“I wish,” said Miss Ashby-Phipps to the room in general, “to be mourned relentlessly.”
She ignored the murmured protests from her listeners that she would outlive them all, going on, “None of this modern crape-band-on-the-sleeve nonsense. I expect full black-glove mourning for a year and a day. Half- and quarter-mourning after that,” she added crisply, giving a meaning glance to her niece and heir, Margaret. Margaret smiled and nodded as she was accustomed to do with her Aunt Phipps, a lady as distinguished for her decisiveness as for her fortune.
“Perhaps you think such things are all nonsense,” said that lady. “However, without regulation, we should all be barbarians. Societal conventions are put there for a purpose and,” said Aunt Phipps, eyeing Margaret coldly, “one neglects them at one’s peril.”
Miss Margaret, although outwardly amenable, had no intention of following Aunt Phipps’ eccentric recommendation. Life was too short to look a fright in black when one looked so much nicer in the azure and rosy hues. Margaret remembered being put into black petticoats as a child, for her father and the unpleasant scratchiness of the crape on her mother’s gowns. Yes, life was entirely too short to dwell on death.
When Margaret’s mother had died in her last year of boarding school, Margaret had hoped that the end of her schoolgirl years would mean a brilliant debut in white muslin and pearls, presentation at Court, and a handsome husband who would enjoy seeing her in beautiful clothes. Instead, she found herself living as a companion (“lap dog, really,” she complained to her friends) to a lady charitably described by her most intimate acquaintances as “strong minded.”
Margaret did her best to rebel—taking up rhythmic dance, cycling in bloomer costume, dabbling in Women’s Suffrage—all of which Aunt Phipps firmly checked by stopping her dress allowance.
“I can’t imagine where she gets her unconventional views,” said her Aunt Phipps to a friend. “Her mother sketched, but that scarcely excuses Margaret’s artistic temperament.”
And so Margaret chafed under Aunt Phipp’s guardianship, until that lady, with characteristic self-centeredness, died on the eve of a much-anticipated trip to the Continent.
“I can’t tell you,” wrote Margaret to a former schoolmate, “how perfectly vexed I am at Aunt Phipps’ death. She would choose the most inopportune time—just as we were about to visit Paris! And, you’ll scarcely credit it, but the very morning before she passed, I’d got a new Irish poplin in the most ravishing sky blue! I absolutely refuse to have it dyed, but by the time this ridiculous year of mourning she insisted on is up, it will be completely out of fashion.
”Curtailing my mourning is really a matter of public service. One can’t disfigure the London landscape in a crape cap and weepers for an entire year for a mere aunt. I shall observe the conventional three months only. By that time, I expect everyone will have forgotten.”
Everyone agreed that Margaret did her very best for the funeral: the sootiest merino wool; the dullest of crape bonnets; the sheerest of nuns’ veiling over her very dry eyes, which she dabbed with a black-bordered lawn handkerchief. For thirty days she wore very simple black gowns, a burden made lighter by the admiration she saw in the eyes of Aunt Phipps’ solicitor, Mr Parkins.
“I declare, Miss Margaret,” he said gallantly, “you wear the deepest mourning as bravely as the latest Paris fashions.”
At which Miss Margaret managed a plucky, yet wistful smile.
“How dear Aunt Phipps enjoyed Paris,” she said. “How I wish I could have enjoyed it with her. She always said that when I came to be engaged, she would take me to Paris to purchase my trousseau.”
Miss Margaret sniffed and wiped away an invisible tear with that black-bordered handkerchief. Mr Parkins, she thought, must be an ass if he didn’t immediately press her hand and suggest that the day when a trousseau would be needed had arrived.
Mr Parkins, who knew exactly what Aunt Phipps’ estate was worth and precisely where she had bestowed it, was far from being an ass. Impetuously arranging the creases in his trousers, he dropped to one knee in front of the bereft Miss Margaret and offered her his hand, heart, and fortune. By the time he arose and dusted off his knee, they were betrothed.
“I do think you might observe your Aunt’s request for a full year of mourning. Of course it’s an inconvenience, but I think it makes a good impression to observe the proprieties as specified by the Dear Departed, don’t you, my sweet?” said Mr Parkins. As a solicitor who did a good deal of estate work, he was attuned to the nicest shadings of sorrow, finding them as satisfyingly quantifiable as the entries in an accounting ledger.
“Mourning allows the most casual passer-by to deduce and sympathize with your loss,” he mused. “It is a veritable palette of grief, shading from crepuscular confections reflective of the blackest despair through a mild mauve melancholy for an elderly cousin, down to the merest soupçon of regret for some bowing acquaintance. It explains, it excuses, it absolves…”
Margaret was alarmed to find that Mr Parkins had such a poetic streak.
She pouted, her rosebud lips in a moue, an expression she knew he couldn’t resist.
“But nobody in Paris will have the remotest notion about when Aunt Phipps died, or, for that matter, that I even have an aunt! And you know what they say, married in black….”
That coaxing moue carried the day. Margaret looked enchanting in white at her wedding—deuil blanc was, after all, the mourning colour of the Queens of France. The most obvious sign of grief at the wedding was the crape band on the bridegroom’s sleeve. Her cousins, who had received small bequests, were at the half-mourning stage in lilac and pearl grey. To oblige Mr Parkin’s solicitor’s sense of propriety, Margaret had chosen dull black taffeta for her going-away costume and a bonnet trimmed with sable plumes like a hearse.
She emerged from the boat train in a very different toilette—a smart travelling costume in fine sailor-blue wool accented with sky blue grosgrain and ivory velvet. Her bonnet was trimmed with forget-me-nots. She was conscious of looking her loveliest.
The honeymoon in Paris was paradise. Margaret and her new husband made a whirlwind round of the shops and couture houses. She purchased embroidered gloves, stockings with fanciful clocks, dainty brocade slippers, extravagantly plumed hats, scent, and jewels.
At Chez Worth, Le Maitre himself complimented the new bride on her elegant carriage and perfect taste. And he himself created a tea gown exclusively for her in love-in-a-mist chiffon trimmed with Ayrshire white work in a pattern of hearts.
“Ma belle anglaise,” he murmured, gallantly kissing her hand after the last fitting, while Mr Parkins was out buying cigars.
Their last evening in Paris, Margaret donned one of her new frocks: a crystal blue satin trimmed in ivory Alencon lace and swansdown. Charles was out, smoking a cigar. Shortly they would go to dine at Maxim’s. Smiling, she gazed at herself in the mirror, fastening on her pearl earrings. Then her smile faded. The colour of the crystal blue satin was growing murky, as if it were being showered with dust. The lace took on the hue of wrought iron. She took up a clothes brush, but the more she brushed, the darker grew the satin. She stood there, helplessly dabbing at the gown, which by now looked as though Margaret had been sweeping chimneys in it. The satin had darkened to the colour of lamp black; the swansdown had matted into tarry clots.
She thought quickly. Charles would return at any moment. He would think her mad if she told him what had happened. She rushed to the wardrobe, tearing off the new frock. By the time her husband walked in the door, humming Le Fiacre, she was freshly garbed in the mourning she had donned just after the wedding.
“I thought it would please Aunt Phipps,” she explained, a little breathlessly, “if I resumed mourning for her as I did when we left England. Maxim’s won’t mind, will they?”
Well-pleased by her decision, Charles was very gay at dinner, teasing her about their fellow diners thinking she was a merry widow. On their return to the hotel, mellow after an excellent dinner, Charles withdrew to his dressing room with a meaning smile. Margaret removed the burdensome crape and taffeta and donned her new Worth tea gown. As she arranged herself artistically at the dressing table, brushing her hair, she was in a pleasant state of champagne-induced languor.
Then she looked down at her new gown and shrieked. It too was darkening to a dead shade of charcoal. She felt herself shrouded by a black cobweb of a veil that she could not throw off. And her hands—that was the worst of it—her hands were black to the wrists, as if she were one of those filthy unwomanly colliery females with rough, coal-black hands.
She rushed to her trunk and threw open the lid. A froth of smoky chiffon spilled out. She pulled out the drawer where her new petticoats were nestling in their tissue. The snowy flounces so daintily embroidered and laced had been transmuted to dull black cotton. It was as if some Black Magician had waved his magic wand and turned every bridal garment to mourning robes.
The scarlet and gold Worth evening toilette was gone: replaced by black velvet with a black-on-black brocade underskirt. Crape rosettes trimmed the décolletage, instead of red velvet roses. Her blue broadcloth riding habit with the red and cream facings had altered to a repellent black boucle. Even the kidskin drawers had turned the evil dark colour of a stallion’s underbelly.
“What ever is the matter, my dear?” said Charles, emerging from the dressing room. She could only sob and point wordlessly at the overflowing trunks. He patted her absently. He found himself strangely stirred by her white skin against the sheer black tulle tea gown with its band of black embroidered hearts.
“We’ll sort it out in the morning, my dearest. Now come to bed,” he said coaxingly.
The next day, at Worth’s Mr Parkins demanded an explanation.
“But,” the vendeuse was puzzled, “Madame ordered all of her models to be made up for mourning.”
Upon their return to London, they fell into the routine of any young married couple. Mr Parkins found marriage to Margaret to be most agreeable. She had the usual feminine deficiencies, but on the whole he found her to be a pleasant companion, a charming hostess, and an ornament to his home. He was an indulgent husband, but he insisted that she finish the year of mourning for Aunt Phipps in her Worth trousseau. And, indeed, she found him at his most ardent whenever she wore the black chiffon tea gown.
Margaret had brought a French maid, Hortense, back with her as a souvenir of her honeymoon. During the last month of mourning, Margaret poured over ladies’ fashion magazines, planning her new wardrobe. Hortense watched and approved. Her mistress had natural, one might even say Parisian taste.
As the day when she could put off mourning drew near, Margaret grew impatient. She was longing to discard every scrap of black in her wardrobe. She had been told as a child that it was bad luck to keep crape in the house after a mourning period had passed. After all, she had followed her Aunt’s foolish wishes almost to the letter. And she still had a wardrobe full of her pre-marriage clothes which were simply going to waste. She rushed to the armoire and flung open the doors. To her immense relief, the gowns still wore their ordinary hues: eau de nil, carmine, garnet, aubergine. She rang for Hortense and directed her to lay out her underthings. She would wear her garnet velvet to dinner as it was after Guy Fawkes Day. She stepped into the frilled circle of snowy lace petticoat and Hortense tied the drawstring.
Hortense slipped the velvet skirt over her head and did up the hooks. She frowned a little as she began to fasten the laces of the velvet and satin bodice.
“Whatever is the matter, Hortense?” asked Margaret, preoccupied with the pleats of the satin sash waistband. “Why do you look such a fright?”
Realizing that her mistress could see her in the looking glass, Hortense immediately readjusted her features to her normal haughty expression.
“I beg your pardon, Madame,” she said coldly, “a slight knot in the laces…”
She made a mental note to have a word with the laundresses. Madame’s petticoat had a greyish tinge and the lace was grubby at the edges. Not at all up to Hortense’s exacting standards.
Hortense fastened the garnet necklace for her mistress and placed the garnet-edged comb in her chignon. Then she helped her draw on her snowy kid-leather gloves. My eyes must be tired, she thought. Or the gas wants turning up.
The velvet was a darker shade of red than she had realized. Still, if she did say so herself, Madame was a picture, Hortense thought, as she heard the Master’s step in the hallway. She bobbed discreetly and withdrew through the dressing room, gathering up the black taffeta petticoats, inky stockings and peignoir slotted with narrow black silk ribbon as she went. She knew that Margaret would be giving a final glance in the mirror before going downstairs and she heard Madame laugh as her husband murmured something to her.
It was the last time anyone laughed in that house. There was the simultaneous sound of a scream, wood splintering, and glass shattering. Hortense threw down the clothes and ran back into the bedroom. Margaret was lying amid the fragments of the looking glass in a shroud of velvet skirt billowing darkly around her. Charles looked up at the maid.
“Run for the doctor,” he shouted, cradling Margaret who was sobbing hysterically. Hortense ran.
It later struck her that the only colour in the scene was the bright red blood welling from Margaret’s hands. The clothes Margaret was wearing were burned on the orders of the doctor so that Hortense never realized that the garnet gown had darkened to the colour of a dried plum and the petticoats were not merely dingy—they were coal-black.
While the doctor’s examination revealed no organic defect, Margaret was really quite perturbed to find that she was feeling unwell in the mornings. Grimly, she continued with her social round of balls and visits.
“The Princess of Wales was ice-skating right up to the end,” she declared to her friends, “and she is only a Dane.”
One evening, while dressing for dinner, Margaret pinned on an ivory portrait miniature of her dear late Mama and studied herself in the mirror. She peered closer, then gave a little shriek.
Charles looked up from his own mirror with irritation.
“My dear!” he said. “I was almost finished tying my tie when you startled me! What is it?”
She had torn off the brooch and was staring at it, quivering.
“Look!” she said, thrusting it at him.
He peered at it through his pence-nez.
“A very creditable likeness of your late mother, my dear,” he said peevishly. “I fail to see anything alarming about it.”
“But it’s not my mother!” she cried, flinging it onto the dressing table. “It’s Aunt Phipps and she’s scowling at me!”
“Pish tush,” he said, suddenly recovering his good humour and pulling her onto his knee. “My dear, my dear, I’m sorry I was cross. You are so well, so full of health and vigour that I had forgotten that ladies in your, er, condition, are sometimes fanciful and that impending motherhood sometimes produces the wildest visions and phantasms. Come, my dear, think pleasant thoughts! I daresay you are missing your mother and that is what caused the misapprehension.”
He was a good deal less understanding when an entire parure of opals and pearls disappeared, leaving in their case a set of hair jewellery: a pair of earrings made of plaited yellowed hair under glass and a brooch picturing a maiden leaning on an urn under a willow tree. There was also a locket filled with a quivering bouquet of coloured hair wound on wire.
“My dear!” he said, “I really must insist that you refrain from these exhibitions of nonsensical feminine emotion! If your nerves are so very deranged, perhaps we should call on Dr Pierce for a tonic. I fail to see why the blessed state of expectancy should render you so, well, absent-minded is the only charitable term. I am unfortunately unable to trust you not to mislay other items of value,” he said, “so I will take these for safekeeping.” He swept all of her other trinkets into their box and carried it off to his office where it was shut in the safe.
She refused to wear the hair jewellery and had a tray in bed. He dined at his club. Later that evening, as Hortense brushed her hair, Margaret idly opened the velvet case to see if she could find any identifying marks on the hair jewellery. Hortense told the servants’ hall later how her mistress had gone as white as wax and slid to the floor.
“What ‘ad put ‘er in such a state?” asked Cook.
Hortense couldn’t account for it.
“It is a puzzlement. The pieces in the jewel case were oddments: some old jet earbobs, a black gutta percha cameo, a jet pendant carved like a lily. Old-fashioned stuff. Not at all the sort of thing Madame would wear.”
Several days later, returning home from a round of calls, Margaret was handed out of the carriage by the footman. She started wearily up the front stairs. Her eye was caught by a movement at the door. Long streamers of black crape depended from neat bows tied round each knob. They floated, undulating in the slight breeze, seeming to beckon to her. She screamed and, as the butler slowly swung open the mausoleum-like doors, she fell, ending in a heap on the pavement. Footmen and doctors were summoned. She was put to bed with sal de volatile and cold compresses, all to no avail. Sadly for Margaret and her husband, who had already put his putative son down for Harrow, the child was stillborn.
When they brought her the little bundle, she turned her face to the wall. All my trouble for—that, she thought. She had expected a fresh-faced cherub of several month’s growth, ready to prattle and walk, to judge by the pain she had endured. Instead they presented her with a ghastly waxwork, its face mottled with purple bruises; its lips a hideous blue.
She couldn’t really mourn for a creature so small and wormlike, but society dictated that the streamers on the door be of white crape and that the tiny white coffin with a silver plaque engraved with “Our Darling” be carried to its final resting place in a wedding-cake confection of a hearse, all carved ivory curves and christening gown frills. The matched white ponies had gossamer tails floating out behind. Their dainty heads nodded under fountains of creamy white ostrich tips.
Once again, she donned weepers, dull crape, and duller black kid gloves and followed the hearse to the cemetery.
The staff muttered darkly about the Second Sight and Omens of Death. Charles spoke sharply to her about controlling her outbursts in front of the servants. The doctor stressed the importance of rest and a quiet life and prescribed strong sleeping draughts for the bereaved mother.
Restless and defiant, Margaret would only wear mourning for the dead child for three months, when nine was prescribed. This led to a violent quarrel with Charles, who could cope with a mad wife, but not with one who deliberately flouted social conventions. He had been sleeping at his club.
But on this particular evening, Charles had dined at home and spoken kindly to Margaret, expressing a wish to start afresh. She smiled at him over the candles and after his brandy and a cigar he went upstairs to shave in his dressing room.
Happily Margaret prepared to retire, donning her dressing gown over her nightdress. She chatted gaily of the gossip of the day, not noticing that Hortense was shaking her hairbrush with irritation at the dark specks in its bristles. The maid examined it more closely. The specks were not vermin, as she had feared, but something like coal smuts. She clicked her tongue. That chit of a housemaid hadn’t cleaned the gas mantles properly.
Hortense glanced at the snowy dressing table linens—no, it wasn’t the fault of a smoky lamp. Nor insects. She shuddered, as Margaret prattled on.
Bending closer, she pulled a strand of her mistress’s hair.
Margaret gave a little squeal.
“Whatever is the matter, Hortense? You seem very distracted this evening.”
“I think, Madame,” Hortense said carefully, “that Madame may have inadvertently walked through a coal fog today. I can brush out some of the dust, but perhaps a shower bath or a shampoo?”
Margaret peered closer at her reflection and frowned as she brushed at her shoulders.
“Dear me, is it as bad as all that?”
She stood up abruptly.
Hortense fetched a towel from the fender.
“If Madame would stand here, I will fetch a new dressing gown.”
By the time she had returned, the collar and shoulders of the gown were quite speckled. She glanced up nervously—it certainly looked as though a dark detritus had sifted down from above. Yet as she looked closer, the spaces between the dark spots began to close, as if the darkness were welling up within the fabric. She realized it was as if one were watching a cloth laid to blot up spilt ink, the ink travelling along the grain of the fabric like blood through veins, saturating the cloth. So did this darkness saturate the lawn, the ribbons, and the lace to the very picots.
Margaret, woozy from the sleeping draught, swayed, toying with a lock of her hair, her eyes half-closed and unfocused.
“If only I can change the dressing gown before she notices,” Hortense thought, desperately. She wasn’t sure her nerves would withstand another outburst.
Unluckily, Margaret opened her eyes just long enough to see the soiled dressing gown being thrust behind Hortense’s smartly uniformed back. She looked down at her nightdress.
“Black ribbons?” she murmured, touching what appeared to be long smears of charcoal down the broiderie anglaise placket. Her eyes snapped open.
Margaret began to tear off the gown, catching her hair on the buttons and ripping out a hank of hair.
“If Madame will just have patience,” implored Hortense, but Margaret thrust the nightdress into the fire, then turned to catch up the black dressing gown. Only small patches of white remained, just above the ruffle and those blackened soon enough in the blaze that followed. Sparks leapt onto the hearthrug while Hortense beat at them. Margaret just stood and laughed, standing there stark naked in her slippers trimmed with black swansdown.
The official story was a blocked chimney and ensuing soot, but the doctor had a quiet chat with Charles. Sedatives and a holiday in Italy were recommended.
“Otherwise,” said the doctor, “we shall have to consider some quiet residential home in the country.”
The suggestion of an Italian holiday proved to be excellent advice. Months later, Mr and Mrs Parkins returned home refreshed and in good humour.
Margaret awoke late with a smile on her lips and realized that it was a lovely spring day. Madame Agincourt had refurbished the sky blue Irish poplin with primrose ribbons and a slight change to the shape of the sleeves. Eagerly she stripped to her skin, then donned her new white under things slotted with blue satin ribbons. The petticoats made a delicious frou-frou that she knew would appeal to Charles.
The poplin was most becoming to Madame, agreed Hortense. With a self-satisfied smile, Margaret donned a new hat trimmed with peach bloom velvet ribbons and eggshell ostrich tips and a creamy wool capelet with a high, ruffled chiffon collar to frame the face. The carriage was at the door. She would surprise Charles and they would lunch together at the Ritz to celebrate her return to health.
Tripping lightly down the stairs, she found a little knot of domestics clustered about Pomeroy, the butler. They scattered at her approach and she saw that Pomeroy was holding a note on a silver salver, a look of respectful commiseration on his pale, doughy face.
“If Madame would kindly step into the drawing room and sit down?” he said, opening the door while balancing the salver on his fingertips.
“What is it?” said Margaret, a deadly cold qualm clutching at her heart. “What has happened?”
“Madame must prepare herself for a shock. Shall I send for the doctor?”
“The doctor?” the word rose to a shriek. “I insist that you tell me what has happened!”
Pomeroy sighed and rolled his eyes to Heaven before proffering the salver with a slight, sympathetic bow.
“I deeply regret to have to inform Madame that the Master has been run over by an omnibus in the Strand.”
Pomeroy bowed again.
“My deepest condolences, Madame,” he said, adding, “Madame’s dressmaker has been summoned.”
Excerpt from A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales Copyright @ 2012 Chris Woodyard All Rights Reserved.
One may also find true tales of crape, its uses and abuses in The Victorian Book of the Dead, available online as a trade paperback and for Kindle. More information about this book may be had 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. A “Face-book” page is also available for The Victorian Book of the Dead, with fresh posts on death and mourning history daily.
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.