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The Adventure of the Little Wax Figure: 1895

wax headed baby doll

The Adventure of the Little Lay Figure.

Amongst the many strange things which have befallen me in my career as Court dressmaker, I do not think any experience is more peculiar and out of the way than the one which I am about to relate. I allude now to the “Adventure of the Little Lay Figure.”

By degrees, the difficulties which had beset me in the outset of my career were one by one overcome. I was obliged to take new premises. My show-rooms were wonders of beauty and elegance. I engaged many apprentices, and was, in short, busy from morning till night, and perhaps I ought to add, from night to morning again.

The story which I am going to tell began at a late hour one evening. I was busy helping to arrange the skirt of a very splendid Court train, and was giving eager directions to one of the most experienced of my work women, when a message was brought to me to the effect that a gentleman wished to see me on urgent business in my show-room.

“He begs of you to go to him at once, madam,” said the girl who brought me the message.

My mouth was full of pins, and I held a pair of sharp scissors in my hand as I listened to her.

“Whoever the gentleman is, he looks in an awful taking,” she continued.

“Well, I’ll go to him,” I replied. I ran downstairs and entered my showroom. A tall man in an overcoat, and holding his hat in one hand, was pacing up and down in front of some of my daintiest dresses. A pretty pale blue frock for a little girl of ten, which was to be sent home that evening, seemed in especial to rivet his attention.

As I entered the room, he stooped and took a portion of the fabric between his finger and thumb. “You are Miss Ross?” he interrogated.

“Yes,” I answered. “You have made this?’’ he continued.

“Yes,” I replied again.

“It is in the height of the fashion, I hope?’’

“It is,” I said. “I have copied it from last week’s fashions in the __.” I mentioned the name of our leading journal of fashion.

The gentleman bowed slightly. “It appears to be the correct sort of thing,” he said, “not that I know anything really about such matters. My name is Forrester. I live about eight miles out of town. I require the services of a competent dressmaker without a moment’s delay. My carriage is waiting at the door. Can you come with me at once?’’

“Not to-night,” I began.

Mr. Forrester interrupted with an impatient wave of his hand. “Money is not of the slightest object to me,” he said. “I will pay you any sum you like to ask. Let your work go. This is an affair of life or death. I require your immediate services, and feel sure that you cannot refuse them to me. You will reach my house in an hour and a half. With the assistance that will be given you, you will probably do what is required in a few hours, and I will undertake to send you home as soon as ever your task is done.”

“I can send an able assistant,” I began.

“Pardon me, I must have someone I can trust. I like your face, and am willing to employ you in this most delicate matter. Will you come immediately or not? If you say no, I must seek instant assistance in another quarter. Now, is it yes or no?”

As he spoke I looked straight up at my queer visitor. He was a man of about thirty-five, his eyes were dark, and his hair and sweeping moustache were raven black. He looked like a man who had gone through a great mental storm, but there was something frank and even pleasant about his expression which impelled me not only to sympathise with him, but to like him.

“It is very awkward for me to go,” I said, “but the call of trouble cannot be refused. You must give me five minutes to get ready and to give a few directions to my workwomen, then I will be with you.”

“I am exceedingly obliged to you, Miss Ross,” he answered; he sank down on the nearest chair and uttered a heavy sigh of relief. I rushed away, and at the end of the appointed five minutes was again by his side.

“I am ready now,” I said, “but before we start it may be well for me to know something of  the sort of services which are required of me. I presume I am expected to assist in the making of an important dress. Is it for an old, a middle-aged, or a young lady?”

He gulped down a sort of choking sensation in his throat before he replied.

“The dress is for a child,” he said, “for quite a young child. It must be very soft and pretty, and above all things, fashionable.”

“Is the child dark or fair?” I asked.

His face grew whiter than before.

“The child is fair as an angel,” he said, bringing out the words with difficulty.

“Then perhaps it would be well for me to take some suitable stuffs with me,” I said.

I opened some drawers as I spoke, made a hasty selection from a lovely assortment of soft silks and crêpons, wrapped them up in brown paper, put them into a bag which I carried in my hand, and then followed Mr. Forrester to his carriage.

A footman in livery and powder opened the door for us.

“Tell Jenkins to drive home as fast as ever he can,” said Mr. Forrester to the man. We started forward immediately at a rattling speed, and in an incredibly short space of time found ourselves outside London and on a high road, which I could see in the moonlight was smooth and flat, and commanded a level sweep of country. We drove on for three-quarters of an hour without my companion addressing a single word to me. At the end of that time he broke the silence abruptly.

“I have asked you to come with me,” he said, “to execute a most strange and unusual task. The fact is, my wife has just gone through a terrible illness. Her health in consequence is in a very precarious, I may say dangerous, condition. Her life hangs by a thread, and a very slight shock would kill her. The means which I am about to employ, and in which I seek your assistance, seem the only possible ones to prolong a most valuable and precious life. Dressmaking is not accompanied by such grave issues as a rule, but this case is altogether exceptional.”

“I wish you would tell me frankly what you want me to do,” I said, nettled and somewhat alarmed by his mysterious words.

“I find it difficult to tell you,” he replied; “have a little patience, and you will soon know.”

There was such despair in his voice that I forbore to question him further, and soon afterwards we reached some gates, which were immediately flung open, and the horses plunged down a long avenue overshadowed by trees.

“Remember,” said Mr. Forrester, as we approached the hall door, “that money is no object—no object whatever. The mission I ask you to undertake for me is of so delicate a character that there are few women to whom I could entrust it. I feel sure, when you know all, that you will regard it as a secret. Here we are at last, thank heaven. Now, Miss Ross, have the goodness to follow me.”

We had drawn up at the entrance to a large mansion. A footman ran down a tall flight of steps to open the carriage door, and Mr. Forrester helped me to alight.

“Is Austin in the nurseries, James?” asked the master of the house.

“Yes, sir; Mrs. Austin told me to tell you that she was in attendance and was waiting for your arrival,” answered the footman.

“Very well. Please follow me, Miss Ross.”

We found ourselves in the stately entrance hall, but my host did not give me a moment to look around me. He hurried me down some long corridors and up some richly carpeted stairs, then down other passages and up other stairs, until we drew up at last outside a red baize door.

Here he paused for a second.

“Mrs. Austin can explain better than I can the peculiar services which are required of you,” he said. He opened the door as he spoke, and ushered me in. I found myself in a cheerful and beautiful room. A bright fire burnt in the grate. Wax candles and lamps added to the pleasant effect. The walls were hung with lovely pictures of childhood in many forms. A rocking-horse stood in one corner. A doll sat dismally up in a little arm-chair and stared at me with two round black eyes. The expression on that doll’s face seemed immediately to get on my brain. I turned away from it with a sinking of heart which I could not account for. A middle-aged woman, whose eyes were red as if she had been weeping, came eagerly forward when we appeared.

“I have brought Miss Ross, Mrs. Austin,” said Mr. Forrester. “She is an excellent dressmaker, and will do exactly what is required. See that she gets what assistance is necessary for her work. Miss Ross will be occupied all night, but I should wish to see her before she leaves in the morning.” Here Mr. Forrester turned and bowed to me; the next moment he had vanished.

“Will you take off your bonnet and cloak, Miss Ross?” said Mrs. Austin. I did so without speaking, and with hands which trembled slightly. There was evidently much tragedy in the mysterious affair in which I was called to play a part, and steady as my nerves were, they began to be affected.

Mrs. Austin stood quietly before me. She looked at me earnestly. Her lips were firmly set, but the red rims round her eyes showed the strong control in which she was keeping her emotions.

“Now what am I to do?” I asked. “Your master says I am to make a dress in a great hurry for a child; where is the child?”

“In this room, my dear. Follow me immediately if you please. Oh, you needn’t be frightened; it is nothing infectious.”

I followed the woman with a beating heart. The next moment I found myself in a room where a shaded light was burning, and where another woman, who looked like a trained nurse, was seated by a cot. Even in the darkened light I could dimly notice the outline of a child’s form. She lay perfectly still; her breathing was fast and hurried. The room had that faint, intangible smell which generally accompanies severe illness.

“Why am I brought to see a sick child?” I asked of Mrs. Austin in a whisper.

“Hush, don’t speak; you will know all in a moment,” she replied; then she turned to the trained nurse.

“This is the dressmaker, nurse,” she said. “Will it do Miss Dorothea any harm for Miss Ross to take one good look at her face and figure?”

The nurse shook her head in reply.

“Nothing will harm the child now,” she said; “she is dying fast. Dr. Norton was here not an hour ago, and he does not think she will live to see the morning.”

The woman spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. She took up a candle as she spoke, and motioned to me to approach the little bed. I did so, and looked down at the most beautiful child’s face I had ever seen. Already, however, it looked like a face cut out in wax, so deadly white were the cheeks and lips, so sunken the eyelids which sheltered the closed eyes. The child lay absolutely motionless, her feeble and hurried breath being the only signs that she lived. Her quantities of magnificent golden hair were flung high over the pillow. I gazed at her in pained astonishment. What was the mysterious mission which I was called upon to perform for this dying child?

“You have seen her,” said Mrs. Austin; “you notice that she is fair; observe her figure too; she is slender, very slender. Now, nurse, here are a pair of scissors; if you will cut off the hair, I think we can go immediately to work.”

“I will bring you the child’s hair in a few moments,” replied the nurse. “Miss Ross had better begin her task directly. I will follow you in a few moments into the day nursery.”

We left the room. I sank down on the nearest chair in the outer apartment.

“This frightens me,” I said. “I cannot imagine what task I am expected to perform.”

“Oh, you’ll be brave enough,” said Mrs. Austin; “it isn’t for you to flinch when we have to go through with it. Now listen to me. I’ll tell you the tragedy of this house in a few words. The dying child we have just come from is the heiress to all this splendid old place—not that that matters—what am I talking of? Wealth is of little matter in a supreme moment of this kind. Now listen to me, Miss Ross. My master, Mr. Forrester, is the most devoted husband and father in the world. A month ago there were no happier people on earth than Mr. and Mrs. Forrester and the dear child whom God is taking away from us.

Six weeks ago Mrs. Forrester became very ill. How she took the infection no one knows, but she suddenly developed the most awful form of smallpox.”

I could not help starting; the terrible words pressed like ice against my heart.

“You needn’t be frightened,” said Mrs. Austin. “Precautions of so perfect a nature have been taken that there is not the faintest risk of infection for any one in the house. For days my poor lady lay truly at death’s door; then her disease took an extraordinary turn—she became possessed with an almost insane longing to see her child. She had always been the most unselfish of mothers, and I can only conclude that the illness slightly turned her brain. No persuasions, no arguments had the least effect upon her; she moaned and cried for the child day and night; she said she did not want to touch her, but see her by some means or other she must and would. The doctors at last became quite alarmed, and said that her recovery depended on indulging this craving. After thinking matters over, they devised a plan by which the mother could see the child without risk to the little one. An air-tight window was introduced into Mrs. Forrester’s dressing: room; this dressing-room communicated with another room which was hastily fitted up as a sort of study for the child, and through this window day after day during her convalescence the mother has gazed at the child without the child seeing her, or knowing that she was there. As soon as the window was made, and Mrs. Forrester’s wish could be gratified, she began rapidly to get better; but on Monday last Miss Dorothea developed acute pneumonia, and, as you have just heard, her recovery is hopeless. To tell Mrs. Forrester the truth at this juncture would, the doctors say, bring on such a relapse that either her life or her reason must be the forfeit. She is anxiously counting the hours when she can again clasp the child to her heart, and knows nothing whatever of the terrible illness which is going to take the little one from her. The doctors are nearly distracted, and as to Mr. Forrester, you may imagine the state of his feelings. An idea, however, has occurred to the medical men, which they think may possibly be successful. What they want is time—time to allow Mrs. Forrester to get up her strength sufficiently to bear the blow of her child’s death. She is already fearfully anxious and suspicious at not having seen the child since Monday morning, when the illness first began. The nurses and doctors have put off her questions, and have tried to avert her suspicions in all kinds of ways, but I am told that to-night the poor lady is in a frantic state of unrest and misery—in short, Miss Ross, we have not a moment to lose.”

“I will do all in my power,” I said. “I don’t know in the least what I am to do, but you may be sure when you tell me I will do my very best.”

“Your work is straightforward enough,” replied Mrs. Austin. “Mr. Forrester has had a little wax figure made to resemble the child in all particulars. The child’s own hair is to be put upon the little figure, and you are to dress it. There are some peculiarities about Miss Dorothea which I will specially point out to you; all these you will carefully copy in the little effigy which is to represent her. The little figure is to wear a perfectly new and fashionable dress, which Miss Dorothea was to put on the next time her mother saw her, and which, of course, was never made when the child became so dangerously ill. Mrs. Forrester has always been most particular with regard to the child’s wardrobe, and knew that she was to wear a specially charming and fashionable frock when next she saw her. Now you know what you have got to do —you are to make a beautiful and becoming frock, and you are to give such a life-like air to the little figure, that when my poor lady sees it through the window, she will never guess that it is not Miss Dorothea herself. The figure can be seated with its back slightly turned to the window, and we hope that my poor mistress will never notice the terrible deception practised upon her.”

When I clearly understood what my work was to be, I sat perfectly still. My feelings of astonishment almost stunned me.

“Why don’t you speak?” said Mrs. Austin, giving me an anxious, dissatisfied glance.

“I have been thinking,” I replied, brisking up and rising to my feet as I spoke. “What you have told me has amazed—yes, and terrified me. I promise to do my best; oh yes, you may be sure of that, but  forgive me for saying I think your scheme has little chance of success.”

“It shall succeed,” interrupted Mrs. Austin.

“God grant that it may, if by it your poor lady’s life is saved; but have you not thought of the frightful risk? Remember you are playing with edged tools —you are going to practise this deception on a mother. I remember my own mother; I do not think the most perfect wax representation of one of her children could for a moment have deceived her. You say that Mrs. Forrester is to gaze at the little figure through a window.”

“Yes, yes; she has often since her illness looked at Miss Dorothea in the same way.”

“But the real Miss Dorothea has moved,” I said; “children are never still. The mother has watched each familiar gesture; she has seen the little face wearing many expressions. Now the wax figure—”

“We have thought of all that,” interrupted Mrs. Austin. “The little wax effigy is supplied with wires which will cause certain involuntary movements; the figure will wear the child’s own hair, and will be placed with its back to the mother. She will not dare to call to it, for she would not for worlds let the child see her poor scarred face until it is better. She has promised faithfully never to speak to the child when she looks at it through the window, and I do not for a moment believe she will break her word. In a few days now she will be free from infection, but until then nothing would induce her in her saner moments to risk frightening the child in any way. Oh, I know it is a terrible, terrible risk, but we are forced to run it. God grant that it may succeed.”

“I can fervently echo that prayer,” I responded; “and now let me set to work. I have brought some beautiful materials for children’s frocks with me, and will do my very best to dress the little figure so that the mother may be pleased.”

“We have a workroom all ready for you just beyond this nursery,” said Mrs. Austin. “My mistress’s maid and I will assist you all night. A hairdresser will also be in the room busily converting the child’s own hair into a little wig. Now come; we have not too much time.”

I followed Mrs. Austin, and a few moments later had begun my task. All night long I worked, directing my assistants and manufacturing with their aid one of the most lovely children’s dresses I had ever made. As the dress grew under my fingers I thought of the dying child who would never wear it. There was an ethereal quality about her little face which haunted me. As I worked I seemed to see her with her white wings, in the dress which the angels would give her to wear. I cannot tell why, but the whole tragedy of this most pathetic and terrible story seemed to get into the tips of my fingers, and to help me to fashion the white which I was making. It is impossible for me to describe exactly its particular cut and design. I only know that it looked like no other dress I had ever made. Even now, when I think of it, a lump gets into my throat and a dimness comes before my eyes. As the night wore on, I began to feel a tender affection for the poor little lifeless figure I was clothing. I had only seen the child in illness. When I looked at her sweet face, she was lying under the grey and awful shadow of death, but the little representation of her had been cunningly contrived to resemble the child in health. The colouring on its face was very faint, but the large eyes were blue and rich in their depths, the lips were slightly parted, there was the faint dawning of a happy smile in the expression. The hairdresser worked hard and without a moment’s intermission at the wig of golden hair. When it crowned the little head of the figure, I could not help exclaiming at the lifelike appearance it gave it.

As the hours flew on, my queer work fascinated me. I forgot that I was due in London at an early hour in the morning; my own affairs, my many orders, sank into insignificance. I thought of nothing but the dying child, and the mother who would surely die or become mad if she knew the truth.

When the dawn broke in the winter sky, the hairdresser and I had completed our work. The little figure was clothed in exact representation of the living child. Mr. Forrester was hastily summoned to look at it. His visible start and the colour which rushed over his face, leaving it the next moment deadly pale, were proof sufficient how well we had succeeded.

“You have done splendidly,” he said, coming up to me and speaking in a hoarse voice; then he hastily left the room to hide his emotion.

I had done my task, and under other circumstances would have returned to town, but at this moment there came a knock at the door, and Mrs. Austin went hurriedly to open it. She was absent for some little time talking to someone in the passage, then she returned to me.

“What is to be done now?” she said. “Nobody could have performed their part better than you have done, Miss Ross, and it would be unreasonable, more than unreasonable, to expect anything further at your hands.”

“Not at all,” I said. “I am much, I am deeply interested. In short, if your master will permit me, I should like to stay here until after the experiment of showing the wax figure to your mistress has been tried. I cannot rest until I know if it has been successful.”

“It must be successful,” said Mrs. Austin. “I can’t look at the little figure sitting by that table so natural and life-like without the tears springing to my eyes. Somehow it seems as if she must turn round and speak to us, sweet lamb; but dear, dear, I’m forgetting the new worry.”

“What is that?”

“My poor mistress has been in a very fretful and queer state all night. I have just seen one of the nurses, and she says that she has had a terrible time with her. There is really little or no doubt that the smallpox has slightly affected my mistress’s brain, and now nothing will satisfy her but to have a dress, which was not finished when she took ill, tried on, in order that she may wear it to-day when she looks at the child. It is blue velvet, and Miss Dorothea had taken a fancy to it, so I conclude that is the reason why the wish to wear it has got upon the poor lady’s brain. The nurses know nothing about dressmaking, nothing will induce Simkins, the lady’s maid, to go near my mistress, and—“

“You want me to go?” I interrupted.

“Would you be dreadfully afraid? The doctors say there is little or no infection now from the disease, and you could fit her in a new room into which she is to be moved this morning.”

I hesitated. In this critical moment, was the slight risk to my own life of much value?

“I will go,” I said, “and be vaccinated when I go back to town to-night.”

“Miss Ross, may heaven reward you. You are the bravest woman I ever met.”

“Tell me one thing before I go,” I said; “for it may not be safe for me to see you again. How is the child this morning?”

“Alive, but sinking fast. Oh, God, help the poor mother; if through your assistance, Miss Ross, we keep the terrible truth from her for a week, she will probably have strength to bear the blow when it really falls.”

“Pray give me some breakfast,” I said. “I will go to Mrs. Forrester immediately afterwards.”

“Come this way; what a good woman you are! We can never forget what you are doing for us.”

I had something to eat, and immediately afterwards was conducted to a large bedroom, where Mrs. Forrester and the two nurses, who waited on her day and night, received me. The poor lady herself sat behind curtains, which partly concealed the ravages which the terrible complaint had made on her face. The nurses were very cheerful and practical women. The blue velvet dress lay on a large table in the middle of the room. The skirt was completely finished, but the body required to be taken in and altered, as Mrs. Forrester had shrunk much during her illness. I went about my task in a matter-of-fact spirit, very different from that with which I had worked at the little white dress in the night. Mrs. Forrester talked while I pinned and altered; her dark and beautiful eyes had a slightly vacant look, but she was interested in her dress, stroking down the soft folds of the velvet with her emaciated white fingers. One of the nurses assured me that she would not be permanently marked by the smallpox, and would be quite as beautiful as ever after a time. All her talk while I fitted and arranged the dress was about little Dorothea.

“Be as quick as you can, Miss Ross,” she said many times. “My little girl must be beginning her studies now, and I am quite pining to look at her. It is some days since I have seen her. The child begged for a holiday, and has not been near the study. You see, she does not know that I look at her through the air-tight window, but you cannot guess how I long to see her. My heart is quite starved for another sight of my precious little darling. Nurse, when did you say that I should be quite free of infection? When do the doctors think it will be safe for me to kiss the child? To-morrow, nurse? Do they think it will be safe for me to kiss her to-morrow? Oh, pray don’t think of my poor scarred face; she won’t mind that, my sweet one. I may see her to-morrow, may I not, nurse?”

“Perhaps by the end of the week, dear madam, scarcely to-morrow,” answered the nurse.

“Oh, I have not patience to wait; how cruelly long the time is. Miss Ross, I see that you are a very accomplished dressmaker. You are making this dress fit me most beautifully. How did it happen that you were in the house?”

I thought for a moment, then I said boldly:

“I was sent for to make a new dress for Miss Dorothea.”

“That is delightful; I am most particular about the child’s clothes. I hope it is a pretty dress.”

“It is beautiful.”

“Is it finished?”

“Yes; she will wear it when you see her.”

Soon afterwards, my task being finished, I left the room. The reports from the child’s nursery were just the same; she was alive, and that was all; no one had a shadow of hope about her. Mrs. Austin, whose cheeks were the colour of peonies in her excitement, whispered to me that the little wax figure was now in the study, and that the mother would soon go to the window of her dressing-room to look at it. She left me almost immediately after giving me this information, and I found myself alone. A burning curiosity suddenly seized me to gaze at my own handiwork. There was no one by. I felt sure that I could find my way to the study. I determined to go there to take one good look at the effigy of the child. I stole away on tip-toe, found the room, and went in. by a table. I must own that I had never seen before, either in wax or marble, so lifelike a representation. One arm was pressed on the table, the small dimpled hand was supporting the child’s cheek. From where I stood, the profile could be slightly seen; the rich golden hair fell partly over the little hand, and cast a life-like shadow on the fair face. The clockwork within the figure had been evidently wound up, and it stirred now and then in the most absolutely natural manner.

“That little figure would deceive me,” I said to myself, “but can it take in a mother? That is the question which is so soon to be decided.”

I was still gazing at my own work, when a faint sound caused me to hide quickly behind a screen which happened to be in a part of the room. From there I could see without being seen. I saw the lady in her blue velvet dress come up to the window and look in with a long, earnest, hungry gaze. For a moment she was absolutely motionless. I kept looking at her, too fascinated, too intent to move. Was she satisfied? Would she go away after a time without detecting the awful sham which was being played upon her? She gazed on; she stood as if rooted to the spot. Suddenly, to my terror, I saw a new look come into her eyes, a suspicious, watchful look; it grew and deepened, the eyes filled with fear; the next instant she had left the window; the next, she had rushed into the room.

“I am here, Dolly, my darling—I am here. I must kiss you—I can’t live without kissing you,” she exclaimed. She made a long stride towards the little figure, and clasped the lifeless wax image to her breast. The next terrible moment shriek after shriek filled the room. I can never forget that sound. I can never forget the look on that woman’s face. She had spurned the little figure, which lay prone on the ground, and incoherent, wild, and mad words began to pour in a torrent from her lips. Mrs. Austin and Mr. Forrester both rushed on the scene. They did not notice me; from the first no one had seen me. I don’t know what impulse came over me just then, but I have felt since that I was guided by a Power higher and greater than my own. As if there wings to my feet, I ran from the room. I burst open the door of the night nursery where the dying child lay.

“Give her to me,” I said to the nurse. “Wrap something warm round her, and give her to me at once. She lives; perhaps she will not die; perhaps she will recover. At any rate, give her to me, at once . . . this moment. . . . It is the only chance.”

The woman stared at me as if I were mad. I did not mind her; the strength of a dozen women seemed to have got into me. When the nurse tried to prevent me, I pushed her aside. Quick as thought, I wrapped a warm blanket round the child, and rushing down the passage, carried her into the room where the poor mother was raving madly.

“Here she is,” I said, “your own child, your very own. She lives; take her, save her —let your great love save her—oh, I believe it will.” I put the child into Mrs. Forrester’s arms. The moment she lifted it she stopped muttering. The little one opened her sleepy eyes and gazed full up at her mother. She saw no scars, no ugliness in the well-loved face. She put up her hot hand to stroke it. Mrs. Forrester turned and bore her quickly out of the room.

The mother herself nursed the child back to life and health. Little Dorothea never took the smallpox.

The Woman at Home, “Stories from the Diary of a Court Dressmaker,” L.T. Meade, 1895: pp.  434 -444

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil, who has something in her eye, can add nothing to this tale.

That grim and grewsome [sic] person over at Haunted Ohio shared a strange story one Halloween about a ghastly wax effigy of a child with a less happy ending.

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.


The Snake-Charmer’s Peril: 1883


The Snake-Charmer in a Circus Nearly Crushed by a Huge Python.

A thrilling incident happened in Forepaugh’s circus, recently, while Nala Damajante, the Hindoo snake-charmer was going through her performance of handling half a dozen squirming pythons. It was all in the twinkling of an eye, and scarcely a dozen person in the great audience were aware that Damajante had for a moment been in deadly peril. She had finished the wonderful act of walking about the raised platform with six snakes coiled like a living head-dress over her forehead, and had taken the huge python, whose weight is nineteen pounds and length twelve feet from its box, and threw it across her shoulder. As she had done with the other snakes, Damajante grasped the powerful creature a few inches back of the head. Although the air was damp and chilly, the python appeared possessed of more than usual activity. It unwound its sinuous length from Damajante’s body and quickly coiled about the upper part of her chest and throat. To those nearest the performer, the muscles of the snake could be distinctly seen working beneath the spotted skin. Suddenly the reptile gave an angry hiss and darted its quivering tongue, and almost at the same moment the coil about the woman’s throat was tightened. Damajante’s agent, who was standing near the entrance to the elephant house, appeared to know that there was a possibility of something of the kind taking place, and was keeping a keen eye on the performance. He started forward, quietly, so as not to alarm the audience, and had got half way down the race track, when Damajante, who had already realized her great danger, succeeded in untwisting the tail end of the snake from her body. The middle and most powerful part of the python was still about her throat, and the pressure was increasing. She was very pale, but thoroughly calm. The head of the python, hissing horribly, was grasped in her right hand. Damajante, with remarkable nerve, managed to free her left arm, and in another instant had, with all the strength she possessed in both hands, unwrapped the writhing necklace from her throat. She placed her dangerous pet back in its box, bowed, and retired.

Speaking of her strange avocation a few moments later, Damajante said that it was only during very warm weather, when the snakes were viciously active, that she feared their strength. “They are very susceptible to cold,” said the snake charmer, after she had recovered her composure, “and have to be kept in boxes arranged with hot-water pans to the temperature up to at least 100 degrees. Besides that they are wrapped up in blankets. Did I ever have anything like that happen before? O yes. Once in Berlin, about two years ago, my largest snake nearly crushed me to death. It took the united strength of two men to remove him. Another time in Riga the large python got his tail around a pillar and threw me on my back. In Madrid my arm was almost twisted out of its socket. Sometimes they bite me—look,” and, extending her hands, Damajante showed them to be covered with small V-shaped scars. “The bite is not poisonous, but it is rather painful. I don’t mind my hands so much but am on the watch to keep them from striking at my eyes. You know the peculiar way in which the python’s teeth are set—curving backward in repose and standing erect when angry—well, it would be an easy matte rot lose an eye. Some years ago in Vienna, a snake-charmer had his eye plucked out of the socket in an instant. I think the snakes know me. I have possessed strange power over them that I cannot account for myself, since girlhood. Are they hardy? Well, sir, I give them as much attention as a mother does her child. Regularly every Saturday night they are washed in luke-warm water and wrapped in blankets. During warm weather I feet them every eight days. The smaller ones eat live rabbits and that big fellow is satisfied with a duck or two. I have another pet who is shedding his coat. Come, and I’ll show him to you. He’s only a baby;” and, leading the way to the menagerie tent, Damajante approached a red box, which she unlocked. From beneath the folds of double blanket she drew, with some difficulty, one of the most monstrous pythons ever seen in captivity. It measured eighteen feet from head to tail, and weighed certainly not less than 125 pounds. Its scaly coat was peeling off in patches, and its eyes were sightless. This blindness, the snake-charmer said, was always present while the reptile was going through the annual process of shedding its gaudy-hued coat. “This fellow,” continued Damajante, “is very strong, and I have to use the greatest care in handling him. He is almost through now, and I may possibly exhibit him in Philadelphia before the circus move.”

The snake-charmer does not speak English, and carried on the conversation partly in French. Her agent, who speaks the strange tongue of her mother country, helped to interpret when she stumbled across a too-difficult sentence.

Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 25 April 1883: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A thrilling escape, indeed! And yet Mrs Daffodil wonders how much danger there was, really, when it is known that Miss Damajante was born Emilie Poupon in France–scarcely proximate to India–and that the managers of the Forepaugh Circus were quite canny about planting dramatic news items in the papers to, as they say, “drum up business.”

Miss Poupon, of very prepossessing appearance, was a governess to a Russian family in St. Petersburg when she ran away with the circus and married a wall-walking acrobat.

She apparently was the inspiration for a series of French automata called La charmeuse de Serpent. You may enjoy the writhings and slitherings here.

A painful story about an amateur snake-charmer who allowed herself to be bitten by her snakes in the name of science, may be found here.

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.