This article is an excerpt from Steffani Raff’s The Ravenous Gown.
“Tell us the story,” three eager grandchildren chimed. The boy with freckles sat at the foot of the rocking chair and placed his head on her lap. The girl with inquisitive eyes watched her grandmother from the floor. And the girl with a propensity for romantic ideas sat on the fireplace hearth to keep warm and have a view of her siblings’ reactions to their grandmother’s story.
“Well, children, there was a time when I thought living happily ever after meant one thing and one thing only: marry the Prince.”
“Prince Henry?” said Inquisitive Eyes.
“He’s only eleven!” said Romantic Ideas, stunned.
“Not Prince Henry,” the grandmother laughed. “His grandfather, King Gerald. But he was only Prince Gerald back then.”
“Oh,” they all said in unison.
“A long time ago, when my hair was the color of raven feathers and my cheeks flushed the color of roses, I held in my hands a most unusual opportunity. Prince Gerald had signed and sealed an invitation to every eligible young lady in the kingdom to attend a ball. He was going to break a tradition that had been standing among royalty since time began. He would choose a bride from within the kingdom. A commoner! It was unheard of! A commoner marry a prince?!
“I had scarcely read the words of the proclamation before my mind was caught up in a dream.”
I was dancing with the Prince, wearing a gown the same green as my eyes. I was captivating. The swish of my dress, the gentle ring of our laughter, the joy in our eyes—it was true love. I would be a princess. And what a different life that would be: no long hours toiling over someone else’s clothing, no worrying about how or where I would get enough to eat. I would have servants and privileges. I would have prominence and prosperity. And I would have a handsome husband.
“But it was only a dream. I didn’t have a dress for the ball. And even though I had the talent to make a dress, I knew with an announcement like this, I would be working every lighted hour at the dress shop for Mrs. Fister. Every girl in the kingdom would order a new dress. I would be so busy sewing their dresses, I wouldn’t have time to sew a gown of my own.
“Each night, I worked on dresses by candlelight. I worked until my fingers ached, until the fabric blurred in front of me. I hoped by working thus I would have enough time to sew something for myself. But the orders just kept coming in.
“The night before the ball, a devious plan took shape in my mind. One client could not decide on whether she wanted a red dress or a green dress, so she had the audacity to order both! The red dress was finished, and it was a wonder. The color was divine, and you should have seen the way the sash clung to her waist, then burst into a bow in the back. The dress was perfect.
“I was still working on the green dress. I could get it done if I worked all through the night—unless . . . ”
“Unless what, Grandmamma?” asked Romantic Ideas.
A sweet, naughty smile slipped onto the grandmother’s face. “Unless I altered it so it would fit me instead. She had two choices, after all. She would look dashing in the red gown, and I could wear the green gown.
“You didn’t!” exclaimed Freckles.
“I did!” the grandmother laughed. “After everyone left the shop, I stayed under the pretense of finishing the dress. I held the green gown, soft and silky, in my hands for a very long time, and finally, all at once, I tried it on. I started pinning the needed alterations and customizations. I sewed and sewed, then tried the dress on again. It fit perfectly. I twirled in front of the mirror; I had transformed into the beautiful girl in my dreams. I was going to the ball. I would win the hand and heart of the Prince.
“But suddenly, I heard a crash at the front of the store. If anyone saw me, I would lose my employment and perhaps, much more.
“I dove behind some bolts of fabric, heart pounding, tears welling, body shaking. I held my breath and willed myself to listen.
“I heard a gentle scraping on the floor. A rattling by the door. Someone was there, and I was as good as caught.”
The children were up on their knees, faces anxious in the warm, golden light of the room.
“What happened?” Freckles asked, unable to bear the suspense any longer.
“It was a cat!” The grandmother laughed.
“Yes, a cat! When I went home that night, I purposefully left an unfinished sleeve and hem on the dress. The next day the client was furious when I told her the green dress was not done.
“‘Oh,’ she said, ‘this red dress is divine, but where is the green one?’
“‘I worked all through the night but couldn’t finish. I’m sorry,’ I said.
“‘This is unacceptable,’ she screamed. ‘I wanted both dresses!’
“‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I did what I could, but—’
“‘Where is the head seamstress here? She will hear of my displeasure!’ she continued ranting.
“That’s when Mrs. Fister came in and got an earful about dresses and the cost of dresses and unfulfilled orders and unfulfilled expectations.
“That’s when I got an earful about dress making and keeping clients happy and how the price of the dress would come out of my salary.”
“But you didn’t lose your job?” asked Inquisitive Eyes.
“No, I didn’t,” said the grandmother, then continued. “When the dresses were all collected, Mrs. Fister closed up the shop early. She had two daughters of her own to get ready for the ball. I stayed with the promise that I would finish the green dress and it would be ready for the client in the morning.
“I went right to work on the sleeve and the hem, and in no time, I had the dress on and my hair pinned up in a most elegant style. I pinched my cheeks, then looked in the mirror. It was the most beautiful I had ever looked. I was even more beautiful than I thought I could look. I would win the Prince’s admiration—I was sure of it.
“With so many women and so many dresses, no one would realize the dress I wore was supposed to be for some else.”
“Grandmamma, I can’t believe you did that!” said Freckles.
“Yes, it’s perfectly horrible!” said Inquisitive Eyes.
“It’s perfectly wonderful, you mean!” said Romantic Ideas. “Tell us about the ball! What happened?”
“Fine, fine. On with the story. The ball. The ball was colorful. So many women, so many dresses, so many glowing eyes, so much anticipation. The smell of a thousand flowers in the air.
“There was a banquet of food, but no one dared eat. We all waited for the Prince.
“Then it was trumpets and uniforms and, finally, the Prince. Tall and slender in his finest royal attire. Tall boots. A brocade jacket. His wavy dark hair swooped across his face, and his dark eyes were smiling. He was even more handsome than I imagined!”
“He’s old and fat now,” said Freckles, giggling.
“Ho! Ho! True enough, but back then he wasn’t,” the grandmother replied smiling. “His eyes swept the room. Women put on their most charming smiles, even as they nudged and pushed each other out of the way for better position. Then his eyes stopped.”
“On Cinderella?” asked Inquisitive Eyes.
“No,” said the grandmother. “On me.”
“What?” they all said in surprise.
“He strode the distance between us and asked me to dance. The music swelled and filled the hall as we danced. Just like I dreamed, except the Prince didn’t say a word. He just held me in his strong arms and led me across the floor. When the music changed, he kissed my hand, thanked me, and in a few steps, he was gone, dancing with another beautiful woman dressed in a lilac-colored gown. I watched in wonder as the Prince switched women dance after dance and sometimes in between.
“Then I heard a voice close to my ear. ‘Pardon me,’ it said. ‘May I have this dance?”
“‘Yes,’ I whispered. I turned around and took the hand of a royal guard. His uniform made him stiff on the dance floor, but he had me laughing in minutes. He mixed flattery with kind-hearted jabs at the banquet. I added a few jabs myself that brought such a smile to his face. I almost missed his smile, though, because I was so busy looking for the Prince. The dance floor was littered with so many couples now, it was difficult to see him.
“The Royal Guard and I visited the banquet tables, pretended to eat, and continued to laugh.
“I had to leave the ball early to make the alterations on the dress I was wearing, so it would be ready for the client the next morning. I dared not displease this particular customer again.
“I hoped to see a glimpse of the Prince before I left, but it was not to be.
“I danced around and around the dress shop in my underslip, recreating my moment with the Prince. I was filled with hope. After all, he chose to dance with me first.
“For several days, nothing happened. Then, I received a letter from the King. The Prince had fallen in love with a woman in the kingdom, but he did not know her name or how he could find her. My face flushed at the news—it could be me. A royal entourage would be visiting each house in the kingdom to try a glass slipper on the foot of every eligible maiden. If the shoe fit, she would be chosen as the Prince’s bride. What would life be like? A real princess. No more sewing dresses, at least, not unless I felt like it. Nothing to worry my head over—just pure bliss.
“When the royal entourage arrived at my home, I slid the glass slipper on my foot with the careful patience of threading a needle. My toes fit the shoe perfectly; but there was a small chunk of my heel that wouldn’t make its way into the shoe, even if I arched my foot. If I could just get this slipper to fit, my whole life would be different, better. My foot was entirely hidden by the underskirts of my dress, and in a moment of desperation, I slipped my sharp sewing scissors under my dress and snipped off part of my heel. I swallowed the stab of pain that clawed up my leg and smiled, ‘It fits.’
“A great commotion began. ‘We’ve found her! The shoe fits!’ The Prince burst through the door with an elated smile, which deflated when he saw me. ‘The shoe fits?’ he said, confused.
“I swallowed, then beamed at him, ‘Yes!’ I minced the distance between us hoping he was true to his word, but he wasn’t looking at me; he was looking at the floor. ‘What is that?’ he asked. I had left a trail of blood behind me. ‘Show me your foot,’ he commanded. I lifted my skirts to reveal a slipper sloshing with blood. I turned away, too afraid of what would happen next. The Prince touched my arm with such tenderness; I looked at his face. ‘You were not the first to use such measures, nor will you be the last, but I cannot marry you,’ he said.
“The royal party left in swift procession, carrying with them the shoe and my dreams of a better life. I was left sobbing on the floor with a bloody foot and no hope of repairing it.
“I wrapped my foot in cloth and hobbled into the dress shop—and when I walked in . . . he was there.”
“The Prince?” gasped Romantic Ideas.
“No. The Royal Guard I had danced with. When he saw me, he swooped over to my aid.
‘What happened?’ he said, not trying to hide the alarm in his voice.
“‘An accident,’ I stammered.
“‘You walked here with your foot like that?’
“‘Yes,’ I said bewildered.
“‘This will never do,’ he said. ‘When do you go home at night?’
“‘Just before sunset,’ I replied.
“‘I will be here to escort you home on my horse.’
“And that is how your grandpapa and I fell in love.”
“Grandpapa was the Royal Guard?” Freckles asked in wonder.
“Yes,” the grandmother smiled. “Did you ever tell him the truth?” asked Romantic Ideas.
“Yes, she did,” a deep voice interjected. They all jumped, surprised to see their grandfather standing behind their grandmother. He continued the story. “Several years after we were married, she came to me with her little confession. She told me the story of how much she wanted to be a princess. To have that life. So much, in fact, she was willing to snip off part of her foot to do it.”
“Then I told him how happy I was to be married to him instead,” said the grandmother.
“And I replied, ‘But I’m no prince.’”
“And I told him, ‘You don’t have to be a prince to be charming. Besides, I’m no Cinderella.’”
“That’s when I swept your grandmamma up in my arms and said, ‘You never had to be.’ Then we kissed like this,” said the grandfather, kissing his wife.
“Are you done yet?” Freckle’s voice interjected itself into this happily ever after.
“Done with what?” the grandparents asked in mock innocence.
“Kissing!” said Inquisitive Eyes, horrified.
“Grandparents don’t kiss,” Romantic Ideas chimed in.
“Especially not in front of grandchildren,” said Freckles.
“But it wouldn’t be happily ever after without a kiss!” Grandmother laughed and kissed her husband again.
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