The Framed Coffin-Plate in the Parlor: 1905

wreath with coffin plateA

Rosemary for Remembrance

BY MARIE MANNING

To those who had been acquainted with it under Mehitabel’s administration, the house itself seemed to have a word to say regarding Ira’s second marriage. Formerly it had been the model house of the neighborhood—the parlor never opened except for funerals or a pastoral visit. The family wash, impeccable as to color and general state of repair, might have been seen beating the air with impotent arms and legs every Monday morning at an hour when the average housekeeper is still dreaming of the horrors of wash-day.

That the present Mrs. Ira would never kill herself with housework, as her predecessor had done, was the verdict of the neighbors. Beyond an eagerness to dispose of the old-fashioned furniture that had exacted such care from the late Mehitabel, and with the proceeds to invest in brand-new Lares and Penates of plush and polished oak, the second Mrs. Ira took life very easily. She had been a seamstress from the adjacent town of Skipton Center, where they understood the value of “watered ” plush and brass nails better than they did in the country. From time to time the summer people called on the bride to bargain over a bit of flowing-blue or a splint-bottomed chair, and while never losing sight of a bargain, she made no apology for her preference for the distinctly modern.

Her latest customer—an energetic woman with a nose that seemed constantly to sniff bargains—had finally bought the Staffordshire candlestick, the purchase being effected only after innumerable encounters, in which neither side showed the inclination to yield one jot or tittle.

“Well, what do you want for that rocker?”

“Guess you might take it along for one seventy-five.”

Indifference now became a fine art with the buyer, the chair was so unconditional a bargain. But the trained haggler, placing her goal farther and farther beyond the bounds of human possibility, was not content. Stooping to examine the chair, she saw that the seat presented a mottled appearance where the paint was missing in patches; this she seized upon to offer a smaller amount. But the very cause that had deprived the chair of its coat of paint undoubtedly contributed to its value—not to the bride, certainly, but to people who liked old furniture with histories attached.

“Iry’s first had her stroke in that chair,—had it Friday, and they couldn’t git her up no way; Sunday she died, and when they pulled her out the paint come too.” She displayed the missing paint with the pride of a merchant exhibiting a hall-mark. But the customer began to count out the change for the Staffordshire candlestick.

“I got somethin’ I’ll sell real cheap; makes a han’some parlor ornament, but I can’t bear to see it ’round.” Mrs. Ira indicated the space between the two front windows, now occupied by a coffin-plate wreathed in wax flowers, covered with glass, and framed in black wood. “It come off Iry’s first. It’s han’some, you can see, but it makes me kinder nervous to hev it ’round. ’F I died, Iry’d hev his third—’tain’t no use sayin’ he wouldn’t.”

The story of the proffered coffin-plate made the rounds of the summer colony, and from thence it penetrated to the living-room of Mrs. Joshua Bigges, sister to the late Mehitabel. The news was brought by Amanda Mather, the neighborhood seamstress, who was regarded as a sort of peripatetic Doomsday Book of unabridged capacity and personal annotations.

Amanda had come primarily to the Bigges family to “lighten their mournin’” for the late Mehitabel. whose family had purposely prolonged their “first black ” till after Ira’s second marriage, as a mute and eloquent expression of their feelings.

“Land’s sakes! Hitty, d’you hear that? Emmeline Perch wants to sell your aunt’s coffin-plate—frame, wreath, an’ all—for a dollar! Why, the wreath alone cost us two seventy-five over to Skipton Center, an’ it must hev cost Iry three or four dollars to git it embammed an’ framed when his grief was fresh and flowin’, not countin’ the price of the plate, that was triple silvered.” Mrs. Joshua Bigges’s recital of the facts to her daughter, who had just come into the room to consult with Amanda about the advisability of putting heliotrope bands on her black China silk, would possibly have left an outsider in doubt as to which affected her the more deeply, the outrage of the proceeding viewed sentimentally, or the financial unwisdom of selling a mourning wreath at one-tenth its value.

The daughter was a tall slender girl with a droop to her red lips and an air of chronic repression. Had Skipton Center appreciated the picturesque, Mehitabel would have had an artistic value; but as it was, her red hair and fragility were regarded but temperately.

“Hitty Bigges wouldn’t be so bad-lookin’ if ’twa’n’t for her hair an’ the way she hunches,” Amanda had asserted from farmhouse to farmhouse. “’Tain’t no satisfaction to sew for her. I’ve fit that girl like an apple fits its skin, an’ the nex’ thing you know she’s shrivelled right up in her basque, an’ it looks all puckery, same’s if she was roasted.”

The girl, on hearing the incident of the wreath, looked in a puzzled way from her mother to the ambulant source of all knowledge. It took her several moments to grasp the enormity of the news; then she said: “It’s a wonder Aunt Hitty don’t haunt ’em. I would!” She was of an age when only the sentimental aspects of the case appealed to her. The relation between profit and loss as exemplified between the cost and the subsequent offer of the wreath passed without comment.

“Mehitabel Bigges,” said her mother, sternly, “never let me hear you say anything like that again; first thing you know folks’ll say that my pore sister has taken to ha’ntin’ the earth, which is a dreadful thing to be said ’bout a deceased member of any family. Let alone which, it will injure the value of that house, which comes to you on the death of Iry, by your aunt’s will.”

Mrs. Joshua caught herself up sharply. Not often was she betrayed into discussing family events before a stranger, especially Amanda. But that night, when the seamstress was safely ensconced in the second-best spare room, Mrs. Joshua put on her wrapper and felt slippers, and taking up her bedroom candle, crept to her daughter’s room for a secret conclave. She would not have dared to do this, knowing that Amanda would interpret a midnight confidence as a confession of anxiety over family affairs, had she not heard sounds coming from the second-best spare room that must be construed as the sleep of the just and those who keep their mouths open.

Mehitabel had not been asleep. She sat up in bed at the approach of her mother, one heavy braid of red hair thrown across her bosom, her eyes opening and shutting at the sudden appearance of the light.

“What d’you think of that?” demanded Mrs. Joshua, in a whisper. They had made no reference to “it” for eight hours, but there was no reason to be more specific.

“Something ought to be done,” assented Mehitabel, vaguely.

“That‘s what I say, something ought to be done. ’F it comes to that, th’ wreath b’longs to us, as we presented it; you wrote the card yourself, —‘Condolences to the B’reaved Husband from th’ Surviving Sister an’ Niece.’ Dun’no’ but, ‘bout the easiest way would be to walk right in a git it; Emmeline Perch is forever gaddin’.”

“Mother!” protested the girl. “You wouldn’t!” But Mrs. Joshua merely tossed her head to imply that the expedient held no terrors for her. She represented a militant type that the more pliable nature of her daughter found difficult to understand.

“’Sh-sh!” she commanded. “Has Amanda quit snorin’?” They huddled together, breathless. “I wouldn’t have her ketch us for a new black silk.” Amanda kept them in suspense for some crucial moments and then resumed operations.

“Ah!” breathed Mrs. Joshua, “there she is at it again, like a fog-horn.”

“Of course we could buy in Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate, mother; I’ve ‘been thinking of that right along.”

This suggestion was considered too feeble-minded by Mrs. Joshua to warrant an immediate reply. She sniffed contemptuously before defining her policy. “You was thinking that, was you? Well, no money of mine is going to help pay for a plush parlor set for Emmeline Perch. Your pore aunt Hitty has passed out o’ this mess; ’tain’t goin’ to do her no good, whoever gits her wreath an’ plate.

“This ought to be a terrible warning to girls,” continued Mrs. Joshua, who had only been waiting the psychological moment to introduce a moral. “Ira was possessed about Hitty when they was courting, and she ain’t real good an’ cold ’fore be up an’ marries, an’ lets that Emmeline Perch offer her wreath an’ plate for a dollar. Girls can’t be too careful ’bout the men they marry.”

Mehitabel’s mouth drooped as she turned from the searching glance. Three months before, she had given up Lemuel Ames at the instigation of this masterful parent, and this had been sufficient, the girl thought, to prevent a constant recurrence to the broken engagement in the light of a deliverance. Lemuel had been a clerk in a hardware store at Skipton Center for five years, which in itself would seem to confer a patent of “steadiness”—the quality primarily demanded by Mrs. Joshua in a son-in-law. But unfortunately for the. flowering of his romance, Lemuel had a sense of humor; or, as Mehitabel’s mother expressed it, “he talked comical,” which seemed a highly dangerous innovation to introduce into a family that had never had any shortcomings of this kind to its discredit. The girl had given him back his ring and the red plush photograph-album that had looked so well on the marble topped centre-table, and had resigned herself to the inevitable with never an outward sign. Lemuel’s disappointment took a reckless form. With the money he had been saving for the past three years to go to housekeeping, he bought a “fast horse” and buggy.

Rumor said he was “waiting on” a girl in New York, and Mehitabel would hide for hours behind the lace curtains in the sitting-room in the dread hope of seeing Lemuel drive past with her metropolitan rival; but he was always alone, driving his fast horse furiously.

“ Well, I dun’no’ as settin’ here gassin’s goin’ to git back your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate any sooner,” Mrs. Joshua remarked, when the hope of beguiling her daughter into some confidence respecting her feelings for Lemuel had quite expended itself.

“I dun’no’ as it will,” assented Mehitabel, who craved the grateful darkness as a cover for possible tears. Mrs. Joshua awaited the next blast of slumber from the second-best bedroom, and under cover of its volley beat a hasty retreat.

About a week later, on a certain moonless evening that afforded ample scope for things clandestine, Mrs. Joshua, with a manner that hinted at nothing less than regicide, told her daughter to take off the white dress she was wearing and put on something black.

Their goal was the house of Ira and Emmeline Perch, his wife. Even in the darkness it was quite apparent to the seeing eye that a new order of things had been introduced by “Iry’s second.” The blinds were up and at a convivial angle. The bride and groom were spending the evening in the parlor; worse than this, Ira was smoking, a leg thrown across the arm of the best chair. The conspirators had some difficulty in restraining exclamations of horror as they peeped through the window, actual witnesses of this sacrilege.

“Mother!” exclaimed Mehitabel, in a whisper, “Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate have gone!”

“It’s a wonder to me the house ain’t struck by lightning! What hev they got in its place?” inquired Mrs. Joshua, overcome with curiosity, indignation, and short-sightedness.

“ They hev got one of them lions with iron bars put over the glass to look like a cage—they be the very latest things in art, Mandy Mather says.”

“For the land’s sake! Well, you just watch ’em; somethin’s bound to happen’ as a judgment on such goin’s on.”

“She is makin’ a yoke out of ribbon an’ cat-stitchin’,” faithfully reported the lookout.

“Then she be still takin’ in dressmakin’ on the sly,” commented Mrs.

Joshua. “She’d never put an openwork yoke over that old scrag-neck o’ hern. What be your uncle Iry a-doin’?”

“He’s readin’ to her out of a paper—”

“He was always possessed to read out loud; nearly drove your aunt Hitty wild. Would come into the kitchen when she was tryin’ a cake with a straw an’ want to read her a piece out of the paper.”

“Emmeline Perch seems to like it,” commented the watch.

“She was always triflin’—-”

Some movement from within caused the lookout to give the alarm. “Here, mother, mind the step; Emmeline is folding up her sewin’; they’ll ketch us if we don’t hurry.”

“Well,” exclaimed Mrs. Joshua, when they had gained a place of safety and watched the shutters being fastened, “I’d never suppose that folks who kept house like that’d bother to fasten it nights.” She drew from the pocket of her petticoat a large iron key, which she displayed to her daughter in significant silence. Mehitabel shivered slightly and glanced toward the house opposite.

“Does it fit ?” she inquired, feebly.

“It b’longs to it; your aunt Hitty had a present’ment that something’d go wrong after she was taken, so she give me this key to kinder keep ’n eye on Iry.”

“Mother,” said Mehitabel, when some moments had passed, “you’re not goin’ into their house, be you?”

“Mehitabel, I just hate that white livered way you have of shiverin’ an’ askin’ questions; you git it from y’r father an’ not from the Bengers, that’s always had grit enough an’ some to lend. Yes, I be goin’ into that house to hunt for your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate soon as I’m sure they’re asleep. If they’ve taken it out of the sittin’-room, it must be in the dinin’-room or the south chamber; ’tain’t likely they hev got it in their room to ha’nt ’em, is it?” Mrs. Joshua, like some vengeful allegorical figure, stood, key in hand, waiting to fall upon the house opposite.

The moon kept dark, the katydids shrilled, the night wind whispered of graveyard things. At length Mrs. Joshua arose and indicated her policy.

“You set where you be. If I want you, I’ll come to the door and beckon.” The allegorical figure sneaked across the road, opened the door, and entered the house with a courage worthy of her. late boasting. Mehitabel, crouching in the shadow of the hedge, shivered.

Mrs. Joshua felt her way along the hall and entered the lately defiled sitting room. The air was close and heavy with the fumes of Ira’s pipe and of the lamp, whose wick had not been turned down after it had been extinguished. These evidences of housekeeping entered into lightly and without due consideration had all the charms of a scandal to Ira’s sister-in-law once removed. She sniffed the bouquet of them, and drew a sleuthlike finger across various pieces of furniture, and was rewarded with dust. So keen was her enjoyment of these discoveries that she-had been in the house quite ten minutes before the primary object of her quest occurred to her.

“Well, I never!” she exclaimed, holding the scrap of candle close to the picture that served as an understudy to the late Mehitabel’s framed coffin-plate—a lion with iron bars across the glass to simulate a cage. “This may be the latest in art, as Mandy Mather says. Likewise it is the very latest in men. A lion in place of his pore wife that saved nigh on to two thousand dollars for him!”

Carefully shading her candle, she crept to the dining-room, but there was no trace of the wreath and plate. She was rewarded, however, by a private view of the uncleared supper-table in all the fulness of its barmecidal conviviality. She rummaged through cupboards and closets, growing more and more reckless as each nook and corner failed to produce the object of her quest. The south chamber yielded nothing more satisfactory than evidences of bad housekeeping, and Mrs. Joshua turned toward the kitchen with something akin to discouragement. But the wreath was not there, the only object of art being a soap advertisement representing a tramp joyously discovering a cake of the soap thus heralded. She was leaving the kitchen, when the temptation to see how the bride kept her tinware closet—always an object of pride with the late Mehitabel—overcame her. Opening the door, with her characteristic freedom of movement, the entire gamut of pots and pans, casually thrust there by the bride from time to time, crashed forward in one thunderous bang of orchestration. Mrs. Joshua was within a decade of the limit of the age of man, as defined by the psalmist, but a witness of her exit would not have believed this possible. The wretched Mehitabel, who had lost all count of time, dumbly waiting in the hedge opposite, sprang up as the pots and pans crashed fortissimo. A moment later her mother appeared at the door and began to canter down the road, brisk as a two-year-old. Mrs. Joshua never glanced toward the hedge where she had hidden her wait, but Mehitabel did not tarry for an invitation. She overtook her mother, and neck to neck they gained the lane that led to their own premises. “Couldn’t you find it?” breathlessly inquired the girl, as they gained the shelter of their own porch.

“D’you think I’d hev come away ’ithout it if I could? To hear you talk, any one’d think I went there a-visitin’. Rip them heliotrope bands off your black Chiny silk fust thing in the morning, and we’ll have Mandy Mather back to replace ’em with black an’ white, an’ I’ll find out where that wreath an’ plate have went.”

But Amanda Mather, oracle and seamstress, could throw no light on the missing wreath, though she felt keenly the ignominy of being unable to furnish the desired information.

At this turn of events Mrs. Joshua lost heart and began to feel the need of swamp root. All the Bengers had great faith in the remedy; the first Mrs. Ira had just finished her twenty-seventh bottle when called to her final account.

“Seems like I can’t sleep nights thinkin’ of your aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate decoratin’ some fash’nable New York parlor. Oh, don’t tell me; I know them townfolks; they be just crazy over things they buy ’round here.”

“Guess I’d better get you a dozen bottles of swamp root to begin with, mother.” Mehitabel, arrayed in Amanda’s latest creation, was about to walk the three miles to Skipton Center to invest in the family’s favorite remedy.

“An’, Hitty, don’t be s’ white-livered; ’f any one wants to give you a lift t’ Skipton Center, you just take it; otherwise you’ll hev to hev them twelve bottles of swamp root sent by express. I declare, trouble never comes singly; fust, ’twas your aunt Hitty that was took, an’ the week followin’ the gray mare that we’d had since before you was born.” Mrs. Joshua, in urging her daughter to avail herself of any courtesy of the road, was not without strategy. Hiram Pollock, though old enough to have been Mehitabel’s father, was a man after Mrs. Joshua’s own heart. Half an hour before, she had seen him driving his sedate mare—he had no fast horse—in the direction of Skipton Center, and she hoped that her daughter might encounter him in that mart of trade.

Mehitabel had accomplished half the journey, when she discovered, in the cloud of dust sweeping toward her from the adjacent hill, not Hiram of parental choice, but Lemuel of individual fancy—Lemuel, whom rumor had accredited with being in New York on an errand sentimental.

The rejected of Mrs. Joshua pulled up with a staccato jerk of the reins that added greatly to the drama of the situation, but there his inspiration as a hero and rejected lover stopped. He longed for the gift of gallant speech; but so inbred was the quality of New England self-restraint that he confined himself to “Good ev’nin’, Hitty; nice weather we’re havin’,” and this in quite the same tone that he would have said to a customer, “Did you say a pound of nails?”

Mehitabel answered in the same tone: “Good ev’nin’, Lem. Yes, ’tis a nice ev’nin’.” And yet to both of them the situation was not without the crucial element. “Heard you was in New York,” said Mehitabel, not without a terrifying sense of what this implied.

“Heard you wast’t,” he answered, in dashing village repartee; then, seeing the troubled look on her face at the equivocal nature of his reply, he added promptly: “No, I ain’t ben to Noo York, Hitty; Skipton Center’s good enough for me. Guess you’d better git in an’ let me drive you.” He made room for her on the seat as the first movement in a persuasive pantomime.

With a diabolical perversity, Mehitabel remembered the injunction of her mother: “Don’t be s’ white-livered; ’f any one wants to give you a lift to Skipton Center, you just take it.” The blood of the Biggeses, subservient so long to Benger rule, experienced a moment of potential freedom. Then this weaker element, unaccustomed to decisions of any kind, wavered, while the iron hand of the Benger prompted her to say, as she turned from her lover, “Well, I guess I must be goin’.”

“Well, I guess you must be goin’ to git right in here.” And Lemuel sprang from the buggy and plied her with a multitude of masterful attentions. It was this determined action on his part that settled matters. No Bigges could withstand the cloak and panoply of authority; it was merely a question of who was wearing them at the time. And Mehitabel stepped into the buggy and forgot everything in the joy of driving with Lemuel behind the “fast horse.” She confided that her errand was swamp root—a dozen bottles of it.

“’Bout how many does she calc’late to take when she feels real poorly, if she has twelve to begin with? I s’pose she does take it,—or does she bathe in it, or fill the cistern with it? Or mebbe she’s thinkin’ of settin’ up a swamp root-fountain in the front dooryard ’?”

“Lem!” protested Mehitabel; but it was delightful to hear his “comical” talk again. The trouble with her mother, she told him, was the missing wreath an’ plate—that Mrs. Joshua couldn’t sleep for thinking of Aunt Hitty’s emblem decorating the parlor of some fashionable and unfeeling New-Yorker, who had not even known her.

“She needn’t fret herself; Noo-Yorkers shy clear off from undertakers’ novelties. No; there’s nothin’ ‘quaint’ nor ‘picturesque’ ’bout a framed coffin-plate, and them’s the worms the early cottager is up huntin’.”

“Law-me-suz! Lem, you ought to see the stuff they buy; ’tain’t half so han’some’s Aunt Hitty’s wreath an’ plate.”

“Why, I sell them people goods every day in the week. Got a load of truck settin’ out in the yard this minute, waitin’ for a spell o’ rain to turn ’em into antiques, but there ain’t no sacred-to-the-memory goods among ’ern. Gee-ap!” he adjured the “fast horse.” “Why, a woman come into the store the other day— a real bon-ton,—and she asked what that old rusty anvil was we keep outside for a sign. She was wearin’ a consignment of veils, and she had a pair of specs fitted to a stick ’bout a foot long. That kind is so dead easy, makes you feel like you was robbin’ a poor-box. ‘That, miss,’ sez I, ‘is an antique that money couldn’t buy; it’s th’ identical anvil that George Washington used to shoe his own charger on the eve of Valley Forge.’ Well, she got th’ anvil an’ I got the cash; there’s still a little. trifle comin’ to her in the way of experience.”

“It don’t sound fair dealin’ to me.”

“Why, you can’t help them Noo Yorkers from holdin’ up themselves at the mention of an antique.”

“Lem, I be awful scairt to let you drive that swamp root an’ me back to mother,” Mehitabel confessed, as they stopped before the red and green lights of the Skipton Center apothecary.

“Don’t you fret; I got somethin’ that’ll make your mother digest me all right. You hold the lines an’ I’ll get the swamp root. Then I got to run up the street an’ go in the store for a minute.”

Mehitabel leisurely drove the fast horse from the apothecary’s to the hardware emporium where Lemuel was employed, and waited for him to join her. She had no suspicion as to the object of his errand, and when he reappeared with her aunt Mehitabel’s framed and wreathed coffin-plate, her conflicting emotions found tears their only expression.

“Heard ’bout it bein’ offered for sale, and knowin’ what a store you set on your aunt Hitty, I bought it in.”

“’S awful good of you, Lem, an’ I know mother’ll be real pleased. I ain’t a bit scairt to go hum with you now.”

Mrs. Joshua was rocking herself on the front porch, when she heard the sound of approaching hoofs. “Land’s sakes! but I didn’t think that old horse o’ Hi Pollock’s hed s’ much ginger.”

“Lem, I be too scairt. Lem, I be too scairt to go in.” The voice of Mehitabel could be heard wailing in the darkness; but Lemuel walked straight up the garden path, bearing the mortuary peace offering in his hand.

“Lem! Lem Ames!” Mrs. Joshua began; but seeing the wreath, her manner changed.

“Why, I take this real kind of you, Lemuel. Land’s sakes! look at the dirt on that frame! Hitty, stop shakin’ like a fool an’ go for a duster.”

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 1905 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: That triple-plated person over at Haunted Ohio recently wrote about the many singular uses for coffin plates and sent Mrs Daffodil this whimsical, if painfully spelt New England dialect story about a prized coffin plate in a frame. There was, indeed a vogue at this time among smart city- dwellers for hunting rural antiquities, leading to many a weathered object sold for a relic of the Revolution. Coffin plates were prized for their associations with a deceased loved one and were frequently framed, sometimes with a dried funeral wreath or flowers made of family hair, possibly the origin of the expression, “Hair today; gone tomorrow.”

For more on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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 about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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