Morning-room at Sir Robert Chiltern’s house.
[lord goring, dressed in the height of fashion, is lounging in an armchair. sir robert chiltern is standing in front of the fireplace. He is evidently in a state of great mental excitement and distress. As the scene progresses he paces nervously up and down the room.]
lord goring. My dear Robert, it’s a very awkward business, very awkward indeed. You should have told your wife the whole thing. Secrets from other people’s wives are a necessary luxury in modern life. So, at least, I am always told at the club by people who are bald enough to know better. But no man should have a secret from his own wife. She invariably finds it out. Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious.
sir robert chiltern. Arthur, I couldn’t tell my wife. When could I have told her? Not last night. It would have made a life-long separation between us, and I would have lost the love of the one woman in the world I worship, of the only woman who has ever stirred love within me. Last night it would have been quite impossible. She would have turned from me in horror . . . in horror and in contempt.
lord goring. Is Lady Chiltern as perfect as all that?
sir robert chiltern. Yes; my wife is as perfect as all that.
lord goring. [Taking off his left-hand glove.] What a pity! I beg your pardon, my dear fellow, I didn’t quite mean that. But if what you tell me is true, I should like to have a serious talk about life with Lady Chiltern.
sir robert chiltern. It would be quite useless.
lord goring. May I try?
sir robert chiltern. Yes; but nothing could make her alter her views.
lord goring. Well, at the worst it would simply be a psychological experiment.
sir robert chiltern. All such experiments are terribly dangerous.
lord goring. Everything is dangerous, my dear fellow. If it wasn’t so, life wouldn’t be worth living. . . . Well, I am bound to say that I think you should have told her years ago.
sir robert chiltern. When? When we were engaged? Do you think she would have married me if she had known that the origin of my fortune is such as it is, the basis of my career such as it is, and that I had done a thing that I suppose most men would call shameful and dishonourable?
lord goring. [Slowly.] Yes; most men would call it ugly names. There is no doubt of that.
sir robert chiltern. [Bitterly.] Men who every day do something of the same kind themselves. Men who, each one of them, have worse secrets in their own lives.
lord goring. That is the reason they are so pleased to find out other people’s secrets. It distracts public attention from their own.
sir robert chiltern. And, after all, whom did I wrong by what I did? No one.
lord goring. [Looking at him steadily.] Except yourself, Robert.
sir robert chiltern. [After a pause.] Of course I had private information about a certain transaction contemplated by the Government of the day, and I acted on it. Private information is practically the source of every large modern fortune.
lord goring. [Tapping his boot with his cane.] And public scandal invariably the result.
sir robert chiltern. [Pacing up and down the room.] Arthur, do you think that what I did nearly eighteen years ago should be brought up against me now? Do you think it fair that a man’s whole career should be ruined for a fault done in one’s boyhood almost? I was twenty-two at the time, and I had the double misfortune of being well-born and poor, two unforgiveable things nowadays. Is it fair that the folly, the sin of one’s youth, if men choose to call it a sin, should wreck a life like mine, should place me in the pillory, should shatter all that I have worked for, all that I have built up. Is it fair, Arthur?
lord goring. Life is never fair, Robert. And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.
sir robert chiltern. Every man of ambition has to fight his century with its own weapons. What this century worships is wealth. The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.
lord goring. You underrate yourself, Robert. Believe me, without wealth you could have succeeded just as well.
sir robert chiltern. When I was old, perhaps. When I had lost my passion for power, or could not use it. When I was tired, worn out, disappointed. I wanted my success when I was young. Youth is the time for success. I couldn’t wait.
lord goring. Well, you certainly have had your success while you are still young. No one in our day has had such a brilliant success. Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs at the age of forty—that’s good enough for any one, I should think.
sir robert chiltern. And if it is all taken away from me now? If I lose everything over a horrible scandal? If I am hounded from public life?
lord goring. Robert, how could you have sold yourself for money?
sir robert chiltern. [Excitedly.] I did not sell myself for money. I bought success at a great price. That is all.
lord goring. [Gravely.] Yes; you certainly paid a great price for it. But what first made you think of doing such a thing?
sir robert chiltern. Baron Arnheim.
lord goring. Damned scoundrel!
sir robert chiltern. No; he was a man of a most subtle and refined intellect. A man of culture, charm, and distinction. One of the most intellectual men I ever met.
lord goring. Ah! I prefer a gentlemanly fool any day. There is more to be said for stupidity than people imagine. Personally I have a great admiration for stupidity. It is a sort of fellow-feeling, I suppose. But how did he do it? Tell me the whole thing.
sir robert chiltern. [Throws himself into an armchair by the writing-table.] One night after dinner at Lord Radley’s the Baron began talking about success in modern life as something that one could reduce to an absolutely definite science. With that wonderfully fascinating quiet voice of his he expounded to us the most terrible of all philosophies, the philosophy of power, preached to us the most marvellous of all gospels, the gospel of gold. I think he saw the effect he had produced on me, for some days afterwards he wrote and asked me to come and see him. He was living then in Park Lane, in the house Lord Woolcomb has now. I remember so well how, with a strange smile on his pale, curved lips, he led me through his wonderful picture gallery, showed me his tapestries, his enamels, his jewels, his carved ivories, made me wonder at the strange loveliness of the luxury in which he lived; and then told me that luxury was nothing but a background, a painted scene in a play, and that power, power over other men, power over the world, was the one thing worth having, the one supreme pleasure worth knowing, the one joy one never tired of, and that in our century only the rich possessed it.
lord goring. [With great deliberation.] A thoroughly shallow creed.
sir robert chiltern. [Rising.] I didn’t think so then. I don’t think so now. Wealth has given me enormous power. It gave me at the very outset of my life freedom, and freedom is everything. You have never been poor, and never known what ambition is. You cannot understand what a wonderful chance the Baron gave me. Such a chance as few men get.
lord goring. Fortunately for them, if one is to judge by results. But tell me definitely, how did the Baron finally persuade you to—well, to do what you did?
sir robert chiltern. When I was going away he said to me that if I ever could give him any private information of real value he would make me a very rich man. I was dazed at the prospect he held out to me, and my ambition and my desire for power were at that time boundless. Six weeks later certain private documents passed through my hands.
lord goring. [Keeping his eyes steadily fixed on the carpet.] State documents?
sir robert chiltern. Yes. [lord goring sighs, then passes his hand across his forehead and looks up.]
lord goring. I had no idea that you, of all men in the world, could have been so weak, Robert, as to yield to such a temptation as Baron Arnheim held out to you.
sir robert chiltern. Weak? Oh, I am sick of hearing that phrase. Sick of using it about others. Weak? Do you really think, Arthur, that it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one’s life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not—there is no weakness in that. There is a horrible, a terrible courage. I had that courage. I sat down the same afternoon and wrote Baron Arnheim the letter this woman now holds. He made three-quarters of a million over the transaction.
lord goring. And you?
sir robert chiltern. I received from the Baron £110,000.
lord goring. You were worth more, Robert.
sir robert chiltern. No; that money gave me exactly what I wanted, power over others. I went into the House immediately. The Baron advised me in finance from time to time. Before five years I had almost trebled my fortune. Since then everything that I have touched has turned out a success. In all things connected with money I have had a luck so extraordinary that sometimes it has made me almost afraid. I remember having read somewhere, in some strange book, that when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.
lord goring. But tell me, Robert, did you never suffer any regret for what you had done?
sir robert chiltern. No. I felt that I had fought the century with its own weapons, and won.
lord goring. [Sadly.] You thought you had won.
sir robert chiltern. I thought so. [After a long pause.] Arthur, do you despise me for what I have told you?
lord goring. [With deep feeling in his voice.] I am very sorry for you, Robert, very sorry indeed.
sir robert chiltern. I don’t say that I suffered any remorse. I didn’t. Not remorse in the ordinary, rather silly sense of the word. But I have paid conscience money many times. I had a wild hope that I might disarm destiny. The sum Baron Arnheim gave me I have distributed twice over in public charities since then.
lord goring. [Looking up.] In public charities? Dear me! what a lot of harm you must have done, Robert!
sir robert chiltern. Oh, don’t say that, Arthur; don’t talk like that!
lord goring. Never mind what I say, Robert! I am always saying what I shouldn’t say. In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood. As regards this dreadful business, I will help you in whatever way I can. Of course you know that.
sir robert chiltern. Thank you, Arthur, thank you. But what is to be done? What can be done?
lord goring. [Leaning back with his hands in his pockets.] Well, the English can’t stand a man who is always saying he is in the right, but they are very fond of a man who admits that he has been in the wrong. It is one of the best things in them. However, in your case, Robert, a confession would not do. The money, if you will allow me to say so, is . . . awkward. Besides, if you did make a clean breast of the whole affair, you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician. There would be nothing left for him as a profession except Botany or the Church. A confession would be of no use. It would ruin you.
sir robert chiltern. It would ruin me. Arthur, the only thing for me to do now is to fight the thing out.
lord goring. [Rising from his chair.] I was waiting for you to say that, Robert. It is the only thing to do now. And you must begin by telling your wife the whole story.
sir robert chiltern. That I will not do.
lord goring. Robert, believe me, you are wrong.
sir robert chiltern. I couldn’t do it. It would kill her love for me. And now about this woman, this Mrs. Cheveley. How can I defend myself against her? You knew her before, Arthur, apparently.
lord goring. Yes.
sir robert chiltern. Did you know her well?
lord goring. [Arranging his necktie.] So little that I got engaged to be married to her once, when I was staying at the Tenbys’. The affair lasted for three days . . . nearly.
sir robert chiltern. Why was it broken off?
lord goring. [Airily.] Oh, I forget. At least, it makes no matter. By the way, have you tried her with money? She used to be confoundedly fond of money.
sir robert chiltern. I offered her any sum she wanted. She refused.
lord goring. Then the marvellous gospel of gold breaks down sometimes. The rich can’t do everything, after all.
sir robert chiltern. Not everything. I suppose you are right. Arthur, I feel that public disgrace is in store for me. I feel certain of it. I never knew what terror was before. I know it now. It is as if a hand of ice were laid upon one’s heart. It is as if one’s heart were beating itself to death in some empty hollow.
lord goring. [Striking the table.] Robert, you must fight her. You must fight her.
sir robert chiltern. But how?
lord goring. I can’t tell you how at present. I have not the smallest idea. But every one has some weak point. There is some flaw in each one of us. [Strolls to the fireplace and looks at himself in the glass.] My father tells me that even I have faults. Perhaps I have. I don’t know.
sir robert chiltern. In defending myself against Mrs. Cheveley, I have a right to use any weapon I can find, have I not?
lord goring. [Still looking in the glass.] In your place I don’t think I should have the smallest scruple in doing so. She is thoroughly well able to take care of herself.
sir robert chiltern. [Sits down at the table and takes a pen in his hand.] Well, I shall send a cipher telegram to the Embassy at Vienna, to inquire if there is anything known against her. There may be some secret scandal she might be afraid of.
lord goring. [Settling his buttonhole.] Oh, I should fancy Mrs. Cheveley is one of those very modern women of our time who find a new scandal as becoming as a new bonnet, and air them both in the Park every afternoon at five-thirty. I am sure she adores scandals, and that the sorrow of her life at present is that she can’t manage to have enough of them.
sir robert chiltern. [Writing.] Why do you say that?
lord goring. [Turning round.] Well, she wore far too much rouge last night, and not quite enough clothes. That is always a sign of despair in a woman.
sir robert chiltern. [Striking a bell.] But it is worth while my wiring to Vienna, is it not?
lord goring. It is always worth while asking a question, though it is not always worth while answering one.
sir robert chiltern. Is Mr. Trafford in his room?
mason. Yes, Sir Robert.
sir robert chiltern. [Puts what he has written into an envelope, which he then carefully closes.] Tell him to have this sent off in cipher at once. There must not be a moment’s delay.
mason. Yes, Sir Robert.
sir robert chiltern. Oh! just give that back to me again.
[Writes something on the envelope. mason then goes out with the letter.]
sir robert chiltern. She must have had some curious hold over Baron Arnheim. I wonder what it was.
lord goring. [Smiling.] I wonder.
sir robert chiltern. I will fight her to the death, as long as my wife knows nothing.
lord goring. [Strongly.] Oh, fight in any case—in any case.
sir robert chiltern. [With a gesture of despair.] If my wife found out, there would be little left to fight for. Well, as soon as I hear from Vienna, I shall let you know the result. It is a chance, just a chance, but I believe in it. And as I fought the age with its own weapons, I will fight her with her weapons. It is only fair, and she looks like a woman with a past, doesn’t she?
lord goring. Most pretty women do. But there is a fashion in pasts just as there is a fashion in frocks. Perhaps Mrs. Cheveley’s past is merely a slightly décolleté one, and they are excessively popular nowadays. Besides, my dear Robert, I should not build too high hopes on frightening Mrs. Cheveley. I should not fancy Mrs. Cheveley is a woman who would be easily frightened. She has survived all her creditors, and she shows wonderful presence of mind.
sir robert chiltern. Oh! I live on hopes now. I clutch at every chance. I feel like a man on a ship that is sinking. The water is round my feet, and the very air is bitter with storm. Hush! I hear my wife’s voice.
[Enter lady chiltern in walking dress.]
lady chiltern. Good afternoon, Lord Goring!
lord goring. Good afternoon, Lady Chiltern! Have you been in the Park?
lady chiltern. No; I have just come from the Woman’s Liberal Association, where, by the way, Robert, your name was received with loud applause, and now I have come in to have my tea. [To lord goring.] You will wait and have some tea, won’t you?
lord goring. I’ll wait for a short time, thanks.
lady chiltern. I will be back in a moment. I am only going to take my hat off.
lord goring. [In his most earnest manner.] Oh! please don’t. It is so pretty. One of the prettiest hats I ever saw. I hope the Woman’s Liberal Association received it with loud applause.
lady chiltern. [With a smile.] We have much more important work to do than look at each other’s bonnets, Lord Goring.
lord goring. Really? What sort of work?
lady chiltern. Oh! dull, useful, delightful things, Factory Acts, Female Inspectors, the Eight Hours’ Bill, the Parliamentary Franchise. . . . Everything, in fact, that you would find thoroughly uninteresting.
lord goring. And never bonnets?
lady chiltern. [With mock indignation.] Never bonnets, never!
[lady chiltern goes out through the door leading to her boudoir.]
sir robert chiltern. [Takes lord goring’s hand.] You have been a good friend to me, Arthur, a thoroughly good friend.
lord goring. I don’t know that I have been able to do much for you, Robert, as yet. In fact, I have not been able to do anything for you, as far as I can see. I am thoroughly disappointed with myself.
sir robert chiltern. You have enabled me to tell you the truth. That is something. The truth has always stifled me.
lord goring. Ah! the truth is a thing I get rid of as soon as possible! Bad habit, by the way. Makes one very unpopular at the club . . . with the older members. They call it being conceited. Perhaps it is.
sir robert chiltern. I would to God that I had been able to tell the truth . . . to live the truth. Ah! that is the great thing in life, to live the truth. [Sighs, and goes towards the door.] I’ll see you soon again, Arthur, shan’t I?
lord goring. Certainly. Whenever you like. I’m going to look in at the Bachelors’ Ball to-night, unless I find something better to do. But I’ll come round to-morrow morning. If you should want me to-night by any chance, send round a note to Curzon Street.
sir robert chiltern. Thank you.
[As he reaches the door, lady chiltern enters from her boudoir.]
lady chiltern. You are not going, Robert?
sir robert chiltern. I have some letters to write, dear.
lady chiltern. [Going to him.] You work too hard, Robert. You seem never to think of yourself, and you are looking so tired.
sir robert chiltern. It is nothing, dear, nothing.
[He kisses her and goes out.]
lady chiltern. [To lord goring.] Do sit down. I am so glad you have called. I want to talk to you about . . . well, not about bonnets, or the Woman’s Liberal Association. You take far too much interest in the first subject, and not nearly enough in the second.
lord goring. You want to talk to me about Mrs. Cheveley?
lady chiltern. Yes. You have guessed it. After you left last night I found out that what she had said was really true. Of course I made Robert write her a letter at once, withdrawing his promise.
lord goring. So he gave me to understand.
lady chiltern. To have kept it would have been the first stain on a career that has been stainless always. Robert must be above reproach. He is not like other men. He cannot afford to do what other men do. [She looks at lord goring, who remains silent.] Don’t you agree with me? You are Robert’s greatest friend. You are our greatest friend, Lord Goring. No one, except myself, knows Robert better than you do. He has no secrets from me, and I don’t think he has any from you.
lord goring. He certainly has no secrets from me. At least I don’t think so.
lady chiltern. Then am I not right in my estimate of him? I know I am right. But speak to me frankly.
lord goring. [Looking straight at her.] Quite frankly?
lady chiltern. Surely. You have nothing to conceal, have you?
lord goring. Nothing. But, my dear Lady Chiltern, I think, if you will allow me to say so, that in practical life—
lady chiltern. [Smiling.] Of which you know so little, Lord Goring—
lord goring. Of which I know nothing by experience, though I know something by observation. I think that in practical life there is something about success, actual success, that is a little unscrupulous, something about ambition that is unscrupulous always. Once a man has set his heart and soul on getting to a certain point, if he has to climb the crag, he climbs the crag; if he has to walk in the mire—
lady chiltern. Well?
lord goring. He walks in the mire. Of course I am only talking generally about life.
lady chiltern. [Gravely.] I hope so. Why do you look at me so strangely, Lord Goring?
lord goring. Lady Chiltern, I have sometimes thought that . . . perhaps you are a little hard in some of your views on life. I think that . . . often you don’t make sufficient allowances. In every nature there are elements of weakness, or worse than weakness. Supposing, for instance, that—that any public man, my father, or Lord Merton, or Robert, say, had, years ago, written some foolish letter to some one . . .
lady chiltern. What do you mean by a foolish letter?
lord goring. A letter gravely compromising one’s position. I am only putting an imaginary case.
lady chiltern. Robert is as incapable of doing a foolish thing as he is of doing a wrong thing.
lord goring. [After a long pause.] Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.
lady chiltern. Are you a Pessimist? What will the other dandies say? They will all have to go into mourning.
lord goring. [Rising.] No, Lady Chiltern, I am not a Pessimist. Indeed I am not sure that I quite know what Pessimism really means. All I do know is that life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity. It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of this world, whatever may be the explanation of the next. And if you are ever in trouble, Lady Chiltern, trust me absolutely, and I will help you in every way I can. If you ever want me, come to me for my assistance, and you shall have it. Come at once to me.
lady chiltern. [Looking at him in surprise.] Lord Goring, you are talking quite seriously. I don’t think I ever heard you talk seriously before.
lord goring. [Laughing.] You must excuse me, Lady Chiltern. It won’t occur again, if I can help it.
lady chiltern. But I like you to be serious.
[Enter mabel chiltern, in the most ravishing frock.]
mabel chiltern. Dear Gertrude, don’t say such a dreadful thing to Lord Goring. Seriousness would be very unbecoming to him. Good afternoon Lord Goring! Pray be as trivial as you can.
lord goring. I should like to, Miss Mabel, but I am afraid I am . . . a little out of practice this morning; and besides, I have to be going now.
mabel chiltern. Just when I have come in! What dreadful manners you have! I am sure you were very badly brought up.
lord goring. I was.
mabel chiltern. I wish I had brought you up!
lord goring. I am so sorry you didn’t.
mabel chiltern. It is too late now, I suppose?
lord goring. [Smiling.] I am not so sure.
mabel chiltern. Will you ride to-morrow morning?
lord goring. Yes, at ten.
mabel chiltern. Don’t forget.
lord goring. Of course I shan’t. By the way, Lady Chiltern, there is no list of your guests in The Morning Post of to-day. It has apparently been crowded out by the County Council, or the Lambeth Conference, or something equally boring. Could you let me have a list? I have a particular reason for asking you.
lady chiltern. I am sure Mr. Trafford will be able to give you one.
lord goring. Thanks, so much.
mabel chiltern. Tommy is the most useful person in London.
lord goring [Turning to her.] And who is the most ornamental?
mabel chiltern [Triumphantly.] I am.
lord goring. How clever of you to guess it! [Takes up his hat and cane.] Good-bye, Lady Chiltern! You will remember what I said to you, won’t you?
lady chiltern. Yes; but I don’t know why you said it to me.
lord goring. I hardly know myself. Good-bye, Miss Mabel!
mabel chiltern [With a little moue of disappointment.] I wish you were not going. I have had four wonderful adventures this morning; four and a half, in fact. You might stop and listen to some of them.
lord goring. How very selfish of you to have four and a half! There won’t be any left for me.
mabel chiltern. I don’t want you to have any. They would not be good for you.
lord goring. That is the first unkind thing you have ever said to me. How charmingly you said it! Ten to-morrow.
mabel chiltern. Sharp.
lord goring. Quite sharp. But don’t bring Mr. Trafford.
mabel chiltern. [With a little toss of the head.] Of course I shan’t bring Tommy Trafford. Tommy Trafford is in great disgrace.
lord goring. I am delighted to hear it. [Bows and goes out.]
mabel chiltern. Gertrude, I wish you would speak to Tommy Trafford.
lady chiltern. What has poor Mr. Trafford done this time? Robert says he is the best secretary he has ever had.
mabel chiltern. Well, Tommy has proposed to me again. Tommy really does nothing but propose to me. He proposed to me last night in the music-room, when I was quite unprotected, as there was an elaborate trio going on. I didn’t dare to make the smallest repartee, I need hardly tell you. If I had, it would have stopped the music at once. Musical people are so absurdly unreasonable. They always want one to be perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be absolutely deaf. Then he proposed to me in broad daylight this morning, in front of that dreadful statue of Achilles. Really, the things that go on in front of that work of art are quite appalling. The police should interfere. At luncheon I saw by the glare in his eye that he was going to propose again, and I just managed to check him in time by assuring him that I was a bimetallist. Fortunately I don’t know what bimetallism means. And I don’t believe anybody else does either. But the observation crushed Tommy for ten minutes. He looked quite shocked. And then Tommy is so annoying in the way he proposes. If he proposed at the top of his voice, I should not mind so much. That might produce some effect on the public. But he does it in a horrid confidential way. When Tommy wants to be romantic he talks to one just like a doctor. I am very fond of Tommy, but his methods of proposing are quite out of date. I wish, Gertrude, you would speak to him, and tell him that once a week is quite often enough to propose to any one, and that it should always be done in a manner that attracts some attention.
lady chiltern. Dear Mabel, don’t talk like that. Besides, Robert thinks very highly of Mr. Trafford. He believes he has a brilliant future before him.
mabel chiltern. Oh! I wouldn’t marry a man with a future before him for anything under the sun.
lady chiltern. Mabel!
mabel chiltern. I know, dear. You married a man with a future, didn’t you? But then Robert was a genius, and you have a noble, self-sacrificing character. You can stand geniuses. I have no character at all, and Robert is the only genius I could ever bear. As a rule, I think they are quite impossible. Geniuses talk so much, don’t they? Such a bad habit! And they are always thinking about themselves, when I want them to be thinking about me. I must go round now and rehearse at Lady Basildon’s. You remember, we are having tableaux, don’t you? The Triumph of something, I don’t know what! I hope it will be triumph of me. Only triumph I am really interested in at present. [Kisses lady chiltern and goes out; then comes running back.] Oh, Gertrude, do you know who is coming to see you? That dreadful Mrs. Cheveley, in a most lovely gown. Did you ask her?
lady chiltern. [Rising.] Mrs. Cheveley! Coming to see me? Impossible!
mabel chiltern. I assure you she is coming upstairs, as large as life and not nearly so natural.
lady chiltern. You need not wait, Mabel. Remember, Lady Basildon is expecting you.
mabel chiltern. Oh! I must shake hands with Lady Markby. She is delightful. I love being scolded by her.
mason. Lady Markby. Mrs. Cheveley.
[Enter lady markby and mrs. cheveley.]
lady chiltern. [Advancing to meet them.] Dear Lady Markby, how nice of you to come and see me! [Shakes hands with her, and bows somewhat distantly to mrs. cheveley.] Won’t you sit down, Mrs. Cheveley?
mrs. cheveley. Thanks. Isn’t that Miss Chiltern? I should like so much to know her.
lady chiltern. Mabel, Mrs. Cheveley wishes to know you.
[mabel chiltern gives a little nod.]
mrs. cheveley [Sitting down.] I thought your frock so charming last night, Miss Chiltern. So simple and . . . suitable.
mabel chiltern. Really? I must tell my dressmaker. It will be such a surprise to her. Good-bye, Lady Markby!
lady markby. Going already?
mabel chiltern. I am so sorry but I am obliged to. I am just off to rehearsal. I have got to stand on my head in some tableaux.
lady markby. On your head, child? Oh! I hope not. I believe it is most unhealthy. [Takes a seat on the sofa next lady chiltern.]
mabel chiltern. But it is for an excellent charity: in aid of the Undeserving, the only people I am really interested in. I am the secretary, and Tommy Trafford is treasurer.
mrs. cheveley. And what is Lord Goring?
mabel chiltern. Oh! Lord Goring is president.
mrs. cheveley. The post should suit him admirably, unless he has deteriorated since I knew him first.
lady markby. [Reflecting.] You are remarkably modern, Mabel. A little too modern, perhaps. Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly. I have known many instances of it.
mabel chiltern. What a dreadful prospect!
lady markby. Ah! my dear, you need not be nervous. You will always be as pretty as possible. That is the best fashion there is, and the only fashion that England succeeds in setting.
mabel chiltern. [With a curtsey.] Thank you so much, Lady Markby, for England . . . and myself. [Goes out.]
lady markby. [Turning to lady chiltern.] Dear Gertrude, we just called to know if Mrs. Cheveley’s diamond brooch has been found.
lady chiltern. Here?
mrs. cheveley. Yes. I missed it when I got back to Claridge’s, and I thought I might possibly have dropped it here.
lady chiltern. I have heard nothing about it. But I will send for the butler and ask. [Touches the bell.]
mrs. cheveley. Oh, pray don’t trouble, Lady Chiltern. I dare say I lost it at the Opera, before we came on here.
lady markby. Ah yes, I suppose it must have been at the Opera. The fact is, we all scramble and jostle so much nowadays that I wonder we have anything at all left on us at the end of an evening. I know myself that, when I am coming back from the Drawing Room, I always feel as if I hadn’t a shred on me, except a small shred of decent reputation, just enough to prevent the lower classes making painful observations through the windows of the carriage. The fact is that our Society is terribly over-populated. Really, some one should arrange a proper scheme of assisted emigration. It would do a great deal of good.
mrs. cheveley. I quite agree with you, Lady Markby. It is nearly six years since I have been in London for the Season, and I must say Society has become dreadfully mixed. One sees the oddest people everywhere.
lady markby. That is quite true, dear. But one needn’t know them. I’m sure I don’t know half the people who come to my house. Indeed, from all I hear, I shouldn’t like to.
lady chiltern. What sort of a brooch was it that you lost, Mrs. Cheveley?
mrs. cheveley. A diamond snake-brooch with a ruby, a rather large ruby.
lady markby. I thought you said there was a sapphire on the head, dear?
mrs. cheveley [Smiling.] No, lady Markby—a ruby.
lady markby. [Nodding her head.] And very becoming, I am quite sure.
lady chiltern. Has a ruby and diamond brooch been found in any of the rooms this morning, Mason?
mason. No, my lady.
mrs. cheveley. It really is of no consequence, Lady Chiltern. I am so sorry to have put you to any inconvenience.
lady chiltern. [Coldly.] Oh, it has been no inconvenience. That will do, Mason. You can bring tea.
lady markby. Well, I must say it is most annoying to lose anything. I remember once at Bath, years ago, losing in the Pump Room an exceedingly handsome cameo bracelet that Sir John had given me. I don’t think he has ever given me anything since, I am sorry to say. He has sadly degenerated. Really, this horrid House of Commons quite ruins our husbands for us. I think the Lower House by far the greatest blow to a happy married life that there has been since that terrible thing called the Higher Education of Women was invented.
lady chiltern. Ah! it is heresy to say that in this house, Lady Markby. Robert is a great champion of the Higher Education of Women, and so, I am afraid, am I.
mrs. cheveley. The higher education of men is what I should like to see. Men need it so sadly.
lady markby. They do, dear. But I am afraid such a scheme would be quite unpractical. I don’t think man has much capacity for development. He has got as far as he can, and that is not far, is it? With regard to women, well, dear Gertrude, you belong to the younger generation, and I am sure it is all right if you approve of it. In my time, of course, we were taught not to understand anything. That was the old system, and wonderfully interesting it was. I assure you that the amount of things I and my poor dear sister were taught not to understand was quite extraordinary. But modern women understand everything, I am told.
mrs. cheveley. Except their husbands. That is the one thing the modern woman never understands.
lady markby. And a very good thing too, dear, I dare say. It might break up many a happy home if they did. Not yours, I need hardly say, Gertrude. You have married a pattern husband. I wish I could say as much for myself. But since Sir John has taken to attending the debates regularly, which he never used to do in the good old days, his language has become quite impossible. He always seems to think that he is addressing the House, and consequently whenever he discusses the state of the agricultural labourer, or the Welsh Church, or something quite improper of that kind, I am obliged to send all the servants out of the room. It is not pleasant to see one’s own butler, who has been with one for twenty-three years, actually blushing at the side-board, and the footmen making contortions in corners like persons in circuses. I assure you my life will be quite ruined unless they send John at once to the Upper House. He won’t take any interest in politics then, will he? The House of Lords is so sensible. An assembly of gentlemen. But in his present state, Sir John is really a great trial. Why, this morning before breakfast was half over, he stood up on the hearthrug, put his hands in his pockets, and appealed to the country at the top of his voice. I left the table as soon as I had my second cup of tea, I need hardly say. But his violent language could be heard all over the house! I trust, Gertrude, that Sir Robert is not like that?
lady chiltern. But I am very much interested in politics, Lady Markby. I love to hear Robert talk about them.
lady markby. Well, I hope he is not as devoted to Blue Books as Sir John is. I don’t think they can be quite improving reading for any one.
mrs. cheveley [Languidly.] I have never read a Blue Book. I prefer books . . . in yellow covers.
lady markby. [Genially unconscious.] Yellow is a gayer colour, is it not? I used to wear yellow a good deal in my early days, and would do so now if Sir John was not so painfully personal in his observations, and a man on the question of dress is always ridiculous, is he not?
mrs. cheveley. Oh, no! I think men are the only authorities on dress.
lady markby. Really? One wouldn’t say so from the sort of hats they wear? would one?
[The butler enters, followed by the footman. Tea is set on a small table close to lady chiltern.]
lady chiltern. May I give you some tea, Mrs. Cheveley?
mrs. cheveley. Thanks. [The butler hands mrs. cheveley a cup of tea on a salver.]
lady chiltern. Some tea, Lady Markby?
lady markby. No thanks, dear. [The servants go out.] The fact is, I have promised to go round for ten minutes to see poor Lady Brancaster, who is in very great trouble. Her daughter, quite a well-brought-up girl, too, has actually become engaged to be married to a curate in Shropshire. It is very sad, very sad indeed. I can’t understand this modern mania for curates. In my time we girls saw them, of course, running about the place like rabbits. But we never took any notice of them, I need hardly say. But I am told that nowadays country society is quite honeycombed with them. I think it most irreligious. And then the eldest son has quarrelled with his father, and it is said that when they meet at the club Lord Brancaster always hides himself behind the money article in The Times. However, I believe that is quite a common occurrence nowadays and that they have to take in extra copies of The Times at all the clubs in St. James’s Street; there are so many sons who won’t have anything to do with their fathers, and so many fathers who won’t speak to their sons. I think myself, it is very much to be regretted.
mrs. cheveley. So do I. Fathers have so much to learn from their sons nowadays.
lady markby. Really, dear? What?
mrs. cheveley. The art of living. The only really Fine Art we have produced in modern times.
lady markby. [Shaking her head.] Ah! I am afraid Lord Brancaster knew a good deal about that. More than his poor wife ever did. [Turning to lady chiltern.] You know Lady Brancaster, don’t you, dear?
lady chiltern. Just slightly. She was staying at Langton last autumn, when we were there.
lady markby. Well, like all stout women, she looks the very picture of happiness, as no doubt you noticed. But there are many tragedies in her family, besides this affair of the curate. Her own sister, Mrs. Jekyll, had a most unhappy life; through no fault of her own, I am sorry to say. She ultimately was so broken-hearted that she went into a convent, or on to the operatic stage, I forget which. No; I think it was decorative art-needlework she took up. I know she had lost all sense of pleasure in life. [Rising.] And now, Gertrude, if you will allow me, I shall leave Mrs. Cheveley in your charge and call back for her in a quarter of an hour. Or perhaps, dear Mrs. Cheveley, you wouldn’t mind waiting in the carriage while I am with Lady Brancaster. As I intend it to be a visit of condolence, I shan’t stay long.
mrs. cheveley [Rising.] I don’t mind waiting in the carriage at all, provided there is somebody to look at one.
lady markby. Well, I hear the curate is always prowling about the house.
mrs. cheveley. I am afraid I am not fond of girl friends.
lady chiltern [Rising.] Oh, I hope Mrs. Cheveley will stay here a little. I should like to have a few minutes’ conversation with her.
mrs. cheveley. How very kind of you, Lady Chiltern! Believe me, nothing would give me greater pleasure.
lady markby. Ah! no doubt you both have many pleasant reminiscences of your schooldays to talk over together. Good-bye, dear Gertrude! Shall I see you at Lady Bonar’s to-night? She has discovered a wonderful new genius. He does . . . nothing at all, I believe. That is a great comfort, is it not?
lady chiltern. Robert and I are dining at home by ourselves to-night, and I don’t think I shall go anywhere afterwards. Robert, of course, will have to be in the House. But there is nothing interesting on.
lady markby. Dining at home by yourselves? Is that quite prudent? Ah, I forgot, your husband is an exception. Mine is the general rule, and nothing ages a woman so rapidly as having married the general rule. [Exit lady markby.]
mrs. cheveley. Wonderful woman, Lady Markby, isn’t she? Talks more and says less than anybody I ever met. She is made to be a public speaker. Much more so than her husband, though he is a typical Englishman, always dull and usually violent.
lady chiltern. [Makes no answer, but remains standing. There is a pause. Then the eyes of the two women meet. lady chiltern looks stern and pale. mrs. cheveley seem rather amused.] Mrs. Cheveley, I think it is right to tell you quite frankly that, had I known who you really were, I should not have invited you to my house last night.
mrs. cheveley [With an impertinent smile.] Really?
lady chiltern. I could not have done so.
mrs. cheveley. I see that after all these years you have not changed a bit, Gertrude.
lady chiltern. I never change.
mrs. cheveley [Elevating her eyebrows.] Then life has taught you nothing?
lady chiltern. It has taught me that a person who has once been guilty of a dishonest and dishonourable action may be guilty of it a second time, and should be shunned.
mrs. cheveley. Would you apply that rule to every one?
lady chiltern. Yes, to every one, without exception.
mrs. cheveley. Then I am sorry for you, Gertrude, very sorry for you.
lady chiltern. You see now, I was sure, that for many reasons any further acquaintance between us during your stay in London is quite impossible?
mrs. cheveley [Leaning back in her chair.] Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me. I am quite aware of that. And I have always detested you. And yet I have come here to do you a service.
lady chiltern. [Contemptuously.] Like the service you wished to render my husband last night, I suppose. Thank heaven, I saved him from that.
mrs. cheveley. [Starting to her feet.] It was you who made him write that insolent letter to me? It was you who made him break his promise?
lady chiltern. Yes.
mrs. cheveley. Then you must make him keep it. I give you till to-morrow morning—no more. If by that time your husband does not solemnly bind himself to help me in this great scheme in which I am interested—
lady chiltern. This fraudulent speculation—
mrs. cheveley. Call it what you choose. I hold your husband in the hollow of my hand, and if you are wise you will make him do what I tell him.
lady chiltern. [Rising and going towards her.] You are impertinent. What has my husband to do with you? With a woman like you?
mrs. cheveley [With a bitter laugh.] In this world like meets with like. It is because your husband is himself fraudulent and dishonest that we pair so well together. Between you and him there are chasms. He and I are closer than friends. We are enemies linked together. The same sin binds us.
lady chiltern. How dare you class my husband with yourself? How dare you threaten him or me? Leave my house. You are unfit to enter it.
[sir robert chiltern enters from behind. He hears his wife’s last words, and sees to whom they are addressed. He grows deadly pale.]
mrs. cheveley. Your house! A house bought with the price of dishonour. A house, everything in which has been paid for by fraud. [Turns round and sees sir robert chiltern.] Ask him what the origin of his fortune is! Get him to tell you how he sold to a stockbroker a Cabinet secret. Learn from him to what you owe your position.
lady chiltern. It is not true! Robert! It is not true!
mrs. cheveley. [Pointing at him with outstretched finger.] Look at him! Can he deny it? Does he dare to?
sir robert chiltern. Go! Go at once. You have done your worst now.
mrs. cheveley. My worst? I have not yet finished with you, with either of you. I give you both till to-morrow at noon. If by then you don’t do what I bid you to do, the whole world shall know the origin of Robert Chiltern.
[sir robert chiltern strikes the bell. Enter mason.]
sir robert chiltern. Show Mrs. Cheveley out.
[mrs. cheveley starts; then bows with somewhat exaggerated politeness to lady chiltern, who makes no sign of response. As she passes by sir robert chiltern, who is standing close to the door, she pauses for a moment and looks him straight in the face. She then goes out, followed by the servant, who closes the door after him. The husband and wife are left alone. lady chiltern stands like some one in a dreadful dream. Then she turns round and looks at her husband. She looks at him with strange eyes, as though she were seeing him for the first time.]
lady chiltern. You sold a Cabinet secret for money! You began your life with fraud! You built up your career on dishonour! Oh, tell me it is not true! Lie to me! Lie to me! Tell me it is not true!
sir robert chiltern. What this woman said is quite true. But, Gertrude, listen to me. You don’t realise how I was tempted. Let me tell you the whole thing. [Goes towards her.]
lady chiltern. Don’t come near me. Don’t touch me. I feel as if you had soiled me for ever. Oh! what a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask! You sold yourself for money. Oh! a common thief were better. You put yourself up to sale to the highest bidder! You were bought in the market. You lied to the whole world. And yet you will not lie to me.
sir robert chiltern. [Rushing towards her.] Gertrude! Gertrude!
lady chiltern. [Thrusting him back with outstretched hands.] No, don’t speak! Say nothing! Your voice wakes terrible memories—memories of things that made me love you—memories of words that made me love you—memories that now are horrible to me. And how I worshipped you! You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now—oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! the ideal of my life!
sir robert chiltern. There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals? We have all feet of clay, women as well as men; but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more, it may be, for that reason. It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us—else what use is love at all? All sins, except a sin against itself, Love should forgive. All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon. A man’s love is like that. It is wider, larger, more human than a woman’s. Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now. And so, last night you ruined my life for me—yes, ruined it! What this woman asked of me was nothing compared to what she offered to me. She offered security, peace, stability. The sin of my youth, that I had thought was buried, rose up in front of me, hideous, horrible, with its hands at my throat. I could have killed it for ever, sent it back into its tomb, destroyed its record, burned the one witness against me. You prevented me. No one but you, you know it. And now what is there before me but public disgrace, ruin, terrible shame, the mockery of the world, a lonely dishonoured life, a lonely dishonoured death, it may be, some day? Let women make no more ideals of men! let them not put them on altars and bow before them, or they may ruin other lives as completely as you—you whom I have so wildly loved—have ruined mine!
[He passes from the room. lady chiltern rushes towards him, but the door is closed when she reaches it. Pale with anguish, bewildered, helpless, she sways like a plant in the water. Her hands, outstretched, seem to tremble in the air like blossoms in the wind. Then she flings herself down beside a sofa and buries her face. Her sobs are like the sobs of a child.]