.
“Yes, I’m just a little tired.”
Just then, Lady Fontainbleu reentered the room.
“The children are all in bed,” she announced, taking her seat again.
“I think Drizzella would like to retire as well, dear,” Lord Fontainbleu, said. “She seems quite exhausted.”
“Oh well of course. Is there anything else you require? Is the room to your taste?” Lady Fontaibleu asked.
“No. No, thank you,” I said, standing.
“Goodnight, then, Miss Drizzella,” she said.
“Goodnight,” I said, and walked back to my room.
As I entered it, I noticed for the first time that there was no window in my room. There were an abundance of candles that made it bright and cozy, but no window. I dressed for bed, then went about the room blowing out the candles one by one, until the only light came from the lamp next to my bed. I slid my hand across the wall next to me as I settled into bed, feeling it smooth and warm beneath my fingers.
Then I picked up The Iliad and ran my hands over the cover. Useful Projects for Women Living Alone I read the embossed letters. I felt wrong deep in my stomach, put the book down, blew out my candle, and went to sleep.