Book: The Ugly Stepsister (Unfinished Fairy Tales Book 1)

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TWENTY-THREE

 

 

We return to the library. I keep a death grip on the railing as I ascend the stairs, though it really isn’t necessary. Krev has disappeared, thank God. I suppose it’s because show time is over.

Because the silence is getting too awkward to bear, I make a valiant attempt to speak.

“It’s your turn to explain yourself. Why are you here, anyway?”

He gives me a sideway glance. “You know that the bill has been rejected. So Henry and I have been trying to work out how to pass it next time.”

Thank God, now he’s acting normal and serious.

“What kind of approach are you taking?”

“Henry is requesting the physicians of his acquaintance that they collaborate and give evidence in court that a twelve-hour work day is fundamentally detrimental to a child’s health.”

I almost snort out loud. “Is the parliament that stupid? They require a physician’s report to prove that twelve hours of work is unhealthy?”

“Always insulting the ruling party, aren’t you?” He chuckles, but his expression soon returns sober. “Believe it or not, there are unscrupulous physicians who have testified that current work hours are not harmful. I have been witness to several myself. One at least has the decency to say, ‘As I haven’t examined those children, I cannot advance an opinion.’” His expression becomes grim and his voice tightens. “But there is another who, when questioned if an eight-year-old’s health would be affected from working fourteen hours a day, his answer was this: ‘I think not.’”

My mouth falls open. “He’s crazy.”

Edward bites his bottom lip. “I assure you those were his very words.”

I spot my wrap lying on the sofa in front of the fireplace. I shrug out of Edward’s coat, secure my wrap around my shoulders, and fasten the brooch.

“Have you also discussed this with Mr. Wellesley?” I say.

His eyebrows rise slightly. “You are aware that Wellesley is also working with us?”

I raise my chin, feeling a slight bit of pride. “Not just Mr. Wellesley, but also other factory workers. They’re rallying the people together to protest against this insanity.”

Now he looks alarmed. “How much do you know? Are you—have you joined them in their efforts?”

Oh no. I sense a lecture coming. Perhaps not as contemptuous as the remarks from Ponytail Godfrey, but definitely not approving.

“What would you say if I did?”

He relaxes. “They haven’t let you join them. I should have known they would have the decency not to allow a lady to appear in public.”

Irritation rises within me. So he’s not that different from Ponytail Godfrey and Mr. Wellesley.

“So you believe a lady ought to stay indoors and do nothing but party until she finds a husband?”

“I believe a lady’s situation is not as binary as you present it. You certainly are not obligated to be confined to domestic activities, but neither should you be mingling with laborers.”

“What about my visiting Elle’s family? If I hadn’t shown up that day, her mother might not have recovered.”

Edward purses his lips. “That is a different matter. Kat, I don’t doubt you’re passionate about this subject and in fact…it’s endearing. But realistically speaking, there is not much you can actually help with.”

My heart skips a beat at the word ‘endearing.’ But then I am indignant.

“What do you mean, I can’t help with anything? Are you implying I’m only fit to be ornamental?”

He smirks. “Kat, the workers are mobilizing in groups. Imagine this: suppose you were to give a speech in front of them, urging them to put pressure on the government. How would the people perceive a lady who has never worked a day in her life empathizing with the poor and telling them to fight for their rights? Wouldn’t it be more compelling if someone of their own stood up?”

I process this in my mind. And then I realize I’m wasting my time. I was here to seduce the duke, but somehow I ended up nearly kissing the prince. And arguing with him. I should be figuring out the alternative to seduction, not worrying about child labor. I’ve been so accustomed to this world, to waking up in the four-poster canopy bed, to dressing in these ridiculously large dresses, to riding in a hansom, that I’m spending less and less time worrying about how to return home.

I can’t let my emotions run away with me. I’ve got to focus on the mission.

Just at that moment, the door opens. Duke Henry appears. Finally.

He looks surprised to find both of us in the library, but he doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, he strides toward me.

“I’m afraid I have bad news to tell you,” he says quietly. “Jimmy is dying.”

 

I can’t freakin’ believe it. “I thought you said he was injured badly but his life wasn’t in danger.”

“His constitution wasn’t strong enough,” Henry says quietly, looking utterly wretched. “We have only managed to keep him alive due to a strong dosage of drugs.”

I stare at him, incredulous. “Then why didn’t you tell me the truth? Why did you let us falsely believe there was hope for him?”

“There was a tiny chance he could have pulled through—we were hoping for that tiny chance. But…it wasn’t to be.” Henry passes a hand over his eyes. I realize he is fighting back tears. “My deepest apologies, Miss Katriona. I should have told you the truth in the beginning, but I didn’t wish for you and Elle to be in constant worry. I did my best, but it was for naught.”

I look down at the polished wooden floor. “Sorry,” I mutter. “I know it’s not your fault. You’ve been doing everything you can to save Jimmy.”

Still, there’s a part of me that’s irritated, just like I was mad at Edward for his belief that ladies couldn’t actually do anything worthwhile. It’s a different world, but it doesn’t mean I should just meekly accept it and do nothing.

“I’m going to get Elle,” I say. “Do you know how much time he has left?”

Henry swallows. “Dr. Jensen said he wouldn’t be able to live through the night.”

 

When I reach home, I rush into the dining room and look around. Martha happens to come downstairs, carrying a basket of laundry.

“Where’s Elle?” I demand.

“She’s upstairs, gettin’ Miss Bianca ready.” Martha sets the basket on the floor. “Shouldn’t you be changing as well?”

“For what?”

“You got an invitation to dinner.” Martha hands me a card. “I tried to tell you, miss, but you were in a hurry.”

I barely glance at the card. It’s from Lloyd, my one and only suitor. Still, I put the card back on the tray with a grimace.

“Tell him I have a cold, no, tell him I got a rash from a weird plant while attending the flower show. Anything, just tell him I can’t go.”

“Miss Katriona!” Martha says, shocked. “What’s gotten into your head now?”

But I’m already pounding up the stairs two at a time. I make a turn toward Bianca’s room; the door is ajar. I burst into the room without knocking.

I’ve seen Bianca’s room before, though I never really entered it. It’s enormous, with two wardrobes, a dresser twice the size of mine, and the assortment of bottles on her dressing table is enough to fill a cosmetics counter. With all the resources available, plus her natural beauty, is it any surprise she’s one of the most beautiful girls in the kingdom?

The air is humid and damp, the room warmer than normal. An unpleasant odor of something burning assaults my nostrils. A glance at a pair of iron tongs lying on the table tells me what Bianca went through. Curled hair has been the latest hairstyle, and woe befall Miss Perfect Bradshaw if she doesn’t keep up with the most recent fashions.

Now she’s sitting in front of her mirror—again, twice the size of mine—while Elle stands behind her, arranging her wavy hair into a large bun, though leaving a few long, feathery curls framing her face.

Both of them look surprised when I barge in.

“Elle, you’d better come with me now,” I say. “I just heard that Jimmy is dying.”

The hairbrush clatters on the floor, along with several combs and pins. A good chunk of Bianca’s hair, originally bound skillfully on top of her head, falls over her right shoulder.

“You clumsy dolt!” Bianca’s voice is laced with anger. “I’m already late for dinner and then you go and make things worse.”

Elle’s lip quivers; for a moment I think she’s going to cry. I stalk toward her and grab her wrist.

“Hurry. The duke says Jimmy is unlikely to last through the night. You’ve got to come before he breathes his last.”

Elle’s bright blue eyes fill up with tears, but she nods. “Excuse me, miss. I must be going home.”

“Not before you finish my hair,” Bianca says firmly. “I am not going to a dinner party with my hair half done.”

Elle trembles, but she stands firm. “I must go.”

Bianca rises, her eyes filled with fury. “How. Dare. You.,” she hisses. “You’re a servant, and you dare disobey your mistress?”

“Shut up, Bianca,” I snap. “Her brother’s dying, and all you care about is your hairstyle?”

I pick up the brush from the floor, grab Bianca’s hand, and slap the brush on her palm. “Here. You’ve got two perfectly functioning hands. So do it yourself.”

That flabbergasted expression on Bianca’s face is so priceless, I’ve never wished more for a camera. Behind the door there’s a choked noise, probably from Martha.

But there’s no time to waste. I drag Elle away with me, out of the door, down the stairs.

Outside, the duke’s carriage is still waiting, thank God. I push Elle into the carriage, get in myself, and order the coachman to drive to Mrs. Thatcher’s place. It’s only when the carriage starts moving that I look down at my hands, still shocked at myself.

Did I just tell Bianca to shut up? Man, once she gets over her shock, she’ll be furious.

Too late to worry about her temper now. Besides, few things are frightening since I poured wine down Andrew McVean’s shirt.

 

Henry’s coachman has obviously been to Elle’s place before, because we get there in remarkably little time. I recognize Edward’s carriage outside as well, a sleek black vehicle that doesn’t have any gilded trappings. Maybe he prefers a simple, minimalist style—or he doesn’t want to attract attention. I guess it’s both. A couple kids in rags hang around but scamper off when our carriage arrives.

Elle and I spring off and race up into the house. It’s incredibly crowded. Mrs. Thatcher is crying silently by the bed while Billy clings to her, looking lost and forlorn. Henry is torn between comforting them and checking on Jimmy, who’s so thin that he’s little better than a skeleton. Mr. Wellesley and Edward stand in a corner with grim expressions.

Elle staggers toward the bed and kneels beside her little brother.

“Jimmy,” she whispers. A big tear trickles down her cheek. “Oh Jimmy, can you hear me?”

Little Jimmy’s hand twitches, then raises ever so slightly. Elle wraps the bone-thin hand in hers.

“El…Elle,” comes a tiny voice, barely more than a squeak. “You’re here. No…no work today?”

More tears run down Elle’s cheek. “Yes, dearest. I had to see you, so of course I came.”

I can’t help it either; my vision is blurred and my chest feels hollow. Jimmy’s gaze turns toward me; there is a questioning look in his eyes.

“Lady…you found him?”

“Yes,” I say softly. I’ve got to say that even if Galen did tell me about Snyder’s death. “Yes, thanks to you. I couldn’t have found him if you hadn’t given me a clue.”

A smile blossoms from his lips, which are pale and cracked, almost white.

“Glad I’ve helped. I’m only…sorry…I can’t take care of Mamsie anymore…” Jimmy stretches out another hand to Billy. “You’re the man of the house now. You’ve got to watch over Mamsie and Elle.”

Billy nods, wiping his nose on his sleeve. It’s absurd, a five-year-old promising to shoulder the duty of being head of the family.

“Buy Mamsie a new pair of mittens…her hands are awfully chapped in winter.” Jimmy’s finger moves; he points to a corner in the room. “I…have a shilling buried under the basin…lift the board off the floor…that will start you off. Don’t cry…I don’t mind dying…working in the factory…is too hard. Will…will it be better…in heaven?”

“Of course,” Elle whispers, her voice cracking. “No pain exists in heaven.”

He smiles again, and suddenly he looks young, like the ten-year-old he is. When I first met him, I thought he looked like a little old man, with a haggard face and crooked posture. Now, relieved of his duties and with the prospect of a better world beyond, his youthfulness has returned.

“Then…I can die happy.”

Slowly he closes his eyes. It’s just like in the movies—his bony hand goes limp, his body becomes a stiff, unmoving object as the life force drains away.

But it’s not a movie. As far as I’m immersed in this world, it’s horribly real. My first brush with death.

An anguished cry rises from Mrs. Thatcher.

“My poor boy…oh, my poor Jimmy, how could you leave us…”

And she breaks into stormy, wailing sobs, her entire body shaking with grief, until Elle puts her arms around her and draws her mother into a comforting embrace.

I can’t take it anymore. I get up and step away, choosing to look outside the window instead. There’s a rhododendron bush growing just by the house—the one that was planted by Adam Snyder, I assume.

A hand covers mine—warm, comforting, reassuring. I don’t even need to look up to know it’s Edward. I tighten my fingers around his, as though it’ll bring me strength.

One thing I know for sure. Whatever Godfrey or Edward says, I’m not going to keep quiet and confine myself to lady activities. Before I return to the modern world, I’ve got to try my best to improve the horrible conditions of the labor class here. I can’t bear to see another young life snuffed out. I can’t imagine hundreds—maybe thousands—of other “little old men” and “little old women” out there, living constantly in fear for their lives, while callous brutes like McVean strut around with full bellies, fussing over how much more money there’s to be made.

The only problem is…how?

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