Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
The Chamberlaynes are giving a cocktail party in their London flat. The atmosphere is somewhat strained because Lavinia, the host, is not there, and Edward, her bumbling husband, hastily invents a sick aunt to account for her absence. As usual, Alex has an exotic story to tell, for he travels widely and knows everyone. Julia, a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued family friend, misses the point of his tale and wonders why Alex and the Maharaja are up a tree. Julia usually misses the point of stories she hears.
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The assembly demands that Julia give her inimitable imitation of Lady Klootz and the wedding cake. They have all heard the story before, except possibly Edward, who forgets stories, and an unidentified and unintroduced guest. Somehow Julia goes off on a family who has a harmless son, and the story never gets told. The harmless son is a fascinating person: He can hear the cries of bats. Then Peter tells of a scenario that he wrote and that, unfortunately, never was produced.
To Edward’s relief, the guests prepare to leave. Only the stranger remains. He drinks gin with Edward for a while, and Edward is compelled to confide in him. Lavinia is not really at her aunt’s house; she simply left with no explanation. The stranger points out that her leaving might be a blessing, since she is demanding and practical, but Edward is uneasy, without knowing exactly why he wants her back. The stranger promises that the erring wife will return within twenty-four hours if Edward will ask for no explanations. He warns also that both Lavinia and Edward might be greatly changed. The stranger, full of gin, breaks into song as he leaves the apartment.
Julia, returning for her glasses, has Peter in tow. The glasses are in Julia’s bag all the time, and she departs again, leaving an agitated Peter behind. The young man wants to confide in Edward. He fell in love with Celia after attending many concerts with her, and she was very friendly. Lately, however, she is unresponsive. He asks if Edward will intercede for him. At this juncture, Alex comes gaily back. Edward is irritated. He asks Peter and Alex to lock the door when they leave so no one else will wander in. Alex archly goes to the kitchen, intent on whipping up a meal for the lone Edward. He succeeds in using up all the fresh eggs in some outlandish concoction.
At last, after answering the phone several times, Edward settles down in solitary comfort to play patience. Then the doorbell rings and in comes Celia. She divined that Lavinia left Edward, and now she thinks it would be a good time for Edward to seek a divorce so that he and Celia can marry. Edward agrees, but despite his repeated assurances of continued love, Celia is uneasy, for she senses a change in him. Edward then confesses that Lavinia is coming back and that he almost wants her back. He scarcely knows why he does, for until his wife left he wanted only Celia. Celia is discomfited at her faint-hearted lover. When Julia returns once more, this time to invite Edward to dinner, Celia escapes into the kitchen. There, under pretext of getting a lunch for the lone Edward, she ruins Alex’s concoction completely.
The next day, the stranger returns. Again he warns Edward that by wanting Lavinia to return he sets in motion forces beyond his control. When she returns, she will be a stranger and Edward will be a stranger to her. Edward made his choice, however, and will have to abide by it. After admonishing Edward to receive any visitors who might come, the mysterious stranger leaves by the back stairs.
Celia is the first to arrive. She comes at Julia’s request, apparently in response to a telegram from Lavinia. While they are together, Celia has a chance to look at Edward carefully; he seems to her only a rather comic middle-aged man. She laughs now at her infatuation. Peter arrives in response to Alex’s invitation. Alex also received a wire, ostensibly from Lavinia. He has time for some reproachful remarks to Celia and then announces he is leaving for Hollywood.
Lavinia arrives next, surprised to find Peter and Celia and disclaiming any knowledge of telegrams to Alex and Julia, with whose arrival the mystery deepens. At length the guests depart and Lavinia turns expectantly to Edward. He has little to say beyond reproaching her for her overbearing ways, and she twits him for being unable to make decisions. When she suggests that he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he is angered but interested in the possibility. He resolves stoutly not to visit any doctor Lavinia might recommend.
In Sir Henry’s offices, preparations are being made to receive patients. The first is Edward, who is surprised to see that Sir Henry is his mysterious stranger. In the consultation, Edward reveals that he wants Lavinia back because she dominated him so long that he is incapable of existence without her. Sir Henry then brings in Lavinia, so that the whole problem can be threshed out.
During the conversation it is revealed that Lavinia left because of Edward’s affair with Celia. Edward, somewhat shaken to learn that she knows of the affair, grows confident again when Lavinia confesses that she was infatuated with Peter. Sir Henry diagnoses their trouble as mutual fear: Edward is afraid he cannot make successful love to anyone, and Lavinia is afraid she is completely unlovable. The doctor assures them that they have every requirement for a successful life together. They have a mutual fear and hatred of each other, and both are quite mediocre people. They leave, moderately reconciled.
Julia arrives at the doctor’s office to ask how successful her scheming was. It is she who induced Sir Henry to step in, and Alex abetted her. Celia also comes in for a consultation. She has vague feelings of guilt and sin and wants to take a rest cure. After talking with her, Sir Henry recognizes that she is an outstanding person, that her destiny calls her. He advises her to be at ease and do whatever she has to do.
Two years later, the Chamberlaynes are giving another cocktail party for many of the old crowd. They are smugly settled in their mediocrity and even make a pretense of being in love. To them, cocktail parties are their measure of social standing. Peter comes in hurriedly. He is a great success in America and now has money and renown of a sort. His destiny is a material one. Alex arrives next. He is just back from bearing the white man’s burden on a tropical island. He reports Celia’s death. Celia was a nurse on the island and was killed in a native rebellion. Her destiny called her to martyrdom for the love of humanity.