The Haunted Dress: 1850s

1850s blue brocade ball gown, Augusta Auctions

THE HAUNTED DRESS

I am no longer a young girl. The age of illusions is over with me, and that which I state now, I state with a calm conviction in its truth which no amount of incredulity can shake. It is many years ago since I was a school-girl. It chanced that I formed a friendship with a girl of my own age, but not of my own temperament. Our physiques differed as widely as did our fates. She had been christened Emmeline, but to me, and to others of her familiars, she was always Milly Deane. A handsome brunette, with a wealth of colour and vitality about her that made of her large-pupilled grey eyes two dancing stars, and of her rounded firm cheeks two ever-blooming roses. A fine upright girl, whose attitudes never required correction at the tongue of the stiffest of governesses, and whose back never was condemned by the ignominy of a board. In the days of which I write, if Milly Deane was a fair embodiment of night, I was a fairer one of morning ; for I had waves of feathery ringlets of bright gold, when she had pounds of bonny brown ones ; and pale pink roses in my cheeks in place of her crimson blooms. The daughters of the royal tribe of wanderers–those dusky flowers who break into bloom all over the land simultaneously whenever the sun shines genially–had told our fortunes over and over again. I, Annette Davant, was to love, and be loved by, a dark gentleman, whose lot was cast in India, whither I was to accompany him, and live a life of Oriental splendour, amongst elephants, and punkahs, and Cashmere shawls. Milly, on the contrary, was to marry young young and happily a gentleman who rolled in wealth in the city, and to have a large family, and a long life, and everything else that the heart of woman can desire. We accepted these prophecies with assumed incredulity, and real belief. We left school the same quarter, and came out at the same county ball. Our homes were not very far apart. Milly Deane’ s home was in the high street of a flourishing country town; a tall, square, considerable mansion of red brick, with white stone copings, which her father had bought the freehold of on his attaining the position of first solicitor in the neighbourhood. My home was more exclusively situated. It was an old, rambling, picturesque Grange, in the environs of one of the prettiest villages of Norfolk. A house with an oaken parlour, and a cedar room in it, with a grand old grey-balustraded terrace in front of it, and with our coat-of-arms carved massively on a shield over the entrance door. It was in this house that I came home to live just before Milly Deane and I made our debut at the county ball. Ours was a very small family. It consisted only of my mother and myself. Our household was composed of a number of old, stolidly-unimaginative servants, who had lived with us for years, and to whom our interests and our nerves were of the dearest consequence. They were tenacious, too, about the regulation of the house. Idle rumour asserted it to be haunted by a discreditable ancestress, but none of those then resident in the house had either seen anything or heard anything when I left school with Milly Deane. In the order of things–at least in what appeared to be the order of things to young girls’ minds–my favourite schoolfellow and I deemed it incumbent upon ourselves to spend a large portion of our time together. It was easy enough to ride and drive over to see one another constantly; but that did not satisfy us. Friendship demanded that we should stay at each others’ houses–that our morning aspirations and evening conclusions should be breathed in each others’ ears–and the demands of friendship were attended to. We did these things, and I don’t know that we were ever the worse for doing them, in spite of the current scepticism which mocks at all that it does not understand.

The county ball, at which Milly Deane and I were to make our first appearance as grown-up and eligible young ladies, came off in the Christmas week of 1850. It had been the source of joy and woe to us both for at least a fortnight previously– that is to say, we were charmed at the idea of going–but, as became young women to whom it was still left to make the first impression, we stood very much upon the order of our going, and were severe, even in our slumbers, with audacious dressmakers, who presumed to hold adverse opinions to ours on the important subject of when it was needful for our costumes to come home. For several days before the great event Milly had been staying at the Grange with me, sharing my room, as well as my costumes, cares, and creating a feeling of dismay in the minds of one or two of our old servants by her obstinate persistence in stating that the house was haunted. It was about a week before the ball that she confided her conviction to me, first quite calmly. I had run up hurriedly into my room one afternoon, when darkness was just creeping over things, meaning to dress quickly for the dinner, that my dear mother never liked to have kept waiting. I burst into the room, with my hat and habit on, my hair blowing about somewhat loosely, and my whip in my hand, just as I had come in from riding since two o’clock. Candles were burning on my dressing table, and, by the fire, Milly stood ready dressed in a soft amber silk, which became her dark glowing beauty well. She was speaking and laughing as I came into the room; and, to my surprise–for I made sufficient noise–she did not look up at my entrance. The words I caught were, “Will call me the yellow crocus still, for I wore this dress the last night he saw me.” I looked round the room in an instant. There was no one but ourselves in it. She must have been speaking to herself–yet that was never a habit of hers. In that instant my face had time to pale, and my flesh had time to creep. “Milly,” I exclaimed, and she looked straight at me without the slightest start or hesitation. As her gaze fell upon me, though, she gave vent to a surprised ejaculation, “Annette, how have you managed to metamorphose yourself in this minute?” she asked quickly, and I said–“In this minute, indeed! I am very much as I have been ever since I started for my ride, I believe.” Milly Deane came and put her hand on my shoulder. and looked at me with bewildered eyes. ” You came in some time ago, Annette–half an hour ago, at least.” she said earnestly. “I didn’t. I wish I had; I shall be late for dinner, as it is.” I answered, beginning to hurry off my riding gear. “But you did.” she repeated emphatically. “How silly of you to try to mystify me! why you should have taken the trouble to put on your habit again, puzzles me.” “I have never had it off, Milly,” I said, rather crossly; “it is you who are trying to mystify me, talking to yourself aloud, and arraying yourself in amber silk, as if some one was coming.” “I was not talking to myself, I was talking to you,” she said, indignantly; “and you told me yourself to put on this dress, when you said Captain Danvers was coming.” “I have never spoken to you since luncheon,” I said, “and as to Captain Danvers, I have never even heard of him.” Her face blanched, as I spoke, with a sort of horror that quickly reflected itself in mine. “You never told me to put on this dress because he was coming?” she said. interrogatively. “No, I didn’t,” I said, shaking my head. “Do go and ask Mrs. Davant if you didn’t come with that message to me, half an hour ago. Stay! I’ll come too. I dare not be alone now.” “I shall not face mamma until dinner is ready,” I said, going on with my dressing. “Half an hour ago I was two miles away from home, in the middle of the common, on Cock Robin.” “Then the house is haunted,” Milly said; “and I have seen and spoken to a spirit. And it was like you,” she added stammeringly; and then she sat down, and seemed to be trying to collect herself. I had a very natural elucidation to offer, both to her and to myself, of this seeming mystery. “You probably sat down by the fire when you came up to dress?” I asked her. She nodded assent. “There is the clue to your mental maze.” I said, rather scornfully. “The heat overcame you, and you slept and dreamt a dream that has bothered you.” “It may have been a dream; but if it was, I am not awake now,” she said, slowly; “it was so vivid–so horribly vivid. I will just tell you how it all happened or how it seemed to happen,” she said. “I was sitting by the fire in my dressing-gown, when you came quickly into the room, dressed in a blue silk, with a quantity of Christmas roses in your hair and on your bosom. You didn’t look at me, but you said, ‘Make haste, and dress yourself in your amber silk, Milly; mamma wishes it.’ And when I asked, ‘Why?’ you said, ‘Oh! because Captain Danvers is coming to dinner.’ Then you went again, and I dressed: and that is all.” “A dream!” I said laughing. “Now, I am ready: mamma will think you crazy when she sees you such a swell. Who is Captain Danvers?” “An army officer,” Milly said, with a young country girl’s pride in knowing a military man. “I saw him several times while I was up in London with my aunt.” “You never mentioned him to me,” I said. “I know that,” she said, blushing a little. “I made myself a goose about him, so aunt said,” she continued, laughing, “and so I have held my tongue about him since; but I was very glad indeed when you told me just now that he was coming here to dine.” “When you dreamt it,” I insisted; and then we went in to dinner, and told this joke, as we both began to consider it, to mamma.

By the time the ball came off, we had nearly forgotten Milly’s vision, as she would insist on calling it. It does not in the least matter my mentioning now, at this distance of time, that Milly and I were the rival belles of the evening. We were young, we were fresh, we were pretty–above all, we were new. Being both under the wing of the same chaperone, we met at long intervals during the progress of the ball, and in the midst of my own triumphs I found time to notice that Milly was frequently on the arm of a handsome, distinguished looking man, a stranger, who was in the uniform of an infantry regiment. “That is Captain Danvers, Annette,” she had time to whisper to me once in the evening; and from the tone of that whisper I judged that she fancied she had met with her fate. I soon knew Captain Danvers very well indeed; for shortly after that ball, he became Milly Deane’s declared lover. I have called him distinguished looking, and so he was to our girlish eyes. Perhaps if we looked at him with the matured vision of to-day, we might substitute the word unhealthy for distinguished, and be considerably nearer the mark. But in those days he was, if not a god of beauty, a very fair object of admiration to us. He was very tall and very slight, and his hair and eyes were both black and shining, and his face was of almost a ghastly pallor. Unquestionably he was a very striking looking man; and we stricken ones, in those early days, pronounced him an Apollo. He talked in a way that was quite new to us both, too. We trembled, but admired, when he avowed his beliefs, which were few, and his non-beliefs, which were many. His shallow scepticism, and his mystical metaphysical allusions, seemed to be very brilliant things to us in those early hours of our luckless intercourse with him. Yet all the time I felt him to be a dangerous man and wondered how Milly’s infatuation would terminate for herself.

They were married in about four months from the ball at which they had renewed their acquaintance. Milly went off to India almost immediately with her husband, and so we parted, my pretty friend and I. And soon a romance of my own swept her romance from my mind and memory, although for herself I had a warm affection still. I settled down into the happy wife of a prosperous man, and the proud mother of fair good children. Milly and I corresponded with tolerable regularity. Of her husband she never spoke after the first six months or so of her marriage. That she was a disappointed and unhappy woman I could not fail to perceive.

At the end of five years Mrs. Danvers came home alone on a sort of sick leave which had been granted her by her husband. We were living in London at the time, and it seemed to me only natural that my solitary friend should have made our house her home. The very morning after her arrival in town I went to the hotel at which she had given me her address, and solicited her to do so. But she refused decidedly at once, saying that she was better alone for many reasons. I questioned her closely, with the loving curiosity my affection for her entitled me to display, as to how she was wont to pass her time, and whether her husband and herself were sympathetic in their pursuits or not. “Very sympathetic!” she said once, rather harshly. “We both like to please ourselves.” “Have I been superseded, Milly?” I persisted. “Have you any female friend in India who seems nearer and dearer to you than I do?” “I haven’t a female friend besides yourself in the world,” she said, quietly; “not one I assure you, Annette; not one that I would go a yard out of my way to confide a joy or a sorrow to.” “You would confide both to me if we were thrown much together again,” I said, determined not to be rebuffed. “Not trivial ones.” “Great ones, then?” I said. She moved uneasily off the sofa on which she had been reclining, and stood with her back to me, gazing out of the window. “Great ones, perhaps,” she said slowly, after a long pause.

“Annette,” and she turned round suddenly upon me, “shall I promise you that in the greatest trouble of my life I will come to you? I will so promise if you wish it.”

“You may not be able to come to me,” I began protesting. I was going on to say, “but I hope you will always write to me if–,” but she interrupted me. “I may not be able to come to you in the flesh,” she said emphatically ; and I answered “That is exactly what I meant; but you will write?” She nodded her beautiful head and said,–“I promise that, in my greatest trouble, I will come to you, Annette; and you, on your part, promise that you will not shrink from me.” An interruption occurred just then, and we never renewed the subject. “Annette,” she said to me one day, when we were sitting alone, talking over schoolgirl days, “have you a blue dress trimmed about the body and sleeves with Christmas roses?” “No,” I said, laughing; “haven’t you forgotten my ghostly visitation to you yet?” “No, I haven’t forgotten that ghostly visitation, and I never shall forget it.”

Milly Danvers stayed in England about eight months ; then she re-embarked for India, “which I shall probably never leave again,” she said sadly. “Does the climate try you so very much?” I asked anxiously. “Cruelly! cruelly!” she said warmly; “I can’t live there long.” “Does Captain Danvers know this?” I asked, indignantly. “Yes, dear champion of mine;” she said, affectionately. “Why else should he wish me back?” she said, curling her lip a little; “of course he knows it. Captain Danvers would not miss me–” “Oh, yes, he would!” I interrupted, hastily; her tone was so desperately despairing, that I could not bear it. “Oh, yes, he would! why else should he wish you to go back to him?” “Because no questions are asked, either about gradual decay, or sudden death there,” she said; and then she peremptorily decreed that nothing more should be said about it. We parted very soon after this, and when I heard from her that she had arrived in their cantonment in the Madras Presidency safely, the gloomy impression upon my mind by our last interview faded away.

Months passed away, and Christmas-tide was upon us. We had arranged a juvenile party on the occasion of our eldest child’s seventh birthday, and. in decking out my little men and women, and arranging my rooms, I overlooked that usually important matter–my own toilette. A couple of days before our juvenile ball, I laughingly told my husband of my dilemma. “I haven’t a ball dress fresh enough to wear in honour of our little Milly,” I said to him, “and really I have no time to go to my dressmaker.” “I will go and order you one; leave it to me, Annette,” he replied; and I agreed to do so, only stipulating that he should not make me too fine, and that he should avoid pink. The night of little Milly’s ball arrived in due season; and, fatigued with my exertions, I went up to my dressing-room, determined upon resting until it was time for me to dress. My robe had not come home yet, but I could rely on Madame Varcoe’s honour–she had said that it should be home by half-past eight at the latest, and I knew that she would keep her word. Feeling thus easy, I fell asleep, and slept a dreamless sleep of some hour and a half. Then I awoke, and found my dress laid out ready for me to put on, and my maid waiting to do my hair. “It’s one of the prettiest dresses Madame Varcoe has ever made for you,” my maid said, as I cast a glance towards the bed, “a most delicate rich blue, trimmed with the most loveliest Christmas roses.” Strange as it may appear–at least, strange as it does appear to me now–I gave no thought at the time to the coincidence between my actual dress and the dress of Millv Deane’s dream. My head was full of other things, and memory was effectually put to flight by the entrance of my three little girls, vociferously declaring “that I should be late, and that it seemed as if people were never coming.” But the little guests came all in good time, and enjoyed themselves almost as much as I did. I say almost as much as I did advisedly, for that must be the happiest ball for a woman which she organises for the first time for her eldest child. At any rate, I can imagine no higher Terpsichorean happiness than this. Yet the day has been (not so very long ago either) when I enjoyed a ball as gaily as the gayest.

It was over at last, and when I had seen my pleased and sleepy children safely into their respective beds, I went slowly to my own room, and sat down by the fire to wait for my husband. I had told my maid that I would dispense with her services, and so I sat alone, and pleased myself with recalling the little ebullitions of childish pleasure which I had witnessed that night. My husband was down in his study still, looking through the evening papers, the late editions of which had been neglected by him in his endeavours to contribute to the little people’s entertainment. It must have been about two o’clock in the morning when I roused myself from my cheerful reverie, and stood up to commence my preparations for retiring for the night. The chair I had been occupying was a large massive carved oak one, with a very high back. As I stood up, I became conscious, without seeing anything, that some one was leaning on this back, and, thinking that it must be my husband, I said quietly, “You have come at last, dear?” “At last,” a very soft voice whispered–breathed rather; and then I turned round startled, and saw nothing on the spot from whence the voice had proceeded. A nameless horror, a dreadful fear possessed me. I could not cry out; even in my agony of fear I revolted against doing that. When I could move–and for a few moments I was quite unable to do so–my impulse was to get nearer to the gas, which was low, and turn on a brighter light. I had two lamps in my room, one on either side of my cheval glass; and as I reached up to turn on a higher light, I caught sight of myself. I was in just such a dress as Milly had described me as wearing when she saw me, or fancied that she saw me, or dreamt that she saw me. Sick and horrified, and chilled with a more than mortal dread, I staggered back to my chair, and buried my face in my hands. Something swept softly up to me from a darker corner of the room, swept softly up and stood beside my chair. I felt the air grew heavier, as occupied air does grow. I heard low breathings; some one was bending over me nearer and nearer. Then the breathings formed themselves into words, into a word rather, and I heard my own name murmured distinctly,

“Annette, Annette,” and I knew that it was murmured in Milly Danvers’ voice. I shuddered, and tried to look up. I took my hands down from before my face, and strove to lift my eyes and strove in vain. I could not do it. I had a dread of being so awfully frightened that I might never recover it. That Milly Danvers was standing close to me I was well assured. But I was also well assured that it was not Milly Danvers in the flesh. Then I remembered the words she had spoken to me. “I will promise to come to you in the greatest trouble of my life,” she had said ; and I felt, as her words flashed back upon me, that my friend must be in fearful trouble now. Again the impalpable presence spoke, “Annette, remember the hour! note it!” Shiveringly, shudderingly I raised my eyes at last, and there, gilding away into the shade by the side of the bed, I saw a slight frail form. Instantaneously I turned to my clock. The hour hand stood at three, the minute hand at five minutes past twelve. I grasped the bell, “all my soul within me sinking,” and rang such a peal as quickly brought my husband to my side. I wrote to Milly the following day, and I got no answer. I wrote again, and my second letter shared the fate of my first one. Then I gave up the attempt to elucidate whatever of mystery there was in the affair, and tried to forget it–and could not. Just twelve months after this I was spending the Christmas week, together with my husband, at the house of one of his married sisters in the country. We arrived just in time to dress for dinner, and in the brief interval between my going up to my room for that purpose, and being joined by my husband, my sister-in-law came to speak to me for a minute. “We have a goodly party dining here to-day, Annette,” she said. “Captain Danvers expressed the greatest pleasure at meeting you again.” “Captain Danvers! is he here?” ” He is, with his wife,” she said, shutting the door, and running off; and I was left alone, repeating to myself, “His wife! Then Milly is not dead!” and then we dressed, and went down to dinner. I recognised Captain Danvers the instant I got into the drawing-room. He was considerably altered; still I knew him at a glance. I looked round the room. Milly was not there. Impulsively I went up to him and asked, as I took his offered hand, “Where is your wife?” “She will be here in a few moments,” he answered, smiling his old, brilliantly flashing smile and the wild throbbing at my heart ceased. She was alive, and she was here! That was sufficient for me. I curbed my impatience, and stood still, watching the door. Two or three ladies, strangers to me, entered the room, and, a moment after, my brother-in-law asked a gentleman to take me down to dinner. We all went down. Captain Danvers was on the opposite side of the table, at some little distance from me. I looked round the table, and Milly was not there. The dinner that day seemed to be an endless affair to me. I was most impatient to ask our hostess where Mrs. Danvers was. I went to her the moment we got into the drawing-room, ” Where is Mrs. Danvers?” I said; “she is my dearest old friend, and I’m longing to see her.” “You might have renewed your acquaintance at the table, then, surely,” she said, pointing out a fair, pretty young woman whom I had observed sitting very near to me at dinner. “That Mrs. Danvers! impossible!” “But the truth, notwithstanding,” she said, laughing; “she is a bride, and a beauty, and altogether rather an acquisition to my Christmas party, I consider.” I was almost stunned at the revelation of Milly’s death; and when Captain Danvers, later in the evening, came sauntering up to me suavely, saying, “Now, at last, I can renew my very pleasant acquaintance with you,” I cut him short at once by saying, “Captain Danvers, when did Milly die?” “Last Christmas Eve,” he said. ” At five minutes past three?” I asked eagerly, and he said—“Yes.” And as he said it the two ghostly episodes which connected the three (Milly, Captain Danvers, and myself) together, stood out like bodily presences before my eyes.

My story is finished. Call it a ghost story, a fable, a fancy—what you will. I can only declare that the spiritual visitations actually occurred. Milly’s fate was never cleared up. She died, we learnt afterwards, after a long, tedious illness which defied the medical skill that was called in, nearly at the last, by her philosophically calm husband, Captain Danvers.

The Bradford [West Yorkshire England] Observer 18 November 1869: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: How very solicitous of Captain Danvers to recall his ill and unhappy wife to that place where no questions are asked, either about gradual decay, or sudden death–and where physicians called to a death-bed, are commendably discreet about the belated summons. One wonders whether the Captain (who had surely attained the rank of Colonel) retained the services of the same medical gentleman when he tired of his beauty of a bride.

Touching though it is to see the two friends reunited by the late Milly’s apparition, it would be far more satisfying to see the first Mrs Danvers haunt the Captain so that he would be found dead in his bed with an expression of stark, staring horror on his ghastly, pallid face and a scrap of amber silk clutched between his fingers.

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 anecdote

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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