The good end happily, and the bad end unhappily. That is what fiction means. — Oscar Wilde
They called her “Cinderella” for so long she forgot her real name. Ella was just a pet name. She pretended that her name was Eleanor. Eleanor sounded elegant to her ears. Yes, Eleanor, Ella for short. How she hated “Cinderella.” The rats, the soot, the cold! They would not allow her a fire at night. A fire might have kept away the rats. Those little vermin stole her supper and frightened her. They were so terribly loud and Stepmother would not have a cat in the house. When Father was alive, she had a warm bed. They did not force her to do chores. She had a governess who sang to her and told her stories. Now she tried to hum the tunes to herself and the stories had started to fade. How many years has it been? She had stopped counting long ago. Sometimes she wondered how old she was. When was her birthday? She had faint memories of cake and presents. Fainter each time she tried to remember. Stepmother celebrated Christine and Catherine’s birthdays each year. Ella stayed out of the way then. Company did not want to see her.
Her days, each identical to the last, passed with no promise or hint of hope for improvement. And then, on a day that started like any other, came a knock at the door. Ella opened it, of course. She recognized the colors and decorations from parades she’d seen. It was a messenger from the palace, no doubt about it. He nodded cooly at her, glancing down his nose and in a haughty tone demanded to meet Stepmother. Stepmother and the stepsisters came as fast as they could without actually running. Ella stood aside, unnoticed. The messenger was announcing a ball held at the royal palace. All unmarried females of noble birth were welcome. Yes, ALL females, he said, glancing at her, for the prince had refused a political marriage, and his parents wanted him wed.
A prince, a ball! As soon as the messenger left she asked Stepmother for permission to attend. Her stepsisters giggled and Stepmother looked her over. “You’re not entirely unattractive. I suppose if you do your chores well I will let you go.”
“But, Mother, what will she wear? She’s too dirty. She’ll soil our carriage and my dress!” Catherine was always the first to complain. Stepmother just smiled. “Cinderella will find something. We needn’t worry about her. She can ride outside with the driver.”
Ella was too happy at the prospect of attending a ball to care. For the next few weeks, she worked harder than ever. On the day of the ball, she rose hours earlier than usual. When her chores were done, she bathed and brushed all the dust from her dress. When Stepmother and her stepsisters came downstairs in their fancy gowns sewn by the most famous milliner in the country, faces painted to perfection and limbs sparkling with jewelry, they looked so beautiful she was ashamed of herself; yet she shyly followed them to the door.
“No no, Cinderella, you can’t go looking like that,” Stepmother laughed, “what an embarassment to our family!”
“But I have no other dress,” Ella protested, but Stepmother did not care. “You should have known to make yourself a new dress. Your stepsisters might have given you a few cast-offs to alter.”
“May I borrow a dress?”
“Heavens no,” Catherine exclaimed, “we’d never get the stench out.”
Christine laughed, “Dance with the little mice, Cinderella. You just might catch their prince.”
And so they left. Ella returned to her spot by the cold fireplace in the kitchen and wept until she was dizzy. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so much emotion. The rats stayed away, frightened by her sobs. And then… then she thought she heard bells. Louder, louder. A soothing touch, stroking her hair, “There, there… I will help you. Don’t cry, why cry when you’ve got such a pretty dress?” a gentle voice comforted her. She looked up and saw a kindly old woman. Ella’s sobs subsided after a few moments. It was true. She was in a beautiful gown and even had glass slippers, just like Christine’s! The old woman smiled. She waved her hand, and six rats came scampering by. They turned into four white steeds, a driver, and a footman. “I’m not done yet, my dear.” Ella followed her outside to the garden, and watched with delight as a big pumpkin turned into a fancy coach. “Now off you go! But my magic lasts only until midnight!”
Ella could hardly believe her luck. The ball was everything she imagined and more! The prince took one look at her and refused to dance with any other girl the entire evening. The music was delightful and oh, the glances she received! Even Stepmother and her stepsisters stared, but they did not recognize her. Too soon, it was nearly midnight, and though it broke her heart, she had to leave. The prince held on to her hand, begging for a name, but she simply smiled, wrenched her hand free and ran to the carriage.
She returned to the kitchen just as Stepmother and the stepsisters came home. “He couldn’t take his eyes off you!” Catherine was saying to Christine, “Did he really promise to call on us?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t he? We were the most beautiful girls there. Oh my feet! These slippers are so painful… but no one else had glass slippers, or such feet to show off. Mother, I’m hungry. Could you tell Cinderella to make me some tea and toast?”
Stepmother came to the kitchen and the smile on her face faded immediately. “Cinderella, have you gone mad? Why are there rats tied to this pumpkin? Clean it up!” Stepmother was furious, but Ella didn’t care. She had been to the ball, and they had gone nearly mad with jealousy as the prince danced only with her! She rested well that night.
The next morning, another unexpected knock came. This time, it was the prince and his attendants. He looked… different today. She smiled at him, but he did not notice as she ushered them to the parlor. Puzzled, she ventured to ask, “Majesty, don’t you remember me?” Before he could reply, or even look at her, his attendants bustled her aside when Stepmother and her stepsisters came into the room. Christine was wearing the glass slippers. “Kitchen,” mouthed Stepmother to Ella. She obeyed, certain the prince would realize who she was. Moments passed. An hour. She could wait no longer, and crept back to the parlor.
“…shall be wed in a few weeks time,” he was saying, and at his side Christine was radiant. Ella could not bear it no more.
“No!” Ella’s scream silenced them all, “you danced with me!”
“Cinderella! Have you gone mad? Ella! Ella! Stop this immediately! You’ll break it!” Of course they would try to stop her. Her prince was here, at last, and she was resolute that Christine would not steal her place. Catherine’s shriek startled her, but she did not stop. In a moment, the glass slippers sparkled on her feet. She gave an ethereal smile and graciously said, “Dear prince, you see, I am your rightful bride. Forgive them their deception. ” The prince looked livid, and knelt protectively next to a sobbing Christine. Stepmother and Catherine stared, horrified.
The happiness so overwhelmed her that she felt faint. She could not stop smiling, though she felt her knees weaken and her head spin.
“Fetch a doctor!” It sounded like Stepmother’s voice, so faint, so very faint. Someone was crying. Ella sank to the floor, suddenly tired. A knife. So much blood. Who was bleeding? Had Christine done something rash in her desperation? She felt so very tired. Yet she could not stop smiling, not now. Strange, the blood had seeped into her shoes but those glassy slippers were brimming with crimson, still spilling out. And still she struggled to keep smiling, just as she struggled to stay awake. A princess may sleep when she pleased, but not on the floor. The couch was so close by, so very close, and yet… She fell. It was so hard to keep her eyes open, and even with all her strength she could not voice the apology. Ella hoped her prince would understand. She lay down on the floor, still smiling, and slept.