Cinderella


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Free read: First ebook of four part series, from Cinderella’s point of view: Cinderella Princess

Excerpt:
It is hard for me to identify what I noticed first. Was it the forest of candles blazing magnificently overhead, or was it the crowds and crowds of people? Was it the magnificent garlands of autumnal greenery draped on the walls, or the red and yellow shimmery silk hangings over which they lay, hanging from ceiling to floor?

Approx 65 – 100 min read



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Cinderella Princess Free Ebook
Cinderella Princess Free Ebook

Part 1/4 of the Cinderella series.


Table of Contents
Princess
My Birth and Upbringing
My Father’s Remarriage
The Big City House
A Royal Invitation
At the Ball!
Getting to the Ball
After the Ball
A Surprising Gift
Preparing for the Second Ball
The Second Ball
Going Home
The Visit of the Footman
The Third Ball
Coming to the Palace
A Shy Wilfred
An Outdoor Party

**********

Princess
I stood staring at him, watching him disappear into the throngs of people, staring at the royal insignia embroidered in gold on his back. Of course, he was a footman! That is why he had been kneeling to me. It took me a while longer to realise what had been wrong with my drink order – no-one drinks lemonade at a ball! Actually, I could have worked that one out for myself, it was just that everything was so overwhelming, and I hadn’t wanted to lose my head, on that of all nights. I then took the chance to look around, and I was utterly captivated by the sight before me. It is hard for me to identify what I noticed first. Was it the forest of candles blazing magnificently overhead, or was it the crowds and crowds of people? Was it the magnificent garlands of autumnal greenery draped on the walls, or the red and yellow shimmery silk hangings over which they lay, hanging from ceiling to floor?
Or perhaps it was not a sight that caught me first – perhaps it was the scent of roses perfuming the air, delicious, yet not overpowering – or aromas that I found even more welcoming – those of delicious freshly cooked meats, wafting through the air? Or could it have been the music of the full orchestra, intermittently striking up with majestic renditions, or the swish of rainbows of silks and satins, velvets, laces and jacquards against the floor, as jewels glowed and glinted in the candlelight? Either way, as I looked, (gawped might be a better word) – I knew that this was the most magnificent scene I had ever beheld in my life – or ever would behold.

The ceiling was so high overhead that I was sure that if I was able to stand on my own head fifty times over, I would not reach the top. From that great height, immense chandeliers – too many to count descended, dripping with fountains of what looked like, but surely could not be (surely not! – surely not?…) sparkling diamonds, and twinkling with so many candles that the whole ceiling seemed to be ablaze. And then there were so many people! Crowds and hordes and herds of people! More people than I could even have imagined could squeeze into this city all at one time. And they were all laughing, and talking, and drinking, and eating, and dancing, and altogether arrayed in every hue and combination that could possibly exist under the sun. Golds and greens and yellows and blues! And not just yellows, but ochres and lemons and primroses and buttercups. Not just reds but scarlets and crimsons and vermilions. Turquoises and teals and azures and aquamarines. Cerises overlaid on verdigris. Coppers interwoven with clementines. All dashed together and mixed together in a fast-moving dazzling life-size kaleidoscope. And just as many servants, or so it seemed, all fat, jolly and rosy cheeked, laden with burnished trays of bronze and pewter…

**********

On My Birth and Upbringing
My mother left my father and me when I was just two years old. I was so young then that I can barely remember it. I do have this one abiding memory of an angel in a bright blue dress, with a beautiful sweet smile.

I was too young to attend the funeral, of course, but my father says that I cried all that day while at home with the servants. It was as if I somehow knew. Perhaps I did know? Of course, I cannot remember what my little two-year-old mind was thinking then, but how I’ve missed her: how I’ve missed her watching me grow up, holding me, perhaps scolding me now and then, and telling me she loved me. Dad always loved me much too much to scold me, of course. He always said I looked just like her, his own little princess.

I’d love to think that their marriage was an expression of deep hopeless love towards one another. However, it was not always like that. The truth was actually a lot more prosaic.

Mum’s father was the richest landowner in this part of the kingdom. In those days Papa was poor, but ambitious and hardworking. And handsome. Very, very handsome (or at least that’s what he tells me! Actually, he’s still quite handsome now, so I can readily believe it!) He was the second son of five of a struggling farmer (my wonderful Granddad – still strong and hardworking after all these years!)

The first time Mum saw Dad he had come to beg for work on her father’s farm. She had been young and naïve and sheltered, and she had laughed at his poor but neat appearance, his patched shoes. At this, he had become filled with shame and humiliation, but he had also seen his big chance. So Madam thought that she was high and mighty, did she? Well, he would certainly show her a thing or two! And so he certainly had.

A few months later, he turned up looking like a lord, and applied all his charm to her inexperienced heart. When this duly fell, he persuaded her to elope with him. At this, her father had no choice but to accept the marriage, but in frustrated anger at her defiance over the poor peasant, he renounced the pair of them, sending them away with only two stockings full of gold.

It is such a common story, I know, but I feel a little ashamed to think of it as my own story. And how do I know all this? My father himself told me, adding bit by bit, little by little over the years, until I could finally piece the story together. I can’t help feeling that much of the love he feels for me is caused by the guilt he still feels about my mother, how he disdained the tender gift of her young heart.

So they moved away, and his adoring young wife did everything to win the love and admiration of her husband. But his charm had given way to unfeeling coldness towards her. And she, brought up in silks and velvets, unused to the rigours of manual labour, was not strong.

On telling me this, he would shake his head in bitter regret. He should have married a capable peasant girl, who lived and worked within the rhythms of nature, with strong legs, a sturdy gait, a brown face, and a laughing smile. My mother on the other hand had deserved to become the wife of a nobleman, fêted and cosseted with baubles and trinkets and sweetmeats.

He had been disappointed at the failure of his scheme. Through their marriage, he had hoped to win some wealth and standing for his family, but they had been disinherited, and instead of riches he had been encumbered with this pathetic thing, who could not even earn her own keep. How he had despised her efforts to brighten his hearth! The harder she had tried, the less appreciative he had been. It was only when she had become pregnant that his hard heart towards her had thawed. His eyes were opened, as if for the first time, to the love shining out from her own eyes, the pride and triumph at the thought of bearing him an heir. At this too, she had failed (of course), but by then he had already been won over. It was then that he had started carrying her about and caressing her expectant tummy and calling her “his own princess”.

Two short years of happiness were to be ours as a family. After I was born my father hired servants so that my mother could feel like a lady in her own home. However, the damage to her delicate system had already been done, and so she was carried off, leaving him with me, a carbon-copy lookalike of my sweet mother.

Thinking back on this story really makes me appreciate my parents as human beings. I love them both dearly of course, or at least I love the memory of my mother. My father cannot stop blaming himself. If only he had hired the servants earlier! If only he had learned another trade! If only he had moved to a warmer part of the country – then perhaps she would not have needed to expose herself to the harsh elements, perhaps she would still be alive. And why had he been so proud in the first place? Simply because she had laughed at him, he had gone to such desperate lengths…and he had eventually ruined her life, and his own to some extent.
Secretly, I must admit that part of me also blames him. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have grown up with real wealth. I know that he was young – they both were – but were there not more legitimate means to win her and her wealth, and perhaps win her family’s approval at the same time?

Could he not have chosen to prove himself to his prospective father-in-law, show his unswerving loyalty, demonstrate that he would cherish this young sweet girl? And as for her – I often wonder how much of her weaknesses I have inherited. She laughed at my father because he was poor. Surely I would never do that? We are now quite comfortably off; I know a few people might refer to us as being rich, but we are still nowhere close to the level of her upbringing – and we never will be. I sometimes look within my own heart. Do I look down on people who have nothing? If I saw a young but poor version of my father, would I also be tempted to giggle at mismatching socks, coarse cloth, trouser legs that were too short? Am I also of such delicate constitution? I try my utmost to “pull my own weight” and not leave everything to the servants; I have learned so much from the story of my parents in that I would aim to make myself useful wherever I might find myself. I would like to think that if I found myself unexpectedly stuck out in the countryside, the way she did, I would be considered an asset, rather than a burden.

And as for my “greater Grandfather”, and that part of the family that I have never met, I honestly don’t know what to think. Do they even know that I exist? I hope that I would not be seduced by the thought of immense riches, but I also hope that I am pragmatic enough to not totally despise the advantages that these would bring. I have written a number of times to my mother’s family, letters which have remained unacknowledged, unreplied. My father speaks about my mother’s older sisters, he maintains a vague recollection of their marriages, their moving away, through secret messages smuggled between the sisters. I sometimes think wistfully about these women; my Aunts. Somehow, I always imagine them as great and noble ladies, bedecked in furs and jewels. I can never process the thought that they also might be like us, comfortable, but not wealthy, much less that they could actually be poor, and desperately looking for some family connections to relieve their affliction. And do I have cousins? Surely I must have one or two cousins?! What would it have been like to grow up with them, to play with them, to learn their pretty society manners? I can only imagine, I can only dream. I still hope that one day we might meet. Of course, I have lots of boisterous and rowdy cousins on my father’s side – and some quiet ones too, and I love them all. I am so grateful for my real Granddad’s family, for family dances and dinners and parties and birthdays. However, I often catch myself thinking – “what if…what if…?”

**********

On My Father’s Remarriage
Wow, I can’t believe how quickly life can change. Looking back over previous entries, I think of my younger self, my questions, my reasonings – and I feel like I was such a superficial airhead. How happy I was in those days! To think that the one pain in my life was caused by the premature loss of my mother, so many years ago. I now realise that this was because there were no fresh sorrows to overshadow the pain of losing her before I had ever really known her.

So, my father has now remarried, to someone who must surely be the worst choice imaginable. I honestly don’t know what he sees in her. To my astonishment, some people have kindly called her “beautiful”, but only when she has smeared that her white paste thickly all over her gaunt face, and pulled that her thin hair into a miserable plait over her bony, scaly head, and traced that tired line over her hairy mouth. I know it is petty, but I can’t help laughing within myself, that it is goats’ blood that she is trickling over her lips (although of course I know that it is not – she could never bring herself to do anything so low that it resembled actual work, like slaughtering a goat). No, I try to be civil, but I cannot pretend to myself or to anyone else that I actually like her. Obviously, I understand that I might be uncomfortable with the thought of someone taking the place of my mother, after so many years, but it is sincerely not that. After all, I quite liked Miss Bakewell who used to deliver our bread; she would smile so invitingly at my father, but he didn’t notice and she went off to marry Mr Schumaker the cobbler and give him five fat babies.

Before his remarriage, I tried my hardest to point out to my father the issues with his new wife, as diplomatically as I could, which sadly was not very diplomatically at all. She is unkind, and she is mean, and she clearly despises our slow-paced but hardworking lifestyle, thinking herself worthy of higher things. She does not love my father, her endearments must surely sound hollow and false to anyone who can bear to come within a few metres of her shrill screeches, and she has never made the slightest effort to attempt to love me, although I’ll admit that the look of disgust painted across my face when I first met her cannot have helped… To all these arguments, raised constantly before the marriage, all of which I sincerely believe to be fair and rational, my father paid not the slightest attention whatsoever.

“I understand your hesitation, princess”, he would say “but I have once married for love…”
(I quickly looked down…I thought that that would not be a good time to correct him…)
“…Now I need a strong woman to help me manage this home…”

Why is he doing this? From my own evaluation, from her aspiration to nobility, her disdain of our life, she seems to be a poor copy of all my mother was. Now that I’ve grown up and actually resemble my mother as a young woman, the memory of how my mother looked when they first met confronts my father every time he looks at me. I can’t help feeling that he is trying to punish himself for the way he treated my mother by taking on someone who this time does not love him, as a way of winning redemption for his own earlier behaviour, (and clearly not someone with any attractive qualities whatsoever, as clearly this would not feel sufficiently like a punishment!) Compassion flooded my heart when this first occurred to me, seeing some tears in his eyes when he looked at me, hearing a soft warmth in his voice as he called me “Princess”. However, why must he also punish me?

As awful as this woman is by herself, the horrific picture is completed by her two dreadful daughters. In every way they are young, preening versions of their mother, as rancid and unattractive as she is, and quite as lazy. And now the evil deed is done, and she is officially my stepmother. No longer do I have to wonder what it would be like to grow up in society. I am assailed with their pretensions night and day, their affectations, their tittering giggles. Oh no, they could never possibly lower themselves to close this jar, or to open that door for themselves. No, of course they must ask the servants to do it. The poor servants are totally pulled in twenty directions at any one time. And when the servants are not available, where do they point their gazes? Why, at me of course. I have even won for myself a beautiful new name. I must confess that no-one at home has ever actually called me by my proper name, Ella, but that is how I still dutifully introduce myself. So, one day, Stepsister One, Catty Queen (real name Catherine) overheard my father calling me “Princess”. (Wasn’t that a big mistake?!) She laughed scornfully, and turned towards Stepsister Two, Hell’s Best Kept Secret (real name: Helen Elizabeth) and said, “Oh look what we have here, a princess, are you Ella?! Just like your mother – she was a real princess, wasn’t she, Ella?!!”
I was overcome by fury and hatred, and unthinkingly made to strike at her, but unfortunately I was so blinded by my anger that I lost my balance – and fell straight into the fireplace. And that is how my new name was born.
“I think you look more like a ‘Cinder-Ella’!” “Cinder-Ella!” “Cinder-Ella!” “Cinder-Ella!”
On and on they chanted for a full five minutes.

And now the name has fully stuck. How they love to taunt me! My stepmother will sometimes think up false kindnesses, just so that she can fling this label at me.
“I was thinking, that perhaps we could send dear sweet Cinderella to learn mending and darning – she must soon learn a trade to support herself! It’s the best thing we could do for her, our own sweet Cinderella – after all, we cannot really expect her to marry well, as Catharina and Hélène-Elizabetta will – as much as I love her so …”
(This said with particularly saccharine emphasis on the word “love”)
“…she must be prepared for the realities of life, our darling sweet Cinderella.”
Even my own dear father has now joined them in calling me this name – he hears it so often that I think he has forgotten that that is not actually my name. Any time he mistakenly reverts to calling me “Princess”, my stepmother will pause in silence for about ten seconds (yes, I have counted, and no, it is never less than this) – and she will say, archly:
“Did you mean Cinderella dear?”
At which point my father will usually look at me with sad helplessness in his eyes, and say slowly:
“Yes, Pumpkin, yes, I did mean Cinderella”.

At which point, they will all three of them burst into their raucous tittering, and I will usually flee the scene, worried that I might lose my temper and bop Catty Queen or even worse, “Evelyn Stepmother”, right on the nose. My father did once try to stand his ground and insist on calling me “Princess” but such a frosty atmosphere ensued in the house for a full week that I myself decided to end it by referring to myself as Cinderella.
So that is who I now am, Cinderella. No longer the princess of my father’s affection, but now the undisputed queen of the fireplace. No, I don’t play in the ashes – actually, nowadays I don’t play at all, and I look back on those carefree days of happy childhood with sad longing. However, I have not actually been reduced to the status of a servant, although you would not know this from the way Catty Queen and Hell’s Best Kept Secret order me around. So yes, life is immeasurably more difficult these days. I think my father can be happy that he has chosen a punishment for himself that is more than fully adequate. However, I don’t want to deceive myself – I know that my life is still so good compared to that of many, many people around me. I have plenty of warm, delicious food to eat, I still have a father who looks at me with loving tenderness in his eyes, I have lots of beautiful clothes to wear, I have a dry roof over my head, a warm bed to call my own – and yes, warm fires in all the fireplaces. So no, life is not dreadful, there is plenty of hope. I find myself going to the market much more often than I used to do, and more than once I have found myself smiling into the kind eyes of Mr CrinklyGrin, or giggling at the merry laughter of Mr RoundLegs.

**********

The “Big House in the City”
Oh, I cannot believe this cruel twist that my life has taken. My Granddad’s health is now failing, so my father has gone to the farm to help sort out family matters. Naturally it was “utterly unthinkable” for my stepmother and stepsisters to debase themselves by moving to this life, even for six months, so instead they decided to decamp to “the big house in the city” in the hope of finding a wealthy suitor for Catherine. And they insisted that I should accompany them. Like an idiot I eagerly agreed, dreaming of balls and jaunts and concerts. All of these dreams have now dissolved into the drizzly grey morning. Instead of a grand townhouse, we have squeezed into tiny, cramped quarters, crammed in alongside all the other adventuring Mamas and hopeful daughters. And instead of the promised hordes of servants: footservants, cooks, maids, butlers; there is just me. There are indeed balls and soirées and pleasure gardens and evenings at the theatre and beautiful frocks and resplendent jewellery sets, but only for Catherine and Elizabeth. I play the parts of all the servants, all rolled into one, and I am kept busy night and day mending this hem or resetting this hat. I am rushed utterly off my feet, but even my fastest work is never fast enough, as the pile of mending, darning, stitching and hemming seems to double by the hour, as do the dirty dishes and laundry piles.
“Do hurry Cinderella, the ball is in half an hour!”

My stepmother loves to play the part of the grand lady, not revealing that the jewels are borrowed, the clothes are carefully restitched, the living quarters are but a garret.
My only respite is when they are all out, when I write to my Dad and cry over his letters to me. I know that he is already blaming himself bitterly for the life that he thrust me into. I cannot reveal the truth to him, so I pretend that life is as lovely and beautiful as I could ever have imagined. “We are having such a wonderful time!” I will tell him;
“Catherine and Elizabeth are being so helpful, introducing me to all their fine friends!…We go to balls and parties and masquerades every single day!”

However, I cannot afford to take too much time over my letters, as all too soon they will be back, jostling one another through the narrow entrance, angrily asking why their five changes of clothes each for the next day have not all been set out neatly, why there is still a pile of dishes left over from their breakfast (mine being just a dry crust of mouldy bread), and dumping fresh heaps of soiled laundry onto the already overflowing piles.

**********

A Royal Invitation
Well there certainly seems to be a warm glow in the air. It seems as if all the posturing and flirting employed by Catty Queen, Hell’s Best Kept Secret and their wonderful mother have actually paid off. Catherine came home today positively gloating with pride, and clutching to herself an envelope embossed in big, golden letters. To my astonishment, my beautiful ladies have been invited to a royal ball, thrown by the Queen in honour of the twenty-fifth birthday of Prince Wilfred. However, that is not the real excitement! The rumour is that the real aim of this ball is to gently encourage the said Prince in marital pursuits. It seems our Prince is especially fastidious and has previously cried off no fewer than five matches, each with the cream of European royalty. So now of course, when restraining himself to ladies of his own country, His Royal Highness must of course have the widest choice possible.

Which is why every lady with a suitable connection to aristocracy received an invitation. Of course, this is lost on my two vacuous stepsisters, and both of them each one thinks that she is definitely going to succeed in winning the royal hand. All night long it has been Prince this and Prince that! I’m sure he’s handsome – surely anyone with that amount of money must be handsome! Obviously I’ve never met him before. However what kind of vanity would demand to see ALL the ladies in the kingdom before making a choice? And to have changed his mind five times previously?! I know of course that royalty is entitled to…a certain sense of entitlement… but I’d say that this is probably a little much. Ha ha, I know it is extremely farfetched, but I can hardly imagine a more fitting reward for a spoilt royal prince than to win the hand of my wonderful stepsisters in marriage – either of them would do – what wonderful married life would be theirs!
Now the ball is getting closer, and I must admit that I am growing ever more curious and intrigued about the whole thing. They have only one month to prepare.

**********

At the Ball
I stepped out of the coach, and was caught by a sharp gust of wind. I shivered, but in truth I did not know whether it was caused by the cold, or rather nervous anticipation. Possibly a bit of both? On one hand, I did not know why I should be nervous: as a gentlewoman I was as entitled to be there as anyone else. On the other hand, I felt like a fraud, stepping through those imposing wooden doors; I who had been little more than a servant for those few months previously.

I certainly felt like a princess in my dress. I knew it would not be the most beautiful dress on display that night; even in those few months of city life I had seen gowns that were incomparably more ornate and elaborate, and not just because they were gaudy. Yes, there were some dresses that were simply overcooked with overflowing frills and fripperies, but there were yet others that were sophisticated essays in exquisite perfection, far more beautiful than my own dress. And yet my own dress was elegantly cut, and it clung gently and demurely to my figure, and it was intricately and richly embroidered. So yes, I felt like a real princess, and I felt like I radiated an uncharacteristic poise. The coach had stopped in front of a wide flight of stairs, over which had been laid a rich red carpet, so thick that my dainty shoes sank into the soft pile. On and on I climbed, up those never-ending stairs, until I finally reached the top, and the door was opened onto – possibly the most handsome face I had ever seen, framed by a head of rich black locks. All my poise and composure seemed to flee from me, as I stared at him for a good few seconds, until I realised he was saying something.

“Your cape, milady”
“Oh yes, yes of course”
To my mortification, the cape seemed to be wound tightly around my shoulders, and the harder I tugged the tighter it grew. I felt myself growing red, and the handsome face seemed to start snickering, and then tried to hide it with a cough. This did not help but then he finally had compassion on me and kindly helped me to remove the article.
“Thank you kind Sir”, I stammered, thrusting it at him and looking away. He then started to kneel down, and unsure what to do, I started kneeling down with him. Once again, he started snickering, louder this time, and realising my mistake, I hastily rushed to my feet. He also got up, and managed to force out a question.
“Can I get you anything to drink, milady?”
I felt so relieved. Surely I could not get this wrong?!

“Thank you so much. Could I please have a glass of lemonade?”

And now there was no denying it. He actually turned to the side and began to guffaw, and loudly, while I felt like I was drowning in a sea of humiliation. Eventually with a firm shake of those black locks he seemed to regain control of himself and even managed to say:
“Quite so.” And with that he escaped.

I stood staring at him, watching him disappear into the throngs of people, staring at the royal insignia embroidered in gold on his back. Of course, he was a footman! That is why he had been kneeling to me. It took me a while longer to realise what had been wrong with my drink order – no-one drinks lemonade at a ball! Actually, I could have worked that one out for myself, it’s just that everything was so overwhelming, and I hadn’t wanted to lose my head, on that of all nights. I then took the chance to look around, and I was utterly captivated by the sight before me. It is hard for me to describe what I noticed first. Was it the forest of candles blazing magnificently overhead, or was it the crowds and crowds of people? Was it the magnificent garlands of autumnal greenery draped on the walls, or the red and yellow shimmery silk hangings over which they lay, hanging from ceiling to floor?

Or perhaps it was not a sight that caught me first – perhaps it was the scent of roses perfuming the air, delicious, yet not overpowering – or aromas that I found even more welcoming – those of delicious freshly cooked meats, wafting through the air? Or could it have been the music of the full orchestra, intermittently striking up with majestic renditions, or the swish of rainbows of silks and satins, velvets, laces and jacquards against the floor, as jewels glowed and glinted in the candlelight? Either way, as I looked (gawped might be a better word) I knew that this was the most magnificent scene I had ever beheld in my life – or ever would behold.

The ceiling was so high overhead that I was sure that if I was able to stand on my own head fifty times over, I would not reach the top. From that great height, immense chandeliers – too many to count descended, dripping with fountains of what looked like, but surely could not be (surely not! – surely not?…) sparkling diamonds, and twinkling with so many candles that the whole ceiling seemed to be ablaze. And then there were so many people! Crowds and hordes and herds of people! More people than I could even have imagined could squeeze into this city all at one time. And they were all laughing, and talking, and drinking, and eating, and dancing, and altogether arrayed in every hue and combination that could possibly exist under the sun. Golds and greens and yellows and blues! And not just yellows, but ochres and lemons and primroses and buttercups. Not just reds but scarlets and crimsons and vermilions. Turquoises and teals and azures and aquamarines. Cerises overlaid on verdigris. Coppers interwoven with clementines. All dashed together and mixed together in a fastmoving dazzling life-size kaleidoscope. And just as many servants, or so it seemed, all fat, jolly and rosy cheeked, laden with burnished trays of bronze and pewter.

There was only one word I could use to describe the orchestra – magnificent. Simply magnificent, instruments glistening with the patina of newness, releasing music that flowed slowly and thickly like liquid joy. And then there was the food. I have heard people talk so many times of tables groaning under the weight of sumptuous dishes, but now I have seen it for myself I barely know how to describe it. Tables complaining under the weight of so much food? Tables angrily simmering, like slaves, under their reluctant burdens? However it may be, I had never seen so many delightful or enticing treats. Whole tables were given over to pies and pastries and desserts of lattices and cut fruit and exotic, multi-tiered ensembles. I marvelled when I saw a cake boasting seven tiers, embossed with filigree icing – and then I saw one with thirteen tiers, and a further one with no fewer than seventeen carefully balanced layers.

And then there were savoury tables – whole sides of beef, hams, venison, pheasants, glazed ducks, fishes and seafoods, even a beautiful swan-en-croûte centrepiece. And various pies, pâtés, breads, rolls, butters, cheeses – it just went on and on. And then there were the drinks tables. I quickly realised that my request for lemonade was not so exceedingly extraordinary as there were whole tables dedicated to lighter drinks. It was merely the language I had used which was gauche – I should instead have requested a light squeeze of lemon in sparkling water– but why would anyone drink that, when there was rosewater infused with fragrant Saxony-pear, or freshly squeezed golden apples, fresh from the tropics, or even exotic sherbets chilled by a glistening sculpted-ice palace – an ice-sculpture that was actually taller than I am?

It did not take me long to remember how hungry I was, after those many months of a grossly inadequate diet. I tried first one snack, then another, then yet another, and before I knew it my plate was piled high with delectable morsels. I tried to retreat quietly to one corner with my spoils, but I had not made any considerable headway before I felt someone’s eyes on me. I looked up to see the footman watching me with concerned eyes. Once again, I found myself staring, as he seemed to have grown even more handsome than before. Seeing me notice him, he walked quietly over.

“You’re hungry”, he said quietly. It felt like an accusation.

“Yes,” I blurted, “Yes, I am quite hungry…I haven’t eaten anything all day…I was so nervous about tonight!”

“I was watching you. You were behaving as if you hadn’t eaten anything for weeks.”

I went so red. I did not know it was possible to be that embarrassed.

More gently now: “Here, take this. Your lemonade” There seemed to be a slightly sarcastic emphasis on the word lemonade. I received it quietly; it now seemed be a little redundant. He also seemed to notice the sharpness in his tone and quickly dropped it (the tone, not the glass!)

“I’m so sorry – forgive me for being rude. And…I’m sorry for laughing at you earlier. I’ve never met anyone like you bef…you’re beautiful.”

I knew he was just saying it to be kind, to cover over his earlier rudeness and to mollify me. However, I found myself blurting out, before I could stop myself:

“And you – you’re so handsome – for a footman I mean…you’re the most handsome footman I’ve ever seen!”

And then the most unbelievable thing happened. He took the plate of food and the glass from my hands, placed them down, he pulled me gently but firmly into his strong arms, and he kissed me rapturously.

Actually, that didn’t happen. It was only what my mind and my imagination suggested should happen. What did happen is that he smiled sadly, looked at me quizzically, almost suspiciously, and shook his head a number of times.

“Thank you”. And then boldly, almost defiantly, he held his hand out. I shook it. A very, very soft hand, not like a servant’s hand at all.

“I’m so happy I met you. My name is Wilfred.”

“Just like the Prince!” I gasped.

“Yes,” he laughed, “Yes, exactly like the Prince.” We both looked over at the Prince at that moment. He was sitting there on the far end of the room, looking bored.

“Do you live here in this palace?” I asked

“Yes.” He laughed again. “I’ve lived here my entire life.”

“It is beautiful, it is gorgeous, it is…” I was ready to burst into rhapsodies of excitement while he just grinned away. Actually, he seemed willing and eager to talk, but my eyes unwittingly wandered over to my plate of food. Noticing this he apologised.

“Oh I’m so sorry, I’m disturbing you.” He quickly made his exit, leaving me to finally attack the delicacies with relish. A handsome servant might be one thing, but a platter of delicious food to a ravenous woman was quite another, thank you very much!

For the rest of the evening, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I wondered about, I looked upon beautiful outfits to my heart’s content. I ate a little more food, in what I hope was a more ladylike manner, savouring each royal mouthful. I even managed to get within a few metres of the Prince. Even with his thoroughly bored appearance, I had to admit that Wilfred the Prince was ten times more handsome than Wilfred the footman, and with unquestionably regal bearing. After our brief conversation, I felt a little disloyal to have to acknowledge it to myself. I guess that that is after all the difference between a Prince and a footman.

I had just wandered out onto the balcony, taking a little time to catch my breath, sighing happily.

What a beautiful evening! What brilliant stars! Did they appear more beautiful than usual, simply because of the sumptuous surroundings I found myself in. Perhaps…

I was sharply interrupted from my happy musings –
“Hello milady.”

I looked up. It was him, again.

“I thought…perhaps you could use your cape!”

“Thank you…Thank you. That was immensely thoughtful of you…I…I thank you!”

“What’s your name?”

“Ella…Princess…actually, they call me Cinderella.”

“Cinderella? Oh!” He seemed to choose his words carefully. “That’s a…pretty name.”

And so, we finally got talking.

We seemed to speak for hours.

“What has it been like to live in this palace?… I’ve always dreamt of being fabulously rich.”

I spoke of my unknown Grandfather. “Does he even know that I exist…?”

I told him about my parents –
“…I’ve always wondered how my life might be different, if they had made different choices…She laughed at him because he was poor…I hope I would never look down on someone because he was poor…”
(Those particular words were out of my mouth before I realised how clumsy they would seem.)

“Oh, I’m sorry, I…”

Thankfully he could not notice me blushing in the darkness.

“Oh that’s OK.” He laughed freely. “I assure you, I am not offended!”

I continued:
“…She was so delicate and frail…I hope to always be an asset wherever I find myself….” He nodded sagely, knowingly.

I asked him:
“Have you never wondered what it must be like to be a prince or so rich?”

“No,”
he said, absent-mindedly gazing back at the ballroom,
“I’ve never had to wonder.”
He continued:
“I think it must be a very lonely life, never knowing who your real friends are, never knowing who you can trust. When people look at you, they don’t see you as a person, as a real human being, they see only your status, the advantages that you could confer to them…”

He listened with keen attention as I told him of my childhood, of roaming around in the forests, and childhood playfighting with my cousins.

“I would have loved to have had such a childhood. I’ve been here, a servant here, my whole life.” He continued:

“Do you have any idea what it is like to be a servant – to have your destiny mapped out for you by others, even from before you were born?”

I listened, surprised. He did not seem to be unduly burdened by his duties, and he had already spent a few hours talking with me; in truth this servanthood did not seem to place any noticeable demand on him whatsoever.

I told him of my stepmother, my stepsisters, how I was the unofficial servant in their home.

“…Are you married?”
He seemed to ask with a surprising intensity, and he looked at me intently, as if so much depended on my answer.

“What a silly question!” I thought to myself.

“Yes, I’m married – to the invisible man!”

At this we both laughed, but he seemed genuinely relieved.

“And …are you? – married, I mean?”
I felt a little shy about asking him, even though he had already asked me first.

“Me?! Oh, no, no, no no no!”

He shook his head vigorously with each “no”.

“There have been a few girls – and they have all been lovely, really” (this time nodding his head with that same earlier vigour) “but” (he started shaking his head again, but slightly this time, slowly)
“I…” he sighed, he shrugged his shoulders.

“So, are you also out to win the Prince?”
He sounded a little bitter.

“No,”
I replied shyly looking down
“I don’t think a Prince would ever notice someone like me!”

“Why do you say that?”, he asked, with a questioning grin.

“Oh, I’m not a real lady. I don’t even know how to dance!”

More seriously now – “I don’t think I could ever fit into that world. There are so many things I don’t know. I don’t even know all the things that I don’t know… Wherever would I start?!”

“Well if dancing is your problem…” (and this time there was a distinctly teasing aspect to his voice) – “I can show you!”

“Can you really?!” I was surprised.

He looked at me with a look that said: “Do you dare to question me, lady?!”, he drew me to my feet and he proceeded to lead my untrained feet quite perfectly in a light waltz. I was surprised again. His movements, his footwork – all were impeccable even to my inexpert analysis.

“So how did I do?”, I asked, my eyes gleaming with excitement.

“Oh you were excellent!”
He threw his hands into the air.
“You were…” (pause) “…thoroughly…” (pause…he was clearly grasping for the correct words…)
“…you were thoroughly fit for a king!”

A king?”,
I asked with mock seriousness.
“How about a Prince?! How about…hmm…Prince Wilfred?!”

“Oh you’ll have to try harder than that for him! I hear he is quite fussy! However, if you were to lower your gaze to the humble footman Wilfred, I think you would find him considerably less exacting!”

And you know what, he did actually wrap his arms around me, and he did kiss me, not with deep passion, but rather a feather-light whisper across my forehead.

“Goodnight Princess. If our paths should never cross again, I hope all your dreams come true.”
“Actually wait, just wait here a second! Don’t go anywhere! I’ll be right back! Promise me you won’t go anywhere?!”

In a fit of enthusiasm he was alternating between looking towards the ballroom, pointing there, and looking back at me, wagging his finger at me. “Promise?!”

“I promise,” I said shyly (I was very shy that evening!) “I won’t go anywhere!” At this he dashed off.

Immediately I heard a voice attack me.

Cinderella?

I groaned within myself, even before turning around. Yes, this dream had been much too good to be true, and I instantly felt it all evaporate before my eyes.

“Cinderella-a-a-a-a-a? You insolent wretch! I knew it was you! What are you doing here, you lying scoundrel; did you steal that dress, you petty thief?!”

Reluctantly I turned around to face the angrily twisted visage of my darling stepmother, flanked by her two snarling, snivelling henchwomen, my beautiful stepsisters.

“Stepmother! I am so sorry, I…I can explain everything!”

“We saw you, we saw everything, how you were gallivanting with that footman! You let him kiss you, you vile and wicked girl! GET HER, YOU SILLY GIRLS!”, she shouted;
“How dare you undertake to disgrace…me in this…this… disgraceful fashion?!”

“No, stepmother, please, a second, please!”

But as ever she was deaf to all entreaty.
One stepsister locked her arm around my neck, the other pulled me sharply by my own arm, and together they dragged me away.

So what a night it was. So that is how life is lived in the palace, or so it seems. What a life it must be! Yet how much of that was typical of palace life, and how much of it was specially put on for the ball? In the palace do they always use the most lavish and expensive items every day – cutlery, tablecloths, gold painted dishes, or like everyone else do they also have some items that they keep back for special occasions, using ordinary items the rest of the time? I guess their “ordinary” items will probably be of an incredibly high standard, naturally. Again, do they eat like that every day? I know of course that they will not have that amount of food normally, or that great level of variety…would it ever grow a little tedious to always be surrounded by such richness? Would they never yearn for the pleasure of simplicity, of cotton rather than silk, of water rather than wine?

And then I can’t help thinking about the tremendous cost of the ball. Was all this luxury at the taxpayer’s expense? Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that its only purpose was to celebrate the birthday of the prince, or to seek out a suitable wife for him. I understand that to a considerable degree this ball was to serve as an advertisement for our small kingdom, to attract people who might be impressed enough by our show to seek out the protection of our wealth and prosperity, and thereby to bolster the numbers of our citizens. I understand all that, of course, as surely as anyone else would. I also understand that this ball was partly to raise the spirits of the citizens, as a royal means of fostering excitement within the kingdom, as well as stimulating commerce. However, the level of this ball was simply phenomenal. However, am I only saying this because I am not actually a regular at palace balls? Would I even be laughing at this idea if I had had the perspective and royal experience of say, the footman, Wilfred? Speaking of the footman Wilfred…Sigh!!!

And so, looking back, despite the unseemly exit, it remains without question the most magical night I have ever experienced, perhaps the most magical night I ever will experience. However, the story of how I got to the ball in the first place is also very special, something I will treasure always.

**********

Getting to the Ball
In the run up to the ball, the city had been transformed by the imminent ball as if by a magic hand.
New candles glowed proudly in the street lanterns, each one conscientiously attended and lit so each evening was a joyful glow, like Christmas. Flowers had been planted on the greens, grouped by colour so that there was a blaze of colour awaiting in each direction – pinks and reds and peaches and lilacs; roses and tulips and violets and lavenders. Fresh greenery hung around the pillars and posts, replaced daily by eager and willing workers. The festive goodwill had spread to the individual homes; housewives dusted down and spring-cleaned their houses, each door, gate or windowsill was sporting a new lick of paint, a new coat of varnish. Everywhere there was an air of freshness, the smell of newness. Running my errands became a pleasure, and I actively sought excuses to linger in the bright and clean streets.

The ball had been an economic coup for the city. Whole industries had sprung up, and existing businesses had been revitalised from those serving the palace: those preparing food for the ball, vineyards and breweries, florists and chandlers. Every day I watched as new signs were put up, promoting new services, new ideas, new partnerships.
Shops were doing brisk business to those who wanted to attend the ball. Coachmakers, wheelwrights and wainwrights rolled into town, couturiers served those ladies who could afford a certain class of style and artistry, ordinary dressmakers catered to everyone else who could not.

The farmers had been working the land with renewed vigour, each one with a sunny smile or a good-natured laugh.
Ladies and gentlemen had been devouring savings, having jewels carefully reset to be á la mode, endlessly, exhaustedly racing around, sending their servants back and forth to haberdashers, cloakmakers and various other craftsmen; milliners with jaunty, frivolous and playful hats, pillboxes and fascinators; cordovans with frothy, impractical pumps, stilettoes, sandals and slippers.
Acres and acres of fabrics, of tulles, of nets, of sheer organzas were magically and instantaneously transformed into piles of discarded cloth, mountains of rejected designs. I would stare in astonishment at the heaps, imagining what I would have made from that fabric, in that colour, how such an outfit would fall around my figure, how I would wear my hair.
Previously indolent servants had suddenly trimmed down, through running countless errands, now here, now there, now here again, weighed down with packages and rolls of fabrics, dodging cartwheels and horse-drawn carriages. Of course, I had not exactly been “indolent” before, but I tried to work at a manageable pace, so that I could give myself time to enjoy the city.
At any time of the day or night workmen and artisans, ladies and courtiers streamed about busily, fulfilling orders, laughing, gossiping, dreaming; bright lights twinkled invitingly in the windows of the local inns and guesthouses, which had all been thoroughly turned out, aired and dusted. Bakeries, butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers had all been caught up, bobbing along merrily in the river of gold that flowed down the hill from the palace.

The city was caught in a splendid fantasy – we all were – a web thickly spun of fevered anticipation, and within that a gossamer web of more subtle, unspoken dreams, woven by the softest, most delicate hands; each and every gentlewoman who dared to allow herself to think – “What if?… Why not?!”
Everyone became better spoken, better mannered, every lady both more gracious and more graceful, raffinée – ugly ducklings were transformed overnight into softly spoken, fragrant, graceful swans.

My stepsisters Catty Queen and Hell’s Best Kept Secret had unsurprisingly taken everything to heart and they had been talking about this ball non-stop for what seemed like weeks on end. On one hand, I was getting quite fed up of hearing their competing plans for how they would reorganise the kingdom (as naturally, they both thought that they would win the hand of Prince Wilfred…) On the other hand, a secret desire was beginning to grow in my own heart. I was pondering on the fact that all ladies were invited to the ball! That included me too! I was after all a lady too! I admittedly had not felt very ladylike for a number of months with all my chores and duties, but I could not help dreaming about the magic of a ball at the royal palace!

Of course, I was far too practical to even think of the possibility of winning the Prince – however would he notice me within all those people? Would I even want to marry a Prince anyway – much less one who is apparently as spoilt as this particular Prince Wilfred? (On the other hand, maybe I could overlook a few character failings for the sake of becoming a Princess – who wouldn’t?!) But seriously, that is obviously the most ludicrous and farfetched impossibility imaginable. So it genuinely wasn’t that. Rather it was the thought of this “once in a lifetime opportunity”, to get inside those royal doors, to breathe in that rarefied air, to occupy the same space as royalty! Instead of being put off by my life of servitude, that actually made me feel more determined. Yes, I was after all a lady, and yes, I was going to get to that ball, no matter what! But how, though?! That was one seriously big question. Realistically speaking, there were no means at my disposal whatsoever. And what would I need for a ball? I would need a beautiful gown, some shoes, a bag, some jewellery, and some special “angel-dust” to be sprinkled over my face and hair to give me an extra special glow and a suitably elegant hairstyle. And how was I to get there? Would I hitch a ride, or stowaway at the back of someone’s coach? And how was I to get back, exactly?! So many questions! However, I knew that I would forever regret it if I missed out on this particular chance.

After some considerable thought, I came up with a workable idea. I had seen some “help wanted” signs at the windows of a few guesthouses. The Royal Burg of Linden was quite overflowing with guests, journeymakers and thrillseekers arriving for the Royal Ball. Taking all my courage, I went to the first guesthouse.
Yes, I was willing to work as a maid. How much would they pay me? No, I did not have any specific experience as a maid but…. I sadly walked out the door, and walked home to my unpaid drudgery. However, the next day, I picked up my courage once again, and tried at another guesthouse. Another rejection. This time however, I did not go home, but tried at another sign, and another, and another, until finally the door opened onto the kindly face of a maternal looking woman, with piercing blue eyes twinkling merrily.

“I’ve come about the work available!” I said, as chirpily as I could, trying not to sound as if I expected her also to say “No”. She looked a little puzzled, then, “Of course! Come in my dear!”, she said. I walked into a cheerful little scene, a hearty fire roaring at the fireplace, a bright, neat and dusted living room.
“Would you like a cup of tea my dear?” That sounded lovely! “And how about a little scone?” That too sounded marvellous! As I sat chomping away quite indelicately at the pastry, she explained my duties to me.
“…And you would clean the windows, and there will be some dusting, a little baking, bedmaking, washing….” It all sounded quite doable to me.
And how much would she pay me? As she named the sum, my heart sank. There were but two short weeks left till the ball. At that rate of pay, there would be barely enough for dress material, let alone shoes, coach hire and everything else I needed.
“Is there a problem dear?” Her sharp eyes had noticed my momentary disappointment.
“Yes, I mean no, no of course not, no problem at all!” And how long would I be available to work – just for the next couple of weeks, right up until the ball!

And so began two weeks of the most intense, but also enjoyable work of my life. Each day I would shut the door on my stepmother and two stepsisters, then I would secretly creep out and work for the next few hours. Each day my new employer would greet me with a cup of tea and a scone, and then I would quickly get to work. A few hours later, she would pay me for that day’s work, and I would quickly rush home to get back before my other “employers”. A few times they did get home before me, but I was easily able to explain it away to running a few errands. In the meantime, I looked for a suitable dress, I looked for shoes, I made enquiries about coach services that would be running to the palace for the day of the ball. It was still very much out of my reach, but as my earnings grew, it seemed to grow ever more possible.

At last, my final day of work arrived; this was the day before the ball itself! I worked my heart out, I felt a little sad at leaving this kind lady who had been so gracious to me. I had also failed to find any means of getting a dress or getting to the ball. At the end of a few hours, she beckoned me into the hallway. “Come dear,” she said, “I have a little something for you.”
The “little something” was a brown paper parcel bound with string. On opening it, I gasped in surprise.
I was holding a dress, a beautiful ball dress in a gentle pink colour that shimmered rose as it caught the light. A matching pair of shoes and drawstring purse were also bound in the package.
I tried them on.

The dress had a close-fitting bodice, outlined with inch wide straps that were ornamented with tiny pink chiffon rosebuds. A broader band of a richer rose was pleated around my waist. From this a floor length skirt fell in straight folds, overlaid with some softly falling translucent silk voile. As I moved the skirt traced my outline, and when I twirled around in delight the folds unfolded so that the skirt itself opened up like a fan and twirled around with me, rather than impeding my movement at my feet.
The stiletto heels were of matching coloured silk, open-toed with tiny rosebuds decoratively arranged at each ankle.

In the purse was some jewellery: a watch, a bracelet, a necklace, some earrings and some beaded hair combs, all made of shining white rose-tinted opal, which formed a pool of shining liquid in my palm as I gazed at it in the firelight.
“Enjoy the ball dear!” said the sweet lady.
“How did you know?!” I asked.

“You didn’t think I believed you were a real, servant, did you?! You turned up for work two weeks before the ball; on leaving here you would always stand and gaze at the shop window, shrug your shoulders, and then slowly walk back home. You have been a delight to work with, and I wanted to make sure you had a wonderful time tomorrow. “
“Thank you, thank you for your kindness!” I said, tears coming to my eyes.

I was thinking that from my earnings I could now afford to hire a coach to the ball. However, she
continued:
“But you’re still wondering how you are going to get there, aren’t you? I’ve spoken with my brother, who runs a coachworks. If you are here tomorrow by six pm, then one of his drivers will be able to get you to the ball by eight pm. But you will need to leave the ball by twelve midnight sharp, as his business will be very busy that night, and he will need to pick up other passengers….”
I was elated. I was also a little embarrassed by her kindness. I knew that my work had not been overly fantastic. I had indeed tried my best, but at times I knew I had been guilty of being a little absent-minded through thinking about the ball, or bitterly thinking about my stepmother, and at other times I had just been plain exhausted.

“Don’t be embarrassed my dear”, she said, guessing my thoughts. “In my life I have received much kindness from other people, and I have always been determined to show kindness to others in return whenever I can.”
So the next day, the day of the ball, with trembling fingers I pulled on the dress, and shoes. I braided my hair decoratively, I dusted my face with sparkling powder, and clasped on the jewellery. I grabbed the drawstring bag and I was at her house a whole half hour early. And that is the amazing story of how I managed to get to the ball!

Thinking back on it now there are still a number of things I find puzzling. She must have known, either from the beginning, or very shortly thereafter that I was not an expert at that type of work. Did she take me on from the outset purely for the sake of “showing me kindness”, as she put it? And then I also think, instead of giving me a dress, why did she not just pay me more money, so that I could have gone to choose one myself? I hope that that is not just my pride speaking, at having to accept so generous a gift. It was and is a lovely dress, but I don’t think I would have minded the thought of going to get an outfit myself. And finally, just how did she know my size?! Did she just happen to have the dress available, or did she get it made specially?! Mystifying questions, to which I may never know the answers. In all though, I am grateful for her kindness, and so grateful that I managed to get to the ball after all! Ultimately I can’t claim that it was a triumph of my determination, even though I had been extremely determined. I can only be grateful, and look back on a very special night.
One final question I have regarding the ball – the wife of a footman – would she automatically become a footwoman…?!

**********

On the Aftermath of the Ball
After the ball, the city has continued to bask in a dreamy haze. Everyone who was there (which seems to actually be everyone in the city!) has been discussing the wonderful night that was had, the beautiful fashions, the exquisite food. And apparently the Prince was quite captivated by one particular lady! Well I did not really stay close enough to him to watch who he was speaking to, or to see if he had been staring at anyone, but I am quite surprised by that. With that look on his face he had seemed as if he did not expect to find anything exciting or captivating in life whatsoever – no wonder he felt compelled to break off his previous betrothals!

Life in our household has been neither so dreamy nor so captivating, unfortunately. I have been quizzed unendingly by stepmother and stepsisters regarding my attendance at the ball. How dared I presume to even aspire to attend an event for gentlemen and gentleladies! Silence!!!! Odious child! And where did I get the dress! Speak up!!! Sneaky, conniving miscreant! How did I get there? The jewellery, the shoes?! Am I in the habit of going around kissing footmen? Everything, if you please!!! I need not think that any explanation I could possibly offer could change their mind that I am the lowest, most infamous, untrustworthy creature that has ever lived, so I might as well keep my grovelling excuses to myself!!!

Before the ball I did not expect to get caught, in such a great mass of people, so I did not think to prepare an explanation. In the event, no explanation that I could offer would make any difference at all, as the mere fact that they saw me at the ball to them has blackened my already lowly character beyond all further redemption, beyond any help that could be provided by any possible explanation. At one point they shut me up in my “room” (actually a narrow closet) until I “could learn to tell the truth”. Thankfully this turned out to be a short-lived punishment, as of course they continue to need my services to make the food, wash the clothes, wash the floors. The lasting consequence of my “fall from grace” has been that each command, each order is delivered with a frightful scowl, as if it is disgustingly beneath their dignity to even have to address me.

Well I have also had quite a lot of time to examine my attitude to the footman. Am I so green?! You’d think I’d never met a man before in my life?! Admittedly he was unspeakably good-looking, but still! I often shake my head to myself. For once, my stepmother and stepsisters might actually be right. He was a complete stranger and I let him put his arms around me. It was a mistake, definitely not to be repeated. I need to learn to act wisely around men, especially men that I do not know. For all I know this footman is just some kind of “Mr Charming” who likes playing with girls’ hearts. However, deep down I do not believe that – I do not want to believe that. He just seemed too sincere. Then again, that might be exactly how these men work!
I’ve resolved that I need to put the whole thing out of my mind; to enjoy the memories, but not look back piningly.

**********

A Surprising Gift
A couple of weeks after the ball, while my stepmother and stepsisters were out, I opened the door to a brisk knock. From the window I could see a male form, golden letters embroidered on a tunic, announcing a royal footman. Nervous excitement filled me as I fidgeted with the door lock – and indeed it was a footman! But it was not him.
“May I have your name please?”
I told him.

“Could you please tell me where you were on the night of …(the date of the ball)?”
I told him. He handed me a wicker box, strapped with strong leather and gleaming steel buckles.

“A package from the Palace,” he smiled. “Good day to you.”
And he was off.

I struggled a little with the box, as it was somewhat heavy, but eventually got it upstairs where I could open it in privacy. It contained all manner of pastries and pies, carefully wrapped in strong brown paper. There were also a number of bottles of “lemonade from finest Sicilian lemons”. There was also a note, tucked into the folds of the hamper box. It took me a while to summon the courage to read it, my heart was beating so fast. Inside there were only a couple of lines written:

“Sweet Princess, thank you for honouring me with your presence. Please accept this small token. All my love, Wilfred.”

It is hard for me to describe my feelings on seeing this. I was stunned, my breath was quite taken away, I stared in shock.
I read and reread the lines, I cried a little, I mentally composed a dozen replies. I helped myself to a chicken pie, thickly stuffed and with fluted edges, and then a strawberry tartlet, sugar glazed and sprinkled with cinnamon. I also opened a bottle and drank deeply, savouring the spicy aroma. I then carefully hid away the remaining treats where I knew they would remain secret, and where they would reliably keep for the longest time.

And then I finally let myself start thinking about the person who had sent this gift. What thoughtful kindness! What sweetness! What unspeakable generosity! I laughed out loud. So he clearly wants to claim a place in my heart. However, am I willing to consider this? Obviously I would never have aspired to a match with a footman, ordinarily speaking, even a royal one. However, there is much to be said for an honest, hardworking life, and perhaps this is why I have been working as a servant myself for these months! Perhaps it is all a grand plan by some unseen master hand to prepare me for this very life! So I’ve let myself dwell deeply on the possibility of life with a certain handsome servant, so that now that a mass invitation has been issued to all ladies to a second royal ball, there is simply no question but that I have to find a way of getting to this ball also!

**********

Preparing for the Second Ball
So yes, I have now been for that second ball. And yet the story of how I got there and what happened when I got there, and the immediate aftermath is certainly some story indeed.

Well I had made up my mind that I had to attend this second ball too.
However what was I going to wear? How was I going to get there? I thought of my earlier benefactress, but I quickly put the thought out of my mind. She had been so kind the first time around, I could not impose upon her a second time.
I eventually decided that I would simply wear the same gown that I had worn to the first ball, with the shoes, the jewellery, the bag, and then I only needed to find out how I would get there. Thanks to my previous employer’s kindness, I had not actually needed to spend much of my earnings to get to the first ball, so my funds were more than adequate for coach hire. However, I wanted to be cautious, circumspect. I did not see any reason to spend money unnecessarily, especially when it had been such an effort to earn it in the first place!

After some research I eventually came across a new coach company that had sprung up during the fever of the last ball, and was now wanting to publicise its services by offering highly discounted rates to the palace for this ball. I soon discovered just how special this coach company was.

Each coach was shaped like a giant piece of fruit! There were a few apples, a few oranges, there was a peach, there was a lemon, there was a lime! All boldly enamelled in the appropriate fruity shades. I thought that after all the talk of lemonade it would have been quite amusing to have turned up in a giant lemon, but unfortunately the lemon coach was not going to be operational that night. The coaches that were going to be operational were going to be the watermelon and the pumpkin; I could take my pick! I chose the pumpkin.

So sure enough, the coach was shaped like a giant pumpkin, painted in gaudy bright orange with a carved green stalk at the top, and wheels carved of ornamentally wrought iron embellished with leaf shapes.
“Linden Fruit Coaches” was painted on the side in bright gold letters. Inside, the interior was well-sprung, upholstered in luxurious leather-trimmed wine-coloured velvet.

On the day of the ball I waited until Catty Queen, Hell’s Best Kept Secret and “Evelyn Stepmother” had quite left, then I quietly snuck out and crept to the advertised departure point. All four of us occupants climbed in, the coach was lit up splendidly, and off we were bumping our merry way along with the rolling country on either side. All too soon, we were there!

The coach doors opened, and I let everyone else climb out first, so that I could compose myself. I took a deep breath. Was I just making a big mistake? After the first ball should I just have let it be? I summoned all my courage, and once again I started ascending those high stairs. As the doors opened, a reassuring sense of familiarity hit me and I relaxed. Today I was going to keep a low profile, surely I would not be so unlucky as to be spotted a second time by my stepmother and stepsisters?

**********

The Second Ball
I had thought that nothing would possibly be able to surpass the grandeur of the first ball. I was wrong. If the first ball had been magnificent, this second ball was even more spectacular, and by several degrees!

There could be no question of what I noticed first this time. I was instantly struck by the splendour of this second ball and the awareness that it was immensely more superb than the first ball. However, what really caught me was the sight and sounds of lots of very little people merrily enjoying themselves – children everywhere!

Once again the chandeliers blazed overhead, now the diamonds had been replaced with brightly sparkling stones of different pastel colours – baby blues, gentle pinks, light mints, yellows. It seemed as if there were more than ever, all tightly packed in, totally filling the space of the ceiling. Again the candles burned furiously overhead, but now they were joined by earnest flambeaux, carefully arranged on the stone pillars to be beyond reach of curious little fingers.

Again the hall was tightly squeezed with guests, more than before, even despite the children; once again they were all arrayed in a spectacular spectrum of colours, of reds and purples and golds, and textures, and bright bright jewels, all aglow, a-glinting and a-glimmering; once again people were engaged in a spectacular spectrum of different aspects of merry-making, and my ears soon got filled with the din of luxuriant laughter. Many people however, as I was, seemed to be entranced by the sight of the children, and were watching adoringly the exploits of these delightful guests of honour.

Instead of that one splendid gleaming orchestra, there was still the same orchestra, but now it was also accompanied by several children’s choirs from the local music school, each child standing straight, scrubbed clean and beaming proudly for their royal performance. Now the perfection of the grown-up professional musicians was enhanced by the imperfect sweetness of children’s singing and it was so beautiful and touching that I was moved to tears.

And once again there was the food! Oh my goodness, that food!!!
Once again there were tables of every kind of delicacy I could ever have imagined: savoury tables, pies, meats, seafoods, desserts, fruits, drinks.
This time the tables themselves were decoratively arranged in a pretty spiral, gradually increasing in height, so that alongside the big and high tables for the older diners, there were small tables with small bite size portions for little fingers, little mouths and little tummies. The food on each table was also decoratively arranged into little scenes and stories.

On each fruit table there was a little life-size tree, made of a real tree, with the trunk and branches wrapped in foil. The pieces of fruit were tied on with decorative strings and threads, at which small fingers were enthusiastically tugging.

Alongside poultry tables of roasted mother swans and geese “swimming” with assorted offspring of different roasted birds, and pork tables of roasted sows suckling roasted piglets, there were salad tables resembling the Linden Forest, with broccoli trees sprouting from undulating hills of watercress, with rocks and crags made of cabbages and baked potatoes. There was also a huge gingerbread model of the entire city. There was the library! And there was the church, with little tealight candles shining from stained glass windows made of boiled sweets.

There was even a sea scene made of tiny silver fish carefully overlapped to resemble waves, and “boats” made of hollowed out cucumbers, and “rocks” made of crabs and oyster shells. What I found most captivating was a “country” scene of a “log cabin” made of breadsticks arranged to resemble the logs with roof tiles of sliced hams “built” beside a gushing stream and waterfall of bacon rashers, with boulders of breads and potatoes, and more rashers and mushrooms forming trees in the distance. And then I saw a house made of blue cheese, with a bread roof, and then a winter snowstorm of meringues and spun sugar. It was like an explosion of beauty and creativity, and it seemed like such a shame to actually eat it – but eat it I did and it all tasted just as good as it looked! And once again drinks of every description possible, but instead of just one Ella-sized ice palace, sparkling in the light of the candles, there were five, carved to look like palaces from different parts of the world, each one surrounded by crowds of giggling infants.

It was all so incredible that it could easily have become overpowering.

However, the atmosphere was lightened and prevented from becoming tedious or overwhelming by the laughter of children echoing everywhere.

I was as mesmerised as anyone else, utterly enchanted by the fun and innocence around me. I had almost forgotten the reason I had wanted to be there, until I spotted a familiar looking figure, who seemed to be quite overrun with little wriggling, writhing figures, all laughing happily and shrieking in mock terror.
“Carry me, carry me Uncle Wilfred!”

At this he would chase them and roar like a lion.

“Ha ha ha! I’m going to catch you!” He stretched out his arms, hobbling from foot to foot in an exaggerated motion, as if pretending to be a fearsome giant. It was at this point that he turned around and saw me.

“Oh Ella! How do you do? Erm, these are my children!”

“What,” I asked in feigned surprise “All of them?!”

We both laughed.

The children soon realised that “Uncle Wilfred” was no longer available to play and they duly turned their attention to harassing the poor waiting staff.

“Thank you so much for the hamper!”

He smiled back at me. “Oh you received it!”

“Yes I did! Thank you! It was such a lovely gift, and everything was so delicious! Thank you so much for the lemonade.”

“And how have you been?” We got to exchanging some pleasantries and small talk. Then we started talking in earnest and again as with the first ball we seemed to be absorbed in conversation for hours.

“Would you like to dance?” We danced for a bit, and once again I marvelled at his light-footedness, while he was again very gracious about my lack thereof.

With that same previous concern: “Have you eaten? Would you like something to eat?”

We each grabbed a plate, and went out to eat in silence, under the stars.

“Now how about something to drink? Please come over here, there is something I would like to show you!”

He led me over to an entire table that seemed to be dedicated to different kinds of lemonade, made of different varieties of lemon, grown in different regions – including some from the palace hothouse! There were different colours – pinks, purple lemonades!

“Do you like it?” he asked enthusiastically, as if he had personally arranged it, just for me.

“I do, I do like it”, I said smiling in return.

However, it all turned a little sour after that, I’m afraid.

I remembered to ask something that had been puzzling me.

…“How did you know my address?” Long pause. He eventually laughed, a little uneasily.

“I’m afraid that that is a Palace secret!”

“Really?! OK! And are you entitled to send out other footmen on errands into the centre of town? Is that also a palace secret?”

I was still smiling, but I was conscious of the length of time that he was taking to answer. There was another long pause. I could feel myself stop smiling.

“And do you have the dispensation to use palace letter-headed paper?”

Now there was silence altogether. For the first time, I noticed hundreds of pairs of eyes staring at us. Finally he grasped my elbow, rather ungently, frankly, and directed me to a side room.

“You’re not a footman, are you? So what are you? Are you playing with me? The hamper, the note – has this all been one big joke?”

“Ella, my dear, my sweet girl, please forgive my deception. You are right, I am no footman. However, I have been completely sincere about…”

Just then there was a knock at the door.

“Prince Wilfred, your presence is required immediately in the forecourt. His Majesty asks how much longer you are to make him wait?”
Wilfred gasped in exasperation at the interruption.

“Yes, if you could please explain to my Father that I have evaluated the amendment and I am quite ready to discuss the likely repercussions. However if he could just spare me for a minute longer…”

At this I was absolutely aghast. My head was reeling.

“Prince”…”His Majesty”…”my Father”!

“You’re the Prince?! You’re the Prince?!

“Ella, please, please…” He was almost begging. “I must go now. Stay here!…Please? Please don’t go anywhere this time! I’ll be back in a short breath…”

And so he was. Wow, from footman to Prince in one fell stroke. From all this I did not know what to take, or what to think. The one thing that kept bouncing around in my mind was the fact that those dreams of an honest, hardworking life with the handsome servant must come to nothing, dreams that I had taken so long to accept in the first place. In an instant, those long happy hours concocting those elaborate, wholesome daydreams had been snatched away from me.

When he returned, he had removed the footman’s tunic, replacing it with royal robes, a solid and heavy gold circlet on his head.

“Yes, it’s true. I am indeed the Prince. I am Prince Wilfred. I am…Prince…Wilfred.”

“OK. I must go now.”

“Please Ella, please don’t go. Please stay. Don’t be angry. Are you angry?”

“Yes, I am angry. I thought you were a footman. Please leave me alone. I don’t know what you want with me…Prince!” Just like a girl, I had started crying.

“Ella…Princess…!”

“Please do not call me that! I came all this way…I thought you liked me! I’ve spent so much time, I’ve spent so much money. You only brought me here to laugh at me, because you know I’m only a servant!”

“No Ella, I do like you! Please believe me! You are so special…you are lovely…you are beautiful…Remember that I too am a servant…”

“What! You call this servitude?!”

Have you ever been in an argument with someone, where you really want to be comforted, but the person you would seek comfort from is the very person you’re arguing with? That is how I felt at that moment. After receiving that hamper, I had let myself think often about our easy conversation at that first ball, and I had let myself dream extensively until in my mind “Wilfred the footman” was the one place to automatically go to seek some cheering up. And now I needed it so badly, it was withheld from me by the fact that this very same “Wilfred” was not, and would never be, what I had dreamed and imagined.

Frustration at this made me angry. All the unflattering things I had previously thought about “Prince Wilfred” helpfully came to the fore, giving eloquence to my anger.

“You call this servitude?!” I repeated.
“You while away your days in idle leisure, you seem quite happy to bankrupt the nation – and twice over too, with your tacky, over the top spectacles, all for the sake of finding yourself a wife who is sufficiently worthy of you! You’ve already tossed aside five women because they were simply not good enough for you, and now your ego demands that you must be able to choose from every single lady in the kingdom! You’re nothing but a spoilt royal prince, and now you want to ruin my life too!”

At this he was utterly silent, he looked down, and I realised I had gone too far.

“Oh I am so sorry! Please forgive me your majesty…your princeliness, erm…”

Just then I heard the clock strike twelve midnight and I suddenly remembered the coach! If I missed it, then I might be stuck here forever, in this glorious palace, with this stupendously attractive Prince!! What a dreadful, dreadful thought!

I looked around me, and in a state of panic I quickly gathered my few possessions, picked up my bag, and I started running as fast as I could. But whence these two fat tears, rolling down my cheeks? And whence these loud sobs erupting from my chest?

Behind me I could hear the echo of his voice, getting fainter and fainter. “Princess…princess…” However, I carried on running. I ran so fast that I did not even notice – my left shoe was loosely done up, and it came right off! I tried to look around for it briefly, but in the darkness it was impossible to locate it, and I knew I did not have any time to waste! I quickly reached down, undid my right shoe, took that in my hand and ran and ran until I reached the coach, with barely seconds to spare.

It was all too momentous to think about on the way home, so I tried to watch the scenery, distract myself by thinking of my life back in the country. And yet I could not really keep the thoughts away. For the first time in my life I had met a Prince – and I had shouted at him! A second later it occurred to me that actually this was the second time I had met a Prince, and he was the one who had hugged me at the first ball! Thinking back, I was a little surprised to think that a Prince could hug so good! And he had also had such a nice smile. In fact, he was just like…a normal person really. And he had also said that…he liked me. I shook my head. Wow, this was all completely overwhelming. What was I going to do? Perhaps I should run away to another country?! But then they would probably be able to find me! This was all so frightening! I thought again to myself – a real life flesh and blood Prince! Wow! Despite everything, I caught myself smiling – well that explained why he was so handsome!

“OK Ella”, I said to myself “let me just calm right down…let me just take myself home quietly, let my heart rate get back to normal, give it a couple of days, until I can trust myself to think about this rationally and sensibly…”

And yet right there, my mind utterly refused to drop the subject.
Had I known, really, all along? Perhaps not that he was a Prince, but rather that he could not possibly have been a real footman? I thought to the pointers that might have given me a clue, right from that first ball – his educated and refined speech, his dancing, his soft, soft hands. And yet it could have been quite plausible that a certain level of education and refinement were necessary criteria to win a footman’s title in the royal household. And how about the happy coincidence of the matching “Wilfred” names? I really began to torture myself: my goodness, had I been secretly dreaming of winning the Prince all along? So that I could show up my two stepsisters? Had my anger earlier on been exaggerated; had I been trying to hide my excitement at the possible prospect of a royal romance by pretending to be angry – even to myself?

If so, could he see through me? Was I just another opportunist that he would bitterly write off? Would he be heartbroken at the thought that commoners could be just as shallow and insincere as the aristocrats that surrounded him? But hold on, who was I to simply assume that all aristocrats were shallow and insincere?!

It took me a little longer to dare to ask myself the question: in the most implausible and impossible scenario – could…I…marry this Prince? Even allowing myself to think this seemed so scary and intimidating. And then I remembered something that he had said at the first ball:
“No-one sees you for who you are…” I tried to repeat it to myself in my mind –
“He is just a man. He has got hands, he has got eyes, he has got hair – he is just a man!”
If I thought of his status then any thought of a future together seemed clearly preposterous. However if I let myself peer behind the status to see the man then…. tears filled my eyes. Well I would definitely have considered the footman…definitely.

And then shame filled me as I remembered how I had vocalised my anger. Even as the words had been tumbling out of my mouth, I had known that I was being unfair. I had called the balls “tacky”, which had been completely untrue. They had both been extravagant certainly, but tastefully, stylishly so. I had even accused him of bankrupting the nation, even though I had countless times reflected on the vitality and beauty – and money – injected into the city directly because of that first ball.

Most of all, how utterly, utterly presumptuous of me to jump to conclusions about those earlier betrothals. I had only known him a brief time but yet it seemed so obvious that he would not just casually throw anyone aside. I would probably never know the details regarding those ladies – I clearly did not deserve to know – but I was sure my words would have wounded him, and quite deeply too. I was “cut to the heart” to acknowledge that while I had spent my whole life trying not to look down on people because they were poor, it had never occurred to me that I might unfairly look down on someone for the exact opposite reason; that is, because he was rich, because he had been born into immeasurable privilege and prestige.

So these thoughts rolled over and over in my mind in tandem with the wheels of the coach, all the way home.

And then the loss of the shoe provided a fitting full stop to everything, like a sign from God Himself. Oh and did that now mean that I had to walk home barefoot? Oh what a royal disaster this ball had turned out to be, after such a beautifully delicious beginning.

Things were only destined to get worse though. Fortunate as I had been to have avoided my stepmother and stepsisters at the ball, as I crept in, with hem muddied and hair bedraggled, I found that they were already there, waiting for me.

“Oh, look what the cat dragged in!” said, (quite appropriately) Catty Queen.
“Just come back from the ball, have we?! Have you been kissing the footman again?!”
“Yes!”, I said.
“I have had a very terrible night, but you are quite right, I have been at the royal ball!”
“SILENCE!” roared my stepmother.
“Cinderella, I demand an explanation at once, at once you hear!” She coldly looked me up and down.
“Where are your shoes?! Why is your dress so muddy?! Were you with that footman? Answer me at once, at once girl!”

“No!” I said, my anger making me defiant. I spoke right in her face.
“No, I am not going to give you any explanation whatsoever! I’ve put up enough with your slavemongering ways. While you might like to treat me as a servant, I am a lady and I had just as much right to be at the ball as you did! I am not going to stay here a moment longer! Find yourself another slave!”

“Cinderella!” screeched my stepmother.

“Cinderella!” hissed my stepsisters simultaneously.

“Ella!” A fourth voice, dearly familiar called my name.

“Papa? Papa it’s you!”
I ran into the living room, and there he was, my own sweet and dear father!
“Oh Papa, it’s been so long!”
I started crying.
“Oh Papa, life here has been awful! They’ve made me their slave, and at the ball I lost my shoe and I argued with the er…footman…”

“She’s lying!” said my stepmother desperately. “Isn’t she girls?!”

“Yes! Yes!” They eagerly agreed. “What a little liar you are, Cinderella!”

I continued tearfully:
“And they never gave me any food, or any nice new clothes, and I had to work to earn money to get to the ball!”

“Don’t worry pet, I’m here to take you home!” he said.

“And where do you think you’re going?!”, my stepmother flung at his head.

“I’m taking my daughter home”, he said plainly.

“If you take one step…it’s her or it’s me!” She shouted.

He calmly looked her in the eye.
“It’s her. It was always her.”

“Yes Papa, please take me home.” I knew I would only ever be able to look back on this period with immense regret. I had complained so much about my circumstances. Then I had been handed a huge chance with someone so, so special – and I had completely thrown it away, so that now there was not even the possibility of friendship.

I packed my meagre set of belongings, retrieved my earnings from my careful hiding place, and then I was off in my third coach trip of that night, happy to be leaving my stepfamily forever behind, but thinking wistfully of the memories of palaces and footmen and princes that I left with them.

So that is the story of how I got to the ball, what happened when I got there, and how I’ve now finally managed to escape from “Evelyn Stepmother”, Catty Queen, and Hell’s Best Kept Secret. Long may it be until our paths ever again cross!

**********

Going Home
Well now I’m back in the country, I’ve found myself a little confused by all my new leisure time. I’ve tried to forget all about the balls, and everything that happened during them. Instead, I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can with my elderly grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and I’ve tried to concentrate on settling back into my old life.
However, I’ve often felt a little listless, out of place, and I’ve also felt my father watching me with concern for my prospects. I think it wisest to keep the story of the Prince to myself, but once or twice I’ve come very close to confessing. On the coach home he spoke about the need for me to now “think seriously about my destiny, to make the best future I could”. He enquired carefully about the balls. Was there no nobleman who had caught my eye, that I had smiled at?… (I looked down very quickly) …He did not want me to repeat his own mistakes…

**********

The Visit of the Footman
Unbelievably, it seems that I am now to attend yet a further royal ball! And this time the invitation has been a personal one, issued directly by someone called P. Wilfred, whoever that might be! As I think about it now, I don’t know whether to be excited or frightened. I can barely even relate the story of how it happened. However, it stars a certain forgotten item of clothing…
…I had barely had time to resolve to move forward with my life, and find the serious prospects that my father was gently encouraging me towards, when one day there was a knock at the door.

“It’s a royal footman Papa!”

“A royal footman?! What? Here? Whatever for?!”

“I don’t know Papa, but he’s got my shoe!”

And so he had. There it was, balanced on a velvet cushion embroidered with the royal crest.
(I’ve since found out that it was not actually my own shoe, but rather one of fifty exact replicas that were made…)

The footman asked in a bored tone, as if he had already asked a hundred times before:
“How many young ladies live in this establishment?
“Just me!” I said excitedly.
“Do you recognise this shoe madam?”
“Yes, yes I do – that’s my shoe!”
“Oh, it’s your shoe, is it?” He sounded sceptical. “I see!”
“Could you please explain to me the circumstances in which you misplaced it?”
“Why of course! It was at the royal ball, a couple of weeks ago! Erm… (I named the date)…it was just before twelve midnight and I was running to catch the coach (because it left at twelve midnight you see!) and I was just by the featherbushes – oh forgive me, I meant flowerbushes – I’m a little nervous! – and I was running so fast and it came undone and…and…!”

My voice was getting increasingly higher pitched.
However, as I had started speaking he himself had started as if he had suddenly come to life, and he was listening to my story very intently, nodding his head as I spoke.

“OK that’s fine” he finally said, “thank you my lady”. He reached down into his pocket, unrolled a little scroll of paper, stared at it, then stared at me in shock.

He composed himself.

“OK, next question – do you still have the other shoe?” he asked a little sternly, with a fiercely
questioning look.

“Erm, I think so! Please wait here – I’ll be back soon!”
I ran upstairs and searched furiously. Where was the thing? I hadn’t thrown it away, had I?! But thankfully no, there it was, tucked underneath the muddy dress, which I also took with me to the footman.
“Here it is!” I spoke breathlessly. “And here is the dress I was wearing!”
On seeing the dress and the shoe, he was visibly astounded.
“OK, and finally my lady, if you could please try on both shoes!”

I did, and naturally they fitted perfectly!

“Oh!” He exclaimed. And then to my indescribable shock he knelt down before me. I was amazed. My father was watching the whole scene very suspiciously.

“And what do you want with my daughter, footman?!”

“I need to ask a few questions of her, sir!”
“Your name please?” He wrote it down carefully “El…la Mar…gue..ri..ta…”
“And the address of this abode is….?” He also wrote that down.

While still kneeling down, he pulled out a bigger scroll and started reading.

“By royal command. His Royal Highness, King Othniel the Great, requires the owner of this shoe to attend a royal ball on the date of…”
He mentioned a date a week away. He then got up, bowed very deeply to me, and very deeply to my father.
Then he handed me a letter:
I opened it, while he watched. A royal seal. Once again, letter-headed paper.

“Dear Ella, I hope you have forgiven me for hurting you. Please, please come to the ball – I have an important request that I would make of you. All my love, P. Wilfred.”

On reading this, my heart quite jumped into my mouth, and I could not stop myself from crying.
“Ella, what does it say? What is going on? You have been behaving very strangely young lady!”
That was my Dad.

And so finally, after the footman left, I confessed everything. Unsurprisingly, he was not very happy.

I can’t say I blame him. As for me, I don’t know what to think. He found my shoe! (How did he know it was my shoe?!) Now he wants me to come to a further ball. My head just can’t stop spinning. I’m trying to calm down, but I am struggling, seriously struggling.

**********

The Third Ball
Now this was a ball to bankrupt the nation!
We stood at the bank of the great river Lindena. Flaming torches were lit at intervals of twenty metres along the river on this side of the bank, and there were flames licking upwards on the other side of the river as well. It was so bright that despite the night time we could quite clearly see a flotilla of boats, processing down the river. There was one that was obviously the main barge, enormous and sheathed in swathes of turquoise and gold silk However there were a good twenty other large boats brightly lit, all making their slow way in stately majesty. Each barge was enamelled in a different vibrant shade: rich cherry red, royal blue, emerald green, beryl yellow.
The musicians had a barge to themselves. Every so often they would strike up with very loud music to carry over the splash of the waves. Another boat housed the fireworks. These were carefully choreographed with the musical pieces so that they would explode at key points and phrases.
I was ushered aboard that biggest barge, and I was amazed at the tremendous space within. The royal ball planners had completely outdone themselves with exquisite and tasteful details and lavish splendour. And yet there were hardly any people there this time, compared to the previous two crushing events. I’d say that there were as few as one thousand people, possibly even half as many. It felt positively cosy and intimate. And there were no children this time! And then I remembered that this would be replicated across all of the barges in the flotilla.

I was so nervous about that one person that would be there and the question that he wanted to ask me that I could barely take in the splendour of my surroundings. All I could definitely say is that there were dazzling lights, there were enormous gold-dusted pots of flowers, it was, a triumphant marvel of colour and beauty and pomp and ceremony. Even in my agitated state however it was clear that this was by far the most flamboyant of the three balls. However how could I possibly concentrate on anything, when I had been summoned for an audience with the Prince?! I wandered around in a half-dazed state, trying to distract myself with the crescendos and the exaggerated musical whirls and curlicues. And then the dreaded moment finally arrived. I would have thought the opulence of my surroundings demanded a drawn out and profound interaction with an apology (from me), explanation (from him) and awkward conversation exchanged between the two of us. Ironically however, it was all over in an instant, and thankfully it was a lot less painful than I had feared.
I was standing by an open window, listening with my eyes closed, when a male voice addressed me.
I looked up. As always, it was him again – Prince Wilfred. Now there was no pretence about him. He looked every bit a Prince, from the crown on his head to the highly polished leather of the shoes on his feet.
He held his hands out to me.
“Ella, sweet Ella, thank you for honouring my request! Please forgive me for all the pain I caused you!”
“Prince Wilfred I must apologise – I was so rude to you. I sincerely beg your pardon. Please, please forgive me!”

We looked at one another. I felt a little afraid so I looked down.
“Ella”, he addressed me.
“I would make a very important request of you.”
I could not bring myself to look up.
“I would exonerate myself from what you said about me.”
At this I winced.
“I would wish to win your good opinion, and your friendship. Would you like to come to live here in the Palace…to see the way we live here? I don’t want to ruin your life…I request only friendship from you.”
I looked at him in surprise. What, he was asking me to come to live in the palace? Under what auspices – as a special “friend” to the Prince?

He continued:
“I know your present circumstances are…difficult. My mother (the Queen) is always in need of good ladies-in-waiting. Do you think you could make yourself a valuable asset here? You would live in the ladies’ quarters. You and I would only see one another at mealtimes, at feasts and at balls. It would all be quite regular, I assure you!”
He grinned at me shyly.
“Say you’ll come…please?! If not for Wilfred the Prince, then please come for Wilfred the footman…”
At the tender vulnerability of those words my heart quite broke and I instinctively reached out and hugged him. I did not even care that he was the Prince or anything. Thankfully he hugged me back…
He laughed happily.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
And then we got talking, we got laughing, and once again we danced.

Coming to the Palace
So that is how I’ve come to live at the Palace! As you may already have guessed, as I did not dare to let myself think about, the “friendship” thing has turned out to be a little bit of a ruse. I’ve been allocated my own royal suite of rooms, with maids and (real) footmen and attendants. Quite early on I realised that I am being inducted into a grooming scheme, administered chiefly by his ultra-strict but utterly lovely mother (the Queen). Lady-in-waiting my foot!

“No, that’s not how you hold your plate, Ella! Stand straight Ella, that is the way a princess walks!…Oh, was that book too heavy? Try balancing this one on your head! Right, once more around the room – off you go! And…a…one-two-three, a-one-two-three – Much better!”

And so much for only meeting at “mealtimes, feasts and balls”! Let’s just say that a certain someone mysteriously appeared, just in time every day, to give his opinion when I was measured for a new and very, very large, and unspeakably expensive wardrobe of clothes:

“I actually quite like the green silk Ella, if I may say so. Of course, the decision is fully yours, and I would not attempt to sway you in any way! But I do have to say that I do quite like the green silk!” This for an emerald green dress trimmed with fur at the collars with a full flouncy skirt that swished around me as I walked, complete with soft suede pumps and a soft woollen shawl both in a contrasting chartreuse colour.

So naturally we chose the emerald green silk. And the lime green silk, and the sage green silk, and the grass green silk, and the leaf green silk, and the apple green silk and even the caerulean “green” silk which was more navy with a sage green sheen. And countless other lustrous silk dresses, in softest silk taffeta, and satin, and georgette, and crepe, in surely every colour under the sun, like cyan and violet and orange and yellow and magenta and coffee and chocolate and silver and gold. And the plum velvet, and the lavender and the olive, and a full rainbow of other heavy silk velvets. And the teal lace, and enough other laces to fill a shop. And the navy cape, and a little army of sturdy woollen capes and riding habits in practical colours like black and oatmeal and ecru, and also a full variety of frivolous colours too! And all these items with matching shoes, reticules and shawls, “just to start off with”, “because you carry colour so well!”.

And again, when the Queen mysteriously and inexplicably decided to commission an exquisite new jewellery collection just for me, (an extremely kind gift I thought!) – guess who was again very, very present, and very, very vocal?!

“I think the red ruby drops really bring out the beauty of your eyes Ella! I say this as your friend, Ella, nothing more!” This for a matching red ruby set including a pendant necklace, earrings and delicate chain bracelet where the rubies glowed and sparkled every which way in the late evening sunlight.

So naturally we chose the red ruby drops. And no fewer than six pearl sets, in rose, lime, mint, silver, black and regular “pearly white”. And the sapphires. And the amethysts. And the aquamarines. And the diamond set with dazzling inlaid citrines, consisting of inch-wide, two-inch-long earrings, two-inch-wide bracelets, a hairpiece with a two-inch-long pendant, and a necklace with twenty diamond pendants, each an inch wide. Just a few simple items for daily everyday wear, you understand.

Getting measured for all these clothes and jewels occupied a full month, and at the end I never wanted to see a single bolt or roll of fabric ever again. However, when the finished dresses started coming back, I had to admit it was worth it. The first outfit I tried on was the caerulean green taffeta with the ruffled lace-trimmed bodice. Not only did it fit beautifully but it made me feel unbelievably elegant and sophisticated as I wore it. I teamed it with the heavy sapphire set with hairpiece, matching hair combs and two-inch-long earring drops and bracelets and pendant necklace, and at dinner while I tried to act completely casually a certain someone just stared at me as if he’d never seen me before.

And guess who has not only “suggested” that I should receive weekly dancing lessons, but has also actually insisted on teaching me his very self?! And after every session he will naughtily whisper into my ears, making me giggle: “Fit for a Prince, Ella, absolutely fit for a Prince!”

And as for the actual “mealtimes, feasts and balls”, again I quickly noticed that my place always seems to be set quite apart from the other ladies-in-waiting, right next to a certain someone. I think he suspects that I am at danger of wasting away without his direct and insistent oversight. So each and every meal he will start off by asking me with concern and at great length whether I have eaten, why I am not eating anything. Only when he is thoroughly satisfied will he then proceed to happily engage me in conversation. Outside mealtimes, at every turn the same person will be there, getting in the way, speaking his mind, throwing his weight around and generally making a right royal nuisance of himself!

I’ve had to accept that I myself do not appear to mind and every time we meet in the hall, he will address me with so much tenderness shining out of his eyes: “Hello Princess”, that my heart will quite catch in my mouth, and I will reply as unshyly as I can:
“Hello Wilfred…I mean my lord!”

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A Shy Wilfred
It has now been a short six months, and all pretence has finally now been given up. Just a few days ago a shy Wilfred took me into that same room where his prince so dramatically replaced his footman, went down on one knee, and slipped on my finger a flagrantly dazzling ruby ring of quite immodest splendour.

“My beautiful darling, sweetest Ella, it would give me the greatest honour if you would consent to be my own dear Princess, I mean, that is, if you would marry me!”

Well actually, that is the greatly abbreviated version. He then went on and spoke at great length about what this life entailed. You would almost have thought that he was trying to put me off! He made it clear that while of course, there were innumerable privileges to the life I would be entering, there were many aspects that would be challenging. His life, for instance was so very lonely, which was why he so deeply needed and wanted me by his side.

Finally he grinned and whispered further:
“You would have all the lemonade you could ever drink!!!”

Amusingly, the very first thought to flash through my mind was accompanied with an inward sigh: Would I never hear the end of that accursed lemonade?! However that thought was quickly banished!

Well what else was I going to say?! “Yes, of course, sweet Prince, yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”

And then I also responded to his questions about the aspects of this life that I would find difficult, what I thought of Palace life so far.
And then after I’d already said “Yes, of course, sweet Prince, yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”; after I’d spoken for about 10 minutes about how much I wanted to be with him, how I adored his character etc, he still asked me, touchingly
“So is that a yes?!”

I honestly can’t believe that he thought I might turn him down. I can’t believe that a whole Prince would be so vulnerable, and scared of rejection from someone as normal and powerless as I am. And yet I can honestly say that I was saying yes to him as a person, not to his royal status or the lifestyle that he could give me.

And then finally came my own whisper: “And by the way, I do like other drinks too!”

We came out shyly clutching hands, and it seemed as if the whole Palace was congregated around the door, waiting to congratulate us, as if they had somehow received prior notice of what was going to happen…
(I’ve since found out that my “training/assessment” was originally intended to last a full year, but someone got impatient, and said he wanted, or rather needed to “claim his prize”.)

So now I am engaged to the Crown Prince of Linden! I hardly feel ready, I think I could have done with those extra six months of preparation. On the other hand I think I also understand why this decision makes sense. Every time Wilfred and I catch one another’s eye, the decision seems to make perfect sense!

**********

An Outdoor Party
As I write this, I am now officially Princess Ella of Linden, wife to a gentle, noble and adorable man! As far as married life is concerned, to a certain prince with soft hands, strong, huggy arms and an affectionate grin, I must say it is quite nice thank you very much, and for what it’s worth, I have not drunk lemonade once!
After the proposal there has followed a further six months of hectic planning, and lots of new clothes and measurements taken, and monogrammed linens and portrait sittings, and days with seemingly unending court commitments.

One of those days has just happened to be our wedding day!

It had already been a merry month of feasts and jousts and various engagements.
And then the day was finally here!

I was awoken by giggling maids, the sun brightly streaming in. “Wake up, milady!”
After an extremely attentive grooming session, they drew a dress over my head, of close-fitting, purest white Shantung silk, lightly embroidered with glittering gemstones, and shot through with cloth of gold. On top of my hair, which was newly twisted into tight chestnut ringlets, was placed my veil of Swiss silk lace, finely hand-worked, and by my own hands too!
Then I was handed a little white velvet box. My breath quite caught in my mouth as I opened it. Inside were some handmade items of jewellery, glittering delicately and casting a pink glow about the box. There was a necklace, and a bracelet, and some earrings. Each featured a sparkling pink octagonal diamond with fuchsia crystals suspended by an intricate network of strands of pearlescent
seed beads. As I put them on, the faceted angles of the geometric designs caught the light and sent it spinning, and the vibrant pink at once harmonised with and contrasted pleasingly with the fiery ring on my finger. On top of the jewellery there lay a tightly folded note: “For my beautiful bride”.

I clasped to myself my simple bouquet of white roses and apple blossom and I was escorted down through the ladies’ quarters, down through the Palace, along ceremonial corridors, all arrayed with gold and white wedding ribbons, to the church where the King and Queen were already sat, lit by the brightness of the sun, where my father, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were sitting, smiling proudly, and quite shamelessly waving at me as they saw me approach; where hundreds of other guests were waiting somewhat more quietly, where someone else was already standing, waiting for me, looking back at me and smiling as I got ever closer.

The Minister conducted the marriage; when he asked:
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man…?”, my father was almost bursting with pride, as he said:

“I do!”

And then Wilfred and I exchanged vows.
“I Wilfred Othniel Crown Prince of Linden do take you ….”
“I Ella Marguerita do take you…” As we spoke we smiled into one another’s eyes.
Finally the minister intoned:
“I now pronounce you husband and wife! I present to you Prince Wilfred and Princess Ella of Linden!”
At this my new husband placed a coronet to match his own upon my head, and he hugged me so tightly!
“Princess”, he breathed, “princess, princess!”

As we processed out, gold dusted petals were showered upon us as confetti.
The banquet was held outside, in the royal orchards, with apple trees and peach trees and cherry trees in full blossom, underneath awnings of cream and gold leaf muslin. Candle jars hung from the branches, and lamps blazed contentedly against the indigo sky.

There were also funfairs laid on for the citizens which we visited in between our meal courses. It took me a fair while to get used to the fact that I was the person being addressed when people from the crowds would shout out “Princess”!

Back in our own chambers, as we stood on the balcony, overlooking the royal gardens on this our wedding day, I challenged the Prince, my Prince, my husband about the “friendship” thing, the “please-come-to-live-in-the-palace-as-my-friend” thing, the “lady-in-waiting” thing. At this he just gurgled happily.
“Well you know, I am a spoilt royal Prince – I’m used to getting what I want!”
And with this he did kiss me deeply and passionately – and you know what, I liked it! 😉

THE END

###

CREDITS
Cover artwork:
Fine art painting by Berthe Morisot 1841-1895: Dans la salle à manger (English: In the Dining Room)
Dahlia image by Perlick Laura, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy of Public Domain Image

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Want to read “Cinderella” from the perspectives of Prince Wilfred, Queen Agatha (Wilfred’s mother) and Ella’s Stepmother? These are all available in the complete series!

The Prince Speaks

She was gone. He had looked all over. But she was gone. Quite gone. Prince Wilfred impatiently tossed aside the hamper he had hastily packed, scattering exotic fruits, various delicate pastries and succulent pies quite everywhere, and breaking several bottles of gently expensive lemonade, and threw off the footman’s tunic, grumbling to himself. “What a silly idea that disguise was!”

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The Queen’s Account

I watched as the young lady entered the small salon. Well with her waist length gold-flecked brown hair and those large eyes she was certainly pretty. However, while not gaunt outright she was visibly too thin, even for her short height. She walked towards me, and blushing with nervousness, executed a small curtsey. I smiled in a way that I hoped would be encouraging…

**********

StepMother

It might be hard for people to believe this, but I sincerely did love my stepdaughter, sweet little Cinderella, as surely as I loved her father! “What a good little maid she would make,” I always thought to myself. “What a fitting name for her,” I always thought to myself, “Cinderella; how at home she is among the ashes!”

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