It was the great ball of the season at Fort Ellsworth. For a special reason it had begun unusually late; but, though the eighth dance was on, the great event of the evening had not happened yet. Until that should happen, the rest, charming though it might be, was a mere curtain-raiser to keep men amused before the first act of the play.
The band of the —th was playing the "Merry Widow" waltz, still a favourite at the fort, and only one of the officers was not dancing. All the others—young, middle-aged, and even elderly—were gliding more or less gracefully, more or less happily, over the waxed floor of the big, white-walled, flag-draped hall where Fort Ellsworth had its concerts, theatricals, small hops, and big balls. Encircled by their uniformed arms were the wives and sisters of brother officers, ladies whom they saw every day, or girls from the adjacent town of Omallaha, whom they could see nearly every day if they took the trouble. Some of the girls were pretty and pleasant. They all danced well, and wore their newest frocks from Chicago, New York, and even, in certain brilliant cases, from Paris. But—there was a heart-breaking "but". Each army woman, each visiting girl from Omallaha knew that at any minute her star might be eclipsed, put out, as the stars at dawn are extinguished by the rising sun. Each one knew, too, that the sun must be at the brink of the horizon, because it was half-past eleven, and it took more than twenty minutes to motor to Ellsworth from Omallaha. Besides, Max Doran, who used to love the "Merry Widow" waltz, was not dancing. He stood near the door pretending to talk to an old man who had chaperoned a daughter from town to the ball; but in reality he was lying in wait, ready to pounce.
It was a wonder that he hadn't gone to meet her; but perhaps she had refused his escort. A more effective entrance might be made by a dazzling vision alone (the "stage aunt" did not count) than with a man, even the show young man of the garrison.
The show young man talked jerkily about the weather, with his eyes on the door. They were laughing eyes of a brilliant blue, and accounted for a good deal where girls were concerned; but not all. There were other things—other advantages he had, which made it seem quite remarkable that a rather dull Western fort like Ellsworth should possess him. His family was high up in the "Four Hundred" in New York. He had as much money as, with all his boyish extravagances and wild generosity, he knew what to do with. He was exceedingly good to look at, in the dark, thin, curiously Latin style to which he seemed to have no right. He was a rather popular hero in the —th, for his polo, a sport which he had introduced and made possible at Fort Ellsworth, and for his boxing, his fencing, and his marksmanship. He had been graduated fourth in his class at West Point three years before, so that he might have chosen the engineers or artillery; but the cavalry was what he preferred; and here he was at old Fort Ellsworth, enjoying life hugely and so well helping others to enjoy life that every one liked him, no one was jealous or grudged him what he had....