A Cinderella Story

The true story of Cinderella.

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6. THE CHAPTER KNOWN AS THE SIXTH

Cinderella was washing crockery—not the beautiful dishes that the master and mistress used, a junior kitchen-maid would never have been trusted with that, but the plain china from which the more important servants ate—when she heard running footsteps on the kitchen stairs. She looked round: it was Karin, the little ladies’-maid. "You’ve to stop doing that, and come upstairs at once," she said breathlessly. "She wants to talk to you."

There was no need to ask who She was. Cinderella knew there was no point in protesting or trying to delay: she carefully dried her hands in case soapsuds could be a mark against her and followed Karin up the stairs again.

She hadn’t been in this part of the house for years, but she still knew it like the back of her hand: after all, she had grown up here. She knew at once that Karin was taking her to the Private Salon, a good place for small, not too formal gatherings. Her heart was pounding as if to burst her stays and she had to work hard to keep calm: she knew that her stepsisters got away with fainting here, there and everywhere, but if she were to do it in the corridor she would never be forgiven.

Karin reached the door of the salon, gave Cinderella a frightened look, then knocked. The first time she did it too gently to make a noise, and had to try again. A stern voice within said, "Who is that?"

"Karin, ma’am. I’ve brought her."

"Show her in, then go," the voice commanded. Karin opened the door and gestured: you’re to go in now. Cinderella took the deepest breath her very tightly laced bodice permitted, drew herself up tall, and strode in. The moment she was over the threshold the door slammed behind her and she heard Karin leaving at a dead run.

A heavy chair had been set up in the salon with its back to the windows, facing the door, like the throne of a queen—or the seat of a judge. One stepsister stood on either side of it. Both were wearing ludicrously elaborate gowns bedecked with ribbons and bows and lace and every ornament known to dressmakers; but their waists were unpleasantly thick, the bodices were so tight the seams looked ready to rip, and in the low necklines large and soggy breasts bulged up heaving with the effort to gather enough air. On her own terms, Cinderella had already won the argument, but then she wasn’t being allowed to argue on her own terms.

The Grafin, their mother, in between them, was far more impressive. Her dress was also ornate, but the decoration was applied much more carefully: there was no need to smother everything in detail to detract from the unfortunate whole. Her face was handsome, if a touch severe, and caked in make-up heavy enough to eliminate any lines that might have built up on it. Her bodice was also very tight, but not so painfully strained as those of her daughters, and though her waist was rigidly slim she seemed as much at home as anyone could be in such tight stays. She was definitely in charge of her clothes; and she had the air of being in charge of everything else.

"One of the staff tells me you’ve been taking up tight-lacing," she said without preliminaries. "Do you dare deny it?"

"No, ma’am," Cinderella said.

"Curtsy when you answer me!"

"Yes, ma’am," Cinderella said, curtsying.

"Hmph. Why are you wearing a corset?"

"Because it’s pretty, ma’am, and I like the way it feels," Cinderella said, remembering to curtsy this time.

"It’s not your place to lace yourself up, girl. Take off your stays, it’s not right."

Silence and inaction.

"Well? What are you waiting for?"

"Please, ma’am, I’d rather not take my stays off."

"Don’t be impertinent, and do what I tell you!"

"With respect, ma’am—why can’t I wear stays?"

"Because I say you can’t!"

"My stays may be tight, ma’am," Cinderella said doggedly, "but they don’t stop me doing my day of work. That’s a wicked lie, ma’am, put about by certain of the servants who don’t like me."

"For the last time," the Grafin said dangerously, "unlace yourself!"

"No, ma’am," Cinderella said, curtseying but surprised at her own audacity, "I shan’t."

The two daughters exchanged a look, eyes wide, but neither said anything. "Very well, then," the Grafin said, tight-lipped. She stood up with the same rigid grace that Cinderella had, the care of posture and movement that comes naturally to any woman who corsets because there is no other way to move. She walked over to the tasselled bell-pull and tugged it angrily, then stood staring at Cinderella as if trying to burn her up with her gaze. Cinderella kept her eyes downcast, as per etiquette when dealing with criticism from a person of importance, but she kept her hands by her sides and away from her laces. She would have cut off her own hand as soon as cut open her stays.

There was a knock on the door. "You rang, ma’am?" said a male voice.

"Yes, come in and be quick about it." The door opened and a handsome footman who Cinderella knew slightly came in. They exchanged a quick glance, his look saying Whatever does she want me to do? and hers replying I don’t know but she’s being vindictive; then he bowed low and stood again to attention.

"What can I do for you, ma’am?"

"Hold her still, facing you," the Grafin ordered. Cinderella and the footman looked at each other again: this time her look said You can’t do this to me! and his I’m sorry, but I have to do what she says. He moved over and held her to him as if dancing: not an experience either of them would have minded, but Cinderella was too worried about what was coming next to appreciate it.

She heard the Grafin moving about: feet and swishing skirts crossing the salon, a door opening, steps into the room beyond it, a brief rummaging in a box with a faint clink of metal, then brisk steps and rustling fabric returning at the nearest a lady could come to running while maintaining her dignity. Cinderella shivered slightly and tried not to be frightened. The Grafin came up behind her, and Cinderella felt a hand placed flat in the back of her neck, just at the top of her tight leather bodice; then suddenly with a series of sharp popping sounds a sharp edge was swept right down through the laces, cutting them from top to bottom.

Gudrun or Irma wouldn’t have minded: they were always fainting and having to have their laces cut. Though she laced much tighter Cinderella hardly ever fainted, and when she did it was a point of pride to come round without unlacing. She had never felt anything like it before. When the immense pressure of the corset was released all at once, a wave of pain shot through her much-compressed ribcage from top to bottom, and she screamed. The footman, taken aback by her reaction, let go of her: she staggered slightly and fell down.

"Get up!" the Grafin snapped.

"I don’t know if I can, ma’am!" Cinderella said in a rather shaky voice.

"It won’t do at all! Making such a scene in public—in front of my own girls—and all because I unlaced that hideous corset which you shouldn’t be—"

The door opened again. "What was that cry I heard?" said a voice Cinderella knew well. She also knew better than to call him "Papa": that would get her into worse trouble.

"This little chit here," said her stepmother. "I caught her wearing stays, and when she refused to take them off I cut them open and she squealed like a pig."

Forgetting about the downcast gaze of the obedient servant, Cinderella looked soulfully up at him with melting eyes. He looked back at her for a moment and winced, then faced his wife again. "This is really going too far!" he said. "Her mother was a great corseter, it’s bound to be in the blood. Let her have her stays."

"I told her, it’s not right for a mere servant to lace herself up like that!" the Grafin protested.

"Most of the other women servants wear corsets, after all."

His wife looked at the shivering Cinderella with disgust. "Yes, but they don’t tight-lace."

"My dearest, there is no rule in this land which says no-one below a certain income may tight-lace." He sighed and rubbed his hands together as if looking forward to sorting it all out. "Now, you, whatever your name is—"

"Me, sir?" the footman asked.

"Yes, you. Go and find that little lady’s maid, what’s her name, Karin. Oh, you’d better take Cinderella with you. Help her up. That’s right." Cinderella was got to her feet, not without difficulty, and she looked balefully at her stepmother and accusingly at her father. He refused to meet her gaze. She slipped and nearly fell again as the footman was guiding her away past him, possibly by accident. Involuntarily he reached out and caught her by the arm. The Grafin hissed like a snake. Cinderella looked up at her father, but he again avoided looking her in the eye. He glanced at the silver bracelet, though, and ran his fingers over it, then sighed and said "And when you find Karin, get her to fetch a new lace for Cinderella’s stays."

"Yes, sir," the footman said, and they went out.

When they got out, Cinderella said tearfully "You’d never know I’m his own daughter from the way he treats me!"

"Come on, now, don’t start crying. You’re all right now. He does a good job if you think what herself is like—she’d have had you thrown on the compost heap if she’d had her way. Anyway, at least you’ll get a new staylace out of it. A good one too."

That piqued Cinderella’s interest and stopped her thinking about crying: anything to do with corsetry was always a good way of getting her attention. "What do you mean?"

The footman laughed. "Karin’s told me about it. You saw those two awful girls, didn’t you? They have to have the strongest staylaces in the kingdom to keep them in shape. Put one of those in your bodice, I think you’ll get it down an extra inch. Come on, let’s find Karin.”

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