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 1

Prologue: The Perfume Boy

Elsie gripped the woven basket tightly and bustled through the murky streets, keeping her eyes downcast. The smog was thick in the air once again; the tattered, thin scarf wrapped over her mouth and nose offered little to no protection against it. Already, she could feel a tickling sensation build up in her raw throat; sense it claw its way up her oesophagus until she was forced to stop briefly, doubling over as coughs shook her emaciated body.

The smell of freshly caught fish was also all-pervading, and although Elsie was still hundreds of yards away from the market by the time she recovered, the intense scent was hard to disregard even for her – she, whose father had been both a fishmonger and fisherman for as long as she could remember. She, who helped her mother prepare the diluted fish soup that was often served as dinner. She, whose hands had been blistered and bleeding less than a year ago, after she had helped her father draw in the fishing nets; a task otherwise performed by her sturdy brother John, who had been caught with fever at that time – a fever which, when it finally withdrew, left him pockmarked.

Elsie shivered as a gust of wind blew right into her face, tearing through her woollen clothing with no mercy. A cold winter was coming – she could feel it.

She dangled the basket in one hand and pulled the mantle she was wearing more tightly around her shoulders, meanwhile keeping a wary eye on the boy to her left, who was watching her keenly, only too aware that the wicker object contained food. It would not have been the first time that someone attempted to rob her of her things; such was the life of the poor in 19th century London, where the struggle between life and death mattered more than morals. Elsie knew she was one of the fortunate – others were not entitled to the luxury of devouring a hot meal twice a day, or owned clothing that could keep them somewhat warm during harsh winters – let alone a cloak as thick as hers (even though it had faded considerably throughout its years of frequent usage). Others lived on a morsel of charred bread a day, if that. Others wore only rags. Others had jobs before they could even learn how to talk properly, piecing together cigar boxes in factories or working as a chimney sweeper.

“Elsie!” called a croaky voice behind her, sounding much like a corroded sign swinging in the wind. “Elsie, Elsie Parrish!”

Elsie halted and glanced cautiously over her shoulder. All that met her eyes were the dull bricks of the rigid houses; the dreary colours of pavement below her and the wintery tints of the sky and clouds above.

“Elsie!” the voice came again. This time, Elsie felt a hand on her shoulder and she turned to face the mysterious person swiftly, a rosy blush working its way up her sallow face. To her great relief, it was only Minnie Poultry, the sickly daughter of a seamstress. The poor creature had not even a glimmer of a bright future ahead of her, and although Elsie was not particularly fond of Minnie, the latter was one of the few girls she was able to talk to about little things that did not really matter, such as pretty dresses (unaffordable), the cakes in Madame Legume’s shop (delights one could only dream of) and that one boy who worked in the perfumery as an apprentice (a waste of thought).

“Minnie,” said Elsie, hastily hoisting the basket up her arm. Her gaze darted around the street, searching futilely for an escape. Now was not the right time for pointless chatter; she could feel that she was late, and her father must be waiting. “Good day.”

Minnie offered her a watery smile, which, somehow, was still too wide for her pointy face, and brushed a lock of hair away from her wet eyes. “I suppose it is,” she croaked. “I find it to be a tad chilly. But if it’s the Lord’s will, then all’s just peachy, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” Elsie rasped, bowing her head at the mention of God. How He must be looking down on her for thinking such unkind, selfish thoughts. Humility coursed through Elsie’s veins, and she felt herself turn an unattractive red shade that was not unlike a rotten tomato's. “Say, Minnie,” she said, forcing a weak smile, “would you like to accompany me to the market? Papa is waiting for me to bring him his lunch.”

The girl brightened up considerably; a flush appeared on her pale cheeks. “It would be a delight!” she cried, hooking her arm through Elsie’s. “An utmost delight!”

A warm feeling trekked through Elsie, and the upwards curl of her thin lips became genuine. “Off we go, then,” she said merrily. “To the market it is.”

“Oh, wait!” Minnie urged, her eyes gleaming with sinful longing. “Can’t we stop by the perfumery, Elsie? Oh, please?”

Elsie ducked her head. “It’s not proper!”

“Oh, but whatever is these days?” Minnie complained, tugging on Elsie’s thin arm. “Please?”

“Minnie, I’m late as it is...”

“Just a glimpse!” begged the girl, steering her hesitant friend towards the shops. “He won’t notice, come on!”

Elsie obliged with a resigned look, which quickly turned to alarm when chimes sliced through the air and announced the time with their solemn sound. Counting the amount, Elsie paled and bit down on her lip, torn between two choices. It was past three and her father was sure to be hungry now. As a daughter, it was her duty to help lighten his heavy burden. And yet on the other hand, there was that lovely temptation calling her, seizing her by her longing for the boy that could never be; a boy that she had never even talked to in her life; a boy that wasn’t even aware of her trembling soul hovering outside of the room in which he worked.

And yet he was her love; everything she had ever dreamt of. When Elsie looked at his brown eyes, she saw kindness and joviality and wit. When she looked at his cracked, upturned lips, she saw her own happiness. When she looked at the healthy sheen to his fair skin, she saw the wellbeing her family had never had (and never would). He was everything she was not; he was everything she wished to be and become. He was, to put it simply, her everything. He haunted her the confines of her mind, the depths of her soul and the secret rooms of her throbbing heart. He spoke to her when no one was there to hear him. He caressed her cheeks with his invisible hands. He whispered her name when she was alone and whispered his.

He was her love.

*

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