The Importance of Being Earnest/Act III
Morning-room at the Manor House.
[Gwendolen and Cecily are at the window, looking out into the garden.]
Gwendolen. The fact that they did not follow us at once into the house, as any one else would have done, seems to me to show that they have some sense of shame left.
Cecily. They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance.
Gwendolen. [After a pause.] They don’t seem to notice us at all. Couldn’t you cough?
Cecily. But I haven’t got a cough.
Gwendolen. They’re looking at us. What effrontery!
Cecily. They’re approaching. That’s very forward of them.
Gwendolen. Let us preserve a dignified silence.
Cecily. Certainly. It’s the only thing to do now. [Enter Jack followed by Algernon. They whistle some dreadful popular air from a British Opera.]
Gwendolen. This dignified silence seems to produce an unpleasant effect.
Cecily. A most distasteful one.
Gwendolen. But we will not be the first to speak.
Cecily. Certainly not.
Gwendolen. Mr. Worthing, I have something very particular to ask you. Much depends on your reply.
Cecily. Gwendolen, your common sense is invaluable. Mr. Moncrieff, kindly answer me the following question. Why did you pretend to be my guardian’s brother?
Algernon. In order that I might have an opportunity of meeting you.
Cecily. [To Gwendolen.] That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Gwendolen. Yes, dear, if you can believe him.
Cecily. I don’t. But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.
Gwendolen. True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. Mr. Worthing, what explanation can you offer to me for pretending to have a brother? Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible?
Jack. Can you doubt it, Miss Fairfax?
Gwendolen. I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them. This is not the moment for German scepticism. [Moving to Cecily.] Their explanations appear to be quite satisfactory, especially Mr. Worthing’s. That seems to me to have the stamp of truth upon it.
Cecily. I am more than content with what Mr. Moncrieff said. His voice alone inspires one with absolute credulity.
Gwendolen. Then you think we should forgive them?
Cecily. Yes. I mean no.
Gwendolen. True! I had forgotten. There are principles at stake that one cannot surrender. Which of us should tell them? The task is not a pleasant one.
Cecily. Could we not both speak at the same time?
Gwendolen. An excellent idea! I nearly always speak at the same time as other people. Will you take the time from me?
Cecily. Certainly. [Gwendolen beats time with uplifted finger.]
Gwendolen and Cecily [Speaking together.] Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!
Jack and Algernon [Speaking together.] Our Christian names! Is that all? But we are going to be christened this afternoon.
Gwendolen. [To Jack.] For my sake you are prepared to do this terrible thing?
Jack. I am.
Cecily. [To Algernon.] To please me you are ready to face this fearful ordeal?
Algernon. I am!
Gwendolen. How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us.
Jack. We are. [Clasps hands with Algernon.]
Cecily. They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing.
Gwendolen. [To Jack.] Darling!
Algernon. [To Cecily.] Darling! [They fall into each other’s arms.]
[Enter Merriman. When he enters he coughs loudly, seeing the situation.]
Merriman. Ahem! Ahem! Lady Bracknell!
Jack. Good heavens!
[Enter Lady Bracknell. The couples separate in alarm. Exit Merriman.]
Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen! What does this mean?
Gwendolen. Merely that I am engaged to be married to Mr. Worthing, mamma.
Lady Bracknell. Come here. Sit down. Sit down immediately. Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old. [Turns to Jack.] Apprised, sir, of my daughter’s sudden flight by her trusty maid, whose confidence I purchased by means of a small coin, I followed her at once by a luggage train. Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought. I do not propose to undeceive him. Indeed I have never undeceived him on any question. I would consider it wrong. But of course, you will clearly understand that all communication between yourself and my daughter must cease immediately from this moment. On this point, as indeed on all points, I am firm.
Jack. I am engaged to be married to Gwendolen Lady Bracknell!
Lady Bracknell. You are nothing of the kind, sir. And now, as regards Algernon! . . . Algernon!
Algernon. Yes, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. May I ask if it is in this house that your invalid friend Mr. Bunbury resides?
Algernon. [Stammering.] Oh! No! Bunbury doesn’t live here. Bunbury is somewhere else at present. In fact, Bunbury is dead.
Lady Bracknell. Dead! When did Mr. Bunbury die? His death must have been extremely sudden.
Algernon. [Airily.] Oh! I killed Bunbury this afternoon. I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon.
Lady Bracknell. What did he die of?
Algernon. Bunbury? Oh, he was quite exploded.
Lady Bracknell. Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.
Algernon. My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out! The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.
Lady Bracknell. He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice. And now that we have finally got rid of this Mr. Bunbury, may I ask, Mr. Worthing, who is that young person whose hand my nephew Algernon is now holding in what seems to me a peculiarly unnecessary manner?
Jack. That lady is Miss Cecily Cardew, my ward. [Lady Bracknell bows coldly to Cecily.]
Algernon. I am engaged to be married to Cecily, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. I beg your pardon?
Cecily. Mr. Moncrieff and I are engaged to be married, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell. [With a shiver, crossing to the sofa and sitting down.] I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance. I think some preliminary inquiry on my part would not be out of place. Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. [Jack looks perfectly furious, but restrains himself.]
Jack. [In a clear, cold voice.] Miss Cardew is the grand-daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Cardew of 149 Belgrave Square, S.W.; Gervase Park, Dorking, Surrey; and the Sporran, Fifeshire, N.B.
Lady Bracknell. That sounds not unsatisfactory. Three addresses always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen. But what proof have I of their authenticity?
Jack. I have carefully preserved the Court Guides of the period. They are open to your inspection, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell. [Grimly.] I have known strange errors in that publication.
Jack. Miss Cardew’s family solicitors are Messrs. Markby, Markby, and Markby.
Lady Bracknell. Markby, Markby, and Markby? A firm of the very highest position in their profession. Indeed I am told that one of the Mr. Markby’s is occasionally to be seen at dinner parties. So far I am satisfied.
Jack. [Very irritably.] How extremely kind of you, Lady Bracknell! I have also in my possession, you will be pleased to hear, certificates of Miss Cardew’s birth, baptism, whooping cough, registration, vaccination, confirmation, and the measles; both the German and the English variety.
Lady Bracknell. Ah! A life crowded with incident, I see; though perhaps somewhat too exciting for a young girl. I am not myself in favour of premature experiences. [Rises, looks at her watch.] Gwendolen! the time approaches for our departure. We have not a moment to lose. As a matter of form, Mr. Worthing, I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?
Jack. Oh! about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds. That is all. Goodbye, Lady Bracknell. So pleased to have seen you.
Lady Bracknell. [Sitting down again.] A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces. [To Cecily.] Come over here, dear. [Cecily goes across.] Pretty child! your dress is sadly simple, and your hair seems almost as Nature might have left it. But we can soon alter all that. A thoroughly experienced French maid produces a really marvellous result in a very brief space of time. I remember recommending one to young Lady Lancing, and after three months her own husband did not know her.
Jack. And after six months nobody knew her.
Lady Bracknell. [Glares at Jack for a few moments. Then bends, with a practised smile, to Cecily.] Kindly turn round, sweet child. [Cecily turns completely round.] No, the side view is what I want. [Cecily presents her profile.] Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present. Algernon!
Algernon. Yes, Aunt Augusta!
Lady Bracknell. There are distinct social possibilities in Miss Cardew’s profile.
Algernon. Cecily is the sweetest, dearest, prettiest girl in the whole world. And I don’t care twopence about social possibilities.
Lady Bracknell. Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that. [To Cecily.] Dear child, of course you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. Well, I suppose I must give my consent.
Algernon. Thank you, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. Cecily, you may kiss me!
Cecily. [Kisses her.] Thank you, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell. You may also address me as Aunt Augusta for the future.
Cecily. Thank you, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. The marriage, I think, had better take place quite soon.
Algernon. Thank you, Aunt Augusta.
Cecily. Thank you, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell. To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Jack. I beg your pardon for interrupting you, Lady Bracknell, but this engagement is quite out of the question. I am Miss Cardew’s guardian, and she cannot marry without my consent until she comes of age. That consent I absolutely decline to give.
Lady Bracknell. Upon what grounds may I ask? Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?
Jack. It pains me very much to have to speak frankly to you, Lady Bracknell, about your nephew, but the fact is that I do not approve at all of his moral character. I suspect him of being untruthful. [Algernon and Cecily look at him in indignant amazement.]
Lady Bracknell. Untruthful! My nephew Algernon? Impossible! He is an Oxonian.
Jack. I fear there can be no possible doubt about the matter. This afternoon during my temporary absence in London on an important question of romance, he obtained admission to my house by means of the false pretence of being my brother. Under an assumed name he drank, I’ve just been informed by my butler, an entire pint bottle of my Perrier-Jouet, Brut, ’89; wine I was specially reserving for myself. Continuing his disgraceful deception, he succeeded in the course of the afternoon in alienating the affections of my only ward. He subsequently stayed to tea, and devoured every single muffin. And what makes his conduct all the more heartless is, that he was perfectly well aware from the first that I have no brother, that I never had a brother, and that I don’t intend to have a brother, not even of any kind. I distinctly told him so myself yesterday afternoon.
Lady Bracknell. Ahem! Mr. Worthing, after careful consideration I have decided entirely to overlook my nephew’s conduct to you.
Jack. That is very generous of you, Lady Bracknell. My own decision, however, is unalterable. I decline to give my consent.
Lady Bracknell. [To Cecily.] Come here, sweet child. [Cecily goes over.] How old are you, dear?
Cecily. Well, I am really only eighteen, but I always admit to twenty when I go to evening parties.
Lady Bracknell. You are perfectly right in making some slight alteration. Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating . . . [In a meditative manner.] Eighteen, but admitting to twenty at evening parties. Well, it will not be very long before you are of age and free from the restraints of tutelage. So I don’t think your guardian’s consent is, after all, a matter of any importance.
Jack. Pray excuse me, Lady Bracknell, for interrupting you again, but it is only fair to tell you that according to the terms of her grandfather’s will Miss Cardew does not come legally of age till she is thirty-five.
Lady Bracknell. That does not seem to me to be a grave objection. Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago now. I see no reason why our dear Cecily should not be even still more attractive at the age you mention than she is at present. There will be a large accumulation of property.
Cecily. Algy, could you wait for me till I was thirty-five?
Algernon. Of course I could, Cecily. You know I could.
Cecily. Yes, I felt it instinctively, but I couldn’t wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It always makes me rather cross. I am not punctual myself, I know, but I do like punctuality in others, and waiting, even to be married, is quite out of the question.
Algernon. Then what is to be done, Cecily?
Cecily. I don’t know, Mr. Moncrieff.
Lady Bracknell. My dear Mr. Worthing, as Miss Cardew states positively that she cannot wait till she is thirty-five—a remark which I am bound to say seems to me to show a somewhat impatient nature—I would beg of you to reconsider your decision.
Jack. But my dear Lady Bracknell, the matter is entirely in your own hands. The moment you consent to my marriage with Gwendolen, I will most gladly allow your nephew to form an alliance with my ward.
Lady Bracknell. [Rising and drawing herself up.] You must be quite aware that what you propose is out of the question.
Jack. Then a passionate celibacy is all that any of us can look forward to.
Lady Bracknell. That is not the destiny I propose for Gwendolen. Algernon, of course, can choose for himself. [Pulls out her watch.] Come, dear, [Gwendolen rises] we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.
[Enter Dr. Chasuble.]
Chasuble. Everything is quite ready for the christenings.
Lady Bracknell. The christenings, sir! Is not that somewhat premature?
Chasuble. [Looking rather puzzled, and pointing to Jack and Algernon.] Both these gentlemen have expressed a desire for immediate baptism.
Lady Bracknell. At their age? The idea is grotesque and irreligious! Algernon, I forbid you to be baptized. I will not hear of such excesses. Lord Bracknell would be highly displeased if he learned that that was the way in which you wasted your time and money.
Chasuble. Am I to understand then that there are to be no christenings at all this afternoon?
Jack. I don’t think that, as things are now, it would be of much practical value to either of us, Dr. Chasuble.
Chasuble. I am grieved to hear such sentiments from you, Mr. Worthing. They savour of the heretical views of the Anabaptists, views that I have completely refuted in four of my unpublished sermons. However, as your present mood seems to be one peculiarly secular, I will return to the church at once. Indeed, I have just been informed by the pew-opener that for the last hour and a half Miss Prism has been waiting for me in the vestry.
Lady Bracknell. [Starting.] Miss Prism! Did I hear you mention a Miss Prism?
Chasuble. Yes, Lady Bracknell. I am on my way to join her.
Lady Bracknell. Pray allow me to detain you for a moment. This matter may prove to be one of vital importance to Lord Bracknell and myself. Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?
Chasuble. [Somewhat indignantly.] She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.
Lady Bracknell. It is obviously the same person. May I ask what position she holds in your household?
Chasuble. [Severely.] I am a celibate, madam.
Jack. [Interposing.] Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell, has been for the last three years Miss Cardew’s esteemed governess and valued companion.
Lady Bracknell. In spite of what I hear of her, I must see her at once. Let her be sent for.
Chasuble. [Looking off.] She approaches; she is nigh.
[Enter Miss Prism hurriedly.]
Miss Prism. I was told you expected me in the vestry, dear Canon. I have been waiting for you there for an hour and three-quarters. [Catches sight of Lady Bracknell, who has fixed her with a stony glare. Miss Prism grows pale and quails. She looks anxiously round as if desirous to escape.]
Lady Bracknell. [In a severe, judicial voice.] Prism! [Miss Prism bows her head in shame.] Come here, Prism! [Miss Prism approaches in a humble manner.] Prism! Where is that baby? [General consternation. The Canon starts back in horror. Algernon and Jack pretend to be anxious to shield Cecily and Gwendolen from hearing the details of a terrible public scandal.] Twenty-eight years ago, Prism, you left Lord Bracknell’s house, Number 104, Upper Grosvenor Street, in charge of a perambulator that contained a baby of the male sex. You never returned. A few weeks later, through the elaborate investigations of the Metropolitan police, the perambulator was discovered at midnight, standing by itself in a remote corner of Bayswater. It contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality. [Miss Prism starts in involuntary indignation.] But the baby was not there! [Every one looks at Miss Prism.] Prism! Where is that baby? [A pause.]
Miss Prism. Lady Bracknell, I admit with shame that I do not know. I only wish I did. The plain facts of the case are these. On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.
Jack. [Who has been listening attentively.] But where did you deposit the hand-bag?
Miss Prism. Do not ask me, Mr. Worthing.
Jack. Miss Prism, this is a matter of no small importance to me. I insist on knowing where you deposited the hand-bag that contained that infant.
Miss Prism. I left it in the cloak-room of one of the larger railway stations in London.
Jack. What railway station?
Miss Prism. [Quite crushed.] Victoria. The Brighton line. [Sinks into a chair.]
Jack. I must retire to my room for a moment. Gwendolen, wait here for me.
Gwendolen. If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life. [Exit Jack in great excitement.]
Chasuble. What do you think this means, Lady Bracknell?
Lady Bracknell. I dare not even suspect, Dr. Chasuble. I need hardly tell you that in families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur. They are hardly considered the thing.
[Noises heard overhead as if some one was throwing trunks about. Every one looks up.]
Cecily. Uncle Jack seems strangely agitated.
Chasuble. Your guardian has a very emotional nature.
Lady Bracknell. This noise is extremely unpleasant. It sounds as if he was having an argument. I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.
Chasuble. [Looking up.] It has stopped now. [The noise is redoubled.]
Lady Bracknell. I wish he would arrive at some conclusion.
Gwendolen. This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. [Enter Jack with a hand-bag of black leather in his hand.]
Jack. [Rushing over to Miss Prism.] Is this the hand-bag, Miss Prism? Examine it carefully before you speak. The happiness of more than one life depends on your answer.
Miss Prism. [Calmly.] It seems to be mine. Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.
Jack. [In a pathetic voice.] Miss Prism, more is restored to you than this hand-bag. I was the baby you placed in it.
Miss Prism. [Amazed.] You?
Jack. [Embracing her.] Yes . . . mother!
Miss Prism. [Recoiling in indignant astonishment.] Mr. Worthing! I am unmarried!
Jack. Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? Mother, I forgive you. [Tries to embrace her again.]
Miss Prism. [Still more indignant.] Mr. Worthing, there is some error. [Pointing to Lady Bracknell.] There is the lady who can tell you who you really are.
Jack. [After a pause.] Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?
Lady Bracknell. I am afraid that the news I have to give you will not altogether please you. You are the son of my poor sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and consequently Algernon’s elder brother.
Jack. Algy’s elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother? [Seizes hold of Algernon.] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.
Algernon. Well, not till to-day, old boy, I admit. I did my best, however, though I was out of practice.
Gwendolen. [To Jack.] My own! But what own are you? What is your Christian name, now that you have become some one else?
Jack. Good heavens! . . . I had quite forgotten that point. Your decision on the subject of my name is irrevocable, I suppose?
Gwendolen. I never change, except in my affections.
Cecily. What a noble nature you have, Gwendolen!
Jack. Then the question had better be cleared up at once. Aunt Augusta, a moment. At the time when Miss Prism left me in the hand-bag, had I been christened already?
Lady Bracknell. Every luxury that money could buy, including christening, had been lavished on you by your fond and doting parents.
Jack. Then I was christened! That is settled. Now, what name was I given? Let me know the worst.
Lady Bracknell. Being the eldest son you were naturally christened after your father.
Jack. [Irritably.] Yes, but what was my father’s Christian name?
Lady Bracknell. [Meditatively.] I cannot at the present moment recall what the General’s Christian name was. But I have no doubt he had one. He was eccentric, I admit. But only in later years. And that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind.
Jack. Algy! Can’t you recollect what our father’s Christian name was?
Algernon. My dear boy, we were never even on speaking terms. He died before I was a year old.
Jack. His name would appear in the Army Lists of the period, I suppose, Aunt Augusta?
Lady Bracknell. The General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life. But I have no doubt his name would appear in any military directory.
Jack. The Army Lists of the last forty years are here. These delightful records should have been my constant study. [Rushes to bookcase and tears the books out.] M. Generals . . . Mallam, Maxbohm, Magley, what ghastly names they have—Markby, Migsby, Mobbs, Moncrieff! Lieutenant 1840, Captain, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, General 1869, Christian names, Ernest John. [Puts book very quietly down and speaks quite calmly.] I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn’t I? Well, it is Ernest after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest.
Lady Bracknell. Yes, I remember now that the General was called Ernest, I knew I had some particular reason for disliking the name.
Gwendolen. Ernest! My own Ernest! I felt from the first that you could have no other name!
Jack. Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
Gwendolen. I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.
Jack. My own one!
Chasuble. [To Miss Prism.] Lætitia! [Embraces her]
Miss Prism. [Enthusiastically.] Frederick! At last!
Algernon. Cecily! [Embraces her.] At last!
Jack. Gwendolen! [Embraces her.] At last!
Lady Bracknell. My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.
Jack. On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.