What’s that? You’ve heard this one already? Not this one, you haven’t. Trust me.
As I was saying, new stepmother, new stepsisters. Who knows how things might have gone, had the young widower not died, leaving the stepmother a widow twice-over, with three girls to raise. But he did die, and with him went all of their income, which resulted in most of the household being dismissed, as there was nothing to pay them with. As such, all four of the ladies did rather more of the household work than they would have cared to admit to outsiders. The stepdaughters (whose names, through no fault of their own, were Constance and Prudence) were both healthy, strong young specimens able to be of great help to their mother, especially in the gardens- although their constant exposure to the sun did no favors for their complexions. Ella, on the other hand, was so delicate that she was not able to handle more than the lightest of the household tasks- including sweeping out the fireplace. Her step-sisters might have resented this less if the girl did not insist upon calling herself, in martyred tones, “Cinder-Ella”. She spent much of her time daydreaming about how wonderful it would be to be rich again, with a house full of servants. So frequently did she prattle on about this (instead of doing the few chores she had) that Constance and Prudence eventually tired of it and began to avoid her at all costs: or if they could not, they took to bluntly telling her to shut up and be useful, for a change. This generally resulted in a bout of tears and accusations of them acting ugly towards her.
One day a proclamation went out from the royal palace- the young prince had come of age, and his parents were throwing a ball and inviting all the eligible ladies in the kingdom (the monarchs had very definite ideas about making certain their line did not fall prey to the perils of inbreeding). Of course, an invitation did one no good if one did not have the proper attire, and since they could no longer afford a private (or even public) seamstress, the step-mother and her two daughters immediately set about constructing their own gowns from the fine fabrics that had been part of the step-mother’s dowry. Ella was given a bolt of cloth of her very own, but since she had never really bothered to learn how to sew, and anyway it seemed like quite a lot of work to her, she did not do it, trusting instead that someone else would come along and help her (this was rather the story of her life, as it is for so many lovely young women). And it’s possible that one of her step-sisters might even have been willing to do so- had Ella not spent so much time alienating them over the past ten years. As it was, the night of the ball arrived, and Ella had no gown. Oh how she wept, but the fact remained that one could not arrive at the palace in ash-stained clothing, and so she was left behind.
As Ella was sobbing on the ground, feeling miserably sorry for herself, a kind voice said, “My dear, why are you crying?” Ella looked up and what should she see but a woman even more beautiful and delicate than herself! So shocking was this development that her tears immediately ceased, and she stared with mouth agape.
“You want to go to the ball, I’m sure,” said the fairy, for of course the woman was a fairy. Fairies are ridiculously attracted to beautiful things, people included, and they cannot stand not to meddle with them.
“I do,” sniffled Ella, “but I have no gown, and no way to get there- my cruel step-family took the coach and left me here in the dirt!”
“Your step-family? Oh, you mean those other, less attractive mortals that spend their time in the gardens? Oh how horrid. Well, stand up then. You are definitely the prettiest, and that means you should have the very best things!”
As the fairy made this pronouncement, Ella suddenly found herself wearing a gown so lovely it might have been woven from starlight. And on her feet were a pair of elegant glass slippers.
“Oh my,” she breathed.
“Oh my indeed,” said the fairy. “Now, as for a coach…” she looked around until she spied the vegetable patch Constance and Prudence had tended so diligently. “Ah, just the thing!” she declared, and the next thing Ella knew, a large golden pumpkin had become a small golden coach. A few moments later a handful of mice had become horses, a rat had become a coachman, and a pair of lizards were now footmen. All of them exceptionally attractive, of course.
“That ought to do it,” said the fairy, looking pleased with herself. “Now, one thing to remember- the spell will end at midnight, so make sure you’ve left before then, or it will be rather a long walk home. Farewell!” and with a sparkle of dust she was gone.
Meanwhile, Constance and Prudence were having quite a good time at the ball, in spite of the fact that the women out-numbered the men a good four to one. They were enjoying food they had not had to prepare themselves, and admiring the creativity that had gone into all the outfits. In fact they were feeling pleased that their home-made gowns, if not the finest to be seen, at least were not the poorest.
A sudden stir near the main doors of the ballroom caught their attention, and so they witnessed Ella’s grand entrance. They, along with everyone else in the ballroom, stared in absolute shock- although their shock was not so much over how beautiful the “mysterious stranger” was as the fact that they could not fathom where their step-sister might have gotten her hands on such raiment. More to the point, they could not fathom her having the wherewithal to keep it a secret until this moment.
To exactly no one’s surprise, the prince approached Ella and asked her to dance. They made a lovely couple, and to be completely fair Ella was a superb dancer. She was also exceptionally good at making flattering small-talk, and the prince thoroughly enjoyed his turn about the floor with her. After the song came to an end, Ella made her way over to her step-sisters, where she made a very big deal over never having seen them before in her life. Constance and Prudence, bemused by this bizarre behavior, nevertheless went along with it, pretending not to know who the “mysterious stranger” was. Ella gaily drew the prince over to their little circle, and did her best to prove how much more lively and entertaining she was than her step-sisters. This might have worked better had she not considerably less intelligent than either Constance or Prudence. It soon became obvious to the prince that, as gorgeous as his dance-partner might be, she had a certain lacking in the wit department. Moreover he noticed in her a tendency to give back-handed compliments that were really quite cruel. And so when his father the king swept Ella away for a dance, he stayed to converse with the sisters, and found that while they were not anything spectacular in the looks department, both of them had a sort of wry sense of humor that he found entirely refreshing. Especially Prudence, who also had quite a bit to say on the current political climate, and her personal theories on how the kingdom’s trade might be expanded.
The prince found himself obliged to dance with Ella again, but as they were sweeping around the dance floor the clock suddenly began to strike the hour of midnight.
“Oh no! I must go at once!” cried Ella, and took off at what was, for her, a swift run. The prince made a half-hearted movement in her direction, and then made a point of stumbling over his own two feet, thus allowing her to escape into the night. She’d managed to lose one of her delicate glass slippers, however, and the king immediately picked it up for safekeeping.
As the fairy had predicted, Ella had quite a trek home (single-shoed and in ash-covered clothing, no less), and by the time she finally collapsed in the entryway, her step-mother and step-sisters were pulling up in the family carriage. When they entered the house Ella made a big deal of “waking up” and asked them how the ball was, and whether or not anyone interesting had showed up.
“Oh it was excellent,” they assured her, rolling their eyes at one another. “Really such a shame you missed it. There was the most mysterious stranger who danced with the prince not once but twice! Everyone thought she must be a foreign princess.”
Ella smiled smugly at this, and then wandered into the kitchen to find something to eat. She was so exhausted, however, that she ended up falling asleep next to the fireplace.
The next morning the kingdom woke to a new royal proclamation. The king had decided that the mysterious stranger would be excellent for the royal bloodlines, and so all eligible ladies in the kingdom were to prepare themselves for a visit from the prince in the coming weeks, who would use the glass slipper to find his bride. Ella would probably have been thrilled to hear this, except she was still sleeping in the ashes. Constance and Prudence only sighed, and told one another that at least they’d finally get their step-sister out from under-foot.
Later that day there came a knock at the door. Constance and Prudence were in the garden, repairing the damage done by all the trampling feet from the night before (mice-horses and former-lizards and the like), so it was their mother who answered, and it was their mother who was shocked to her core to see that apparently “in the coming weeks” meant that very day. Burning with humiliation at her lack of wealth being so exposed, the poor woman nevertheless held her head high as she lead the prince and his retainers out to where her daughters were working.
The prince was astounded to see Constance and Prudence toiling in the dirt, but was gracious enough not to comment on the situation. As a royal scribe read aloud the proclamation regarding the slipper, the prince looked around at the house and the garden, and realized how hard these women must work to keep up their façade. Constance, being the eldest, was the first to sit and dutifully present her foot to the page with the slipper. It most definitely did not fit.
“Shocking,” she said dryly, and nudged Prudence. “Your turn to prove that you’re not a mysterious stranger. Prudence sighed and sat, but just as the page was approaching her with the slipper, a lovely voice came from the house.
“Oh ugh, my head. Why are you being so loud? Why can’t you just let me sleep?” and Ella appeared in the doorway. For a moment everyone was stunned by her beauty, but then the scribe remembered himself and stammered his way through the proclamation once more.
“Oh, may I try the slipper?” Ella asked, her eyes gone wide and innocent. “Even though I am but a lowly servant in this household?”
The prince looked at her, and then looked at Prudence, who was flipping the slipper nonchalantly on her big toe. It very obviously was not hers. He looked again at Ella, who was angling her chin down to make her eyes appear even larger. He looked at her delicate limbs and ivory skin, then at the hard muscles in Prudence’s freckled arms. He thought about the current political climate, and the weak trade-routes.
“Actually it appears I’ve already found my bride,” he said firmly. “As you can see, the slipper fits this maiden perfectly. Doesn’t it Reginald?”
The scribe, who was trained never to contradict his prince in public, turned a sort of choking purple before he managed to reply, “Perfectly, my lord prince. Never was there a shoe better fit.”
“Excellent,” said the prince. “And since we can all see how well it fits, I declare that never again shall my bride have to wear such ludicrous footwear.” So saying, he snatched the shoe off Prudence’s foot and hurled it into the ground, where it smashed into glittering shards.
“Whoops,” he said, and grinned at the woman who he knew would fit both him and his kingdom like to a T.