John Bull's Other Island/Act IV, § ii

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John Bull's Other Island by George Bernard Shaw
Act IV, § ii


KEEGAN. You must also allow for the fact that I am mad.

NORA. Ah, don't talk like that, Mr Keegan.

BROADBENT [encouragingly]. Not at all, not at all. Only a whimsical Irishman, eh?

LARRY. Are you really mad, Mr Keegan?

AUNT JUDY [shocked]. Oh, Larry, how could you ask him such a thing?

LARRY. I don't think Mr Keegan minds. [To Keegan] What's the true version of the story of that black man you confessed on his deathbed?

KEEGAN. What story have you heard about that?

LARRY. I am informed that when the devil came for the black heathen, he took off your head and turned it three times round before putting it on again; and that your head's been turned ever since.

NORA [reproachfully]. Larry!

KEEGAN [blandly]. That is not quite what occurred. [He collects himself for a serious utterance: they attend involuntarily]. I heard that a black man was dying, and that the people were afraid to go near him. When I went to the place I found an elderly Hindoo, who told me one of those tales of unmerited misfortune, of cruel ill luck, of relentless persecution by destiny, which sometimes wither the commonplaces of consolation on the lips of a priest. But this man did not complain of his misfortunes. They were brought upon him, he said, by sins committed in a former existence. Then, without a word of comfort from me, he died with a clear-eyed resignation that my most earnest exhortations rarely produced in a Christian, and left me sitting there by his bedside with the mystery of this world suddenly revealed to me.

BROADBENT. That is a remarkable tribute to the liberty of conscience enjoyed by the subjects of our Indian Empire.

LARRY. No doubt; but may we venture to ask what is the mystery of this world?

KEEGAN. This world, sir, is very clearly a place of torment and penance, a place where the fool flourishes and the good and wise are hated and persecuted, a place where men and women torture one another in the name of love; where children are scourged and enslaved in the name of parental duty and education; where the weak in body are poisoned and mutilated in the name of healing, and the weak in character are put to the horrible torture of imprisonment, not for hours but for years, in the name of justice. It is a place where the hardest toil is a welcome refuge from the horror and tedium of pleasure, and where charity and good works are done only for hire to ransom the souls of the spoiler and the sybarite. Now, sir, there is only one place of horror and torment known to my religion; and that place is hell. Therefore it is plain to me that this earth of ours must be hell, and that we are all here, as the Indian revealed to me—perhaps he was sent to reveal it to me to expiate crimes committed by us in a former existence.

AUNT JUDY [awestruck]. Heaven save us, what a thing to say!

CORNELIUS [sighing]. It's a queer world: that's certain.

BROADBENT. Your idea is a very clever one, Mr Keegan: really most brilliant: I should never have thought of it. But it seems to me—if I may say so—that you are overlooking the fact that, of the evils you describe, some are absolutely necessary for the preservation of society, and others are encouraged only when the Tories are in office.

LARRY. I expect you were a Tory in a former existence; and that is why you are here.

BROADBENT [with conviction]. Never, Larry, never. But leaving politics out of the question, I find the world quite good enough for me: rather a jolly place, in fact.

KEEGAN [looking at him with quiet wonder]. You are satisfied?

BROADBENT. As a reasonable man, yes. I see no evils in the world—except, of course, natural evils—that cannot be remedied by freedom, self-government, and English institutions. I think so, not because I am an Englishman, but as a matter of common sense.

KEEGAN. You feel at home in the world, then?

BROADBENT. Of course. Don't you?

KEEGAN [from the very depths of his nature]. No.

BROADBENT [breezily]. Try phosphorus pills. I always take them when my brain is overworked. I'll give you the address in Oxford Street.

KEEGAN [enigmatically: rising]. Miss Doyle: my wandering fit has come on me: will you excuse me?

AUNT JUDY. To be sure: you know you can come in n nout as you like.

KEEGAN. We can finish the game some other time, Miss Reilly. [He goes for his hat and stick.]

NORA. No: I'm out with you [she disarranges the pieces and rises]. I was too wicked in a former existence to play backgammon with a good man like you.

AUNT JUDY [whispering to her]. Whisht, whisht, child! Don't set him back on that again.

KEEGAN [to Nora]. When I look at you, I think that perhaps Ireland is only purgatory, after all. [He passes on to the garden door].

NORA. Galong with you!

BROADBENT [whispering to Cornelius]. Has he a vote?

CORNELIUS [nodding]. Yes. An there's lots'll vote the way he tells them.

KEEGAN [at the garden door, with gentle gravity]. Good evening, Mr Broadbent. You have set me thinking. Thank you.

BROADBENT [delighted, hurrying across to him to shake hands]. No, really? You find that contact with English ideas is stimulating, eh?

KEEGAN. I am never tired of hearing you talk, Mr Broadbent.

BROADBENT [modestly remonstrating]. Oh come! come!

KEEGAN. Yes, I assure you. You are an extremely interesting man. [He goes out].

BROADBENT [enthusiastically]. What a nice chap! What an intelligent, interesting fellow! By the way, I'd better have a wash. [He takes up his coat and cap, and leaves the room through the inner door].

Nora returns to her chair and shuts up the backgammon board.

AUNT JUDY. Keegan's very queer to-day. He has his mad fit on him.

CORNELIUS [worried and bitter]. I wouldn't say but he's right after all. It's a contrairy world. [To Larry]. Why would you be such a fool as to let him take the seat in parliament from you?

LARRY [glancing at Nora]. He will take more than that from me before he's done here.

CORNELIUS. I wish he'd never set foot in my house, bad luck to his fat face! D'ye think he'd lend me 300 pounds on the farm, Larry? When I'm so hard up, it seems a waste o money not to mortgage it now it's me own.

LARRY. I can lend you 300 pounds on it.

CORNELIUS. No, no: I wasn't putn in for that. When I die and leave you the farm I should like to be able to feel that it was all me own, and not half yours to start with. Now I'll take me oath Barney Doarn's goin to ask Broadbent to lend him 500 pounds on the mill to put in a new hweel; for the old one'll harly hol together. An Haffigan can't sleep with covetn that corner o land at the foot of his medda that belongs to Doolan. He'll have to mortgage to buy it. I may as well be first as last. D'ye think Broadbent'd len me a little?

LARRY. I'm quite sure he will.

CORNELIUS. Is he as ready as that? Would he len me five hunderd, d'ye think?

LARRY. He'll lend you more than the land'll ever be worth to you; so for Heaven's sake be prudent.

CORNELIUS [judicially]. All right, all right, me son: I'll be careful. I'm goin into the office for a bit. [He withdraws through the inner door, obviously to prepare his application to Broadbent].

AUNT JUDY [indignantly]. As if he hadn't seen enough o borryin when he was an agent without beginnin borryin himself! [She rises]. I'll bory him, so I will. [She puts her knitting on the table and follows him out, with a resolute air that bodes trouble for Cornelius].

Larry and Nora are left together for the first time since his arrival. She looks at him with a smile that perishes as she sees him aimlessly rocking his chair, and reflecting, evidently not about her, with his lips pursed as if he were whistling. With a catch in her throat she takes up Aunt Judy's knitting, and makes a pretence of going on with it.

NORA. I suppose it didn't seem very long to you.

LARRY [starting]. Eh? What didn't?

NORA. The eighteen years you've been away.

LARRY. Oh, that! No: it seems hardly more than a week. I've been so busy—had so little time to think.

NORA. I've had nothin else to do but think.

LARRY. That was very bad for you. Why didn't you give it up? Why did you stay here?

NORA. Because nobody sent for me to go anywhere else, I suppose. That's why.

LARRY. Yes: one does stick frightfully in the same place, unless some external force comes and routs one out. [He yawns slightly; but as she looks up quickly at him, he pulls himself together and rises with an air of waking up and getting to work cheerfully to make himself agreeable]. And how have you been all this time?

NORA. Quite well, thank you.

LARRY. That's right. [Suddenly finding that he has nothing else to say, and being ill at ease in consequence, he strolls about the room humming a certain tune from Offenbach's Whittington].

NORA [struggling with her tears]. Is that all you have to say to me, Larry?

LARRY. Well, what is there to say? You see, we know each other so well.

NORA [a little consoled]. Yes: of course we do. [He does not reply]. I wonder you came back at all.

LARRY. I couldn't help it. [She looks up affectionately]. Tom made me. [She looks down again quickly to conceal the effect of this blow. He whistles another stave; then resumes]. I had a sort of dread of returning to Ireland. I felt somehow that my luck would turn if I came back. And now here I am, none the worse.

NORA. Praps it's a little dull for you.

LARRY. No: I haven't exhausted the interest of strolling about the old places and remembering and romancing about them.

NORA [hopefully]. Oh! You DO remember the places, then?

LARRY. Of course. They have associations.

NORA [not doubting that the associations are with her]. I suppose so.

LARRY. M'yes. I can remember particular spots where I had long fits of thinking about the countries I meant to get to when I escaped from Ireland. America and London, and sometimes Rome and the east.

NORA [deeply mortified]. Was that all you used to be thinking about?

LARRY. Well, there was precious little else to think about here, my dear Nora, except sometimes at sunset, when one got maudlin and called Ireland Erin, and imagined one was remembering the days of old, and so forth. [He whistles Let Erin Remember].

NORA. Did jever get a letter I wrote you last February?

LARRY. Oh yes; and I really intended to answer it. But I haven't had a moment; and I knew you wouldn't mind. You see, I am so afraid of boring you by writing about affairs you don't understand and people you don't know! And yet what else have I to write about? I begin a letter; and then I tear it up again. The fact is, fond as we are of one another, Nora, we have so little in common—I mean of course the things one can put in a letter— that correspondence is apt to become the hardest of hard work.

NORA. Yes: it's hard for me to know anything about you if you never tell me anything.

LARRY [pettishly]. Nora: a man can't sit down and write his life day by day when he's tired enough with having lived it.

NORA. I'm not blaming you.

LARRY [looking at her with some concern]. You seem rather out of spirits. [Going closer to her, anxiously and tenderly] You haven't got neuralgia, have you?

NORA. No.

LARRY [reassured]. I get a touch of it sometimes when I am below par. [absently, again strolling about] Yes, yes. [He begins to hum again, and soon breaks into articulate melody].

Though summer smiles on here for ever,
Though not a leaf falls from the tree,
Tell England I'll forget her never,

[Nora puts dawn the knitting and stares at him].

O wind that blows across the sea.

[With much expression]

Tell England I'll forget her ne-e-e-e-ver
O wind that blows acro-oss—

[Here the melody soars out of his range. He continues falsetto, but changes the tune to Let Erin Remember]. I'm afraid I'm boring you, Nora, though you're too kind to say so.

NORA. Are you wanting to get back to England already?

LARRY. Not at all. Not at all.

NORA. That's a queer song to sing to me if you're not.

LARRY. The song! Oh, it doesn't mean anything: it's by a German Jew, like most English patriotic sentiment. Never mind me, my dear: go on with your work; and don't let me bore you.

NORA [bitterly]. Rosscullen isn't such a lively place that I am likely to be bored by you at our first talk together after eighteen years, though you don't seem to have much to say to me after all.

LARRY. Eighteen years is a devilish long time, Nora. Now if it had been eighteen minutes, or even eighteen months, we should be able to pick up the interrupted thread, and chatter like two magpies. But as it is, I have simply nothing to say; and you seem to have less.

NORA. I—[her tears choke her; but the keeps up appearances desperately].

LARRY [quite unconscious of his cruelty]. In a week or so we shall be quite old friends again. Meanwhile, as I feel that I am not making myself particularly entertaining, I'll take myself off. Tell Tom I've gone for a stroll over the hill.

NORA. You seem very fond of Tom, as you call him.

LARRY [the triviality going suddenly out of his voice]. Yes I'm fond of Tom.

NORA. Oh, well, don't let me keep you from him.

LARRY. I know quite well that my departure will be a relief. Rather a failure, this first meeting after eighteen years, eh? Well, never mind: these great sentimental events always are failures; and now the worst of it's over anyhow. [He goes out through the garden door].

Nora, left alone, struggles wildly to save herself from breaking down, and then drops her face on the table and gives way to a convulsion of crying. Her sobs shake her so that she can hear nothing; and she has no suspicion that she is no longer alone until her head and breast are raised by Broadbent, who, returning newly washed and combed through the inner door, has seen her condition, first with surprise and concern, and then with an emotional disturbance that quite upsets him.

BROADBENT. Miss Reilly. Miss Reilly. What's the matter? Don't cry: I can't stand it: you mustn't cry. [She makes a choked effort to speak, so painful that he continues with impulsive sympathy] No: don't try to speak: it's all right now. Have your cry out: never mind me: trust me. [Gathering her to him, and babbling consolatorily] Cry on my chest: the only really comfortable place for a woman to cry is a man's chest: a real man, a real friend. A good broad chest, eh? not less than forty-two inches—no: don't fuss: never mind the conventions: we're two friends, aren't we? Come now, come, come! It's all right and comfortable and happy now, isn't it?

NORA [through her tears]. Let me go. I want me hankerchief.

BROADBENT [holding her with one arm and producing a large silk handkerchief from his breast pocket]. Here's a handkerchief. Let me [he dabs her tears dry with it]. Never mind your own: it's too small: it's one of those wretched little cambric handkerchiefs—

NORA [sobbing]. Indeed it's a common cotton one.

BROADBENT. Of course it's a common cotton one—silly little cotton one—not good enough for the dear eyes of Nora Cryna—

NORA [spluttering into a hysterical laugh and clutching him convulsively with her fingers while she tries to stifle her laughter against his collar bone]. Oh don't make me laugh: please don't make me laugh.

BROADBENT [terrified]. I didn't mean to, on my soul. What is it? What is it?

NORA. Nora Creena, Nora Creena.

BROADBENT [patting her]. Yes, yes, of course, Nora Creena, Nora acushla [he makes cush rhyme to plush].

NORA. Acushla [she makes cush rhyme to bush].

BROADBENT. Oh, confound the language! Nora darling—my Nora—the Nora I love—

NORA [shocked into propriety]. You mustn't talk like that to me.

BROADBENT [suddenly becoming prodigiously solemn and letting her go]. No, of course not. I don't mean it—at least I do mean it; but I know it's premature. I had no right to take advantage of your being a little upset; but I lost my self-control for a moment.

NORA [wondering at him]. I think you're a very kindhearted man, Mr Broadbent; but you seem to me to have no self-control at all [she turns her face away with a keen pang of shame and adds] no more than myself.

BROADBENT [resolutely]. Oh yes, I have: you should see me when I am really roused: then I have TREMENDOUS self-control. Remember: we have been alone together only once before; and then, I regret to say, I was in a disgusting state.

NORA. Ah no, Mr Broadbent: you weren't disgusting.

BROADBENT [mercilessly]. Yes I was: nothing can excuse it: perfectly beastly. It must have made a most unfavorable impression on you.

NORA. Oh, sure it's all right. Say no more about that.

BROADBENT. I must, Miss Reilly: it is my duty. I shall not detain you long. May I ask you to sit down. [He indicates her chair with oppressive solemnity. She sits down wondering. He then, with the same portentous gravity, places a chair for himself near her; sits down; and proceeds to explain]. First, Miss Reilly, may I say that I have tasted nothing of an alcoholic nature today.

NORA. It doesn't seem to make as much difference in you as it would in an Irishman, somehow.

BROADBENT. Perhaps not. Perhaps not. I never quite lose myself.

NORA [consolingly]. Well, anyhow, you're all right now.

BROADBENT [fervently]. Thank you, Miss Reilly: I am. Now we shall get along. [Tenderly, lowering his voice] Nora: I was in earnest last night. [Nora moves as if to rise]. No: one moment. You must not think I am going to press you for an answer before you have known me for 24 hours. I am a reasonable man, I hope; and I am prepared to wait as long as you like, provided you will give me some small assurance that the answer will not be unfavorable.