A HALLOWEEN GHOST STORY
"A Hall of Mirrors devised for your singular delight for one night only! Admission only sixpence! Stay as long as you dare!”
It was five-and-twenty-past-five on Tuesday 31st October 1893, and Miss Ida Penhaligon, wearing her best plum velvets, had just finished taking tea with her father in the lovely, perfumed recesses of the family emporium: Messrs Penhaligon & Jeavons of 66, Jermyn Street.
The fog was so heavy outside that the only indications of the hour were the strange gleams of orange and purple in the grey wreathing smoke. It was what Henry James called a “Grand Fog”, a London Particular, a true peasouper, damp and black and impenetrable.
In Penhaligon’s, however, all was a glitter. Two years ago, a fine and modern equipment of electric lights had been installed in the gentlemen and ladies’ hairdressing salons, and the dark, glazed Dutch tiles on the walls and the white marble and the polished mirrors and the silver cut glass scent bottles shone even on this darkest and gloomiest of Autumn days.
Ida finished the last chestnut éclair, kissed her father goodbye, picked up her muff and her gloves, and weaved her way around the barbers’ chairs, through clouds and clouds of Turkish rose and Sevillian orange blossom. It was all so comforting and heavenly, that when she stepped out into the street, it felt as though she had plunged from an Elysian meadow into the turgid depths of the very Styx itself.
For the weight of that sulphurous yellowy-black fog was such, it muffled all sounds, like being at the bottom of a muddied river. The traffic had halted to a standstill, and the lights of the shops and Athenæums and restaurants were ship-lights, ghost-lights, will-o-the-wisp-lights in the gloom.
Outside, Ida found the very elderly gentleman who was employed by her father as a link-lighter to guide customers across the street to their carriages and clubs. His name was Thomas, and he adored Ida. He’d fought in the Crimea and she was one of the few people who actually listened to his stories, however many times he told them.
“An All-Hallows’ drifter, Miss Ida” he said, lifting his lamp up in the mirk, “not a regular fog, but a ghostie one, full o’sooty spectres. An upside-down time, it is, Miss Ida. A changing time.”
“Goodness me,” said Ida, as they turned onto a sepulchral Piccadilly. Through the swirling mustard-damp, she could hear the bright, sweet cries of the flower girls outside the hotels and the curt warnings of coachmen arriving at Devonshire House, where the two disapproving-looking sphinxes on the gateposts seemed to be floating in mid-air, as though conjured by Madame Blavatsky herself.
“Now, you’ll be wanting me to watch you down to the Park, to the Hall of Mirrors, with all the other young ladies and young gentlemen?”
“The Hall of Mirrors?”, asked Ida, who had just been planning to buy a nice new hat before taking the ‘bus back home to Regents Park Terrace.
“Set up for this one night it is, by some travelling magician or other. A Maze of Mirrors, a Sea of Glass, a Wonder of the World. You must go, Miss Ida – look, there it is see!”
And there, by the first walkway in Green Park, was one of the strangest and most enchanting things Ida had ever seen. It was a building made entirely of glass, lit from within by hundreds of gas lamps. It was a little like the Crystal Palace in construction, but with rods made of silver and gold, rather than iron, and shaped most curiously, like a great crystalline scent-bottle, tapered at the top. Ida was entranced and forgetting all ideas of hats, bid Thomas farewell, and made her way through the thickening fog towards this shimmering mirage. At the entrance, she hesitated, then plucking up courage, pushed the ornate theatrical doors open, revealing a vast atrium of polished Venetian mirrors rising to the full height of the building. A dozen arched mirrored columns divided the room, reflecting the walls and each other and the flickering lights, until the very world seemed to have no end, an infinite space of flame and glitter and refracted light and a thousand Idas-in-plum-velvet moving and turning as she moved and turned.
It was utterly bewildering. Phantasmagoric in its strangeness and beauty, like being inside a dragonfly’s eye or the drum of a magic lantern or the gossamer palace of the Fairy Queen.
“How marvellous!” thought Ida, and stepping backwards to gaze up at the ceiling, which had the strange effect of appearing as the night sky, spangled with fiery stars, she bumped into a very large personage, and apologized profusely.
“That’s quite all right,” the personage replied in a pleasant American accent, and Ida looked up into the friendly face of an enormous, extremely well-dressed bull, sporting a heavy Inverness overcoat and immaculate top hat, as though on the way to Covent Garden.
Ordinarily, Ida would have fled all the way back to Primrose Hill, but she was utterly charmed. The Bull introduced himself formally, presenting her with a gilt-edged card, “Blazing Mr Sam at your service, Ma’am, proprietor of this here world-famous Mirror Labyrinth, a Hall of Mirrors devised for your singular delight for one night only! Admission only sixpence! Stay as long as you dare!”
Ida found a sixpence in the depths of her purse. Blazing Mr Sam even smelt divine, a Newport scent of sweet tobacco and cinnamon Johnny cakes and the very, very best kind of rum. He winked at her and magicked the sixpence into thin air with one deft hoof and drew back the heavy black velvet curtain which served for the door into the maze proper.
Behind was a smaller chamber, with a lower ceiling and walls of ghostly looking-glasses edged in elaborate silvery filagree. Ida scarcely knew where to turn, but then suddenly glimpsed an elegant grey cat moving to her right. It slipped through a gap in the mirrors between two golden flares of gas, and Ida followed her. It was almost impossible to walk with so many reflections of herself, and she closed her eyes briefly to steady her dizziness.
When she opened them, she found herself in a place far from London. A deceit of the maze, of course, but an astonishingly real one. It was a little shop. A confectioner’s shop, full of French pastries and dates and pale pink chocolate boxes and twists of melon seeds and meshabek soaked in honey. Its doors, arched with tumbling yellow jasmine, were opened wide onto a busy street and everywhere was sunlight and the rattle of tram cars and the distant sounds of crashing waves and the noontime call to prayer.
There were no customers, no proprietor, just the grey cat, who was sitting on the counter on a silk pillow staring at Ida. Behind her, a vast mirror was elaborately etched with the name and address of the shop: Bewitching Yasmine, rue de France, Alexandrie. Enchanted, Ida went to pet the cat, who, looking somewhat affronted, immediately leapt up and fetched a tall silver pot of cardamon coffee and a silver bowl. “Coffee? Crème Chantilly?” she asked Ida. “Oh, goodness, yes, please,” said Ida. Ida sat on a tall stool and sipped her coffee and the cat pushed over various petits fours and marzipans and told Ida of life in old Alexandria, of the wild gulls and the swallows and the palm-trees and the palm-mice and the frigates creaking in the Old Harbour. After the coffee pot was drained, the cat, who had been in the middle of a long description of a Ptolemaic temple, abruptly stopped talking and curled up into a ball fast asleep. Thus dismissed, Ida very slowly climbed off her stool and began to make for the door, when the polished shop floorboards suddenly gave way like a sprung puzzle box, and she found herself falling, falling as slowly as a blossom, barely a ripple in her skirts, through a dark mirrored tunnel, deeper and deeper and deeper, until she landed, extremely gracefully, in an enormous leather armchair in the long, ornately pillared room of a library.
It looked a little like the library of the Reform Club, just around the corner from Penhaligon’s. She’d been there once as a little girl, when her father was delivering violet soaps to the Home Secretary. There were hundreds of Moroccan-bound books, their gilt-edged cases reaching to the ceiling, two great globes, terrestrial and celestial, vast old silvery foxed mirrors hung in alcoves between the bookshelves and over a marble fireplace at the far end, a round mahogany table with newspapers and periodicals and dozens of copies of Punch and Sketch and the Illustrated London News.
And there was a divine scent in the air, heavy and lingering as though someone had just left; a very particular scent of a gentleman of some note and distinguishment in the world. A scent of Virginia pipe-smoke and Antiguan rum and dark sweet spices, of the great cargo ships in St Katherine’s dock carrying tonka beans from Venezuela and vetivert from Sumatra and lavender from Provence.
How very odd this mirror maze is, thought Ida, adjusting her cape, which was a little askew from her fall, then making her way gingerly across the room to find her way out, expecting the floor to open at any moment or a strange old gentleman to leap up from a chair.
She glanced at the front pages of the newspapers as she passed the table and the headline of The Sketch caught her eye. It declaimed, “The Tragedy of Lord George,” with an accompanying etching of a handsome moustachioed patriarch embracing a beautiful woman wearing an enormous hat decorated with hummingbirds.
Intrigued, despite herself, Ida began to read the indelicate details, of which there were many, when the gas lamps in the library suddenly dimmed, and the row of columns, with their carved Corinthian foliage, seemed to press closer and closer and multiply, acanthus leaves and tendrils growing and snaking out of the stone as if alive.
Ida dropped the Sketch, and looked desperately for a door. The library was beginning to look more and more like a forest and less and less like the Reform club, and by the maritime atlases in the far corner, now covered with mushrooms and dead mulchy leaves and beetles, there was a sudden movement, and a great stag emerged, its twelve-tined antlers almost touching the ceiling.
He stood and regarded Ida rather sadly for a long moment, then sighed heavily to himself, “Dash it all, dash it all, oh, the burden of scandal, the heavy burden of scandal!”
“I’m terribly sorry,” cried Ida, “anything I can do to help?”
“No, no,’ said the stag, “You’re very kind, but I’m quite alright, thank you.” He blew his nose loudly, and then turned mournfully towards the fireplace, lowered his head, and crashed his great points into the marble and smashed his hooves down onto the smouldering fire. The entire wall opened-up, and a narrow corridor of high, burnished mirrors was revealed. The stag took one last melancholy look at Ida, and then moved silently through.
Squeezing past columns, and pushing vines and trailing branches aside, Ida quickly decided to follow the poor stag and found herself in a bewildering passageway entirely built of mirrors which seem to shift and creak and move with each step, as though at sea. The further in, the more humid it became, and the glass was beginning to fog and steam. With her velvet capelet, hat and muff and gloves, Ida was starting to become most uncomfortable, when the corridor veered to the right then to the left, then abruptly gave way to the most extraordinary room.
It was a vast greenhouse, at least 60 feet high and 100 feet wide, filled with as many plants as Kew. There were towering palms, the “kings among the grasses”, and violet stemmed banana-trees and pale whispering groves of bamboo, and Damascus figs weighted down with fruit, and flowering mangos and Travellers’ trees like great courtly fans, and cinnamon and grapefruit and pawpaw and cassia, and several dark, dense ferneries, and there were butterflies and tiny little iridescent birds darting here and there and the air was sweet with the scent of the gnarled vanilla trees which lined the walkways.
But in the centre of this wondrous garden, was an even greater wonder. Lounging in the middle of an elaborate fountain, quite casually, as though this was an entirely normal occurrence, was a dragon. For a moment, Ida thought he might be one of those articulated Japanese metal dragons which they sold in Liberty’s, but then she realised he was eating a golden grapefruit with a silver spoon. Next to him, on the wide rim of the fountain, was an incense burner in the shape of a turtle, its smoke wreathing up through the palm fronds, a heady smoke of mountain shrines and cedar woods, and deep snows by the fabled Lake Qinghai, home of the dragon king of the Western sea.
Ida stood and watched him finish his grapefruit, then realised that the dragon had his own taxonomic sign, as with all the plants in the conservatory – “Draconis sinica” or “Chinese Dragon” – but underneath that, was a further handwritten plaque, which read in a very elaborate dragony sort of script, “The World according to Arthur” – ask me anything.”
“You can,” said the dragon, stretching, “ask me any old thing and I will indeed do my very best to answer. Anything you fancy.”
“Well, I was wondering, um, Arthur,” asked Ida, whether this Hall of Mirrors is real or a fiction? Am I imagining it all?”
“Quite real, but a little topsy-turvy, said the dragon. “It is All Hallows’ Eve, after all. And for that matter, we are closing very soon, you don’t want to be trapped in the Mirror Maze after midnight.” And he pointed his tail at a pair of doors almost hidden by a high bank of papery yellow muskdana.
Ida waded through the flowers and pushed through the heavy double doors into the dark, damp London fog, the vanillered amber of the hothouse smothered immediately in coal dust and soot. She could barely see where she was, then realised the marsh lights floating in front of her were the lamps of the omnibuses. She was by the railings in Green Park again, almost on Piccadilly itself.
She turned to marvel once more at the Hall of Mirrors, but there was nothing there. It had vanished. No glittering edifice, no charismatic Sam, no chattering crowds. Just the dim shadows of poplar trees wraithed in the fog. Ida tried to rationalise it all, and decided, like a true Londoner, to put it down entirely to the odd atmospheric effects of a peasouper. And then, as the long beam of a link-lighter suddenly cast onto the muddy grass from the street, she saw something glint by her boots: four mirrored bottles, the colour of jewels, each topped with the golden head of an animal. A bull, a cat, a stag, and a dragon.
Fragments of the maze, thought Ida, and gathered them up to show her father at home. Perhaps they might inspire him to create some new perfumes, she thought, such beauty, such luminosity in such darkness.
An incensed (though, not like the rest!) warrior in a sweet- scented garden of sage wisdom and wit.
The Prince of Perfumes enters in a majestic haze of vetiver, as one would expect.
A sweet-scented Rose, ready for the picking. Not so innocent after all.
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