AS Miss Ethel Corcoran stood before the mirror in her dressing-room pulling on her long gloves, there was ample justification for the satisfied smile that lurked between her dimples. Miss Corcoran was young, beautiful and confident. In fact, she was so sure of herself that she made every one else sure of her, too. Her little cousin, waiting for a final peep into the mirror, was no exception to the rule.
“If I were one of the many men in love with you, Ethel, you’d challenge me to win you to-night. And you shouldn’t say me nay, either.”
Miss Corcoran, quite satisfied with with this and the mirror’s confession, turned and kissed her cousin:
“But, my lady Bess, I would say you nay; I’m not to be won thus early in the game. There’s too great joy in the sport and the conquest to relinquish freedom yet awhile.”
But Elizabeth shook her young head sagely. And she shook her finger, too, at her cousin. “Ethel Corcoran,” she said, “that’s assumed. Aren’t you a little bit in love right now with the idea of being in love? Confess it’s with one of the two in the library, but for the life of me I can’t tell which.”
Elizabeth blushed as she said this. Then she looked at Ethel. Was it wistfully? But Bess was such a little baby thing, she looked wistful without trying.
“They’re both awfully fond of me,” admitted Miss Corcoran, too engrossed with her carriage slippers to see the shadow that came into Bess’s face at this, “but do you know, honestly, I can’t tell which I like the better. Tom is so—er—big and splendid, but then, Ernest has a career before him. And it’s so fascinating the way Ernest drops his chin, and looks at you squarely through his eyeglasses, looks you through, too. They’re both—oh—well, I guess they’ll keep.
Elizabeth looked shocked and reproachful at her cousin’s flippancy. But, then, Miss Wingate had all the responsibility of feeling herself a conscience for the conscienceless Ethel.
“But they won't keep. They are not the kind to be put off, and you will have to come to a decision pretty soon. I'll bet you can’t keep them from proposing until you go for your trip East next month. I’ll bet you are engaged to one of them before Valentine’s Day.”
“And I’ll bet you five pounds of chocolates I’m not. I won’t let them get that near the point.”
“But if they do,” persisted Bess.
“I’ll decline any proposal from whomsoever proposes between now and Valentine’s Day, Miss Elizabeth Wingate, five pounds the forfeit—provided you do the same.”
But Bess looked disconcerted. The pause was so significant that Miss Corcoran, about to go down, turned and began to laugh.
“So, my young lady? So there is some one you wouldn’t pledge yourself to refuse? You quiet, demure-eyed piece of deception! Is it some one you left behind in the country, or is—”
“No—no—Ethel—” Elizabeth’s cheeks were crimson. “I never had a proposal in my life—”
“Then, promise,” said Ethel, naughtily—“promise, or I’ll suspect—Tom—or Ernest—or—”
“Then promise,” mercilessly.
“I can safely promise,” declared Bess, rallying, “for there’s nobody to want to propose to me.” And with cheeks still blazing, Bess, usually the follower, fled ahead down the stall's, while naughty, confident Ethel, laughing, followed after, to the two men waiting in the library.
On the thirteenth of February the Nemean Athletic Club gave a public exhibition that was, like everything connected with that exclusive organization, brilliant and fashionable. It was the first time that its new building had been thrown open to the public, and the feminine public, in charming array, had largely responded to the invitations to this special “Ladies’ Night.” There were music, lights, beauty, chatter, laughter. Mr. Tommie White, whose six feet two of athletic solidity was as nothing in strength compared to the strong attachment of his friends to the diminutive form of his name, was showing Miss Corcoran and Miss Wingate, together with their chaperon, about the building. In this office Dr. Ernest Hardin was assisting Mr. Tommie White.
“You see,” said Mr. White, “it’s all here: gymnasium, pool, dressing-room, barber shop, kitchen, billiards—completest sort of arrangement—”
Miss Corcoran lingered behind with Dr. Hardin. Impersonal enthusiasm always struck her as a waste of good material. She had been avoiding tête-à-têtes, as a rule, of late, anyhow, and so found herself tired of the tameness of life in threes and groups. But Bessie’s statements had had weight. Miss Corcoran had avoided tête-à-têtes because they lead to opportunity, and opportunity to confession. And Miss Corcoran was not sure to whom she wanted to say “no.”
So, while Mr. Tommie White eulogized the completeness of the clubhouse. Miss Corcoran concluded to drop behind with the Doctor. “Do you mind waiting while I think of some new adjective to respond to Tom’s demands? I’ve exhausted my ordinary supply.”
“If you'll promise not to think so hard you can’t listen,” said the Doctor, stopping short. “Sit down, please.” The Doctor was a masterful man.
Miss Corcoran dropped on the cushions of the cosey window-seat. The Doctor, sitting down too, leaned forward, dropped his chin and studied her through his eyeglasses. Miss Corcoran lifted her lashes, lowered them quickly and used her fan.
“I don’t know why I always obey you,” she said.
The Doctor laughed. “Up to your old tricks, my Duchess,” he returned. “You ought to write a treatise on ‘Jollying as a Fine Art.’”
Miss Corcoran looked reproach. “Is it fair. Dr. Hardin, to set me down as always flippant and superficial and insincere?” Did Miss Corcoran’s voice tremble?
“No,” answered the Doctor, “I set you down as nothing of the kind. Ethel—Miss Corcoran—I know that underneath all is a frank, womanly heart, and to prove it I brought you here to tell yon something—to ask you to listen while I tell—there is a long question mark in my mind that wants to be changed into a period.”
Miss Corcoran glanced up quickly. The Doctor’s voice rang with suppressed feeling. This was real. But when she didn’t know her own mind—she did not propose having it come to an issue—she really didn’t believe she wanted to refuse Dr. Hardin.
“I never knew much about punctuation,” she declared, rising. “Ask Bess; she has taught school. Where are they, anyhow?”
The Doctor rose too. “We’ll find them and I’ll ask her,” said he.
The exhibition of Nemean Club skill that followed was remark ably clever—fencing, high-jumping, sparring, exercise on the parallel bars succeeded one another. But Miss Corcoran saw little of it. She was absorbed in the revelation by the Doctor. Despite her assurance with Bess she had been uncertain about him. And now he had succumbed. Dear man! With his fascinating way of telling you the blunt truth. There he was on the stage now, just disappearing into a mysterious chintz cabinet and Tom White following. they were the brag athletes of the club, these two, but Tom a giant compared with the Doctor’s slighter build.
What was it all about, this chintz cabinet? And the elaborate binding and fettering of Tom and the Doctor with stout ropes? Even so were they both confessedly bound in the fetters of her enchantment. But she had to set one free! What a pity men must bring things to an issue! She couldn’t say which she preferred. Tom, so large and splendid—the Doctor so—er—compelling. As the lights were lowered Miss Corcoran was gazing at her finger tips.
What was all this? Music, banjo playing, tambourines, waving hands issuing from the chintz cabinet! She hadn’t paid attention. What was it all about? Tom and the Doctor bound in fetters of her forging while the muses made the air sweet? Occasionally Miss Corcoran had these moments of fanciful playfulness. The lights flared up. The cabinet was empty. Bonds and fetters derided. Tom and the Doctor had slipped their bonds. Miss Corcoran laughed ruefully. It was on her—the laugh. Figures of speech are dangerous in these prosaic days. The lights went out—again music, tambourine playing, etc.—Were Tom and the Doctor celebrating their escape?
Lights on again. Tom and the Doctor sitting within the cabinet, bound hand and foot. They had returned, then, voluntarily. Miss Corcoran felt better. She studied her gloved finger-tips again and smiled. But which of the two did she wish to keep in her fetters?
The programme was lengthy. The lights faded again, this time for the final tableau. “I’ll be glad when it’s over,” said Miss Corcoran to herself. “I am afraid this is a case where a dark room is the last place to develop a negative.”
But when the light came in a broad white stream behind her, it revealed a picture that seemed to decide her. On the stage, in bold relief against a black background, posing as the Dying Gaul of the Capitoline Museum at Rome, was Tom White, his massive shoulders, his perfect proportions, his motionless position turned to marble by white fleshings, rice powder and calcium lights.
Murmurs of delight were heard on all sides, followed by a storm of applause.
“Isn’t he superb?” cried Elizabeth, turning to Ethel with shining eyes.
But Miss Corcoran could not answer. After all, it was Tom White—the most fascinating man she had ever met—and how devoted he had been last winter. There was not a girl in town but had envied her. It would be easy enough to smile him back again—to-morrow—for that wager must be won. If he returned to the old question to-night?—but she must not let him.
Then the lights were turned on full, and in the confusion that followed, Ethel, surrounded by friends, became separated from Elizabeth and her chaperon. Her eyes danced with excitement and her high spirits were so infectious that every man in the room turned to watch her as she passed.
“I believe I’m bewitched,” she thought, and she held a rose to her lips to hide her smiling. “In such a mood, I must not be alone five minutes with either Tom or Ernest—I might accept the first one that asks me.”
Even as the thought flashed she saw Tom White making his way through the crowd. He had taken a velvet cloak from one of the cavaliers of the tableaux and had thrown it jauntily over his gladiator shoulders. Miss Corcoran thought he was seeking her, when the fact was he was making a bee-line for the dressing-room to get rid of powder from face and hair. She hastily excused herself to an admiring bore and began to seek her chaperon.
In and out of the crowd she looked, but in vain. When she reached the stage end of the room she stood on the steps for a better view. As she looked she saw Tom White’s back not two yanks away. In dismay she fled precipitately behind some palms through a short corridor into a dimly lighted room, slipping into the shadow behind the door until he should pass. A long line of mirrors ran on each side of the wall, and big, comfortable chairs at regular intervals solemnly contemplated their stuffed images. In the centre of the room, where it had been hastily thrust after the performance, was the chintz cabinet.
Mr. White entered unsuspectingly and had just turned on the light above a wash-stand when he saw in a mirror a familiar figure disappearing behind the folds of the chintz curtains.
He ran to the cabinet. “Ethel,” he called, softly, “you witch! What are you doing here?” and pulling aside the curtains he saw a pretty picture laughing at him from the background of bright-hued stuff.
“What made you follow?” asked she. “This is the first time I have ever had a chance to study the spiritual side of anything—I was dying to see the inside of this cabinet.”
“You knew I was coming, and hid,” said Tom.
“Why should I hide?” asked she, with innocent eyes.
“I don’t know why, but you did. Ethel, have I pursued you so in the past that you have to run from me?”
She shook her head violently. She, Ethel Corcoran, for once, was not quite mistress of herself. Tom looked so handsome, with a hand on each curtain, holding her a prisoner.
“I have been trying to see you for a month,” went on Tom, “but for some reason you seemed to avoid me. You see I had something to say to you.”
So it was coming. The old love which she had been assured a year ago had been safely diverted into a platonic channel had sought its old course. What should she say? She could not break the boy’s heart again. In this new excitement Ernest Hardin, with his quiet, insistent manner, was forgotten.
“You see, Ethel,” said Tom, more serious than she had ever known him to be, “you and I have grown up together. It was the most natural thing in the world that I should fall in love with you. You told me all along that love was not as serious a thing with me then as it would be some day, and you were right.”
Miss Corcoran looked about for some way of escape. It was going to be painful—it was almost tragic—for Tom. She hated scenes.
“The fact is, Ethel,” he began after an awkward pause—then he broke into a low laugh. “Oh, it’s no use trying to explain! Just put your little hand in mine and congratulate me, for I am engaged to the finest girl that ever lived—in Cleveland. She is the truest, most straightforward, affectionate woman, and she will make me a better man.”
“Hush!” said Miss Corcoran. “Come inside, quick! There is somebody at the door.”
“Just a minute—please do.” They both recognized Hardin’s voice and waited in silence for him to pass on, but he and his companion had evidently stopped right in front of the door.
“Now, answer, truly,” continued the young Doctor. “You have tried to avoid me of late. Why?”
The answer was inaudible.
“I thought so,” he went on. “Had it not been for Miss Ethel I should not have brought you here. I think she gave me a little hint that I might presume—”
(“What can he be talking about?” thought Ethel.)
Again the answer was not audible, but the Doctor said, eagerly:
“Then you do care? You love me?”
Tom White started forward from the cabinet, but Ethel laid a restraining hand on his arm and whispered hoarsely:
“What would they think of us—in a barber shop—at this hour!”
The Doctor’s voice again reached them, first persuasive, then indignant:
“But if you love me you’ll marry me! What possible reason can you have for refusing?”
“Not to-night—I’ll answer you in the morning,” said a trembling voice. (“It’s Bess,” whispered Ethel in the cabinet.)
“But why not to-night? Why won’t you answer now?”
“Because,” answered Bess—“Oh, don’t make me tell—because I have already promised—”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed the Doctor, “and I thought—”
But here Miss Corcoran made a whirling exit from the curtains and rushed upon the scene:
“Elizabeth Wingate, you are perfectly insane!” she cried, to the startled pair. “The idea of being conscientious over that old wager! Besides, you are free now, for, listen—the clocks are striking twelve. Come out, Tom.”
The Dying Gaul emerged from the chintz cabinet.
Covered with confusion as she was, Bess had breath enough to gasp: “Oh, Ethel! You didn't refuse?”
“No,” said Miss Corcoran, laughing the most charming laugh in the world—the laugh that comes at one’s expense—“No, Elizabeth Wingate, you have won the bet. You refused, but I haven’t refused a single offer for the past month—only because I haven’t had one.”
As the Boston lady concluded her story the other ladies arose and she added:
“Four of us will, of course, leave Stamboul with our personally conducted party. The fifth, as relater of the story that best pleases your highness, will remain as successor to the ill-fated Scheherazade II. We are stopping at the hotel over the way. As the palace has telephone connection you will have no trouble in calling us up to report your decision. In the meantime, I will hold back my copy that the name of the successful one may be inserted before cabling to America. A speedy decision is urgently requested.”
At this point, gathering up satchels and umbrellas, with charming bows and smiles and words the ladies were about to depart, but at a sign from the Sultan they remained.
A hush of expectancy fell upon the court. Then the Sultan spoke:
“To her that hath beauty, say that beauty is but a fashion;
“To her that hath truth, that truth hath often a sharp tongue;
“To her that hath grace, that it belongs but to youth;
“To her that hath brain, that she dwelleth too high;
“But with her that hath a loving heart a man may live in peace.
“She of the loving heart hath told the story. Do then, O Vizier, acquaint her with this decision and send the others away.”
When he had spoken these words the Sultan retired to an inner room with his attendants.
Then did the Grand vizier beat his breast and feel the back of his neck, exclaiming:
“Heaven preserve us from our evil genius! Which of the five is she of the Loving heart?”
- The following matter was apparently written by the publisher to “tie” the previous story in the magazine with this.
- Copyright, 1902, by The Sbortstory Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
- Copyrighted also in Great Britain.