JA quotes and intro

"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cinderella's Steele-Toed Slippers

Sense and Sensibility
Mrs Ferrars reluctantly postpones the resolution of a domestic disagreement in order to tell her daughters a bedtime story.

"Tell me a story, Mama!"

"Oh, yes! Please, Mother!"

"My darlings, I have much to do and no leisure for trivialities tonight."

"Please, Mama? Nanny's stories are dreadfully dull."

"And you are so pretty, Mother, like a princess. Surely you must have had great adventures and lots and lots of admirers when you were a little girl."

Her vanity quickened, she yielded to the insistent pleas of her daughters. "Very well, but only this once! Then I must return to your father. We were in the middle of an important discussion when your cries interrupted us."

She settled herself on the corner of the bed. She faintly remembered her own mother doing likewise in the days before everything changed.

Although she did not feel very maternal at the moment, she was not uncomfortable with children in general. She had always been pleased with their company, but now that she had her own, their charm had lessened considerably. A few hours' amusement of an evening was one thing; a never-ending responsibility for little people who were occasionally loud, untidy and demanding, and invariably expensive to maintain, was quite another.

Still, looking upon the little darlings, she found them hard to resist, the countenance of one so like her own, and the impudent grin of the other reminiscent of the man who had secured her good fortune.

She had always been said to have a quick mind, and that mind did not fail her as she began her flight of fancy. "Once upon a time, there was a young girl..."

"Was she very pretty?"

"Like you, Mother?"

"Yes, she was very pretty, and she was the apple of her mother's eye. Sadly, this girl's mother died after a long illness. Her father wept over her mother's deathbed and swore he would never marry again, so great was his love for her. However, about one year after her mother's funeral, the girl came upon a stranger in the parlour of her home. Before she could inquire as to the lady's name, her father stood and said, "Daughter, come and meet your new mother."

"Mama! How could he?"

"How could he, indeed!" she murmured as the image of her own father flitted across her consciousness.

"Is this story going to be very sad?"

"No, my dear. It ends splendidly, as you shall see. But you must not complain. You did ask me to tell you a story, after all."

"Yes, Mother," the girls dutifully responded.

The lady continued. "The little girl was furious. She hated her father. How could he forget her mother when she thought of her at least a hundred times a day? She hated her sister, who had done as their father commanded and curtsied to the mysterious lady. She herself stood stiff as a board and finally ran to her room, where she cried all day and into the night."

"Poor little girl!"

"What was her name?"

"No more interruptions or I shall have to cease altogether." She waited to ensure the quiet would last before beginning again. "Little Celia," she said, swallowing the unexpected lump in her throat, "as her father called her, woke up with a dreadful headache and a broken heart but resolved to make the best of her situation. She was civil to the woman who was now her stepmother - her father actually had married the woman the previous morning - and civil to her father and sister besides. The weeks passed with very little to vex her other than the constant reminder that her own mother had been supplanted. This was trouble enough, however, and she spoke to the members of her household only when it was required of her.

"One day, the stepmother announced that Celia and her sister would be sent away to school. Celia was shocked. 'But why cannot we continue to live here with Father?' she asked, feeling the tears sting her eyes."

She had always wanted to go away to school herself - a proper education would have been the crowning ornament for her naturally clever mind - but she felt it only right that her young, grieving heroine should not wish to do so. She had not been idle, however. Early in her marriage, one or two overheard remarks on the inelegance of her speech had inspired equal parts mortification and resolve. Consequently, her address and expressions now bore little resemblance to what they had been just a few years ago. The odd vulgar phrase fell from her lips on occasion, but even her former critics would have to concede that, for the most part, coarseness had given way to refinement.

"The stepmother," she told the girls, inwardly smiling at the sound of her voice, "cared nothing for Celia's tears. 'It is my wish,' the heartless woman replied. 'You will leave in the morning.'

"Celia vowed never to forgive her father. First, he had tarnished the memory of her mother by marrying this horrible woman; then he had allowed the woman to send his own daughters away.

"Celia packed her most precious possessions in a small trunk, and she slipped her favourite chain around her neck. The chain had been a gift from her real mother, you see. A few days before Celia's mother fell ill, Celia had been admiring her jewellery. Her mother had encouraged her to choose the thing that delighted her most. She had reached for the chain at once. It was plainer than the others, and when her mother enquired as to her reason for selecting it over the more colourful pieces, Celia replied, 'Because you wear it all the time, and Father says you are the princess of the house. I want to be a princess, too.'

"Her mother had laughed, saying that Father had called her his 'princess' as long as she could remember. She gladly allowed Celia to wear the chain, and when she fell ill, the chain was all but forgotten.

"It is all well and good to forget a simple necklace when a crisis arises, but how does a prince forget his princess? Celia no longer loved or trusted her father, so she did not wonder about this for very long. Soon she was in school, meeting other girls and often young men as well. One young man took a fancy to her. He was rather plain, she thought, like the chain she had got from her mother. Although not the most handsome or the most charming young man she had met, he was kind and courteous to her. She soon learned that he was wealthy, too, or would be when he was old enough to claim his fortune. Whenever he looked at her with those guileless eyes, she could never imagine him forgetting her and marrying a wicked woman like her stepmother were she to die before him. She was sure she had found her true prince, the man who would treat her like a princess."

She shook her head at long-buried memories that were resurrected by the telling of her tale, shuddered, and continued with renewed determination.

"Years passed and Celia the pretty young girl grew into a very pretty young lady. One afternoon she received a letter from her stepmother stating that her father had died." 'That may be a little extreme, although my affection for him certainly died,' she thought, pushing her memories aside. "Her stepmother said she could no longer afford to pay for the girls' education, so Celia and her sister left school and returned home, where they were barely made welcome. Celia's father had left her very little to live on, and her stepmother clearly resented her presence there, so she and her sister spent their time going from house to house, visiting with any relative who would have them. Celia clung to the hope that her young man would rescue her and make everything right. However, she knew that his mother held the purse strings and had not yet released his fortune to him. Celia had no desire to live in poverty; a poor prince was no prince at all, in her opinion. To make matters worse, just when she needed someone dependable, her prince's letters became full of praise for a young lady other than herself. Celia became concerned, for she did not know how she would bear being supplanted before she had even secured a husband!"

Her daughters' eyes had closed, and the youngest had turned on her side and snuggled up to her sister. She could tell that the eldest was still awake, so she pressed on with her tale.

"While Celia considered how to escape the company of her stepmother, win the favour of her prospective mother-in-law and marry her prince, to her delight she received an invitation from a distant cousin. This invitation, though she did not know it, would lead to the achievement of all her desires. She left as soon as she could get the trunks packed, and before long she found herself quite comfortably settled in a very elegant home in the country.

"The inmates of the house were kind to her, and the children favoured her above even their own parents. There was little entertainment to be had, but for a girl with a quick mind, this was no inconvenience at all."

"Mama," her eldest daughter said through a yawn, "this story sounds a little like Cinderella, only she goes away, and there are no stepsisters."

"You are right, dear. It is a little like Cinderella. It has a deserving young girl, a prince and a stepmother. And if you will wait just a moment, I think I can provide stepsisters as well." She smiled at her sleepy child.

"One day, the entertainments changed. Celia's cousin introduced her to some of her neighbours. Two of the young ladies were no more desirable for company than Celia's stepmother."

"The stepsisters?"

"I suppose you could call them that."

"Were they horrid looking?"

"Well...no, not really." She could not say that they were, though it would have been easier if they had been.

"But Celia was prettier?"

"Of course." She smiled broadly at her perceptive daughter. "Neither of the two ladies liked Celia, and the feeling was mutual, for Celia thought one of them very silly and the other very sly. So sly, in fact, that she had attempted to draw the attentions of the prince away from Celia and engage them towards herself! Clever Celia realised right away that the sly one was the same girl who kept appearing in her prince's letters. She decided to inform the intruder that she knew what the girl was about, and after putting her in her place, she felt confident that the danger of being supplanted was past."

"And the prince liked Celia best of all? Was there a ball? Did he marry her?"

The lady heard the snort before realising she was the one who had made the sound. "Not quite, but Celia did marry a prince. Have patience, and you will hear all.

"Celia and her sister spent the winter in town with some other relations, and though she gained a temporary reprieve from the company of the 'stepsisters' and even got to see her prince, she still had not reached her goal. It was terrible to wait and pretend to be happy when she was aching inside. She was no closer to achieving her chief object than she had been while in the country. How was she ever to become the princess she was meant to be?

"Then, one day, the chance that she had been waiting for came. Instead of a ball, it was a grand dinner, and the prince was not even present. But all the ladies were invited, including the two stepsisters who had come to town, little as they were wanted there. Celia was nervous and excited more than most, because her happiness depended upon the good will of the matron of the prince's family, the 'queen', whom she was to meet for the first time. She wore her most beautiful gown and slippers, and she walked into the room with her head held high, despite her trepidation.

"Celia's hopes were answered as far as they could be in the absence of the prince, who had stayed away so as not to betray their secret. The queen, however, as well as the prince's sister, immediately took a fancy to Celia and distinguished her particularly. To her delight, they slighted the stepsisters, especially the one who had aspired to steal the prince's affections.

"Over the next several days she met her prince on occasion, sometimes alone, other times in the company of their mutual acquaintances. Although the prince was very discreet, even the sly stepsister could not help but notice his devotion to Celia. All seemed to bode well for her happiness, and Celia believed it was only a matter of time - and a short time, at that - before she would be married and settled in her own grand castle."

The lady grew thirsty after so much talking, but she was determined to finish her tale. Her daughter's soft, regular breathing alerted her to the likelihood of having lost her only audience, but that did not change her mind. "All continued in like manner until that fateful day, when the careless actions of Celia's sister destroyed all her peace, just as the stroke of midnight turned Cinderella's beautiful gown to rags once more. Celia and her sister had received an invitation to stay with the prince's family, who had paid them every attention she could wish. Her sister, seeing how favoured they were, thought it safe to reveal to their hostess the prince's attachment to Celia. Foolish, foolish girl! The revelation caused such uproar that Celia and her sister were cast out of the house that very hour.

"The queen was livid when she heard the news. She threatened to disinherit her son entirely. Celia still had her prince if she wanted him, but, as I said before, she felt a poor prince was no prince at all. She had determined to offer to end the engagement, but her prince beat her to it, not wanting to consign her to poverty. She had no choice, then, but to hold him to the arrangement; she would not have him feel rejected after all that his family had put him through, and he had stood up for her, after all, instead of abandoning her at the first sign of trouble. Besides, she had not given up all hope that she might yet be made a princess through her connection with the royal family.

"Celia bravely bore the next days and weeks. The queen made good on her threats and settled her elder son's fortune irrevocably upon his brother. A well-meaning, interfering acquaintance then offered the prince a living, but this did more harm than good. While the prince had no prospects, there was always a chance that the queen would relent or that some family member would take him in. Once he had the offer of an income, no matter how paltry, the royal family would feel no pity and would turn their backs on them both for good, Celia was certain.

"She wondered how they would live if they were to marry. Her prince now had nothing; he was just an ordinary man in her eyes. The more she observed those eyes that had once seemed guileless, the more she suspected he had never completely conquered his interest in the sly stepsister. As a precaution, she made sure to tell everyone that she had offered to set the prince free from their engagement but he had steadfastly refused to part from her, lest the stepsister try her wiles again, for Celia knew the horrid girl would have got him if she could. At length the prince went away to prepare for his new trade, the stepsisters likewise departed town, and Celia was left to lament her misfortune.

"One day, quite unexpectedly, a messenger from the royal family paid a call at the house where Celia was staying. To her utter surprise, the brother of her prince bowed to her. 'I have come,' said he, 'to persuade you of the futility of persisting in an engagement which has not been sanctioned by my brother's nearest relations.' He continued to expound upon the evils of the match for the better part of an hour.

"Celia, not wanting to discourage any contact between the prince's family and herself, asked him to come again the following day, and the day after, and the day after that. For, clever girl that she was, she had recognised the opportunity of exchanging once prince for another. And that is exactly what she did. This prince fell in love with her just as quickly as his brother had done, and soon she and her new prince eloped and enjoyed a lavish holiday before returning to beg the queen's forgiveness. The queen was just as furious with the younger son as she had been with the elder, but she could not take one shilling away from the happy couple as a punishment for their offence. She could withhold nothing but her favour; therefore, all that the prince and princess lacked were his reinstatement and her acceptance into the royal family.

"Even the queen's favour was granted in due time, and the prince and princess lived very contentedly in their castle. And to think Celia accomplished it all without the assistance of a fairy godmother!

"What of the stepsisters, you may ask?" The lady looked at her sleeping children, who had asked nothing of the sort. "The silly one got her silly heart broken by a scoundrel and finally settled for the well-meaning but interfering acquaintance. The sly one got her claws into the poor 'prince' at last, and she was welcome to him! Celia had outdone them all and was vastly happy with her choice."

She stood and stretched. "Vastly happy! Would that it were so," she mumbled, and she went down to the drawing room to seek out her husband.

He was there, fiddling with his toothpick case. He did not even look up as she entered the room. She always hated that, for she had an almost insatiable need for attention.

"Prince Robby." She allowed a derisive laugh to escape her lips.

Her husband turned to face her. "What is this about a prince?"

"Just a whimsical notion of mine. I have just been telling tales to the children. Now, as I was saying before the girls made such a fuss, I cannot bear to see Fanny in possession of a set of china superior to ours. It is intolerable! Surely we are as deserving of the finest things as John and Fanny and that little brat of theirs ever will be. You must increase my income to allow for the purchase of a new set." She ignored her husband's groans of protest. "And that sideboard. Did you notice the new one at last Thursday's dinner party? I believe a trip to the shops is in order first thing in the morning."

"You visited the shops all day today. Was that not sufficient?"

"You do not seem to appreciate how much effort is involved in maintaining a house of this stature."

"A house of this stature? There is nothing lacking in this house, and you know it. When you first came here, you praised all that you saw, including the china! As for myself, I prefer a-" Her husband closed his mouth abruptly, resignation dawning in his eyes as she glared at him.

"That's right, not a word, not a single syllable will I hear about your preference for a cottage above all things! How you can take so little interest in our manner of living astounds me." She would go to the shops and procure a sideboard and some china and anything else she liked, whether 'His Highness' agreed to it or not.

The lady looked at her husband and breathed out a sigh of frustration. How had she been mistaken as to their compatibility? At least he was not pining after some other girl as his worthless brother had done, and he had made her wealthy beyond anything she had known, for which she was thankful. But they could have so much more, could be so much more if only he would take an interest! She sighed again and absently fingered the chain around her neck. Life as 'Princess Lucy' involved far more work and bother than little 'Celia' Steele had ever imagined possible.

~The End~

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