Once Upon a Romance 01 - Before the Midnight Bells

BEFORE THE MIDNIGHT BELLS

Once Upon a Romance,
Book One

Jessica Woodard

Copyright © 2011

Jessica Woodard

All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced without permission of the author, with the exception of any and all fair use cases.

For Been; who said I could, and I should, so I did.

CHAPTER
ONE


You’ve both given exemplary service to my family, and I’m sure you will have no difficulty finding new positions. I can say truly that we’re going to miss you a great deal.” Ella tried to speak with quiet dignity, but her despondency was hard to suppress.


Thank you, Miss.” Greta looked sad, but took her glowing reference letter with calm, steady hands.


Yes, thank you, Miss.” That was Junie, whose eyes were already welling with tears. When Ella handed
her
reference letter over she added a quick hug to the miserable girl.


I’m so sorry, to both of you.”


That’s alright, Miss,” Greta spoke for both of them, since Junie was now taking quick, quavery breaths, trying to keep the tears from spilling down. “We know it ain’t your fault. It was a miracle you kept us on as long as you did. If you ever find yourself in need of a pair of girls again you just look us up.”


I promise, I will.” With a quick smile for both the maids—
former
maids—Ella stepped out of
the
tiny
study
and into the hall. As she closed the door behind her she heard Junie finally break down. Safely out of sight, she let her shoulders slump. One more letter to hand out, and the hardest one, at that.

Ella made her way through the dingy back hallway and into the kitchen. There, on the
weathered
butcher block work top in front of the giant stone hearth, Clara was kneading a great mass of dough. Ella stopped and leaned against the edge of the dried herb rack, watching the cook
use one wrist to brush her greying curls back from a face ruddy with exertion
.

Clara had been with the household since Ella was a little girl, and had been Ella’s favorite companion when her father was busy. The large kitchen with its wonderful smells and ever-full cookie jar was an enchanting place to a small child, and Clara had always welcomed her warmly and let her help in the day’s work. Ella had spent countless hours learning how flour became bread, or a chicken became soup, all with one of Clara’s plump arms wrapped around her waist.

Those plump arms now opened wide, as Clara caught sight of Ella.


Poor mite, you look so sad, come and have a squeeze.”

Ella shook her head. She couldn’t. If Clara hugged her she would crumble into a million pieces. Clara gave her a knowing look.


It’s all right to cry, lovie, it’s a sad day. Come here.” Ella let the large woman pull her into a caring embrace, and felt the tears welling out from under her closed eyelids. Clara sat on her large work stool and held Ella on her lap, just as though she were a little girl again, and spoke to her softly.


Ah, it’s a hard thing, that you must hand these out. Where is the Missus? Could she not even see to this detail, and spare you the grief?”

Ella’s words were muffled against Clara’s shoulder. “She doesn’t see the need. She told me I could have it my own way, but I would have to handle the dismissals myself.”


Doesn’t see the need?” Clara was incredulous, “Does she think we’ll work for promises?”


She wants to take another loan out.”

Clara clucked her tongue. It astonished her how a gentlewoman of excellent breeding could be so heedless of reality.


Ah well, lovie, you’ve done the right thing, though it’s hard for you. Is my letter in one of your pockets?”

Ella nodded mutely.


Well, you can leave it on the table for me. I’m just going to finish up here. Can’t very well leave you with an empty larder, now can I?”


Clara, you don’t have to…”


Don’t even speak it, lovie. I know I don’t
have
to, and if it was only that flighty woman and her girls I might choose
not
to, but I can’t leave my Ella without a full cookie jar, can I?

Ella put her head down on Clara’s shoulder as the tears returned.


There, there, lovie. Don’t fret so. You’ll figure it out. I’ll be taking my letter and going to my sister’s farm to help with her wee ones for a while, and when you’ve got everything sorted straight again you just call me on back.”

Clara’s words were brave, but both she and the sobbing girl
o
n her lap knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.

***

Ella was lying on her narrow bed, wrapped in all her blankets. The house reverberated with emptiness, as though some of the life had gone out of it when Clara drew on her wraps and marched off to catch a ride to her sister’s. Ella’s chest had a hollow feeling, one that she remembered well from the days and weeks after her father died.

Holding the blankets with one hand she slid off the old,
lace-trimmed sheets
and drifted over to her
faded baroque
vanity. There, in a small wooden box, was the letter her father had left for her. She had read and re-read
it over the twelve years since his death
, whenever her loneliness threatened to overwhelm her. Now she pulled it once more from its drawer, and smoothed the creased, tear
-
stained pages.

My darling Eleanor,

Tonight, as I write this, you lie asleep in your bed, resting your clever head and dreaming of whatever will come tomorrow. Today we played “Fairies and Frogs” in the garden. You, of course, were the beautiful Fairy Princess, wrapped in your mother’s silk robe, and I was your noble Froggy Steed.

Ella smiled. She remembered that day. He had let her put tacks on his shoe heels, and pranced down the paths with knees high.

When you ran off to find some dew and raindrops for us, I had to labor to catch my breath, and my chest hurt so. By the time you returned with the lemonade it had passed, but I worry, my precious daughter. This is not the first time I have felt this pain, and I fear it will not be the last. I felt I could not leave my fairy Princess without some last word, should it come about that this is more serious than I might wish it to be.

Eleanor, you are the most wonderful thing in my world. Your mother was precious to me, but nothing has ever brought me joy like you have. You are her greatest gift to me. Even in the last days of her life, when you were so brand new, we loved you almost more than we could bear. Your mother once said that she hoped to become your own personal angel, so that she could come to know you as well as she loved you.

For myself, you
are
my personal angel. I love you more now than I did that day, when I held you close to let your mother see you one last time, and I will love you still more tomorrow, and the day after that. You are all I have ever wanted in my life, after your sweet mother was gone.

I know that you wish it could have been only you and I, together forever, but Eleanor, you are growing so fast. Soon you will be a young woman, and you will need a mother’s love, and a mother’s guidance. Even though she is not your own beloved mother, I hope that Millicent can provide that for you. Sometimes I see you looking at her with bewilderment, and I know you see her as an intruder. Try, for my sake, to see her, if not as a mother, at least as someone you can love and trust. I need to know that someone is watching over you and caring for you, my darling girl.

All I have ever wanted was for you to
be loved, and be happy
; but you lost your mother, and I lie awake at night and worry that you will lose me, too. Should that come to pass, my beloved, beloved daughter, remember that I will join your mother. As angels on your shoulder we will sit, watching you grow, loving you all the more, every day.

Let your stepmother guide you through your days, and your mother and I will guide you at night, as you dream of what is to come tomorrow.

All my love is with you forever, my girl.

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