The story opens with the sunlight skipping the sea, and beautiful Ardita reclining on the deck of a yacht reading "The Revolt of the Angels" by Anatole France. She is sucking a lemon as her uncle requests that she come ashore and meet Colonel Moreland and his son, Toby. Ardita rudely refuses and throws her book at her uncle, Mr. Farnham. He is disgusted by her behavior, and Ardita protests that her behavior is of other’s making, proclaiming “Whatever I am, you did it.” Her uncle resolves to turn her over to her aunt’s care. She is besotted with a man considered by her uncle to be a “libertine”, and she refuses to be introduced to anyone else. She wishes to meet the unnamed man as he is to gift her a bracelet once owned by the Czar of Russia. Ardita is too naively confident in herself to understand the reality of a liaison with such a philanderer – “Don’t you know by this time that I can do any darn thing with any darn man I want to?” Her exasperated uncle leaves her on the yacht.
Ardita hears music, and a rowing boat crewed by seven men approaches the yacht. The are a fugitive band, “Curtis Carlyle and his Six Black Buddies” who had committed an armed hold-up. Ardita is bewildered by their leader’s confidence –”a young man with a scornful mouth” as the men take over the yacht. The leader, Curtis Carlyle, offers to spare her provided she keep quiet for forty-eight hours.
The yacht is called Narcissus. Trombone Mose, the largest crew member, renames it Hula Hula. Ardita sees Carlyle as “a romantic figure” and is, for once, “more interested in him than in her own situation.” She implores Carlyle – “Lie to me by moonlight.” He tells her of the past of Babe Divine, another crewman, who worked on a wharf and a plantation before stabbing his master in the back. Carlyle tells of the success of the band, and how he began to dread the performance. He turned to gambling to secure what he wanted in life, but “in three weeks he had lost every cent he had saved.” On the yacht, he had found what he was looking for - “this is the beauty I want. Beauty has got to be astonishing, astounding.”
Ardita is determined to travel with the pirates: “I’m all for you. I’d really like to see you make a get-away.” Carlyle’s plans are wild and extreme – ”I want to be a rajah…Then…comes aristocracy.” Ardita observes that both she and Carlyle are “rebels.” She reveals that her only amusement was “shocking people.” They decide to take a forty-foot dive into the sea, and by then, Carlyle “knew he loved her.”
The reader is then told that the text is “merely the presentation of two personalities” and not simply a story of romance. Ardita becomes suddenly, finally serious when Carlyle tells her he loves her. She is drawn to him, but is still dismissive, saying she would be interested if she were “a little bit older and a little more bored.” They dance, as the yacht is spotted. Carlyle hands Ardita a bracelet, saying it was part of the group’s haul. He says he took it from a “woman with red hair” – indicating her philandering lover’s former partner, Mimi. The bracelet was really taken from the philanderer’s old flame, but by Mr. Farnham via a detective. They kiss as the yacht is boarded; not by the authorities but by Colonel Moreland.
Carlyle reveals that he is, in fact, Toby Moreland, and that the elaborate hoax was conjured by him out of “thin Florida air” to win her over. Rather than betrayed, Ardita feels overjoyed that she was wooed by a man of such imagination. Her uncle is glad to have been part of the plan to have Ardita’s future secured, saying “Lord knows you’re welcome to her, my boy. She’s run me crazy.” Toby’s plan succeeds as Ardita asks him “to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how” for the rest of their lives.
The story is set in a romantic image of “a blue dream…as blue as the irises of children’s eyes.” Already the story has a naivety and innocence about it, coupled with touches of the petulance of youth. The protagonist, Ardita, is a feisty creature with a “spoiled alluring mouth.” She is “adorned rather than clad in blue-satin slippers,” indicating her statuesque beauty. Reading a copy of “The Revolt of the Angels” by Anatole France alludes to Ardita’s rebellious streak as the novel was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. She is sucking a lemon, illustrating her sourness. She throws both the lemon and the book at her uncle, showing her petulance.
The renaming of the ship from Narcissus, with its allusions to the Greek myth symbolizing self-love, to Hula Hula, which means to drift or “go with the flow,” shows the change in Ardita’s attitude. She has begun to enjoy the excitement around her, rather than brooding. Her naivety is still apparent, indicated by her misplaced bravery. Ardita foreshadows the ending of the story with the line – “Lie to me by moonlight. Do a fabulous story.”
Carlyle tells a romantic and dramatic tale of musical talent thwarted by frustration at wanting the best in life. When Carlyle’s true identity is revealed, we see the irony in these comments as they are indeed things Toby Moreland has had all the time. He falls in love with Ardita when she encourages him to take the only real risk in the story: the perilous dive from the cliff.
The omniscient narrator draws the reader from the closeness of the narrative to consider his purpose in writing. The “idyllic setting” is revealed as “incidental.” The narrator’s viewpoint here is cynical - “To me the interesting thing about Ardita is the courage that will tarnish with her beauty and youth.” Ardita’s initial refusal to accept Carlyle’s advances reveals that Ardita is not yet ready to give up her adventures. She says she will “go back and marry – that other man.” At this point they dance, accompanied by the band members as if in a movie: it is later revealed of course that this is a staged drama.