Seven characters are involved in a murder on a Southern U.S. Army post: “two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse.” The soldier is Private Ellgee Williams, a clean-living man who has neither friends nor enemies and is assigned to the stables because he is good with horses. One of the officers is Captain Weldon Penderton, who is married to Leonora Penderton. He knows that his wife has lovers, and he often becomes enamored of them. He asks for a soldier to be sent to clear some woods behind his house. The soldier is Private Williams, whom Penderton already dislikes because the young man had once spilled coffee on a new and expensive suit. Williams clears the woods thoroughly, cutting back a tree that Penderton did not want cut.
This evening, the Pendertons are expecting dinner guests, Major Morris Langdon and his wife, Alison. Major Langdon is Leonora Penderton’s latest lover, and Captain Penderton is also interested in him. As they prepare for the guests, Penderton criticizes his wife for not wearing shoes, and she strips naked in front of him, making him furious. As she strips, Private Williams passes by the window and sees her.
Williams had never before seen a naked woman. His father, a Holiness preacher, reared him to believe that women carry deadly diseases. Therefore, Williams always avoids women. In fact, he has no real attachments to anyone. After he sees the scene between the Pendertons, he stays and watches their dinner party through the window. The next day, Private Williams is different. He is thinking of other times he had behaved spontaneously. There was the time he bought a cow his family did not need. There was the time he felt moved by the spirit at a revival, and the time he committed a crime. His enlistment in the Army had also been a spontaneous act. He knew he was about to do something unpredictable again.
For two weeks he observes the captain’s house and its patterns. Then he goes to the windows and looks in, observing a blackjack game between Leonora and Major Langdon. Leonora cannot add the cards; she has to be told whether she wins or loses a game. Langdon asks his wife if she had seen her friend, Lieutenant Weincheck, that day. She replies that she had, and she and Leonora discuss the lieutenant’s interest in art and music, an interest that Alison, but none of the rest of them, share.
Alison Langdon is ill, both physically and emotionally. She has a weak heart. Her husband’s infidelity leaves her depressed and ailing. The death of their baby, Catherine, three years previously, had weakened her...
(The entire section is 1059 words.)