The Stepmother: A Play In One Act by A. A. Milne

CHARACTERS

SIR JOHN PEMBURY, M.P.
LADY PEMBURY.
PERKINS.
THE STRANGER.

* * * * *

The first performance of this play was given at the Alhambra Theatre on November 16, 1920, with the following cast:

Sir John Pembury–GILBERT HARE.
Lady Pembury–WINIFRED EMERY.
Perkins–C.M. LOWNE.
The Stranger–GERALD DU MAURIER.

(A summer morning. The sunniest and perhaps the pleasantest room in the London house of SIR JOHN PEMBURY, M.P. For this reason LADY PEMBURY uses it a good deal, although it is not officially hers. It is plainly furnished, and probably set out to be a sort of waiting-room for SIR JOHN’S many callers, but LADY PEMBURY has left her mark upon it.)

(PERKINS, the butler, inclining to stoutness, but not yet past his prime, leads the may in, followed by THE STRANGER, PERKINS has already placed him as “one of the lower classes,” but the intelligent person in the pit perceives that he is something better than that, though whether he is in the process of falling from a higher estate, or of rising to it, is not so clear. He is thirty odd, shabbily dressed (but then, so are most of us nowadays), and ill at ease; not because he is shabby, but because he is ashamed of himself. To make up for this, he adopts a blustering manner, as if to persuade himself that he is a fine fellow after all. There is a touch of commonness about his voice, but he is not uneducated.)

PERKINS
. I’ll tell Sir John you’re here, but I don’t say he’ll see you, mind.

STRANGER
. Don’t you worry about that. He’ll see me right enough.

PERKINS
. He’s busy just now. Well—- (He looks at THE STRANGER doubtfully.)

STRANGER
(bitterly). I suppose you think I’ve got no business in a gentleman’s house. Is that it?

PERKINS
. Well, I didn’t say so, did I? Maybe you’re a constituent? Being in the ‘Ouse of Commons, we get some pretty queer ones at times. All sorts, as you might say. . . . P’raps you’re a deputation?

STRANGER
(violently). What the hell’s it got to do with you who I am. You go and tell your master I’m here–that’s all you’ve got to do. See?

PERKINS
(unruffled). Easy, now, easy. You ‘aven’t even told me your name yet. Is it the Shah of Persia or Mr. Bottomley?

STRANGER
. The less said about names the better. You say, “Somebody from Lambeth”–he’ll know what I mean.

PERKINS
(humorously). Ah, I beg your pardon–the Archbishop of Canterbury. I didn’t recognise your Grace.

STRANGER
(angrily). It’s people like you who make one sick of the world. Parasites–servile flunkeys, bolstering up an effete aristocracy. Why don’t you get some proper work to do?

PERKINS
(good-naturedly). Now, look here, young man, this isn’t the time for that sort of talk. If you’ve got anything you want to get off your chest about flunkeys or monkeys, or whatever it may be, keep it till Sunday afternoon–when I’m off duty. (He comes a little closer to THE STRANGER) Four o’clock Sunday afternoon–(jerking his thumb over his shoulder)–just round the corner–in the Bolton Mews. See? Nobody there to interrupt us. See? All quite gentlemanly and secluded, and a friend of mine to hold the watch. See? (He edges closer as he talks.)

STRANGER
(retreating nervously). No offence meant, mate. We’re in the same boat–you and me; we don’t want to get fighting. My quarrel isn’t with you. You go and tell Sir John that there’s a gentleman come to see him–wants a few minutes of his valuable time–from Lambeth way. He’ll know. That’s all right.

PERKINS
(drawing back, disappointedly). Then I shan’t be seeing you Sunday afternoon?

STRANGER
(laughing awkwardly). There, that’s all right. No offence meant. Somebody from Lambeth–that’s what you’ve got to say. And tell ‘im I’m in a hurry. He’ll know what I mean.

PERKINS
(going slowly to the door). Well, it’s a queer game, but being in the ‘Ouse of Commons, one can’t never be surprised. All sorts, as you might say, all sorts.

[Exit PERKINS.]

(THE STRANGER, left alone, walks up and down the room, nervously impatient.)

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(LADY PEMBURY comes in. In twenty-eight years of happy married life, she has mothered one husband and five daughters, but she has never had a son–her only sorrow. Her motto might be, “It is just as easy to be kind”; and whether you go to her for comfort or congratulation, you will come away feeling that she is the only person who really understands.)

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh! (She stops and then comes towards THE STRANGER) How do you do? Are you waiting to see my husband?

STRANGER
(taken aback at seeing her). Yes.

(He is not sure for the moment if this upsets his plans or forwards them.)

LADY PEMBURY
. I think he’s engaged just now. But he won’t be long. Perkins will tell him as soon as he is free.

STRANGER
(contemptuously). His name is Perkins, is it?

LADY PEMBURY
(surprised). The butler? Yes.

STRANGER
(contemptuously). Mister Perkins, the Butler.

LADY PEMBURY
(with a friendly smile). You don’t mind our having a butler? (She picks up some work from the table and takes it to the sofa)

STRANGER
(shrugging his shoulders). One more parasite.

LADY PEMBURY
(interested). I always thought parasites were much smaller than Perkins. (Sitting down) Do sit down, won’t you? (He sits down reluctantly.) You mustn’t mind my being here. This is really my work-room. I expect my husband will take you into his own room when he’s ready.

STRANGER
. Your work-room?

LADY PEMBURY
(looking up at him with a smile). You don’t seem to like our domestic arrangements.

STRANGER
(waving his hand at her embroidery). You call that work?

LADY PEMBURY
(pleasantly). Other people’s work always seems so contemptible, doesn’t it? Now I expect if you tried to do this, you would find it very difficult indeed, and if I tried to do yours–what is your work, Mr.–er–Dear me, I don’t even know your name.

STRANGER
(bitterly). Never mind my name. Take it that I haven’t got a name.

LADY PEMBURY
. But your friends must call you something.

STRANGER
. Take it that I haven’t got any friends.

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh, don’t say that! How can you?

STRANGER
(surly). What’s it matter to you whether anybody cares about me?

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh, never mind whether anybody cares about you; don’t you care about anybody?

STRANGER
. Nobody.

LADY PEMBURY
. Poor, poor man! (Going on with her work) If you can’t tell me your name, I wish you would tell me what work you do. (Winningly) You don’t mind my asking, do you?

STRANGER
. I can tell you what work I’m going to do after to-day.

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh, do!

STRANGER
(violently). None!

LADY PEMBURY
(surprised). None?

STRANGER
. No more work after to-day.

LADY PEMBURY
. Won’t that be rather dull?

STRANGER
. Well, you ought to know. I’m going to be one of the idle rich–like you and Sir John–and let other people work for me.

LADY PEMBURY
(thoughtfully). I shouldn’t have said my husband was idle. But there it is. No two people ever agree as to what is work and what isn’t.

STRANGER
. What do you know about work–you aristocrats?

LADY PEMBURY
(mildly). My husband is only a K.B.E., you know. Quite a recent creation.

STRANGER
(not heeding her). You, who’ve been brought up in the lap of luxury–never known a day’s discomfort in your life—-

LADY PEMBURY
. My dear young man, you really mustn’t tell a woman who has had five children that she has never known a day’s discomfort in her life. . . . Ask any woman.

STRANGER
(upset). What’s that? . . . I didn’t come here to argue with you. You began it. Why can’t you let me alone?

LADY PEMBURY
(going to a side-table and taking up a photograph). Five children–all girls–and now I’m a grandmother. (Showing him the photograph) There! That’s my eldest daughter with her eldest son and my eldest grandchild. Isn’t he a duck? He’s supposed to be like me. . . . I never had a son of my own. (THE STRANGER has taken the photograph in his hand and is holding it awkwardly.) Oh, let me take it away from you. Other’s people’s relations are so uninteresting, aren’t they? (She takes it away and puts it back in its place. Then she returns to her seat and goes on with her work.) So you’ve made a lot of money? How exciting for you!

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STRANGER
(grimly). I haven’t got it yet, but it’s coming.

LADY PEMBURY
. Soon?

STRANGER
. To-day.

LADY PEMBURY
. You’re not married, are you?

STRANGER
. You want to know a lot, don’t you? Well, I’m not married.

LADY PEMBURY
. I was thinking how much nicer it is when you can share that sort of news with somebody else, somebody you love. It makes good news so much better, and bad news so much more bearable.

STRANGER
. That’s what you and your husband do, is it?

LADY PEMBURY
(nodding). Always. For eight-and-twenty years.

STRANGER
. He tells you everything, eh?

LADY PEMBURY
. Well, not his official secrets, of course. Everything else.

STRANGER
. Ha! I wonder.

LADY PEMBURY
. But you have nobody, you say. Well, you must share your good news with me. Will you?

STRANGER
. Oh yes, you shall hear about it all right.

LADY PEMBURY
. That’s nice of you. Well then, first question. How much money is it going to be?

STRANGER
(thoughtfully). Well, I don’t quite know yet. What do you say to a thousand a year?

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh, but what a lot!

STRANGER
. You think a thousand a year would be all right. Enough to live on?

LADY PEMBURY
. For a bachelor, ample.

STRANGER
. For a bachelor.

LADY PEMBURY
. There’s no one dependent on you?

STRANGER
. Not a soul. Only got one relation living.

LADY PEMBURY
. Oh?

STRANGER
(enjoying a joke of his own). A father. But I shall not be supporting him. Oh no. Far from it.

LADY PEMBURY
(a little puzzled by this, though the is not going to show it) Then I think you will be very rich with a thousand a year.

STRANGER
. Yes, that’s what I thought. I should think it would stand a thousand.

LADY PEMBURY
. What is it? An invention of some sort?

STRANGER
. Oh no, not an invention. . . . A discovery.

LADY PEMBURY
. How proud she would have been!

STRANGER
. Who?

LADY PEMBURY
. Your wife if you had had one; your mother if she had been alive.

STRANGER
(violently). Look here, you leave my mother out of it. My business is with Sir John—- (sneeringly) Sir John Pembury, K.B.E. If I want to talk about my mother, he and I will have a nice little talk together about her. Yes, and about my father, too.

(LADY PEMBURY understands at last. She stands up slowly, and looks at him, horrified.)

LADY PEMBURY
. What do you mean?

STRANGER
. A thousand a year. You said so yourself. Yes, I think it’s worth a thousand a year.

LADY PEMBURY
. Who is your father? What’s your name?

STRANGER
. Didn’t I tell you I hadn’t got a name? (Bitterly) And if you want to know why, ask Sir John Pembury, K.B.E.

LADY PEMBURY
(in a whisper). He’s your father.

STRANGER
. Yes. And I’m his loving son–come to see him at last, after all these years.

LADY PEMBURY
(hardly able to ask it). How–how old are you?

STRANGER
. Thirty.

LADY PEMBURY
(sitting down on the sofa). Oh, thank God! Thank God!

STRANGER
(upset by her emotion). Look here, I didn’t want all this. I ask you–did I begin it? It was you who kept asking questions. I just came for a quiet talk with Sir John–Father and Son talking together quietly–talking about Son’s allowance. A thousand a year. What did you want to come into it for?

(LADY PEMBURY is quiet again now. She wipes away a tear or two, and sits up, looking at him thoughtfully.)

LADY PEMBURY
. So you are the son that I never had.

STRANGER
. What d’you mean?

LADY PEMBURY
(almost to herself). The son whom I wanted so. Five girls–never a boy. Let me look at you. (She goes up to him.)

STRANGER
(edging away). Here, none of that.

LADY PEMBURY
(looking at him earnestly to see if she can see a likeness). No–and yet–(shaking her head sadly) Poor boy! What an unhappy life you must have had!

STRANGER
. I didn’t come here to be pitied. I came to get my rightful allowance–same as any other son.

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LADY PEMBURY
(to herself). Poor boy! (She goes back to her seat and then says) You don’t mind my asking you questions now, do you?

STRANGER
. Go on. There’s no mistake about it. I can promise you that.

LADY PEMBURY
. How did you find out? Did your Mother tell you?

STRANGER
. Never a word. “Don’t ask questions, sonny—-” “Father’s dead”–all that sort of thing.

LADY PEMBURY
. Does Sir John know? Did he ever know?

STRANGER
(feeling in his pocket). He knew right enough. (Bringing out letters) Look here–here you are. This was how I found out. (Selecting one) There–read that one.

LADY PEMBURY
(taking it). Yes–that’s John’s writing. (She holds it out to him.)

STRANGER
. Aren’t you going to read it?

LADY PEMBURY
(shaking her head pathetically). He didn’t write it to me.

STRANGER
. He didn’t write it to me, if it comes to that.

LADY PEMBURY
. You’re her son–you have a right. I’m–nobody.

STRANGER
(putting it back in his pocket). Oh well, please yourself.

LADY PEMBURY
. Did Sir John provide for your mother?

STRANGER
. Well, why shouldn’t he? He was a rich man.

LADY PEMBURY
. Not in those days. . . . But indeed–why shouldn’t he? What else could he do? I’m glad he did.

STRANGER
. And now he’s going to provide for his loving son. He’s rich enough for that in these days.

LADY PEMBURY
. He’s never seen you?

STRANGER
. Never. The historic meeting of Father and Son will take place this afternoon. (With a feeble attempt at what he thinks is the aristocratic manner) Afraid the Governor will be in the deuce of a rage. Been exceedin’ my allowance–what? Make it a thousand, dear old Gov.

LADY PEMBURY
. Don’t they call that blackmail?

STRANGER
(violently). Now look here, I’d better tell you straight that there’s no blackmail about this at all. He’s my father, isn’t he? Well, can’t a son come to his father if he’s hard up? Where are your threatening letters? Where’s the blackmail? Anyway, what’s he going to do about it? Put his son in prison?

LADY PEMBURY
(following her own thoughts). You’re thirty. Thank God for that. We hadn’t met then. . . . Ah, but he ought to have told me. He ought to have told me.

STRANGER
. P’raps he thought you wouldn’t marry him, if he did.

LADY PEMBURY
. Do you think that was it? (Earnestly to him, as if he were an old friend) You know men–young men. I never had a son; I never had any brothers. Do they tell? They ought to, oughtn’t they?

STRANGER
. Well–well, if you ask me–I say, look here, this isn’t the sort of thing one discusses with a lady.

LADY PEMBURY
. Isn’t it? But one can talk to a friend.

STRANGER
(scornfully). You and me look like friends, don’t we?

LADY PEMBURY
(smiling). Well, we do, rather.

(He gets up hastily and moves further away from her.)

STRANGER
. I know what your game is. Don’t think I don’t see it.

LADY PEMBURY
. What is it?

STRANGER
. Falling on your knees, and saying with tears in your eyes: “Oh, kind friend, spare me poor husband!” I know the sort of thing. And trying to work me up friendly before you begin.

LADY PEMBURY
(shaking her head). No, if I went on my knees to you, I shouldn’t say that. How can you hurt my husband now?

STRANGER
. Well, I don’t suppose the scandal will do him much good. Not an important Member of Parliament like him.

LADY PEMBURY
. Ah, but it isn’t the outside things that really hurt you, the things which are done to you, but the things which you do to yourself. And so if I went on my knees to you, it would not be for my husband’s sake. For I should go on my knees, and I should say: “Oh, my son that might have been, think before you give up everything that a man should have. Ambition, hope, pride, self-respect–are not these worth keeping? Is your life to end now? Have you done all that you came into the world to do, so that now you can look back and say, ‘It is finished; I have given all that I had to give; henceforward I will spend’?” (Very gently) Oh, my son that might have been!

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STRANGER
(very uncomfortable). Here, I say, that isn’t fair.

LADY PEMBURY
(gently). When did your mother die?

STRANGER
. Look here, I wish you wouldn’t keep on about mothers.

LADY PEMBURY
. When did she die, proud mother?

STRANGER
(sulkily). Well, why shouldn’t she be proud? (After a pause) Two years ago, if you want to know.

LADY PEMBURY
. It was then that you found out who your father was?

STRANGER
. That’s right. I found these old letters. She’d kept them locked up all those years. Bit of luck for me.

LADY PEMBURY
(almost to herself). And that was two years ago. And for two years you had your hopes, your ambitions, for two years you were proud and independent. . . . Why did you not come to us then?

STRANGER
(with a touch of vanity). Well, I was getting on all right, you know–and—-

LADY PEMBURY
. And then suddenly, after two years, you lost hope.

STRANGER
. I lost my job.

LADY PEMBURY
. Poor boy! And couldn’t get another.

STRANGER
(bitterly). It’s a beast of a world if you’re down. He’s in the gutter–kick him down–trample on him. Nobody wants him. That’s the way to treat them when they’re down. Trample on ’em.

LADY PEMBURY
. And so you came to your father to help you up again. To help you out of the gutter.

STRANGER
. That’s right.

LADY PEMBURY
(pleadingly). Ah, but give him a chance!

STRANGER
. Now, look here, I’ve told you already that I’m not going to have any of that game.

LADY PEMBURY
(shaking her head sadly). Foolish boy! You don’t understand. Give him a chance to help you out of the gutter.

STRANGER
. Well, I’m—-! Isn’t that what I am doing?

LADY PEMBURY
. No, no. You’re asking him to trample you right down into it, deeper and deeper into the mud and slime. I want you to let him help you back to where you were two years ago–when you were proud and hopeful.

STRANGER
(looking at her in a puzzled way). I can’t make out what your game is. It’s no good pretending you don’t hate the sight of me–it stands to reason you must.

LADY PEMBURY
(smiling). But then women are unreasonable, aren’t they? And I think it is only in fairy-stories that stepmothers are always so unkind.

STRANGER
(surprised). Stepmother!

LADY PEMBURY
. Well, that’s practically what I am, isn’t it? (Whimsically) I’ve never been a stepmother before. (Persuasively) Couldn’t you let me be proud of my stepson?

STRANGER
. Well, you are a one! . . . Do you mean to say that you and your husband aren’t going to have a row about this?

LADY PEMBURY
. It’s rather late to begin a row, isn’t it, thirty years after it’s happened? . . . Besides, perhaps you aren’t going to tell him anything about it.

STRANGER
. But what else have I come for except to tell him?

LADY PEMBURY
. To tell me. . . . I asked you to give him a chance of helping you out of your troubles, but I’d rather you gave me the chance. . . . You see, John would be very unhappy if he knew that I knew this; and he would have to tell me, because when a man has been happily married to anybody for twenty-eight years, he can’t really keep a secret from the other one. He pretends to himself that he can, but he knows all the time what a miserable pretence it is. And so John would tell me, and say he was sorry, and I would say: “It’s all right, darling, I knew,” but it would make him ashamed, and he would be afraid that perhaps I wasn’t thinking him such a wonderful man as I did before. And it’s very bad for a public man like John when he begins to lose faith in what his wife is thinking about him. . . . So let me be your friend, will you? (There is a silence between them for a little. He looks at her wonderingly. Suddenly she stands up, her finger to her lips) H’sh! It’s John. (She moves away from him)

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(SIR JOHN PEMBURY comes in quickly; big, good-looking, decisive, friendly; a man who wears very naturally, and without any self-consciousness, an air of being somebody.)

PEMBURY
(walking hastily past his wife to her writing-desk). Hallo, darling! Did I leave a cheque-book in here? I was writing a cheque for you this morning. Ah, here we are. (As he comes back, he sees THE STRANGER) I beg your pardon, Kate. I didn’t see—- (He is making for the door with the cheque-book in his hand, and then stops and says with a pleasant smile to THE STRANGER) But, perhaps you are waiting to see me? Perkins said something—-

STRANGER
(coming forward). Yes, I came to see you, Sir John.

(He stands close in front of SIR JOHN, looking at him. LADY PEMBURY watches them steadfastly.)

PEMBURY
(tapping his cheque-book against his hand). Important?

STRANGER
. I came to ask your help.

PEMBURY
(looking at his cheque-book and then back with a smile at THE STRANGER). A good many people do that. Have you any special claim on me?

STRANGER
(after a long pause). No.

(PEMBURY looks at him, undecided, LADY PEMBURY comes forward.)

LADY PEMBURY
. All right, dear. (Meaning that she will look after THE STRANGER till he comes back.)

PEMBURY
. I’ll be back in a moment. (He nods and hurries out)

(There is silence for a little, and then LADY PEMBURY claps her hands gently.)

LADY PEMBURY
(with shining eyes). Oh, brave, brave! Ah, but I am a proud stepmother to-day. (She holds out her hand to him) Thank you, son.

STRANGER
(not seeing it, and speaking in a hard voice). I’d better go.

LADY PEMBURY
. Mayn’t I help you?

STRANGER
. I’d better go.

LADY PEMBURY
(distressed). You can’t go like this. I don’t even know your name, nor where you live.

STRANGER
. Don’t be afraid–you shan’t hear from me again.

LADY PEMBURY
(gently). Not even when you’ve got back to where you were two years ago? Mayn’t I then?

STRANGER
(looking at her, and then nodding slowly). Yes, you shall then.

LADY PEMBURY
. Thank you. I shall wait. I shall hope. I shall pray. (She holds out her hand again) Good-bye!

STRANGER
(shaking his head). Wait till you hear from me. (He goes to the door, and then stops and comes slowly back. He says awkwardly) Wish you’d do one thing for me?

LADY PEMBURY
. Yes?

STRANGER
. That fellow–what did you say his name was–Perkins?

LADY PEMBURY
(surprised). The butler? Perkins–yes?

STRANGER
. Would you give him a message from me?

LADY PEMBURY
. Of course.

STRANGER
(still awkwardly). Just to say–I’ll be there–at the Mews–on Sunday afternoon. He’ll know. Tell him I’ll be there. (He squares his shoulders and walks out defiantly–ready to take the world on again–beginning with PERKINS on Sunday afternoon)

(LADY PEMBURY stands watching him as he goes. She waits after he has gone, thinking her own thoughts, out of which she comes with something of a shock as the door opens and SIR JOHN comes in.)

PEMBURY
. Hallo! Has he gone?

LADY PEMBURY
. Yes.

PEMBURY
. What did he want? Five pounds–or a place in the Cabinet?

LADY PEMBURY
. He came for–a subscription.

PEMBURY
. And got it, if I know my Kate. (Carelessly) What did he take from you?

LADY PEMBURY
(with a wistful little sigh). Yes; he took something from me. Not very much, I think. But just–something. (She takes his arm, leads him to the sofa, and says affectionately) And now tell me all that you’ve been doing this morning.

(So he begins to tell her–just as he has told her a thousand times before. . . . But it isn’t quite the same)

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