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A Play in One Act
for three ladies
M. E. BARBER
Copyright, 1910, by Samuel French1
Miss Priscilla Robins .. .. A middle-aged, angular Spinster.
Miss Tabitha .. .. .. .. .. .. Her Elder Sister.
Jane .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. A Mechanical Servant.
SceneA Sitting room in a Suburban Villa.
Tabitha is discovered hovering round a small table on which an ill-arranged tea is set out cups, but no saucers, no spoons, a few biscuits on a plate, a piece of much-blackened toast on a toast-rack. Tea-pot filled with hot water, no tea. There are two chairs at the back of the stage, and a chair at each side of the table. A newspaper and a stray piece of notepaper are laid on the table.
Tabitha. Oh dear, oh dear! That table does not look right somehow; it's a dreadful misfortune to be without a maid. I'm sure it seems like a lifetime since our good Maria left us to look after her old mother. We never knew until we lost her how much we owed Maria, and it seems quite impossible to replace her. True, there was Mary Thompson; I cannot help feeling she might have improved in time, but sister found fault with her from the first; she was a heedless young person, it is true, but since her departure I have learned to excuse much that I blamed before. The work of a single domestic is a much more complicated affair than I had any idea of, even in a small house for two quiet ladies like sister Priscilla and myself. This tea-table, for instance, does not look right; and the toast, which I left to roast at the kitchen fire, has become unaccountably over-done. I fear Priscilla will be vexed, especially if she comes in tired from her long afternoon among the Registry Offices.
(Door opens to admit Priscilla, in outdoor clothes of a severe and unbecoming style.)
Tabitha. Well, Priscilla, and how have you fared this afternoon? I was only thinking this minute that you would be tired out with your long walk. (Approaches Priscilla with timid welcome.)
Priscilla. And for once Tabitha, your thoughts have not flown wide of the mark indeed, they fall short of accurately describing my faculties at the present moment physically, I am utterly prostrate (sinks into chair by table), while my mental powers have been so unspeakably jarred by the idiocy of the girls I have been interviewing this afternoon that I feel hardly capable of speech.
Tabitha (soothingly). Never mind, sister, you will feel better after you have had a nice cup of tea. Bring your chair to the table and tell me all your adventures.
Priscilla. There you go, Tabitha, misapplying words, as usual. You cannot expect adventures to befall a spinster lady who is merely seeking a general servant by application at a Registry Office. I dislike exaggeration, I dislike the misuse of words and (catching sight of the toast) most of all I dislike blackened toast! (Holds up rack scornfully.) I thought at least you were capable of preparing tea, whilst I took upon myself the more arduous task of bombarding Registry Offices. But it appears I was wrong. Where are the saucers? (takes up teapot and pours out only water) and where is the tea?
Tabitha (feebly gasping and gulping). Indeed and indeed, sister, I had no idea ---
Priscilla. No, you very rarely have ---
Tabitha. No idea I had omitted the tea leaves; I know quite well it is customary to add them, but I am never quite certain what stage in the proceedings they should be inserted ----
Priscilla (her wrath increasing as Tabitha becomes more flabby). Then you had better consult an elementary cookery book and find out. You really are not much wiser than the imbeciles I have been seeing this afternoon. Imbeciles, aye, and worse than imbeciles, for their stupidity was more than matched by the brazenness of their demands. One owned frankly to being unable to cook, but said she did not mind practising on me!
Tabitha. But did they actually dare to be impudent to you, sister?
Priscilla. They certainly attempted to treat me in an unbecoming manner, but I flatter myself they did not succeed. I have never allowed familiarity from my equals and I am certainly not going to submit to it from my inferiors!
Tabitha (tremulously). But did you engage a servant after all, sister?
Priscilla. I did not Tabitha, and for the excellent reason that none of them would agree to my most excellent conditions. If they were willing to be in by 9 o'clock, they were certain to refuse to turn back their fringes, and when their general appearance was satisfactory, their demands were outrageous.
Tabitha. Oh dear, oh dear! Priscilla, would it not have been better to give way a little I don't mean in important things of course but it is so dreadful to go on like this (sniffs).
Priscilla (turning on her fiercely). And this is all the thanks I get for my trouble? how dare you set up your opinion against mine you so ignorant, and I so well-informed in domestic affairs!
Tabitha. No Priscilla, I couldn't think of such a thing, but I can't help wondering if we were quite wise in getting rid of Mary Thompson so hastily she seemed a kindly creature, and she had no fringe, and certainly was not vicious and besides that --
Priscilla (interrupting her). Enough! One word more, Tabitha, and I leave this house for ever: you can then manage things as you please, and your Mary Thompson would doubtless prove a most efficient housekeeper. Here am I fatigued to death, parched with thirst, and you sit at home in easy unconcern disparaging my effort and doing nothing yourself to lessen our difficulties. For shame, Tabitha; away to the kitchen with you and do not return till you have learned to make a pot of tea, and to cultivate a sprit of humility and gratitude. (Places teapot in her hands and sweeps her from the room.)
Priscilla (settling herself in chair and taking up newspaper from table). To think of Tabitha setting up her opinion against mine -- tut, tut, this will never do, the whole world is becoming demoralised -- tut, tut, dear, dear! Strikes on railways, unrest in India riot in a post office, old man demands 10s for old age pension all bad together; tut, tut, what is this? (reads) No more worry, no more unsatisfactory domestics buy the new mechanical servant, and save yourself a lifetime of trouble. The Mechanical Jane will do the work of three servants in half the time of one the Mechanical Jane is quiet, quick and efficient. The Mechanical Jane needs no holidays, does not ask questions, always obeys orders; buy the Mechanical Jane, the great invention of the age ,and your household cares will cease price £50. Can be seen on application to Messrs Smith and Holden, 3 South Street. Why, that's the street just round the corner: what a wonderful thing! It really might be worth trying but £50 is a great sum still, no more worry, no more questions (gets more and more excited and walks about the room), quick, quiet and efficient! I will I will go and buy Mechanical Jane. (Snatches up gloves and cloak and goes out banging the door after her.)
Tabitha (looks round timidly). Did I, or did I not hear the door bang? Oh where, oh where is Priscilla! Can she indeed have carried out her threat already? Is she really gone? (Looks round room.) Priscilla, sister, are you hiding from me? (To audience) It is quite possible she is hiding from me to give me a fright. Are you under the table (looks) or behind the piano? Not there then she must really have left me. What shall I do? How shall I recover my lost Priscilla? (Sinks into chair, sobbing and wringing her hands, then starts up.) Stay, though, the police, I ought to give notice to the police. But how to do it? An advertisement. Oh no! I will write a notice, a description of her to be placed outside every police station in London, alongside of "Bodies Found, " or "Horses strayed". And I will offer a reward. (Seizes pencil and piece of notepaper from a table ad begins to write.) How ought I to word it? If only sister were here she would know in a minute but if she were here I shouldn't have to write it at all oh dear, what a miserable creature I am! Lost, a sister no, that won't do handsome reward is offered to the finder of Miss Priscilla Robins; but, no one would know her if they saw her, so that won't do missing, a handsome spinster lady, aged ! Oh! I mustn't reveal that, Priscilla would never forgive me if I did. But she will never be here to forgive me if she were, I would give way to her in everything, nothing should ever come between us again (rocking herself and sobbing) she should (noises heard Priscilla's voice outside says firmly; No, cabman, not another penny I have paid you your full fare )
(Enter Priscilla with mechanical Jane, covered in two large sheets of brown paper, like a parcel fastened with two pieces of string, which are tied in bows, and easily undone. the figure is in a leaning position, and is twirled on its feet by Priscilla, who pushes it along like a milk can. it is entirely covered by the brown paper, but for the convenience of the performer, two holes can be made in the paper.)
Tabitha (gasping, and in a state of excitement). What is it oh where have you been, sister ?
Priscilla. Now Tabitha, for goodness sake be quiet; I have had enough bother with the cabman, who was most unmannerly when I asked him to bring her in said he wasn't going to carry around drain-pipes or chimney pots without being paid extra for it. Fancy calling Mechanical Jane a drain-pipe!
Tabitha. Calling who what? Oh sister, what is it tell me what is it?
Priscilla. Now, once and for all, Tabitha, be quiet, and don't ask meaningless questions, but listen with as much sense as you are capable of. This is our new servant. (Tabitha screams.) Did I, or did I not, ask you to be quiet, Tabitha? This will do the work of the house quickly, quietly and efficiently, will ask no questions and needs no orders. In a word, this is Mechanical Jane! (Unties string and takes off paper as she speaks. Mechanical Jane is discovered standing with arms stiffly at her sides in a perfectly clean servant's cotton dress, cap and apron her face is rouged in a hard, red patch on each cheek, her features must be quite emotionless except for a broad smile, which is kept on her face throughout the play.)
Priscilla. And now for the directions which are given with the machine and fully explain its working. (Points to a paper in Jane's left hand.) Why, here they are, Tabitha: now listen attentively. (Reads from paper, while Tabitha stands by, curiosity gradually overcoming her fears.) To work the Jane, insert the handle on left side there is the handle in her right hand. (Tabitha nervously takes it from her a handle for enlarging a dining-table will meet the purpose.) Turn slowly and steadily until the Jane is fully wound place the legs in position and the Jane will at once be set in motion. If the winding is manipulated unevenly, a correspondingly jerky action on the part of the Jane will result. This can be obviated by working the arms sharply for a few seconds. The Jane will then be found to perform her household duties to the entire satisfaction of her owners.
Tabitha. Why, it's just like a fairy tale. Oh, Priscilla, do let us try and make this person go.
(They adjust handle, and turn nervously, and with some difficulty. The figure begins to make jerky movements with one arm, then takes a few awkward steps, and stands, marking time violently at r. of stage with one leg and one arm. Both Priscilla and Tabitha show signs of fear but Priscilla recovers herself and turns on Tabitha.)
Priscilla. Fie, for shame, Tabitha, how can you be so pusillanimous. Am I startled? No, then take example by me and conquer your fears. Very naturally, we have made a slight mistake in starting the machine. What was it the directions said? (consults paper). Ah, yes! We wound it unevenly. Now to remedy this, we must work the creature's arms. Come, Tabitha. (Advances towards Jane, who is still making spasmodic jerks with arm and leg. Tabitha follows nervously, fails to catch one arm, which swings round and deals Priscilla a blow.)
Priscilla. Who struck me, you or the Jane? Well, Tabitha, this is really too bad! You might at least make some attempt to do what I ask you. Now, once again, both together. (They seize Jane's arms and work them like pump handles. Whereupon she starts off and walks like an automatic figure into the opposite wall. Priscilla follows her and turns her round, and she marches straight off the stage.)
Tabitha (clinging to Priscilla). Oh, sister, where has she gone, what will she do? No, don't follow her, she might hurt you. Oh, sister! I don't think she's going to be a very nice servant after all.
(Enter Jane with long-handled broom, and begins to sweep the floor violently. Tabitha manages to climb on to a chair. Priscilla advances towards Jane.)
Priscilla. No, Jane, that is unnecessary labour, the room does not require sweeping now.
(Jane continues her work, and sweeps towards Priscilla.)
Tabitha. Oh, sister, come away, she will kill you; come up here with me.
Priscilla. Peace, Tabitha. Do not imagine I am daunted by a mere piece of mechanism. There is no brain behind that painted mask, and see how thoroughly she performs her duties.
(Jane here catches the broom in the table-leg, remains stuck and still sweeping.)
Tabitha. That doesn't seem very satisfactory. If we weren't here, she might stand kicking there for hours.
Priscilla. Pooh, pooh, Tabitha! Show a little consideration, if you please. We cannot expect perfection at once. (Turns Jane round, but finds herself tripped up by the broom and falls on hands and knees.)
Tabitha. Oh sister! Are you hurt? Come and sit down and let Tabitha rub your poor knees. (Priscilla shows signs of being much shaken, and lets Tabitha help her into a chair.)
(Enter Jane without the broom.)
Tabitha. Here she is again. Why can't she stay in the kitchen? I wonder if the directions tell us how to keep her there? (She goes to other side of stage and consults directions. reads to herself.) To clean the Jane, take her carefully to pieces Oh, we could never do that no, there doesn't seem to be anything Ah!
(In the meantime Jane begins to pack up chairs preparatory to cleaning the room, and puts one upside down on Priscilla's knees.)
Priscilla. This is too much. What do you mean by such a liberty? We must stop her, Tabitha. What is she doing?
Tabitha (who has been reading the directions). I think she is beginning her work at six o'clock in the morning and we can't stop her. Oh., sister, how dreadful! We shall always be wrong in our time. It is now half past five in the afternoon, but the Jane evidently counts it as six o'clock in the morning. We shall either have to ignore her altogether or to regulate our days by her time. (Sits on chair close beside Priscilla.)
Priscilla. What an awful idea!
Tabitha. When other people are having supper, we shall be eating breakfast, and we shall have to go to bed, just when everyone else is getting up. It will be as bad as living in New Zealand.
Priscilla. It's monstrous! And yet of course we cannot go to bed and allow her the free run of the house.
Tabitha. We might as well be night watchmen or policemen for all the fun we shall get out of life.
(Both sit with clasped hands, gazing in front of them.)
(Enter Jane with dusting sheet, and standing at back of the three sisters throws it over them. While they are struggling and screaming, a postman's knock is heard. Jane goes out and re-enters very slowly with a letter in her outstretched hand. She advances towards Priscilla and remains motionless.)
Tabitha. Oh, sister, she has stopped! Oh glory!
Priscilla. She has run down! We never thought of that? Oh, what an escape! Tabitha, I confess I have made a mistake. Mechanical Jane is a failure. I will never wind her again.
Tabitha (embracing her tearfully). Noble Priscilla, to confess such a thing. How thankful I am for that word! I could not have had an hour's peace with that creature in the house. But let us open the letter she has brought in. (Advances to Jane and takes the letter gingerly, gives it to Priscilla, who opens it.)
Priscilla. It is from Mary Thompson, asking us to give her another trial. She has been doing housework for her aunt and feels more competent to undertake our situation. Tabitha, I will send her a telegram, begging her to return tomorrow. I am sure she will prove a far pleasanter servant than Mechanical Jane. Come, Tabitha, let us take her outside, and make arrangements to have her removed at once.
(Exeunt Priscilla and Tabitha, pushing Jane between them.)
1With thanks to Samuel French Limited, publishers of plays, for permission to reproduce Mechanical Jane, by M E Barber, first published in 1910. We understand that the author later became a missionary and never married. We have not been granted permission to show the play on TV!
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