The Unforgiving Seam
The blood bloomed in the fabric until it spread down the hem, a burning red against the grey of the November light. There was nothing in the room but a candle, a chair, and a girl hunched over her needlework.
When the girls were bad, they were sent to work in their rooms. Not that there was much that could be worse than the huge shuttered silent hall with rows and rows of hungry faces picking like spiders over lace, taffeta and tulle. The room there was cold, even in summer, the tall windows laced with shutters to keep the girls from staring out at a better world.
And so it was, that they stitched, unpicked and stitched, from six to one, then one fifteen to ten. A pudding of a woman with eyes like raisins would watch over her starched collar, her feet over a comforter, a book in her hand. If a girl coughed, sneezed or cried out in pain at the jab of a needle, she would be sent up to the chambers. There she would work, from the attic room, with little light and no fire, with no supper and no dinner.
If she was to fall asleep or pause, or her stitches were too hasty, she would go another day without food. Madame Roseanna was strict on quality, and stricter with the girls. Those foolish enough to fall asleep at their work or ask for more rest would be hit across the face with her cane. But still, it was a privilege to work for Madame Roseanna, the most fashionable ladies’ dresser in all of Mayfair.
The job was not without perks. The gowns were made of fabrics from Arabia, Persia, China and France. The lace fell like snowflakes from the reels and the embroidered satin gleamed with roses, peacocks and nightingales. You could lose yourself in this work, the exacting of ribbons, the soft trim of velvet tassels over a bodice. But that was few and far between. Most of the work was petticoats, white muslin, and constructive stitching. Again and again, over and over, cut and stitch, trim and fold, cut and stitch, trim and fold, until the room grew dark and the air still and your mind swam. Then the clock struck ten and they would go to the kitchen in single file for stew and bread, or, if money was tight, gruel and ale.
Every day was the same. Except for today.
The girl had been sent to her room for coughing. A coughing fit that had splintered the silence and roused Miss Ambrell from her book and comforter with such annoyance that she had beaten the girl around her head. And now the girl sat in her room, watching the blood from her fingertips sink into the white silk with a curious numbness, devoid of fear.
There were eight more roses to stitch onto Miss Evelyn Morgan-Baybridge’s ballgown. Four more at the crowded hem, two on each sleeve. They were silk, dyed in pale pink, soaked in vinegar to whiten the tips, and painted lightly with red at the stem. The effect was much as if they had bled themselves, against the cream and ivory of the skirts and bodice. Every inch was embroidered discreetly with white silk threads and glass beads, the bodice neatly lined in dark thin pink ribbon, the décolletage hemmed with green ivy leaves made of stiff velvet. This was the sort of gown young girls dreamt of, a fairytale of roses, clambering ivy and soft snows. But in the dark, the girl loathed the gown.
She hated the pain in her fingers, the pain in her lungs, the sharpness behind her tired eyes, the cuts and calluses that warped across her fingertips and palms. She hated the dye that stained her hands and the cold numbness in her bones. And most of all, she hated that the dress had killed her.
She would die, soon, she thought, watching the blood blooming down to the false roses. Not long after this dress was made, not long after she had pulled herself down to the bed. If she shut her eyes, she would be gone, into the shadows and spirits of some other world. Heaven, the Madame said. That’s where good girls go that worked hard. Then again, she wasn’t good.
She couldn’t say why she did it. Perhaps as a final gift for herself, that night, as she fixed the final rose to the sleeve. Perhaps to say goodbye to the earth, or as revenge on a cruel mistress. But she undressed, and slipped into the gown that would be worn by Miss Evelyn Morgan-Baybridge. And with that, she fell asleep, for the last time, as the candle licked the wax at the end of it’s cord.
Miss Ambrell had called for Madame Roseanna when she came to rouse the girls, and the two women had handled her corpse as they might a carcass for butchery. They pulled off the dress with haste, freshened it with scent and put the girl naked on the bed for a gravedigger to deal with when they had less to fret for. Such was their hurry that they didn’t even notice the blood blooming from the muslin hem when it was folded into a French silk box and ribbon for Miss Morgan-Baybridge. The girl would be put in her nightgown and unceremoniously shoved into a pine coffin, to be buried at the edge of St Olave’s.
Miss Evelyn Morgan-Baybridge would not notice the blood, either, when the box was delivered to 12 Tavistock Square the next week with a new pair of gloves and a shawl. She had clapped her hands in front of her lady’s maid and turned with joy in the mirror. Fresh roses were cut for her hair and fresh ivy coiled up around her curls. She would wear her mother’s pearls for the night, and her fan from France with the burgundy beading. Indeed, everyone turned and admired the young lady the following Friday, alive with youth, red cheeked and plump with sweet cakes and wine.
But it wasn’t so very long before she began to cough. A thick, rasping cough that she drank brandy for. But still it would not go, leaving her so weak she sat down and watched the crowd, brightly coloured like birds around her. She felt tired, weak, as if she had not slept well in years. No doubt a fever at the excitement, she told herself, forcing herself to her feet to accept the hand of Lord Fitz-Clarence. Her breath felt short, but she smiled at him winningly, keen to not spread gossip of ill health.
Behind her, the women started to whisper. “How strange!” one whispered. “Her hair was never so thin as it is tonight. Why, she looks like a pauper.” The other woman frowned, watching Evelyn closely. “And so thin! Has she been unwell?” A man gasped as she met his gaze, covering his mouth with repulsion. Evelyn could take no more, and turned her head to the mirror.
To her shock, a corpse stared back at her, a whitish yellow hue with skin sunken around a dead stare, the hair on her head once matted with roses filled with decaying flowers and mouldered, drying leaves. Her pink cheeks were blue with death, her lips rotting away to reveal hungry, broken teeth. Before her eyes, the flesh melted from her fingertips and the dress swam with blood and the dust of graveyards. The crowds parted in fright, leaving her to sink alone to the floor. Well, all but one.
Behind her, in the mirror, stood a young woman, painfully thin, holding nothing but a candle, watching.