Winter's Breath

Winter's Breath

Originally created for the Quibblo Story Contest. Finished!

Elise Parrish - Elsie for short - is just another 19th century lass. She's starved nor well-fed, very poor nor rich: in short, her existence has been boring and bleak. Out of the blue, however, her petty life is turned upside-down in ways she had previously thought impossible.

Unfortunately, only fairy tales have happy endings... and Elsie Parrish, The Average 19th Century Lass, is by no way in one.

Chapter 2

Chapter One: Elsie's Envy

Minnie had her nose and hands pressed up against the window while she watched the boy. Her breath fogged the clear glass as she breathed in and out rapidly, suppressing the occasional cough that ran like a tremor through her body. “Just look at him,” she whispered, blue eyes glowing with excitement. “Oh, Elsie, just look!”

Elsie blushed and held on to her basket tightly, trying not to let her gaze drift to the large shop windows, behind which the big-eared, lanky boy was currently helping out two dames, who sniggered behind their hands every time he turned to reach for another flask. “I need to go, Minnie,” she urged softly. “Papa will be upset with me.”

“Just one more minute!”

“One,” Elsie allowed grudgingly. The fact that she was not alone in her affections regarding the perfume boy displeased her. But it was not fair of her to say that the boy was hers, for Minnie had been the one to show Elsie who he was, just a couple of weeks back. At first it had been just a little fun, something to laugh about together – but then Minnie had started defending the boy whenever Elsie pointed out the size of his ears and, on occasion, spoke dreamily of the possibility of them being together. Until Elsie began feeling pangs of envy, she hadn’t realized that she, too, had grown fond of the boy. That, in fact, she was often angry with Minnie for getting that hazy look in her eyes, a look which meant she was thinking of him; of August, as Mr. Giovanni – the shopkeeper – called him.

“Someday, I’ll talk to him,” said Minnie, a faint smile dawning on her gaunt face. “He’ll like me, don’t you think, Elsie?”

“He’ll never settle for anything less than a dame,” bit Elsie before she could help herself, feeling a cold sensation spread through her body. “Just look at him, all fancy with the ladies! Think about it, Minnie – he’ll never even throw so much as a glance at us!” It was silent for a moment, and realizing her mistake, Elsie hastily added, “At you...”

Alas; it was too late. Minnie looked up sharply, her nostrils flaring. “Us?” she repeated softly. “Us?”

“I meant you,” Elsie mumbled, heat flooding to her face. “I didn’t...”

“Oh, Elsie, I know just what you meant.” Minnie pushed away from the window and wrapped her arms around herself, watching a carriage nearby. Her shoulders were pulled back stiffly. “It’s not fair of you. You were someone I could confide in.” Her voice rose until it became shrill, and Elsie stepped away as Minnie’s fury was unleashed upon her. “I saw him first, Elsie. I did! And there you go, stealing the one thing I have!”

“I’m not stealing anyone!” cried Elsie. “August’s not mine and he is most certainly not yours! He cannot be claimed like a plaything! For goodness’ sake, be reasonable!”

Minnie burst into tears and stamped her foot childishly, uncaring of the disapproving glances that were thrown at her. She was still shouting at Elsie when the latter began to walk away, the very tips of her ears burning with shame and her eyes stinging with withheld tears that her friend had caused to be born. Her stride was brisk, and she clutched the basket tightly to her body, trying to pretend that it wasn’t Minnie who was insulting her with such humiliating terms. Her breath was shallow and there was a knotted feeling in her chest, one that only increased with every step she took away from the shop. And although people were already throwing her odd looks for walking so quickly, her pace still wasn’t swift enough to escape from Minnie’s burning gaze.

Elsie broke into a run, indifferent to the realization that the filth on the street was turning the bottom of her plain dress into an unsightly shade of brown. She shouldered past people as the streets became busier, ignoring irritated cries and accusations. Her basket was tugged at by little boys and old women alike, while others grasped the hem of her sleeve in an attempt to stop her. Elsie elbowed those people discourteously in the stomach, trying to make her large feet move more quickly so that she could soon be in the safe presence of her father and brother.

“Elsie!” cried a surprised, familiar voice. A large hand folded around her arm, and she whirled around to face John. The latter gave her a bewildered and somewhat censorious look. “What are you running around for?”

She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Father’s lunch...” She ran her tongue through her mouth, tasting the words before uttering them. “It’s late.”

“I’m sure he’d rather have his lunch late than be told his daughter was behaving inappropriately in public,” said John, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, now – put a smile on that pale little face.”

Elsie obliged, but kept her eyes downcast as he steered her through the crowd, his hand still firm on her shoulder. Her white cap had loosened during her flight, and she could feel it shift on top of her flaccid hair. A gust of wind, she was certain, would be able to take it up into the air within a second. Troubled by this thought, she looked up and reached to readjust it. Her hands were just fumbling with the chord when she saw the boy (no matter how often Minnie mentioned he was called August, he was, and always would be, the boy to her). He was standing in front of a stall selling watches, looking with longing at the golden chains (which were, of course, not made out of real gold) and the round, delicate clocks attached to them. Currently, he was running his hands over a faux silver sample, his lips curled upwards once again.

Feeling herself heat up, Elsie hooked her arm through John’s and dragged him the opposite way, mouthing a silent prayer. It was not possible for August to have arrived at the market in less time than her? Surely his shift had not been over; it was only just a quarter past three, after all.

“Elsie, where are you going?” her brother asked, coming to an abrupt halt. “Father’s stall is the other way!”

“The boy was there,” she admitted, casting her eyes towards the ground again. “The one from the perfumery.”

John, who was the only one (apart from Minnie) aware of her affections, looked miffed. He bent over and said quietly to her, “I told you to ignore that boy. You set your standards too high, Elsie.”

She licked her lips and kept her eyes on the ground, studying the hay, rotten fruit and animal droppings strewn there. The disgusting stench rose around them like a thick cloud, and eventually, John pulled a face and started walking again. To fill the thick, uncomfortable silence between them – although one could argue that it was already filled by the loud noises of the market square – he began to chatter in a teasing tone of voice. “Speaking of boys, Elsie... do you wish to know what I heard?”

Elsie didn’t reply, and John continued. “ I heard Isaiah Bell wants to buy you a Christmas present.”

At this news, Elsie glanced up and gave her brother an incredulous look. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

John pursed his lips together, suppressing a smile. “It’s what I heard from Jasper.”

“You and Jasper gossip like two girls,” said Elsie, unable to keep a giggle from brimming over her lips. “Isaiah is fond of Molly Brown.”

“Ah,” said John. “And where did you hear that?”

“It’s a rumour,” she admitted, nudging John as he began to grin triumphantly. “Not a word, John,” she warned. “Not so much as a single remark.”

“My lips are sealed... on one condition, sister,” he promised.

“And what would that be?” asked Elsie lightly.

“Tell me this: That boy you’re so fond of, would he ever be willing to court you?”

Elsie looked at her brother’s pockmarked face, a wave of grief crashing down on her. Her lips tugged and she breathed in and out slowly, trying to ascertain that her voice would be steady when she spoke. “I don’t know, John,” she finally said, an aching beginning in her chest. “I truly don’t.”

*

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