Regularly once a year, somewhere about the first week in February, Mrs. Pendercoet was wont to apply to her friends and acquaintances for a character. Not the sort of character which guarantees an applicant for a post of responsibility to be clean and honest and a lifelong abstainer, but a borrowed masquerade identity under which the wearer could momentarily lay aside the matronly state of Pendercoet, solemnly assumed many years ago at St. George’s, Hanover Square, and become, if she so willed it, a nautch girl or the Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
No one had ever suggested that Mrs. Pendercoet should disguise herself as either of these renowned beauties, but she chose to regard the proposal as imminent on every one’s lips.
“You might go as Liberty,” said the Artist.
“Do you mean the shop or the thing in New York Harbour?” said the lady. “I don’t think that would suit my style. Too massive. Now I had thought of the Queen of the Butterflies.”
“So good of you to think of others,” interrupted Rollo.
Rollo was eighteen, and respect for Mrs. Pendercoet was not one of his most marked characteristics.
“I asked for advice, not flippancy,” she protested.
“Well, why not go as Cæsar’s Wife, above reproach, you know. You could have a hobble edging of scandalous newspaper paragraphs in a sort of Plimsoll Line round the base of your skirt, and you’d be above it all, you see.”
“Might I ask what you are going as?” said Mrs. Pendercoet severely.
“I’m going as ‘Peace persuading the German war fleet to take Antipon.’”
The idea took some seconds to grasp.
“I don’t see how you can possibly manage that,” she objected.
“I can’t. That’s where the resemblance will come in.”
There was an offended silence which the Artist hastened to break.
“Why not go as the Dawn?” he said; “‘the Dawn, which always means good-bye.’”
“But I don’t want to mean good-bye,” protested the lady; “it’s hard enough to find one’s partners in all that crush, without saying good-bye to them when you’ve got them.”
The Artist abandoned further attempts at peace-mongering, and Mrs. Pendercoet momentarily diverted her attention from the pursuit of fictitious personality to a vigorous and unsparing analysis of Rollo’s everyday character. To be recommended a comic costume when one wishes to make a legitimate sensation in some queenly guise is sufficiently annoying to produce plain speaking, and the irate lady could think afterwards of few uncomplimentary remarks that she regretted having left unsaid. Her tongue had the field to itself, so to speak, but Rollo wore the air of one who is keeping his reply in cold storage.
“An inspiration!” cried Rollo; “there is one character in fiction one hears no end of, but no one has ever seen her represented in portrait or in the flesh. Go as the Aunt of the Gardener. Every one would welcome her as an old friend the moment she came in with the pen of the Admiral and the good pears of the Ambassador. That woman must have been an inveterate kleptomaniac, you know, or else a very advanced Fabian; nothing seems to have been safe from her. The basket of the washerwoman and the small apricot of the child were no more sacred to her than the property of people better able to afford plundering. Do go as the Aunt of the Gardener, Mrs. Pendercoet. I have a great-uncle who is an admiral, and I’m sure he’d be delighted to lend you a pen.”
* * * * *
“I’ve settled on Pomona,” Mrs. Pendercoet informed her artist friend a few days later.
The announcement sounded like a news item of the Crofter migration movement or an aeroplane descent in the Orkneys. As a matter of fact it indicated that Mrs. Pendercoet purposed going to the Arts’ Club Ball in the character of the Roman Goddess of Orchards.
“A dress of some saffrony-green material, you know, and a basket of autumnal fruits. Simple, but dignified and effective.”
It was the basket of fruit that gave Rollo his opportunity on the night of the ball. Mrs. Pendercoet spent a long unhappy evening trying to identify herself with the Orchard Goddess, but Rollo had been before her, and their large circle of mutual acquaintances greeted her with a universal chorus of delighted recognition:
“The Aunt of the Gardener! But how clever. And the good pears of the Ambassador. So original. Do tell us, was it your own idea?”
And so on throughout the evening. The special artist of the Daily Pierglass was supping with Rollo that night, and his picture of “the Aunt of the Gardener, carrying the good pears of the Ambassador and the small apricot of the child: a diverting costume in last night’s carnival,” is one of Mrs. Pendercoet’s bitterest memories.
(published in The Odd Volume, vol. 4, November 1911)
- A “nautch” is a traditional dance in South Asia; Arthur Wing Pinero’s play The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) is centred on a woman with a scandalous past. ↩
- The Chelsea Arts Club (est. 1891) hosted an annual fancy dress party organized around a central theme; attendants wore flamboyant costumes and there were moving carnival floats, destroyed at midnight. By 1910, it was being held, on Mardi Gras, at the Royal Albert Hall (capacity 7000-8000). ↩
- The French (and here affected-sounding) name for Mary, Queen of Scots; a French noblewoman and courtier, and the influential mistress of France’s King Henry II. ↩
- Likely a threefold reference: to the butterfly-like look of the two crepes hanging down, wing-like, from queens’ elaborate headdresses (a pair of trailing attendants held the crepes); to the butterfly motifs and designs embroidered and appliquéd on ladies’ dresses and gowns for costume parties and balls; to the appearance of the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, associated with butterflies because of these lines: “Be kind and courteous to this gentleman [Bottom] . . . pluck the wings from Painted butterflies / To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene I). ↩
- A Plimsoll line, on the side of a ship, marks the limit of submersion that is permissible. ↩
- Antipon was a tonic advertised as a cure for obesity (a study in the British Medical Journal [July 6, 1907] found it to be “a solution of citric acid in water” with “a red colouring substance” ). ↩
- This line is from the poem “Yasmini,” by Laurence Hope (the nom de plume of Violet Nicolson), in The Garden of Kama and Other Love Lyrics from India (1901); soon after her husband’s death in 1904, Nicolson took her own life. ↩
- The Admiral is a type of pen; the soap company Pears was, by the 1910s, known for its annual “Miss Pears” contest—the winner became the brand’s marketed ambassador. ↩
- The Fabian Society is a British socialist organization. ↩
- Rollo is referring here and previously to odd yet banal phrases commonly used in language lessons (especially for French). Rollo may also be referring to the recurring Gardener in Aesop’s fables and to such rustic, moralizing children’s tales (perhaps endured by Munro as a child and viciously mocked by Saki in “The Story-Teller”) as those in Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales for Young People (1801), where “The Good Aunt” features a gardener and another tale features a washerwoman, and those in Jean Ingelow’s Stories Told To A Child (1865)—dedicated to the author’s niece “by her loving aunt”—which includes a tale of two girls, Eve-like, eating an apricot. The Gardener was a masquerade-party costume—see the image of a “Lady Gardener” in Ardern Holt’s Fancy Dresses Described: Or, What To Wear at Fancy Dress Balls (London: Debenham & Freebody, 1897). Rebecca N. Mitchell notes, in Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook, that “Holt lists costumes such as the Submarine Telegraph and the Suez Canal, and newspaper accounts from the day tell of women wearing costumes lit by electricity” (153). ↩
- A type of looking-glass (originally hung in the space between windows), and so this title spoofs that of the Daily Mirror (launched in 1903). ↩