The Lost Columbine
By Julian Street
“About this fancy-dress ball at the country club tonight,” said Archibald Welkins, as his wife, looking very lovely in a French-blue housedress, poured the morning coffee, “I don’t quite like the idea, do you, Eleanor?”
Her large blue eyes turned up to him inquiringly.
“What don’t you like about it, dear?” she asked.
“Oh, this fool notion of husbands and wives dressing separately–not knowing about each other’s costumes.”
Often in the eight years of their married life he had been disturbed by her trait of remaining silent when she disagreed with him, and now, as she did not reply, he stated more explicitly what was in his mind, saying: “I think we’d better tell each other what we’re going to wear.”
“We’ll find out when we unmask,” she said.
“But I think the idea of secrecy is all nonsense,” he insisted with a little show of heat.
“Pass Mr. Welkins the marmalade,” his wife said to the maid.
He helped himself, then repeated: “I think it’s all nonsense!”
But she did not answer. He had never known a woman with Eleanor’s capacity for silence. It gave her a mysterious power.
“The steward at the club told me they’d had over five hundred acceptances,” he went on. “That means a mixed crowd, and I’d like to know what your costume is going to be so I can look after you.” “That’s sweet of you,” she answered, “but I’m sure I shan’t need looking after.”
“You might,” he declared.
“Oh, I don’t think so not at our own country club.”
“But I tell you it’s going to be a mixed crowd. You’re a darn pretty woman–and a blonde.” And as again she was silent, he added in a tone that held a hint of accusation: “Blondes always attract more attention.”
“Take some hot toast,” she said to him as the maid appeared. He took some, and waited till she left the room. Then he said:
“I wonder why men always think good looking blondes are–” But he did not finish the sentence.
“Are what?” she asked.
“Well, anyway,” he declared, “fancy dress makes people reckless. They feel that the lid’s off. There’ll be a lot of flasks, too. There’s so much more drinking since prohibition. That’s another reason why I want to know.
“What?” he repeated irritably. “Just what I’ve been asking you what you’re going to wear.”
“I don’t think it would be playing the game to tell,” she said. “How do you like this bacon? It’s a new brand.”
“Look here,” he said sharply, “you can’t put me off that way! You say you don’t need looking after, but your memory doesn’t seem to be so good as mine! Before your flirtation with that dolled-up French officer you fell for, I used to think you didn’t need looking after, too! But I guess I–” He stopped.
Having thrown in her face the one indiscretion of her married life, he instantly regretted it. He always did. He always told himself that to keep referring to it was to take a mean advantage of her, and that he would never speak of it again. Strange that he could not overcome the jealousy left with him by that episode of several years ago, when, ever since, she had been so circumspect. After all it had been only a mild flirtation, and the Frenchman wasn’t very young. He was a fool to keep thinking of it, and a greater fool to harp upon it.
He said no more, but left the table, angry with her and angry with himself.
In the interest of secrecy it had been arranged that the wives should dine and dress together in certain houses in the neighborhood, while the husbands dined and dressed in others, and that all should arrive at the club masked. Archibald Welkins consequently left the limousine to be used by his wife and her friends, and taking the bag containing his costume, which was supposed to resemble King Charles II, drove in his roadster to Tom Bayne’s house, where he found a group of men, some of them already in their finery, some dressing, all with cocktail glasses in their hands.
By the time he had donned the regal wig and knee breeches, and drank three cocktails, he began to change his mind about the fancy dress ball. It was an amusing idea, this secrecy. He was going to have a good time. Nevertheless, when he asked Eleanor what she was going to wear she should have told him. He still felt some resentment about that.
Tom Bayne had an excellent cellar. With dinner he served large highballs, and his Scotch was exceptionally good. As Archibald Welkins was leaving with the others, he caught his reflection in a mirror and approved thereof. The jewelled star shone brilliantly upon his breast; the black silk stockings admirably set off his leg, which was a good leg, and the long, dark, curly wig gave him, he thought, a mysterious appearance. What did he care, after all, about Eleanor’s refusal to tell him what her costume was to be? He wasn’t going to worry about Eleanor tonight. Not he! He had offered to–that was enough. She didn’t know what he was wearing, either. Yes, he was going to have a good time!
With an Arab sheik, a Chinaman, and a soldier in the buff and blue of the Continental army as his passengers, he drove to the club, handling his roadster dashingly, and to avoid being recognized by his car, parked beside the drive at some distance from the door, and walked with his companions to the clubhouse.
The doors and the French windows were open; dancing had already started; they could hear the music as they walked across the grass. Inside the ballroom Welkins paused to review the animated spectacle. Masked soldiers, clowns, coolies, court beauties, bullfighters, odalisques, woman jockies, geisha, harlequins, cowboys, Spanish senoritas, mandarins, pirates, nymphs, Turks, vaqueros, peasants, whirled to the music of the jazz band.
Looking them over as they circled past, he presently thought he recognized his wife. She was dressed–if indeed it was Eleanor–as a French court lady, with patches, a high, powdered wig and a panniered gown of flowered silk, and was dancing with a Roman gladiator. He watched her around the room. Her height, her figure, her carriage were Eleanor’s, and the costume had a dignity characteristic of his wife’s taste. When she had passed several times he was quite certain of her.
Presently he became interested in Cleopatra, who fox-trotted into view with Napoleon. Eleanor would have made a handsome Cleopatra, too, but he felt sure she would never appear in public in such scant attire. That Cleopatra woman was certainly attractive, though! He cut in on her and, as they danced, talked in a false voice, endeavoring to guess at her identity. But the fair Egyptian was popular. An Indian Rajah soon snatched her away, leaving King Charles II free to seek out a fascinating Columbine who, several times, had passed near him in a dance, and seemed responsive to his glances. Presently, with a beau of the Colonial period, she came down the floor, a sprightly figure in a short black satin dress with a waist cut to a deep V In back, springy little skirts, thin openwork stockings and ballet slippers. With her huge white ruff and her black cocked hat pulled down at a saucy angle over bobbed red hair, she looked the incarnation of irresponsible gaiety.
He cut in and found that her dancing confirmed his impression. How light, how responsive she was!
“I’ve been aiming to catch you!” he told her, disguising his voice by pitching it low.
‘”Ave you, monsieur?” she chirped. “Well, zen, we are sympathique, for I too ‘ave look at you, you beeg, ‘andsome man!” The minx. She gave his hand a squeeze which he promptly returned.
“Are you French?” he asked in his assumed voice, “or are you putting on that accent?”
“What you sink, monsieur?”
“I think,” he said, “that if you’re putting it on you do it very well.” “An’ you, you bad, weeked king! ‘Ow is your Nell Gwyn?” she asked.
“Never mind Nell Gwyn,” he said. “It’s you I’m interested in. Don’t tell me you’re just a nice little married woman in disguise wife of some man who commutes to business in New York and drives a ball around these links on Sundays.”
“You ‘ope I’m real naughty French girl?” she asked, archly.
“Indeed I do!”
“Well. Zen, follow me! And with that she disengaged herself and flitted swiftly through a French window leading to the terrace.
Pursuing, he lost her momentarily, for in the darkness her black dress gave her an advantage, but as she scampered down the steps toward the lawn and the links, he caught sight of her white ruff, and sped after her. As she disappeared behind a large syringa bush he heard a rippling laugh, and running to the other side, caught her in his arms. Then, as she was panting and laughing, and as it was dark, and they were masked, and the syringas smelled so sweet, he placed his hand beneath her chin, tilted it up, bent over, and was about to seize the fruits of victory, when she eluded him and ran off laughing, in the direction of the drive.
A prisoner who escapes and is recaptured pays an added penalty, and when after another chase over the silver-green of moonlit grass, Charles II grasped the elusive Columbine, and exacted what he deemed just tribute from her lips, he was surprised and flattered by the apparent willingness with which she paid.
Indeed it was that willingness which made him confident that she would not again become a fugitive, and he was holding her lightly when, in a flash, she was off once more, this time running toward the clubhouse.
Just at the doorway he caught up; but his appeal to her to stay outside was unavailing. “No,” she said, firmly, “you are a naughty boy, an’ I ‘ave foun’ you out. My ‘usban’ would not like.”
“Your husband does not need to know,” he urged, “nor my wife, either. That’s what makes a party of this kind such fun–husbands and wives not knowing each other’s costumes.”
“Yes,” said she, “but I ‘ave already ‘ad fun enough, my king.” And with that she moved into the ballroom.
By the door they stood for a moment watching the dancers.
“Look!” he exclaimed suddenly. “There’s another Columbine. She’s like you exactly like you, even to her red hair!”
“Yes, we came togezzer.”
“But suppose I were to lose you,” said he, “how could I find you again? How could I tell the two of you apart?”
“Zat is a question !” she said.
“Let’s dance and talk it over.”
“No, monsieur.” replied the Columbine, “now I mus’ dance wiz some wan else.” As she spoke a cowled monk came up, and in a moment she was dancing off with him.
“Meet me here afterwards,” urged King Charles as she moved away. But she shook her head.
“How shall I find you, then?” he demanded, following.
“I don’t sink you can!” said she, and again he heard her tantalizing laugh.
He retired to the doorway and watched for her, but by the time she came around again she was with a Sicilian brigand. He cut in. But apparently this was the other Columbine, for she did not seem to know him. Her step was not so light as that of the one he sought, nor did she speak with a French accent.
Never mind! He would find his lost Columbine. He was determined to find her. And when they unmasked he would learn who she was. Time and again, when he saw a Columbine wearing a black cocked hat over bobbed hair, he cut in and danced with her, but only to be disappointed. Always it was the wrong one. He questioned her about the other, but could get no satisfaction.
When, at midnight, the dancers unmasked, he hastened about the ballroom and the adjacent apartments looking for the Columbines, but now he could find neither of them. Nor could he find his wife, nor yet the white-wigged lady of the French court whom he had identified with her.
Where could Eleanor be? She ought to be in the ballroom. That was where a well-behaved woman belonged at a party such as this. It wasn’t wise for a pretty woman to go wandering about outside, in the moonlight, with a strange man, masked. Since prohibition there had been a lot of drinking, and fancy dress made people reckless, anyway. Temporarily he forgot the Columbine in his concern about his wife’s behavior, as he looked for her upon the terrace and the lawn.
Failing to find her he returned to the club and telephoned home. “Hello?” He was surprised to hear Eleanor’s voice upon the wire. “I’ve been hunting for you all over the place.” he said. “What took you home so early?”
“Oh, I got enough of it.”
“Didn’t you have a good time?”
“I had an exceptionally good time,” she assured him.
“But I don’t understand why you went home, then.”
“Fancy dress makes people do all sorts of things.” she said, and before he could comment upon the cryptical character of the remark, she asked: “Have you been enjoying yourself?”
“Oh, I’ve had worse times,” said he. And thinking to have one final look for his lost Columbine, he added: “I guess I’ll hang around for a while if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind at all. Good night, dear,” and she hung up the receiver.
“Well, dear,” said Archibald Welkins next morning as his wife, locking very lovely in a shell-pink house gown, poured the coffee, “it was a pretty good party, wasn’t it?” And as she nodded, he went on in an expansive tone: “Made it rather amusing, after all— husbands and wives not knowing each other’s costumes don’t you think so?”
“Yes, very amusing,” she said.
“I was quite sure I recognized you,” he told her.
“Oh, were you?”‘ She looked up quickly.
“Yes. In a French court costume with a black-powdered wig.”
When she smiled and shook her head, he was surprised.
“That wasn’t you— honestly?”
“What was your costume, then.”
“I went as a Columbine.” she said and addressing the maid: “Pass Mr Welkins the strawberry Jam.”
In silence he helped himself, spread jam upon a piece of toast, ate it. And drank his coffee. Then:
“There were two Columbines dressed exactly alike.” he ventured
“Yes.” Said Eleanor “This is the last of that new bacon. Have you made up your mind yet how you like It?”
“Oh, it’s very good.” he answered abstractedly. “But the Columbines I saw had red hair”
“Wigs.” she returned succinctly.
“Wigs?” he repeated, surprised .’They didn’t look like wigs.”
“Men aren’t very quick at detecting such things.” said’ she. Then, to his infinite surprise, she added: “Do you remember that nice French officer I liked so much three years ago?”
“Well, he wore a toupee.”
“He did? How do you know?”
“I noticed it the first time I saw him.”
“Um.” he said, and sat reflective for a time. Then: “Look here, dear,” he went on “Let’s never speak of that French officer again. It was long ago, and anyway It really didn’t amount to anything.”
If he expected recognition of his magnanimity he was disappointed, for she did not speak.
“Who was the other Columbine?” he asked in a casual tone as he was about to rise from table.
“Evidently someone who went to the same costumer I did,” his wife replied.
“But–.” He checked himself, then with some feeling, added: “I don’t think they ought to send out duplicate costumes for the same party, do you?”
But she failed to reply.
Often in the eight years of their married life he had been disturbed by her trait of remaining silent when she disagreed with him. He had never known a woman with Eleanor’s capacity for silence. It gave her a mysterious power.
The Hartford [CT] Courant 9 July 1922: p. 47
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What’s good for the goose…. Still, unless Mr Welkins wishes to find himself in divorce court, he would do better to try to check his jealous impulses. His pretty blonde wife, who looks equally fetching at the breakfast table in French blue or shell-pink, is, Mrs Daffodil suggests, the enigmatic sort whose blameless character might equally plausibly conceal an adventuress or a dutiful wife who felt her husband needed a moonlit flirtation of his own that she might throw in his face as needed.
One may be certain that if the charming Mrs Welkins put her mind to be cheerfully and silently indiscreet with anyone besides her husband, she would be clever enough to make sure that that gentleman would never know of it.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.