ACT I
Scene I
 

The study of JOHN BUILDER in the provincial town of Breconridge. A panelled room wherein nothing is ever studied, except perhaps BUILDER'S face in the mirror over the fireplace. It is, however, comfortable, and has large leather chairs and a writing table in the centre, on which is a typewriter, and many papers. At the back is a large window with French outside shutters, overlooking the street, for the house is an old one, built in an age when the homes of doctors, lawyers and so forth were part of a provincial town, and not yet suburban. There are two or three fine old prints on the walls, Right and Left; and a fine, old fireplace, Left, with a fender on which one can sit. A door, Left back, leads into the dining-room, and a door, Right forward, into the hall.

JOHN BUILDER is sitting in his after-breakfast chair before the fire with The Times in his hands. He has breakfasted well, and is in that condition of first-pipe serenity in which the affairs of the. nation seem almost bearable. He is a tallish, square, personable man of forty-seven, with a well-coloured, jowly, fullish face, marked under the eyes, which have very small pupils and a good deal of light in them. His bearing has force and importance, as of a man accustomed to rising and ownerships, sure in his opinions, and not lacking in geniality when things go his way. Essentially a Midlander. His wife, a woman of forty-one, of ivory tint, with a thin, trim figure and a face so strangely composed as to be almost like a mask (essentially from Jersey) is putting a nib into a pen- holder, and filling an inkpot at the writing-table.

As the curtain rises CAMILLE enters with a rather broken-down cardboard box containing flowers. She is a young woman with a good figure, a pale face, the warm brown eyes and complete poise of a Frenchwoman. She takes the box to MRS BUILDER.

MRS BUILDER
The blue vase, please, Camille.

CAMILLE fetches a vase. MRS BUILDER puts the flowers into the vase. CAMILLE gathers up the debris; and with a glance at BUILDER goes out.

BUILDER
Glorious October! I ought to have a damned good day's shooting with Chantrey tomorrow.

MRS BUILDER
[Arranging the flowers] Aren't you going to the office this morning?

BUILDER
Well, no, I was going to take a couple of days off. If you feel at the top of your form, take a rest--then you go on feeling at the top. [He looks at her, as if calculating] What do you say to looking up Athene?

MRS BUILDER
[Palpably astonished] Athene? But you said you'd done with her?

BUILDER
[Smiling] Six weeks ago; but, dash it, one can't have done with one's own daughter. That's the weakness of an Englishman; he can't keep up his resentments. In a town like this it doesn't do to have her living by herself. One of these days it'll get out we've had a row. That wouldn't do me any good.

MRS BUILDER
I see.

BUILDER
Besides, I miss her. Maud's so self-absorbed. It makes a big hole in the family, Julia. You've got her address, haven't you?

MRS BUILDER
Yes. [Very still] But do you think it's dignified, John?

BUILDER
[Genially] Oh, hang dignity! I rather pride myself on knowing when to stand on my dignity and when to sit on it. If she's still crazy about Art, she can live at home, and go out to study.

MRS BUILDER
Her craze was for liberty.

BUILDER
A few weeks' discomfort soon cures that. She can't live on her pittance. She'll have found that out by now. Get your things on and come with me at twelve o'clock.

MRS BUILDER
I think you'll regret it. She'll refuse.

BUILDER
Not if I'm nice to her. A child could play with me to-day. Shall I tell you a secret, Julia?

MRS BUILDER
It would be pleasant for a change.

BUILDER
The Mayor's coming round at eleven, and I know perfectly well what he's coming for.

MRS BUILDER
Well?

BUILDER
I'm to be nominated for Mayor next month. Harris tipped me the wink at the last Council meeting. Not so bad at forty-seven--h'm? I can make a thundering good Mayor. I can do things for this town that nobody else can.

MRS BUILDER
Now I understand about Athene.

BUILDER
[Good-humouredly] Well, it's partly that. But [more seriously] it's more the feeling I get that I'm not doing my duty by her. Goodness knows whom she may be picking up with! Artists are a loose lot. And young people in these days are the limit. I quite believe in moving with the times, but one's either born a Conservative, or one isn't. So you be ready at twelve, see. By the way, that French maid of yours, Julia--

MRS BUILDER
What about her?

BUILDER
Is she--er--is she all right? We don't want any trouble with Topping.

MRS BUILDER
There will be none with--Topping.
[She opens the door Left.]

BUILDER
I don't know; she strikes me as--very French.

MRS BUILDER smiles and passes out.

BUILDER fills his second pipe. He is just taking up the paper again when the door from the hall is opened, and the manservant TOPPING, dried, dark, sub-humorous, in a black cut-away, announces:

TOPPING
The Mayor, Sir, and Mr Harris!

THE MAYOR of Breconridge enters, He is clean-shaven, red-faced, light-eyed, about sixty, shrewd, poll-parroty, naturally jovial, dressed with the indefinable wrongness of a burgher; he is followed by his Secretary HARRIS, a man all eyes and cleverness. TOPPING retires.

BUILDER
[Rising] Hallo, Mayor! What brings you so early? Glad to see you. Morning, Harris!

MAYOR
Morning, Builder, morning.

HARRIS
Good-morning, Sir.

BUILDER
Sit down-sit down! Have a cigar!

The MAYOR takes a cigar HARRIS a cigarette from his own case.

BUILDER
Well, Mayor, what's gone wrong with the works?

He and HARRIS exchange a look.

MAYOR
[With his first puff] After you left the Council the other day, Builder, we came to a decision.

BUILDER
Deuce you did! Shall I agree with it?

MAYOR
We shall see. We want to nominate you for Mayor. You willin' to stand?

BUILDER
[Stolid] That requires consideration.

MAYOR
The only alternative is Chantrey; but he's a light weight, and rather too much County. What's your objection?

BUILDER
It's a bit unexpected, Mayor. [Looks at HARRIS] Am I the right man? Following you, you know. I'm shooting with Chantrey to-morrow. What does he feel about it?

MAYOR
What do you say, 'Arris?

HARRIS
Mr Chantrey's a public school and University man, Sir; he's not what I call ambitious.

BUILDER
Nor am I, Harris.

HARRIS
No, sir; of course you've a high sense of duty. Mr Chantrey's rather dilettante.

MAYOR
We want a solid man.

BUILDER
I'm very busy, you know, Mayor.

MAYOR
But you've got all the qualifications--big business, family man, live in the town, church-goer, experience on the Council and the Bench. Better say "yes," Builder.

BUILDER
It's a lot of extra work. I don't take things up lightly.

MAYOR
Dangerous times, these. Authority questioned all over the place. We want a man that feels his responsibilities, and we think we've got him in you.

BUILDER
Very good of you, Mayor. I don't know, I'm sure. I must think of the good of the town.

HARRIS
I shouldn't worry about that, sir.

MAYOR
The name John Builder carries weight. You're looked up to as a man who can manage his own affairs. Madam and the young ladies well?

BUILDER
First-rate.

MAYOR
[Rises] That's right. Well, if you'd like to talk it over with Chantrey to-morrow. With all this extremism, we want a man of principle and common sense.

HARRIS
We want a man that'll grasp the nettle, sir--and that's you.

BUILDER
Hm! I've got a temper, you know.

MAYOR
[Chuckling] We do--we do! You'll say "yes," I see. No false modesty! Come along, 'Arris, we must go.

BUILDER
Well, Mayor, I'll think it over, and let you have an answer. You know my faults, and you know my qualities, such as they are. I'm just a plain Englishman.

MAYOR
We don't want anything better than that. I always say the great point about an Englishman is that he's got bottom; you may knock him off his pins, but you find him on 'em again before you can say "Jack Robinson." He may have his moments of aberration, but he's a sticker. Morning, Builder, morning! Hope you'll say "yes."

He shakes hands and goes out, followed by HARRIS.

When the door is dosed BUILDER stands a moment quite still with a gratified smile on his face; then turns and scrutinises himself in the glass over the hearth. While he is doing so the door from the dining-room is opened quietly and CAMILLE comes in. BUILDER, suddenly seeing her reflected in the mirror, turns.

BUILDER
What is it, Camille?

CAMILLE
Madame send me for a letter she say you have, Monsieur, from the dyer and cleaner, with a bill.

BUILDER
[Feeling in his pockets] Yes--no. It's on the table.

CAMILLE goes to the writing-table and looks. That blue thing.

CAMILLE
[Taking it up] Non, Monsieur, this is from the gas.

BUILDER
Oh! Ah!

[He moves up to the table and turns over papers. CAMILLE stands motionless close by with her eyes fixed on him.]

Here it is!

[He looks up, sees her looking at him, drops his own gaze, and hands her the letter. Their hands touch. Putting his hands in his pockets]

What made you come to England?

CAMILLE
[Demure] It is better pay, Monsieur, and [With a smile] the English are so amiable.

BUILDER
Deuce they are! They haven't got that reputation.

CAMILLE
Oh! I admire Englishmen. They are so strong and kind.

BUILDER
[Bluffly flattered] H'm! We've no manners.

CAMILLE
The Frenchman is more polite, but not in the 'eart.

BUILDER
Yes. I suppose we're pretty sound at heart.

CAMILLE
And the Englishman have his life in the family--the Frenchman have his life outside.

BUILDER
[With discomfort] H'm!

CAMILLE
[With a look] Too mooch in the family--like a rabbit in a 'utch.

BUILDER
Oh! So that's your view of us! [His eyes rest on her, attracted but resentful].

CAMILLE
Pardon, Monsieur, my tongue run away with me.

BUILDER
[Half conscious of being led on] Are you from Paris?

CAMILLE
[Clasping her hands] Yes. What a town for pleasure--Paris!

BUILDER
I suppose so. Loose place, Paris.

CAMILLE
Loose? What is that, Monsieur?

BUILDER
The opposite of strict.

CAMILLE
Strict! Oh! certainly we like life, we other French. It is not like England. I take this to Madame, Monsieur. [She turns as if to go] Excuse me.

BUILDER
I thought you Frenchwomen all married young.

CAMILLE
I 'ave been married; my 'usband did die--en Afrique.

BUILDER
You wear no ring.

CAMILLE
[Smiling] I prefare to be mademoiselle, Monsieur.

BUILDER
[Dubiously] Well, it's all the same to us. [He takes a letter up from the table] You might take this to Mrs Builder too. [Again their fingers touch, and there is a suspicion of encounter between their eyes.]

CAMILLE goes out.

BUILDER
[Turning to his chair] Don't know about that woman--she's a tantalizer.

He compresses his lips, and is settling back into his chair, when the door from the hall is opened and his daughter MAUD comes in; a pretty girl, rather pale, with fine eyes. Though her face has a determined cast her manner at this moment is by no means decisive. She has a letter in her hand, and advances rather as if she were stalking her father, who, after a "Hallo, Maud!" has begun to read his paper.

MAUD
[Getting as far as the table] Father.

BUILDER
[Not lowering the paper] Well? I know that tone. What do you want--money?

MAUD
I always want money, of course; but--but--

BUILDER
[Pulling out a note-abstractedly] Here's five pounds for you.

MAUD, advancing, takes it, then seems to find what she has come for more on her chest than ever.

BUILDER
[Unconscious] Will you take a letter for me?

MAUD sits down Left of table and prepares to take down the letter.

[Dictating] "Dear Mr Mayor,--Referring to your call this morning, I have --er--given the matter very careful consideration, and though somewhat reluctant--"

MAUD
Are you really reluctant, father?

BUILDER
Go on--"To assume greater responsibilities, I feel it my duty to come forward in accordance with your wish. The--er--honour is one of which I hardly feel myself worthy, but you may rest assured--"

MAUD
Worthy. But you do, you know.

BUILDER
Look here! Are you trying to get a rise out of me?--because you won't succeed this morning.

MAUD
I thought you were trying to get one out of me.

BUILDER
Well, how would you express it?

MAUD
"I know I'm the best man for the place, and so do you--"

BUILDER
The disrespect of you young people is something extraordinary. And that reminds me where do you go every evening now after tea?

MAUD
I--I don't know.

BUILDER
Come now, that won't do--you're never in the house from six to seven.

MAUD
Well! It has to do with my education.

BUILDER
Why, you finished that two years ago!

MAUD
Well, call it a hobby, if you like, then, father.

She takes up the letter she brought in and seems on the point of broaching it.

BUILDER
Hobby? Well, what is it?

MAUD
I don't want to irritate you, father.

BUILDER
You can't irritate me more than by having secrets. See what that led to in your sister's case. And, by the way, I'm going to put an end to that this morning. You'll be glad to have her back, won't you?

MAUD
[Startled] What!

BUILDER
Your mother and I are going round to Athene at twelve o'clock. I shall make it up with her. She must come back here.

MAUD
[Aghast, but hiding it] Oh! It's--it's no good, father. She won't.

BUILDER
We shall see that. I've quite got over my tantrum, and I expect she has.

MAUD
[Earnestly] Father! I do really assure you she won't; it's only wasting your time, and making you eat humble pie.

BUILDER
Well, I can eat a good deal this morning. It's all nonsense! A family's a family.

MAUD
[More and more disturbed, but hiding it] Father, if I were you, I wouldn't-really! It's not-dignified.

BUILDER
You can leave me to judge of that. It's not dignified for the Mayor of this town to have an unmarried daughter as young as Athene living by herself away from home. This idea that she's on a visit won't wash any longer. Now finish that letter--"worthy, but you may rest assured that I shall do my best to sustain the--er--dignity of the office." [MAUD types desperately.] Got that? "And--er--preserve the tradition so worthily--" No-- "so staunchly"--er--er--

MAUD
Upheld.

BUILDER
Ah! "--upheld by yourself.--Faithfully yours."

MAUD
[Finishing] Father, you thought Athene went off in a huff. It wasn't that a bit. She always meant to go. She just got you into a rage to make it easier. She hated living at home.

BUILDER
Nonsense! Why on earth should she?

MAUD
Well, she did! And so do-- [Checking herself] And so you see it'll only make you ridiculous to go.

BUILDER
[Rises] Now what's behind this, Maud?

MAUD
Behind--Oh! nothing!

BUILDER
The fact is, you girls have been spoiled, and you enjoy twisting my tail; but you can't make me roar this morning. I'm too pleased with things. You'll see, it'll be all right with Athene.

MAUD
[Very suddenly] Father!

BUILDER
[Grimly humorous] Well! Get it off your chest. What's that letter about?

MAUD
[Failing again and crumpling the letter behind her back] Oh! nothing.

BUILDER
Everything's nothing this morning. Do you know what sort of people Athene associates with now--I suppose you see her?

MAUD
Sometimes.

BUILDER
Well?

MAUD
Nobody much. There isn't anybody here to associate with. It's all hopelessly behind the times.

BUILDER
Oh! you think so! That's the inflammatory fiction you pick up. I tell you what, young woman--the sooner you and your sister get rid of your silly notions about not living at home, and making your own way, the sooner you'll both get married and make it. Men don't like the new spirit in women--they may say they do, but they don't.

MAUD
You don't, father, I know.

BUILDER
Well, I'm very ordinary. If you keep your eyes open, you'll soon see that.

MAUD
Men don't like freedom for anybody but themselves.

BUILDER
That's not the way to put it. [Tapping out his pipe] Women in your class have never had to face realities.

MAUD
No, but we want to.

BUILDER
[Good-humouredly] Well, I'll bet you what you like, Athene's dose of reality will have cured her.

MAUD
And I'll bet you--No, I won't!

BUILDER
You'd better not. Athene will come home, and only too glad to do it. Ring for Topping and order the car at twelve.

As he opens the door to pass out, MAUD starts forward, but checks herself.

MAUD
[Looking at her watch] Half-past eleven! Good heavens!

She goes to the bell and rings. Then goes back to the table, and writes an address on a bit of paper.

TOPPING enters Right.

TOPPING
Did you ring, Miss?

MAUD
[With the paper] Yes. Look here, Topping! Can you manage-- on your bicycle--now at once? I want to send a message to Miss Athene --awfully important. It's just this: "Look out! Father is coming." [Holding out the paper] Here's her address. You must get there and away again by twelve. Father and mother want the car then to go there. Order it before you go. It won't take you twenty minutes on your bicycle. It's down by the river near the ferry. But you mustn't be seen by them either going or coming.

TOPPING
If I should fall into their hands, Miss, shall I eat the despatch?

MAUD
Rather! You're a brick, Topping. Hurry up!

TOPPING
Nothing more precise, Miss?

MAUD
M--m--No.

TOPPING
Very good, Miss Maud. [Conning the address] "Briary Studio, River Road. Look out! Father is coming!" I'll go out the back way. Any answer?

MAUD
No.

TOPPING nods his head and goes out.

MAUD
[To herself] Well, it's all I can do.

She stands, considering, as the CURTAIN falls.