A Family Secret
By James Ravenscroft
This story is a secret. It was told by one woman to another, and that is why I am able to set it forth here with all the detail that could possibly be pertinent or interesting. In the process of its joyful transmission from tongue to tongue, under the careful guardianship of “I promise to never, never tell a living soul,” words which seem to invariably publish from the housetops, the secret reached me while at an affair at the Langs, who are noted for their success in assembling persons qualified to entertain one another.
Mrs. Lang is a genius. She handed me over to Mrs. Bruce, a meteoric, one-season débutante who had set, the very next winter following the one in which she had blazed out on the social horizon, in a glorious halo of orange blossoms, good wishes and a small palace of her own. Mrs. Bruce—Mrs. Alfred G. Bruce, if you wish a complete introduction, nee Cover, long accent on the “o,” please—is a charming young matron. She is banted into splendid condition physically, and her mouth has a pouting droop that harmonizes finely with the injured look in her brown eyes. Also, Mrs. Bruce is a gifted conversationalist.
As we chatted conspicuously just beneath a side cluster of electric globes, Mrs. Womble, leaning on the arm of Billy Aleshire, the bachelor business partner of her husband, strolled leisurely in our direction. Mrs. Womble, who had been one of the talked-about brides of the previous June, was a tall woman with copper-colored hair, a semi-classic profile and an air which seemed to indicate that she could at times make up her mind. As Mrs. Womble was passing, with a nod and a smile that were heavenly in their charity, Mrs. Bruce suddenly halted her.
“Pardon me, dear,” she purred, with a pretense of privacy, as with her handkerchief she patted Mrs. Womble’s shoulder just at its juncture with her aristocratic neck; “a perfect dab of powder was there. How careless of your maid!”
“Thank you, darling,” breathed Mrs. Womble, glancing carelessly over the perfect shoulder that had just been rescued, presumably, from an inartistic decoration. And then: “Why, Bernie, are you indisposed? No? The lights, perhaps. So few faces can stand being exhibited directly under the glare of electric lights, you know.”
Both smiled beatifically as Mrs. Womble drifted languidly on. Perhaps it is time to say that we all knew each other quite intimately. Knowing, as I think I do, a few of the more common traits of feminine complexity, I regarded with genuine consternation this affectionate indulgence of sisterly amenities. As far as I know, however, it cost Mrs. Womble nothing more than another transmission of her secret.
“Celia’s—I always call her by her first name, we’re such friends, you know,” twittered Mrs. Bruce —“Celia’s lovely, but she’s so deliciously jealous. Of course you’ve heard how, last September, she was on the very verge of suing for a divorce. Haven’t you, really? Oh, I just must tell you! It’s a family secret, you know. About a week after it was all over, Celia told Mrs. Draper, her ownest. bosom chum; and Mrs. Draper told somebody, I forget whom, who told Sara Winans; and Sara told Mrs. Jack Andrews, who told me. Of course you must promise to never breathe it.”
She went on without waiting for a promise. “The big manufacturers were— But, first, let’s get from under this dreadful light.”
We retired to comfortable privacy in a corner of the stairway.
“—were having an all-week exhibit or convention or something of the sort at Atlantic City, and Mr. Womble was a — a — what – do-you-call-it? Oh, yes! A delegate. On the fourth day of his absence Celia received through the mail a photo of him, taken in a bathing suit . Standing beside Mr. Womble, and inside of a bathing suit that was conspicuous for its economy in the making, was a stunning brunette, who was holding his hand and smiling as if she were enjoying herself. Mr. Womble looked like he was not having a bad time. As the ocean was behind them and the beach under their feet, they had evidently posed very publicly for the picture. The photo, which was sent in an envelope, had written on its back, ‘This was sent by a friend who feels that you should know.’
“And then there were transpirings. Celia did all the perfectly foolish things she should not have done. She had to act at once, without giving thought a ghost of a chance; she’s just that way. Circumstances led and she followed. Her maid was out, and there being nothing else into which she could pour her outraged soul, she seized the telephone. Old Judge Fowler—he’s her father’s lawyer, you know—had been ever since she could remember—was given a turn, I can imagine, when she got him on the wire and commanded him to provide her, without delay, with a divorce.
“‘The beast has deceived me!’ the astonished judge heard her say. ‘He’s at Atlantic City now with some amiable flirt. I’ll bring you the proof later. Let me have the decree before he gets back, so I can shake it in his wretched face!’ Snap! She’d hung up the receiver before the judge could open his mouth to ask who was talking. I can hear the judge revising Shakespeare as he went back to his affairs: ‘Lord, what fools these women be!’ He must have been more amused than provoked. But he couldn’t get the incident out of his mind, and an hour or so later it occurred to him that perhaps he should endeavor to ascertain the source of that mysterious call. A girl at the telephone exchange kindly co-operated with him, and you can bet he was amazed when he found that the call was from the home of the daughter of his lifelong friend, as well as one of his most valued clients.
“The judge immediately called Celia’s number. No answer. Then he called her father’s place of business and began telling him.
“‘Wait!’ yelled Mr. Buckler. ‘I’m coming to your office!’
“A few minutes later he rushed breathlessly in upon the judge. What a state of mind he must have been in!
“‘Five minutes later and I’d have been gone!’ he puffed. ‘I’d been out nearly all morning and was getting ready to go again. Come with me. We must go to Celia at once. You can tell me the rest on the way.’ Celia’s cook was all they found; and all Celia’s cook could tell them was that Celia had left more than an hour ago with a traveling bag and her maid and had not said where she was going or when she would return.
“‘Come on!’ said Mr. Buckler to the judge. ‘Let’s try Atlantic City.’
“Celia, after she’d finished with the judge, called up her father. He was out, the office-boy said. She called her mother’s home; Mrs. Buckler had gone shopping. She called up her ownest bosom chum, Mrs. Draper; she was out calling. Celia then called a messenger boy and sent this telegram to Mr. Womble: ‘Come home immediately.’ Celia was becoming more cyclonic every minute. All at once a new idea crowded out of her mind everything else that she had done or was thinking of doing. She had decided to go to Atlantic City and settle matters herself. She threw a few things, including the bathing-suit photo, into a bag, dressed herself in quicker time than she had ever made since she was ten, and, stuffing a roll of bills into her purse, she was off. Celia never could wait.
“In the downstairs hall she met her maid.
“‘Come, Lena!’ she panted. ‘I’ve got to go out of the city on very, very important business!’
“Lena pulled back as Celia caught her arm and hurried on.
“‘I have no hat,’ she protested; ‘no anything for a trip!’
“‘Never mind the hat and the no anything,’ was Celia’s order. ‘I’ll buy you a hat and a “no anything” when we get there.’
“The deserted wife and the placated maid landed in Atlantic City late in the afternoon. Celia took a motor cab to the boardwalk, and then a roller chair, directing the pusher to the studio named on the back of the photo.
“‘Will you please be good enough to tell me, if you know, who this woman is?’ Celia asked the photographer, handing him her photo.
“I can guess what a tragic effort she was making at dissemblance. I can also guess that the photographer was a man of perception, for he began to banter.
“‘Yes, I’ll tell you,’ he answered, ‘if you’ll promise me you won’t do her bodily harm.’
“Celia said she must have gone rather white, for the photographer quickly became serious.
“‘This woman, madam, is nobody at all. She is—–’
“‘Of course she’s nobody!’ broke in Celia. ‘I know that. What I want to know is her name and address.’
“‘She is,’ the photographer went on, ‘what we call a lay figure. We keep several of them in stock. The boys have their pictures taken with them, in various poses, just for the fun of it. I’ll show you,’ he added, as solicitously as if he had been told that Celia was from Missouri.
“‘Henry,’ calling the boy, ‘bring out the bathing-suit brunette!’
“And the next minute Celia was face to face with the amiable flirt of the photo.
“‘I haven’t any idea,’ he continued obligingly, ‘who the man is in the photo you have. You see, I issue checks for photos to be called for. I presume, though, that he, like all the others, had it taken for a lark.’
“Celia said she must have been getting red, for her face was feeling hot. She said—that is, the story says she said, you understand—that all she could say was, ‘Sorry to trouble you. Thank you very much.’ Celia always summers north, and her boardwalk experience was acquired mostly in Saturday-to-Monday trips; still, she said, she was wondering, disgusted with herself, why it had not included a knowledge of the indiscretion of lay figures.
“Celia and Lena resumed their chair and ordered the pusher to go straight to the hotel where Mr. Womble was staying.
“A few minutes before she got there, Mr. Womble came in for dinner and was handed Celia’s telegram. He rushed wildly to his room and began piling his things into his suit case.
“‘I am Mrs. Womble,’ Celia told the clerk sweetly, when she found that Mr. Womble had just gone to his room. ‘Just register us with him, please—wife and maid—and I’ll go up at once, thank you.’
“The elevator had barely disappeared with Celia and Lena when Mr. Buckler and Judge Fowler rushed into the hotel. When told that Mr. Womble was in and that Mrs. Womble and maid had just gone up, they looked gravely at each other. I know they did, for I can see them doing it. Celia was squeezing and kissing and you’re-my-own-darling-old-hubby-boying Mr. Womble, much to the entertainment of Lena, of course, when there was a knock on the door. Mr. Womble disengaged himself from Celia’s clinging embrace, Lena opened the door and in walked Mr. Buckler and the judge.
“You can guess the rest. It must have been like a play just before the curtain on the last act. There was a regular explanation fest. Mr. Womble had been snapped with the bathing-suit brunette just for fun, as the photographer had said. Celia wept on everybody’s shoulder and was petted and kissed in turn, which, of course, pleased her immensely, and everybody was so happy that the evening was devoted to ‘doing’ the boardwalk.”
“But who sent the photograph?” The query seemed to me more natural than curious.
“Oh, how stupid I am to forget that! It’s the best part of the secret. Of course no one could swear to it, but Charlie Harding, one—perhaps the only one, for all I know—of Celia’s rejected suitors, was in the crowd, and she said herself that the handwriting on the photo looked familiar. Dear old Charlie! I hated to do it, but I had to reject him, and then he went over to Celia.”
And there was an expressive shrug of the pretty shoulders.
Frank Leslie’s Weekly 6 October, 1910
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Ah, the womanly art of keeping secrets and hurling daintily barbed insults! “banted into splendid condition” is a result of following Bantingism, a high-protein, low-fat and low-carbohydrate diet first popularised in the 1860s. Here are some evocative sea-side photographs of a similar era.
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 the Mrs Daffodil story, “A Spot of Bother,” in the compilation of that name on Amazon or on Barnes & Noble.