The Christmas Gift

Jane Gallimore's death mask

Amidst the rolling hills of Prestbury in the late 19th century, there once stood an old cottage set in some hundred acres of land. This was the country retreat of a widowed Manchester magistrate named Samuel Gallimore. The judge spent the summer months in his secluded rural residence with his beautiful twin daughters Jane and Jennifer, who were 24 years old. There are strong links between most twins, but Jane and Jennifer seemed to be both telepathic, and empathic. When they were seven, Jane fell from her horse and suffered concussion, and at the very moment of the riding accident, Jennifer - who was eight miles away from her sister at her uncle's house - suddenly fainted for no apparent reason. And when Jennifer had her first passionate kiss from a boy at the tender age of nine, Jane blushed and felt her heart flutter, even though she wasn't anywhere near her sister at the time.
Jane and Jennifer were what are known as monozygotic twins. This means that the two girls were conceived from one fertilised egg, and the twins produced in this way have identical sets of genes, and are physically alike in every detail - even down to their fingerprints. The only tiny physical discrepancy that distinguished one from the other was a very small mole on Jane's forehead, just above her left eyebrow. Of course, even identical twins can have quite different personalities, and this was certainly the case with Jane and Jennifer. Jennifer was a vain megalomaniac who hogged the mirror, whereas Jane was a somewhat introverted and dreamy romantic.

One infernally hot June in 1897, the twins left the cottage and wandered off for a picnic. They came upon an old gipsy woman named Peggy, who was picking borage flowers. Peggy had been pointed out to the twins before by their father, who had warned them not to talk to the Romany folk. The twins were burning with curiosity, and disregarded their father's advice, for they had both read of the legendary powers of the gipsy people.
Jennifer asked Peggy if she had the power to look into the future of a person's life. The steely-eyed old woman simply nodded, and when Jennifer asked her to foretell her fortune, the gipsy held out her hand. Jennifer gave her a shilling, and instantly old Peggy said, 'You'll woo many but never marry, because you'll wait all your life in vain for your perfect man.'
'Nonsense!' Jennifer protested, and demanded her money back, but Jane told her to be quiet and she asked the gipsy if she would reveal her future.
'You have no money.' said Peggy.
She was right, Jane had no money on her, but the girl pleaded to have her fortune told. Peggy suddenly turned and stared at Jane. For a moment she seemed to flinch, as if she had seen something dire in the girl's future. 'Oh dear.' was her only comment.
Jane followed Peggy and begged her to reveal what she had foreseen.
Peggy stopped in her tracks. She reached out and stroked Jane's long red hair and enigmatically remarked, 'Such fine hair. You'll never go grey m'dear, and you will never lose your looks through age.'
'That doesn't make sense,' said Jennifer, 'she will age. Everyone grows old.'
Peggy pointed her finger at Jennifer and said, 'Aye, you will, but Jane won't.'
As the gipsy woman walked off, Jane shouted after her, 'How did you know my name?'
But no answer ever came back.
Three weeks later, the twins fell under the spell of a local amateur painter named Adam Kinglsey, who had set up his easel on nearby Hare Hill. With his van dyke beard and golden, sun-bleached shoulder-length hair, Adam looked just like the archetypal struggling artist. He dipped his sable brush in his pallette and attempted to capture the likeness of the landscape before him with a series of dramatic, jerky strokes across the wide canvas. The result was a mishmash of smears which bore only a childish resemblance to the country scene. But the girls didn't regard Adam - who was a carpenter by trade - as some dabbling artistic dilettante; they were infatuated with the young man, and were soon competing for his affections. It quickly became clear that Jane was his choice, and he only recognized her by the minute mole on her forehead, because the twins always dressed the same and wore their long hair in the same fashion.
Jennifer was naturally heartbroken; not soley because of her unrequited love for Adam, but because he was rapidly becoming a wedge between her and Jane. He seemed to have an almost hypnotic hold over her sister, and his mask of gentleness soon slipped to reveal a dominating bully who continually picked away at the little confidence Jane possessed.
The twins' father was not at all keen on the artistic carpenter, and he asked Jane to end the courtship immediately, but she was besotted with Adam. One night Jane didn't return home, and Jennifer knew through her empathic bond that her sister had slept with the artist.
In August, Judge Gallimore was ready to return to Manchester, but Jane was nowhere to be seen. Then a letter arrived, telling her father and sister that she had gone to Paris with Adam, where she would soon be married to him.
Jane's father was furious, but there was little he could do, short of disowning his wayward daughter.
In 1898, Adam Kingsley's paintings were exhibited at Vollard's gallery, which was little more than a glorified shop on the rue Laffite in Paris, but the exhibition was a disaster. Not a single painting was sold, and Jane had to support him and herself by working in a cafe. Kingsley continued to paint in a rented hovel of a garret on the left bank of Paris, but no one would buy his work. The disillusioned carpenter finally burned all his canvases in fit of rage and then revealed that he had been seeing a French girl behind Jane's back. Adam then devastated Jane by telling her that he no longer loved her and told her to leave his life. Jane pleaded with Adam not to end their affair, but he screamed that what they'd had was over.
Jane walked out of the apartment sobbing, and on the following morning, her body was fished out of the Seine. During those terrible last desperate minutes as Jane drowned in the river, her sister Jennifer was at a dance ball in Cheshire. Jennifer seemed to lose her breath and the colour drained from her face. She seemed to be choking, and fought through the dancing couples to get out of the hall and into the fresh air. When she had finally regained her breath, she became visibly distressed, because she knew something dreadful had just happened to her absent twin sister.
In the year 1950 at the age of eighty-five, the spinster Jennifer Gallimore received a Christmas present from a friend in Liverpool. When Jennifer unwrapped the gift, she almost fainted with shock. It was a white plaster plaque which displayed the face of a woman with her eyes closed. The face wore a strange grin and was so familiar; it was her own or was it Jane's visage? Because the little mole over the left eyebrow was evident. Jennifer made enquiries as to where the plaque had originated, and she was told by her friend in Liverpool that it had been purchased in the city's famous Lewis's department store. Jennifer and a cousin asked the head of the store where the plaque had been manufactured, and he said that it had been one of fifty imported from France. Jennifer obtained the address of the French firm which exported the plaques and wrote to them, asking if the ornamental wall tablets had been made from an original mould of a model's face. The manager of the French plaque firm confessed he did not know but promised he would find out, and months later, he sent the results of his investigation to Jennifer. The manager had discovered that the original mould for the plaques had been made from the face of an unknown girl who had committed suicide in Paris in the late 1890s. The original mould had been inscribed with the word "L'Inconnue" - which means "an unknown or a nobody" in French. The manager then explained that after the girl had drowned in the Seine, her body had been dragged from the river and put on show on a slab in the Paris Morgue in the hope that someone would identify her and claim the body. No one came forward, but even in death, "L'Inconnue" looked so beautiful and serene; artists haunted by her beguiling beauty came to sketch her, and she developed something of a cult following. Before decomposition destroyed her youthful porcelain complexion forever, one artist was granted permission to cast a death mask of her face. Three days afterwards, the corpse was given a pauper's burial. Over the years, the death mask was lost, found, and subsequently mistaken as a work of art. Mould-makers who were unaware of the original plaque's dark and tragic history had subsequently used it to produce hundreds of ornamental wall tablets.
Jennifer broke down and wept when she realised she was holding the death mask of her twin sister. Her wrinkled hands stroked the contours of the face, and the old woman sighed as she realised with a chill that the seemingly nonsensical prediction of the old gipsy woman Peggy has come to pass. Jane hadn't lived long enough for her hair to turn grey, and her looks, frozen forever in the death mask, had cheated the ravages of time.

Copyright Tom Slemen 2000.