A Woman of No Importance, by Oscar Wilde

Second Act

SCENE

Drawing-room at Hunstanton, after dinner, lamps lit. Door L.C. Door R.C.

[Ladies seated on sofas.]

Mrs. Allonby. What a comfort it is to have got rid of the men for a little!

Lady Stutfield. Yes; men persecute us dreadfully, don’t they?

Mrs. Allonby. Persecute us? I wish they did.

Lady Hunstanton. My dear!

Mrs. Allonby. The annoying thing is that the wretches can be perfectly happy without us. That is why I think it is every woman’s duty never to leave them alone for a single moment, except during this short breathing space after dinner; without which I believe we poor women would be absolutely worn to shadows.

[Enter Servants with coffee.]

Lady Hunstanton. Worn to shadows, dear?

Mrs. Allonby. Yes, Lady Hunstanton. It is such a strain keeping men up to the mark. They are always trying to escape from us.

Lady Stutfield. It seems to me that it is we who are always trying to escape from them. Men are so very, very heartless. They know their power and use it.

Lady Caroline. [Takes coffee from Servant.] What stuff and nonsense all this about men is! The thing to do is to keep men in their proper place.

Mrs. Allonby. But what is their proper place, Lady Caroline?

Lady Caroline. Looking after their wives, Mrs. Allonby.

Mrs. Allonby. [Takes coffee from Servant.] Really? And if they’re not married?

Lady Caroline. If they are not married, they should be looking after a wife. It’s perfectly scandalous the amount of bachelors who are going about society. There should be a law passed to compel them all to marry within twelve months.

Lady Stutfield. [Refuses coffee.] But if they’re in love with some one who, perhaps, is tied to another?

Lady Caroline. In that case, Lady Stutfield, they should be married off in a week to some plain respectable girl, in order to teach them not to meddle with other people’s property.

Mrs. Allonby. I don’t think that we should ever be spoken of as other people’s property. All men are married women’s property. That is the only true definition of what married women’s property really is. But we don’t belong to any one.

Lady Stutfield. Oh, I am so very, very glad to hear you say so.

Lady Hunstanton. But do you really think, dear Caroline, that legislation would improve matters in any way? I am told that, nowadays, all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.

Mrs. Allonby. I certainly never know one from the other.

Lady Stutfield. Oh, I think one can always know at once whether a man has home claims upon his life or not. I have noticed a very, very sad expression in the eyes of so many married men.

Mrs. Allonby. Ah, all that I have noticed is that they are horribly tedious when they are good husbands, and abominably conceited when they are not.

Lady Hunstanton. Well, I suppose the type of husband has completely changed since my young days, but I’m bound to state that poor dear Hunstanton was the most delightful of creatures, and as good as gold.

Mrs. Allonby. Ah, my husband is a sort of promissory note; I’m tired of meeting him.

Lady Caroline. But you renew him from time to time, don’t you?

Mrs. Allonby. Oh no, Lady Caroline. I have only had one husband as yet. I suppose you look upon me as quite an amateur.

Lady Caroline. With your views on life I wonder you married at all.

Mrs. Allonby. So do I.

Lady Hunstanton. My dear child, I believe you are really very happy in your married life, but that you like to hide your happiness from others.

Mrs. Allonby. I assure you I was horribly deceived in Ernest.

Lady Hunstanton. Oh, I hope not, dear. I knew his mother quite well. She was a Stratton, Caroline, one of Lord Crowland’s daughters

Lady Caroline. Victoria Stratton? I remember her perfectly. A silly fair-haired woman with no chin.

Mrs. Allonby. Ah, Ernest has a chin. He has a very strong chin, a square chin. Ernest’s chin is far too square.

Lady Stutfield. But do you really think a man’s chin can be too square? I think a man should look very, very strong, and that his chin should be quite, quite square.

Mrs. Allonby. Then you should certainly know Ernest, Lady Stutfield. It is only fair to tell you beforehand he has got no conversation at all.

Lady Stutfield. I adore silent men.

Mrs. Allonby. Oh, Ernest isn’t silent. He talks the whole time. But he has got no conversation. What he talks about I don’t know. I haven’t listened to him for years.

Lady Stutfield. Have you never forgiven him then? How sad that seems! But all life is very, very sad, is it not?

Mrs. Allonby. Life, Lady Stutfield, is simply a mauvais quart d’heure made up of exquisite moments.

Lady Stutfield. Yes, there are moments, certainly. But was it something very, very wrong that Mr. Allonby did? Did he become angry with you, and say anything that was unkind or true?

Mrs. Allonby. Oh dear, no. Ernest is invariably calm. That is one of the reasons he always gets on my nerves. Nothing is so aggravating as calmness. There is something positively brutal about the good temper of most modern men. I wonder we women stand it as well as we do.

Lady Stutfield. Yes; men’s good temper shows they are not so sensitive as we are, not so finely strung. It makes a great barrier often between husband and wife, does it not? But I would so much like to know what was the wrong thing Mr. Allonby did.

Mrs. Allonby. Well, I will tell you, if you solemnly promise to tell everybody else.

Lady Stutfield. Thank you, thank you. I will make a point of repeating it.

Mrs. Allonby. When Ernest and I were engaged, he swore to me positively on his knees that he had never loved any one before in the whole course of his life. I was very young at the time, so I didn’t believe him, I needn’t tell you. Unfortunately, however, I made no enquiries of any kind till after I had been actually married four or five months. I found out then that what he had told me was perfectly true. And that sort of thing makes a man so absolutely uninteresting.

Lady Hunstanton. My dear!

Mrs. Allonby. Men always want to be a woman’s first love. That is their clumsy vanity. We women have a more subtle instinct about things. What we like is to be a man’s last romance.

Lady Stutfield. I see what you mean. It’s very, very beautiful.

Lady Hunstanton. My dear child, you don’t mean to tell me that you won’t forgive your husband because he never loved any one else? Did you ever hear such a thing, Caroline? I am quite surprised.

Lady Caroline. Oh, women have become so highly educated, Jane, that nothing should surprise us nowadays, except happy marriages. They apparently are getting remarkably rare.

Mrs. Allonby. Oh, they’re quite out of date.

Lady Stutfield. Except amongst the middle classes, I have been told.

Mrs. Allonby. How like the middle classes!

Lady Stutfield. Yes — is it not? — very, very like them.

Lady Caroline. If what you tell us about the middle classes is true, Lady Stutfield, it redounds greatly to their credit. It is much to be regretted that in our rank of life the wife should be so persistently frivolous, under the impression apparently that it is the proper thing to be. It is to that I attribute the unhappiness of so many marriages we all know of in society.

Mrs. Allonby. Do you know, Lady Caroline, I don’t think the frivolity of the wife has ever anything to do with it. More marriages are ruined nowadays by the common sense of the husband than by anything else. How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly rational being?

Lady Hunstanton. My dear!

Mrs. Allonby. Man, poor, awkward, reliable, necessary man belongs to a sex that has been rational for millions and millions of years. He can’t help himself. It is in his race. The History of Woman is very different. We have always been picturesque protests against the mere existence of common sense. We saw its dangers from the first.

Lady Stutfield. Yes, the common sense of husbands is certainly most, most trying. Do tell me your conception of the Ideal Husband. I think it would be so very, very helpful.

Mrs. Allonby. The Ideal Husband? There couldn’t be such a thing. The institution is wrong.

Lady Stutfield. The Ideal Man, then, in his relations to US.

Lady Caroline. He would probably be extremely realistic.

Mrs. Caroline. The Ideal Man! Oh, the Ideal Man should talk to us as if we were goddesses, and treat us as if we were children. He should refuse all our serious requests, and gratify every one of our whims. He should encourage us to have caprices, and forbid us to have missions. He should always say much more than he means, and always mean much more than he says.

Lady Hunstanton. But how could he do both, dear?

Mrs. Allonby. He should never run down other pretty women. That would show he had no taste, or make one suspect that he had too much. No; he should be nice about them all, but say that somehow they don’t attract him.

Lady Stutfield. Yes, that is always very, very pleasant to hear about other women.

Mrs. Allonby. If we ask him a question about anything, he should give us an answer all about ourselves. He should invariably praise us for whatever qualities he knows we haven’t got. But he should be pitiless, quite pitiless, in reproaching us for the virtues that we have never dreamed of possessing. He should never believe that we know the use of useful things. That would be unforgiveable. But he should shower on us everything we don’t want.

Lady Caroline. As far as I can see, he is to do nothing but pay bills and compliments.

Mrs. Allonby. He should persistently compromise us in public, and treat us with absolute respect when we are alone. And yet he should be always ready to have a perfectly terrible scene, whenever we want one, and to become miserable, absolutely miserable, at a moment’s notice, and to overwhelm us with just reproaches in less than twenty minutes, and to be positively violent at the end of half an hour, and to leave us for ever at a quarter to eight, when we have to go and dress for dinner. And when, after that, one has seen him for really the last time, and he has refused to take back the little things he has given one, and promised never to communicate with one again, or to write one any foolish letters, he should be perfectly broken-hearted, and telegraph to one all day long, and send one little notes every half-hour by a private hansom, and dine quite alone at the club, so that every one should know how unhappy he was. And after a whole dreadful week, during which one has gone about everywhere with one’s husband, just to show how absolutely lonely one was, he may be given a third last parting, in the evening, and then, if his conduct has been quite irreproachable, and one has behaved really badly to him, he should be allowed to admit that he has been entirely in the wrong, and when he has admitted that, it becomes a woman’s duty to forgive, and one can do it all over again from the beginning, with variations.

Lady Hunstanton. How clever you are, my dear! You never mean a single word you say.

Lady Stutfield. Thank you, thank you. It has been quite, quite entrancing. I must try and remember it all. There are such a number of details that are so very, very important.

Lady Caroline. But you have not told us yet what the reward of the Ideal Man is to be.

Mrs. Allonby. His reward? Oh, infinite expectation. That is quite enough for him.

Lady Stutfield. But men are so terribly, terribly exacting, are they not?

Mrs. Allonby. That makes no matter. One should never surrender.

Lady Stutfield. Not even to the Ideal Man?

Mrs. Allonby. Certainly not to him. Unless, of course, one wants to grow tired of him.

Lady Stutfield. Oh! . . . yes. I see that. It is very, very helpful. Do you think, Mrs. Allonby, I shall ever meet the Ideal Man? Or are there more than one?

Mrs. Allonby. There are just four in London, Lady Stutfield.

Lady Hunstanton. Oh, my dear!

Mrs. Allonby. [Going over to her.] What has happened? Do tell me.

Lady Hunstanton [in a low voice] I had completely forgotten that the American young lady has been in the room all the time. I am afraid some of this clever talk may have shocked her a little.

Mrs. Allonby. Ah, that will do her so much good!

Lady Hunstanton. Let us hope she didn’t understand much. I think I had better go over and talk to her. [Rises and goes across to Hester Worsley.] Well, dear Miss Worsley. [Sitting down beside her.] How quiet you have been in your nice little corner all this time! I suppose you have been reading a book? There are so many books here in the library.

Hester. No, I have been listening to the conversation.

Lady Hunstanton. You mustn’t believe everything that was said, you know, dear.

Hester. I didn’t believe any of it

Lady Hunstanton. That is quite right, dear.

Hester. [Continuing.] I couldn’t believe that any women could really hold such views of life as I have heard to-night from some of your guests. [An awkward pause.]

Lady Hunstanton. I hear you have such pleasant society in America. Quite like our own in places, my son wrote to me.

Hester. There are cliques in America as elsewhere, Lady Hunstanton. But true American society consists simply of all the good women and good men we have in our country.

Lady Hunstanton. What a sensible system, and I dare say quite pleasant too. I am afraid in England we have too many artificial social barriers. We don’t see as much as we should of the middle and lower classes.

Hester. In America we have no lower classes.

Lady Hunstanton. Really? What a very strange arrangement!

Mrs. Allonby. What is that dreadful girl talking about?

Lady Stutfield. She is painfully natural, is she not?

Lady Caroline. There are a great many things you haven’t got in America, I am told, Miss Worsley. They say you have no ruins, and no curiosities.

Mrs. Allonby. [To Lady Stutfield.] What nonsense! They have their mothers and their manners.

Hester. The English aristocracy supply us with our curiosities, Lady Caroline. They are sent over to us every summer, regularly, in the steamers, and propose to us the day after they land. As for ruins, we are trying to build up something that will last longer than brick or stone. [Gets up to take her fan from table.]

Lady Hunstanton. What is that, dear? Ah, yes, an iron Exhibition, is it not, at that place that has the curious name?

Hester. [Standing by table.] We are trying to build up life, Lady Hunstanton, on a better, truer, purer basis than life rests on here. This sounds strange to you all, no doubt. How could it sound other than strange? You rich people in England, you don’t know how you are living. How could you know? You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. Living, as you all do, on others and by them, you sneer at self-sacrifice, and if you throw bread to the poor, it is merely to keep them quiet for a season. With all your pomp and wealth and art you don’t know how to live — you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy, and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret. Oh, your English society seems to me shallow, selfish, foolish. It has blinded its eyes, and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared with gold. It is all wrong, all wrong.

Lady Stutfield. I don’t think one should know of these things. It is not very, very nice, is it?

Lady Hunstanton. My dear Miss Worsley, I thought you liked English society so much. You were such a success in it. And you were so much admired by the best people. I quite forget what Lord Henry Weston said of you — but it was most complimentary, and you know what an authority he is on beauty.

Hester. Lord Henry Weston! I remember him, Lady Hunstanton. A man with a hideous smile and a hideous past. He is asked everywhere. No dinner-party is complete without him. What of those whose ruin is due to him? They are outcasts. They are nameless. If you met them in the street you would turn your head away. I don’t complain of their punishment. Let all women who have sinned be punished.

[Mrs. Arbuthnot enters from terrace behind in a cloak with a lace veil over her head. She hears the last words and starts.]

Lady Hunstanton. My dear young lady!

Hester. It is right that they should be punished, but don’t let them be the only ones to suffer. If a man and woman have sinned, let them both go forth into the desert to love or loathe each other there. Let them both be branded. Set a mark, if you wish, on each, but don’t punish the one and let the other go free. Don’t have one law for men and another for women. You are unjust to women in England. And till you count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust, and Right, that pillar of fire, and Wrong, that pillar of cloud, will be made dim to your eyes, or be not seen at all, or if seen, not regarded

Lady Caroline. Might I, dear Miss Worsley, as you are standing up, ask you for my cotton that is just behind you? Thank you.

Lady Hunstanton. My dear Mrs. Arbuthnot! I am so pleased you have come up. But I didn’t hear you announced.

Mrs. Allonby. Oh, I came straight in from the terrace, Lady Hunstanton, just as I was. You didn’t tell me you had a party.

Lady Hunstanton. Not a party. Only a few guests who are staying in the house, and whom you must know. Allow me. [Tries to help her. Rings bell.] Caroline, this is Mrs. Arbuthnot, one of my sweetest friends. Lady Caroline Pontefract, Lady Stutfield, Mrs. Allonby, and my young American friend, Miss Worsley, who has just been telling us all how wicked we are.

Hester. I am afraid you think I spoke too strongly, Lady Hunstanton. But there are some things in England —

Lady Hunstanton. My dear young lady, there was a great deal of truth, I dare say, in what you said, and you looked very pretty while you said it, which is much more important, Lord Illingworth would tell us. The only point where I thought you were a little hard was about Lady Caroline’s brother, about poor Lord Henry. He is really such good company.

[Enter Footman.]

Take Mrs. Arbuthnot’s things.

[Exit Footman with wraps.]

Hester. Lady Caroline, I had no idea it was your brother. I am sorry for the pain I must have caused you — I—

Lady Caroline. My dear Miss Worsley, the only part of your little speech, if I may so term it, with which I thoroughly agreed, was the part about my brother. Nothing that you could possibly say could be too bad for him. I regard Henry as infamous, absolutely infamous. But I am bound to state, as you were remarking, Jane, that he is excellent company, and he has one of the best cooks in London, and after a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.

Lady Hunstanton [to Miss Worsley] Now, do come, dear, and make friends with Mrs. Arbuthnot. She is one of the good, sweet, simple people you told us we never admitted into society. I am sorry to say Mrs. Arbuthnot comes very rarely to me. But that is not my fault.

Mrs. Allonby. What a bore it is the men staying so long after dinner! I expect they are saying the most dreadful things about us.

Lady Stutfield. Do you really think so?

Mrs. Allonby. I was sure of it.

Lady Stutfield. How very, very horrid of them! Shall we go onto the terrace?

Mrs. Allonby. Oh, anything to get away from the dowagers and the dowdies. [Rises and goes with Lady Stutfield to door L.C.] We are only going to look at the stars, Lady Hunstanton.

Lady Hunstanton. You will find a great many, dear, a great many. But don’t catch cold. [To Mrs. Arbuthnot.] We shall all miss Gerald so much, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. But has Lord Illingworth really offered to make Gerald his secretary?

Lady Hunstanton. Oh, yes! He has been most charming about it. He has the highest possible opinion of your boy. You don’t know Lord Illingworth, I believe, dear.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I have never met him.

Lady Hunstanton. You know him by name, no doubt?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I am afraid I don’t. I live so much out of the world, and see so few people. I remember hearing years ago of an old Lord Illingworth who lived in Yorkshire, I think.

Lady Hunstanton. Ah, yes. That would be the last Earl but one. He was a very curious man. He wanted to marry beneath him. Or wouldn’t, I believe. There was some scandal about it. The present Lord Illingworth is quite different. He is very distinguished. He does — well, he does nothing, which I am afraid our pretty American visitor here thinks very wrong of anybody, and I don’t know that he cares much for the subjects in which you are so interested, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot. Do you think, Caroline, that Lord Illingworth is interested in the Housing of the Poor?

Lady Caroline. I should fancy not at all, Jane.

Lady Hunstanton. We all have our different tastes, have we not? But Lord Illingworth has a very high position, and there is nothing he couldn’t get if he chose to ask for it. Of course, he is comparatively a young man still, and he has only come to his title within — how long exactly is it, Caroline, since Lord Illingworth succeeded?

Lady Caroline. About four years, I think, Jane. I know it was the same year in which my brother had his last exposure in the evening newspapers.

Lady Hunstanton. Ah, I remember. That would be about four years ago. Of course, there were a great many people between the present Lord Illingworth and the title, Mrs. Arbuthnot. There was — who was there, Caroline?

Lady Caroline. There was poor Margaret’s baby. You remember how anxious she was to have a boy, and it was a boy, but it died, and her husband died shortly afterwards, and she married almost immediately one of Lord Ascot’s sons, who, I am told, beats her.

Lady Hunstanton. Ah, that is in the family, dear, that is in the family. And there was also, I remember, a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic, or a lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman, I forget which, but I know the Court of Chancery investigated the matter, and decided that he was quite sane. And I saw him afterwards at poor Lord Plumstead’s with straws in his hair, or something very odd about him. I can’t recall what. I often regret, Lady Caroline, that dear Lady Cecilia never lived to see her son get the title.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lady Cecilia?

Lady Hunstanton. Lord Illingworth’s mother, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot, was one of the Duchess of Jerningham’s pretty daughters, and she married Sir Thomas Harford, who wasn’t considered a very good match for her at the time, though he was said to be the handsomest man in London. I knew them all quite intimately, and both the sons, Arthur and George.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. It was the eldest son who succeeded, of course, Lady Hunstanton?

Lady Hunstanton. No, dear, he was killed in the hunting field. Or was it fishing, Caroline? I forget. But George came in for everything. I always tell him that no younger son has ever had such good luck as he has had.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lady Hunstanton, I want to speak to Gerald at once. Might I see him? Can he be sent for?

Lady Hunstanton. Certainly, dear. I will send one of the servants into the dining-room to fetch him. I don’t know what keeps the gentlemen so long. [Rings bell.] When I knew Lord Illingworth first as plain George Harford, he was simply a very brilliant young man about town, with not a penny of money except what poor dear Lady Cecilia gave him. She was quite devoted to him. Chiefly, I fancy, because he was on bad terms with his father. Oh, here is the dear Archdeacon. [To Servant.] It doesn’t matter.

[Enter Sir John and Doctor Daubeny. Sir John goes over to Lady Stutfield, Doctor Daubeny to Lady Hunstanton.]

The Archdeacon. Lord Illingworth has been most entertaining. I have never enjoyed myself more. [Sees Mrs. Arbuthnot.] Ah, Mrs. Arbuthnot.

Lady Hunstanton. [To Doctor Daubeny.] You see I have got Mrs. Arbuthnot to come to me at last.

The Archdeacon. That is a great honour, Lady Hunstanton. Mrs. Daubeny will be quite jealous of you.

Lady Hunstanton. Ah, I am so sorry Mrs. Daubeny could not come with you to-night. Headache as usual, I suppose.

The Archdeacon. Yes, Lady Hunstanton; a perfect martyr. But she is happiest alone. She is happiest alone.

Lady Caroline. [To her husband.] John! [Sir John goes over to his wife. Doctor Daubeny talks to Lady Hunstanton and Mrs. Arbuthnot.]

[Mrs. Arbuthnot watches Lord Illingworth the whole time. He has passed across the room without noticing her, and approaches Mrs. Allonby, who with Lady Stutfield is standing by the door looking on to the terrace.]

Lord Illingworth. How is the most charming woman in the world?

Mrs. Allonby. [Taking Lady Stutfield by the hand.] We are both quite well, thank you, Lord Illingworth. But what a short time you have been in the dining-room! It seems as if we had only just left.

Lord Illingworth. I was bored to death. Never opened my lips the whole time. Absolutely longing to come in to you.

Mrs. Allonby. You should have. The American girl has been giving us a lecture.

Lord Illingworth. Really? All Americans lecture, I believe. I suppose it is something in their climate. What did she lecture about?

Mrs. Allonby. Oh, Puritanism, of course.

Lord Illingworth. I am going to convert her, am I not? How long do you give me?

Mrs. Allonby. A week.

Lord Illingworth. A week is more than enough.

[Enter Gerald and Lord Alfred.]

Gerald. [Going to Mrs. Arbuthnot.] Dear mother!

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Gerald, I don’t feel at all well. See me home, Gerald. I shouldn’t have come.

Gerald. I am so sorry, mother. Certainly. But you must know Lord Illingworth first. [Goes across room.]

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Not to-night, Gerald.

Gerald. Lord Illingworth, I want you so much to know my mother.

Lord Illingworth. With the greatest pleasure. [To Mrs. Allonby.] I’ll be back in a moment. People’s mothers always bore me to death. All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.

Mrs. Allonby. No man does. That is his.

Lord Illingworth. What a delightful mood you are in to-night! [Turns round and goes across with Gerald to Mrs. Arbuthnot. When he sees her, he starts back in wonder. Then slowly his eyes turn towards Gerald.]

Gerald. Mother, this is Lord Illingworth, who has offered to take me as his private secretary. [Mrs. Arbuthnot bows coldly.] It is a wonderful opening for me, isn’t it? I hope he won’t be disappointed in me, that is all. You’ll thank Lord Illingworth, mother, won’t you?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lord Illingworth in very good, I am sure, to interest himself in you for the moment.

Lord Illingworth. [Putting his hand on Gerald’s shoulder.] Oh, Gerald and I are great friends already, Mrs . . . Arbuthnot.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. There can be nothing in common between you and my son, Lord Illingworth.

Gerald. Dear mother, how can you say so? Of course Lord Illingworth is awfully clever and that sort of thing. There is nothing Lord Illingworth doesn’t know.

Lord Illingworth. My dear boy!

Gerald. He knows more about life than any one I have ever met. I feel an awful duffer when I am with you, Lord Illingworth. Of course, I have had so few advantages. I have not been to Eton or Oxford like other chaps. But Lord Illingworth doesn’t seem to mind that. He has been awfully good to me, mother.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Lord Illingworth may change his mind. He may not really want you as his secretary.

Gerald. Mother!

Mrs. Arbuthnot. You must remember, as you said yourself, you have had so few advantages.

Mrs. Allonby. Lord Illingworth, I want to speak to you for a moment. Do come over.

Lord Illingworth. Will you excuse me, Mrs. Arbuthnot? Now, don’t let your charming mother make any more difficulties, Gerald. The thing is quite settled, isn’t it?

Gerald. I hope so. [Lord Illingworth goes across to Mrs. Arbuthnot.]

Mrs. Allonby. I thought you were never going to leave the lady in black velvet.

Lord Illingworth. She is excessively handsome. [Looks at Mrs. Arbuthnot.]

Lady Hunstanton. Caroline, shall we all make a move to the music-room? Miss Worsley is going to play. You’ll come too, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot, won’t you? You don’t know what a treat is in store for you. [To Doctor Daubeny.] I must really take Miss Worsley down some afternoon to the rectory. I should so much like dear Mrs. Daubeny to hear her on the violin. Ah, I forgot. Dear Mrs. Daubeny’s hearing is a little defective, is it not?

The Archdeacon. Her deafness is a great privation to her. She can’t even hear my sermons now. She reads them at home. But she has many resources in herself, many resources.

Lady Hunstanton. She reads a good deal, I suppose?

The Archdeacon. Just the very largest print. The eyesight is rapidly going. But she’s never morbid, never morbid.

Gerald. [To Lord Illingworth.] Do speak to my mother, Lord Illingworth, before you go into the music-room. She seems to think, somehow, you don’t mean what you said to me.

Mrs. Allonby. Aren’t you coming?

Lord Illingworth. In a few moments. Lady Hunstanton, if Mrs. Arbuthnot would allow me, I would like to say a few words to her, and we will join you later on.

Lady Hunstanton. Ah, of course. You will have a great deal to say to her, and she will have a great deal to thank you for. It is not every son who gets such an offer, Mrs. Arbuthnot. But I know you appreciate that, dear.

Lady Caroline. John!

Lady Hunstanton. Now, don’t keep Mrs. Arbuthnot too long, Lord Illingworth. We can’t spare her.

[Exit following the other guests. Sound of violin heard from music-room.]

Lord Illingworth. So that is our son, Rachel! Well, I am very proud of him. He in a Harford, every inch of him. By the way, why Arbuthnot, Rachel?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. One name is as good as another, when one has no right to any name.

Lord Illingworth. I suppose so — but why Gerald?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. After a man whose heart I broke — after my father.

Lord Illingworth. Well, Rachel, what in over is over. All I have got to say now in that I am very, very much pleased with our boy. The world will know him merely as my private secretary, but to me he will be something very near, and very dear. It is a curious thing, Rachel; my life seemed to be quite complete. It was not so. It lacked something, it lacked a son. I have found my son now, I am glad I have found him.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. You have no right to claim him, or the smallest part of him. The boy is entirely mine, and shall remain mine.

Lord Illingworth. My dear Rachel, you have had him to yourself for over twenty years. Why not let me have him for a little now? He is quite as much mine as yours.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Are you talking of the child you abandoned? Of the child who, as far as you are concerned, might have died of hunger and of want?

Lord Illingworth. You forget, Rachel, it was you who left me. It was not I who left you.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I left you because you refused to give the child a name. Before my son was born, I implored you to marry me.

Lord Illingworth. I had no expectations then. And besides, Rachel, I wasn’t much older than you were. I was only twenty-two. I was twenty-one, I believe, when the whole thing began in your father’s garden.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. When a man is old enough to do wrong he should be old enough to do right also.

Lord Illingworth. My dear Rachel, intellectual generalities are always interesting, but generalities in morals mean absolutely nothing. As for saying I left our child to starve, that, of course, is untrue and silly. My mother offered you six hundred a year. But you wouldn’t take anything. You simply disappeared, and carried the child away with you.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I wouldn’t have accepted a penny from her. Your father was different. He told you, in my presence, when we were in Paris, that it was your duty to marry me.

Lord Illingworth. Oh, duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does oneself. Of course, I was influenced by my mother. Every man is when he is young.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I am glad to hear you say so. Gerald shall certainly not go away with you.

Lord Illingworth. What nonsense, Rachel!

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Do you think I would allow my son —

Lord Illingworth. OUR son.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. My son [Lord Illingworth shrugs his shoulders] — to go away with the man who spoiled my youth, who ruined my life, who has tainted every moment of my days? You don’t realise what my past has been in suffering and in shame.

Lord Illingworth. My dear Rachel, I must candidly say that I think Gerald’s future considerably more important than your past.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. Gerald cannot separate his future from my past.

Lord Illingworth. That is exactly what he should do. That is exactly what you should help him to do. What a typical woman you are! You talk sentimentally, and you are thoroughly selfish the whole time. But don’t let us have a scene. Rachel, I want you to look at this matter from the common-sense point of view, from the point of view of what is best for our son, leaving you and me out of the question. What is our son at present? An underpaid clerk in a small Provincial Bank in a third-rate English town. If you imagine he is quite happy in such a position, you are mistaken. He is thoroughly discontented.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. He was not discontented till he met you. You have made him so.

Lord Illingworth. Of course, I made him so. Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation. But I did not leave him with a mere longing for things he could not get. No, I made him a charming offer. He jumped at it, I need hardly say. Any young man would. And now, simply because it turns out that I am the boy’s own father and he my own son, you propose practically to ruin his career. That is to say, if I were a perfect stranger, you would allow Gerald to go away with me, but as he is my own flesh and blood you won’t. How utterly illogical you are!

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I will not allow him to go.

Lord Illingworth. How can you prevent it? What excuse can you give to him for making him decline such an offer as mine? I won’t tell him in what relations I stand to him, I need hardly say. But you daren’t tell him. You know that. Look how you have brought him up.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I have brought him up to be a good man.

Lord Illingworth. Quite so. And what is the result? You have educated him to be your judge if he ever finds you out. And a bitter, an unjust judge he will be to you. Don’t be deceived, Rachel. Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. George, don’t take my son away from me. I have had twenty years of sorrow, and I have only had one thing to love me, only one thing to love. You have had a life of joy, and pleasure, and success. You have been quite happy, you have never thought of us. There was no reason, according to your views of life, why you should have remembered us at all. Your meeting us was a mere accident, a horrible accident. Forget it. Don’t come now, and rob me of . . . of all I have in the whole world. You are so rich in other things. Leave me the little vineyard of my life; leave me the walled-in garden and the well of water; the ewe-lamb God sent me, in pity or in wrath, oh! leave me that. George, don’t take Gerald from me.

Lord Illingworth. Rachel, at the present moment you are not necessary to Gerald’s career; I am. There is nothing more to be said on the subject.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I will not let him go.

Lord Illingworth. Here is Gerald. He has a right to decide for himself.

[Enter Gerald.]

Gerald. Well, dear mother, I hope you have settled it all with Lord Illingworth?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I have not, Gerald.

Lord Illingworth. Your mother seems not to like your coming with me, for some reason.

Gerald. Why, mother?

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I thought you were quite happy here with me, Gerald. I didn’t know you were so anxious to leave me.

Gerald. Mother, how can you talk like that? Of course I have been quite happy with you. But a man can’t stay always with his mother. No chap does. I want to make myself a position, to do something. I thought you would have been proud to see me Lord Illingworth’s secretary.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I do not think you would be suitable as a private secretary to Lord Illingworth. You have no qualifications.

Lord Illingworth. I don’t wish to seem to interfere for a moment, Mrs. Arbuthnot, but as far as your last objection is concerned, I surely am the best judge. And I can only tell you that your son has all the qualifications I had hoped for. He has more, in fact, than I had even thought of. Far more. [Mrs. Arbuthnot remains silent.] Have you any other reason, Mrs. Arbuthnot, why you don’t wish your son to accept this post?

Gerald. Have you, mother? Do answer.

Lord Illingworth. If you have, Mrs. Arbuthnot, pray, pray say it. We are quite by ourselves here. Whatever it is, I need not say I will not repeat it.

Gerald. Mother?

Lord Illingworth. If you would like to be alone with your son, I will leave you. You may have some other reason you don’t wish me to hear.

Mrs. Arbuthnot. I have no other reason.

Lord Illingworth. Then, my dear boy, we may look on the thing as settled. Come, you and I will smoke a cigarette on the terrace together. And Mrs. Arbuthnot, pray let me tell you, that I think you have acted very, very wisely.

[Exit with Gerald. Mrs. Arbuthnot is left alone. She stands immobile with a look of unutterable sorrow on her face.]

ACT DROP

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 19:40