Extract from Girl in a Blue Dress

by Gaynor Arnold

My husband’s funeral is today. And I’m sitting here alone in my upstairs room while half London follows him to his grave.

I should be angry, I suppose. Kitty was angry for me; marching about the room dementedly. They couldn’t stop you, she kept saying. They wouldn’t dare turn you away – not his own widow. And of course she is right; if I’d made an appearance, they would have been forced to acknowledge me, to grit their teeth and make the best of it. But I really couldn’t have borne to parade myself in front of them; to sit in a black dress in a black carriage listening to the sound of muffled hooves and the agonised weeping of thousands.  And most of all, I couldn’t have borne to see Alfred boxed up in that dreadful fashion. Even today, I cannot believe that he will never again make a comical face, or laugh immoderately at some joke, or racket about in his old facetious way. 

I have tried to keep cheerful. I have sat at the piano in my brightest frock, playing ‘The Sailors’ Hornpipe’ until my fingers ached. I have wept too, loud and long, but I cannot let Kitty see me weep. She will come soon, I am sure. And when she is here, I shall need all my strength.

At last, the doorbell rings, and in seconds Kitty is in the room.  She has an immense black veil, a heavy train running for yards behind her and jet beads glittering all over. ‘Oh, you should have been there, Mama!’ she cries, almost knocking Gyp from my lap with the force of her embrace. ‘It’s completely insupportable that you were not!’
I pat whatever part of her I can feel beneath the heavy folds of crape and bombazine. I try to calm her, though now she is here –so strung up and full of grief, so pregnant with desire to tell me all – I am far from being calm myself. My heart jitters and jumps like a mad thing. I dread to hear what she has to say, but I know of old that she will not be stopped. She is near to stifling me too; her arms are tight, her veil is across my mouth. ‘Please, Kitty,’ I gasp. ‘Get up – or you will suffocate us both! Sit down and tell me all.’

She stands up, starts to wrench off her gloves. ‘Sit down! Sit down? How can I sit down after all I have been through? Oh, he might almost have done it on purpose!’
‘Who? Your father? What can he possibly have done now?’ Yet it would not surprise me if he had managed to cause some kind of mayhem. Alfred always hated funerals, and would not be averse to undermining his own. But I do not see how even he could have contrived such a thing from beyond the grave. 

‘It’s all his fault! Oh, Mama!’ She throws her mangled gloves on the table. ‘As if it’s not enough that we’ve had to share every scrap of him with his Public for all these years, but no, they had to be centre stage even today, as if it were their father – or their husband – who had been taken from them!’ She lifts her veil, revealing reddened eyes and cheeks puffed with weeping. ‘Oh, I can not bear it!’

So it is the Public she inveighs against; that is nothing new.  ‘Oh, Kitty,’ I say. ‘It is hard, I know, but you must allow them their hour of grief.’

‘Must I? Really, Mama, must I?’ She takes out her handkerchief. It is silk with a black lace border and I cannot help thinking that she must have outspent her housekeeping with all this ostentation. She dabs at her eyes as violently as if she would poke them out. ‘You’d have expected, wouldn’t you, that after giving them every ounce of his blood every day of his existence, at least they’d let him have some peace and dignity at the end?’

‘And didn’t they?’ My blood runs cold; all kinds of grotes – querie fill my mind. ‘For Heaven’s sake, child, what did they do?’

‘They were like lunatics, Mama.’ She takes an angry turn around the curio-table, nearly knocking it over. ‘It was insupportable.’

I do not understand. Even the most cynical of his critics would not have begrudged him a decent funeral. ‘Lunatics?’ I say. ‘Was there really no respect?’
She pauses, shrugs reluctantly. ‘Well, I suppose there was at first. I even thought how patient they’d all been: men, women and children standing six foot deep, even though it had been raining for hours. Everyone still and silent, save for the sound of the carriage wheels, and the shufflings and sighings and doffings of hats.  But the moment we turned away from the park, some desperate wretch ran out and started pulling at the heads of the horses, crying, ‘No! No! Don’t leave us!’ And then it was as if a dam had burst, and the crowd was a great surge of water, flowing every – where. It was terrifying, Mama! The horses were rearing, feathers floating in the air. I thought we’d be turned over and trampled to death. Trampled by his very own Public at his very own funeral –how fitting that would have been!’ She glares around the room, as if daring the furniture to disagree with her.

So that is all; simply some over-exuberance of the crowd. But she is not used to it, of course; she never had to run the gauntlet of the savage masses in America all those years ago, when I’d had to cling to Alfred’s arm as he cleaved through them, smiling as if it were nothing in the world to be pulled about by strangers who thought you belonged to them, body and soul. ‘Poor Kitty,’ I say.  ‘How dreadful for you! And yet your most fervent wish is that I had been there too; I think that is not quite kind.’
She looks a little chastened. ‘But it was your right, Mama,’ she says, sniffing loudly. ‘You should have insisted. It is a matter of principle. You should not have allowed Sissy and the others to win again.’

‘Oh, I am not interested in winning or losing,’ I reply –although as the words leave my lips I know it’s not strictly true; I was once prepared to win at any price, especially with my proud and pretty sister. But it’s too late now, and none of Kitty’s raging will make one iota of difference. And if by staying home I avoided being overturned and trampled upon, I can only be grateful. 

I look at her sumptuous frock, her extravagant train, her acres of beading, and her very fine, long veil; only the mud around her hem spoils the theatrical effect: ‘But you seem undamaged, Kitty.  Surely the excitement of the Public cannot have been so very bad?’

‘You think I exaggerate?’ she exclaims, casting herself into the fire side chair. ‘Well, you can ask Michael. He was in the carriage with Alfie and me. If he’d not kept hold of the door-handle, we’d have been pitched out on the road! And if I hadn’t clung to the curtains, I’d have cracked my head against the windows or been knocked to the floor! There was such a monstrous surging ahead of us that I would not have put it past them to have laid hands on the coffin itself.’ She wipes her nose defiantly. ‘He would really have belonged to his blessed Public then!’

I am distressed at her ordeal, but I want to laugh too. And I see Alfred in my mind’s eye, throwing back his head and roaring with mirth. But poor Kitty sees only the disrespect. ‘I’m sure they did not intend to frighten you, Kitty,’ I say. ‘They were simply expressing their grief.’

‘Grief? Well, it was a strange kind, then! It seemed more – oh, I don’t know – as if they were some kind of savages and he were some sort of god! In Piccadilly they actually pelted the carriages with flowers; at the corner of Pall Mall they chanted his name and pressed his books to their hearts as if they were holy icons. Ladies fainted and had to be carried away by the dozen. Gentle men lost hats and gloves – and even boots.’ She shakes her head vehemently. 
I smile to myself: urchins and pickpockets must have had a fine time.

‘I don’t know how they had the gall – taking it upon them – selves to wail and sob as if they were widows – when his real widow wasn’t even there!’ She leans forward and sets about the fire, wielding the long poker as if she would stab the coals to death. She is all anger; but I can see that she has clearly relished the drama of the day. Why else is she so sumptuously decked out in all the finery of sorrow, the elaborate mourning she knows he hated so much?

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I say, taking the poker away from her. ‘The funeral was not for my benefit; it was for theirs. And you saw how much they loved him.’

She turns on me. ‘Only because they didn’t know him. So many times I wanted to push down the carriage window and shout out to them that he was a cruel, cruel man. Cruel to his wife, and cruel to his children! And yet you sit here so calm and docile!  Aren’t you angry at the way he used you? Don’t you want to howl up to Heaven at the unfairness of it all?’ She looks as though she will lift up her own head and howl, but instead she gets up and paces a path between the fireplace and the door, her train catching around the chair-legs and the sofa-ends as she turns and turns about.

I knew she would taunt me with complacency; it is her constant theme. Yet, God knows, I have been angry, and jealous, and sorry for myself. But such emotions only feed on themselves. It is not Alfred’s fault that things happened the way they did. ‘I will not speak ill of him,’ I say. ‘And I trust you will not either. Especially today.’
‘Well,’ she says tartly, ‘I cannot promise that. After all, it’s such a relief to be free from him. I may find it impossible to hold myself back.’
‘What do you mean – free?’

‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean! Don’t say you don’t feel it too – knowing we shan’t have to bow to his opinion on every blessed thing! Doesn’t it fill you with a wonderful sense of liberty?’ She spreads her arms in a theatrical gesture, the beads along her bodice shivering in unison. ‘When I think of all I’ve had to endure, I’m almost glad he’s gone.’

I cannot endure hearing her say those things, even though I know she doesn’t mean them. ‘What nonsense!’ I say. ‘You wouldn’t be weeping this way if you were glad; and you wouldn’t be nearly so angry. Your father was a wonderful man – one of the most wonderful men that ever lived – and you know it.’
‘Oh, yes, I know it. We all know it. We couldn’t get away from the One and Only, Yours Truly, the Great Original.’

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold is published by Tindal Street Press, 442pp, pbk £9.99; www.tindalstreet.co.uk

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