The Ball Dress: 1890

THE BALL DRESS

Mary Kyle Dallas

“You are invited to the regiment ball, my dear,” said Mrs. Ackland as her daughter entered the room, her dripping waterproof and umbrella giving evidence of a sturdy battle with the storm that could be plainly heard even through closed shutters and dropped curtains on that upper floor. “The most polite letter from Col. B__, and knowing that I forsook society long ago, Mrs. Col. B__ will take you with her own girls; it is really charming of her. Here is the ticket.”

The elderly lady’s frail fingers drew two elegant squares of pink and gold pasteboard from an envelope as she spoke. But the girl, having hung the waterproof in an adjacent kitchen and perched her umbrella where it could drip harmlessly into the stationary tubs of said kitchen, did not even pick them up.

“It would be better to publish the fact that I have retired from society also, mamma,” she said, a little sadly.

“You!” cried her mother. “At 20, Effie?”

“It comes to that when one has one black frock,” said Effie,” and that patched at both elbows.”

“You could go in white,” said her mother, “you look very girlish. Gentlemen admire white, or used to. White and a few flowers and no jewelry—no one could find fault with that style. The greatest heiress in Boston when I was a girl was known for her simplicity—always white.”

“I fancy I should be if I went in a sheet and pillow case costume,” said Effie. “Really, that would be the only white one I could manage. That poor old white dress that still exists in your memory is short in the waist, shorter in the skirt, won’t meet in the belt, and has a sleeve that would not go over my wrist. I’ve grown a great deal in five years, mamma.”

“Is it five years since you went to your cousin Jennie’s wedding in it?” cried Mrs. Ackland. “Dear, dear, how time flies. Couldn’t you make over one of my old silks?”

“I should be a laughing stock, mamma” said Effie. “Well, I can live without going to the ball, though I should enjoy it very much.”

“The daughter of Capt. Ackland ought to have opportunities,” said the widow. “How are you to marry if you never meet any one I cannot think. A pretty girl like you was never meant to be a spinster and work for her bread.”

“Things point in that direction now,” said the girl. “Typewriting is not a lively amusement, and I am as likely to marry as I am to go to China. Don’t sigh so bitterly, mamma. It would only make you lonelier if I went to the ball, and I should be up late and make mistakes next day—lose my place, perhaps. I’ll write a very polite regret when I get some fine note paper. Now, let us have tea.”

“The little brown teapot, the two blue cups and plates to match, were soon on the table. Effie Ackland had a way of making excellent little dishes out of next to nothing—it was very convenient under the circumstances—and though the girl pined for something besides the daily routine of typewriting and evenings spent in listening to her mother’s reminiscences of former grandeur—for Mrs. Ackland had been a belle and a beauty and an expectant heiress when she married the dashing young captain—it was the mother who bemoaned herself.

At last, tea being over, it was discovered that the storm had passed, and that moon and stars were shining, and Effie declared that she would run down to the little stationer’s and get some note paper of the proper sort on which to reply to the kind invitation and offer of the colonel and his lady.

It was a quiet neighborhood and very late, and Effie wrapped herself in a thick cloak and tied a little blue hood over her head and ran lightly down stairs and down the street toward the stationer’s shop. However, when she reached its door she found it closed. The old woman who kept it had expected no customers, and had retired early. Effie knew of another shop of the same sort a few blocks further on which was always open late, and turned her steps that way—at least she intended to do so. But there are still portions of New York city where it is very easy to lose one’s self, and besides Effie was not an old resident of that part of the town. Somehow she missed the right corner, crossed the street at the wrong angle, and shortly discovered that she was lost.

It was a gloomy and unpleasant street in which she found herself, and the girl was somewhat frightened. However, she decided that the best thing she could do was to keep on walking until she came to a decent shop or met a policeman of whom she could ask the way. She acted on this resolution with her usual promptitude, but for a long while she went on seeing nothing but liquor or cigar shops and meeting not a solitary guardian of the peace and came at last to an old building with a blank wall in the center of which an arched gate stood open.

Just as she stood opposite this gate two drunken men came howling down the street, and in terror of them she stepped beneath the arch. They passed without seeing her, but before she dared to venture out a light shone in her face, and turning she saw a figure in black, with red shoes, a red cap, horns, hoofs, a long tail, which he carried over his arm, and in his hand a great paper parcel—in fact, Satan as we see him portrayed in ancient pictures, acting for the nonce as messenger boy.

Startled beyond expression, Effie was about to fly, when the demon spoke.

“Well, mamselle, I’ve been waiting for you a long while,” was his characteristic remark. “I came so far to save time. Won’t you get a roasting!”

Then he tossed the parcel into her arms, turned and fled.

Effie fled also. What the demon had given her she did not know, but she quite mechanically clutched it as she flew along the lonely street, and by mere accident took the right direction and found herself at the corner of an avenue she knew. She arrived at her own door just in time—at least so her mother declared—to save that lady from going out of her mind with terror. She had no paper, but she had the parcel which the demonic personage had crammed into her hands to prove that she had not merely imagined the meeting with him, and now she unfastened the many pins that held it, unfolded the paper and sundry muslin wrappings within, and behold—a dress—the loveliest ball costume of golden satin and black lace that could be imagined.

The demon had presented her with a dress in which to attend the ball.

“What does it mean?” she ejaculated. “Really I feel as if I was out of my mind!”

“It must be providential,” said the mother. “Try it on, my dear.”

Effie obeyed. The costume fitted her perfectly.

“You look like an angel,” said the mother.

“But the demon said I should have a good roasting,” said Effie.

“It was only a man in some queer dress,” said the mother.

“Of course,” said Effie, “at least, I suppose so.”

“And now you can go to the ball,” said the mother.

“Shall I dare? Will I not find my costume vanishing, like poor Cinderella’s in the midst of my dance with whatever stands for the young prince at the officers’ ball of the regiment? I doubt if it will be here in the morning; besides I ought to advertise it, ‘If the fiend who presented a young lady with a black lace ball dress in a dark alley on the night of the __th will kindly call,’ or something of the sort.

“Oh, we will look into the papers, of course,” said the mother. “But I don’t believe we will find anything—fate intends you to go to the ball.”

So it seemed indeed.

Effie went to the ball and her dress was pronounced charming. In passing I will mention to the reader that it was there that she met the gentleman who afterward became her husband, and that much happened and all good fortune came to her through the demon’s gift of the ball dress.

No one ever advertised for the dress, and it hung in Effie’s wardrobe until her wedding day. She never wore it again, and never expected to solve the mystery that surrounded it.

Effie had married a rich man and lived in very elegant style, and a man servant was one of the necessaries of the household. Mrs. Ackland, who lived with her daughter, suggested a Frenchman, and having advertised for such a person a candidate presented himself. He had but one reference, but that was a good one.

“I will tell you the reason I have no more, madam,” said he. “I have had my ambitions—desired to go upon the state. I even obtained a position—I played a demon in the last act of a great spectacle at the __ theatre. There were seventy-five demons—it was glorious. But alas I got into difficulties there through my good nature. The renowned Senora V__ had been playing at the theatre, and left behind her a lace dress. She telegraphed that she would send her maid for it, as she was to wear it that night. Every moment was precious, and the old lady who had charge of me had sprained her ankle. ‘My friend,’ she said to me, ‘if you would but go down the long stairs and to the end of the passage and wait with the parcel until Mlle. Fanchon, the senora’s maid, comes for the dress, you will save us all much trouble—you will not be wanted for an hour.’

“I obliged her, of course. I even went into the damp alley of the back entrance and waited there. I was kept a tremendous time, and when at last a young woman rushed in I gave her the parcel like an idiot—without asking who she was. I gave it to the wrong woman. Fifteen minutes after the real maid arrived. Oh, there was a row! All I was worth would not have paid for the dress. But I was dismissed at once. I deserved it. It was the act of an idiot. How well do I remember what I said to her—“you’ll get a roasting, mamselle.’ Well, it was I who got the roasting. At first they accused me of stealing the dress, but–”

“I am sure you tell the truth,” said Effie, and engaged the man at once.

That day Senora V__ was astonished by receiving a box which contained the long-lost dress uninjured.

A letter which was enclosed told the story in full, but without giving any names, and Camille—the new waiter—never guessed that the liberal gift he received at Christmas time was offered, not to the accomplished waiter, but to the demon who had brought about so much happiness by his gift of a ball dress.

Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 7 November 1890: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Although it was most thoughtful of Mrs. Col. B___ to offer to chaperone, it was, of course, highly improper for a young, unmarried lady to wear a ball gown of gold satin and black lace, rather than something pale and virginal. Perhaps we may excuse the contretemps with a ruling  that black lace might, construed under the most liberal interpretation and in emergency circumstances, be called “second mourning.”

 

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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