He died in our second year of marriage, when bandits attacked his caravan. I don’t remember who brought us the news. Ella screamed and sobbed. I put my arms around her, and I stroked her hair. She didn’t fight me, but she was distant and a little bit cold, like she was pretending I was someone else.
There always seemed to be a reason for me not to cry. Ella was distraught. Fanchon was being cruel to Ella. Nosy neighbors came by, wondering how I was putting on such a brave face. The funeral. The closest I came to losing it was at Mr. Sherman’s arrival.
“No. We are not doing this today. I do not care about the will, or the money. Just go away! Go away!”
“I know you are grieving, ma’am, but surely you will want to know where your family stands.”
“I don’t really care right now.”
“For your daughters, ma’am? It will only take a few moments.”
We sat down at the kitchen table.
“Once again, a fairly simple will.”
“Oh good.” Everything would be Ella’s, of course.
“He left everything to you.”
It took me a moment. “Wait, what? That’s not right. He would have left something for his daughter.” Henry was sweet, but not stupid.
“He trusted that you would treat her fairly.”
That was a lot of trust. I sat there with my mouth hanging open.
“I believe his words to me were, ‘I’d have to ask Evelyn the best way to distribute it anyway, so it might as well be hers.’”
“That sounds like him. Thank you, Mr. Sherman. This was much less painful than I thought.”
He squirmed a little in his seat. “Well, I have bad news too, ma’am.”
“Your husband didn’t really have any business for you to inherit. His clients and trade routes reverted to his business partners. So he could only leave you the money he’d saved.”
“He was always good about saving.”
Mr. Sherman hesitated. “He was, yes. He stored it at a goldsmith’s not too far from here…”
“Yes, my first husband did the same thing. They’ve got vaults and everything.”
“The town was pillaged by marauders a few days ago. They couldn’t, of course, take everything, but since your husband was unable to defend his own interests, I’m afraid he has two thousand sovereigns remaining.”
Defend his own interests. Of course. As soon as the marauders left, undoubtedly every nobleman within earshot descended upon the storage to “determine” which coins belonged to whom, probably with the help of three hundred pound bodyguards. Everyone except Henry.
“So in essence, Mr. Sherman, you’re telling me that I have complete financial control over what amounts to a few months of survival.”
“Um, yes. Yes, I suppose. Um. I’ll have the money sent here to you?”
“Well, I think you’d better. We used up most of the mattress savings just paying for the funeral.”
He stood to leave, and I ushered him out impolitely.
“Until next time, ma’am.”
“I’m not getting married again.”
“Ah, no, um. Won’t Fanchon be eighteen soon? I imagine we’ll have some paperwork to fill out then.”
We began cutting back. One by one, I let the servants go. Ella cooked all our meals, and even though I’d started purchasing blander fare, she somehow made it palatable. Fanchon did the dusting and the floors poorly for three weeks, so Ella went through and cleaned all the spots Fan had missed until Fan quit working altogether.
Meanwhile, I went looking for a job. It was what had to be done. My father was only a chemist, but I never had to sit on the streets and beg, mostly because no one knew how to wring copper flats from stones better than my parents. If he lost a few customers and times looked lean, mother tightened belts and father worked harder. He peddled sleeping draughts outside the nobles’ mansions in the middle of the night. He’d predict the next plague and sell preventative cures. Money is out there, he always said. You just have to work hard enough to find it.
So I tried. I could consult, I said. I had exemplary marks from Furnival’s, and would have been a consultant if I’d been a man. I had advised both husbands (not a lie—just because Husband #1 didn’t listen didn’t mean I hadn’t given advice), and I had years of experience managing my husbands’ households. No one was really impressed. A few kindly told me they’d consider my offer. Most looked at me like I’d sprouted horns. Women didn’t do this sort of thing. It wasn’t in the stories. Even Henry’s business partners had no provisions for widows and orphans.
Laundry was my chore, but I was out constantly, networking, job-hunting. There were even a few nights when I begged at taverns for leftover food because I knew we really only had enough at home for the girls. I’d sit down to do the washing late at night at the end of the week, and it would already be done. The beds were already made, the fireplace already swept—even the kitchen garden had already been tended. The first time I noticed, I felt a little surge of hatred for Ella. She was all the house needed. What had I ever been good for, anyway? The second time, I just fell into bed, supremely grateful I didn’t need to scrub clothes.
The storm hit after the first month. Our thatching wasn’t quite up to the task.
“Find containers!” I shouted. Ella ran to the kitchen. Fanchon tried to stand between the holes. I dropped an armful of towels in Fanchon’s arms.
“You can’t dry the storm, Mother!”
“It’ll damage the wood. Any water that doesn’t land in a bowl, wipe it up. I knew we should have switched to tiles.”
By morning, the ceiling sagged and dripped. Ella lay asleep on the floor, drops falling on her waist. Fan had found the one dry spot and was using the towels as blankets. I took one and put it over Ella.
I reassessed the placement of our containers, adjusting the vases and pans until the house resounded with plinks. The drops sounded almost like coins. I pictured them washing away with the flood.
We couldn’t begin to afford to fix the roof. That storm was a fluke, I said. We shouldn’t have more for a few months. The roof didn’t need to be done right away. Unfortunately, I’d also run out of options. The only non-cleaning, non-sewing jobs for women in their late middle age were in child care.
It galled me to think I really couldn’t provide for the three of us, but I had to admit I needed a new plan. I covered the dining table with the parchments of both wills. Henry’s was useless—he had truly left me everything and nothing—but I hoped there was a loophole in the first one, something that could prevent Fanchon from hanging Ella and I out to dry. Because the more time I spent at home, the more obvious it became that she would.
“Ella! You touched my dresses, didn’t you! I told you not to touch my things!”
“I was getting your washing, Fanchon.”
“Stupid little serving-girl!”
“Fanchon! Leave your sister alone!”
“Stepsister, Mom. I would have thought you’d be on the side of your real daughter.”
“You’re being rude, Fan.”
“It’s ‘cause she’s jealous that I have nice things and she just has rags.”
“If you actually did your chores, you wouldn’t wear velvet either.”
“She doesn’t have nice things because the idiot sold all her gowns.”
I took off my spectacles and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Ella!” I called. She entered with a basket of neatly folded clothes.
“Did you sell your gowns?”
She froze, eyes wide like she was going to get in trouble. I could almost see her mind trying to formulate a lie. We’d have waited all night, if it hadn’t been for Fanchon.
“She hid all the money from you. She’s stealing. She should be punished for being wicked.”
“I didn’t steal!” Ella cried, her eyes brimming with tears. She dropped the laundry basket and ran to her room. She returned with a coin purse, which she placed on the table.
“I wanted to fix the roof, but I didn’t have enough, so I was saving it until I could get more.”
“But now you don’t have any clothes.”
“The girls in the stories never do.”
“How much did you get?” I asked. The purse didn’t look very full.
It took all my willpower not to wince. She’d been cheated something awful. Ella kept her clothes in good condition.
“Ella, why don’t I put this with the rest of the savings. When we have enough, we’ll use it to fix the roof.”
Ella nodded and scurried away with the laundry basket.
“She’s so stupid,” Fanchon said.
“Fanchon! You are being unacceptably rude, and I don’t want to hear it! Find a way to help!”
“You like her better because you hated Dad. Well, you’ll end up sorry. This is just like in the stories.”
“I’m like the princess who has to live in filth because an evil fairy takes everything away from her. But soon I’m going to get my money, and then I’ll marry a prince, and you and Ella can starve for all I care!”
I was too exhausted to scold Fan. If she really thought about it, any prince would be embarrassed to have his mother-in-law sitting in a ditch begging for coins, but Fanchon wasn’t going to marry a prince. She was going to end up with someone like her father, and I’d have to move back to the city, where I could beg from my husband’s former business partners.
The person who ought to end up with someone like her father was Ella. Then when she felt guilty enough to continue caring for her step-family, he’d oblige her immediately. I started to feel a twinge of guilt myself as I pictured how well this would work. Really, Evelyn? You’ll marry your stepdaughter off to avoid becoming a washer-woman? But he has to be kind, I thought. He has to be good, or it won’t work. I could solve everything, if I could just find Ella a husband. The only problem was, every time I tried to be helpful, neither girl cooperated. I sighed. I didn’t even know who was eligible. I needed my connections.