THE BLACK DRESS
Carlotta Thayer sat crumbling her unpalatable sandwich and forcing herself to eat it between sips of tea from a thick cup. She sold neckwear in the big department store around the corner and had been busy all day handing out jabots and collars and cuff sets to eager buyers. Her face was so pleasant above her own white collar that it attracted quite as much as her wares.
Some day Carlotta hoped to earn really living wages. In the meantime she made $6 a week answer for all her needs. She had resolved life into “making the best of all that comes and the least of all that goes.” Even a poor sandwich was better than none at all. She saw people every day who looked as though they would be glad of what she found so difficult to swallow. Sometimes Carlotta got her suppers in her room as she got her breakfast, but if the weather was pleasant, she was apt to run into the “White House” for her sandwich and tea and afterward stroll home at leisure.
She was only halfway through her sandwich when she turned her eyes just in time to catch the glance of a young man who was entering the door. He stopped, continued to look hard at her for an instant and then hurried down to the table where she sat alone.
“Why, Carlotta!” he exclaimed, bending over her and holding out his hand. “Isn’t it strange? I was thinking of you and then I saw you.”
“I’m awfully glad to see you, Will,” Carlotta said, letting her hand stay in his and looking up into his brown, clear, serious face. “You look like home to me.”
“I’ve just come from there.” He drew off his overcoat and sat down opposite her. “It’s just the same. But you don’t deserve to know about it, Carlotta. You haven’t thought enough of any of us to come back even for a week.”
“I’ve worked every minute since I left,” Carlotta explained. “You see, Will, it’s different here in the city from what it is at Otisville. If you once get behind you never catch up. Things move so fast. I’m working at Davern’s—selling neckwear. It’s real pleasant.”
“You don’t look as though it agreed with you. You’re getting scrawny,” he said conclusively. “Well, Carlotta, I’m hungry as a bear. I’m going to order some supper, but you must stay and help me eat it.”
“Oh, I’ve had mine, thank you,” Carlotta returned lightly. She flushed as she saw his glance fall upon the telltale morsel upon her plate, and again as she heard him ordering chicken and mashed potato and salad and apple cobbler—for two.
“And coffee. You still drink coffee, don’t you, Carlotta? I remember your Aunt Jane’s and how good it tasted, coming hot and fragrant out of that old tin pot. Coffee making is getting to be a lost art with these new contraptions called percolators. My sister’s got one. You know she and Ed had moved into their new house, didn’t you? That leaves the old home empty except for me. And I shan’t be there, for I’m going west.”
“Going—west?” Carlotta repeated. The news gave her a curiously sick feeling. She covered her cheeks with her hands to hide them.
“Yes, clear to San Francisco. The firm’s sending me. I start tonight. Don’t you envy me?”
“Yes, I do,” Carlotta said. “You’ll have a wonderful trip. Just__”
He interrupted, leaning toward her across the table. “Wouldn’t you like to go?”
Carlotta sighed. “I don’t dare think about it. Of course, I know, I never shall.”
The waiter put the food between them and departed. Carlotta lifted her fork and first mouthful took the taste of the sandwich out of her mouth forever. “Oh, it’s so good,” she murmured. “I believe I am hungry, after all. Will, this chicken is almost as good as Aunt Jane’s used to be, isn’t it?”
He shook his head, smiling: “Nothing could equal that. Do you remember how we used to save the wishbone to break when it was dry? And once we both wished for sleds and it flew all to pieces. But we got sleds just the same. Carlotta,” continued Will, earnestly, “don’t you think it a pity that all that old comradeship should be wasted? We never quarreled as children. We wouldn’t quarrel now. We’re in the same key, and that always makes for harmony. Carlotta, say, marry me and go west with me tonight.”
“Marry you!” Carlotta exclaimed. She dropped her fork. “Oh, Will!”
“Why not? What’s to hinder? Telephone to the store manager. Pack what you must have. We’ll get a license, find a ministers and—won’t you, Carlotta?”
“You’ve known me always. I’ve know you and–. Why, I love you, Carlotta. I can make you so happy. We’ll make our trip, then we’ll settle down in the old house. You know what that is. Don’t you see, Carlotta, I can’t go and leave you here in this place? Now that I’ve seen you I can’t possibly. You must come with me. The train leaves at 11:15. It’s 6:30 now. Plenty of time.”
Carlotta felt dazed. To marry Will Galt and go to California with him, and to live in the dear old house where she had played so much in her childhood! To be back in Otisville, loved, secure, at rest! Heaven scarcely offered more. She felt like throwing out her hands to him and crying: “Oh, Will, take me! I’ve always cared for you! I went away because I was too proud to stay when I thought you didn’t care for me. And it’s hard—hard for all my courage and resolve.” Instead she drew back. “I can’t,” she faltered.
Will’s face grew long and stern. “Some one else?”
“N-no, no, indeed!”
“Oh, I can’t tell you!” Tears came stingingly at the end of a hysterical little giggle.
In the glass beside them she saw herself, black frock, shabby black coat, still shabbier black hat, the last of her mourning for Aunt Jane. She had nothing else, not another thing that she could wear to be married in. And how could she be married in mourning? It made her shiver to think of it. And she could not tell Will. If she told him he would rush out to some place and buy her a dress, and she could not permit that. In the town where she had been brought up men did not buy frocks for their brides to be married in. She would rather wear the black dress than incur such a shame. And she could not wear the black dress.
If she had any money at all she could buy the dress for herself, but that morning she had paid her room rent, which left her exactly 87 cents to tide her over until her next pay envelope.
“It’s no use, I can’t.” She had gathered all her forces. “Don’t let’s talk about it any more, Will. Let’s be friends.” She drew on her gloves so nervously that the thinnest one split across the palm. She gazed awestruck at the disaster, then clenched her hand on it and stood up. She was about as white as her collar. And Will, on the other side of the table, was white, too.
“Well, I can’t kidnap you, that’s certain,” he said. “You’re old enough to know your own mind. But I think you’re making a mistake.
They did not speak again until they were on the street. Then he said rather brokenly: “If—if you should change your mind, Carlotta, you can ‘phone me at the Carlton. I’ll be there until my train leaves. Now, which car shall I put you on?”
When 15 minutes after she entered her own room Carlotta felt she had put aside her one chance for happiness and the great adventure because she could not be married in a black dress. She sank upon the bed and buried her face in the thin pillow For a few moments she had all the agony of tears without any tears at all. Then suddenly she became aware that some one else was crying near at hand, on the other side of the thin partition. She turned her head and listened. In that room lived a girl whom she did not think much of –a fussy little person who jingled and swished when she walked and left trails of scent behind her. She worked in the ten-cent store, Carlotta believed.
Carlotta had always avoided May Bagley like the plague, but now the sound of those sobs aroused her pity and made her forget her own trouble. Maybe she could do something for the poor little butterfly suffering so audibly from singed wings. A moment later she knocked at the other girl’s door. A piteous voice bade her enter and she walked in. May Bagley sat huddled in a chair and beside her on the floor was the letter which evidently had caused all her woe. She lifted her wretched face to Carlotta’s.
“Oh, it’s you, Miss Thayer!” she tearfully said. “I’m so glad. You’ll understand. I was afraid it was that horrid old Miss Dix that was never young or anything in her life. She’d tell me it served me right not to have a decent thing to wear to Uncle Nat’s funeral or any money to buy with. And—and I’ve got to go, for you see—“ She was sopping at her wet face with a little pink and white rag, which was still wetter. Carlotta silently held out to her one black-edged handkerchief. May looked at it. “That’s just what I need,” she said. “Oh, Miss Thayer, it’s—it’s awful. If I don’t go to Uncle Nat’s funeral dressed appropriately Aunt Hat will never speak to me again. And there’s money coming to me if I do. Oh, I wish I were dead! What’ve I been thinking of all this time to buy pink and blue and green things that I can’t wear at all?”
As Carlotta looked down at her fluffy blond head she suddenly remembered herself and her own predicament and a thought came to her—a thought so scintillant and joyful and daring that she laughed out loud. She knelt beside May. “Listen!” she said. “We’re about the same size. You take my clothes and lend me some of yours.”
The girl looked up hopefully. “Honest? Do you mean it?” she cried.
“Yes. It will help me out. For while you want mourning” –here Carlotta smiled—“I need a colored dress and I haven’t one or any money. If I don’t have it—“
“You’ll lose some money, too?”
“No,” Carlotta replied: “I lose more than money. I lose the chance to marry the man I’ve wanted all my life.”
May Bagley leaped up and snatched Carlotta to her in a hug. “There’s a man in my story, too,” she said; “a home man. Now, let’s swap.”
From her closet she brought a pink dress and a taupe hat, with a pink rose and a corduroy coat edged with fur—cheap, showy garments, but the most beautiful to Carlotta at that moment of any she had ever seen. A few moments of deft movements and the transformation was complete.
And then the telephone! Just for a moment Carlotta lost her voice when she heard Will’s voice over the wire.
“You’ve changed your mind? God be thanked! I’ll be there in 15 minutes in a taxi, Carlotta. Oh, you darling girl!”
At 11:20 that night a radiant young pair sat holding hands on the west-bound limited. The girl had just told the story of the black dress. At that moment on the platform of a little country station another girl in shabby black was being folded in the arms of a stern faced old woman. But being an experienced little person she kept her story to herself.
Honolulu [HI] Star-Bulletin 4 December 1919: p. 14
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil wonders if working in a ten-cent store makes one a more experienced little person than working in cuffs and jabots. Perhaps the clientele consisted of Mashers and Dudes. Mrs Daffodil also wonders why the well-set-up Will was not off fighting the Hun in France.
There are several elements of lingering superstition in this story: Carlotta (and that is quite the exotic name for someone from Otisville with an Aunt Jane) may have also felt sick because Will’s phrase “going West,” was a common euphemism for dying. We may wonder at Carlotta’s hysteria about her black wardrobe, but readers would have remembered a well-known rhyme: “Married in black, you’ll wish yourself back,” which explains Carlotta’s refusal to be married in mourning. Mrs Daffodil cannot help but think that cheap, showy garments cannot be much luckier. “Married in tat, his love will fall flat” about sums it up.
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.