One-Act Plays
Comedies | Dramas | Playwrights | Cast-Size

a play in one-act

by Percival Wilde

The following one-act play is reprinted from Eight Comedies for Little Theatres. Percival Wilde. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1922. It is now in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.




The Summer of 1918

[The nicely furnished boudoir in Mrs. Hartley's home in a small Northwestern town. There are three doors. The central one leads into the hall; that on the right into the interior of the house; that on the left into a bathroom. There is the furniture one would expect; a dressing table, a chaise-lounge, two or three dainty chairs, and a pier-glass at one side. On the dressing table are two large framed photographs.]

[At the rise of the curtain the stage is empty. There is a pause. Then there enters John Hartley, a man of thirty-five or forty, dressed in a Canadian uniform.]

[He is very much excited. He is returning home after an absence of years. He enters as if he expects to find his wife here. She is not. He is disappointed, but he takes visible pleasure in going about the room, identifying the many familiar objects which it contains. He stops abruptly at the sight of two portraits on his wife's dressing table, one of him, one of her. He takes up her picture, deeply affected, and kisses it.]

[There is a pause. Then he hears steps coming, and straightens up expectantly.]

[The maid enters.]

THE MAID: [looking at him in surprise] How--how did you get in here?

HARTLEY: [smiling] Why, I walked upstairs.

THE MAID: Yes, yes, I know that. But how did you get into the house? I didn't hear the bell ring.

HARTLEY: I opened the door. [As she looks her surprise, he shows a latchkey.] With this.

THE MAID: [with sudden comprehension] O-oh! Then you--you're the master! [Hartley nods and smiles.] You're Captain Hartley! I'm so glad to see you! Why, I've heard all about you, and your medals, and being wounded, for three years! [Timidly.] Might I--might I shake hands with you, Captain?

HARTLEY: Why, of course!

[He shakes hands.]

THE MAID: [rubbing her hand delightedly] I never thought that I'd shake hands with a real hero!

HARTLEY: Hero? Bosh! They're all heroes over there! I'm just unlucky--wounded--sent home.

THE MAID: Nevertheless, the town's mighty proud of you!

HARTLEY: Shucks! I don't care about the town! Tell me: how is she?

THE MAID: The missis?

[He nods eagerly. The maid starts abruptly, aghast.]

HARTLEY: [frightened] What is it? What's wrong?

THE MAID: She doesn't expect you until five o'clock!

HARTLEY: [laughing] I took an earlier train.

THE MAID: [dismayed] But why did you do that?

HARTLEY: Why? Is it so difficult to understand?

THE MAID: It was wrong.


THE MAID: Don't you see? She wants to be dressed: to look her nicest, to receive you.

HARTLEY: [laughing] Well, what of that?

THE MAID: She'd be simply heartbroken if she knew that you'd gotten here, and she wasn't ready! You see, it's--it's something very special.

HARTLEY: [beginning to understand] Oh, something very special?

[The door downstairs is heard to close.]

THE MAID: Here she is now!

HARTLEY: [delighted] Oh!

THE MAID: You won't spoil her pleasure?

HARTLEY: [sincerely] God forbid! [He goes to the right-hand door.] Remember--half an hour upstairs will seem almost as long as three years over there!

[He goes out. The maid waits until she hears approaching footsteps. Then she, too, goes. There is a pause. Then Helen Hartley enters in a street dress.]

HELEN: [turning, and calling to a person following her] Come right in, Sylvia.

[Sylvia enters. She is a pretty, brainless, young girl.]

SYLVIA: Mrs. Hartley--

HELEN: [correcting her] Helen.

SYLVIA: Helen dear, will you do me a favor?

HELEN: [smiling] Who's the man?

SYLVIA: Your husband.

HELEN: What?

[She takes off her hat.]

SYLVIA: May I stay here--till he comes?

HELEN: [shaking her head gently] No, dear.

SYLVIA: I'm simply dying to meet him!

HELEN: Do you want me to tell you a secret? So am I! [As Sylvia pouts.] I haven't seen him in three years.

SYLVIA: I've never seen him at all!

HELEN: [simply] I'm his wife.... Child, child, when you've been married as long as I have, you will understand--if--if you and the lucky man who gets you love each other as dearly as--well, as we do!

[She takes up Hartley's photograph.]

SYLVIA: Oh, but we will!

HELEN: [smiling] That's right! Be happy! Be as happy as I have been! [She pauses.] There are moments in life that are like no other moments. There was one in my life when he asked me a question, and I said yes; and there was another when we knelt together in church; and there was another, but that wasn't so pleasant, when I waved goodbye to him from the station platform, when he joined the Canadians three years ago-- [She pauses.] And there will be a wonderful moment, a moment for which I have been living ever since, when he comes home to me. [Kindly.] Don't you see? There mustn't be any third person here? Just he--and I!

SYLVIA: [contritely] I'm so sorry, Mrs. Hartley.

HELEN: [with an abrupt change of manner] Now, now! Don't call me Mrs. Hartley! It makes me feel so old! Ugh!

SYLVIA: [smiling and kissing her] Helen, dear!

HELEN: And don't be so respectful! I don't like it when young girls are so respectful to me; treat me just as they would their mothers! I'm not old! I'm only thir--I'm only-- [She breaks off.] Well, it's nobody's business how old I am, is it?

SYLVIA: Of course not!

HELEN: [slowly] Not that there's any secret about it.... [She smiles at Sylvia.] But what I wouldn't give to be your age again! [Tapping Sylvia's cheek.] It didn't take paint to put that color on, did it?

SYLVIA: [embarrassed] Oh, Mrs. Hartley!

HELEN: [resignedly] There you go again: Mrs. Hartley! [Sighing.] I suppose it's the right thing, anyhow, isn't it?

SYLVIA: You old darling! [Helen winces at the word. Sylvia picks up her wraps.] You want me to go now, don't you?

HELEN: [looking at her shrewdly] Would you like to help me dress?

SYLVIA: Would I?

HELEN: Then I'll read you his last letter! [She rings for the maid.]

SYLVIA: From over there?

HELEN: [shaking her head] No; written the moment he landed here--to let me know when he'd arrive.

[The maid enters.]

THE MAID: Yes, ma'am?

HELEN: Bring me the dress. You know which one?

THE MAID: [smiling] I know, Mrs. Hartley.

[She goes to the clothes closet.]

HELEN: [turning to Sylvia] The same dress I wore the day I said goodbye to him at the train!

SYLVIA: What a charming idea!

HELEN: [producing a letter] His letter suggested it. Listen: "My own dearest girl--" [She reads to herself: looks up.] No, I can't read the beginning. [She reads a little further silently.] No, I really can't. [She goes ahead.] Ah! Here's something!

SYLVIA: [with eager anticipation] Yes?

HELEN: [reading] "The weather on the trip home was lovely."

SYLVIA: How intensely exciting!

HELEN: It's not very satisfactory, is it? [By this time the maid has changed her shoes. She indicates them.] The same shoes I wore that day! [She reverts to the letter.] Ah!


HELEN: [after an instant's hesitation] I'm going to read this to you. Some day you may get letters like it. [She reads.] "Do you know what image has been in my mind every minute for the last three years? Do you know what picture was before my eyes as I lay in that shell hole, wounded, expecting every instant to be my last? It was your face, dear, as the train pulled out of the station, your face, dear, and your smile, your smile put on to encourage me, for God knows there was no smile in my heart--that day. Every detail is as distinct as if you stood before me as I write--the little dress you wore: it was always my favorite-- [She indicates the dress in the maid's hands.] --the hat: the one of the kind that came down over the side of your face-- [She indicates it.] Do you remember how it was in the way when--" [She drops her voice so that it is inaudible, and continues.]

SYLVIA: What was that last, Helen?

HELEN: "Every detail; yes, every detail--"

SYLVIA: But the hat? What did he say about the hat?

HELEN: [Rises. By this time the maid has unhooked her dress.] This is the hat. Don't you like it? [She thrusts it into Sylvia's hands, and changes quickly into the second dress.]

SYLVIA: [putting down the hat, and looking at the dress] Do you know, I used to have a dress something like that? [She watches the maid attempt to hook it up.] That's not the way to do it! Mayn't I hook you up, Helen?

HELEN: If you'd like to.

[She nods to the maid, who goes out.]

SYLVIA: [taking the maid's place] I'll feel that I had some share in preparing for him!

HELEN: [dreamily] His favorite dress!

SYLVIA: [working very hard: panting] Mrs. Hartley!

HELEN: Well?

SYLVIA: I believe -- I believe -- you've grown stout!

HELEN: What?

SYLVIA: I can't close more than half of the hooks!

HELEN: [horrified] I never thought of trying it on until today! [She hurries to the pier glass, followed by Sylvia. She looks: then, in horror.] Oh-h!

SYLVIA: [laughing] What?

HELEN: Oh! Oh!

SYLVIA: Helen! Just because you've gotten stout?

HELEN: It's not that! Oh, no! It's not that! It's because I've gotten old! Come here: stand beside me: look at yourself next to me! Do you see?... It's come! It's come! I always knew it would come--not gradually, so that I wouldn't know it, but all of a sudden, without a moment's notice--all at once! It was only three years ago that I said goodbye to him, and I wore this dress. I was a young wife. Today he's coming home to find me an old woman!

SYLVIA: [frightened] Why, Mrs. Hartley, that dress looks very becoming!

HELEN: It would--on you. Don't lie to me, please! I've lied to myself enough! I've painted and powdered and dined and danced with the youngest of them! But it had to come to an end. I knew it had to come to an end. But I hoped--how I hoped that it would not come to an end before today!

SYLVIA: Helen, dear -- why -- why --

HELEN: You can't say anything. There's nothing anybody can say. I used to say to myself that he'd find me as young, as beautiful, as the day I waved goodbye to him at the station. Now--now I know that will never be. [With horror.] He'll come home to find an old woman sitting opposite him at his own table! [She weeps.]

SYLVIA: [nervously, after a pause] Helen dear, you can't be over--

HELEN: [interrupting] I can't be--but I am. They always are "over!" [She pauses.] You know, it's not that I care what other people think: I don't give that for their opinions! He's the only one that counts. He used to love my youth; my freshness--and now, if he wants youth and freshness, he'll have to go somewhere else to get it!... [She shakes her head bitterly.] Jealous? I have always hated jealous women! But today I understand: today I too am jealous, jealous!

SYLVIA: Mrs. Hartley!

HELEN: [coming to a hysterical calm] I don't mean you, child. Of course not! You'll pardon me, won't you? Just the excitement--the excitement of knowing that he was coming home. [She has led the way to the door.] You will go now, Sylvia?

SYLVIA: I'm so sorry, Mrs. Hartley!

[She goes.]

HELEN: [closing the door after her] So sorry! So sorry!

[She laughs bitterly; walks to the dressing table; takes up the letter: reads it over again with obviously tragic feelings.]

THE MAID: [entering] Ma'am!

HELEN: [wearily] Yes?

THE MAID: He's come!

HELEN: [taken aback] What?

THE MAID: He's just come in!

HELEN: [An instant of indecision. Her first impulse is to rush to the door.] Tell him to wait!

THE MAID: [astonished] To wait?

HELEN: You heard what I said? And come back when you've told him.

[The maid goes. Even before she has crossed the threshold, Helen has torn off the dress, and flung a wrap around her shoulders. She rushes to the table, sits down, and begins rubbing off her paint madly. The maid returns.]

HELEN: Bring me my black and gold!

THE MAID: [astonished] Your black and gold?

HELEN: And quickly!

THE MAID: Yes, Ma'am.

[She hurries to the closet, and takes out a third gown.]

HELEN: Put me into it.

THE MAID: But I thought -- but I thought --

HELEN: [hysterically] That I was going to wear the other one? How absurd! What on earth made you think that? [The maid stares at her, simply dumbfounded.] Never mind. I'm so excited that I don't quite know what I'm saying. You can wear the other dress, can't you?

THE MAID: [incredulously] The blue and white?


THE MAID: Yes'm. I can wear it.

HELEN: Then take it. It's yours.

THE MAID: Oh, thank you, ma'am.

HELEN: Now--I'm ready. Show him in.

[The maid goes off with the dress. Immediately she is out of sight. Helen rushes off through the left-hand door. There is a pause. Then Hartley enters softly.]

HARTLEY: Helen! Helen dear! [He advances into the room.] Where are you? Where are you, dear?

[Helen returns. She has finished removing every vestige of paint and powder from her face. She has suddenly become herself--a beautiful woman.]

HARTLEY: Helen! [They rush into an embrace.] Isn't it wonderful to be home again?

HELEN: John!

HARTLEY: To walk the streets of my own town! To stand under the roof of my own house!

HELEN: Is that all, John?

HARTLEY: [shaking his head with a smile] No; that isn't all.

HELEN: Say it, John! Say it!

HARTLEY: To feel your arms around my neck! To feel your lips pressing mine! [He kisses her.] Do you realize what I've been through for three years?

HELEN: We'll try to forget that.

HARTLEY: We'll try! [He holds her off at arm's length.] And now!


HARTLEY: Let me look at you!

HELEN: [in a strained voice, after a little pause] Well?

HARTLEY: [surprised at her tone] What is it?

HELEN: [excitedly] Tell me what I know already! Let me say it for you! That I've grown old, old, old! [He tries to interrupt. She continues without a break.] You are not the only one who suffered these three years! I suffered! God knows how I suffered! For any reason--for no reason--when your letters didn't come--when the newspapers told of heavy fighting--when I stayed awake all night, worrying my soul out, I suffered, I suffered too!

HARTLEY: My dear!

HELEN: Let me finish! These wrinkles -- do you see them? These lines -- they were not here three years ago -- do you know why I have them? They are for you, you, you! It's not the men alone who go through hell! It's the women they leave behind them!

HARTLEY: [taking her in his arms violently] My dear, dear girl! How I should love every wrinkle in your face--if there were any! Only there aren't!

HELEN: John!

HARTLEY: You old? That is what comes of looking too much in your mirror! A woman is only as old as she looks in the eyes of her lover!

HELEN: [almost gasping] And I?

HARTLEY: I have never seen you look so young, so beautiful, so altogether charming!

HELEN: John!


HELEN: Look what I've found!


HELEN: [with childish delight] A gray hair--in your moustache!

HARTLEY: [laughing] I've grown old, haven't I? [As they separate an instant, a surprised look comes into his eyes.] Helen!

HELEN: What is it?

HARTLEY: [clapping his hands together] By Jove! What a fool I was not to see it!

HELEN: See what?

HARTLEY: And after the maid warned me that you had a surprise in store for me!

HELEN: [utterly bewildered] What is it, John?

HARTLEY: [triumphantly] You're wearing the same dress you wore the day you saw me off at the station!

[She falls into his arms, laughing happily.]


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