The scene is a well-lighted, and large, oak-panelled hall, with an air of being lived in, and a broad, oak staircase. The dining-room, drawing-room, billiard-room, all open into it; and under the staircase a door leads to the servants' quarters. In a huge fireplace a log fire is burning. There are tiger-skins on the floor, horns on the walls; and a writing-table against the wall opposite the fireplace. FREDA STUDDENHAM, a pretty, pale girl with dark eyes, in the black dress of a lady's-maid, is standing at the foot of the staircase with a bunch of white roses in one hand, and a bunch of yellow roses in the other. A door closes above, and SIR WILLIAM CHESHIRE, in evening dress, comes downstairs. He is perhaps fifty-eight, of strong build, rather bull-necked, with grey eyes, and a well-coloured face, whose choleric autocracy is veiled by a thin urbanity. He speaks before he reaches the bottom.
SIR WILLIAM. Well, Freda! Nice roses. Who are they for?
FREDA. My lady told me to give the yellow to Mrs. Keith, Sir William, and the white to Miss Lanfarne, for their first evening.
SIR WILLIAM. Capital. [Passing on towards the drawing-room] Your father coming up to-night?
SIR WILLIAM. Be good enough to tell him I specially want to see him here after dinner, will you?
FREDA. Yes, Sir William.
SIR WILLIAM. By the way, just ask him to bring the game-book in, if he's got it.
He goes out into the drawing-room; and FREDA stands restlessly tapping her foot against the bottom stair. With a flutter of skirts CHRISTINE KEITH comes rapidly down. She is a nice-looking, fresh-coloured young woman in a low-necked dress.
CHRISTINE. Hullo, Freda! How are YOU?
FREDA. Quite well, thank you, Miss Christine--Mrs. Keith, I mean. My lady told me to give you these.
CHRISTINE. [Taking the roses] Oh! Thanks! How sweet of mother!
FREDA. [In a quick, toneless voice] The others are for Miss Lanfarne. My lady thought white would suit her better.
CHRISTINE. They suit you in that black dress.
[FREDA lowers the roses quickly.]
What do you think of Joan's engagement?
FREDA. It's very nice for her.
CHRISTINE. I say, Freda, have they been going hard at rehearsals?
FREDA. Every day. Miss Dot gets very cross, stage-managing.
CHRISTINE. I do hate learning a part. Thanks awfully for unpacking. Any news?
FREDA. [In the same quick, dull voice] The under-keeper, Dunning, won't marry Rose Taylor, after all.
CHRISTINE. What a shame! But I say that's serious. I thought there was--she was--I mean----
FREDA. He's taken up with another girl, they say.
CHRISTINE. Too bad! [Pinning the roses] D'you know if Mr. Bill's come?
FREDA. [With a swift upward look] Yes, by the six-forty.
RONALD KEITH comes slowly down, a weathered firm-lipped man, in evening dress, with eyelids half drawn over his keen eyes, and the air of a horseman.
KEITH. Hallo! Roses in December. I say, Freda, your father missed a wigging this morning when they drew blank at Warnham's spinney. Where's that litter of little foxes?
FREDA. [Smiling faintly] I expect father knows, Captain Keith.
KEITH. You bet he does. Emigration? Or thin air? What?
CHRISTINE. Studdenham'd never shoot a fox, Ronny. He's been here since the flood.
KEITH. There's more ways of killing a cat--eh, Freda?
CHRISTINE. [Moving with her husband towards the drawing-room] Young Dunning won't marry that girl, Ronny.
KEITH. Phew! Wouldn't be in his shoes, then! Sir William'll never keep a servant who's made a scandal in the village, old girl. Bill come?
As they disappear from the hall, JOHN LATTER in a clergyman's evening dress, comes sedately downstairs, a tall, rather pale young man, with something in him, as it were, both of heaven, and a drawing-room. He passes FREDA with a formal little nod. HAROLD, a fresh-cheeked, cheery-looking youth, comes down, three steps at a time.
HAROLD. Hallo, Freda! Patience on the monument. Let's have a sniff! For Miss Lanfarne? Bill come down yet?
FREDA. No, Mr. Harold.
HAROLD crosses the hall, whistling, and follows LATTER into the drawing-room. There is the sound of a scuffle above, and a voice crying: "Shut up, Dot!" And JOAN comes down screwing her head back. She is pretty and small, with large clinging eyes.
JOAN. Am I all right behind, Freda? That beast, Dot!
FREDA. Quite, Miss Joan.
DOT's face, like a full moon, appears over the upper banisters. She too comes running down, a frank figure, with the face of a rebel.
DOT. You little being!
JOAN. [Flying towards the drawing-roam, is overtaken at the door] Oh! Dot! You're pinching!
As they disappear into the drawing-room, MABEL LANFARNE, a tall girl with a rather charming Irish face, comes slowly down. And at sight of her FREDA's whole figure becomes set and meaningfull.
FREDA. For you, Miss Lanfarne, from my lady.
MABEL. [In whose speech is a touch of wilful Irishry] How sweet! [Fastening the roses] And how are you, Freda?
FREDA. Very well, thank you.
MABEL. And your father? Hope he's going to let me come out with the guns again.
FREDA. [Stolidly] He'll be delighted, I'm sure.
MABEL. Ye-es! I haven't forgotten his face-last time.
FREDA. You stood with Mr. Bill. He's better to stand with than Mr. Harold, or Captain Keith?
MABEL. He didn't touch a feather, that day.
FREDA. People don't when they're anxious to do their best.
A gong sounds. And MABEL LANFARNE, giving FREDA a rather inquisitive stare, moves on to the drawing-room. Left alone without the roses, FREDA still lingers. At the slamming of a door above, and hasty footsteps, she shrinks back against the stairs. BILL runs down, and comes on her suddenly. He is a tall, good-looking edition of his father, with the same stubborn look of veiled choler.
BILL. Freda! [And as she shrinks still further back] what's the matter? [Then at some sound he looks round uneasily and draws away from her] Aren't you glad to see me?
FREDA. I've something to say to you, Mr. Bill. After dinner.
She passes him, and rushes away upstairs. And BILL, who stands frowning and looking after her, recovers himself sharply as the drawing-room door is opened, and SIR WILLIAM and MISS LANFARNE come forth, followed by KEITH, DOT, HAROLD, CHRISTINE, LATTER, and JOAN, all leaning across each other, and talking. By herself, behind them, comes LADY CHESHIRE, a refined-looking woman of fifty, with silvery dark hair, and an expression at once gentle, and ironic. They move across the hall towards the dining-room.
SIR WILLIAM. Ah! Bill.
MABEL. How do you do?
KEITH. How are you, old chap?
DOT. [gloomily] Do you know your part?
HAROLD. Hallo, old man!
CHRISTINE gives her brother a flying kiss. JOAN and LATTER pause and look at him shyly without speech.
BILL. [Putting his hand on JOAN's shoulder] Good luck, you two! Well mother?
LADY CHESHIRE. Well, my dear boy! Nice to see you at last. What a long time!
She draws his arm through hers, and they move towards the dining-room.
The curtain falls.
The curtain rises again at once.
CHRISTINE, LADY CHESHIRE, DOT, MABEL LANFARNE, and JOAN, are returning to the hall after dinner.
CHRISTINE. [in a low voice] Mother, is it true about young Dunning and Rose Taylor?
LADY CHESHIRE. I'm afraid so, dear.
CHRISTINE. But can't they be----
DOT. Ah! ah-h! [CHRISTINE and her mother are silent.] My child, I'm not the young person.
CHRISTINE. No, of course not--only--[nodding towards JOAN and Mable].
DOT. Look here! This is just an instance of what I hate.
LADY CHESHIRE. My dear? Another one?
DOT. Yes, mother, and don't you pretend you don't understand, because you know you do.
CHRISTINE. Instance? Of what?
JOAN and MABEL have ceased talking, and listen, still at the fire.
DOT. Humbug, of course. Why should you want them to marry, if he's tired of her?
CHRISTINE. [Ironically] Well! If your imagination doesn't carry you as far as that!
DOT. When people marry, do you believe they ought to be in love with each other?
CHRISTINE. [With a shrug] That's not the point.
DOT. Oh? Were you in love with Ronny?
CHRISTINE. Don't be idiotic!
DOT. Would you have married him if you hadn't been?
CHRISTINE. Of course not!
JOAN. Dot! You are!----
DOT. Hallo! my little snipe!
LADY CHESHIRE. Dot, dear!
DOT. Don't shut me up, mother! [To JOAN.] Are you in love with John? [JOAN turns hurriedly to the fire.] Would you be going to marry him if you were not?
CHRISTINE. You are a brute, Dot.
DOT. Is Mabel in love with--whoever she is in love with?
MABEL. And I wonder who that is.
DOT. Well, would you marry him if you weren't?
MABEL. No, I would not.
DOT. Now, mother; did you love father?
CHRISTINE. Dot, you really are awful.
DOT. [Rueful and detached] Well, it is a bit too thick, perhaps.
DOT. Well, mother, did you--I mean quite calmly?
LADY CHESHIRE. Yes, dear, quite calmly.
DOT. Would you have married him if you hadn't? [LADY CHESHIRE shakes her head] Then we're all agreed!
MABEL. Except yourself.
DOT. [Grimly] Even if I loved him, he might think himself lucky if I married him.
MABEL. Indeed, and I'm not so sure.
DOT. [Making a face at her] What I was going to----
LADY CHESHIRE. But don't you think, dear, you'd better not?
DOT. Well, I won't say what I was going to say, but what I do say is--Why the devil----
LADY CHESHIRE. Quite so, Dot!
DOT. [A little disconcerted.] If they're tired of each other, they ought not to marry, and if father's going to make them----
CHRISTINE. You don't understand in the least. It's for the sake of the----
DOT. Out with it, Old Sweetness! The approaching infant! God bless it!
There is a sudden silence, for KEITH and LATTER are seen coming from the dining-room.
LATTER. That must be so, Ronny.
KEITH. No, John; not a bit of it!
LATTER. You don't think!
KEITH. Good Gad, who wants to think after dinner!
DOT. Come on! Let's play pool. [She turns at the billiard-room door.] Look here! Rehearsal to-morrow is directly after breakfast; from "Eccles enters breathless" to the end.
MABEL. Whatever made you choose "Caste," DOT? You know it's awfully difficult.
DOT. Because it's the only play that's not too advanced. [The girls all go into the billiard-room.]
LADY CHESHIRE. Where's Bill, Ronny?
KEITH. [With a grimace] I rather think Sir William and he are in Committee of Supply--Mem-Sahib.
LADY CHESHIRE. Oh!
She looks uneasily at the dining-room; then follows the girls out.
LATTER. [In the tone of one resuming an argument] There can't be two opinions about it, Ronny. Young Dunning's refusal is simply indefensible.
KEITH. I don't agree a bit, John.
LATTER. Of course, if you won't listen.
KEITH. [Clipping a cigar] Draw it mild, my dear chap. We've had the whole thing over twice at least.
LATTER. My point is this----
KEITH. [Regarding LATTER quizzically with his halfclosed eyes] I know--I know--but the point is, how far your point is simply professional.
LATTER. If a man wrongs a woman, he ought to right her again. There's no answer to that.
KEITH. It all depends.
LATTER. That's rank opportunism.
KEITH. Rats! Look here--Oh! hang it, John, one can't argue this out with a parson.
LATTER. [Frigidly] Why not?
HAROLD. [Who has entered from the dining-room] Pull devil, pull baker!
KEITH. Shut up, Harold!
LATTER. "To play the game" is the religion even of the Army.
KEITH. Exactly, but what is the game?
LATTER. What else can it be in this case?
KEITH. You're too puritanical, young John. You can't help it--line of country laid down for you. All drag-huntin'! What!
LATTER. [With concentration] Look here!
HAROLD. [Imitating the action of a man pulling at a horse's head] 'Come hup, I say, you hugly beast!'
KEITH. [To LATTER] You're not going to draw me, old chap. You don't see where you'd land us all. [He smokes calmly]
LATTER. How do you imagine vice takes its rise? From precisely this sort of thing of young Dunning's.
KEITH. From human nature, I should have thought, John. I admit that I don't like a fellow's leavin' a girl in the lurch; but I don't see the use in drawin' hard and fast rules. You only have to break 'em. Sir William and you would just tie Dunning and the girl up together, willy-nilly, to save appearances, and ten to one but there'll be the deuce to pay in a year's time. You can take a horse to the water, you can't make him drink.
LATTER. I entirely and absolutely disagree with you.
HAROLD. Good old John!
LATTER. At all events we know where your principles take you.
KEITH. [Rather dangerously] Where, please? [HAROLD turns up his eyes, and points downwards] Dry up, Harold!
LATTER. Did you ever hear the story of Faust?
KEITH. Now look here, John; with all due respect to your cloth, and all the politeness in the world, you may go to-blazes.
LATTER. Well, I must say, Ronny--of all the rude boors----[He turns towards the billiard-room.]
KEITH. Sorry I smashed the glass, old chap.
LATTER passes out. There comes a mingled sound through the opened door, of female voices, laughter, and the click of billiard balls, dipped of by the sudden closing of the door.
KEITH. [Impersonally] Deuced odd, the way a parson puts one's back up! Because you know I agree with him really; young Dunning ought to play the game; and I hope Sir William'll make him.
The butler JACKSON has entered from the door under the stairs followed by the keeper STUDDENHAM, a man between fifty and sixty, in a full-skirted coat with big pockets, cord breeches, and gaiters; he has a steady self respecting weathered face, with blue eyes and a short grey beard, which has obviously once been red.
KEITH. Hullo! Studdenham!
STUDDENHAM. [Touching his forehead] Evenin', Captain Keith.
JACKSON. Sir William still in the dining-room with Mr. Bill, sir?
HAROLD. [With a grimace] He is, Jackson.
JACKSON goes out to the dining-room.
KEITH. You've shot no pheasants yet, Studdenham?
STUDDENHAM. No, Sir. Only birds. We'll be doin' the spinneys and the home covert while you're down.
KEITH. I say, talkin' of spinneys----
He breaks off sharply, and goes out with HAROLD into the billiard-room. SIR WILLIAM enters from the dining-room, applying a gold toothpick to his front teeth.
SIR WILLIAM. Ah! Studdenham. Bad business this, about young Dunning!
STUDDENHAM. Yes, Sir William.
SIR WILLIAM. He definitely refuses to marry her?
STUDDENHAM. He does that.
SIR WILLIAM. That won't do, you know. What reason does he give?
STUDDENHAM. Won't say other than that he don't want no more to do with her.
SIR WILLIAM. God bless me! That's not a reason. I can't have a keeper of mine playing fast and loose in the village like this. [Turning to LADY CHESHIRE, who has come in from the billiard-room] That affair of young Dunning's, my dear.
LADY CHESHIRE. Oh! Yes! I'm so sorry, Studdenham. The poor girl!
STUDDENHAM. [Respectfully] Fancy he's got a feeling she's not his equal, now, my lady.
LADY CHESHIRE. [To herself] Yes, I suppose he has made her his superior.
SIR WILLIAM. What? Eh! Quite! Quite! I was just telling Studdenham the fellow must set the matter straight. We can't have open scandals in the village. If he wants to keep his place he must marry her at once.
LADY CHESHIRE. [To her husband in a low voice] Is it right to force them? Do you know what the girl wishes, Studdenham?
STUDDENHAM. Shows a spirit, my lady--says she'll have him--willin' or not.
LADY CHESHIRE. A spirit? I see. If they marry like that they're sure to be miserable.
SIR WILLIAM. What! Doesn't follow at all. Besides, my dear, you ought to know by this time, there's an unwritten law in these matters. They're perfectly well aware that when there are consequences, they have to take them.
STUDDENHAM. Some o' these young people, my lady, they don't put two and two together no more than an old cock pheasant.
SIR WILLIAM. I'll give him till to-morrow. If he remains obstinate, he'll have to go; he'll get no character, Studdenham. Let him know what I've said. I like the fellow, he's a good keeper. I don't want to lose him. But this sort of thing I won't have. He must toe the mark or take himself off. Is he up here to-night?
STUDDENHAM. Hangin' partridges, Sir William. Will you have him in?
SIR WILLIAM. [Hesitating] Yes--yes. I'll see him.
STUDDENHAM. Good-night to you, my lady.
LADY CHESHIRE. Freda's not looking well, Studdenham.
STUDDENHAM. She's a bit pernickitty with her food, that's where it is.
LADY CHESHIRE. I must try and make her eat.
SIR WILLIAM. Oh! Studdenham. We'll shoot the home covert first. What did we get last year?
STUDDENHAM. [Producing the game-book; but without reference to it] Two hundred and fifty-three pheasants, eleven hares, fifty-two rabbits, three woodcock, sundry.
SIR WILLIAM. Sundry? Didn't include a fox did it? [Gravely] I was seriously upset this morning at Warnham's spinney----
SUDDENHAM. [Very gravely] You don't say, Sir William; that four-year-old he du look a handful!
SIR WILLIAM. [With a sharp look] You know well enough what I mean.
STUDDENHAM. [Unmoved] Shall I send young Dunning, Sir William?
SIR WILLIAM gives a short, sharp nod, and STUDDENHAM retires by the door under the stairs.
SIR WILLIAM. Old fox!
LADY CHESHIRE. Don't be too hard on Dunning. He's very young.
SIR WILLIAM. [Patting her arm] My dear, you don't understand young fellows, how should you?
LADY CHESHIRE. [With her faint irony] A husband and two sons not counting. [Then as the door under the stairs is opened] Bill, now do----
SIR WILLIAM. I'll be gentle with him. [Sharply] Come in!
LADY CHESHIRE retires to the billiard-room. She gives a look back and a half smile at young DUNNING, a fair young man dressed in broom cords and leggings, and holding his cap in his hand; then goes out.
SIR WILLIAM. Evenin', Dunning.
DUNNING. [Twisting his cap] Evenin', Sir William.
SIR WILLIAM. Studdenham's told you what I want to see you about?
DUNNING. Yes, Sir.
SIR WILLIAM. The thing's in your hands. Take it or leave it. I don't put pressure on you. I simply won't have this sort of thing on my estate.
DUNNING. I'd like to say, Sir William, that she [He stops].
SIR WILLIAM. Yes, I daresay-Six of one and half a dozen of the other. Can't go into that.
DUNNING. No, Sir William.
SIR WILLIAM. I'm quite mild with you. This is your first place. If you leave here you'll get no character.
DUNNING. I never meant any harm, sir.
SIR WILLIAM. My good fellow, you know the custom of the country.
DUNNING. Yes, Sir William, but----
SIR WILLIAM. You should have looked before you leaped. I'm not forcing you. If you refuse you must go, that's all.
DUNNING. Yes. Sir William.
SIR WILLIAM. Well, now go along and take a day to think it over.
BILL, who has sauntered moody from the diningroom, stands by the stairs listening. Catching sight of him, DUNNING raises his hand to his forelock.
DUNNING. Very good, Sir William. [He turns, fumbles, and turns again] My old mother's dependent on me----
SIR WILLIAM. Now, Dunning, I've no more to say. [Dunning goes sadly away under the stairs.]
SIR WILLIAM. [Following] And look here! Just understand this [He too goes out....]
BILL, lighting a cigarette, has approached the writing-table. He looks very glum. The billiard-room door is flung open. MABEL LANFARNE appears, and makes him a little curtsey.
MABEL. Against my will I am bidden to bring you in to pool.
BILL. Sorry! I've got letters.
MABEL. You seem to have become very conscientious.
BILL. Oh! I don't know.
MABEL. Do you remember the last day of the covert shooting?
BITS. I do.
MABEL. [Suddenly] What a pretty girl Freda Studdenham's grown!
BILL. Has she?
MABEL. "She walks in beauty."
BILL. Really? Hadn't noticed.
MABEL. Have you been taking lessons in conversation?
BILL. Don't think so.
MABEL. Oh! [There is a silence] Mr. Cheshire!
BILL. Miss Lanfarne!
MABEL. What's the matter with you? Aren't you rather queer, considering that I don't bite, and was rather a pal!
BILL. [Stolidly] I'm sorry.
Then seeing that his mother has came in from the billiard-room, he sits down at the writing-table.
LADY CHESHIRE. Mabel, dear, do take my cue. Won't you play too, Bill, and try and stop Ronny, he's too terrible?
BILL. Thanks. I've got these letters.
MABEL taking the cue passes back into the billiard-room, whence comes out the sound of talk and laughter.
LADY CHESHIRE. [Going over and standing behind her son's chair] Anything wrong, darling?
BILL. Nothing, thanks. [Suddenly] I say, I wish you hadn't asked that girl here.
LADY CHESHIRE. Mabel! Why? She's wanted for rehearsals. I thought you got on so well with her last Christmas.
BILL. [With a sort of sullen exasperation.] A year ago.
LADY CHESHIRE. The girls like her, so does your father; personally I must say I think she's rather nice and Irish.
BILL. She's all right, I daresay.
He looks round as if to show his mother that he wishes to be left alone. But LADY CHESHIRE, having seen that he is about to look at her, is not looking at him.
LADY CHESHIRE. I'm afraid your father's been talking to you, Bill.
BILL. He has.
LADY CHESHIRE. Debts? Do try and make allowances. [With a faint smile] Of course he is a little----
BILL. He is.
LADY CHESHIRE. I wish I could----
BILL. Oh, Lord! Don't you get mixed up in it!
LADY CHESHIRE. It seems almost a pity that you told him.
BILL. He wrote and asked me point blank what I owed.
LADY CHESHIRE. Oh! [Forcing herself to speak in a casual voice] I happen to have a little money, Bill--I think it would be simpler if----
BILL. Now look here, mother, you've tried that before. I can't help spending money, I never shall be able, unless I go to the Colonies, or something of the kind.
LADY CHESHIRE. Don't talk like that, dear!
BILL. I would, for two straws!
LADY CHESHIRE. It's only because your father thinks such a lot of the place, and the name, and your career. The Cheshires are all like that. They've been here so long; they're all--root.
BILL. Deuced funny business my career will be, I expect!
LADY CHESHIRE. [Fluttering, but restraining herself lest he should see] But, Bill, why must you spend more than your allowance?
BILL. Why--anything? I didn't make myself.
LADY CHESHIRE. I'm afraid we did that. It was inconsiderate, perhaps.
BILL. Yes, you'd better have left me out.
LADY CHESHIRE. But why are you so--Only a little fuss about money!
LADY CHESHIRE. You're not keeping anything from me, are you?
BILL. [Facing her] No. [He then turns very deliberately to the writing things, and takes up a pen] I must write these letters, please.
LADY CHESHIRE. Bill, if there's any real trouble, you will tell me, won't you?
BILL. There's nothing whatever.
He suddenly gets up and walks about. LADY CHESHIRE, too, moves over to the fireplace, and after an uneasy look at him, turns to the fire. Then, as if trying to switch of his mood, she changes the subject abruptly.
LADY CHESHIRE. Isn't it a pity about young Dunning? I'm so sorry for Rose Taylor.
There is a silence. Stealthily under the staircase FREDA has entered, and seeing only BILL, advances to speak to him.
BILL. [Suddenly] Oh! well,--you can't help these things in the country.
As he speaks, FREDA stops dead, perceiving that he is not alone; BILL, too, catching sight of her, starts.
LADY CHESHIRE. [Still speaking to the fire] It seems dreadful to force him. I do so believe in people doing things of their own accord. [Then seeing FREDA standing so uncertainly by the stairs] Do you want me, Freda?
FREDA. Only your cloak, my lady. Shall I--begin it?
At this moment SIR WILLIAM enters from the drawing-room.
LADY CHESHIRE. Yes, yes.
SIR WILLIAM. [Genially] Can you give me another five minutes, Bill? [Pointing to the billiard-room] We'll come directly, my dear.
FREDA, with a look at BILL, has gone back whence she came; and LADY CHESHIRE goes reluctantly away into the billiard-room.
SIR WILLIAM. I shall give young Dunning short shrift. [He moves over to the fireplace and divides hip coat-tails] Now, about you, Bill! I don't want to bully you the moment you come down, but you know, this can't go on. I've paid your debts twice. Shan't pay them this time unless I see a disposition to change your mode of life. [A pause] You get your extravagance from your mother. She's very queer--[A pause]--All the Winterleighs are like that about money....
BILL. Mother's particularly generous, if that's what you mean.
SIR WILLIAM. [Drily] We will put it that way. [A pause] At the present moment you owe, as I understand it, eleven hundred pounds.
BILL. About that.
SIR WILLIAM. Mere flea-bite. [A pause] I've a proposition to make.
BILL. Won't it do to-morrow, sir?
SIR WILLIAM. "To-morrow" appears to be your motto in life.
SIR WILLIAM. I'm anxious to change it to-day. [BILL looks at him in silence] It's time you took your position seriously, instead of hanging about town, racing, and playing polo, and what not.
BILL. Go ahead!
At something dangerous in his voice, SIR WILLIAM modifies his attitude.
SIR, WILLIAM. The proposition's very simple. I can't suppose anything so rational and to your advantage will appeal to you, but [drily] I mention it. Marry a nice girl, settle down, and stand for the division; you can have the Dower House and fifteen hundred a year, and I'll pay your debts into the bargain. If you're elected I'll make it two thousand. Plenty of time to work up the constituency before we kick out these infernal Rads. Carpetbagger against you; if you go hard at it in the summer, it'll be odd if you don't manage to get in your three days a week, next season. You can take Rocketer and that four-year-old--he's well up to your weight, fully eight and a half inches of bone. You'll only want one other. And if Miss--if your wife means to hunt----
BILL. You've chosen my wife, then?
SIR WILLIAM. [With a quick look] I imagine, you've some girl in your mind.
SIR WILLIAM: Used not to be unnatural at your age. I married your mother at twenty-eight. Here you are, eldest son of a family that stands for something. The more I see of the times the more I'm convinced that everybody who is anybody has got to buckle to, and save the landmarks left. Unless we're true to our caste, and prepared to work for it, the landed classes are going to go under to this infernal democratic spirit in the air. The outlook's very serious. We're threatened in a hundred ways. If you mean business, you'll want a wife. When I came into the property I should have been lost without your mother.
BILL. I thought this was coming.
SIR WILLIAM. [With a certain geniality] My dear fellow, I don't want to put a pistol to your head. You've had a slack rein so far. I've never objected to your sowing a few wild oats-so long as you --er--[Unseen by SIR WILLIAM, BILL makes a sudden movement] Short of that--at all events, I've not inquired into your affairs. I can only judge by the--er--pecuniary evidence you've been good enough to afford me from time to time. I imagine you've lived like a good many young men in your position--I'm not blaming you, but there's a time for all things.
BILL. Why don't you say outright that you want me to marry Mabel Lanfarne?
SITS WILLIAM. Well, I do. Girl's a nice one. Good family--got a little money--rides well. Isn't she good-looking enough for you, or what?
BILL. Quite, thanks.
SIR WILLIAM. I understood from your mother that you and she were on good terms.
BILL. Please don't drag mother into it.
SIR WILLIAM. [With dangerous politeness] Perhaps you'll be good enough to state your objections.
BILL. Must we go on with this?
SIR WILLIAM. I've never asked you to do anything for me before; I expect you to pay attention now. I've no wish to dragoon you into this particular marriage. If you don't care for Miss Lanfarne, marry a girl you're fond of.
BILL. I refuse.
SIR WILLIAM. In that case you know what to look out for. [With a sudden rush of choler] You young.... [He checks himself and stands glaring at BILL, who glares back at him] This means, I suppose, that you've got some entanglement or other.
BILL. Suppose what you like, sir.
SITS WILLIAM. I warn you, if you play the blackguard----
BILL. You can't force me like young Dunning.
Hearing the raised voices LADY CHESHIRE has come back from the billiard-room.
LADY CHESHIRE. [Closing the door] What is it?
SIR WILLIAM. You deliberately refuse! Go away, Dorothy.
LADY CHESHIRE. [Resolutely] I haven't seen Bill for two months.
SIR WILLIAM. What! [Hesitating] Well--we must talk it over again.
LADY CHESHIRE. Come to the billiard-room, both of you! Bill, do finish those letters!
With a deft movement she draws SIR WILLIAM toward the billiard-room, and glances back at BILL before going out, but he has turned to the writing-table. When the door is closed, BILL looks into the drawing-room, them opens the door under the stairs; and backing away towards the writing-table, sits down there, and takes up a pen. FREDA who has evidently been waiting, comes in and stands by the table.
BILL. I say, this is dangerous, you know.
FREDA. Yes--but I must.
BILL. Well, then--[With natural recklessness] Aren't you going to kiss me?
Without moving she looks at him with a sort of miserable inquiry.
BILL. Do you know you haven't seen me for eight weeks?
FREDA. Quite--long enough--for you to have forgotten.
BILL. Forgotten! I don't forget people so soon.
BILL. What's the matter with you, Freda?
FREDA. [After a long look] It'll never be as it was.
BILL. [Jumping up] How d'you mean?
FREDA. I've got something for you. [She takes a diamond ring out of her dress and holds it out to him] I've not worn it since Cromer.
BILL. Now, look here
FREDA. I've had my holiday; I shan't get another in a hurry.
FREDA. You'll be glad to be free. That fortnight's all you really loved me in.
BILL. [Putting his hands on her arms] I swear----
FREDA. [Between her teeth] Miss Lanfarne need never know about me.
BILL. So that's it! I've told you a dozen times--nothing's changed. [FREDA looks at him and smiles.]
BILL. Oh! very well! If you will make yourself miserable.
FREDA. Everybody will be pleased.
BILL. At what?
FREDA. When you marry her.
BILL. This is too bad.
FREDA. It's what always happens--even when it's not a--gentleman.
BILL. That's enough.
FREDA. But I'm not like that girl down in the village. You needn't be afraid I'll say anything when--it comes. That's what I had to tell you.
FREDA. I can keep a secret.
BILL. Do you mean this? [She bows her head.]
BILL. Good God!
FREDA. Father brought me up not to whine. Like the puppies when they hold them up by their tails. [With a sudden break in her voice] Oh! Bill!
BILL. [With his head down, seizing her hands] Freda! [He breaks away from her towards the fire] Good God!
She stands looking at him, then quietly slips away by the door under the staircase. BILL turns to speak to her, and sees that she has gone. He walks up to the fireplace, and grips the mantelpiece.
BILL. By Jove! This is----!
The curtain falls.