PROLOGUE: Do you recall the situation on which the curtain has fallen thousands of times in thousands of well-regulated dramas? Do you remember how they faced each other, and how there were tears in his eyes--or her eyes--or their eyes? Do you mentally picture how he--or she--or they brushed the above-mentioned tears away? Or let them remain where they were? And how she whispered, "Yes, Jack" -- or "Yes, William" -- or "Yes, Eliphalet" -- as the case might have been? Or sometimes only plain "Yes?" And how he, with the expertness gained by many rehearsals, gathered her into his arms, and printed a kiss on her brow -- or her cheek -- or her hair -- or behind her ear -- but only in the rarest of instances on her lips? And how the happy pair, now forever united -- until the next performance -- stood looking out over the footlights, estimating the box-office receipts and the amount of paper in the house, until the curtain fell, and the thoughts of the audience turned to the inner man?
And then? What happens next? There are inquisitive souls who ask that question. Will they live happily ever afterward? Or will the matrimonial bark encounter one of the many obstacles which somehow have been forgotten? The dramatist, looking upon marriage, or its forerunner, engagement, as the end of all things, neglects to tell us. Starting with a variable number of eligible young persons of opposite sex, he has paired them off in such combinations as his experience tells him will be pleasing to the magnate who produces the play, to the temperamental ladies and gentlemen who condescend to act in it, and, last and most important, to that source from which all royalties flow, that unaccountable, irresponsible, conscienceless creature, the audience. To the very portals of marriage he travels with his charges, but there he leaves them, to act as guide, philosopher, friend to others following in their footsteps.
And then? Perhaps they do not live happily ever after. Perhaps she is extravagant, or he smokes in the parlor. Or he repents his rashness in recanting bachelorhood, and she reflects, as his faults become plain to her, that she might have done better. And they do not increase and multiply, and are unhappy, and so come to furnish material for another play.
But of the time between? Of the time immediately after she has said "Yes" and before she has begun to say "No?"
[The person who has spoken the prologue bows and retires. The curtain rises. It is early evening, and they are in the parlor of her house. There are heavy tapestries at the doors and perfectly opaque hangings at the windows--which is satisfactory, for even in the subdued light neither would welcome the inspection of a third person.]
HE: [interrupting his embrace for an instant to hold her off at arms' length and look into her eyes] Milly!
SHE: [blushing prettily] Jack!
[They embrace again.]
HE: [after a pause] So -- so you're going to marry me!
SHE: Yes, Jack. [She looks up at him shyly.] Isn't it wonderful? [He nods.] To think that we two--just we two---- [He kisses her again. There is another pause.] Come ... [She draws him to a sofa.], we have so much to say to each other! Isn't that so?
[He is a little uneasy; even embarrassed. It is easy to see that sentiment is not his forte. On the other hand, she is absolutely at home. She has spent a considerable portion of her twenty-odd years looking forward to this moment. Now that it has come she is completely mistress of the situation. He seats himself on the sofa--a little gingerly--not that he is afraid of hurting the sofa, but because his entire attitude, now that the worst is over, has become distinctively timid; because some sixth sense warns him that he will not appear to his best advantage in the nonsensical half-hour which is to follow, and which by no possible device may be avoided. Once seated he recalls his duty sufficiently to put his arms round her in rather a clumsy fashion. She, however, is not satisfied, and releasing his clasp, rises with delicious abandon and installs herself on his lap. There is a further pause.]
HE: Are you comfortable--dear?
SHE: Perfectly! Perfectly! [She closes her eyes contentedly. He, rather relieved that he no longer has to meet them, looks at her sharply. She is rather a winsome bit of femininity, whether he knows it or not. She puts her lips close to his ear.] Jack!
HE: [starting] Yes? [Correcting himself.] Yes, dear?
SHE: Now that we are alone -- we are alone, aren't we?
HE: Of course.
[He looks round nervously.]
SHE: There is one thing I want you to tell me.
SHE: Jack, when did you begin to love me?
HE: [flushing uncomfortably] Well----
SHE: [closing her eyes in anticipation] Yes?
HE: When I began to love you?
HE: [plunging in] Well, I think it was the first time I met you.
SHE: [sitting bolt upright in surprise] Jack! You don't mean it!
HE: I am quite sure. It was in December, a year ago.
SHE: [surprised] What?
HE: [holding his ground] Just after Christmas.
SHE: But that wasn't the first time I met you! It was long before that!
HE: Was it?
SHE: [a little disappointed] Didn't you know it? It was at Barton's house party, Jack.
HE: Oh. [after a pause, with a sickly smile] Barton's house party. So it was!
SHE: And then the second time-- [Sinking back into his arms.] When was it, Jack?
HE: The second time?
HE: The time after Barton's?
SHE: Yes, Jack.
HE: [thinking desperately, then turning on her suddenly] Don't you know?
SHE: Of course I know. [She sits up slowly.] You don't mean to say you've forgotten that also?
HE: I'm sorry.
SHE: [indignantly] Sorry?
HE: I'm absent-minded, you know.
SHE: And you loved me from the first time we met! [She rises in vexation.] Oh! And I thought everything would be so different!
HE: [also rising] Now, Milly, don't get angry.
SHE: [coming back to him] I'm not angry, Jack. I'm hurt--just hurt.
HE: [putting his arms round her] I made a mistake, that's all. I thought the first time was later on.
SHE: In December?
SHE: Where did we meet in December, Jack? Just after Christmas?
HE: It's on the tip of my tongue.
SHE: [waiting impatiently] Well?
HE: [triumphantly] At Phelps'! It was at Phelps'! You see, I know, Milly! Am I right?
SHE: [capitulating] Yes, Jack.
HE: That was the time! Father was there too. You see, I remember! You made a hit with him. Coming home together he said, "Jack, that's an awfully nice young woman. I'd like you to know her better."
SHE: He said that about me?
HE: [nodding emphatically] Why, that wasn't a marker to the rest of the things he said!
HE: You see [with a vapid smile], Father's been wanting me to get married off for years.
SHE: [horrified] Oh!
HE: [stopping as if shot] I haven't said anything wrong, have I?
SHE: Wrong? No. Oh, no! [She smiles with an effort.] Go on, Jack.
HE: [suspicious] Look here! I'm not offending you--
SHE: [interrupting] Offending? We haven't been engaged an hour?
HE: [not entirely reassured] Father told me to be careful what I said tonight.
SHE: With your future wife, Jack? Careful?
HE: [nodding soberly] He said that if I was in any doubt I should talk about him.
SHE: Oh! [She smiles sweetly.] Go on, Jack.
SHE: Talk about him.
HE: [after an irresolute pause] Well, father's a great man. You know that.
SHE: Everybody knows it, Jack.
HE: Of course! Father owns the biggest department store in town. Why, he started the department-store idea! There were no department stores before father.
SHE: [lackadaisically] How intensely thrilling!
HE: His first store--have you ever seen a picture of it?
HE: It wasn't as large as this room. And today there are more than three thousand people working for Horrocks, Incorporated! [He pauses. She waits for him to continue.] Father has to have someone to carry on the business after him, and it would break his heart to have it go out of the family. He wants me to grow into his boots.
SHE: [settling herself comfortably; not, however, on his lap] And is that why he wanted you to be married?
HE: [smiling] Indirectly, yes.
SHE: I don't understand, Jack.
HE: You see, a man's so much steadier when he's got a wife.
SHE: [thoughtfully] Y-e-s.
[There is a pause.]
HE: Well, I have to be going.
HE: Father'll be waiting.
SHE: [looking at him in open-eyed astonishment] What do you mean?
HE: He'll want to know what happened.
SHE: [trying to grasp the idea] What happened?
HE: Whether you said yes or no.
SHE: [with sudden comprehension] Oh! So he knew you were going to ask me?
HE: Of course!
SHE: You told him?
HE: [hesitantly] W-e-e-ll----
SHE: [furiously] You had the aud-- [with hardly a break she continues in the most honeyed tones] or perhaps he told you? [Delilahlike she throws her arms about his neck.] Come, 'fess up!
HE: [with a broad smile] Well, he said: "If you haven't asked her before morning--" [He pauses.]
SHE: [encouragingly] Yes?
HE: [laughing] He said, "--you can go to work for ten dollars a week."
SHE: So--you asked her?
HE: [with a guffaw] Well, what do you think?
SHE: And you knew she'd accept?
HE: [chuckling] We-ell--
SHE: [mimicking him] We-ell--
HE: I wasn't sure.
HE: But father was!
SHE: [flinging him off] You little beast!
HE: [surprised] Milly! Now I haven't offended you again, have I?
SHE: Offended me! Ha!
HE: It's only my way of talking. I don't mean anything by it--
SHE: [interrupting] No; I didn't think so.
[She flounces off to the end of the room.]
HE: Now, Milly!
[There is a pause. Then she returns, with her feelings under control again.]
SHE: I was only fooling, Jack. Tell me more about it.
HE: Not if you're so touchy, Milly.
SHE: Touchy? No. I'm just a little excited, that's all. Don't you think any girl would be if she knew she was going to marry the son of Horrocks, Incorporated?
HE: [after an uncertain pause] Father's waiting for me.
SHE: Let him wait. It's only ten.
HE: [shaking his head vigorously] Father likes to get to bed early. You see, he's always at the store when it opens; makes it a point to be the first one down.
SHE: But tonight, Jack--he won't mind staying up a little later tonight. [As he dissents.] You have only a block to go.
HE: [hesitantly] I don't know. Father said--
SHE: [interrupting] We'll write him a note, Jack.
HE: A note?
SHE: Explain matters. I'll send it round with the butler.
HE: Father mightn't like it.
SHE: He'll have to give in to me this once! [She has already seated herself at a writing table.] He'll be up, won't he?
HE: [gloomily] You bet he will! At any rate, till I get home.
SHE: Ring the bell for Robert.
[He does so, and remains at the door watching her.]
HE: What are you writing?
SHE: [rising with the note and folding it] Finished already!
HE: It can't be very long.
SHE: It doesn't have to be--dear.
[She slips the note into its envelope.]
THE BUTLER: [appearing in the doorway] Yes, miss?
SHE: [handing him the note] Take this right over to Mr. Horrocks. Take it over yourself.
THE BUTLER: Yes, miss. Any answer?
SHE: No. Just give it to Mr. Horrocks himself. And hurry, Robert.
[The butler goes.]
HE: [uneasily] I don't know how he'll like it.
SHE: Leave it to me, Jack. Come, sit down. [She puts her hand over his lips as he tries to speak.] Just think; all the questions I'm dying to ask you!
HE: Questions? What questions?
SHE: You're not afraid to answer me, are you?
HE: [with a dismal attempt at humor] I thought that didn't come till you were married.
SHE: That's still some distance away, Jack. [She looks at him keenly.] You're twenty-six, aren't you? [He nods.] And you're father's been anxious to have you married?
HE: Ever since I left college.
SHE: Oh. [She pauses an instant; then, making a shrewd guess.] Jack, what is her name?
HE: What do you mean?
SHE: You know what I mean.
HE: [slowly comprehending, shocked] Milly! That's nothing for you!
SHE: But I'm engaged, Jack. And engaged girls can discuss all kinds of subjects. [As he shakes his head.] But they do! Particularly with their fiancés. [He is unconvinced.] Jack, if we can't have full confidence in each other now-- [She breaks off.]
HE: [after a pause] Who told you?
SHE: [concealing her triumph] That's not a fair question.
HE: Why not?
SHE: Oh, the things that girls talk about-- [She waves her hand vaguely.]
HE: [interested] Yes?
SHE: [with a happy inspiration] The things that married men tell their wives--
SHE: And the wives tell their sisters, and the sisters tell their best friends, and the best friends tell everybody else. Women can't keep secrets--you know that.
SHE: [after a judicious pause, quite casually] What show is she with now, Jack?
HE: [thoughtlessly] She's not working just now.
[Suddenly recollecting, he bends a suspicious glance on her, but her expression is innocence itself.]
SHE: [addressing her remarks to the ceiling] Such a pity! [She pauses; he is still watching her.] She has talent; there's no doubt of that.
HE: How do you know that if you don't know her name?
SHE: [bluffing desperately] Why, I've seen her!
HE: [incredulously] Seen her?
SHE: [meeting his glance naïvely] She was the fourth from the right, wasn't she?
HE: No; the second. [Still uneasy, he pauses again.]
SHE: You see, I know.
HE: And you don't feel differently toward me on account of it?
SHE: [laughing] Differently? How absurd, Jack! I never thought you were an angel.
HE: [quite reassured] She's a lady--a real lady--much too good for that sort of thing.
SHE: I could see that from where I was sitting.
HE: Her real name's Eliza, but she calls herself Corinne.
SHE: I don't blame her. Corinne is a pretty name. [With a covert look at him.] And she's just as good-hearted as she's beautiful, isn't she, Jack?
HE: How did you know?
SHE: [proceeding fluently] She has talent--real talent--only they haven't recognized it yet. But they're going to some day! All she needs is a chance to make good! And you're going to see that she gets it, aren't you, Jack?
HE: [enthusiastically] You bet I am!
SHE: [nodding sagely] She's been unfortunate, but she's a lady through it all. And no affectation, no airs about her. She's an awfully good little sport--a real pal! Only your father can't see it that way.
HE: [astonished] Did he tell you about her?
SHE: [without answering] That was why he was so anxious to get you married. He wanted you safe--away from her.
HE: You knew all along?
SHE: And never let on!
HE: [delightedly] Well! Well! I can hardly believe it!
SHE: I wanted you to tell me.
HE: [with real enthusiasm] Say, we're going to get along!
SHE: Aren't we though?
HE: Milly, you're a good little sport yourself!
SHE: Do you really think so?
HE: I never would have believed it of you!
SHE: Thanks. Thanks, Jack. And do you want to know something else? I'm not even going to make you give her up.
HE: [astonished] What?
SHE: Spoil a beautiful friendship? No, Jack. I'm not like your father. I know what it means to you. I appreciate such things.
SHE: Are you shocked?
HE: Do you mean it? Do you honestly mean it?
[She tries to answer, but it is too much for her sense of humor. She bursts into almost hysterical laughter.]
HE: [rising anxiously] Milly!
SHE: [between spasms] You don't understand me, do you, Jack? But your father will! You can be sure of that! [He watches her in absolute mystification.] Because he's coming here, Jack! I am expecting him at any moment.
HE: [thunderstruck] Coming here? Is that what you wrote? You didn't have the nerve!
SHE: But I did, Jack!
HE: You shouldn't have done it! He'll be angry. Good Lord, he'll be angry! He never goes out at this time of night! Hasn't for years!
[Footsteps--hurried footsteps--are heard ascending the stairs, and THE BUTLER, not the sedate, punctilious butler of a few minutes ago, but a panting, very much frightened butler, who has not even paused to remove his hat and coat, stands in the doorway.]
THE BUTLER: [announcing hastily] Mr. Horrocks!
[There is a rush. The Butler is swept aside and Horrocks, Inc., stands in his place. And Horrocks, Inc., is angry, angry with capital letters, angrier than either he or anybody else has been before. The small eyes of the department-store genius dart lightnings, his hands tremble, his lips move, but no words known to the English language issue from them. Yet he is a mass of sounds--explosive sounds, sibilant sounds, rumbling sounds; such sounds as might come from a small volcano immediately before the eruption; such sounds as might result were an intoxicated Zulu, holding a spoonful of hot mush in his mouth the while, to attempt a Russian folk-song set to music by Claude Debussy. Were an artist present he might ask Horrocks, Inc., to pose as the God of Anger. And, most disrespectfully, Milly continues to laugh, still more hysterically than ever.]
HE: [petrified with terror] Father!
[Horrocks, Inc., rushes at him as if he would brain him. But the clenched fist stops under the young man's nose, and, for the first time, one notices that it brandishes a crumpled sheet of paper.]
HE: [taking it, panic-stricken] Wh-what she wrote you?
[Horrocks, Inc., assents with frightful noises.]
HE: [backing away] May I read it?
[Horrocks, Inc., assents as before. More than that, his terrific gestures indicate that he emphatically desires the young man to read it--to read it aloud.]
HE: [still retreating from the impending destruction] "Dear Mister Department Store----" [With incredulous appeal.] You wrote that, Milly?
HORROCKS, INC: [at length forming intelligible words] Go on! Go on!
HE: "Please call for goods to be returned."
[Horror-stricken, he turns to the spot where, an instant ago, Milly was standing. But she has vanished. The Butler, too, has fled. And squarely between himself and the door stands the fearful figure of Horrocks, Inc.]