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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
An Elephant, a Funeral, and More Bad News
Monday, March 22, 1897
As the hail bounced on the carriage roof, Mink suddenly wondered whether she ought to buy mourning knickers. She thought of asking her maid, who had wept for the dead Maharaja almost as much as she had. But the sight of Pooki’s stockingless feet emerging from the bottom of her sari changed her mind. She turned back to the window to distract herself from the loathsome task ahead of her. Wiping away the condensation, she watched the shoppers on Regent Street, the gritty downpour toppling the ostrich feathers on their elegant hats.
The horses began to slow and came to a halt outside Jay’s, the mourning emporium. The Princess had walked past it during countless shopping trips, but never once imagined needing to go in. As she waited for the carriage door to open, she fiddled with the buttons on her gloves, avoiding the window display. But George, the second footman, whose woeful height and lamentable calves would normally have excluded him from such a position, took so long she wondered whether he had forgotten her. Finally the door opened. Lifting up her skirts, she climbed out, determined not to be sold a pair of mutes, for the funeral attendants hired by the bereaved for their doleful expressions had a reputation for unabashed drunkenness.
A doorbell never tinkled so mournfully as the one at Jay’s. A lump was sure to form in even a hangman’s throat at the sound of its pitiful wail. The Princess and the maid stood silently in the entrance, shrouded in black drapery, a vase of white lilies engulfing them in the politest scent of death. As they waited to be served, a huddle of pale-faced female assistants dressed in the hue of sorrow stared at them. Those at the back stood on their toes and gazed with envy at Mink, whose arresting looks were the result of an Indian father and an English mother. Her long dark hair was pinned and padded to form a high cushion round her head, and her straw hat was trimmed with daffodils and chiffon, which, they noticed, perfectly matched her green cape jacket. Those at the front stared at her emerald earrings, some of the few family jewels the British hadn’t stolen. Added to the colourful spectacle was an older, dark-skinned Indian lady’s-maid in native dress, a black plait hanging down her back. She was so skinny she seemed to have been eroded by years of persistent wind.
The hush was broken by a sniff, and the Princess handed Pooki a silk handkerchief, which she took with grateful, bony fingers. Suddenly, as if descended from the overcrowded heavens above, a man appeared. Dressed in the dullest of black, for only tears were allowed to shine at Jay’s, he appeared to be executing the humblest of bows. But too long passed before he straightened himself up, and it was soon apparent that he was in a permanent state of humility. His cinnamon hair, the only hint of gaiety in the establishment, was respectfully sleeked to his head. He looked up at his customer from his near folded stance with the pitiful eyes of a drover’s dog.
“Ratakins is the name, ma’am,” he said, clutching his limp hands in front of him. “How may I be of assistance?”
The Princess looked at him uneasily, and replied that she needed some mourning wear as soon as possible.
“First of all, ma’am,” he said, “may I offer you the deepest of sympathies? Some of the lesser mourning establishments may tell you of their regrets, but I assure you that here at Jay’s condolences are at their most profound. If I may enquire, at what hour did our loved-one depart?”
The Princess thought back to the previous day, when the butler broke the news. “Some time yesterday afternoon,” she replied, her stomach like lead.
Mr. Ratakins scrabbled for his watch chain, and, with a flutter of bloodless fingers, stopped the time accordingly. Slowly he raised his red-rimmed eyes to her once more.
“A tragedy,” he said.
The assistants continued to stare.
As silently as he’d arrived, Mr. Ratakins headed down a mahogany-panelled corridor, which the Princess took as an indication to follow. Passing through a doorway, he took up his position behind a counter. A one-eyed ginger cat lay on top of it, a stray the shopkeeper fed out of solidarity for its colour. He swiftly removed it and asked: “If I may enquire, which of our loved-ones has left us?”
Mink swallowed. “My father.”
“A tragedy,” he repeated, his eyes downcast.
The Princess sat down on the chair next to the counter, clutching her green handbag. “I’m not sure how long the period of mourning is for a parent these days,” she said. “None of the women’s magazines seem to be in agreement.”
“For a parent, we at Jay’s recommend a year, six months in crape, three in black, and three in half-mourning.” He continued with the speed of a mantra: “For grandparents it’s six months, two in silk with moderate crape, two in black without crape, and two in half-mourning. For brothers and sisters it’s also six months, but we advise three in crape, two in black and one in half-mourning. For an uncle or an aunt, two months, no crape, black to be worn the whole time. For a great-uncle or aunt it’s six weeks, three in black and three in half-mourning. For a first cousin it’s four weeks. Black. Three weeks for a second cousin, if you liked ’em.”
“I see,” replied the Princess, blinking.
“Heliotrope and other mauves are, of course, still very favourable colours for half-mourning, and grey has never gone out of fashion. It is, after all, a most fetching colour for the bereaved. Complements the pallor.”
“Tell me,” said Mink. “Is a widow still expected to wear mourning for two and a half years, while all a widower does is put on an armband for three months, and remarries whenever he pleases?”
“Something like that, ma’am.”
Mr. Ratakins then rubbed his fingers until they shone. There were skirts and mantles in the latest fashions ready for immediate wear, he said, and bodices made to measure in a few hours. He hauled down a roll of black cloth from behind him, and pulled out the end for inspection.
“This is what I’d recommend for you, ma’am. Bombazine. And we use Courtauld’s Crape. It will withstand any amount of rain,” he said. He glanced at Pooki and lowered his voice. “Bombazet is best for the servants. It’s inferior and therefore cheaper. I wouldn’t want to waste your money.”
With none of the usual pleasure she derived from sitting at a shop counter, Mink chose from the selection of shoes, gloves, mantles, bonnets, toques, hairpins, fans, aigrettes, boas, parasols, bags, purses, mittens, umbrellas, and antimacassars—all the colour of crows.
A young female assistant, her hair scraped back into an unyielding bun, took the place of Mr. Ratakins in order to broach the delicate matter of underwear. Instantly she recognised the Princess from the newspapers, which for years had been captivated by the oriental glamour of the young woman born and raised in England. The female columnists extolled her outfits, quoted her calls for suffrage, and longed for an invitation to her all-women shooting parties, when the laughter startled the grouse more than the beaters.
Opening several drawers, the dry-mouthed assistant draped on the counter a selection of white chemises, drawers, and underpetticoats, all trimmed with black ribbon.
“They’re from Paris, Your Highness,” she said, glancing at the Princess’s earrings.
Mink looked at them. “I’m not of the opinion that everything from Paris is automatically desirable,” she replied. “And anyway, no one will know what I’ve got on underneath.”
“You will, Your Highness,” said the girl, fingering the lingerie with bitten nails.
“So will I, Your Highness,” piped up Pooki from the sofa behind her.
The Princess let out a short, sharp sigh that sent the cat fleeing from underneath her chair, and quickly made her selection.
Mr. Ratakins returned, spread his pale hands on the counter, and leant forward. “And the funeral itself, ma’am,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “Jay’s can take care of that. We have the best mutes in the whole of London, if you don’t mind my boasting. They won’t say a word. We keep them down in the basement. There’s not much to talk about down there. Except for the spiders.”
The Princess shook her head. “My father arranged his funeral years ago, and I’m told he left very precise instructions,” she stated. “I can assure you, the last thing he’d want is mutes.”
“How will people know that a death has occurred, ma’am, without the presence of mutes at the front door?”
“I’m sure half of London is already well aware of my father’s death, gossip being what it is.”
The shopkeeper’s slender fingers silently traced the counter. “They’re coming back into fashion, ma’am,” he said from underneath his lashes.
“I dare say.”
He looked up. “Ours will squeeze out a tear for an extra twopence.”
“They won’t be necessary, thank you.”
“What about a penny tin of black paint for the horses that pull the hearse?” he asked, producing one from underneath the counter with the flourish of a conjurer. “They come up lovely, ma’am.”
“No, thank you.”
The tin disappeared.
“May I recommend some black ostrich feathers for their heads?” he asked, slowly pulling one through his fingers. “All the way from Egypt.”
“No one has plumed hearses these days expect for costermongers and chimney sweeps.”
The shopkeeper foraged under his counter, then stood up triumphant. “We do an unparalleled line in false horses’ tails,” he announced, holding one up in the air and giving it a hopeful shake.
The man’s eyes fell to the floor, and he lost several inches in height. Suddenly he looked up. “There’s one thing I almost forgot, ma’am. A young lady such as yourself, thoughts naturally turn to marriage. We have the daintiest of wedding dresses in bridal black, should the happy occasion fall sometime soon. It’s a most fetching shade, ma’am. Just the right tint of hope and despair.”
The Princess suddenly thought of the ivory wedding gown with orange blossom at the neck and waist that she had already chosen. She had seen it in a magazine and hidden the picture in her stocking drawer, ready for her dressmaker, should the proposal finally come. But there had been no word from Mark Cavendish since news spread of the scandalous way in which her father had died.
The silence continued as the Princess stared at the floor.
“Her Highness would like to leave now,” said Pooki, standing up from the sofa, clutching the cat.
“Well, that seems to be everything,” muttered Mr. Ratakins, his eyes flicking from the servant to her mistress as he realised that he was in the presence of royalty. “Your Highness, if I may inform you for next time, we do make personal visits at no extra cost. On receipt of a telegram one of our lady fitters will be with you in no time at all.”
Mink’s thoughts turned to her mother, who had died of childbed fever just days after giving birth to the sister she’d begged her for, who had also failed to survive. She then imagined her father cold and alone, lying on his back in a mortuary.
“There won’t be another time, Mr. Ratakins,” she replied, her voice uneven. “All my relatives are dead.”
a sticky drizzle was falling by the time the carriage crunched up the driveway of the vast villa in Holland Park. Its lavish oriental interiors and magnificent grounds had been regularly featured in society magazines. Since the Maharaja’s death, however, any hint of gaiety had been snuffed out. The blinds on the windows were drawn, the pots of cheerful daffodils removed from the steps and attached to the door, sheltered by a grand portico, was a wreath, its crape ribbons hanging limply in the damp. Clutching one of her new black-edged handkerchiefs, Mink ran up the steps to the front door. Standing on either side were two white-haired men in top hats, black sashes tied across their matching overcoats, who smelt fiercely of drink.
“Who are you?” Mink asked one of them. The man continued to stare ahead of him in silence. “And you?” she said, turning to the other one. He too refused to speak. “What are you both doing at my front door?” she demanded crossly. The pair remained as quiet as graves, their gazes fixed on the trees in the distance. Suddenly, one of them twitched and rattled, and from out of an eye sailed a solitary tear.
As the Princess stood in the hall furiously unbuttoning her gloves, Bantam, the butler, approached. “The mutes arrived while you were out, ma’am,” he explained. “They haven’t said a word. We’ve done our best, believe me. One of the gardeners tried to tempt them with a German sausage, but there was absolute silence. I got in touch with the undertakers, and they agreed that mutes aren’t normally required until the day of the funeral. Unfortunately they said it was impossible to call them off. The Maharaja was very specific in his instructions. He stipulated a matching pair, apparently, though I notice only one of them has a beard.”
“They already smell of drink, Bantam.”
“Indeed, ma’am. They must have come straight from a previous engagement. May I suggest that we tell the mourners not to give them any more, despite the inclement weather?”
“Please see to it.” There was a pause. “And my father?” she added.
“They’ve just brought his body back following the inquest, ma’am. I took the liberty of putting him in the drawing room.”
“And the servants. How are they?” she asked.
“Still rather shaken, ma’am. Mrs. Wilson made so many mistakes making breakfast I had to give her the morning off. There should have been potted char. I do apologise.”
“Give them all the time they need,” Mink replied, looking away for a moment. “And Mr. Cavendish?” she asked, turning back.
Bantam hesitated. “Not a word, ma’am,” he said.
The Princess climbed the stairs, feeling a blade turn inside her with every step.
several hours later, pooki knocked on the Princess’s bedroom door. “The bodice has just arrived from Jay’s, ma’am,” she said upon entering. Mink stood in front of the mirror and silently took off her earrings, which would be replaced by those of unpolished jet. As she was helped into the gruesome clothes, she had the impression of being slowly choked by tar. When the maid left, she took a book out of her chest of drawers, and read the inscription written by the man she had imagined would admire her eyes forever.
The Princess and Mr. Cavendish had met one afternoon when their carriages collided in Hyde Park. Mink, who thought the accident to be entirely his fault, proceeded to inform him of the fact. It was when he admitted that women were better drivers than men, who had a tendency to show off, that she noticed the shape of his thighs. When she recounted the incident to her father, he instantly recognised a flame of desire in his daughter’s indignation. Up until then, she had rejected all manner of handsome temptations he had invited to the house on the pretext of playing cards. He investigated the background of the erratic driver, and was pleased to find it entirely suitable. Keen to stoke the fire underneath her, he asked him to his forthcoming Highland shooting party, and ordered a new kilt for the occasion.
The first the Princess knew of the invitation was her father’s announcement that he had just sent a carriage to pick up Mr. Cavendish from the station. Protesting, she ran upstairs to change, but after several minutes in front of the mirror, she changed back again, much to Pooki’s frustration. Unable to speak to the unexpected guest, she contrived not to sit next to him in the drawing room after dinner while her father agreed to the numerous requests to sing. The best woman shot in the country, she refused the following day to hide her talent with a gun to save the man’s blushes. By the end of the afternoon she had filled the carts with enough grouse to scandalise vegetarians for miles, and poachers retreated to their armchairs in despair. It was only when Mr. Cavendish was leaving that she finally felt able to talk to him. She stood at the landing window watching the retreating carriage, chastising herself for having so rudely ignored him.
It was her father who lured him to their home in Holland Park with an invitation to see his animals. Inspired by the Tower of London’s historic menagerie, the Maharaja had acquired them in the belief that every monarch should own a collection of exotic beasts. But his neighbours weren’t the only ones unsettled by the noisy invasion. The still-room maid shook at the sight of the kangaroo that hopped with its baby in its front pocket. The coachman, a tear in his eye, tried to scrub the zebra clean in the belief that it was a white pony that gypsies had painted with black stripes. And the scullery maid fainted when a pair of porcupines walked into the kitchen and raised their deadly defences.
Unaware of her father’s scheming, Mink went out into the garden to see the flamingos. Deep pink when they first arrived due to their diet of shrimp, they had now started to glimmer as a result of a weakness for the Maharaja’s goldfish. But instead of the long-legged birds, the Princess found Mr. Cavendish, who had not the slightest appetite for the contents of the ornamental pond. Next to him stood her father, who was trying to shake off an orphaned bear cub convinced that the Indian was its mother. The Maharaja insisted that Mink join them on his tour of the grounds, and she followed at a distance, her stomach tight. When she entered the grotto, she found Mr. Cavendish turning in circles, looking for her father, who had disappeared with the mastery of a magician. The couple stood in silence, surrounded by the gloom, and it wasn’t until they were joined by the bear cub hunting for its moustached mother that they started to talk.
Mark Cavendish was a regular addition to the luncheon table after that. His hat and exquisite cane became such a fixture in the hall that the servants stirred themselves into a frenzy over an imminent wedding, seeing white satin in every look the couple exchanged. The Maharaja was unable to control himself, and took to reading out loud the florid descriptions of society nuptials in the newspaper. Mink remained silent, the waiting made worse by the expectation that filled the house to its well-swept corners. But since the news of the Maharaja’s death, none of them had seen the ivory-handled cane again.