Madame Rachel

by Arthur Machen


The other day, reading the paper, I came upon a half-column that interested me. It was headed: “Slimness-While-You-Wait,” and a sub-heading ran: “The `Boiled Cyclist' Treatment.” Who could resist such invitations as these! Not I.

I found that the article concerned a new “Beauty Parlour” in the Bond Street quarter. And how pleasant it is, by the way, to note the manner in which America is restoring to us the good old English word, “parlour,” which we had lost awhile. Well, in this Beauty Parlour, the lady who would achieve perfection of form must undergo many severe trials; and, indeed, this is the way of perfection of every kind, and there is no escape from it. And the trials of Bond Street are hard to bear; they almost recall the terrors which, in popular tradition, are supposed to await him who would pass through the Third Degree of a venerable secret order. Thus I read:

“First she (the person to be initiated in these mysteries) has to strip herself of her clothing and sit for twenty minutes in the `reducycle bath.' The bath is surrounded by canvas which is fastened round her neck. In its interior a bicycle is fitted, and the client sits on the bicycle saddle and works the pedals as though she were actually riding quickly along a road.”

Then follows the Shower. To it succeeds the Roller, painted a pale mauve, “with kinks in it.” Then the Candidate is vested in a bathing costume, and there ensues the Ceremony of the Exercises on Coloured Mats to the music of the gramophone. Altogether, it strikes me as a strange but gorgeous rite; and I trust and believe that She renews her youth, in the fashion of that other She of Sir Rider Haggard's invention.

In the bad old days, there were beauty parlours in Bond Street, though they did not call them then by that name. But there was no science then; only a great deal of wickedness. Listen, therefore, to the story of Sarah Rachel Leverson, called Madame Rachel, who lived at the corner of New Bond Street and Maddox Street, and said that she could make ladies beautiful for ever. Madame Rachel drove, on the face of it, much the same trade as that plied by Dickens's famous Miss Mowcher. She sold all sorts of cosmetics, enamels, paints, powders, rouges, unguents. She constantly proclaimed that she could make women beautiful for ever, and she came at last to Marlborough Street police station and to the Court of the Recorder of London, in the year 1868. The complainant was a Mrs. Borradaile, widow of a Colonel, who said that Madame Rachel had swindled her, one way and another, of £3000.

“On my first visit”—testifies Mrs. Borradaile—“I spent £10, and in the course of two or three days I had invested £170 with her. I paid her various sums of money for cosmetics, and so forth, during the latter part of 1864 and the commencement of 1865. Before purchasing these articles I asked her to do something for my skin, and she promised that if I would follow out her course of treatment in every particular she would succeed in making me beautiful for ever.”

Poor Mrs. Borradaile! Serjeant Ballantine was retained for the prosecution—with him Mr. Straight and Mr. Montague Williams—and the last testifies that Mrs. Borradaile was “a sparse, thin, scraggy-looking woman, wholly devoid of figure; her hair was dyed a bright yellow; her face was raddled with paint.” The matter went far beyond selling creams and powders, and Arabian herbs and nonsense of every sort in boxes and bottles and baths.

“On one occasion,” said the witness, “I called on Madame Rachel, who told me that she had had an interview with the gentleman who had fallen in love with me. On asking his name, I was informed that it was Lord Ranelagh. I asked when he had met me, and the reply was, both before and after my marriage... Madame Rachel said that she would introduce me to him the next day... I called at Maddox Street, where the prisoner lived. Madame Rachel opened the door and said, `I will now introduce you to the man who loves you.' She then introduced me to a man whom I believed, and still believe to be Lord Ranelagh. I said to him, `Are you Lord Ranelagh?' and he answered, `Yes; here is my card.' He then handed me a card, which I returned to him. The gentleman who gave me the card is the gentleman I now see in Court.” This gentleman in Court, thus identified, was undoubtedly Lord Ranelagh. He gave evidence. He said he had often been in Madame Rachel's shop. He thought he had seen Mrs. Borradaile once at the shop, but he had no recollection of being introduced to her. He was asked, it would appear, what business he had in Madame Rachel's shop at all. He answered, “You don't suppose I went there to be enamelled.”

Which reminds me of “Charley Pyegrave, the duke's son.”

“He goes into a perfumer's shop, and wants to buy a bottle of the Madagascar Liquid.”

“Charley does?” said Steerforth.

“Charley does. But they haven't got any of the Madagascar Liquid.”

“What is it? Something to drink?” asked Steerforth.

“To drink?” returned Miss Mowcher, stopping to slap his cheek. “To doctor his own mustachios with, you know.”

Well, the elderly woman in the shop said to Charley:

“Begging pardon, sir, it's not-not-not ROUGE, is it?”

“Rouge,” said Charley. “What the unmentionable to ears polite do you think I want with rouge?”

But what was Lord Ranelagh doing at Madame Rachel's? Well, the curious are advised to consult the rumours of the time.

Madame Rachel, then, quite persuaded Mrs. Borradaile that Lord Ranelagh was desirous of marrying her. And, at Lord Ranelagh's express desire, Mrs. Borradaile was to go through an extra process of being made beautiful for ever. The poor, silly woman accordingly sold out securities and paid Madame Rachel £800 on account of £1000 “for bath preparations, spices, powders, sponges, perfumes, and attendance, to be continued till I (Mrs. Borradaile) am finished by the process.” And from this moment the story surpasses the very bounds of extravagance. Madame Rachel said she was going to marry this happy couple “by proxy,” otherwise “by letter writings.” There were plenty of letter-writings handed over by Madame Rachel to Mrs. Borradaile. Sometimes they were signed “William,” sometimes “Edward,” Lord Ranelagh's name being Thomas; but, as Madame sagely observed, this was a wise precaution since letters are apt to be left about. They were odd letters. They all dwelt on the importance of keeping “Granny” (Madame Rachel) in good temper. They warned “Darling love, Mary, my sweet one,” not to hold any communication with her family or with Lewis and Lewis—suspicious and untrustful tribes, both of them. The letters were in different handwritings, but, as “Granny” explained, Lord Ranelagh had hurt his arm, and sometimes made his servant write for him. Affectionate letters these: “I shall be at your feet—those pretty feet that I love—and you may kick your ugly old donkey”; “I would rather be shot like a dog than leave England without you”; “I heard you were insulted by a cabman in Oxford Street, yesterday. I wish I had been there”; “Mary, my heart's love, is it your wish to drive me mad? Granny has my instructions. Do as she tells you.... What is the meaning of the delay, at the eleventh hour? Granny lent me the money. You shall pay her, my own sweet one. Get the lace to-day and fear nothing. It will be £35.” Clothes and lace and jewellery were necessary for the wedding, said Granny, and Mrs. Borradaile bought them—and Granny took care of them. Presumably, suspicion began to rise in the foolish woman's heart; she said she could not get any of these articles back. “You must ask the man who loves you for them back,” said Madame, and she brought her victim a lighted cigar, “saying that Lord Ranelagh's love for me was as warm as that.” That must have reassured Mrs. Borradaile, since soon after she executed a bond for £1600. This was for Lord Ranelagh, but Granny took care of it, and I suppose Granny also took care of a carriage which Mrs. Borradaile bought for her wedding.

And the end of the story? Five years' penal servitude for Granny.