|GWENDOLYN saw him alight from the stage, and she hoisted her
red parasol back of her head so its becoming shadow should fall upon her
face, as she walked up the gravel path to the hotel door.
It seemed quite accidental that they should be ascending the steps at the same moment, but with women like Gwendolyn, in matters of this kind, there are no accidents.
"Delightful coincidence," the Lieutenant said, as she greeted him. "Yours was the last face I saw a year ago when I left this place and it is the first I see on my return, yet I am quite sure you have not been here all the time between. You have been abroad. You have changed your name, I know, but I see no other change. You are looking remarkably well, Mrs. Dunbar, and I trust my congratulations are not over-tardy. When your cards reached me I was in the wilds of Cuba, and much occupied with trying to keep myself alive. I fear I forgot to acknowledge them. Are you here for the season?"
"The depends," Gwendolyn answered absently. "I came a week ago, and the place has been inexpressibly dull. Not at all what it was last year. But then we had the excitement of the regiment near-by, and you men made a picturesque background for everything. I am sure you were much nicer in uniform." This with a disapproving look at his civilian attire.
"I might hang my old uniform on the veranda if it would enliven things for you at all." The Lieutenant laughed. "I assure you I am very glad to be out of it myself. I hope I shall not be wholly debarred from your charming society, however, Mrs. Dunbar, owing to my change of dress or your change of name."
He passed in with a bow and a smile, and left Gwendolyn on the veranda.
It was a year and two months since she had seen him. Then she was the belle of the place, he the most popular man. He was back from Cuba on furlough, and he had passed three or four days of each week at this hotel, where she was domiciled with her parents.
Every girl in the place was ready to fall at his feet. It was by main force that he kept a button on his uniform. He was thirty-three, handsome, of good family, comfortably off, and he was a Lieutenant.
We all remember how the women of America went officer-mad that Summer of 1898.
Lieutenant Kimball had the reputation of possessing a bullet-proof heart, where Cupid was the marksman.
Gwendolyn had heard this many times before she met him, and was curious to know if it could be true.
Just before Lieutenant Kimball had appeared upon the scene, she was on the point of accepting her most ardent and desirable suitor, Harold Dunbar, who was in every respect a splendid fellow, and greatly favored by her parents. She believed herself in love with him, too, in her way. But for a month she kept him upon the torture rack by her flirtation with Lieutenant Kimball.
Nobody had ever known that military gentleman to show so much interest in a woman as he evinced after meeting Gwendolyn.
Yet he went back to Cuba without having committed himself, and Gwendolyn married Harold Dunbar four months later.
And now they were under the same roof again; he with new laurels gained on bloody battle-fields, she with the scent of fading orange blossoms hanging about her. She rose and walked quickly to the long mirror between two windows in the reception room. There was a sparkle in her eye as she looked at her own reflection.
With the first few months of marriage, a woman invariably grows prettier or plainer. Gwendolyn had augmented in beauty. Her form was rounded, her color more radiant. She wore the assured air of the married woman.
It was Wednesday when Lieutenant Kimball came. Harold Dunbar would not appear until late Saturday evening. There were only a few people at the hotel, and Gwendolyn and the Lieutenant were thrown much together. One or two other men fluttered about her, and the number increased as the days went by and the hotel began to fill. Other belles there were, eligible and attractive, but Gwendolyn was the flame which drew the moths. The Lieutenant had set the pace, and after the fashion of the sex, the rest of the men followed.
Harold Dunbar came up from town only one day each week. That his wife should be admired, he took as a matter of course. That she could forget her dignity or
| his own never occurred to him. He had won her away from
all rivals, and he gave her his confidence with his love. Perhaps
this confidence would have been shaken if he had witnessed her manner toward
Lieutenant Kimball through the languorous afternoons and moon-washed evenings
when they were so often alone, but he did not witness these meetings, and
there was no one cruel enough to tell him that his wife was playing a dangerous
Lieutenant Kimball was Gwendolyn's escort on a gay couching party one Saturday afternoon. When they returned he found a telegram awaiting him. Gwendolyn was still on the veranda when he sought her again, the blue message in his hand.
"This calls me away quite suddenly," he said. "I must go on the midnight express, and I have three good hours of preparation. I must see you again for a last interview. Can you give me a half hour quite alone?"
Her color deepened and then paled. A flash came to her eyes. "But this is Saturday night," she said hesitatingly. "Mr. Dunbar comes at seven, as usual, and I--"
"The matter rests entirely with you," the Lieutenant answered quietly. "You must do as you think best. I know Mr. Dunbar comes at seven and expects to have you with him this one evening in the week. I also know that I am going away at midnight, not to return. I have asked you to give me a last interview. I have something of importance to say to you--something which may make a difference in your future, and in the future of another besides yourself. Will you meet me in the grape arbor at the end of the gravel walk at nine o'clock? It is deserted at that hour on Saturday evening, as everyone is dressing for the hop. Women know how to make excuses; no doubt you can invent one."
Had Gwendolyn been less obsessed by her belief in her power over the man, she might have detected something peculiar in the tone of his voice. She did not detect it. She merely looked away and said softly:
"Very well, I will be there."
Harold came at seven.
"I hope you don't mind if I am not very gallant this evening," he said as they sat at dinner. "I am not feeling up to the mark to night, and you must do the dancing for both of us. I have a beastly headache, and after I show myself in the ball-room with you, I'm going to slip off to our room and loaf on the balcony, if you don't mind."
Gwendolyn breathed a sigh of relief. After all, no white lie was needed. Harold himself had made the coast clear. It was evidently quite right that she should grant poor Lieutenant Kimball a last interview. She hoped he would not blame her for leading him on, or make a scene. Men were so queer sometimes. She was curious to know why he had not proposed to her before he returned South. Perhaps he would explain, and these posthumous avowals were so romantic. She did hope he would not suggest an elopement. It would be too dreadful. After all, it was much better he had not proposed while she was free. He did not seem half so desirable as a citizen as he did as a soldier. Harold was much the better match for her; but she doubted if he could ever love a woman as the Lieutenant loved her now. It was interesting, and it could do Harold no harm for another man to love her hopelessly anyway.
It was after this fashion she mused as she made her way to the grape arbor a little after nine o'clock. She made a fine picture in her mind of the Lieutenant standing grimly expectant his face white, his hands clenched, and hopelessness or savage love-hunger choking his voice in his throat. She paused and looked into the arbor. No one there but a messenger boy in uniform. To her surprise he addressed her.
"Be you the lady looking for Lieutenant Kimball? Then he said give this to you. Sign, Missus, please."
Gwendolyn took the letter and the boy ambled off whistling. There was an electric light in the corner of the grape arbor and she drew close to it, and broke the seal of the envelope nervously. "Poor boy," she said, "he could not face the farewell." Then she read:
"When I met you first last year, I was much attracted by your beauty and vivacity. I am at an age when a man begins to think seriously of women and of the future."
"A cold beginning," she thought. She glanced on, her brow knitting.
"Before I had known you two weeks I began to fear your love of conquest was greater than your ideal of womanhood. I left you with that impression. I confess
|I have given you many thoughts since I went to Cuba. When I returned
and met you again, I was curious to know if I had misjudged you."
She was breathing a little harder.
"I knew you had married a fine, noble fellow, who was a man for any woman to be proud of. He loved you and believed in you. Just how far you are worthy of that love and faith, you illustrated to me in consenting to meet me alone and unknown to him, on the one evening of the week which he claims from you. I do not for an instant imagine you prefer my society to his, however. It is merely your love of conquest which prompts you to yield to my request. You expected an interesting scene with a man hopelessly in love with you. But while you were testing my powers of resistance to your charms, I have been testing your ideal of wifely honor and womanly dignity. It has been a fair battle and I am sorry to be again a victor. It is not my first battle of this kind--God knows. I hope it may be my last victory. It is women like you who swell the ranks of bachelors. How can we trust any woman with our honor, when we find wives so ready to humiliate their husbands for cheap triumphs? When any man asks a married woman for an interview alone, does she not realize it is an insult? If you could know how men talk and think of wives like you--no matter how they pursue you and flatter you to your face, no matter how they seek to possess you, it is only the fool who would make you his wife afterward, were you free. The wise man thanks God he is a bachelor after he obtains his last interview with you. This letter is brutal. Destroy it, and go back to your husband, whom I respect too much to wish to see humiliated. You are not yet bad; you are only vain and selfish. There is time yet for you to become a worth-while woman and wife."
Few creatures on the footstool would envy Gwendolyn her next half hour. But out of the bitterness, the rage, came a saving vision of noble trust--that of the man upstairs who waited for her.
Harold Dunbar looked up with a pleased surprise as Gwendolyn crept to his side on the balcony.
"Why, Queenie, I didn't look for you these three hours," he said. "My pleasure is to be with you, Harold," she whispered.
Harold took her in his arms. "What a lucky dog I am, and how I pity those forlorn bachelors like your Lieutenant there. I am a lucky dog."
They were still sitting there as the midnight train rolled away in the distance and shrieked back something like a mocking farewell.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox.