The Ghost Handed Him a Comb: c. 1866

Empress Elisabeth of Austria in an intimate pose in her combing jacket.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria in an informal pose in her combing jacket.


The Marquis de C, a French nobleman of large property, possesses a handsome mansion in the Champs Elysees, Paris. It was his fortune to espouse a very beautiful woman, to whom he was fondly attached, and a chateau of the marquis’s, some forty miles from the capital, became their constant residence. Here, however, the marchioness was at length attacked with severe illness, and, although her life was saved, continued to suffer from agonising pains in the head, the sole alleviation of which seemed to consist in having her beautiful hair, which touched the ground, combed for several hours a day, the marquis himself, when her maid was tired, frequently taking his turn in this occupation.

The seeds of disease were, however, too deeply sown, and, after many alternations of sickness and amendment, the poor young wife ultimately died.

In despair at her loss, the marquis left the chateau forever, and, returning to Paris, shut himself up in his house, refusing all comfort and all society excepting that of one intimate friend, Monsieur Alphonse F., who had been a frequent visitor at the Chateau de C.

It happened that a process, commenced some time previous to the marchioness’s death, rendered it incumbent on the widower to produce certain papers essential to the case, which had been placed in a cabinet at the chateau. But the bereaved husband positively refused to revisit the scene of his former happiness, and, despite the arguments of his legal adviser, remained inexorable, when Alphonse F., entering while the discourse continued, volunteered to spare his friend’s feelings by visiting the chateau and obtaining the required papers.

The marquis thanked him cordially, adding, that the relief was the greater, inasmuch as he would have been compelled to enter their favourite sitting-room, in which their last, as well as so many happier, hours were passed.

” You will find the papers,” he added, “in my escritoire beside the door. They are tied with red tape, and are deposited in the second pigeon-hole at the end furthest from the door.”

With these instructions, Alphonse F. started on his journey, and, on reaching the chateau, was allowed by the old custodian to prosecute his search. Passing through the rooms, furnished with every imaginable luxury that might gratify the taste of the departed mistress— through the chamber, with its couch draped with crimson satin, its rich fauteuils, its splendid ottomans, its glittering mirrors— through the sumptuous breakfast-saloon, with its gaudy furniture abandoned to the spider and the moth, Alphonse reached the apartment he sought.

A cold, damp vapour seemed to pervade the room, and he hastened to complete his task and be gone. Recalling, in spite of himself, the image of the fair and blissful being he had met there, he slowly opened the escritoire, and at once descried the papers described by his friend. Carefully removing them, he was in the act of reclosing the escritoire, when he felt, or fancied that he felt, a light pressure on his shoulder. He turned, and beheld—the marchioness!

She was dressed in white, her face was deadly pale, and her beautiful black silken tresses were, as he had often seen them in later days, flowing unconfined to her very feet. He let fall the papers, and, rushing through the deserted rooms, never stopped till he reached the court-yard, where his horse awaited him.

He was about to mount and gallop from the haunted spot, when the reflection of his friend’s disappointment, and the incredulity with which his explanation would certainly be met, induced him to make an effort to overcome what he began to consider superstitious weakness. He re-ascended the stairs, traversed the rooms without glancing to the right or left, entered the boudoir, seized the papers, and was departing, when again a touch was laid upon his shoulder. The figure he had before seen stood close beside him, holding what seemed to be a comb in its hand, and offering it to him, as if inviting him to use it on the black tresses that covered her like a shroud!

Hardly knowing what he did, A. seized the comb, made an attempt to pass it through the flowing hair, failed, and fell back insensible. How long he remained in that state he never knew. The moment he regained consciousness he tottered from the room, mounted his horse, and made his way to Paris, where he lay for weeks, prostrated with brain fever.

Monsieur Alphonse F. still lives, and himself related this anecdote to the narrator.

All the Year Round, Vol. 15 Charles Dickens, Editor, 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The marchioness whose pain could only be relieved by combing her long and luxurious hair reminds Mrs Daffodil of Empress Elisabeth of Austria whose was inordinately proud of (or perhaps made a fetish of) her heavy, floor-length hair, spending two to three hours each day in brushing and dressing it. Any hairs that fell out were presented to her in a silver dish for inspection.  She joked that she was a “slave to her hair,” and was constantly in search of new remedies and washes to beautify it, such as “violet vinegar.” One would hope that both dead ladies—Empress and Marchioness–are now beyond the reach of vanity.

1 thought on “The Ghost Handed Him a Comb: c. 1866

  1. Pingback: The meaning of "the" in a standalone "the greater" - English Vision

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