The Bathing-Machine Mystery, Part 2: 1893

 

Posing on a bathing-machine, Ostend. Library of Congress image collection.

Posing on a bathing-machine, Ostend. Library of Congress image collection.

[See part one here. After straying into the wrong bathing-machine, our hero tries to explain his presence to its fair occupant.]

And he told her everything. She recovered her senses by degrees; her eyes indicated attention at first, then confidence in the sincerity of the guilty man.

When he had finished she looked at him with an air of despair that would have brought tears from a stone, and passing from tears to sobs, which she restrained with heartrending efforts, she said: “So, sir, because it has pleased you to satisfy your insulting curiosity, here I am lost, dishonored forever. And I, who have done nothing, who do not even know your name, I shall bear through all my life the opprobrium which you have needed but a moment to attach to it!”

At these words Gaston comprehended the enormity of this fault which, by its consequences, assumed minute by minute the proportions of a crime. He fell on his knees and implored pardon. Through the tears that dimmed her eyes she let fall on him one of those glances which can in a moment of danger give to a man the power of a god. The poor child, kneeling, and her hands joined as in prayer, looked at him with the most supplicating air in the world, and the confidence of the weaker being, who awaits her rescue by the stronger, shone in her pretty eyes.

Here Gaston gave the measure of what was to be expected of his coolness and lucidity in moments of peril.

“Before everything, madame,” said he, “let us begin by seeing how matters are outside. I do not see how I am going to conceal myself in these bare walls, but in desperate straits the first thing to try is that which is most simple, and I want to see if I can not simply open the door and walk away.”

But Gaston, applying his eye to the keyhole, saw a spectacle, or rather a scene, which left him no hope from that side. He sat down on the bench with a despairing shake of the head to his companion in captivity.

Outside, or rather around, were groups, seemingly posted by chance, evidently surrounding and guarding No. 13.

There was at that time in Mareville a retired Parisian milliner, who had married herself in some unknown way to an old beau in the last extremity, and who called herself the Baroness de Longuepine. She passed her life sowing evil reports and reaping scandals.

When the Pichard woman returned from opening for the fair bather the door of No. 13, the Baroness de Longuepine had come down to the beach to pick up the gossip of the day. The Pichards’ two children, a little boy and a little girl, who aided their parents in the service of the bathers, came up at this moment, and declared that they had seen a gentleman bather go into No. 13 a few minutes before the lady came out of the water and that he had not come out again. Severe cross-questioning failed to shake them in their belief, and their story, deftly aided by the baroness’s sharp tongue, soon worked the Pichard woman up to a fine pitch of anger.

“I’ll show them,” she cried in a loud and angry tone, “I’ll teach these turtle-doves to build their nests in my bathing-machines! Come,” she said, turning to the children, “let us find the mayor and the constable.”

At these words the baroness was off like a shot to spread the precious news, and to such good purpose that soon a great crowd of the curious gathered about No. 13, and she was beside herself with joy.

“Poor things,” said she, “do you think they will be sent to the galleys? After this — more’s the pity —Mareville is lost,” she ran on, to the proprietor of the three prettiest cottages on the beach, “if such scandalous affairs are allowed to pass unpunished.”

A general movement of arms and heads directed toward the great stairs of the promenade announced the arrival of the mayor. Soon he was seen to appear on the left of the line, along which he passed rapidly and stopped a few paces in front of No. 13. Never had Mareville witnessed such a scene! The curious crowd, breaking from all restraint, formed a semicircle, and concentrated their hungry looks on the door where in a few moments the victim would appear in all her shame and dishonor. It was one of those little pictures in which humanity shows itself in all its cowardliness and cruelty.

The mayor now gave a signal to the constable, and the latter, respectfully unfolding a package wrapped in gray paper, drew from it a tri-colored scarf with silver fringe, with which the mayor begirt himself. He was drawing the two ends to cross them, when a sharp little noise came from the interior of No. 13 It was the bolt, which had just been drawn. The mayor, an excellent man at heart, let fall the two ends of his scarf, his heart failed him as he thought of the poor penitent whose punishment was about to begin.

A minute at least passed. The crowd no longer heard the waves, which seemed to rumble curses mingled with the cries of a soul in anguish. Another noise was heard; the latch was being lifted. The poor mayor almost fainted and turned his head aside, but the others, craning their necks, took a step forward.

The door opened slowly, slowly, and the fair bather, beautiful as the day, brilliant as a fairy, appeared on the sill, where she stopped a moment to consider the remarkable picture that presented itself to her gaze. It was horrible. The evil sentiments that possessed them had entirely changed all the faces; the sight of this troop hungering for scandal reminded one of a pack of wolves ready to throw themselves on a lamb. The bather swept the groups with a look of unutterable scorn, and she stepped down to the sand.

“What boldness!” cried the baroness, eyeing her victim from head to foot. And she flew into the bathing-machine to see The Man.

She recoiled with surprise and horror. The Man was not there!

Her cheeks became green, her lips gray, and she stood for a moment suffocated with spite and anger.

The beautiful bather, seeing everyone hurry to her bathing-machine, seemed greatly astonished and demanded what it meant. But no one dared reply, and she turned to the mayor to demand an explanation of him, when the two children, led by the Pichard woman, were brought forward, and, parrot-like, repeated their declaration to the mayor.

But just then the father came up, and not seeming to know what was going on, said to his wife, with an uneasy air: “Say, Marie, you haven’t seen the gentleman of No. 3, have you? Everybody came out of the water long ago, he has been in the water at least two hours, and his clothes are still in the machine. I have been looking for him for half an hour; I have gone out in the water more than a mile, and there’s no one to be seen. I hope nothing has happened to him!”

“Heaven help us, what a day!” cried the woman: “how was he dressed?”

“Red suit, with black edges, and a red-and-black cap.”

“The man we saw go into No. 13 was dressed like that,” cried the two children.

At these words the face of the Pichard woman turned pale; she made the sign of the cross, and said, looking at her husband: “Holy Virgin! it was his ghost the children saw!”

At this new turn of affairs there was a change like a transformation in a theatre. Every one rushed to the drowned man’s machine, while our heroine, after a covert glance at hers, walked away with the last of the crowd to where the boat was being put out.

After more than two hours the searchers came back. They had found nothing, and No. 3 was still empty.

They gathered together his effects, finding a card bearing the name “Gaston de Rochekern,” but no address, and the mayor proceeded to draw up his prods-verbal.

All the evening the events of that memorable day were discussed, and at the moment when Dr. Destombes was explaining to an attentive audience that it was not difficult to cite hallucinations such as had deceived the imaginations of the two children — at the moment when, pursuing his demonstration, the learned doctor added finely that many popular beliefs have no better origin. Gaston de Rochekern, who was not dead, but only buried, slipped as stealthily as a cat up the last step of the promenade and managed, unperceived, to reenter the cottage which he occupied alone.

He meditated the greater part of the night, and at dawn, before any one was astir, he put on his bathing-suit again, went and lay down on the edge of the beach, and waited. About an hour later, found by an early fisherman, the inanimate body of the drowned man was carried on a litter to the Casino, where Dr. Destombes, after energetic treatment, had the happiness to restore him to life. Gaston then recounted how, on the evening before, just as he was regaining the raft, he had been seized by a cramp; that he had made the raft; that the cramp had lasted a long time, getting worse: that the sea had carried him off again; that he had not been able to reach the shore; that, happily, he had managed to catch a piece of driftwood, which had sustained him until the incoming tide had carried him to the beach. It was, in fact, a tale long enough to put one to sleep, but to which no objection could be made.

Now, do you wish to know how he got out of the bathing-machine? It is very simple. With a strip of iron from the latch he had taken up two boards from the floor. With the aid of his companion he had scooped a hole beneath the floor, throwing the sand in the space between the floor and the beach; he had concealed himself in the hole, and the lady, replacing the planks, had only to rest the heel of her boot on them to drive the nails back in their holes, which Gaston had taken care to enlarge by working the nails in them like a drill.

From his place of concealment he had heard all that passed. He had remained hidden until night, and then, having carefully poked out his head to see that the beach was clear, he had made his escape.

The lady left Mareville in a few days, and her name was never registered in its hotels again: but Madame the Vicomtesse Gaston de Rochekern, who came there on the following year on her wedding tour, was marked by the wise bathing-master to bear resemblance to the fair bather of No. 13.

From the French of Eugene Mouton.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 16 January 1893

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the ideal bathhouse here.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

The Bathing Machine Mystery, Part 1: 1893

Bathing Machines, Ostend, From the Library of Congress image collection

Bathing Machines, Ostend, From the Library of Congress image collection

Mrs Daffodil is packing up the Family for their annual sea-side jaunt. There are bathing-dresses to be let down and taken up; bathing-caps and shoes to be located and inspected for holes; and a whole host of creams and unguents packed in the first-aid kit for the inevitable sun-burn. Once the Family has been seen off, then it’s on with the muslin loose-covers, the cheese-cloth over the mirrors, pictures, and chandeliers, and out with the carpets, to be taken up, beaten, and aired. In view of this hurly-burly and with the children clamouring for their water-wings, Mrs Daffodil presents a diverting story in two parts, translated, naturally, from the French.

THE NUMBER THIRTEEN MYSTERY.

 

After All It Was Not What Appearances Indicated.

 

At Mareville all the bathing-machines are actually alike; they are made of boards, painted yellow, with blue horizontal stripes. The swimming-master and his wife rejoice in the name of Pichard, and have two

children.

Gaston, being accustomed to close his door without locking it, was not surprised to find it open when, after more than an hour in the surf, he came forth, dripping, and blue with cold, and bounded into what he thought he recognized as his own bathing-machine. He closed

the door quickly.

Outside, the sun was blinding; it was half-past four on a warm July afternoon. Gaston’s eyes, dazzled by the glare of the sun and the reflection on the water, could not at first distinguish the details of the interior, but at the end of a minute he could see clearly, and

perceived that he had made a mistake — he was in some fair bather’s dressing-room.

His first idea was to get out again immediately; but the devil, who was watching this little scene out of the corner of his eye, judged that it was time to interfere and to make of this innocent mistake a tragedy which

should set the whole beach by the ears. The devil, then, so managed it that Gaston was seized by an irresistible curiosity and stopped to look about him.

With a furtive and rapid glance, then, he passed in review the garments which hung floating from the wall like so many perfumed clouds. He inspected the dress, with its fluted folds and fantastic buttons; he

took down the dainty sailor hat, with its fish of iridescent enamel floating in a bouquet of green alga; and red actinias ; and he gently stroked a little pair of undressed-kid boots. And then he saw on the shelf a great ivory comb and brush — and no false switches! There were still two or three hairs of the color of molten gold which remained interlaced among the teeth of the comb.

This examination had lasted but four or five minutes at the most, and Gaston, ashamed of his indiscretion, now that his curiosity was satisfied, put his thumb on the latch and opened a slit of the door, glancing out to

see if he could escape without being seen. But he hastily closed the door again; a fair bather was hurrying from the water in the direction of this bathing-machine, at the same time beckoning to the Pichard woman, who was now running to open the door for her.

At the sound of the key entering the lock Gaston felt his knees giving way beneath him. In a few seconds, with the rapidity of lightning, he ran through all the possible schemes to escape. Should he lower his head,

and, dashing out like a bull, scattering the women in his way, spring into the sea and swim to America, never to return? Should he fall on his knees, with protruded chin and the palms of his hands toward the

zenith, and sobbingly demand pardon? Should he lie down at full length and pretend to be dead? Should he conceal himself and await events?

 

The key turned in the lock, and while the fair bather, her eyes half-blinded by the sun, turned toward the door and closed it, Gaston had gone down on all fours, and, like a dog that has done something he knows he should not do, had squeezed himself under the bench

which ran across the back of the room.

Happily for him. the mirror was hung above the bench, and the brush and comb were on the shelves at right and left, so that the bather, naturally placing herself before the glass, looked at her own face, and

did not see the man at her feet. She began by wiping her face and neck, then she unbuckled a belt of oxydized copper that confined her waist, after which she unfastened her blouse. That done, she disengaged one

arm, then the other, and the discreet light of the dressing-room lighted up the most divine torso that ever nature, in her inexhaustible munificence, lovingly molded for the admiration of the artist or the delight of less gifted men.

But let the ladies reassure themselves, and the gentlemen smooth down their affrighted hair; the modesty of the fair bather ran no risk. The unfortunate Gaston, consumed with fear, did now as does the ostrich in

distress, he concealed his head. He glued his face against the wall, and of the magnificent spectacle being developed in the room he saw nothing.

Having quitted her bathing costume, the lady pushed it with her foot into the corner at the left of the door, threw a towel on the floor, and, having partially dressed herself, sat down on the bench and commenced putting

on her stockings, glancing about meanwhile for her shoes. The left one was at the corner of the door; she picked it up, drew it on, and buttoned it. The other was not to be found. The lady stood up, and with the

tip of her booted foot pushed aside her bathing suit to see if it did not cover the missing shoe. She stooped down and reached under the bench; instead of her shoe she caught hold of the bare foot of a man!

A terrible cry would have burst from her lips, but it could not, and she fainted, walling up with her inanimate body the place of concealment where Gaston was suffering agonies.

Then he turned his head, saw this insentient body, these disheveled strands of hair, these beautiful eyes closed as in death, and delicately pushing aside this charming obstacle, he came forth from beneath the

bench. After a few seconds, which seemed centuries to him, Gaston at last saw those beautiful lids open languidly. She sighed deeply, raised her hand to her head, and murmured: “Where am I?”

Then she saw Gaston, and her face took on an expression of terror.

“In heaven’s name, madame,” said he. “in the name of your honor, do not cry out or you are lost! I am in the depths of despair at what has happened to you through my fault, and I am ready to do anything and

everything to save you. I beg of you to listen to me, and we will try if we can not find some way to get out of this situation.”

[To be continued tomorrow. ]

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the ideal bathhouse here.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

Suction: A Story of Domestic Horror

 

The Vampyr Vacuum. Source: http://vacuumland.org/

The Vampyr Vacuum. Source: http://vacuumland.org/

SUCTION

“My vacuum cleaner wants me dead,” confided Mrs. Grenfell from three doors down, when she came over to borrow a cake tin Wednesday morning.

“Dear me,” I murmured. “What brand is it?”

I really couldn’t think of anything else to say. I knew that Mrs. Donald Grenfell, while a friendly neighbour, had a reputation as an accident-prone and slipshod housekeeper. “A few socks short of a full load,” was how my friend Glynis unkindly put it.

Her kitchen lino was of an uncertain smeared hue and in the corners you might see small drifts of crumbs. Any food she offered was apt to have unappetizing additions like the long black hair Glynis had once pulled from the centre of one of Mrs. Grenfell’s unfortunate baked custards.

She was the sort of woman who was always hobbling on a sprained ankle from tripping over soft toys on the stairs. Her hands were mottled with plasters from knife cuts and she once had to be rushed to hospital with an allergic reaction to furniture polish. Her children were widely known to be spillers.

Her husband Donald was generally agreed to be a bit of a mama’s boy, but an otherwise perfectly adequate husband. He took their three children out to parks and sports so she could have time to herself and observed anniversaries and birthdays with sensible, if not romantic presents. But, entirely by accident (sound carries over the back gardens), I had heard a row at the Grenfell domicile in which the words “pigsty” “little savages” and “basic standards of decency” figured prominently.

So when Mrs. Grenfell told me that her vacuum cleaner was out to get her, I understood it to be a metaphor for her dislike of housework, or, more charitably, an expression of her despair in the face of chaos.

At my invitation she sank heavily into a kitchen chair.

“It’s a Whiffo 2000. The top of the line model with all the attachments,” she said with a kind of muted horror. ”It was a gift to my husband from his mother.”

She sighed, pushing a frizzy lock of hair back from her forehead. I poured her a cup of tea.

“His mother is one of those superhuman housewives—spices in alphabetical order, laundry hung in categories: towels at this end, underwear at that. She’s got the same model. I know he never has any trouble with it. I swear he loves the blessed thing—always going on about the 4 hp motor, its large capacity bag, and the turbo-suck feature. I think you could invade a small island nation with the damned thing,” she finished bitterly. Then she burst into tears.

I made soothing noises and presently she sat up again and tugged at the ankle elastic of her sweatpants.

“See this?” she demanded as I recoiled. “This is just the latest!”

There was an ugly red welt on her ankle, deep enough to suggest a bullwhip or a piece of flex.

“There’s a match to that on the other ankle,” she said. “The vacuum has a retractable cord. Every time I try to retract it, it balks and then whips around my leg. Donald says I just don’t know how to do it properly.”

She took a desperate swig of tea.

“It has a long snout that you plug the attachments into, but it keeps trying to wind around my neck when I’m not looking,” she said, taking off her sweatshirt and showing me strange ribbed marks on her back and throat. By her description I gather it was rather like that statue of Laocoön and his two sons entangled in giant snakes. I began to wonder if the mild Mr. Grenfell had specialized tastes in the bedroom and this was her cry for help. I also wondered how I could tactfully offer her the number for the Battered Women’s Shelter.

She put her sweatshirt back on and shoved her pants elastic back down over her wounded ankles.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything to be done about it,” she said dully. “He says I’m to blame for not making friends with it—that’s the way he talks—and that if he were in charge, the house would be immaculate, just like his mother’s. I know he gets fed up, but he just doesn’t understand. The vacuum hates me. It’s like a vicious dog that will only obey one master. “And,” she lowered her voice, “I know it talks to the other appliances. It’s only a matter of time before they all start in on me too. The children love smoothies, but I’m afraid of the blender. It just flashes those shining little knives and growls at me. The toaster wouldn’t let go of the toast one day and as I prized at it, it seized my finger. Second degree burns,” she finished, biting her lip. “He told me that I was just careless.”

She looked up at me. “I know you don’t believe me,” she said. “I can’t believe it myself. Everything thinks I’m so clumsy, such a terrible wife and mother. But I can clean and clean and while we’re in bed, the vacuum gets out of the broom cupboard somehow and blows dust all over everything. Once,” she leaned over and gripped my wrist painfully “they even put bleach into the toilet, knowing that I would be cleaning it with ammonia. I got the vent fan on just in time. Nothing I touch ever goes right on account of the damned machines!”

I was genuinely alarmed. Somebody had a death wish for her in that house, but I didn’t think it was the vacuum cleaner. Could dingy laundry and unwashed floors truly drive a man to murder? I was still pondering this when she stood, clutching the cake tin like a shield. “I’ve got to do something,” she said, pale and resolute. “Make a stand before it goes too far. The vacuum’s the ringleader. The dust stops here!”

She stumped down the back steps. I thought I heard her say, “Ball pein hammer” as she went.

The next day I was awakened by a frantic banging on the door. It was Donald Grenfell, both dusty and incoherent. I threw on a robe, called 999 and rushed with him to their foyer. His first thought on finding her missing was that she had gone out to buy bloaters for his breakfast. He was fond of bloaters. When the children began clambering for their breakfasts, knocking over a full carton of cranberry juice in the process, he went to find a mop.

It was then that her husband had found her in the broom cupboard.  She was hunched up in a heap, covered in a fine grey dust. He mistook her for the upright vacuum bag and was beginning to close the door when he heard a soft moan coming from the dust-ball-covered mass. Brian, my paramedic friend, said that the police were looking into the matter of whip marks all over her body, hinting darkly of suburban orgies and nameless sexual tortures.

She was in hospital quite a long time. Just to be neighbourly, I took over a shepherd’s pie and while I was there, I offered to tidy the kitchen. Donald willingly accepted. He was half out of his wits trying to mop up after the children and placate his mother who had come at his frantic call and had stayed to gloat. I got everybody but the mother out of the house with tickets to the cinema. Donald told me in a hushed voice that Mama was in his bedroom and was Not to Be Disturbed.

“You will remember?” he said anxiously. “My mother isn’t strong and needs her sleep after travelling all the way down here.”

The way he talked, his mother was some frail, reedy pensioner who lived on broth and pale sherry. I knew better.  One couldn’t miss the coloured photo of her over the fire in the lounge: she looked like a sergeant-major in a perm.

I shooed him out.

“You’ll miss the Coming Attractions,” I chirped. As he made for the front door, I heard his mother’s voice ring out from the stairs. I busied myself quietly at the sink.

Mrs. Cynthia Grenfell had been a home economics teacher and had an authoritative, carrying voice. She was holding out a tempting vision to her son: the lure of a quiet, clean, well-regulated home. Send the children off to boarding school and move in with me, she was urging. She cited the obvious arguments of health and hygiene and suggested that a wife who was such a careless housekeeper must surely be deficient in matters of intelligence, fidelity, and personal morality. “Not your equal” and “beneath you” were two phrases that I caught as I wiped the dishes dry.     “Besides, how can she love you and not see that this—this—chaos is destroying your health and happiness!” she demanded dramatically, sniffing into a tissue. The dust in the house was playing hob with her allergies, but she contrived to make the sniff express a mother’s sorrowful love.

“If she really cared about you…..  You can be packed and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Just go upstairs and put a few things in a bag. Remember how we used to play Scrabble of an evening in front of the fire? Your room is all ready for you.”

At this, I was so incensed that I nearly switched on the disposal with a spoon in it.

I heard Donald go outside. The shrieking from the restive children died away down the street. There was a murmuring from the hallway outside the kitchen. I peeked around the corner. The elder Mrs. Grenfell had opened the door of the broom cupboard and was muttering. I supposed she was complaining to herself about the condition of the cupboard until I heard her laugh quietly.

“That’s right, my pet, you’ve done a superb job! Here’s a taste of her hair—you’ve vacuumed it up often enough. You’ll get as much of her blood as you like just as soon as she comes back.” She laughed again. I crept closer. The vacuum was making a humming noise like a contented cat and I swear she was stroking its bag.

“Yes, yes, you’re mother’s own darling….”

I let myself out of the back door. I needed to think. The vacuum had been a present to her son, the younger Mrs. Grenfell had said.

Mrs. Grenfell, Sr., left the next day. I heard her through my front door as she stood by the car dictating a list: the name of a solicitor who would know the right judges–judges who could be counted on to be sympathetic to a beleaguered husband and would award minimal child support and alimony to a lazy, inadequate wife. The name of a distant boarding school for the girls and a Yorkshire military academy for the boys. The date and time she expected him to arrive at her house to start his new life. A reminder to change the beneficiary on his life insurance policy to herself.

After she had left, I darted across the back garden and let myself into the kitchen. Donald was sitting at the table with a cup of tea, looking rather pole-axed.

“Ah, Susan,” he said despondently, “how kind of you to come.”

“I thought I’d do a light cleaning today,” I said coolly, “just to freshen things up.”

He nodded vaguely. “I’ve got to get to the office,” he said, standing. He hesitated, then said, as if he had just made up his mind, “The children are staying with friends until—other arrangements can be made. It seems probable that we, that is, I, shall be moving away soon.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “In that case, I shall do a good turn-out. You’ll be wanting to list the house with an estate agent.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said, brightening. He went out with a new vigour in his step. He had never once mentioned his wife.

After he left, I went to the hall and examined the scene. There were strange circular marks on the lower half of the cupboard door. The wood was raised, like giant welts. I steeled myself to open it. The vacuum cleaner crouched beneath the coats, its chrome fixtures gleaming in the darkness. It followed me easily and I plugged it in. It seemed to me that it snorted derisively.

“Oh, no you don’t,” I said, pouring out the jar of ball bearings onto the floor.

Later, after I had apologized to Donald, I carried it away under the pretext of seeing if I could find a replacement. I made sure it was in pieces—belts cut, cords removed–before placing it on the curb on rubbish pickup day. The pickers at the tip were always on the lookout for nice items to repair and I didn’t want this particular machine coming back to haunt me.

After my abominable carelessness with their vacuum cleaner, some little coolness sprang up between the Grenfells and myself. However, it didn’t much signify: Donald followed his mother’s instructions to the letter. The children were packed off with trunks of woolen underwear, pocket handkerchiefs, and hockey sticks. I saw the notice of the divorce in the papers. The house was sold and the now ex-Mrs. Grenfell moved away just before Christmas.

She came to say goodbye before she left.

“I somehow think that the loss of the vacuum cleaner was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said plaintively. “Oh, I’m not blaming you, mind,” she said hastily. “I think he blamed me for breaking it the day it attacked me. He’s right. I started it. I wouldn’t be bullied any longer! But,” and she looked puzzled, “I simply don’t remember attacking it. I opened the broom cupboard, then there was a loud whooshing noise, and the next thing I knew, I woke up in hospital. The police asked me some very odd questions. It’s all very worrying.”

I bought Mr. Grenfell a new vacuum, of course. A Whiffo-3000 with the upgraded lint-o-matic sensor feature and a full collection of accessories including some of unknown uses that looked like exotic marital aids. One was rather like a fish spear with bristles, which I believe you were supposed to use to clean window blinds. I like to be thorough so I assembled the sweeper and gave it a test run. With her allergies, Mrs. Grenfell, Sr. had left behind baskets of used tissues–some spotted with her blood. The new vacuum devoured them as well as some bloodied dental floss from Mr. Grenfell’s bathroom. I had a quiet word with it as I packed it back into the box. Apparently these things are like young geese—they imprint on the first thing they taste and it is child’s play to manipulate them. In the event, I delivered the vacuum to scant thanks from the elder Mrs. G. who slammed the door in my face.

I read later in the paper of the shocking murders in the quiet village of Camden Chippenwell of Mr. Donald Grenfell, late of Deeping North and of his mother, a very well-respected lady who had been keeping house for her son. The paper did not stint on the gory details. Donald had been disembowelled and stabbed repeatedly with what police believed to be a fish spear while the elder Mrs. Grenfell was found strangled and violated. The paper, after wrestling with the public’s right to know, hinted darkly at the unnatural penetration of a number of unorthodox orifices. “Gutted with her insides sucked out,” commented the coroner, adding that he personally believed it was the work of a homicidal maniac and that the public should be on their guard.

The tabloids had a field day with headlines about The Whiffo Wacker and The Hoover Horror. With the unfortunate American yen for alliteration over accuracy, the Associated Press picked up the story of the Karpet Kleaning Killer.

It was fortunate that the ex-Mrs. Grenfell had an alibi—at the time of the murders, she was being filmed while Evie and Janet, the presenters of the popular television show Crazy Clean, berated her about the coliform bacteria on her cooker.  Happily, a keen assistant to the owner of Whiffo Ltd. saw her on the show and immediately hired her as a product tester for the company after hearing the story of her cleaning misadventures.

“She has a real gift for detecting hidden flaws in otherwise serviceable products,” read the press release announcing her hiring. “We are proud to welcome her to the Whiffo family to enhance our never-ending commitment to our customers’ health and well-being.”

The assailant was never caught and the case passed into local folklore. I myself have switched to one of those manual rotating brush sweepers that are used to pick up crumbs in quiet hotel lobbies and family restaurants. One can never be too careful about household safety.

Copyright @ 2012 Chris Woodyard. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

The Casket in the Parlor: 1896

A queer sort of parlour ornament.

A queer sort of parlour ornament.

CASKET IN THE PARLOR
Georgia Woman Kept Her Husband’s Body for Months.

New Light on the Subject “Is Marriage a Failure” from This Remarkable Tale of One Woman’s Two Marriages.

Mrs. Joseph Bivins, of Cordele, Ga., died a week or so ago. That would not be an extraordinary announcement were it not for the fact that her death concluded a strange exposition of woman’s caprice, as unexplainable as it was unheard of.

When Dr. George W. Marvin died in Cordele, Ga., three years ago, he left a grief-stricken widow. Her lamentations were long and her sorrow was inconsolable. She had married Dr. Marvin in Atlanta about ten years before. He practiced medicine and soon amassed a considerable fortune.

It was in the midst of this prosperity that the doctor died. Mrs. Marvin was almost heartbroken. Her relatives could not console her. The kind words of friends failed to soothe in the slightest her poignant grief. She wept bitterly and continuously.

In the meantime the arrangements for the funeral, which were under way in charge of some solicitous relative, were being made. So entirely helpless with grief was the chief mourner that it was thought both unnecessary and cruel to call her into consultation regarding the last ceremonies. So the minister was summoned, and when the services at the house were to begin Mrs. Marvin was quietly notified.

Her reply was a scream of anguish. She became almost hysterical. When she was able to articulate understandingly she informed the funeral guests that they were entirely out of place; that there was to be no funeral. She would not permit the body of her husband to be laid away in the ground she said, and no conspiracy of unsympathetic, cold-blooded, heartless persons should interfere. She announced that she intended to keep Dr. Marvin’s body in her home—their home—and that I should remain there forever. She wanted to have him always in sight.

Finally, under severe pressure, Mrs. Marvin consented to a ceremony over the body, but refused to authorize the interment. She had the body embalmed, placed in a casket and stood it in an upright position in the parlor. A cut-glass cover, working on hinges, was on the elaborate and handsome coffin, which is said to have cost $10,000, and she exhibited it to a few intimate friends.

For three months the casket remained in the parlor, and during that time Mrs. Marvin was in a state of mind that bordered on hysteria. Every day she brought fresh flowers as an offering to the memory of her departed, and in the presence of at least one visitor she kissed the cold cheeks of her husband and wept in grief-torn sobs. Dr. Marvin looked almost life-like as he stood upright, and he held in one hand a handsome gold cane, valued at $150, while in his shirt front were not less than $30,000 worth of diamonds. None of these were removed, but all were laid to rest with the body at the end of three months.

As Mrs. Marvin’s grief expended itself she listened more calmly to the advice of her friends, and, much to their delight, finally consented to a burial.

The body of Dr. Marvin laid to rest, his widow began to improve, and just ten months later married Mr. Joseph Bivins, of Cordele, Ga.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 28 November 1896: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Many were the intriguing and lurid tales told about Mrs Marvin and her beloved husband’s corpse. One of the most fanciful was this:

Mrs. Marvin refused to be comforted. She forbade a funeral and telegraphed to New Orleans for an expert embalmer and an expert electrician. The result of their joint efforts was that Dr. Marvin was enabled to remain in his seat in the parlor and by electrical appliance would rise and bow to his widow and then take his seat again. Repository [Canton, OH] 12 October 1896: p. 2

It is true that Dr Marvin died two years before he was actually buried, but there is some debate as to where he spent those two years: in a holding vault or in the parlour. The bride enjoyed only three years of her new marriage, leaving Mr Bivins a tidy fortune, which was little use to him when he died two years after his wife, on their wedding anniversary, in the same private sanitarium where Dr Marvin had passed away. There was, alas, no one left to embalm and electrify him.

 

This story and other macabre tales will be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, available in September 2014.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

“A Little Duck:” Miss Beckwith Swims the Thames: 1875

Agnes Alice Beckwith in a rather daring aquatic costume.

Agnes Alice Beckwith in a rather daring aquatic costume.

“A LITTLE DUCK” A Young English Girl Swims Five Miles on a Wager of £60 to £40

[From the London Standard of Sept. 2.]

A young girl named Agnes Alice Beckwith, daughter of the professor of swimming at Lambeth Baths, yesterday accomplished the difficult feat of swimming from London Bridge to Greenwich. The distance is rather more than five miles, and the time was remarkably fast−namely 1 h. 7 m. 45 s. Mr. Beckwith has been connected with the Lambeth Baths for nearly a quarter of a century, and for fourteen years held the proud position of champion swimmer of England. The heroine of yesterday’s proceedings is but 14 years old, of slim make and diminutive stature. The object was to decide a wager of £60 to £40 laid against her by Mr. Baylis, the money being deposited with Bell’s Life. The event created a great deal of excitement, and all along the route the progress of the swimmer was watched by excited crowds on the wharves and barges. In addition to the London Steamboat company’s Volunteer, a private steam launch, and a rowing-boat containing her father, the referee, and some half dozen others immediately interested in the result, a perfect swarm of boats accompanied—and indeed impeded—the swimmer the entire distance. London Bridge was crowded, as were the vessels and other points whence a view of the start could be obtained. Miss Beckwith dived from the rowing-boat at nine minutes to 5, and at once commenced a rapid side stroke, which she maintained to the finish. She was attired in a swimming costume of light rose pink llama, trimmed with white braid and lace of the same color. The water was very smooth and the tide running about three miles per hour. Swimming about a couple of yards in the rear of the referee’s boat, Turner Pier was reached at 11 minutes past 5. At Horseferry Dock (5:22) a salute was fired, and the swimmer was encouraged with lusty cheers. The Commerce Dock was quickly left behind, and soon after the Hilda, on her return from Margate, crowded with excursionists, passed the flotilla. Passing Millwall Miss Beckwith crossed to the north side and took advantage of the strong tide. At this point she was met by the saloon steamer Victoria, whose passengers were vociferous in their applause. The foreign cattle market at Deptford was breasted at twelve minutes to 6, and, as Greenwich Hospital appeared in sight, the intelligence was conveyed to the swimmer by repeated cheers, a salute being also fired from the Unicorn. The pier at Greenwich and the grounds of the ship were crowded with people who cheered to the echo when the spirited strains of “See the Conquering Hero Comes” announced the success of the attempt. Miss Beckwith swam some distance beyond the pier, and was taken on board at 5 h. 58 m. 45 s., having accomplished the distance, as stated above, in 1 h. 7 m. 45 s.

She seemed almost as fresh as when she started, and to all appearance was capable of going considerably further. It is worthy of mention that this was Miss Beckwith’s first essay of the sort, if we except a trial trip on Monday from Battersea to Westminster. Her nearest approach to the present feat was a swim of two and a half miles in the Lambeth Baths in three-quarters of an hour. Sunday Times [Chicago, IL] 19 September 1875: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While there seems to be a missprint in the time the young swimmer spent in the water, Miss Beckwith went from strength to strength, swimming from Chelsea Bridge to Greenwich, a distance of ten miles, in 1876 and from Westminster Bridge to Richmond, in a “pleasure swim” of twenty miles in 1878. Described as “A London Naiad,” in 1883 she made an unsuccessful attempt to swim from Sandy Hook to the Iron Pier at Rockaway Beach. Here is a detailed article describing Miss Beckwith’s subsequent career.

Why the Widow’s Hair Turned White: 1910

Women suffer things that men never have to. Fashionable femininity endures miseries in ways that its poorer sisters don’t have to. Wealth itself brings certain sorrows to the women who possess it. I met a widow just out of mourning garb and arrayed in gay colors. I hadn’t seen her since her bereavement. She had regained her old-time buoyancy and was having a good time at a dinner dance. Yet I observed gray hair in her coiffure that had not been there before and fancied that her voice had a note of grief.

“The loss of your husband has been a sad blow to you, my dear,” I said to be polite, although I knew well enough that he had been utterly uncongenial.

“I don’t feel that way about it,” she frankly replied; “he didn’t care for me, nor I for him. After using $20,000 out of his $250,000 for his mausoleum I felt free of further obligation and set out to have a good time with his fortune.” I was puzzled by the gray hair that had come on her head so quickly and asked her to explain it.

“It is the result of a shock,” she said. “You have read of persons whose hair, under intense terror or acute grief, turned all white in a single night? Well, only about one of my hairs in a thousand whitened, and it took a month for me to get as slightly gray as you see me, yet the bleaching was done by a mental shock. When the time approached for me to shuck the blacks in gowns and the blues in demeanor I planned a special toilet for the April Horse Show at Atlantic City. I sent to a famous Paris designer for drawings in water colors and samples of fabrics and adjuncts. I wanted to distinguish my ‘coming out’ as a widow with just the richest not only, but the best fitting and most becoming gown at the fair. The artist had my photograph, too, with all the particulars of complexion, hair and form from which to ‘create’ a triumphant toilet. The cost didn’t matter. It was enormous though, and included a whopping bill for cablegrams to close up the negotiations. One of my special stipulations was that the design should not only be original, but kept absolutely exclusive to me. The artist was bound to never duplicate or even imitate it.

“Well, my dear Clara Belle, the gown came all right. It was a dream of beauty—just odd enough to be unusual yet not gaudy; and after the final adjustments had been made by a skilled fitter here I was proud of myself as I looked into a mirror. I took it to Atlantic City in my motor car, instead of sending it by express with the rest of my wardrobe, so that it couldn’t go astray or get delayed. The opening day arrived warm and fair. The display of toilets in the boxes was fine for a lot of dressy women had come from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; and there was a big crowd of ordinary spectators, for an excursion train from the Quaker City had brought 1,000 sightseers.

“I posed a while at the front of my box and rivaled the horse exhibits as an object of interest. I mentally pinned a first prize ribbon on my breast and was exceedingly proud. Here and there among the swell Philadelphia women, whoever, I thought that I detected scrutiny that looked critical and sometimes two would whisper about me. What did it mean? After several competitions in the ring were over I went with my escort for a promenade on the lawn among the commoner folks—from the well-to-do to the barely-get there.

“Suddenly I got an awful shock. Along came a woman in a gown that, in everything except quality of material, was a counterpart of mine. The whole design was identical. I tottered and would have fallen if my companion hadn’t caught me. When the daze passed the woman was gone. Hadn’t she been a hallucination? I had begun to think so when another gown like mine came into view. The colors in this one were different, but it repeated the original otherwise. Within an hour I saw no less than five copies, and one in quite cheap stuff was worn by a girl as common as the goods.

“That fiend of a Parisian ‘artist’ had foisted on me as an ‘original and exclusive creation’ a design that he—or some one else—had made for an American manufacturer of gowns to be put on the market ready-made, and some big department store in Philadelphia had got a run on them. I went to my hotel in a state of nervous prostration, was no more than half conscious on my auto trip home and within a week these silver threads were among the gold of my hair.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 15 May 1910: p. C8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The occasion of a widow coming “out of mourning” was treated as tantamount to a debut by some widows, such as this lady. Like the debutante ritual, it showed that they were “back on the market,” to use an indelicate phrase. As an aside, 1910 was the year of “Black Ascot,” although this lady, being an American, would not have gone into mourning for the King.

Etiquette demanded that widows wear black–dull and crape-trimmed for the first year; shinier fabrics, white trim, jet jewellery, and a shorter veil for the second. After the two years, half-mourning: white, gray, heliotrope, and mauve could be worn as the widow emerged from her cocoon of black crape. These rules were not invariably followed to the letter, but the newspapers reported on the mourning fashions of prominent women and were often scathing in their criticisms. For example:

DECOLLETE GRIEF

A rather remarkable case is that of the recently bereaved Mrs. Marshal Field, of Chicago, who undertook to serve two masters by having her mourning gown cut décolleté. To the lay mind unacquainted with the awesome rites of fashion, the custom of rushing to the modiste when death is in the house smacks somewhat of flummery and frivolity. At the high tide of sorrow, the very crux of despair, gores, ruffles and tucks, sleeves and collars, would seem matters quite irrelevant; but this custom obtains in society and must be respected unless one is an out-and-out iconoclast and reckless heretic. The various stages of grief are furthermore shown to the world by a judicious handling of whites and grays, but it has been ordained always to be high-necked and long-sleeved grief.

Now, for any individual to change this order is a matter of fearful import; and the spectacle of Mrs. Marshall Field, at the end of a scant three weeks, breaking out all at once into bare neck and arms is a thing at once scandalous and deplorable. This still blooming widow, perhaps set upon her sorrowful and afflicted head a dull jet tiara; furthermore, perhaps about her drooping neck, sported some black pearls, which are de riguer, if you are fortunate enough to own them, at certain stages of melancholy. So perhaps she also wore black glace kids instead of dull suede. From such a spectacle one avert the eye; before such ill-considered vanity decorum goes into convulsions. That concrete grief should so far forget itself as to appear in a décolleté gown, albeit a very black gown, is a thing which makes the whole world stand aghast.

We live in parlous times, that is true, but never before has this been more openly shown than in this sad case of tearful innovation.

Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 16 February 1906: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes. You may read more about Victorian practices in The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which will be published in September of this year.

Why He Bought the Dolls: 1887

Why He Bought the Dolls.

[Dakota Bell.]

A group of three little girls stood before the window of the toy store and gazed longingly at a display of dolls. A kind-looking man noticed them, and soon each little girl went merrily away with a doll in her arms, bashfully telling her thanks to the man. He lingered behind to say:

“The little ones like dolls, and when I see them looking at them, I can’t help stopping and getting some for them. It gives me a sad sort of pleasure.”

“Yes?”

“My little girl liked dolls—it seemed as if her whole soul was bound up in them, almost. And she was such a little thing, too. But she played with them almost continually, and took so much comfort with them, especially one small wax doll, with its hands broken off and one foot missing. Yes, and its nose was badly worn and its hair had been put up in the very height of fashion so many times that it was nearly worn out, too. All her dolls had names and this one she called ‘Tatie’—she meant ‘Katie,’ but she wasn’t old enough to talk very well. Every night when she went to bed she must have ‘Tatie’ in her arms, and she would take it so, all night. Then when she was taken sick ‘Tatie’ must lie in the little white bed beside her and nestle in her arms at night. And ‘Tatie’ must have some of the medicines, too, and part of the little delicate dishes the loving hands of her mother brought her.

“And as she grew worse she told us that ‘Tatie’ was weaker, and showed us how much paler her poor marred face and worn-off nose were. And every day she held ‘Tatie’ more and more closely in her arms. So we sat by her bedside and knew, hard as it was, that the little angel of our household was going away, and that the closer she hugged ‘Tatie’ in her slender, wasted arms, the faster she was slipping from us. And at last she grew so weak that she could scarcely move, but her arms clasped tighter if we tried to take her ‘Tatie’ away from her. One night I had lain down on the sofa, worn out with watching, and in a little while my wife woke me with a soft touch, and her tears fell on my face, and I knew what it meant. And when we went back in the bedroom our little girl lay there still and calm, and ‘Tatie’ yet in her arms with the scattering, half-worn hair pressed against her pale, wasted cheek. They put her in the little coffin, and when I looked ‘Tatie’ still nestled in her arms.

“So that is why I stopped and bought the little girls some dolls, though I never saw them before, and if they take half the comfort with them that my little girl did I will be more than repaid.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 June 1887: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The reader will have to excuse Mrs Daffodil. She has something in her eye….

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, to be publishing this September.