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The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith
by Arthur Wing Pinero
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LUCAS. [Going to her.] Agnes dear!

AGNES. [Taking out her handkerchief.] Let me—let me—

LUCAS. [Bending over her.] I've never seen you—

AGNES. No, I've never been a crying woman. But some great change has befallen me, I believe. What is it? That swoon—it wasn't mere faintness, giddiness; it was this change coming over me!

LUCAS. You are not unhappy?

AGNES. [Wiping her eyes.] No, I—I don't think I am. Isn't that strange?

LUCAS. My dearest, I'm happy to hear you say that, for you've made me very happy.

AGNES. Because I—

LUCAS. Because you love me—naturally, that's one great reason.

AGNES. I have always loved you.

LUCAS. But never so utterly, so absorbingly, as you confess you do now. Do you fully realise what your confession does? It strikes off the shackles from me, from us—sets us free. [With a gesture of freedom.] Oh, my dear Agnes, free!

AGNES. [Staring at him.] Free?

LUCAS. Free from the burden of that crazy plan of ours of trumpeting our relations to the world. Forgive me—crazy is the only word for it. Thank heaven, we've at last admitted to each other that we're ordinary man and woman! Of course, I was ill—off my head. I didn't know what I was entering upon. And you, dear—living a pleasureless life, letting your thoughts dwell constantly on old troubles; that is how cranks are made. Now that I'm strong again, body and mind, I can protect you, keep you right. Ha, ha! What were we to pose as? Examples of independent thought and action! [Laughing.] Oh my darling, well be independent in thought and action still; but we won't make examples of ourselves—eh?

AGNES. [Who has been watching him with wide-open eyes.] Do you mean that all idea of our writing together, working together, defending our position, and the position of such as ourselves, before the world, is to be abandoned?

LUCAS. Why, of course.

AGNES. I—I didn't mean quite that.

LUCAS. Oh, come, come! We'll furl what my uncle calls the banner of Free Union finally. [Going to her and kissing her hair lightly.] For the future, mere man and woman. [Pacing the room excitedly.] The future! I've settled everything already. The work shall fall wholly on my shoulders. My poor girl, you shall enjoy a little rest and pleasure.

AGNES. [In a low voice.] Rest and pleasure—

LUCAS. We'll remain abroad. One can live unobserved abroad, without actually hiding. [She rises slowly.] We'll find an ideal retreat. No more English tourists prying around us! And there, in some beautiful spot, alone except for your company, I'll work! [As he paces the room, she walks slowly to and fro, listening, staring before her.] I'll work. My new career! I'll write under a nom de plume. My books, Agnes, shall never ride to popularity on the back of a scandal. Our life! The mornings I must spend by myself, of course, shut up in my room. In the afternoon we will walk together. After dinner you shall hear what I've written in the morning; and then a few turns round our pretty garden, a glance at the stars with my arms round your waist—[she stops abruptly, a look of horror on her face]—while you whisper to me words of tenderness, words of—[There is the distant sound of music from mandolin and guitar.] Ah! [To AGNES.] Keep your shawl over your shoulders. [Opening the window, and stepping out; the music becoming louder.] Some mandolinisti in a gondola. [Listening at the window, his head turned from her.] How pretty, Agnes! Now, don't those mere sounds, in such surroundings, give you a sensation of hatred for revolt and turmoil! Don't they conjure up alluringly pictures of peace and pleasure, of golden days and star-lit nights—pictures of beauty and love?

AGNES. [Sitting on the settee, staring before her, speaking to herself.] My marriage—the early days of my marriage—all over again!

LUCAS. [Turning to her.] Eh? [Closing the window and coming to her, as the music dies away.] Tell me that those sounds thrill you.

AGNES. Lucas—

LUCAS. [Sitting beside her.] Yes?

AGNES. For the first few months of my marriage—[Breaking off abruptly and looking into his face wonderingly.] Why, how young you seem to have become; you look quite boyish!

LUCAS. [Laughing.] I believe that this return of our senses will make us both young again.

AGNES. Both? [With a little shudder.] You know, I'm older than you.

LUCAS. Tsch!

AGNES. [Passing her hand through his hair.] Yes, I shall feel that now. [Stroking his brow tenderly.] Well—so it has come to this.

LUCAS. I declare that you have colour in your cheeks already.

AGNES. The return of my senses?

LUCAS. My dear Agnes, we've both been to the verge of madness, you and I—driven there by our troubles. [Taking her hand.] Let us agree, in so many words, that we have completely recovered. Shall we?

AGNES. Perhaps mine is a more obstinate case. My enemies called me mad years ago.

LUCAS. [With a wave of the hand.] Ah, but the future, the future. No more thoughts of reforming unequal laws from public platforms, no more shrieking in obscure magazines. No more beating of bare knuckles against stone walls. Come, say it!

AGNES. [With an effort.] Go on.

LUCAS. [Looking before him—partly to himself, his voice hardening.] I'll never be mad again—never. [Thrusting his head back.] By heavens! [To her, in an altered tone.] You don't say it.

AGNES. [After a pause.] I—I will never be mad again.

LUCAS. [Triumphantly.] Hah! ha, ha! [She deliberately removes the shawl from her shoulders, and, putting her arms round his neck, draws him to her.] Ah, my dear girl!

AGNES. [In a whisper, with her head on his breast.] Lucas.

LUCAS. Yes?

AGNES. Isn't this madness?

LUCAS. I don't think so.

AGNES. Oh! oh! oh! I believe, to be a woman is to be mad.

LUCAS. No, to be a woman trying not to be a woman—that is to be mad. [She draws a long, deep breath, then, sitting away from him, resumes her shawl mechanically.]

AGNES. Now, you promised me to run out to the Capello Nero to get a little food.

LUCAS. Oh, I'd rather—

AGNES. [Rising.] Dearest, you need it.

LUCAS. [Rising.] Well—Fortune shall fetch my hat and coat.

AGNES. Fortune! Are you going to take all my work from me? [She is walking towards the door; the sound of his voice stops her.]

LUCAS. Agnes! [She returns.] A thousand thoughts have rushed through my brain this last hour or two. I've been thinking—my wife—

AGNES. Yes?

LUCAS. My wife—she will soon get tired of her present position. If, by-and-bye, there should be a divorce, there would be nothing to prevent our marrying.

AGNES. Our—marrying!

LUCAS. [Sitting, not looking at her, as if discussing the matter with himself.] It might be to my advantage to settle again in London some day. After all, scandals quickly lose their keen edge. What would you say?

AGNES. Marriage—

LUCAS. Ah, remember, we're rational beings for the future. However, we needn't talk about it now.

AGNES. No.

LUCAS. Still, I assume you wouldn't oppose it. You would marry me if I wished it?

AGNES. [in a low voice.] Yes.

LUCAS. That's a sensible girl! By Jove, I am hungry! [He lights a cigarette as she walks slowly to the door, then throws himself idly back on the settee.]

AGNES. [To herself, in a whisper.] My old life—my old life coming all over again! [She goes out. He lies watching the wreaths of tobacco smoke. After a moment or two FORTUNE enters, closing the door carefully behind him.]

LUCAS. Eh?

FORTUNE. [After a glance round, dropping his voice.] Ze Duke of St. Olphert 'e say 'e vould like to speak a meenit alone. [LUCAS rises, with a muttered exclamation of annoyance.]

LUCAS. Priez Monsieur le Duc d'entrer. [FORTUNE goes to the door and opens it. The DUKE OF ST. OLPHERTS enters; he is in evening dress. FORTUNE retires.]

ST. OLPHERTS. Quite alone?

LUCAS. For the moment.

ST. OLPHERTS. My excuse to Mrs. Ebbsmith for not dining at the Grunwald —it was a perfectly legitimate one, dear Lucas. I really was expecting visitors.

LUCAS. [Wonderingly.] Yes?

ST. OLPHERTS. [With a little cough and a drawn face.] Oh, I am not so well tonight. Damn these people for troubling me! Damn 'em for keeping me hopping about! Damn 'em for every shoot I feel in my leg. Visitors from England—they've arrived.

LUCAS. But what—?

ST. OLPHERTS. I shall die of gout some day, Lucas. Er—your wife is here.

LUCAS. Sybil!

ST. OLPHERTS. She's come through with your brother. Sandford's a worse prig than ever—and I'm in shockin' pain.

LUCAS. This—this is your doing?

ST. OLPHERTS. Yes. Damn you, don't keep me standing!

[AGNES enters with LUCAS'S hat and coat. She stops abruptly on seeing ST. OLPHERTS.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [By the settee—playfully, through his pain] Ah, my dear Mrs. Ebbsmith, how can you have the heart to deceive an invalid, a poor wretch who begs you—[sitting on the settee] to allow him to sit down for a moment? [AGNES deposits the hat and coat.]

AGNES. Deceive—?

ST. OLPHERTS. My friends arrive, I dine scrappily with them, and hurry to the Grunwald thinking to catch you over your Zabajone. Dear lady, you haven't been near the Grunwald.

AGNES. Your women faint sometimes, don't they?

ST. OLPHERTS. My—? [In pain.] Oh, what do you mean?

AGNES. The women in your class of life?

ST. OLPHERTS. Faint? Oh yes, when there's occasion for it.

AGNES. I'm hopelessly low-born; I fainted involuntarily.

ST. OLPHERTS. [Moving closer to her.] Oh, my dear, pray forgive me. You've recovered? [She nods.] Indisposition agrees with you, evidently. Your colouring tonight is charming. [Coughing.] You are—delightful— to—look at.

[GERTRUDE enters, carrying a tray on which are a bowl of soup, a small decanter of wine, and accessories. She looks at ST. OLPHERTS unconcernedly, then turns away and places the tray on a table.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [Quietly to AGNES.] Not a servant?

AGNES, Oh, no.

ST. OLPHERTS. [Rising promptly.] Good God! I beg your pardon. A friend?

AGNES. Yes.

ST. OLPHERTS. [Looking at GERTRUDE, critically.] Very nice. [Still looking at GERTRUDE, but speaking to AGNES in undertones.] Married or—? [Turning to AGNES.] Married or—?

GERTRUDE. [To LUCAS, looking around.] It is draughty at this table.

LUCAS. [Going to the table near the settee, and collecting the writing materials.] Here—[AGNES joins GERTRUDE.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [Quietly to LUCAS.] Lucas—[LUCAS goes to him.] Who's that gal?

LUCAS. [To ST. OLPHERTS.] An hotel acquaintance we made in Florence— Mrs Thorpe.

ST. OLPHERTS. Where's the husband?

LUCAS. A widow.

ST. OLPHERTS. You might—[GERTRUDE advances with the tray.]

LUCAS. Mrs. Thorpe, the Duke of St. Olpherts wishes to be introduced to you. [GERTRUDE inclines her head to the DUKE. LUCAS places the writing materials on another table.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [Limping up to GERTRUDE and handling the tray.] I beg to be allowed to help you. [At the table.] The tray here?

GERTRUDE. Thank you.

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh, how clumsy I am! We think it so gracious of you to look after our poor friend here who is not quite herself today. [To AGNES.] Come along, dear lady—everything is prepared for you. [To GERTRUDE.] You are here with—your mother, I understand.

GERTRUDE. My brother.

ST. OLPHERTS. Brother. Now do tell me whether you find your—your little hotel comfortable.

GERTRUDE. [Looking at him steadily.] We don't stay at one.

ST. OLPHERTS. Apartments?

GERTRUDE. Yes.

ST. OLPHERTS. Do you know, dear Mrs. Thorpe, I have always had the very strongest desire to live in lodgings in Venice?

GERTRUDE. You should gratify it. Our quarters are rather humble; we are in the Campo San Bartolomeo.

ST. OLPHERTS. But how delightful!

GERTRUDE. Why not come and see our rooms?

ST. OLPHERTS. [Bowing.] My dear young lady! [Producing a pencil and writing upon his shirt-cuff.] Campo San Bartolomeo—

GERTRUDE. Five—four—nought—two

ST. OLPHERTS. [Writing.] Five—four—nought—two. Tomorrow afternoon? [She inclines her head.] Four o'clock?

GERTRUDE. Yes; that would give the people ample time to tidy and clear up after us.

ST. OLPHERTS. After you—?

GERTRUDE. After our departure. My brother and I leave early tomorrow morning.

ST. OLPHERTS. [After a brief pause, imperturbably.] A thousand thanks. May I impose myself so far upon you as to ask you to tell your landlord to expect me? [Taking up his hat and stick.] We are allowing this soup to get cold. [Joining LUCAS.] Dear Lucas, you have something to say to me—?

LUCAS. [Opening the door.] Come into my room. [They go out. The two women look at each other significantly.]

AGNES. You're a splendid woman.

GERTRUDE. That's rather a bad man, I think. Now, dear—[She places AGNES on the settee, and sets the soup, &c., before her. AGNES eats.]

GERTRUDE. [Watching her closely.] So you have succeeded in coming to close quarters, as you expressed it, with him.

AGNES. [Taciturnly.] Yes.

GERTRUDE. His second visit here today, I gather.

AGNES. Yes.

GERTRUDE. His attitude towards you—his presence here under any circumstances—it's all rather queer.

AGNES. His code of behaviour is peculiarly his own.

GERTRUDE. However, you are easier in your mind?

AGNES. [Quietly, but with intensity.] I shall defeat him. I shall defeat him.

GERTRUDE. Defeat him? You will succeed in holding Mr. Cleeve, you mean?

AGNES. Oh, if you put it in that way—

GERTRUDE. Oh, come, I remember all you told me this afternoon. [With disdain.] So it has already arrived, then, at a simple struggle to hold Mr. Cleeve?

[There is a pause. AGNES, without answering, stretches out her hand to the wine. Her hand shakes—she withdraws it helplessly.]

GERTRUDE. What do you want—wine?

[AGNES nods. GERTRUDE pours out wine and gives her the glass. AGNES drains it eagerly and replaces it.]

GERTRUDE. Agnes—

AGNES. Yes?

GERTRUDE. You are dressed very beautifully.

AGNES. Do you think so?

GERTRUDE. Don't you know it? Who made you that gown?

AGNES. Bardini.

GERTRUDE. I shouldn't have credited the little woman with such excellent ideas.

AGNES. Oh, Lucas gave her the idea when he—when he—

GERTRUDE. When he ordered it?

AGNES. Yes.

GERTRUDE. Oh, the whole thing came as a surprise to you?

AGNES. Er—quite.

GERTRUDE. I noticed the box this afternoon when I called.

AGNES. Mr. Cleeve wishes me to appear more like—more like—

GERTRUDE. An ordinary smart woman. [Contemptuously.] Well, you ought to find no difficulty in managing that. You can make yourself very charming, it appears.

[AGNES again reaches out a hand towards the wine. GERTRUDE pours a very little wine into the wine-glass and takes up the glass; AGNES holds out her hand to receive it.]

GERTRUDE. Do you mind my drinking from your glass?

AGNES. [Staring at her.] No.

[GERTRUDE empties the glass and then places it, in a marked way, on the side of the table farthest from AGNES.]

GERTRUDE. [With a little shudder.] Ugh! Ugh! [AGNES moves away from GERTRUDE, to the end of the settee, her head bowed, her hands clenched.] I have something to propose. Come home with me tomorrow.

AGNES. [After a pause, raising her head.] Home—?

GERTRUDE. Ketherick. The very spot for a woman who wants to shut out things. Miles and miles of wild moorland! For company, purple heath and moss-covered granite, in summer; in winter, the moor-fowl and the snow glistening on top of the crags. Oh, and for open-air music, our little church owns the sweetest little peal of bells—! [AGNES rises, disturbed.] Ah, I can't promise you their silence! Indeed, I'm very much afraid that on a still Sunday you can even hear the sound of the organ quite a long distance off. I am the organist when I'm at home. That's Ketherick. Will you come? [The distant tinkling of mandolin and guitar is again heard.]

AGNES. Listen to that. The mandolinisti! You talk of the sound of your church organ, and I hear his music.

GERTRUDE. His music?

AGNES. The music he is fond of; the music that gives him the thoughts that please him, soothe him.

GERTRUDE. [Listening—humming the words of the air, contemptuously: "Bell'amore deh! Porgi l'orecchio, ad un canto che parte del cuore . . ."] Love-music!

AGNES. [In a low voice, staring upon the ground.] Yes, love music.

[The door leading from LUCAS'S room opens, and ST. OLPHERTS and LUCAS are heard talking. GERTRUDE hastily goes out. KUCAS enters; the boyishness of manner has left him—he is pale and excited.]

AGNES. What is the matter?

LUCAS. My wife is revealing quite a novel phase of character.

AGNES. Your wife—?

LUCAS. The submissive mood. It's right that you should be told, Agnes. She is here, at the Danieli, with my brother Sandford. [ST. OLPHERTS enters slowly.] Yes, positively! It appears that she has lent herself to a scheme of Sandford's—[glancing at ST. OLPHERTS]—and of—and—

ST. OLPHERTS. Of Sandford's.

LUCAS. [To AGNES.] A plan of reconciliation. [To ST. OLPHERTS.] Tell Sybil that the submissive mood comes too late, by a year or so! [He paces to and fro. AGNES sits, with an expressionless face.]

AGNES.[Quietly, to ST. OLPHERTS.] The "friends" you were expecting, Duke?

ST. OLPHERTS. [Meekly.] Yes. [She smiles at him scornfully.]

LUCAS. Agnes dear, you and I leave here early tomorrow.

AGNES. Very well, Lucas.

LUCAS. [To ST. OLPHERTS.] Duke, will you be the bearer of a note from me to Sandford?

ST. OLPHERTS. Certainly.

LUCAS. [Going to the door of his room.] I'll write it at once.

ST. OLPHERTS. [Raising his voice.] You won't see Sandford, then, dear Lucas, for a moment or two?

LUCAS. No, no; pray excuse me. [He goes out. ST. OLPHERTS advances to AGNES. The sound of the music dies away.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [Slipping his coat off and throwing it upon the head of the settee.] Upon my soul, I think you've routed us!

AGNES. Yes.

ST. OLPHERTS. [Sitting, breaking into a laugh.] Ha, ha! he, he, he! Sir Sandford and Mrs. Cleeve will be so angry. Such a devil of a journey for nothing! Ho! [Coughing.] Ho, ho, ho!

AGNES. This was to be your grand coup.

ST. OLPHERTS. I admit it—I have been keeping this in reserve.

AGNES. I see. A further term of cat-and-dog life for Lucas and this lady—but it would have served to dispose of me, you fondly imagined. I see.

ST. OLPHERTS. I knew your hold on him was weakening. [She looks at him.] You knew it too. [She looks away.] He was beginning to find out that a dowdy demagogue is not the cheeriest person to live with. I repeat, you're a dooced clever woman, my dear. [She rises, with an impatient shake of her body, and walks past him, he following her with his eyes.] And a handsome one, into the bargain.

AGNES. Tsch!

ST. OLPHERTS. Tell me, when did you make up your mind to transform yourself?

AGNES. Suddenly, after our interview this afternoon; after what you said—

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh—!

AGNES. [With a little shiver.] An impulse.

ST. OLPHERTS. Impulse doesn't account for the possession of those gorgeous trappings.

AGNES. These rags? A surprise gift from Lucas, today.

ST. OLPHERTS. Really, my dear, I believe I've helped to bring about my own defeat. [Laughing softly.] Ho, ho, ho! How disgusted the Cleeve family will be! Ha, ha! [Testily.] Come, why don't you smile—laugh? You can afford to do so! Show your pretty white teeth! Laugh!

AGNES. [Hysterically.] Ha, ha, ha! Ha!

ST. OLPHERTS. That's better! [Pushing the cigarette-box towards him, she takes a cigarette and places it between her lips. He also takes a cigarette gaily. They smoke—she standing, with an elbow resting upon the top of the stove, looking down upon him.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [As he lights his cigarette.] This isn't explosive, I hope? No nitric and sulphuric acid, with glycerine—eh? [Eyeing her wonderingly and admiringly.] By jove! Which is you—the shabby, shapeless rebel who entertained me this afternoon or—[kissing the tips of his fingers to her]—or that?

AGNES. This—this. [Seating herself, slowly and thoughtfully, facing the stove, her back turned to him.] My sex has found me out.

ST. OLPHERTS. Ha! tsch! [Between his teeth.] Damn it, for your sake I almost wish Lucas was a different sort of feller!

AGNES. [Partly to herself, with intensity.] Nothing matters now—not even that. He's mine. He would have died but for me. I gave him life. He is my child, my husband, my lover, my bread, my daylight—all— everything. Mine! Mine!

ST. OLPHERTS. [Rising and limping over to her.] Good luck, my girl.

AGNES. Thanks!

ST. OLPHERTS. I'm rather sorry for you. This sort of triumph is short-lived, you know.

AGNES. [Turning to him.] I know. But I shall fight for every moment that prolongs it. This is my hour.

ST. OLPHERTS. Your hour—?

AGNES. There's only one hour in a woman's life.

ST. OLPHERTS. One—?

AGNES. One supreme hour. Her poor life is like the arch of a crescent; so many years lead up to that hour, so many weary years decline from it. No matter what she may strive for, there is a moment when Circumstance taps her upon the shoulder and says "Woman, this hour is the best that Earth has to spare you." It may come to her in calm or in temper, lighted by a steady radiance or by the glitter of evil stars; but however it comes, be it good or evil, it is her hour—let her dwell upon every second of it!

ST. OLPHERTS. And this little victory of yours—the possession of this man; you think this is the best that Earth can spare you? [She nods slowly and deliberately, with fixed eyes.] Dear me, how amusin' you women are! And in your dowdy days you had ambitions? [She looks at him suddenly.] They were of a queer, gunpowder-and-faggot sort—but they were ambitions.

AGNES. [Starting up.] Oh—! [Putting her hands to her brows.] Oh—! [Facing him.] Yes, yes! You're right! Once, long ago, I hoped that my hour would be very different from this. Ambitions! I have seen myself, standing, humbly-clad, looking down upon a dense, swaying crowd—a scarlet flag for my background. I have seen the responsive look upon thousands of white, eager, hungry faces, and I've heard the great hoarse shout of welcome as I have seized my flag and hurried down amongst the people—to be given a place among their leaders! I! With the leaders, the leaders! Yes, that is what I once hoped would be my hour! [Her voice sinking.] But this is my hour.

ST. OLPHERTS. Well, my dear, when it's over, you'll have the satisfaction of counting the departing footsteps of a ruined man.

AGNES. Ruined—!

ST. OLPHERTS. Yes, there's great compensation in that—for women.

AGNES. [Sitting.] Why do you suggest he'll be ruined through me? [Uneasily.] At any rate, he'd ended his old career before we met.

ST. OLPHERTS. Pardon me; it's not now too late for him to resume that career. The threads are not quite broken yet.

AGNES. Oh, the scandal in London—

ST. OLPHERTS. Would be dispelled by this sham reconciliation with his wife.

AGNES. [Looking at him.] Sham—?

ST. OLPHERTS. Why, of course. All we desired to arrange was that for the future their household should be conducted strictly a la mode.

AGNES. A la mode?

ST. OLPHERTS. [Behind the settee, looking down upon her.] Mr. Cleeve in one quarter of the house, Mrs. Cleeve in another.

AGNES. Oh, yes.

ST. OLPHERTS. A proper aspect to the world, combined with freedom on both sides. It's a more decorous system than the aggressive Free Union you once advocated; and it's much in vogue at my end of town.

AGNES. Your plan was a little more subtle than I gave you credit for. This was to be your method of getting rid of me!

ST. OLPHERTS. No, no. Don't you understand? With regard to yourself, we could have arrived at a compromise.

AGNES. A compromise?

ST. OLPHERTS. It would have made us quite happy to see you placed upon a—upon a somewhat different footing.

AGNES. What kind of—footing?

ST. OLPHERTS. The suburban villa, the little garden, a couple of discreet servants—everything a la mode.

[There is a brief pause. The she rises and walks across the room, outwardly calm but twisting her hands.]

AGNES. Well, you've had Mr. Cleeve's answer to that.

ST. OLPHERTS. Yes.

AGNES. Which finally disposes of the whole matter—disposes of it—

ST. OLPHERTS. Completely. [Struck by an idea.] Unless you—

AGNES. [Turning to him.] Unless I—

ST. OLPHERTS. Unless you—

AGNES. [After a moment's pause.] What did Lucas say to you when you—?

ST. OLPHERTS. He said he knew you'd never make that sacrifice for him. [She pulls herself up rigidly.] So he declined to pain you by asking you to do it.

AGNES. [Crossing swiftly to the settee, and speaking straight into his face.] That's a lie!

ST. OLPHERTS. Keep your temper, my dear.

AGNES. [Passionately.] His love may not last—it won't!—but at this moment he loves me better than that! He wouldn't make a mere light thing of me!

ST. OLPHERTS. Wouldn't he? You try him!

AGNES. What!

ST. OLPHERTS. You put him to the test!

AGNES. [With her hands to her brows.] Oh—!

ST. OLPHERTS. No, no—don't!

AGNES. [Faintly.] Why?

ST. OLPHERTS. I like you. Damn him—you deserve to live your hour!

[LUCAS enters with a letter in his hand. AGNES sits.]

LUCAS. [Giving ST. OLPHERTS the letter.] Thanks. [St. OLPHERTS pockets the letter and picks up his cloak, LUCAS assisting him.]

AGNES. [Outwardly calm.] Oh—Lucas—

LUCAS. Yes?

AGNES. The Duke has been—has been—telling me—

LUCAS. What, dear?

AGNES. The sort of arrangement proposed for your going back to London.

LUCAS. Oh, my brother's brilliant idea!

AGNES. Acquiesced in by your wife. [ST. OLPHERTS strolls away from them.]

LUCAS. Certainly; as I anticipated, she has become intensely dissatisfied with her position.

AGNES. And it would be quite possible, it seems, for you to resume your old career?

LUCAS. Just barely possible—well, for the moment, quite possible.

AGNES. Quite possible.

LUCAS. I haven't, formally, made a sign to my political friends yet. It's a task one leaves to the last. I shall do so now—at once. My people have been busying themselves, it appears, in reporting that I shall return to London directly my health is fully re-established.

AGNES. In the hope—? Oh, yes.

LUCAS. Hoping they'd be able to separate us before it was too—too late.

AGNES. Which hope they've now relinquished?

LUCAS. Apparently.

AGNES. They're prepared to accept a—a compromise, I hear?

LUCAS. Ha!—yes.

AGNES. A compromise in my favour?

LUCAS. [Hesitatingly.] They suggest—

AGNES. Yes, yes, I know. [Looking at him searchingly.] After all, your old career was—a success. You made your mark, as you were saying the other day. You did make your mark. [He walks up and down restlessly, abstractedly, her eyes following him.] You were generally spoken of, accepted, as a Coming Man. The Coming Man, often, wasn't it?

LUCAS. [With an impatient wave of the hand.] That doesn't matter!

AGNES. And now you are giving it up—giving it all up.

[He sits on the settee, resting his elbow on his knee, pushing his hand through his hair.]

LUCAS. But—but you believe I shall succeed equally well in this new career of mine?

AGNES. [Stonily.] There's the risk, you must remember.

LUCAS. Obviously, there's the risk. Why do you say all this to me now?

AGNES. Because now is the opportunity to—to go back.

LUCAS. [Scornfully.] Opportunity—?

AGNES. An excellent one. You're so strong and well now.

LUCAS. Thanks to you.

AGNES. [Staring before her.] Well—I did nurse you carefully, didn't I?

LUCAS. But I don't understand you. You are surely not proposing to—to —break with me?

AGNES. No—I—I—I was only thinking that you—you might see something in this suggestion of a compromise.

[LUCAS glances at ST. OLPHERTS, whose back is turned to them. ST. OLPHERTS instinctively looks round, then goes and sits by the window.]

LUCAS. [Looking at her searchingly.] Well, but—you—?

AGNES. [With assumed indifference.] Oh, I—

LUCAS. You?

AGNES. Lucas, don't—don't make me paramount. [He moves to the end of the settee, showing by a look that he desires her to sit by him. After a moment's hesitation she takes her place beside him.]

LUCAS. [In an undertone.] I do make you paramount. I do. My dear girl, under any circumstances you would still be everything to me—always. [She nods with a vacant look.] There would have to be this pretence of an establishment of mine—that would have to be faced; the whited sepulchre, the mockery of dinners and receptions and so on. But it would be to you I should fly for sympathy, encouragement, rest.

AGNES. Even if you were ill again—

LUCAS. Even then, if it were practicable—if it could be—if it—

AGNES. [Looking him in the face.] Well—?

LUCAS. [Avoiding her gaze.] Yes, dear?

AGNES. What do you say, then, to asking the Duke to give you back that letter to your brother?

LUCAS. It wouldn't settle matters, simply destroying that letter. Sandford begs me to go round to the Danieli tonight, to—to—

AGNES. To see him? [LUCAS nods.] And her? [He shrugs his shoulders.] At what time? Was any time specified?

LUCAS. Half-past nine.

AGNES. I—I haven't my watch on.

LUCAS. [Referring to his watch.] Nine twenty-five.

AGNES. You can almost manage it—if you'd like to go.

LUCAS. Oh, let them wait a few minutes for me; that won't hurt them.

AGNES. [Dazed.] Let me see—I did fetch your hat and coat—[She rises and walks mechanically, stumbling against a chair. LUCAS looks up, alarmed; ST. OLPHERTS rises.]

AGNES. [Replacing the chair.] It's all right; I didn't notice this. [Bringing LUCAS'S hat and coat, and assisting him with the latter.] How long will you be?

LUCAS. Not more than half an hour. An hour at the outside.

AGNES. [Arranging his neck handkerchief.] Keep this so.

LUCAS. Er—if—if I—if we—

AGNES. The Duke is waiting. [LUCAS turns away, and joins ST. OLPHERTS.]

LUCAS. [To him, in a low voice.] I am going back to the hotel with you.

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh, are you? [The door opens and FORTUNE enters, followed by AMOS WINTERFIELD. FORTUNE retires.]

AMOS. [To LUCAS, sternly.] Is my sister still here, may I ask? [LUCAS looks to AGNES interrogatively. She inclines her head.]

AMOS. I should like her to know that I am waiting for her. [AGNES goes out.]

LUCAS. [To AMOS.] Pray excuse me.

[AMOS draws back. ST. OLPHERTS passes out. At the door, LUCAS pauses, and bows slightly to AMOS, who returns his bow in the same fashion; then LUCAS follows ST. OLPHERTS. GERTRUDE enters, wearing her hat and mantle. AGNES follows; her movements are unsteady, and there is a wild look in her eyes.]

GERTRUDE. You've come to fetch me, Amos? [He assents by a nod.]

AMOS. [To AGNES.] I'm sorry to learn from Dr. Kirke that you've been ill. I hope you're better.

AGNES. [Turning away, GERTRUDE watching her.] Thank you, I am quite well.

AMOS. [Gruffly.] Are you ready, Gertrude?

GERTRUDE. No, dear, not yet. I want you to help me.

AMOS. In what way?

GERTRUDE. I want you to join me in persuading Mrs. Ebbsmith—my friend, Mrs. Ebbsmith—to come to Ketherick with me.

AMOS. My dear sister—!

GERTRUDE. [Firmly.] Please, Amos!

AGNES. Stop a moment! Mr. Winterfield, your sister doesn't in the least understand how matters are with me. I am returning to England, but with Mr. Cleeve. [Recklessly.] Oh, you'd hear of it eventually! He is reconciled to his wife.

GERTRUDE. Oh—! Then, surely, you—!

AGNES. No. The reconciliation goes no further than mere outward appearances. He relies upon me as much as ever. [Beating her hands together passionately.] He can't spare me—can't spare me!

AMOS. [In a low voice to GERTRUDE.] Are you satisfied?

GERTRUDE. I suspected something of the kind. [Going to AGNES, gripping her wrist tightly.] Pull yourself out of the mud! Get up out of the mud!

AGNES. I have no will to—no desire to!

GERTRUDE. You mad thing!

AGNES. [Releasing herself, facing GERTRUDE and AMOS.] You're only breaking in upon my hour.

GERTRUDE. Your hour—?

AGNES. [Waving them away.] I ask you to go—to go! [GERTRUDE returns to AMOS.]

AMOS. My dear Gertrude, you see what our position is here. If Mrs. Ebbsmith asks for our help it is our duty to give it.

GERTRUDE. It is especially my duty, Amos.

AMOS. And I should have thought it especially mine. However, Mrs. Ebbsmith appears to firmly decline our help. And at this point, I confess, I would rather you left it—you, at least.

GERTRUDE. You would rather I left it—I, the virtuous, unsoiled woman! Yes, I am a virtuous woman, Amos; and it strikes you as odd, I suppose, my insisting upon friendship with her. But look here, both of you. I'll tell you a secret. You never knew it, Amos my dear. I never allowed anybody to suspect it—

AMOS. Never knew what?

GERTRUDE. The sort of married life mine was. It didn't last long, but it was dreadful, almost intolerable.

AMOS. Gertrude!

GERTRUDE. After the first few weeks—weeks, not months!—after the first few weeks of it, my husband treated me as cruelly—[turning to AGNES]—just as cruelly, I do believe, as your husband treated you. [AMOS makes a movement, showing astonishment.] Wait! Now then! There was another man—one I loved—one I couldn't help loving! I could have found release with him, perhaps happiness of a kind. I resisted, came through it. They're dead—the two are dead! And here I am, a virtuous, reputable woman; saved by the blessed mercy of Heaven! There, you are not surprised any longer, Amos! [Pointing to AGNES.] "My friend, Mrs Ebbsmith!" [Bursting into tears.] Oh! Oh, if my little boy had been spared to me, he should have grown up tender to women—tender to women! He should, he should—! [She sits upon the settee, weeping . . . There is a short silence.]

AMOS. Mrs. Ebbsmith, when I came here tonight I was angry with Gertrude —not altogether, I hope, for being in your company. But I was certainly angry with her for visiting you without my knowledge. I think I sometimes forget that she is eight-and-twenty, not eighteen. Well, now I offer to delay our journey home for a few days, if you hold out the faintest hope that her companionship is likely to aid you in any way.

[AGNES, standing motionless, makes no response. AMOS crosses to her, and as he passes GERTRUDE, he lets his hand drop over her shoulder; she clasps it, then rises and moves to a chair, where she sits, crying silently.]

AMOS. [By AGNES' side—in a low voice.] You heard what she said. Saved by the mercy of Heaven.

AGNES. Yes, but she can feel that.

AMOS. You felt so once.

AGNES. Once—?

AMOS. You have, in years gone by, asked for help on your knees.

AGNES. It never came.

AMOS. Repeat your cry!

AGNES. There would be no answer.

AMOS. Repeat it!

AGNES. [Turning upon him.] If miracles could happen! If "help", as you term it, did come! Do you know what "help" would mean to me?

AMOS. What—?

AGNES. It would take the last crumb from me!

AMOS. This man's—protection?

AGNES. [Defiantly.] Yes

AMOS. Oh, Mrs. Ebbsmith—!

AGNES. [Pointing to the door.] Well, I've asked you both to leave me, haven't I! [Pointing at GERTRUDE, who has risen.] The man she loves is dead and gone! She can moralise—! [Sitting, beating upon the settee with her hands.] Leave me! [AMOS joins GERTRUDE.]

GERTRUDE. We'll go, Amos. [He takes from his pocket a small leather-bound book; the cover is well-worn and shabby.]

AMOS. [Writing upon the fly-leaf of the book with a pencil.] I am writing our address here, Mrs. Ebbsmith.

AGNES. [In a hard voice.] I already have it. [GERTRUDE glances at the book over AMOS'S shoulder, and looks at him wonderingly.]

AMOS. [Laying the book on the settee by AGNES' side.] You might forget it. [She stares at the book, with knitted brows, for a moment, then stretches out her hand and opens it.]

AGNES. [Withdrawing her hand sharply.] No—I don't accept your gift.

AMOS. The address of two friends is upon the fly-leaf.

AGNES. I thank both of you; but you shall never be troubled again by me. [Rising, pointing to the book.] Take that away! [Sitting facing the stove, the door of which she opens, replenishing the fire—excitedly.] Mr. Cleeve may be back soon; it would be disagreeable to you all to meet again. [GERTRUDE gently pushes AMOS aside, and picking up the book from the settee, places it upon the table.]

GERTRUDE. [To AGNES, pointing to the book.] This frightens you. Simple print and paper, so you pretend to regard it; but it frightens you. [With a quick movement, AGNES twists her chair round and faces GERTRUDE fiercely.] I called you a mad thing just now. A week ago I did think you half-mad—a poor, ill-used creature, a visionary, a moral woman living immorally; yet, in spite of all, a woman to be loved and pitied. But now I'm beginning to think you're only frail—wanton. Oh, you're not so mad as not to know you're wicked! [Tapping the book forcibly.] And so this frightens you.

AGNES. You're right! Wanton! That's what I've become! And I'm in my right senses, as you say. I suppose I was mad once for a little time, years ago. And do you know what drove me so? [Striking the book with her fist.] It was that—that!

GERTRUDE. That!

AGNES. I'd trusted in it, clung to it, and it failed me. Never once did it stop my ears to the sounds of a curse; when I was beaten it didn't make the blows a whit lighter; it never healed my bruised flesh, my bruised spirit! Yes, that drove me distracted for a while; but I'm sane now—now it is you that are mad, mad to believe! You foolish people, not to know [beating her breast and forehead]—that Hell or Heaven is here and here! [Pointing to the book.] Take it! [GERTRUDE turns away and joins AMOS, and they walk quickly to the door.]

AGNES. [Frantically.] I'll not endure the sight of it—! [As they reach the door, GERTRUDE looks back and sees AGNES hurl the book into the fire. They go out. AGNES starts to her feet and stands motionless for a moment, her head bent, her fingers twisted in her hair. Then she raises her head; the expression of her face has changed to a look of fright and horror. Uttering a loud cry, she hastens to the stove, and, thrusting her hand into the fire, drags out the book. GERTRUDE and AMOS re-enter quickly in alarm.]

GERTRUDE. Agnes—! [They stand looking at AGNES, who is kneeling upon the ground, clutching the charred book.]

END OF THE THIRD ACT



THE FOURTH ACT

[The scene is an apartment in the Campo San Bartolomeo. The walls are of plaster; the ceiling is frescoed in cheap modern Italian fashion. At the end of the room is a door leading to AGNES'S bedroom; to the left is an exit onto a landing, while a nearer door, on the same side, opens into another room. The furniture and the few objects attached to the walls are characteristic of a moderate-priced Venetian lodging. Placed about the room, however, are photographs in pretty fanes and knick-knacks personal to GERTRUDE, and a travelling-trunk and bag are also to be seen. The shutters of the two nearer windows are closed; a broad stream of moonlight, coming through the further window, floods the upper part of the room.]

[HEPHZIBAH, a grey-haired north-country woman dressed as a lady's maid, is collecting the knick-knacks and placing them in the travelling bag. After a moment or two, GERTRUDE enters by the further door.]

GERTRUDE. [At the partly closed door, speaking into the further room.] I'll come back to you in a little while, Agnes. [Closing the door, and addressing HEPHZIBAH.] How are you getting on, Heppy?

HEPHZIBAH. A'reet, Miss Gerty. I'm puttin' together a' the sma' knick-knacks, to lay them wi' the claes i' th' trunks.

GERTRUDE. [Taking some photographs from the table and bringing them to HEPHZIBAH.] We leave here at a quarter to eight in the morning; not a minute later.

HEPHZIBAH. Aye. Will there be much to pack for Mistress Cleeve?

GERTRUDE. Nothing at all. Besides her hand-bag, she has only the one box.

HEPHZIBAH. [Pointing to the trunk.] Nay, nobbut that thing!

GERTRUDE. Yes, nobbut that. I packed that for her at the Palazzo.

HEPHZIBAH. Eh, it won't gi' us ower much trouble to maid Mistress Cleeve when we get her hame.

GERTRUDE. Heppy, we are not going to call—my friend—"Mrs Cleeve."

HEPHZIBAH. Nay! What will thee call her?

GERTRUDE. I'll tell you—by-and-bye. Remember, she must never, never be reminded of the name.

HEPHZIBAH. Aye, I'll be maist carefu'. Poor leddy! After the way she treated that husband o' hers in Florence neet and day, neet and day!

GERTRUDE. The world's full of unhappiness, Heppy.

HEPHZIBAH. The world's full of husbands. I canna' bide them. They're true enough when they're ailin'—but a lass can't keep her Jo always sick. Hey, Miss Gerty! Do forgi'e your auld Heppy!

GERTRUDE. For what?

HEPHZIBAH. Why, your own man, so I've heered, ne'er had as much as a bit headache till he caught his fever and died o't.

GERTRUDE. No, I never knew Captain Thorpe to complain of an ache or a pain.

HEPHZIBAH. And he was a rare, bonny husband to thee, if a tales be true.

GERTRUDE. Yes, Heppy. [Listening, startled.] Who's this?

HEPHZIBAH. [Going and looking.] Maister Amos. [AMOS enters briskly.]

AMOS. [To GERTRUDE.] How is she?

GERTRUDE. [Assisting him to remove his overcoat.] More as she used to be—so still, so gentle. She's reading.

AMOS. [Looking at her significantly.] Reading?

GERTRUDE. Reading. [He sits, humming a tune, while HEPPY takes off his shoes and gives him his slippers.]

HEPHZIBAH. Eh, Maister Amos, it's good to see thee sae gladsome.

AMOS. Home, Heppy, home!

HEPHZIBAH. Aye, hame!

AMOS. With our savings!

HEPHZIBAH. With our savings!

HEPHZIBAH. Thy savings—!

AMOS. Tsch! Get on with your packing.

[HEPHZIBAH goes out, carrying the travelling-bag and AMOS'S shoes. He exchanges the coat he is wearing for a shabby little black jacket which GERTRUDE brings him.]

GERTRUDE. [Filling AMOS'S pipe.] Well, dear! Go on!

AMOS. Well, I've seen them.

GERTRUDE. Them—

AMOS. The Duke and Sir Sandford Cleeve.

GERTRUDE. At the hotel.

AMOS. I found them sitting together in the hall, smoking, listening to some music.

GERTRUDE. Quite contented with the arrangement they believed they had brought about.

AMOS. Apparently so. Especially the Baronet—a poor, cadaverous creature.

GERTRUDE. Where was Mr. Cleeve?

AMOS. He had been there, had an interview with his wife, and departed.

GERTRUDE. Then by this time he has discovered that Mrs. Ebbsmith has left him?

AMOS. I suppose so.

GERTRUDE. Well, well! The Duke and the cadaverous Baronet?

AMOS. Oh, I told them that I considered it my duty to let them know that the position of affairs had suddenly become altered—[she puts the pipe in his mouth, and strikes a match.]—that, in point of fact, Mrs. Ebbsmith had ceased to be an element in their scheme for re-establishing Mr. Cleeve's household.

GERTRUDE. [Holding a light to his pipe.] Did they inquire as to her movements?

AMOS. The Duke did—guessed we had taken her.

GERTRUDE. What did they say to that?

AMOS. The Baronet asked me whether I was the chaplain of a Home for [angrily]—ah!

GERTRUDE. Brute! And then?

AMOS. Then they suggested that I ought hardly to leave them to make the necessary explanation to their relative, Mr. Lucas Cleeve.

GERTRUDE. Yes—well?

AMOS. I replied that I fervently hoped I should never set eyes on their relative again.

GERTRUDE [Gleefully.] Ha!

AMOS. But that Mrs. Ebbsmith had left a letter behind her at the Palazzo Arconati, addressed to that gentleman, which I presume contained so full an explanation as he could desire.

GERTRUDE. Oh, Amos—!

AMOS. Eh?

GERTRUDE. You're mistaken there, dear; there was no letter.

AMOS. No letter—?

GERTRUDE. Simply four shakily-written words.

AMOS. Only four words!

GERTRUDE. "My—hour-is-over."

[HEPHZIBAH enters with a card on a little tray. GERTRUDE reads the card and utters an exclamation.]

GERTRUDE. [Taking the card and speaking under her breath.] Amos! [He goes to her; they stare at the card together.]

AMOS. [To HEPHZIBAH.] Certainly! [HEPHZIBAH goes out, then returns with the DUKE OF ST. OLPHERTS, and retires. ST. OLPHERTS bows graciously to GERTRUDE and more formally to AMOS.]

AMOS. Pray, sit down. [ST. OLPHERTS seats himself on the settee.]

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh, my dear sir!—If I may use such an expression in your presence—here is the devil to pay!

AMOS. [To ST. OLPHERTS.] You don't mind my pipe. [ST. OLPHERTS waves a hand pleasantly.] And I don't mind your expression—[sitting by the table]—the devil to pay?

ST. OLPHERTS. This, I daresay well intentioned, interference of yours has brought about some very unpleasant results. Mr. Cleeve returns to the Palazzo Arconati and find that Mrs. Ebbsmith has flown.

AMOS. That result, at least, was inevitable.

ST. OLPHERTS. Whereupon he hurries back to the Danieli and denounces us all for a set of conspirators.

AMOS. Your Grace doesn't complain of the injustice of that charge?

ST. OLPHERTS. [Smilingly.] No, no, I don't complain. But the brother— the wife! Just when they imagined they had bagged the truant—there's the sting!

GERTRUDE. Oh, then Mr. Cleeve now refuses to carry out his part of the shameful arrangement?

ST. OLPHERTS. Absolutely. [Rising, taking a chair, and placing it by the settee.] Come into this, dear Mrs. Thorn—!

AMOS. Thorpe.

ST. OLPHERTS. Come into this! [Sitting again.] You understand the sort of man we have to deal with in Mr. Cleeve.

GERTRUDE. [Sitting.] A man who prizes a woman when he has lost her.

ST. OLPHERTS. Precisely.

GERTRUDE. Men don't relish, I suppose, being cast off by women.

ST. OLPHERTS. It's an inversion of the picturesque; the male abandoned is not a pathetic figure. At any rate, our poor Lucas is now raving fidelity to Mrs. Ebbsmith.

GERTRUDE. [Indignantly.] Ah—!

ST. OLPHERTS. If you please, he cannot, will not, exist without her. Reputation, fame, fortune are nothing weighed against—Mrs. Ebbsmith. And we may go to perdition, so that he recovers—Mrs. Ebbsmith.

AMOS. Well—to be plain—you're not asking us to sympathise with Mrs. Cleeve and her brother-in-law over their defeat?

ST. OLPHERTS. Certainly not. All I ask, Mr. Winterfield, is that you will raise no obstacle to a meeting between Mr. Cleeve and—and—

GERTRUDE. No!

[ST. OLPHERTS signifies assent; GERTRUDE makes a movement.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [To her.] Don't go.

AMOS. The object of such a meeting?

ST. OLPHERTS. Mrs. Cleeve desires to make a direct, personal appeal to Mrs. Ebbsmith.

GERTRUDE. Oh, what kind of woman can this Mrs. Cleeve be?

ST. OLPHERTS. A woman of character, who sets herself to accomplish a certain task—

GERTRUDE. Character!

AMOS. Hush, Gerty!

ST. OLPHERTS. And who gathers her skirts tightly around her and tip-toes gently into the mire.

AMOS. To put it clearly: in order to get her unfaithful husband back to London, Mrs. Cleeve would deliberately employ this weak, unhappy woman as a lure.

ST. OLPHERTS. Perhaps Mrs. Cleeve is an unhappy woman.

GERTRUDE. What work for a wife!

ST. OLPHERTS. Wife—nonsense! She is only married to Cleeve.

AMOS. [Walking up and down.] It is proposed that this meeting should take place—when?

ST. OLPHERTS. I have brought Sir Sandford and Mrs. Cleeve with me. [Pointing towards the outer door.] They are—

AMOS. If I decline?

ST. OLPHERTS. It's known you leave for Milan at a quarter to nine in the morning; there might be some sort of foolish, inconvenient scene at the station.

AMOS. Surely your Grace—?

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh, no, I shall be in bed at that hour. I mean, between the women, perhaps—and Mr. Cleeve. Come, come, sir, you can't abduct Mrs. Ebbsmith—nor can we. Nor must you gag her. [AMOS appears angry and perplexed.] Pray be reasonable. Let her speak out for herself— here, finally—and settle the business. Come, sir, come!

AMOS. [Going to GERTRUDE and speaking in a low voice.] Ask her. [GERTRUDE goes out.] Cleeve! Where is he while this poor creature's body and soul are being played for? You have told him she is with us?

ST. OLPHERTS. No, I haven't.

AMOS. He must suspect it.

ST. OLPHERTS. Well, candidly, Mr. Winterfield, Mr. Cleeve is just now employed in looking for Mrs. Ebbsmith elsewhere.

AMOS. Elsewhere?

ST. OLPHERTS. Sir Sandford recognised that, in his brother's present mood, the young man's presence might be prejudicial to the success of these delicate negotiations.

AMOS. So some lie has been told him, to keep him out of the way?

ST. OLPHERTS. Now, Mr. Winterfield—!

AMOS. Good heavens! Duke—forgive me for my roughness—you appear to be fouling your hands, all of you, with some relish!

ST. OLPHERTS. I must trouble you to address remarks of that nature to Sir Sandford Cleeve. I am no longer a prime mover in the affair. I am simply standing by.

AMOS. But how can you "stand by"?

ST. OLPHERTS. Confound it, sir, if you will trouble yourself to rescue people, there is a man to be rescued here as well as a woman; a man, by the way, who is a—a sort of relative of mine.

AMOS. The woman first!

ST. OLPHERTS. Not always. You can rescue this woman in a few weeks' time; it can make no difference.

AMOS. [Indignantly.] Ah—!

ST. OLPHERTS. Oh, you are angry!

AMOS. I beg your pardon. One word. I assure your Grace that I truly believe this wretched woman is at a fatal crisis in her life. I believe that if I lose her now there is every chance of her slipping back into a misery and despair out of which it will be impossible to drag her. Oh, I'll be perfectly open with you. At this moment we—my sister and I—are not perfectly sure of her. Her affection for this man may still induce her to sacrifice herself utterly for him; she is still in danger of falling to the lowest depth a woman can attain. Come, Duke, don't help these people. And don't "stand by!" Help me and my sister. For God's sake!

ST. OLPHERTS. My good Mr. Winterfield, believe me or not, I—I positively like this woman.

AMOS. [Gladly.] Ah!

ST. OLPHERTS. She attracts me curiously. And if she wanted assistance—

AMOS. Doesn't she?

ST. OLPHERTS. Money—

AMOS. No, no.

ST. OLPHERTS. She should have it. But as for the rest—well—

AMOS. Well?

ST. OLPHERTS. Well sir, you must understand me. It is a failing of mine; I can't approach women—I never could—in the missionary spirit.

[GERTRUDE re-enters; the men turn to face her.]

AMOS. [To GERTRUDE.] Will she—?

GERTRUDE. Yes. [ST. OLPHERTS limps out of the room, bowing to GERTRUDE as he passes.] Oh, Amos!

AMOS. Are we to lose the poor soul after all, Gerty?

GERTRUDE. I—I can't think so. Oh! but I'm afraid.

[ST. OLPHERTS returns, and SIR SANDFORD CLEEVE enters with SYBIL CLEEVE. SANDFORD is a long, lean, old-young man with a pinched face. SYBIL is a stately, handsome young woman, beautifully gowned and thickly veiled.]

ST. OLPHERTS. Mrs Thorpe—Mr Winterfield. [SYBIL and SANDFORD bow distantly to GERTRUDE and AMOS.]

AMOS. [To SANDFORD and SYBIL, indicating the settee.] Will you—? [SYBIL sits on the settee; SANDFORD takes the chair beside her.] Gertrude—[GERTRUDE goes out.]

SIR SANDFORD. [Pompously.] Mr Winterfield, I find myself engaged on a peculiarly distasteful task.

AMOS. I have no hope, Sir Sandford, that you will not have strength to discharge it.

SIR SANDFORD. We shall object to loftiness of attitude on your part, sir. You would do well to reflect that we are seeking to restore a young man to a useful and honourable career.

AMOS. You are using very honourable means, Sir Sandford.

SIR SANDFORD. I shall protest against any perversion of words, Mr. Winterfield—

[The door of the further room opens, and GERTRUDE comes in, then AGNES. The latter is in a rusty, ill-fitting, black, stuff, dress; her hair is tightly drawn from her brows; her face is haggard, her eyes are red and sunken. A strip of linen binds her right hand.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [Speaking into SYBIL'S ear.] The lean witch again! The witch of the Iron Hall at St. Luke's.

SYBIL. [In a whisper.] Is that the woman?

ST. OLPHERTS. You see only one of 'em—there are two there.

[SANDFORD rises as AGNES comes slowly forward accompanied by GERTRUDE. AMOS joins GERTRUDE; and they go together into the adjoining room, GERTRUDE giving AGNES an appealing look.]

SIR SANDFORD. [To AGNES.] I—I am Mr. Lucas Cleeve's brother—[with a motion of the hand towards SYBIL]—this is—this is—

[He swallows the rest of the announcement and retires to the back of the room, where he stands before the stove. ST. OLPHERTS strolls away and disappears.]

SYBIL. [To AGNES, in a hard, dry, disdainful voice.] I beg that you will sit down. [AGNES sits mechanically, with an expressionless face.] I—I don't need to be told that this is a very—a very unwomanly proceeding on my part.

SIR SANDFORD. I can't regard it in that light, under the peculiar circumstances.

SYBIL. I'd rather you wouldn't interrupt me, Sandford. [To AGNES.] But the peculiar circumstances, to borrow my brother-in-law's phrase, are not such as to develop sweetness and modesty, I suppose.

SIR SANDFORD. Again I say you wrong yourself there, Sybil—

SYBIL. [Impatiently.] Oh, please let me wrong myself, for a change. [To AGNES.] When my husband left me, and I heard of his association with you, I felt sure that his vanity would soon make an openly irregular life intolerable to him. Vanity is the cause of a great deal of virtue in men; the vainest are those who like to be thought respectable.

SIR SANDFORD. Really, I must protest—

SYBIL. But Lady Cleeve—the mother—and the rest of the family have not had the patience to wait for the fulfilment of my prophecy. And so I have been forced to undertake this journey.

SIR SANDFORD. I demur to the expression "forced", Sybil—

SYBIL. Cannot we be left alone? Surely—! [SANDFORD bows stiffly and moves away, following ST. OLPHERTS.] However, there's this to be said for them, poor people—whatever is done to save my husband's prospects in life must be done now. It is no longer possible to play fast and loose with friends and supporters—to say nothing of enemies. His future now rests upon a matter of days—hours almost. [Rising and walking about agitatedly.] That is why I am sent here—well, why I am here.

AGNES. [In a low, quavering voice.] What is it you are all asking me to do now?

SYBIL. We are asking you to continue to—to exert your influence over him for a little while longer.

AGNES. [Rising unsteadily.] Ah—! [She makes a movement to go, falters, and irresolutely sits again.] My influence—mine!

SYBIL. [With a stamp of the foot.] You wouldn't underrate your power if you had seen him, heard him, about an hour ago—[mockingly] after he had discovered his bereavement.

AGNES. He will soon forget me.

SYBIL. Yes—if you don't forsake him.

AGNES. I am going to England, into Yorkshire; according to your showing, that should draw him back.

SYBIL. Oh, I've no doubt that we shall hear of him—in Yorkshire! You'll find him dangling about your skirts—in Yorkshire!

AGNES. And he will find that I am determined—strong.

SYBIL. Ultimately he will tire, of course. But when? And what assurance have we that he returns to us when he has wearied of pursuing you? Besides, don't I tell you that we must make sure of him now? It's of no use his begging us, in a month's time, to patch up home and reputation. It must be now—and you can end our suspense. Come, hideous as it sounds, this is not much to ask.

AGNES. [Shrinking from her.] Oh—!

SYBIL. Oh, don't regard me as the wife! That's an unnecessary sentiment, I pledge you my word. It's a little late in the day, too, for such considerations. So, come, help us!

AGNES. I will not.

SYBIL. He has an old mother—

AGNES. Poor woman!

SYBIL. And remember, you took him away—!

AGNES. I!

SYBIL. Practically you did—with your tender nursing and sweet compassion. Isn't it straining a point—to shirk bringing him back?

AGNES. [Rising.] I did not take him from you. You—you sent him to me.

SYBIL. Ho, yes! That tale has been dinned into your ears often enough, I can quite believe. I sent him to you—my coldness, heartlessness, selfishness sent him to you. The unsympathetic wife—eh? Yes, but you didn't put yourself to the trouble of asking for my version of the story before you mingled your woes with his. [AGNES faces her suddenly.] You know him now. Have I been altogether to blame, do you still think? Unsympathetic! Because I've so often had to tighten my lips, and stare blankly over his shoulder, to stop myself crying out in weariness of his vanity and pettiness? Cruel! Because, occasionally, patience becomes exhausted at the mere contemplation of a man so self-absorbed? Why, you married miserably, the Duke of St. Olpherts tells us! Before you made yourself my husband's champion and protector, why didn't you let your experience speak a word for me? [AGNES quickly turns away and sits upon the settee, her hands to her brow.] However, I didn't come here to revile you. [Standing by her.] They say that you're a strange woman—not the sort of woman one generally finds doing such things as you have done; a woman with odd ideas. I hear—oh, I'm willing to believe it!—that there's good in you. [AGNES breaks into a low peal of hysterical laughter.]

AGNES. Who tells you—that?

SYBIL. The Duke.

AGNES. Ha, ha, ha! A character—from him! ha, ha, ha!

SYBIL. [Her voice and manner softening.] Well, if there is pity in you, help us to get my husband back to London, to his friends, to his old ambitions.

AGNES. Ha, ha, ha, ha! your husband!

SYBIL. The word slips out. I swear to you that he and I can never be more to each other than companion figures in a masquerade. The same roof may cover us; but between two wings of a house, as you may know, there often stretches a wide desert. I despise him; he hates me. [Walking away, her voice breaking.] Only—I did love him once . . . I don't want to see him utterly thrown away—wasted . . . I don't quite want to see that . . . [AGNES rises and approaches SYBIL, fearfully.]

AGNES. [In a whisper.] Lift your veil for a moment. [SYBIL raises her veil.] Tears—tears—[with a deep groan]—Oh—! [SYBIL turns away.] I —I'll do it . . . I'll go back to the Palazzo . . . at once . . . [SYBIL draws herself up suddenly.] I've wronged you! Wronged you! O God! O God! [She totters away and goes into her bedroom. For a moment or two SYBIL stands still, a look of horror and repulsion upon her face. Then she turns and goes towards the outer door.]

SYBIL. [Calling.] Sandford! Sandford!

[SIR SANDFORD CLEEVE and the DUKE OF ST. OLPHERTS enter.]

SIR SANDFORD. [To SYBIL.] Well—?

SYBIL. She is going back to the Palazzo.

SIR SANDFORD. You mean that she consents to—?

SYBIL. [Stamping her foot.] I mean that she will go back to the Palazzo. [Sitting and leaning her head upon her hands.] Oh! oh!

SIR SANDFORD. Need we wait any longer, then?

SYBIL. These people—these people who are befriending her! Tell them.

SIR SANDFORD. Really, it can hardly be necessary to consult—

SYBIL. [Fiercely.] I will have them told! I will have them told! [SANDFORD goes to the door of the adjoining room and knocks, returning to SYBIL as GERTRUDE and AMOS enter. SYBIL draws down her veil.]

GERTRUDE. [Looking round.] Mrs. Ebbsmith—? Mrs. Ebbsmith—!

SIR SANDFORD. Er—many matters have been discussed with Mrs. Ebbsmith. Undoubtedly, she has, for the moment, considerable influence over my brother. She has consented to exert it, to induce him to return at once to London.

AMOS. I think I understand you! [AGNES appears at the door of her room dressed in bonnet and cloak.]

GERTRUDE. Agnes—! [AGNES comes forward, stretches out her hand to GERTRUDE, and throws herself upon the settee.]

SYBIL. [To SANDFORD, clutching his arm.] Take me away. [They turn to go.]

GERTRUDE. [To SYBIL.] Mrs Cleeve—! [Looking down upon AGNES.] Mrs. Cleeve, we—my brother and I—hoped to save this woman. She was worth saving. You have utterly destroyed her. [SYBIL makes no answer, but walks slowly away with SANDFORD, then stops and turns abruptly.]

SYBIL. [With a gasp.] Oh—! No—I will not accept the services of this wretched woman. I loathe myself for what I have done. [Coming to AGNES.] Look up! Look at me! [Proudly—lifting her veil.] I decline your help—I decline it. [To GERTRUDE and AMOS.] You hear me—you— and you? I unsay all that I've said to her. It's too degrading. I will not have such an act upon my conscience. [To AGNES.] Understand me! If you rejoin this man I shall consider it a fresh outrage upon me. I hope you will keep with your friends. [GERTRUDE holds out her hand to SYBIL; SYBIL touches it distantly.]

AGNES. [Clutching at SYBIL'S skirts.] Forgive me! forgive—!

SYBIL. [Retreating.] Ah, please—! [Turning and confronting SANDFORD.] Tell your mother I have failed. I am not going back to England.

[LUCAS enters quickly; he and SYBIL come face to face. They stand looking at each other for a moment, then she sweeps past him and goes out. SANDFORD follows her.]

LUCAS. [Coming to AGNES.] Agnes—[To AGNES, in rapid, earnest undertones.] They sent me to the railway station; my brother told me you were likely to leave for Milan tonight. I ought to have guessed sooner that you were in the hands of this meddling parson and his sister. Why has my wife been here—?

AGNES. [In a low voice, rocking herself gently to and fro.] You wife— your wife—!

LUCAS. And the others? What scheme is afoot now? Why have you left me? Why didn't you tell me outright that I was putting you to too severe a test? You tempted me, you led me on, to propose that I should patch up my life in that way. [She rises, with an expressionless face.] But it has had one good result. I know now how much I depend on you. Oh, I have had it all out with myself, pacing up and down that cursed railway station. [Laying his hand upon her arm and speaking into her ear.] I don't deceive myself any longer. Agnes, this is the great cause of the unhappiness I've experienced of late years—I'm not fit for the fight and press of life. I wear no armour; I am too horribly sensitive. My skin bleeds at a touch; even flatter wounds me. Oh, the wretchedness of it! But you can be strong—at your weakest, there is a certain strength in you. With you, in time, I feel I shall grow stronger. Only I must withdraw from the struggle for a while; you must take me out of it and let me rest—recover breath, as it were. Come! Forgive me for having treated you ungratefully, almost treacherously. Tomorrow we shall begin our search for our new home. Agnes!

AGNES. I have already found a home.

LUCAS. Apart from me, you mean?

AGNES. Apart from you.

LUCAS. No, no. You'll not do that!

AGNES. Lucas, this evening, two or three hours ago, you planned out the life we were to lead in the future. We had done with "madness", if you remember; henceforth we were to be "mere man and woman."

LUCAS. You agreed—

AGNES. Then. But we hadn't looked at each other clearly then, as mere man and woman. You, the man—what are you? You've confessed—

LUCAS. I lack strength; I shall gain it.

AGNES. Never from me—never from me. For what am I? Untrue to myself, as you are untrue to yourself; false to others, as you are false to others; passionate, unstable, like yourself; like yourself, a coward. I —I was to lead women! I was to show them, in your company, how laws— laws made and laws that are natural—may be set aside or slighted; how men and woman may live independent and noble lives without rule, guidance or sacrament. I was to be the example—the figure set up for others to observe and imitate. But the figure was made of wax—it fell awry at the first hot breath that touched it! You and I! What a partnership it has been! How base, and gross, and wicked, almost from the very beginning! We know each other now thoroughly—how base and wicked it would remain! No, go your way, Lucas, and let me go mine.

LUCAS. Where—where are you going?

AGNES. To Ketherick—to think. [Wringing her hands.] Ah! I have to think, too, now, of the woman I have wronged.

LUCAS. Wronged?

AGNES. Your wife; the woman I have wronged, who came here tonight, and —spared me. Oh, go!

LUCAS. Not like this, Agnes! not like this!

AGNES. [Appealingly.] Gertrude! [LUCAS looks round—first at GERTRUDE then at AMOS—and, with a hard smile upon his face, turns to go. Suddenly AGNES touches his sleeve.] Lucas, when you have learnt to pray again, I will remember you, every day of my life.

LUCAS. [Staring at her.] Pray! . . . you! . . .

[She inclines her head twice, slowly; without another word he walks away and goes out. AGNES sinks upon the settee; AMOS and GERTRUDE remain, stiffly and silently, in the attitude of people who are waiting for the departure of a disagreeable person.]

ST. OLPHERTS. [After watching LUCAS'S departure.] Now I wonder whether, if he hurried to his wife at this moment, repentant, and begged her to relent—I wonder whether—whether she would—whether—[looking at AMOS and GERTRUDE, a little disconcerted]—I beg your pardon—You're not interested?

AMOS. Frankly, we are not.

ST. OLPHERTS. No; other people's affairs are tedious. [Producing his gloves.] Well! A week in Venice—and the weather has been delightful. [Shaking hands with GERTRUDE, whose expression remains unchanged.] A pleasant journey! [Going to AGNES, offering his hand.] Mrs. Ebbsmith—? [She lifts her maimed hand.] Ah! An accident? [She nods wearily.] I'm sorry . . . I . . .

[He turns away and goes out, bowing to AMOS as he passes.]

THE END

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