A Cinderella Story

The true story of Cinderella.

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9. THE CHAPTER KNOWN AS THE NINTH

The Prince was miserable. He shouldn’t have been: he was young, handsome, heir to a splendid castle and a happy kingdom, and as the most eligible bachelor in seven nations at this his first ball, he was surrounded by the cream of society’s beauties all of them trying to catch his eye. Few men ever get such flattering attention.

That wasn’t enough for him. For one thing, his father was trying to manipulate him. The King had some ambitious plans which needed extra finance, and there was a certain nobleman married for the second time to a wealthy lady with two single daughters: either one of those would bring a nice fat dowry with her and the King could do as he pleased. That the daughters were bad-tempered and dull conversationalists, rather plain and as fat as their dowries didn’t worry him. It needn’t: he wasn’t the one who was going to have to walk down the palace chapel’s aisle with one of them. Every time he looked at them they made him think about taking a mistress—and he wasn’t even married yet.

In any case, he had his heart set on something quite different. Years ago, the sister’s stepfather had been married to another lady, perhaps the most beautiful in the court. She had had a daughter with whom the Prince had played when he was small; but then her mother had died, and the girl had vanished. What had happened to her? He’d have liked to know: if she was anything like her mother, by now she ought to be something quite special. The lady in question had had not only extraordinary beauty and the taste to use her vast wealth to adorn herself elegantly; she had also had the finest figure in the kingdom, or any other kingdom for that matter. The Prince was fascinated by the stays court ladies used to shape themselves into fashion: every aspect of it thrilled him, from start to finish. There was the delicious ritual of lacing up in the morning, with a maid or perhaps a lucky husband or lover recruited to pull in the lady’s laces. There were the outer symptoms of tight-lacing, the bosom pushed up and heaving, the breathlessness after exertion, the little gasps and urgent fanning and laughing requests for "just a moment to rest, please, I feel somewhat faint!"; the Prince had never realised that some of the Palace ladies knew about his interests and were playing up to get his attention. And most of all, there was the direct result: the bodices and laces pulled so tight they seemed about to snap, perfectly rigid and rigidly perfect, their serried lines of bones commanding the figure within to follow their lead down into the tiny waist that was for him the central theme of womanhood.

He had been looking forward to the ball, in a way: he knew that a ball was the highest of high occasions and that every lady with any pretence to fashion and beauty would be in her tightest of tight corsets, hauled in until she was on the verge of fainting. Indeed, they had made a good showing; but that noblewoman dead eight years back had spoiled him, and after dancing with every young woman he could find and quite a few of their mothers, he could find no-one who stood comparison with her. Could he be remembering her figure wrong? No, he was sure not. He had seen her husband joyfully clasp his fingers around his wife’s waist; there was nobody here who was close to that. Gloomily he reflected that perhaps tight-lacing was a dying art. It had been going on for hundreds of years, it had to end some time; he just wished he hadn’t had to live to see it.

Then—something caught his eye. At first it was a light, a flash of silver in the distance, that made him look up: like a firework, or a looking-glass suddenly reflecting sunlight into his eyes. He squinted and looked across the room. Someone had just come in; someone…bright? He peered across the crowded ballroom, trying to make it out. Suddenly he gasped and his heart jumped into his throat. Muttering "Pardon me…excuse me…do forgive me…sorry!" he slipped quickly through the crowd to meet her.

For it was a she; and quite a she at that. She had dark curly hair, not strained back and up into a high wig like most of the ladies, but hanging over her shoulders in natural disarray. It gave her an air of girlish innocence belied by the almost indecently low neckline of her gown, and the fullness of the bosom that billowed within it. She was pretty, with a rare combination of freshness and poise that entranced him at once: she was looking round the ballroom with a thrilled smile, as if she had never seen anything like it before. There was none of the assumption that so many of the fashionable beauties had, of being the centre of attention; here was someone who was excited just to be present, not totting up points for and against everyone else of her own age.

If she had been keeping score, though, she would have realised that she was well ahead of all the competition. Not only was she much the prettiest girl in the room—or so it seemed to the stunned Prince—but her gown was extraordinary. The neckline was cut so low and so wide that it concealed hardly any of the enticing secrets within; the sleeves gripped her slim arms tightly and ended above the elbow with a fantasia of ruffles, lace and bows. The skirt was encrusted with layers of costly fabrics, elaborate trimmings and even real gems: obviously this was someone from a family wealthy enough to satisfy his father! You could keep a princely family for a year on what it must have cost to decorate that skirt. It was held out by the widest pair of hoops in the room, which was saying something; even coming in through the ballroom’s mighty double doors she had had to turn a little sideways. And the bodice between was unique: no taut satin or embroidered silk seized his gaze, but a sheath of immaculate silver moulded to the form of the figure every fashionable girl dreamed could be hers if she could only get her stays tight enough. This was what everyone wanted and so few achieved: tears, faints, snapped laces, lost digestion, they all came between mortal girls and the ideal they sought after. Now here it was before him, in flesh and blood; and silver-plated like the living work of art she was. She was even smaller than that noble lady he had so admired in his childhood.

He could delay no longer. Already a young man had come up to her and begun to chat; that couldn’t be permitted. "Excuse me!" the Prince said, barging up, and gave the young lord a very dirty look. The interloper slunk away with his tail between his legs, and that was the last the Prince saw of him. It was the last he saw of anyone else, too. For the rest of the evening he was blind to everyone else except for the girl on his arm.

"Good evening, miss!" the Prince said, and bowed.

The girl gave him her hand, and curtsied with just a little awkwardness, as if she were not quite used to her hoops and stays. "Good evening, sir," she said, with a candid smile. "Must we wait for someone to introduce us?"

The Prince glanced around. "Where are your parents?"

"They aren’t…aren’t with me." A shadow briefly crossed her face. "Where are yours?"

"Over there, on the dais." He pointed without looking; he didn’t want to look away from her.

She looked, though. "There’s nobody over there but the King and Queen."

"They are the King and Queen."

"Your Highness!" And suddenly she dropped into another curtsey.

"Stand up, please. There’s no need for that. If you don’t mind I won’t introduce you to them, and then we can pretend we’re just an ordinary boy and girl at an ordinary ball."

A sly smile crept across her face. "If you like. And I won’t introduce myself either. You must just take me as I am."

"How you are," the Prince said honestly, "is perfect. Now, shall we go on?"

Enchanting was the only word for her. Too many of the young ladies were both cynical and submissive: they made a point of having seen it all before, and they were too tied up in the intrigues of the court to risk being anything but polite to the son of the King. It was difficult to have a light conversation with someone who was determined not to be impressed by anything and at the same time just agreed vacantly with everything you said, even if you could see she was thinking something different. The girl in the silver bodice was quite different. She was delighted by the simplest things—the band, the great chandeliers, the surging ocean of jewels and silks that the dance-floor became when viewed from the dais—and whenever she looked at him her eyes were shining as if this were the greatest evening of her life. She seemed above the Court scandals he found so tiresome, and hadn’t a bad word to say about even the bitchiest of noblewomen; though the one time he ended up heading towards one of his stout brides-to-be, he found himself being led briskly off the other way by his delectable partner. Most of the time, though, they danced. The Prince never noticed the way the other dancers moved gracefully aside, so that he and the girl in the silver bodice were always left in peace with each other; nor did he notice the way his father was giving him blacker and blacker looks. He didn’t care if he was upsetting the Royal marriage plans; he was convinced he’d never need to look at another woman again.

And late in the evening, when the girl in the silver bodice pleaded smiling and panting that she was too out of breath to dance more, they walked quietly on the edge of the ballroom.

"You don’t seem to know the ballroom," the Prince said. "Have you never visited the castle before?"

"I visited the palace," the girl said, with a pretty gasp that strained her corset and the Prince’s self-control to the limits, "quite often, when I was little. Not for ever so long, though. I don’t remember ever coming in here."

They walked on a little in silence. "You surprised me," the Prince said presently. "I thought I knew all the young ladies attached to the court, but I wasn’t expecting you. Who are you with?"

The girl looked away, as if slightly embarrassed. The Prince stifled an urge to kneel at her feet and beg her forgiveness for asking an awkward question. "To tell the truth," she said, "I’m not exactly ‘with’ anyone. I suppose you could say I’m here because of my father, but I don’t think he knows I’m at the ball at all."

The Prince’s mind ran on this rapidly. She must be the illegitimate daughter of some straying nobleman. His father wouldn’t like that—but perhaps he could be persuaded it was all right. Whoever she was, she must be phenomenally rich, arrayed in a pure silver corset! Yes, he could probably square it with the King…"Tell me," he said, "have you ever been engaged?"

"Not as such."

"Not as such?"

"Well, I’ve, I’ve had young men who took a liking to me but none was really a match, if you know what I mean."

"I do," the Prince said, thinking of stout and wealthy girls and not realising his partner was thinking more of sweeps and knife-grinders. "My father has two lined up for me—he just wants me to pick one of them, and that’s all the choice I get."

"That’s—" she swallowed her words, not wanting to say anything disloyal to her King. Visibly thinking twice, she said carefully "Who are the two girls?"

"Well, now, let’s see…" The Prince surveyed the ballroom. "There’s one of them over there, in pink, and—er—yes, there’s the other, in pea-green."

"Oh." The pretty smile had gone, replaced by a petulant expression.

"Do you know them, then?"

"Very well. I don’t want to interfere in Royal business, but shall we say, if I were a King I wouldn’t want my son to marry them."

The Prince laughed. "If you were a King you’d surprise a lot of people showing a figure like that! No, that’s too complicated. You know them well, do you?"

"Almost like sisters," the girl said sourly.

"What are they like as sisters, then?"

"Now, really, Your Highness, it’s the height of bad manners for me to criticise other people to you! I’m not that sort of girl!"

She opened her fan and began striding away fanning herself violently. The Prince hurried after her and caught her bare shoulder. "Please!" he said. "Just pretend you are that sort of girl, just for a moment. What do you think about them?"

She gave a shallow sigh and looked him penetratingly in the eye. There was a lot of intelligence in that look, and he welcomed it: another of the faults of his father’s chosen brides was that they were about as bright as a candle that was put out two hours ago. "Well," she said, "I don’t want to say anything regrettable, but they never seem to have much conversation—"

"That’s true enough!"

"Do you need me to tell you these things?"

"I’d like you to. Please go on. I won’t interrupt."

"And they eat too much…"

"It shows!" the Prince exclaimed, forgetting his promise; then as the girl looked at him with one well-plucked eyebrow prettily raised he added "I’m sorry. Please forgive me."

"You’re forgiven, Your Highness, but please let me finish. They’re selfish, and unkind to those who aren’t so well off as they are. Of course you wouldn’t have noticed that, being their superior, but I’m—er—much more concerned about how nobles treat servants and such like. I have my reasons."

"Beautiful, clever and good!" the Prince muttered.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing. Do go on, please."

"Where was I? Oh, yes. Well, the one other thing is that their mother is rather indulgent, and she has never trained them properly to their stays. Oh, their bodices are nice and tight and their dresses are very elaborate, but inside it’s real torture for them just to reach twenty-four inches. You mark my words, during this evening both of them will either faint or pop their laces. Possibly both."

The Prince gazed at a large-bosomed figure in pea-green moving awkwardly across the dance floor. It was suddenly obvious: there was no elegance about her, no grace. She could hardly move: she was laced most excruciating tight, but even then her figure was nothing to write about in your journal. And her sister was the same… "You’re so right," he breathed. "You’re so right!"

The girl shifted, uncomfortable again. "Well, Your Highness, you mustn’t let me influence you against them. I’m sure your father knows what he’s doing, and after all his will is what matters. A son or daughter must always obey his or her father, even if—even if some of the things he wants seem—well, unfair."

"Oh, no," the Prince said in a hushed voice. He took her gloved hands, his eyes shining. "I know what I want. I’m not going to settle for them. If only I could find your father and ask—"

A loud whirring noise behind them made them both look round. "What’s that?" the girl in the silver corset said.

"Oh, you haven’t been in here, you wouldn’t know. It’s our clock. Quiet now and watch. It’s delightful."

The ballroom clock occupied much of one wall, and was most elaborate. In front of it a semicircular track jutted out from the stones, with a little door at either side where it met the wall. Now the doors were working themselves open. Two figures came out, each perhaps eighteen inches high: painted wood, a gentleman in Court dress and a lady in a hooped skirt and fragile-waisted bodice, inlaid with gold. They moved jerkily around the track until they met; then the gentleman put out a stiff arm, the lady put one out to meet him, and they danced a little erratically back and forth in front of the audience, while the clock played a tune on a carillon hidden somewhere deep inside itself. The Prince and his partner watched enthralled: she had never seen anything like this before, and he could feel her joy and wonder as if it were her own.

Then the dance was over. The lady raised her other arm, holding a bell; the gentleman raised his other hand, holding a hammer. He reached out and began to strike the bell: once…twice…three times…

The girl in the silver corset stiffened against the Prince suddenly. Her eyes and mouth widened to circles, and she gave a horrified squeak; then picking up her skirts she turned and ran. The Prince was too stunned to follow for a moment; then he ran after her shouting "Wait! Wait! What’s wrong?" Behind him the clock continued to strike: four times…five times…six times…

The girl in the silver corset was not dressed for running. She got as far as the French windows onto the terrace before she fainted. The Prince bounded up to her and drawing the ceremonial sword he had never imagined having to use—duels were not at all his style—in one deft stroke cut the laces that held the back of the silver bodice together. It sprang open, revealing a figure that astounded him: clearly this was a young woman who had spent years on selfless and dedicated waist-training. He gently lifted off the silver corset, and as he did so she began to move again.

"What’s wrong?" he asked urgently.

The clock was still striking: ten times…eleven times…"Oh! Oh!" she cried, which wasn’t an answer, and wriggling free of him in a flurry of hooped skirts she vanished through the curtains as the clock struck twelve.

The Prince picked himself up from where she had pushed him down and opened the curtains. He could see the moonlight on the terrace, his father’s attempt to imitate the gardens of Versailles beyond, and a figure with her hooped skirts held up around her knees flying down the path into the darkness. "Wait! Wait!" he called, running after her. "You left your corset behind!" But she didn’t stop and she didn’t turn; and now she was almost in the shadow of the trees. Remembering that it was the clock striking which seemed to have upset her, the Prince shouted "But darling! That clock’s always five minutes fast!"

No reply. She was gone.

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