They are wrong when they tell the story; even from the beginning when it started being told they were not right. “Rags-to-riches,” they describe their queen’s history. If only it were true, then I would not have had to fight so hard, struggle so to bring my own daughters to others’ attention. I would have won in the end!
Unfortunately, Cinders – Queen Ella, I know you were wondering, curious young stranger – was never true servant class. She was of aristocratic birth, her father a rich nobleman (his great-grandfather was a close friend of King Siegfried IV). The instant I laid eye on her, ten years old, a mere child, I knew she would blossom into a beautiful young woman. She already was developing the qualities befitting a lady: grace, poise, dignity, while yet very sweet and kind. My own daughters, homely, whiny, lazy, would not be able to hold a candle to her.
Isabelle and Danielle were jealous of Ella, naturally. They were the complete opposite of their stepsister. I tried to improve them, really I did. At first I hoped being overshadowed by such a sister would waken the desire in them to be as good as she – and better. I also hired a lady to privately teach them how to behave like girls of high birth and a dancing master for them to learn to dance and develop proper posture.
Alas, their jealousy never made them long to change themselves; instead they simply disliked Ella more and more, thinking she looked down on them for their lack. My poor girls had not the heart or willingness to learn how to be good little ladies either. And they had not the patience to practice dancing or posture to perfection.
I pleaded with my darlings to try harder, that it would be better in the end. A lack of manners and beauty would make it difficult to bring them to others’ attention. Being a noble lady was not simply a matter of rank, I tried to make them understand; it was part of one’s character. I threatened I would be very disappointed in them, that I would be – was! – ashamed of them. I had my pride, after all. Yet Isabelle and Danielle did not want to become real noble ladies. After having nothing to show for three years of fruitless trying, I dismissed their teachers.
I took my severe disappointment out on Ella, privately criticizing her, becoming cold, withdrawing from the warm bond I had shared with her when I first moved into the house. She was bewildered by this unexplainable change. In my husband’s presence I acted as I had before, caring, loving. Why draw him into the battle?
It was after five years of marriage that my lord was unexpectedly struck down with a fatal illness. My moment arrived and I seized it.
Three days after burying my dear husband, I informed Ella – oh, how she was growing in figure and character, and she was not yet sixteen – that she would now find her place among the staff if she wished to stay under my roof. Her room, dresses, jewels, books, and pony were all taken away. I placed her in one of the darkest and coldest corners of the house. She was given the brunt of the chores; I reduced the staff, dismissing those whom I suspected were more loyal to her than to me.
My girls proudly lifted up their noses at their sister, now a servant instead of a lady. Gleefully, they ordered her to do this and that, go here and there, from morning to night. They grew more proud, haughty, flattered by their silks and laces, balls and teas. Their beauty was in the creams, the powders, the rouges, and the lipsticks they pasted on their faces. Yet all this pampering could not mask the sourness of their expressions.
My hopes that Ella’s humiliation in being lowered to such a position would result in her changing from a dignified, kind girl into a resentful, angry one were dashed. She did not grow bitter or spiteful. She was displeased, to be sure, yet she obeyed me. She bore her sisters’ jeering without an unkind word in return. Quickly she grew used to no longer being waited on but answering to orders, and performed them to the best of her ability. Rushing from one part of the manor to another, bending down to gather the eggs or stretching up to reach an item on a high shelf, her posture remained perfect. She carried herself with her undiminished graceful air. Her curtsy belonged to a lady.
Less than three months after the household had settled into its new ways, I knew I had to take further action when I had a countess who had recently come to court over for tea. After Ella had retired once she finished serving our tea, my new friend commented on how uncommonly pretty my maid was. She added thoughtfully, “There was something in her air… Her hands seemed delicate, ladylike.”
I took Ella out of her maid’s plain dress and clothed her in one that was nothing but rags, old and dirty. I had her now go about barefoot. I sent her more often to work outdoors, where in the long hours the sun burnt her pale complexion. Her smooth delicate hands became callous and needle-pricked. I took away her pins and brush. Her hair now became tangled from the wind, frizzy in the humidity, and dirty with cinders as she slept near the kitchen fire. “Cinders-ella,” we grew to call her because of the soot covering her. Now I kept her hidden away in the kitchen when having guests. People passed her hurriedly in the market, expressions full of disapproval. None saw her, unless they had taken a second closer look, with her chin held high, shoulders back, spine straight, curtsy still graceful, and sweetness in her face.
Finally, I had successfully concealed my stepdaughter’s nobleness under rags and cinders and callousness. With new determination I turned to my dear Isabelle and Danielle, giving them new wardrobes that flattered their complexion and skin tone more, and instructing them how to highlight the features of their faces instead of looking like clowns. “Think of others, not just yourselves. Be kind and considerate, modest and humble,” I urged. Surely now they would radiate dignity and nobleness, I thought as they attempted to learn.
My victory proved to be fragile and short-lived. In the end it took one to look closely just once for Ella’s worth to be recognized.
I had not known she was in the room observing as Isabelle and Danielle unsuccessfully attempted to squeeze their feet into the small glass slipper. It was only when Prince Philip and those with him were about to leave that she suddenly stepped forward and requested if she may try. She stood there, her sun-kissed face and needle-pricked hands now clean of dirt and cinders, in her rags which were now too small and dirtier than ever, and with her hair frizzy and dusted with cinders. Only then did I know her.
For three years I had come to recognize the nobility trying to peek out from the soot and tatters, unnoticed by others. Because of this, when she appeared at the ball, nobleness shining forth like a diamond, in her elegant gown and glass slippers, the lady she really was, I did not recognize her. (My own poor dears turned green with envy, their expressions grew sour, and bitter words fell from their mouths, returning to their old former selves.)
I started to order Ella back to the kitchen, overwhelmed with anger and disappointment; in an instant I realized all my hard work had been for naught. Prince Philip silenced me mid-sentence with a wordless gesture. He came towards her, eyes clear and seeing far more than I wished as he took in her face, hair, clothes…Ella. A smile touched his face and a light entered his eyes like he had at last found a kindred spirit. He brushed her cheek before he said gently, “Come,” and offered her his hand.
And I knew Prince Philip knew her. He saw her nobleness as clearly as at the balls. Always there, it could not be concealed from him who searched so.
You know the rest, young stranger. Yes, Prince Philip and Ella were married, and now have two young children, a little prince and princess. What? …Oh. As for those infamous glass slippers, the “key” to the story’s happy ending, the one Prince Philip discovered is kept in the royal treasury. He never did have Ella try it when he found her – he did not need to; the other slipper had vanished with her magical dress and coach.
Sigh. If things had been different, if Ella had just not been of noble birth, I would have succeeded in hiding her from the world. And I and my daughters would not be stuck working at this loud tavern; gives me headaches and terribly sore feet. I miss being waited on.