Before sunset, Ella had to ask for more work.
She hadn’t been given any chores for the week. Ella would have thought her stepmother had forgotten her if they hadn’t known each other for the past fifteen years. The silence was a trap; Ella would be beaten for laziness in the next few days.
Tomorrow was Sunday and that was for church so she couldn’t ask then. Afterwards, the house would buzz with plans for the debutante ball that Ella’s stepsisters, Hope and Mercy, would be attending. Her stepmother hadn’t told Ella she couldn’t go but then, Ella thought as she touched her bare neck, she didn’t have anything to wear.
“What are you doing in the kitchen?” Mercy marched into the room. “You’re just standing there like an idiot.”
She dropped her hand and made sure not to meet her eldest sister’s eyes. Mercy said many times that she didn’t appreciate being stared at. “I’m looking for Mother.”
“Mother’s in the garden hunting down the hornet’s nest. She’s going to knock it out of the tree.” Ella watched Mercy’s delicate, slippered feet walk across the tile and stand in front of the pantry door. Her feet were the same as her mother’s, a woman who had once been a dancer. On her pretty hands she wore rings and bracelets.
“That sounds dangerous. I thought Mr. Sweet was going to smoke them out.”
“Oh, our dear gardener tried that.” Mercy opened the pantry. She was obviously looking for the sugared dates. “He was at the wrong tree.”
“I’ll offer to help when I see her.”
“Now aren’t you sweet?” Mercy laughed. In the pantry, jars clinked together as she moved them aside. Her ringed fingers tapped against the glass. She didn’t know that her mother had eaten the dates some time after breakfast. “It’s a pity you’ll have to leave us, eventually.”
Ella looked up, received a sharp glare, and looked back down. “I didn’t know I was being sent away.”
“You’re not.” She began putting jars of preserves on the floor. The canned apples, peaches, and jam had just been moved there that morning. Mercy stood delicately on her toes to examine the top shelf. How strange she hadn’t decided to become a dancer, too. “Hope and I were talking. She says if you’re going to run away, you’re going to do it this year.”
“We think it’s the last year you’ll be able to take.”
Ella felt light-headed. “But I would never do that!”
Touching her bare neck, she nodded. “I don’t have any money."
Mercy groaned. “Mother has plenty of rings from her days in the troupe. All gifts. She doesn’t keep track of them, either. You can take one and sell it.”
This was another trap, Ella decided. If she stole a ring, Mercy would report it right away. “I won’t do that.”
Mercy’s feet were now obscured with jars. “Then get work as a maid somewhere. I wouldn’t hire you, or anything, but you have an unassuming face. Not bright or pretty. Trustworthy. Did Hope eat my dates? That girl’s a swine!”
“I think Mother ate them this morning.”
“Then what am I doing in the pantry?” Mercy hit herself in the forehead with more force than necessary, Ella noted beneath her eyelashes, because the glass pearls around her neck jumped. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I didn’t know what your were looking for.”
“I always eat sugared dates in the afternoon,” Mercy snarled. “You’ll never be very clever, will you?”
Ella wasn’t sure it was a lady’s place to be clever. Her father, when he was home from the city, berated everyone in the house for being the wrong sort of woman. Mercy, he said, talked too much, Hope was sullen, and Ella was always underfoot. The worst was saved for her stepmother, who “was a blight on the household and wasn’t half as good as Ella’s sweet mother, God rest her soul.”
This seemed like a strange thing to say. Her father had been the one to marry her. Ella remembered being taken to the ballet before they were married. Her father had leaned over and pointed to one of the gauze-skirted performers. “There!” he said. “That will be your fairy mother.” She didn’t look much like a fairy after moving in with them.
They had last seen him when he had come to visit in the spring, leaving behind a necklace of glass pearls for Ella. Upon his departure, her stepmother had transferred the gift to her eldest.
Ella knew she had glanced at Mercy’s pearls one too many times. Fearing she would expose her jealousy, Ella turned to the window. There, she saw her stepmother in the garden.
The woman held a stick aloft and was beating the air with it. Her face was twisted up and mean. She screamed and hit a tree.
Ella found that Mercy was looking, too. Her face was pale but very still.
They both stood in the kitchen as the woman struck wasps and shrieked.
“Why do you need to speak to Mother?” Mercy asked.
“I...need more chores.” It took a moment to pull her gaze away from the woman. “She’ll hate it if I don’t do any work this week.”
“I think she’ll hate it even if you do. Are you really trying to earn that beastly woman’s love?”
There was a soft “clink” on the pantry floor. Maybe one of Mercy’s awful pearls had fallen off her awful neck. The rest didn't follow, though, so the string didn't snap.
“I’m a good daughter,” said Ella. “That’s what counts.”
“Idiot, indeed.” Mercy stepped gingerly out of the kitchen. “Put away the jars and if you really want to talk to Mother, be my guest!”
Ella saw Mercy’s back disappear down the hall.
Jars from the pantry stood all over the floor. Ella sighed more testily than she meant to when she saw them, so she gave a softer, more girlish sigh that her father would have approved of. Then she kneeled to clean the pantry.
On the floor wasn’t a pearl but a small, silver ring. It wasn’t very big and looked as if it could be easily misplaced by a sister who wore too much jewelry. Being silver, though, it was probably worth a couple weeks of rent in town.
Ella considered returning it.
Outside, she heard the miserable woman scream, “Mr. Sweet, I got the nest! It thought it could get away from me, but I beat it to pieces!”
Ella dropped the ring into her apron pocket. She then finished straightening the pantry. Her stepmother was still distracted when she was done so Ella went upstairs to pack her things.