Mourning for a Mother-in-Law: 1899

[An Englishman, his wife, and her sister are travelling in Germany.]

At the Hotel du Nord they registered our luggage, gave us our tickets, attended us to the omnibus in waiting—quite a small crowd of officials, including one porter to open the door, a second to close it, a third to give the signal of departure, and a fourth to meet us on the platform—all rendered smiling and amiable by the inevitable backsheesh. The last was a magnificent specimen of gold braided uniform, quite over six feet high. Well for us that we had his protection, for the platform was thronged with an excited crowd of people, all going their separate ways in search of a day’s pleasure.

It was nothing but a rush and a series of mistakes: excursionists bound north getting into trains going south and having to get out again. The noise, confusion, tearing to and fro, shouting in German language from German throats, cramming of thirty people into a compartment made for ten—until one no longer wondered at the conjuror’s inexhaustible hat—the shrieks of some poor unfortunate skeleton of a man suddenly crushed and extinguished by a mountainous frau sitting down upon him without warning and with all the coolness imaginable: all this we had never seen equalled on an English occasion.

E., unaccustomed to such scenes, was alarmed and agitated, though in our first-class compartment (patronized on the Continent, it is said, only by cooks, Englishmen and fools) the rough element was severely absent.

Opposite to us was our one fellow-traveller: a tall, thin man, evidently a gentleman, dressed in deep black even to his studs and moustache (but the latter seemed black by nature), with a most melancholy cast of face and a frequent indulgence in deep sighs.

“Poor man,” E. murmured in English; “he has evidently lost his wife; do say something to him and try to cheer him when the train has started.”

[Interlude where melancholy gentleman reassures the ladies that they will not be molested by other travelers, summons an official to ejects a parcel-laden boor, and muses on class distinctions in Germany.]

The train steamed onwards. Our companion relapsed for a moment into melancholy, as though he suddenly remembered that he had a sad role to keep up. His countenance went into mourning, to match his clothes, studs, and moustache. Even his watch-chain was of jet or vulcanite, with alternate gold links. E. gave us another expressive look. It said as plainly as possible: “Now’s your time. Seize your opportunity. Do say something and console the poor man.”

We felt a little nervous. It seemed almost an intrusion upon his privacy. What right had we, the acquaintance of an hour, to offer him our condolence in what was evidently a severe family affliction?

Would he not deem it an impertinence? But a sigh more deep than the last seemed to answer all objections, and taking our courage in both hands, we addressed him. After all he was very communicative, and seemed distinctly drawn towards us. He would not resent our good intentions.

“Sir,” we began, with some diffidence; “you seem in trouble, in great affliction; you appear to have had a serious loss. Will you allow us to offer you our sincere condolences? Troubles are not needlessly sent. May we not hope that those lofty ideals and higher aspirations and serious purposes of life to which you just now referred, will all be strengthened”

We hesitated in astonishment. A flash like a brilliant gleam of sunshine breaking through clouds passed over his face, transforming it, making it ten years younger, giving it a singularly beautiful expression. The change was quite startling. Then he paused a moment, seemed to deliberate rapidly, gave another deep sigh—it almost sounded like a sigh of relief—and spoke.

“Do not waste your pity,” he said; “rather offer me your congratulations.”

E. turned a little pale. Was he going to prove an ogre—rejoice in the loss of an amiable and long-suffering wife? He did not look that sort of inhuman wretch.

“In order that you may do that,” he continued, “I must take you into my confidence. I am not overwhelmed with grief as you would imagine; I am wild with joy. But I am so afraid of letting my joy be seen, of giving boisterous expression to it, and so creating a scandal, that I have to clothe my countenance in grief and put on the deepest mourning. For I hate scandals, or to be, in the smallest degree, a topic of conversation amongst my neighbours. In a word, monsieur “—and here his face again broke out into sunshine—” I have just buried my mother-in-law. She was a cat. Now you will not pity but congratulate me.”

It was a relief to find that after all we were not travelling with a Bluebeard.

“You must have been a great sufferer,” we observed sympathetically —it was difficult to know what to say under the circumstances.

“My mother-in-law was a cat,” he continued; “but a cat without any pretence to a velvet paw; her claws were always out, and she was a perfect spitfire, with her back always arched. My wife and I are as happy as two turtledoves when we are alone; but my mother-in-law paid us a six months’ visit every year, upset all our calculations, thwarted all our plans, set everybody quarrelling with everybody else, and in short made life an absolute burden. For the other six months in the year she could not let us alone, but pestered us with annoying letters, and, directly and indirectly, placed a hundred obstacles in the daily course of our lives. She had made her own husband’s life a perfect misery upon earth, and she was insanely jealous of our own happiness. It was sufficient for her to see any human being happy to make her their bitter enemy, but much more so those of her own family and household. I believe she would have ended in killing off both my wife and myself, if one fine day she had not caught a cold which settled on her chest, and she died; died, monsieur, fighting the air, because she had no one else to fight. In short she was a cat.”

“But are you not rather maligning the cat-tribe?” we asked.

“Oh, there are bad cats,” he replied; “very bad cats; and my mother-in-law was one of the worst. Now can you wonder that I rejoice; that I feel in paradise; that I am absolutely afraid of allowing my delight to be seen; and so clothe my face as I do my body, in deep mourning? But I shall not keep it up long. After all, the days of mourning for a mother-in-law are restricted. Ah, here we reach my destination,” as the train steamed into Coblenz. “And there is my wife on the platform. It is hard to say it, but I am afraid she is really and truly happy and at rest for the first time in her life. We have a charming chateau near Arenberg. I wish we could have the pleasure of receiving you there.”

As the train stopped, a lady in black came up to the carriage door. Her face was pale—paler perhaps by contrast with the deep mourning that surrounded it—but extremely beautiful; without a trace of the high cheekbones and innumerable angles that so unpleasantly distinguish the German women; whilst her voice—oh, wonder of wonders in this Rhineland—was soft and musical . He got out of the carriage, embraced her affectionately, asked her several rapid questions, to which she replied in clear harmonious tones, and then turned to us.

“Adieu, monsieur,” he said, at the same time taking off his hat and making a low bow to E. “Adieu. May you have a most agreeable journey. And,” he whispered, “may you never have a mother-in-law who is a cat”

His countenance beamed with happiness and delight as he spoke; it did one a positive good to see him; but when he turned and offered his arm to his wife, and walked away followed by a footman carrying his rug and umbrella, his face had once more assumed its grave outlines. The station master came up, opened for him a private exit from the platform, and whilst the train still waited, we saw them drive rapidly away in a well-appointed carriage. He happened to look out at the moment, caught sight of our face at the window, and waved his hand, whilst his lips seemed to form themselves into the words: “She was truly a cat, and one of the very worst of her kind.”

The Argosy, Volume 67, 1899

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What a shock to find that there are persons in this world whose mourning is only feigned—a sort of fancy-dress sorrow instead of the genuine, heart-felt article. One hopes that the gentleman’s wife, with her un-Germanic dulcet tones and high cheekbones, was really and truly happy and at rest about the demise of “the cat.”

Gentlemen, as Mrs Daffodil has had occasion to remark before, were bound by fewer strictures than the ladies when it came to mourning clothing.  While a wife was required to wear mourning for her husband’s relatives precisely as she would for her own; her husband could do as he pleased.

In “complimentary” mourning, a ghastly term used to denote that worn for parents-in-law, the rule is the same as for the closer and truer kinship. The mourning for parents-in-law is, however, purely arbitrary and depends principally upon how much they leave. The bigger the bank account the deeper the mourning, especially for mothers-in-law. Any man, however, who honors his wife will show her deceased parents the same respect he would his own, and nothing could possibly appear in worse taste than to see a woman in all the trappings of woe, while her husband disregards the custom entirely. 1892 

Mrs Daffodil finds it amusing to learn that

Queen Alexandra wore no crape after the death of her son, but had her gowns very deeply trimmed with it on the death of her mother; also of her mother-in-law. This seeming inconsistency may have arisen from some beautiful idea of death being a gift of the gods to the young. Certain it is that Queen Alexandra wore the deepest crape for Queen Victoria, even more so, if anything, than her Majesty did for the Queen of Denmark [Queen Alexandra’s mother.] 

Etiquette for Every Day, Mrs Humphry, 1904

Mrs Daffodil suspects that Her Majesty protested too much.

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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