A Cinderella Story

The true story of Cinderella.

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5. THE CHAPTER KNOWN AS THE FIFTH

And Cinderella was laced tighter; and tighter and tighter, as the morning went on, until the other kitchen staff were all sure she was going to faint. She had the last laugh, though, because when the handsome knife-grinder was presented with an unexpected living hourglass he was the one who fainted. That made all the staff smile, and got them to thinking more positively of Cinderella again. She appreciated it, as a compliment of a kind, but her mind was elsewhere. Now she had someone to help her lace, someone to give her advice on strategy, nothing need hold her back. She was determined to corset herself into a figure worthy of her late mother.

She had very mixed feelings about what was going on upstairs while she was busy with the servants. While she wished she could take back her place with her father, she knew that her stepmother would never allow it, and to go among the family was just frustrating. She knew the Grafin had a grudge against her, so she kept out of the way as much as she could.

Unfortunately she wasn’t really the sort of person who could avoid notice. As she progressed through her teens, so her face got prettier and prettier and her corset got tighter and tighter. She was undoubtedly the belle of below-stairs, and though she didn’t want to be in competition with her stepsisters, that wasn’t the way everyone saw it:

"Phew," said Karin the lady’s-maid as she sat down at the kitchen table with a mug of beer pinched from the butler’s barrel, "it’s hard work tightening those girls’ stays! You get one of them laced in, then the other one faints or her laces go pop, and by the time you’ve brought her round or relaced her stays the other one’s fainted or busted her laces too. Took me a quarter of an hour to get them both laced up and stable."

"It’s ironic, isn’t it?" Liese asked from the far end of the table. "Some as ought to wear corsets don’t get on with them, and some as oughtn’t to take it much too far."

"Your stays were tight enough last time the knife-grinder came, weren’t they?"

"Not like hers," Liese said, and Cinderella groaned inwardly; outwardly she remained impassive. Ignoring bullying wasn’t exactly a cure for it but at least it was less satisfying to the bully than arguing back. "Takes that fool Edel half an hour a day to lace her up, and her stays are so tight she can’t do her work properly—"

Cinderella leapt to her feet, knocking over the bench she was sitting on at the big table and spilling two kitchen-maids and an under-footman onto the floor on their backs. "That’s not true!"

"Yes it is! If you weren’t—"

"Quiet, you two!" It was the butler, a person of great majesty in the servants’ hall, coming solemnly down the stairs. "If there’s anything to be resolved I’ll deal with it. Only you’ll talk to me and not shout at each other. You understand? Good. Liese?"

Liese wasn’t a lawyer: she wasn’t paid by the hour and had no reason to be prolix in stating her case. "Her stays are too tight," she said bluntly, and sat down again.

"Cinderella?"

"They are not too tight! I do my fair share of work, maybe more than that, nobody makes allowances for me! Just because I want to look pretty—not like some people I could mention—"

"Here, here, here, you! It’s not your place to criticise our mistresses, you’re only a kitchen-maid!"

Cinderella began "I’m not o—" and then remembered she was only a kitchen-maid. She sat down, gracefully, keeping her back straight because the corset obliged her to do that.

"That’s just it," Liese said from across the room. "Thinks she’s better than us, because of an accident of birth." She spat the last words out as if they tasted nasty. "The mistress wouldn’t like it if she knew one of the maids was putting on such airs. I think we ought to tell her."

"Well," said the butler, with an approving glance at Cinderella’s tight and slender leather bodice, "I’m satisfied with her work, and as long as she does that properly I don’t think we need tell anyone."

"I don’t agree—"

"Do you intend to cross me?" Liese relapsed into sulky silence. "Well then."

Shortly after that the mistress’s own bell rang: all the upstairs maids on duty, getting her dressed was a major task. Karin walked past Cinderella on her way out, took her hand, and gave it a quick squeeze. "Never mind what they say," she whispered. "I think you look wonderful. Much better than those two fat cows up there." And with her head up and her shoulders back, trying to look as ladylike as possible, she swept out of the room.

Liese also stopped on her way past; for rather longer. "I still don’t think you’ve got any business lacing so tight," she said.

"I still don’t think it’s any business of yours," Cinderella said, "and you heard what the butler told you."

"Who’s in charge here? Him or the mistress?" This was a good point and Cinderella didn’t know how to refute it. "I shall tell her what you’ve been up to. She’ll be horrified. She’ll take away your stays."

Cinderella whirled round. "You wouldn’t!"

"I would. Of course, I might be open to persuasion…" she let her gaze slip down from Cinderella’s face to her right wrist.

"What?"

"That’s pretty. What is it?"

Cinderella slipped the bracelet off. "It’s the one thing I have from my father. Real silver. You don’t often see a bracelet as wide as this one—it’s nearly two inches across—gives plenty of room for decoration. No jewels, of course, but the engraving and chasing are beautiful. What about it?"

"Give it to me," Liese said, reaching for it, "and I won’t tell the mistress about your tight-lacing."

Cinderella snatched the bracelet back and clutched it to her bosom. "You couldn’t get it over your hand!" she shouted.

"I could. See? It’s got a slit down the back, it’s not solid. I could wear it."

"You shan’t!"

"Very well then," said Liese, standing upright, "then I have no alternative. I shall have to talk to the mistress about you, and she’ll have your stays taken off you."

"You can’t!"

"I can. Now, please don’t keep me any longer. I’m already late and you know what a temper the mistress has got." And with a smug smile on her face she strode off and hurried up the stairs.

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