The haunted shawl of Carmen

 carmen opera

Those who follow this page will know that I have a particular fondness for tales that tell of ancient family curses and supernaturally-possessed objects. There is a certain charm in these stories whether they chronicle the tragic demise of star-cross’d lovers or the dreadful fate of a bride-to-be. “The Haunted Shawl of Carmen” is another of these tales…

The shoulders that bore it —the “haunted shawl of Carmen”—were dust over five hundred years ago. The aging secret of its greens and golds and shimmering blues is now lost in the traditions of Spain. It is haunted by the ghosts of dark-eyed maids, some of them dancing girls, one a princess, and one a little cigarette maker whose tragic story inspired Mérimée’s tale and Bizet’s opera.

It is said that the red winding through its glorious blue is redder with the shadow of blood. For every one of the girls, princess and peasant alike, paid the price of wearing the beautiful silken thing with her life. And the ghosts of its former owners confer evil upon whoever dares to flaunt it.

In 1925, the shawl fell into the possession of Mrs. Richard A. Mestres, an American woman. She loved beauty, and expressed no dread of ghosts. The widow of a Spanish grandee, she had lived for many years in Mexico, where she saw the “haunted shawl of Carmen” and wanted it. She bought it and brought it to the States.

“And I am going to wear it, too!” she declared to the ruffled brows and gasps of her friends in Mexico City. “It will be quite the most amazing Spanish shawl to be seen in a day when Spanish shawls are all the rage.”

“And—no!—I don’t expect to be murdered whilst I wear it. I don’t think it will bring me any calamity. You see, I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m not a bit afraid of Carmen’s wraith!”

Four centuries before Prosper Merimee made long visits to Spain, where he gathered material for many of his famous stories, shawl-wearers were appointed by the King of Illyria. For, even in those times, the Spanish shawl was one of the world’s articles par excellence.

The Spanish Court conferred special rank upon chemists who concocted marvellous dyes for their silks; designers of the rose and vine patterns that are the usual shawl decoration shared this rank. But in a class by themselves, second only to nobility, were the ones under whose fingers the shawls actually came into being.

The most skilful of shawl-makers in all the ancient land were the little nuns who toiled behind their convent walls. And as time meant nothing in the drowsy, beauty-loving lives of these people, it was not in the least unusual for an entire lifetime to be given to creating a single masterpiece.

This, according to the small fragments of history that cling to it, is the story of Carmen’s shawl. Melancholy was woven into its very threads. And the aging ivory of the silk which forms the background is delicate as the life of small Sister Maria Dolores, which went out when her spindly little hands had finished it.

Sister Maria Dolores, the story goes, lived a little over five centuries ago. The sole daughter of a stately nobleman, she was born to happiness—or so it appeared. Light seemed to envelop her; laughter was the expression of her soul.

Then, when she was fifteen years old, she fell in love with Luis, lowly-born son of her father’s gardener. Luis was a gentle maker of poems, which he sang to the strumming of a light guitar—a fascinating lover, but a person of the people.

The noble father of Maria Dolores heard of the romance and took swift action. He banished the gardener’s son and sent his daughter to a convent, thinking she soon would recover from the infatuation.

But Maria Dolores’ love was the kind that lasts. “If I renounce love I renounce life,” she told the nuns, and straightaway took the veil. It was then that she began to work on the shawl.

In the mountain provinces the peasants still talk of Sister Maria Dolores. How the slender poet, who was a gardener’s son, besieged the walls of the convent in vain. How he went away, never to be seen again. How the little nun poured out her soul of sadness and her very life in making the shawl.

The great flower of vibrant blue, which forms the centre, was said to symbolise the happiness they might have had together. Each rose depicted the beauty of Luis’ love songs. Each leaf stood for something in the litany of hopeless affection.

But as the shawl grew in beauty the nun grew frail And when it was finished the spirit of small Sister Maria Dolores slipped away.

The good nuns presented the shawl to a daughter of the Royal house. Oddly enough, this dark-eyed princess was in love. Her affection was as hopeless as ever had been the nun’s, for it was given to a page of her father’s Court. And upon the eve of her marriage to an elderly noble, selected by her father, the princess disappeared. The page disappeared, too, and the king swore terrible vengeance. But when the two were found they were beyond all earthly punishment, since their bodies lay broken at the foot of a towering cliff, from which they had thrown themselves. Nearby blazed the shawl, its colourful beauty mocking death!

After that the garment was lost sight of for more than a hundred years.

And then——

It was fiesta time in Seville. Miguel, most famous of the toreadors, had distinguished himself again. And in the evening all the gallants and all the beauties were making merry in the city’s most glittering cafe. And among them there was none so gay nor so envied as Miguel’s lady — excepting one.

She was a stranger, wrapped in a shawl of beauty that out shone all the beautiful shawls in the place—and, there were many. It drew every eye. It even took the glory from Miguel himself!

He grew sullen. Fire flashed from the eyes of his lady. “You shall have the shawl!” it is said he whispered in her ear. So when he had drunk much wine, he calmly walked to the stranger, and, lifting the silken thing from her shoulders, presented it to his own donna with a low bow.

Quite as calmly as he had moved, the stranger approached his table. Merrymaking ceased; the crowd held its breath. Yet none saw the flash of steel in her hand. None suspected that death was ready to strike till Miguel’s lady sprawled at his feet, and the shawl again was upon the stranger’s shoulders.

Pandemonium then—and when all had cleared, the stranger, too, lay dead beside Miguel’s lady. And once again the “haunted shawl” disappeared.

How it came into the possession of a bewitching peasant, who wore it while she worked in a cigarette factory, none ever will know. But the story of the girl, whom Prosper Merimee called “Carmen” when he immortalised her in his novel, has been told for four hundred years throughout the length and breadth of Spain. Merimee heard it when he visited Spain, and straightway wrote his most famous work. It so appealed to the imagination of Georges Bizet that he made grand opera of the story and the production in Paris in 1820 was acclaimed by all the world.

Carmen was a selfish, lawless daughter of the people, who desired the young brigadier, Don Jose, only because another girl loved him and was about to become his bride. The young man could not resist her blandishments; he left duty and love and honour for her.

Of course, she tired of him quickly, and lavished her affections on the toreador, Escamillo. And even while the crowd within the walls of the arena cheered Escamillo to victory on a fete day, Jose plunged a knife straight through the shawl to her heart, and she died with her lifeblood staining the silken roses.

Of course, the tale is little more than tradition. But the occasion marked another disappearance of the shawl. It is said that it passed from hand to hand, admired and feared, for now Carmen’s perverse spirit was declared to haunt it.

Finally it was carried to Mexico by a grandee who died almost as he set foot on the new land.

There it again began its journey from hand to hand. Roberto Barrera, champion matador of Mexico, owned it for awhile, without knowing its history. When the story was revealed to him he was so shocked by the suggestion of sinister omens that he refused to enter the bullring until he had sold the “haunted shawl.”

Then, in 1925, it came in possession of an American woman who did not believe in ghosts. Mrs. Mestres exhibited it in New York that year, where it was worn by Linda Flores, a Spanish beauty, and was admired by hundreds. And, the following autumn, when the Metropolitan Opera season opened, Mrs. Mestres planned to wear it herself in the “diamond horseshoe” of the historic opera house.

“Yes, indeed, I shall wear it when I hear Carmen” she said. “Perhaps that will lay the ghost—if there is one!”

And wear it she did.

But as for the rest of the story — the fate of Mrs. Mestres and the whereabouts of the “haunted shawl of Carmen” — there is little to tell for the sweet whisperers of history have declined to say.

Unless, of course, you know differently——

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