Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass, a dark retelling of Cinderella set against a Victorian backdrop full of lace and smoke—publishing May 4th with Harper Voyager.
Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.
Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.
One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay…
Eleanor had the last slice of the day to herself.
Mrs Banbury took one look at Eleanor’s smarting cheek and handed her a piece of honeycomb. Eleanor broke off a piece for Aoife and ate it at the kitchen table. Daisy tutted sympathetically and tapped her temple while she was chopping potatoes.
‘Aim there,’ she said, ‘one good smack’ll do it.’
All eyes turned to Mrs Banbury. The cook said nothing.
When she’d finished the honeycomb Eleanor went up to the third floor to turn down the bedrooms. With Charles away, Mr Pembroke’s was the only one still in use. Eleanor listened at the door of the master bedroom, heart stuttering against her ribcage, before she went inside.
It was empty, apart from Mr Pembroke’s pet canary, which chirruped and fluttered against the bars of its large, ornate cage as she came in. A little of the tension eased out of her. She remade the bed in a tangle of flapping sheets, flicked a cloth over the floor of the birdcage, crammed his shirts back into the clothes press and shoved his cravats back into their drawer. There were a few letters from Charles on his pillow, all with European postmarks, but she didn’t dare stay to read them, although at the sight of Charles’s familiar, rounded handwriting she was tempted. Her fear had lost its edge, but after Lizzie’s threats just being in Mr Pembroke’s room was enough to make her skin crawl.
She bolted out of the door as soon as she was finished and made for the servants’ stairs. She clattered back down into the kitchen as all the servants but Lizzie were digging into slices of cold tongue and potatoes.
‘You got that done just in time,’ said Daisy, loading up a plate for Eleanor. ‘His Nibs has almost finished his tea.’
Mrs Fielding laid down her knife and fork. ‘You are speaking about the master of this house, Daisy. Show some respect!’
Mrs Banbury pointed her fork across the table. ‘Daisy’s a kitchen maid, Bertha. You leave her discipline to me.’
Mrs Fielding sniffed. ‘Well, my girls wouldn’t dare speak about the master in such a way.’
Eleanor stopped up her mouth with a large piece of potato before she said anything she’d regret. She ate quickly; Lizzie was serving Mr Pembroke’s dinner and she wanted to be well out of the way by the time it was done. Eleanor’s stomach churned. Even now, Lizzie would be pouring Mr Pembroke’s wine and painting Eleanor’s character in shades of scarlet. She could just imagine it. ‘Ella, sir? She’s turned out very fast…’
Eleanor pushed her plate away and rushed up the servants’ staircase. It was bare and narrow and cheaply furnished, like the rest of the servants’ quarters, but here, she was safe. Mr Pembroke was a gentleman; he would not follow her through the green baize door. Between the staircase, the kitchen, and the servants’ dormitories in the attic, she could disappear into a cheaply plastered warren quicker than a rabbit.
Lizzie, however, was another matter.
A footstep creaked on the staircase below. Eleanor glanced over her shoulder. The door to the first-floor landing was opening, and Eleanor could already see Lizzie’s shadow, laden with dishes. Before Lizzie could spot her, Eleanor darted through the door to the third-floor landing.
She stopped. The third floor held all the bedrooms, and Eleanor was outside the one that had been hers. Eleanor stared at it. She tried to tell herself she was listening for more footsteps, but all she could hear was Mrs Pembroke’s voice saying, ‘And this will be your room, Eleanor, dear’; all she could see was Mrs Pembroke’s long-fingered hand turning the handle, a sapphire ring winking on her finger.
And what a room it had been! Eleanor couldn’t remember much about the house she had lived in before coming to Granborough. There were only flashes that came to mind, now: a bucket full of coal that cracked against her shins as she carried it, lye soap stinging at her hands as she tried to scrub something out of the floorboards, an iron bedstead pressing into her back. But whatever that place had been, it was nothing compared to this room. Mrs Pembroke had opened the door to a bright, pretty room that she’d furnished just for Eleanor. There had been pale curtains at the windows, a flowered jug and basin on the washstand, and soft white sheets on the bed, where Mrs Pembroke had read her ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in a soft, melodious voice. Pastel-coloured dresses of silk and satin had sat in her clothes press, wallpaper printed with roses had hung on the walls, and a small square of carpet had sat by the side of the bed, where she used to kneel down and pray every night. The room had been soft, as gently coloured as a sunrise, all its contents more delicate than eggshells.
Eleanor’s hands were trembling. She opened the door.
It was almost as she’d left it.
The windows were shuttered, the curtains limp with dust. The bed was covered in dust sheets, the hangings folded away in boxes in the attic. The washstand was still there, although the jug and basin were gone along with the carpet, leaving a pale square of wood on the floor, like a shadow. She’d been allowed to keep her linen—she was still wearing it three years later, though she’d been letting out her chemise for years—but everything else in the clothes press had been sold.
At least the wallpaper was the same, she thought.
Eleanor drifted across the floor in a daze. Here, she had tried on her first proper corset. Mrs Pembroke had laced it up herself, making sure it sat properly over her chemise and telling Eleanor not to worry if it pinched. She’d been so proud to set her stays aside and get her first real piece of women’s clothing. The corset eased her shoulders back and fitted snug around her waist, and even standing there in her underthings she had felt so grown-up. She had turned to Mrs Pembroke, standing straighter than she’d ever done before, and there had been tears in Mrs Pembroke’s eyes.
She was still wearing that corset. It had been too small for years.
Eleanor hugged herself, the coarse material of her uniform scratching her fingers. All the shadows seemed to press in on her. She left with a lump in her throat and ducked back through the door to the servants’ staircase, knowing what she would find in her little garret room. The walls mottled with damp. The straw mattress that rustled as she slept. The chipped jug and basin on her faded chest of drawers, the grey, scratchy blanket on her bed.
She opened her bedroom door.
The room had been torn apart.
Upended drawers lay on the floor. Her stockings had been ripped in half, huge strips of material had been torn away from the collars of her dresses, and her underthings had been completely shredded. Her sewing kit had been emptied, strewing needles everywhere. Even the blanket was covered in boot prints.
She remembered Lizzie, stalking out of the dining room hours ago, and knew what she had done.
Her breath caught. The purse.
Eleanor scrabbled through the mess. Needles skittered across the backs of her hands. It had to be here. Lizzie couldn’t have taken it. Had she known? No. No, she couldn’t have. But if she’d found the purse in her temper, and heard the clink of coins inside it…
Eleanor threw aside a bundle of stockings, panicking. She shook out every shift. She looked under the bed. She upended the empty chamber pot. She reached under the chest of drawers, tore through every pocket, and peered into a mousehole in the corner of the room.
Her money was gone.
It was all gone.
Three years’ wages, stolen. She’d been saving it so carefully. She’d let down the hems of all her old dresses. She’d unpicked seams and re-used the thread. She’d never bought so much as a hot cross bun—and now, it was all gone.
Lizzie had taken it to stop her getting away from Granborough House. Eleanor got to her feet. She wasn’t going to let her get away with it. She was used to the occasional slap but this—no. No. She wasn’t going to be treated like this for the sake of Lizzie’s pride.
Eleanor hurtled back down the servants’ staircase and pelted through the kitchen, past the laundry room and skidded to a halt outside Mrs Fielding’s rooms. She hammered on the door and did not stop until the housekeeper answered.
‘Ella?’ said Mrs Fielding, looking alarmed. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Someone’s been in my room, Mrs Fielding.’
Mrs Fielding sighed, pinching the bridge of her long nose. ‘I really haven’t the time to be resolving petty disputes. I have a lot to do, you know, and—’
Eleanor could feel the tears building like a thunderstorm. ‘You don’t understand! My wages are gone—all of them, just gone!’
Mrs Fielding’s expression hardened. ‘You are making a very serious accusation, Ella. Are you quite sure you’ve looked everywhere?’
‘Of course I’ve—’
‘Less of that tone!’ Mrs Fielding snapped. ‘Go and search your room again and do make sure to look everywhere, this time. If you can’t find them, I shall help you put the matter before the master.’
Eleanor went cold. She knew exactly how that would go. Mrs Fielding would be with her, at first, but there was always something that needed Mrs Fielding’s attention and she wouldn’t stay for long. And when the door had closed, leaving Eleanor on the wrong side of it, she would have no choice but to listen to whatever Mr Pembroke said because she had nothing, now, there was no way she could get out. She had no relatives who would take her in, no references to get another job, no money to rent a cheap little room. If she left Granborough House she’d be sleeping in the penny doss-houses in Whitechapel and the Old Nichol, slumped over an old clothesline because it was cheaper than paying for a bed, and even then she’d be begging for the pennies, or worse.
Mrs Fielding was watching her. Her dark eyes flickered all across Eleanor’s face, sharp despite the shadows and the lines beneath them. Her mouth was pressed into a thin, disapproving line, her square jaw set.
‘Or perhaps you would prefer not to discuss this with the master,’ she said, her voice flat. ‘Telling tales at your age is hardly appropriate.’
‘That’s enough, Ella! Go to bed. I’ve had a long day and I don’t need you to make it any longer.’
She closed the door. Eleanor stared at the wood, the varnish gone after years of scrubbing, and began to climb the servants’ staircase again. She felt as if something had been scraped out of her, leaving her raw and smarting.
There was nothing she could do. Mrs Fielding didn’t even believe her. If there was any justice in the world, all those stolen coins would burn like glowing coals, and Lizzie’s thieving fingers would sizzle when she tried to spend them.
But they wouldn’t. Lizzie had taken her money, and Eleanor had nothing.
She opened her bedroom door, stared into the crimson sunset and fought back the urge to scream.
The library. She needed the library.
Eleanor ran through corridors striped with moonlight, the library key clutched in her hands. She couldn’t breathe through the tears. She needed her books, a comfortable chair, a lockable door. She had to get out of Granborough House somehow, even if it was only in her head.
Her feet skidded on the carpet as she ran into the library. Forcing herself not to slam the door, she locked it, leaning against the wood and sobbing silently into her hand. She couldn’t be heard. She couldn’t let anyone take this from her, not when she’d lost so much already.
She stalked along the shelves. Fairy tales? No—they were for children, and she wouldn’t be allowed to be a child much longer. Travelogues—what perfect torture those would be. A book of martyrs? She almost laughed. Her thoughts flitted from subject to subject, and every one of them felt wrong. None of them would help her forget herself tonight; she’d read them all before. Oh God, Eleanor thought. Would this library be the only escape she ever had?
Eleanor retched. Shaking, she leant against one of the bookcases, and slapped herself hard across the face. She couldn’t lose control now. If anyone heard her, they’d tell Mr Pembroke. She wasn’t going to let him take this place from her.
Eleanor pressed her forehead against the cool wood and forced herself to breathe deeply. Lizzie had robbed her, cutting her off from the easiest way out. Well, tomorrow she would search Lizzie’s room, and take whatever money she found there. A mad plan sparked into life. She could steal the laudanum from the kitchen cupboard and slip a few drops into every decanter in the house. Not much—just enough to keep Mr Pembroke in a haze. If anyone caught her, she could be accused of poisoning her employer and guardian. She could be hanged, if she was caught. Until now, it had never seemed worth the risk.
Eleanor was still trembling, but her breathing had slowed and her stomach was beginning to settle. The library key made deep ridges in her palm; she forced herself to set it aside. Tomorrow she would set her plan in motion. All she had to do now was get through tonight. She could make it through the next few hours.
Something caught her eye.
It was a small, unfamiliar black book, on the edge of her favourite armchair. Eleanor snatched it up at once. This was what she needed. She’d never seen the book before, and she’d read every other one within arm’s reach. It had been so long since she’d had something new. It was about the size of her own hands, the leather-bound cover slightly warped with age. It fitted perfectly into her palm, cool in the stifling heat.
She eased herself into her seat, the book sliding into her lap. She kept her eyes closed, squeezing the arms of the chair until she felt less like a hunted thing. When her hands began to cramp, she opened her eyes, picked up the book and forced herself to read.
‘The Tragicall Hif…History,’ she began, ‘of the Life and Death of Doctor Fauftus. Faustus.’
She frowned at the book. If the letter s was going to look like an f all the way through, she wasn’t going to get very far. She flipped to the frontispiece. There was a squat little man in a triangular sort of outfit standing inside a magic circle, pointing a book at a creature that had been scribbled out. The ink bled into the paper, hiding the thing in a dark haze. She caught a suggestion of horns.
She settled down to read.
The rhythm of the words tugged at her like a lullaby as Faustus planned to summon his demon and dreamed of all the treasures it would bring. Eleanor knew it wasn’t going to end well. She’d read enough fairy stories to know that selling your soul to the Devil rarely ended happily ever after. The just would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished, as they ought to be, but until then she’d enjoy the thrill of watching other people consume forbidden fruit. Her limbs uncurled and she leant back into the chair as the infinite possibilities of magic sprawled out before her. Her finger caught on the edge of a page as she turned it and a bead of blood welled up. She’d smeared red across the beast on the frontispiece before she noticed it.
She put her finger in her mouth and went back a few paragraphs to reread a good bit.
‘I’ll have them fly to India for gold, / Ransack the ocean for Orient pearl, / And have them search all corners of the new-found world / For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.’
Eleanor closed her eyes. What would she ask for, if she had such a powerful servant at her beck and call? Gold. Diamonds. Piles and piles of jewellery, so that if she tried to wear it all at once she wouldn’t be able to stand up. A magic carpet that would take her all around the world, past the palaces of India and the pyramids of Egypt. She would glide over forests and oceans, whirling beneath her in a blur of green and blue, and at night she would lie back in the sky and sleep in a nest of stars. She could draw the universe around her like a cloak with a servant like that, robing herself in rainbows and moonlight and the shine on soap bubbles and a thousand other lovely, impossible things.
When she opened her eyes, there was a woman sitting opposite her.
Excerpted from The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood, published by HarperCollins.