The carriage clattered over the stones in the road as Ella looked anxiously out the windows. As they drew closer to the house, Ella felt a curious sensation. It seemed the carriage was shrinking and the fabric of her gown growing coarse. The carriage began to slow. She tapped the door to her left. "Let me out," she called. The driver reined in the horse. The sense that things were changing was no longer something of a suspicion as Ella felt the frame of the carriage door contracting beneath her hand. In a burst of panic, she threw herself out of the carriage.
The moment Ella's feet hit the cobblestones, she was off and running for the garden gate. She felt the dress transforming as she ran with her skirts held up in her hands. Her hair fell down out of its elaborate coiffure. Her apron bounced against her russet colored skirts as she opened the gate and dared to look back. Where the white carriage had stood, there was now the white pumpkin she had picked earlier. The rats and lizard were not visible, but Ella knew that they had transformed back to their proper nature and most likely were seeking shelter from the rain which began to fall.
As she hurried through the garden and into the kitchen, Ella could hear the clattering of a carriage in the distance. The city's streets did odd things to the noise of the carriage's approach. It sounded to Ella as though it was closer than it truly was. She lit a lamp and took off her apron. As she hung the apron upon its peg, Ella looked about vainly for something to appear to have been doing. Spotting a basket of knitting nearby, the lamp and sat in the chair beside it. She picked up the needles and had gotten half of a row finished when the carriage came to a halt before the front entrance of the house. Ella set aside the knitting, taking care to make it clear she was interrupted mid stitch.
She lifted her lamp and reached the door as her stepmother and stepsisters did. Ella opened the door and gasped in surprise to find the woman she feared glaring at her with an expression of near murderous rage. "You," she hissed, stepping over the threshold as Ella retreated back a pace. "You were there. Where is the gown? Where are the horses and the man? Where have you been hiding your wealth, Lady Ambery?" the graying woman said as she stalked forward, turning the title into a sneered insult. "Why don't you still smell of your work, girl?" she demanded.
"I.. I bathed," Ella stammered, "I did so after you left." The second wife of the late Lord Ambery raised her hand to slap her unwanted stepdaughter when she saw the lamp in Ella's hand and reconsidered. She did everything she could to acquire what fortune her late husband could acquire in the years after he came into the city. It was she who poisoned Ella's father, though the blame was never discovered. Ambery was a kind man who thought his second wife merely ambitious.
At her urging, he took up the trade of a merchant. His business went quite well, for Ambery had an eye for what was truly fine quality. The creditors still came to harass him over his deceased brother's accounts. So, what wealth that could have come into her hands, went into theirs. She blamed Ella. If Ambery didn't have his daughter, she was sure that he would have spent more upon her and her daughters. Instead, he put money by for Ella. He arranged so that Ella was the only one to draw funds from the account. And it was a considerable amount that he managed to hide from his brother's creditors.
Ella's stepmother was furious that she somehow managed to attend the ball. She was doubly so at the signs of wealth that her unwanted stepdaughter wore. "Tomorrow, we are to find what became of your fine dress," she hissed, "Then it will be torn to rags and sold. Even as rags, it will fetch a high price. You will remain here until the Prince has chosen a bride. Maybe, after then, you will be allowed freedom." Ella did her best to conceal the trembling in her hands as she watched her stepmother motion her daughters in.
"Set the lamp down," the older woman commanded. The moment the lamp was safely on the table, Ella was struck by something hard upon her shoulders. She cried out in surprise and pain, but the blows continued to fall. Ella fled towards the kitchen but her stepmother followed, continuing to beat her. Ella fell to the floor and covered her head with her hands as yet more blows fell. When her stepmother stopped, Ella was crying. She stared up at her tormentor who held a parasol in her hand. "Perhaps now you won't be so fine to the eyes of others. I'd strike your face but I need you to look well when we go to the bank tomorrow and I learn how much you truly have," the stepmother said, "Now, attend me and my daughters."
Ella rose with some pain, biting back additional cries of pain as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She regretted going to the pear tree that night. She regretted going to the ball. But she could not bring herself to regret the Prince.