The Yellow Dressing Gown12 min read
Of all the curators at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum, I liked Michael Overton the least. He was a loud, bustling, back-slapping man, red-faced and brash and quite, quite stupid. There was, I believe, no particular malice in him, but there was no particular good, either, except possibly in his odd but entirely sincere devotion to his work. It was the last thing one would expect of a hearty, manly man like Overton, but his specialty was eighteenth-century textiles, with an emphasis on women’s clothing. We were all indefatigable trophy hunters when it came to acquisitions, but none was as indefatigable as Overton, who spent every weekend attending estate sales and combing through antique stores, and who spent many of his weekdays arguing with Dr. Starkweather about the budget for Decorative Arts. Overton made up in brute persistence what he lacked in intelligence, and I believe he was nearly as sore a trial to Dr. Starkweather as I was. Perhaps even more so—I did my best to stay out of the museum director’s way, while Overton bounded into combat like a particularly muscular Christian hoping for a worthy lion.
The trouble with Overton, as Mr. Lucent said once, was that he was good at his job. He had a special gift for finding clothes that had been worn by famous, or infamous, persons—mostly but not exclusively women—and that, of course, was the best way to make eighteenth century textiles palatable to the general public. Eighteenth Century Afternoon Dress was of interest only to specialists; Eighteenth Century Afternoon Dress Worn by New York Poisoner Deborah Duffy was of interest to everyone.
Overton’s provenances were sometimes sketchy (Eighteenth Century Riding Habit Believed to Have Belonged to Notorious Actress Mary Raphael Spence), but they never descended as far as dodgy, and Overton himself worked like a maniac—and drove his junior curators like slaves—to improve them, even after an item was acquired and displayed. Overton never gave up.
We clashed, Overton and I, because Dr. Starkweather’s habit, when Overton’s financial importunings became too much to bear, was to allot him more of the junior curators’ time. This practice had several benefits, only one of which was that it would silence Overton for as much as a fortnight, but it meant that when I stupidly broke my wrist, it was Overton I had to fight for Mr. Sullivan’s time. Miss Coburn and Mr. Lucent were staunch seconds—especially Mr. Lucent, as otherwise it would be his thankless task to take dictation from me for six weeks—and poor Mr. Sullivan would have stood on his head and recited Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in its entirety to get away from Overton, but it was I whom Overton blamed. He seemed to feel I had broken my wrist on purpose to pry Mr. Sullivan away from him, and I believe he came to dislike me almost as much as I disliked him.
This animosity did not, however, prevent him from positively haunting my office, trying to lure Mr. Sullivan back. Overton had the true obsessive’s tunnel vision; he could not believe that other persons did not find eighteenth century clothing as endlessly fascinating as he did. Thus, he would “just stop by” to tell Mr. Sullivan about his newest find, or the really clever work Mr. Grice had done on the provenance of something-or-other, and he never once failed to ask if Mr. Sullivan had made any progress in the matter of the dressing gown.
I was keeping Mr. Sullivan sufficiently busy that on most days he barely had time for lunch; thus his answer was uniformly “no.” At which, Overton would scowl at me and disappear again, causing both Mr. Sullivan and myself to heave sighs of relief. The particular quality of that relief was such that it was several weeks before I asked what, exactly, the matter of the dressing gown was.
Mr. Sullivan sighed, not in relief, and said, “Mr. Overton has a bee in his bonnet.”
“Several,” I said before I could stop myself. My wrist ached, sometimes dully, sometimes throbbingly, and the torturous awkwardness it imparted to even the simplest task was making my temper quite alarmingly short.
Mr. Sullivan, though, actually smiled and continued more easily, “This one is about the dressing gown of Ephraim Catesby.”
“Ephraim Catesby the artist?”
“If there’s another Ephraim Catesby, I’ve never come across him. He was always caricatured in the papers wearing this extravagant dressing gown, and Mr. Overton is determined to find it.”
“It would be a tremendous coup,” I admitted. The Parrington had the best collection of Catesby in the country, including the canvas on which he had been working when he committed suicide in 1819: The Wedding March of Ruin. The progress of his syphilitic dementia, critics agreed, had not impaired his artistic ability, merely his perceptions. Catesby had been notorious for always, always, painting from life.
It was not, when faced with The Wedding March of Ruin, a comforting thought.
“But what makes Overton think the dressing gown is still extant?”
Mr. Sullivan all but rolled his eyes. “Mr. Booth, do you really want to know?”
“Ah, no. That is… where were we when Mr. Overton knocked?”
We returned to our business, and I fully intended to leave Overton to his. But three days later, he burst into my office, without knocking, shouting, “Sullivan! Sullivan! I need you!”
“I beg your pardon,” I said with a degree of iciness I had never achieved before in my life. Mr. Sullivan moaned and tried to hide behind a stack of bound journals.
Overton did an odd hopping dance step of impatience and frustration. “I need Sullivan this afternoon. You’ll just have to do without him.”
“How dare you!” I shouted, perhaps a trifle nonsensically, coming to my feet.
Overton at last seemed to recognize that I was not in charity with his excitement. “But it’s the dressing gown! I’ve found Ephraim Catesby’s dressing gown, but Sullivan did all the background work, and I need him along!” He blinked at me beseechingly, washed out, pale lashed eyes in a round, red, sweating face. “You can do without him for an afternoon, can’t you?”
“No,” I said, because I could not. But much as I disliked Overton and much as I resented his high-handed, clumsy efforts to steal Mr. Sullivan, I could not help feeling a pang of slightly envious empathy. I sighed and capitulated. “But I can come with you.”
Neither Overton nor Mr. Sullivan was pleased with my solution, and I did not like it myself, crammed into the back of Overton’s automobile with a musty collection of newspapers and correspondence. Overton drove badly, impatiently; Mr. Sullivan and I were lucky that our destination was less than ten miles from the Parrington.
The person who had lived there, recently deceased, had been Priscilla Fairbody Jones, the granddaughter (Mr. Sullivan whispered to me) of Ephraim Catesby’s dearest friend, principal heir, and executor, Robert Fairbody Jones. “I knew she had it,” Overton kept muttering. “Knew it! But she lied to me. What am I supposed to do if people won’t tell me the truth?” Mr. Sullivan and I eyed him uneasily and hoped the question was rhetorical.
Miss Fairbody Jones had lived and died in what was obviously a shrine to Ephraim Catesby, a private museum. In the front hall alone, I saw two watercolors for which Dr. Starkweather, on behalf of the Parrington, would give his eyeteeth, and while Overton charged ahead, dragging Mr. Sullivan with him, I took the time to give Miss Fairbody Jones’s tired and bewildered niece a business card, scrawling on the back both Dr. Starkweather’s name and that of the head curator of Nineteenth Century American Art.
And then, hearing Overton’s triumphal bellow, I climbed the stairs to the second floor. I found Overton and Mr. Sullivan in a room dominated by a painting that, the last time I had been au courant, art historians had believed destroyed: Portrait of the Artist behind a Ruined Mask. It was a dreadful, brilliant thing, full-length and larger than life-size, and in it Catesby was wearing what was self-evidently the same dressing gown Overton was holding aloft.
I do not know if I can explain how reprehensibly ugly that dressing gown was. It was yellow brocade, a vile, acidic, mustard yellow, faced with white satin. The combination reminded me strongly of drainage from an infected wound. Beyond that, the thing was tucked in at the waist, its shoulders padded and its skirts tuliping oddly to the floor. It gave Catesby a repellently insectile silhouette, and even suspended meekly from a clothes hanger, it did not quite look like anything a human being would choose to wear. There were stains on the hem, stains on the white satin cuffs, the white satin lapels, and I tried and failed to remember what method of suicide Ephraim Catesby had chosen. There was no need to wonder if he had been wearing the dressing gown at the time. He had been.
Overton was actually chortling with glee; I suspected it was only conservationist’s instincts keeping him from clutching the dressing gown to his bosom. Mr. Sullivan was frankly staring at Portrait of the Artist behind a Ruined Mask; he looked more than a little ill.
“Catesby was, er, insane at the end,” I said. It was not terribly comforting, but it was the best I could do.
“I know,” said Mr. Sullivan. “Don’t you think Mr. Overton ought to have that thing fumigated?”
“I’m certain Mr. Overton will, er, do everything necessary,” I said, although in truth I was certain only that Overton’s transparent delight was appalling and tactless. Not to mention ghoulish.
Mr. Sullivan gave me a dubious look.
“He is very good at his job,” I said, as firmly as I could.
Mr. Sullivan looked at the bird-skulled monsters beckoning from behind Catesby—so very like the bird-skulled monsters beckoning from behind the wedding party in The Wedding March of Ruin—visibly repressed a shudder, and went out to talk to the niece about value and compensation: to do the unpleasant job for which Overton had brought him.
Mr. Sullivan indubitably deserved a raise.
Overton finally came out of his transports and lovingly packed the dressing gown in a box he had brought, much like Mr. Sullivan, for the purpose. On the way back to the Parrington, I had to share my inadequate space with the dressing gown, which even from inside the box smelled unpleasantly sweet, almost medicinal. Mr. Sullivan was right. The dressing gown needed to be fumigated.
Or possibly, said a darker voice, burned.
I have never been able to ascertain exactly what went wrong. There was no question about the provenance; Priscilla Fairbody Jones had kept immaculate records, as had her father and grandfather before her. There was no doubt about the value to the Parrington of the Fairbody Jones estate; the head of Nineteenth Century American Art had thanked me with tears in his eyes for giving that business card to Miss Fairbody Jones’s niece. But the Parrington did not want the dressing gown.
If it had been anyone other than Dr. Starkweather making the final decision, I might have ascribed the refusal to aesthetic principles, but of those I was fairly sure Dr. Starkweather was devoid. The reason he gave, and stood by, was that Decorative Arts already had more than its fair share of display space, but considering the prominence accorded to Portrait of the Artist behind a Ruined Mask, that explanation was not entirely convincing. Overton believed—and shouted—that it was a personal slight, but although Dr. Starkweather could certainly be petty, that pettiness was only very rarely allowed to affect the public face of the museum. My best guess (although a guess is all that it is) is that Dr. Starkweather, normally as sensitive to atmosphere as a fossilized barnacle, took the dressing gown in aversion as Mr. Sullivan and I had. Perhaps it was the smell.
Overton refused to relinquish his prize. He reimbursed the museum out of his own pocket and installed the dressing gown in his own house. As he continued to pursue Mr. Sullivan, “just stopping by” my office several times a week, I heard all about his wife’s displeasure. She complained about the smell until Overton put the dressing gown, on its custom made stand, in his study, where his wife never went.
At first, Overton campaigned to change Dr. Starkweather’s mind, attempting clumsily to enter into intrigues with various staff members, but all such efforts stopped quite abruptly about a month after Overton took the dressing gown into his house. Mr. Sullivan and I were both uneasy about that sudden volte-face, but we spent much of our time, when Overton was not actually in my office, cooperating in a mutual pretense that he did not exist, and neither of us was willing to violate the terms of that tacit treaty. Moreover, even if we had, and even if there had been something we could do, our occasional exchange of glances confessed another truth: we did not want the dressing gown in the museum.
But it was at about that same time that Overton began exhibiting signs of nervousness, a thing never observed in Michael Overton before. Instead of leaning in the doorway of my office, as he had habitually done to the annoyance and inconvenience not merely of Mr. Sullivan and myself but also of everyone attempting to use the hallway, he would place himself in the corner behind the door, and there he would fidget, gaze moving restlessly around the room. Other members of the Department of Decorative Arts complained that Overton was “jumpy,” and the custodial staff was unhappy about finding him at odd moments, sometimes after the museum was closed, in front of Portrait of the Artist behind a Ruined Mask. Michael Overton, surely the last man of whom one would expect it, seemed to be having a nervous breakdown.
Finally, one Friday when Overton “just stopped by” yet again, Mr. Sullivan proved himself a braver and better man than I. He got up, closed the office door, and said, “Mr. Overton, are you all right?”
Overton, backed into his corner, twitched visibly and said, “Yes, of course. Of course, I’m all right. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Mr. Sullivan cast me a beseeching glance. “You’ve seemed, er, awfully nervous lately,” I said.
“Nervous!” He barked out a laugh, gaze moving from Mr. Sullivan to me with weak aggression. “I’m nervous? That’s a fine thing coming from you, Mr. Booth.”
It was my turn to cast a beseeching look at Mr. Sullivan. “We’re just concerned, Mr. Overton,” he said. “Wondering if perhaps something was bothering you.”
“Of course something’s bothering me,” Overton said. “This museum’s run by a pack of fools. I was mad to think of letting them have Catesby’s dressing gown in the first place. Wouldn’t know what to do with it. Wouldn’t know how to keep it. Not a decent lock in the whole building. Can’t keep ‘em out.”
Now, one thing the Parrington has always prided itself on is its security. Nothing but Yale locks, and the inventory of keys is kept with a strict fanaticism that I often wish we could apply to our actual holdings. Overton’s ranting was nonsense, except…
“Can’t keep whom out?” I said.
“Not your fault,” Overton said. “Can’t see behind the masks. I know. I couldn’t either. Can’t keep ‘em out if you can’t see ‘em. And they’re cunning. They wait.”
Mr. Sullivan’s eyes were wide with alarm, as if he regretted closing the door.
“They know I can see them,” Overton said, his voice becoming conspiratorial. “They wave at me. But I know what they want, and they can’t have it.”
“Er,” I said, but there was no way to stop myself from asking. “What do they want?”
“The dressing gown, of course,” Overton said.
“Of course,” I said faintly.
“They can’t have it,” he said, his broad, chapped hands clenching into fists. “It’s mine. I paid for it.”
“Of course you did,” Mr. Sullivan said, and I thought he meant to sound soothing, though he did not entirely succeed. “You know, if it isn’t safe here, Mr. Overton, maybe you should go home for the day. You must be very tired of having to keep watch all the time.”
We were nearly holding our breath, waiting while Overton thought that idea over. Finally, he nodded. “Yes. They’ve been getting closer. Maybe I should—” He darted a suspicious look around my office; it took all my will power not to turn.
“Yes,” Overton said, “I should definitely go home. Make sure—” He wrenched the door open and was gone, faster than I had ever seen him move.
Mr. Sullivan and I looked at each other. “I think,” I said finally, “perhaps I should tell Dr. Starkweather that Mr. Overton needs a holiday.”
But I was wrong.
On Monday, every paper in the city screamed the news. Michael Overton had been found in his study Friday night, dead by exsanguination. The door had been locked. He was wearing Ephraim Catesby’s ghastly yellow dressing gown, though I was surprised he had been able to cram his shoulders into it. His wrists had been slit, the dressing gown drenched in his blood, and a verdict of suicide would have been simple save for one detail.
His eyes were missing.
According to the coroner, it looked as if they had been pecked out, although there is no bird on the North American continent large enough to have inflicted those wounds. The door was locked; the windows were locked.
Michael Overton’s eyes were never found.
Death by misadventure was the eventual ruling.
I wonder about Ephraim Catesby’s suicide. I wonder what Robert Fairbody Jones might have hushed up. I look at the beckoning bird-skulled monsters in Catesby’s last two paintings, and I remember Overton saying, They wave at me.
It was not the dressing gown they wanted.