The Perfect Gentleman


Scene 1

Victorian England. Drawing room.

Miss BETHANY DAWSON sits at a table, looking out pensively. She smiles, a portrait of demure, before suddenly and shockingly:

BETHANY
Lizbet!

LIZBET, a charming chambermaid with a cockney accent, scurries out.

LIZBET
Yes Miss?

BETHANY
Lizbet!

LIZBET
Yes Miss!

BETHANY
Oh, there you are Lizbet. I was worried I hadn’t called loudly enough. Now, I’ve surveyed the arrangement of this room and I’ve decided that I don’t like it one bit.

LIZBET
But Miss! We’ve rearranged the furniture twice this morning, and—

BETHANY
I’ve decided that I don’t like it. I’m entertaining a quite important guest today, and we can’t have this room arranged like last year’s used furniture sale.

MR. FINN, the butler, enters.

MR. FINN
Now announcing the arrival of the Lady Gwyneth Ashby, wife of Lord Donald Ashby and patroness of the London Society of Ladies who Patron the Arts.

LADY GWYNETH ASHBY, a statuesque woman of authority, enters. She and BETHANY look at each other coolly for a moment, before:

BETHANY
Gwyneth!

GWYNETH
Bethany!

They dissolve into giggles and run to embrace one another.

BETHANY
I adore your bonnet.

GWYNETH
I adore your gown.

BETHANY
I adore you!

They giggle.

GWYNETH
Has this room always been in this arrangement?

BETHANY
Oh no. I rearranged it this morning. Special visitors require special accommodations.

GWYNETH
I’m so flattered!

BETHANY
Oh it’s not for you.

GWYNETH
I’m so insulted.

BETHANY
You’ll never guess who’s to call on me today.

GWYNETH
Who?

BETHANY
A Mr. Charles Hendrickson.

GWYNETH
Mr. Hendrickson?

BETHANY
And I believe he has a mind to propose today.

GWYNETH
To propose? Already?

BETHANY
Well he’s taken me to the opera and the races. It seems the next logical step.

GWYNETH
Perhaps, but—

BETHANY
Oh, I think he’s absolutely divine. Friendly, charming, witty—

GWYNETH
But—

BETHANY
And he gets this wondrous, distant look on his face that just screams: try to psychoanalyze me. Try to guess what I’m thinking. Oh, how often I ponder what is going on in his mind.

GWYNETH
He—

BETHANY
Perhaps he’s thinking about world politics. Philosophy. History. Me! (She giggles)

GWYNETH
Perhaps he’s thinking of Emmaline Watson.

BETHANY
Emmaline Watson, Emmaline Watson, WHAT of Emmaline Watson?

GWYNETH
Their parent and peers have quite put the pressure on their match. And all the papers predict an engagement.

BETHANY
But don’t you see?  That’s the subtle brilliance of it all. For me to steal the man right from under Miss Pampered Emmaline Watson’s nose. That makes it all the more exciting.

GWYNETH
She’s rich. And given certain circumstances the Hendrickson family would surely appreciate a wealthy addition to the family.

BETHANY
Well besides: she’s an invalid. Confined to a chair. What can she offer that I cannot?

GWYNETH
What of Mr. Sherman Grey?

BETHANY
What of Mr. Sherman Grey?

GWYNETH
He seems to have taken quite a particular interest in you. Why, at Margaret Smithson’s ball he could hardly leave you alone!

BETHANY
Well I quite wish he would. He’s quite a droll man. Always putting on airs and acting as if he were the wisest in the room.

GWYNETH
He—

BETHANY
He’s absolutely patronizing, dispensing advice as if we ought to worship him for it, as if we ought to be thanking him on bended knee for his sterling pearls of wisdom.

GWYNETH
Well—

BETHANY
And it’s not as if he’s a particularly exceptional businessman. It’s his namesake purse strings that keep him aloft. Yet he somehow neglects to remember this aspect of his fortunes when he is presented with an opportunity to instruct another on the matters of life.

GWYNETH
If—

BETHANY
And he never let’s me get a word in edgewise! It’s quite impolite.

GWYNETH
Bethany—

BETHANY
Really, a man should not be able to chatter on as I do. It’s absolutely disgraceful. And ungentlemanly.

GWYNETH
He’s a fine man, handsome, quite wealthy, and a good friend of Donald’s aside.

BETHANY
I will not choose my husband based upon whom yours would like to have tea with.

GWYNETH
All I’m saying is, Mr. Grey is a lovely gentleman, and you ought to pay him more mind.

BETHANY
My heart is set on Mr. Hendrickson, and there it shall remain. I refuse to contour my emotions to conform to your idea of the ideal dinner party.

MR. FINN enters.

MR. FINN
Mr. Charles Hendrickson is here.

BETHANY
He’s here!

GWYNETH
He’s here.

BETHANY
Oh goodness! How is my hair?

GWYNETH
Lovely.

BETHANY
And my dress?

GWYNETH
Wonderful.

BETHANY
And my nose?

GWYNETH
Superb.

BETHANY
Show him in Mr. Finn!

Mr. CHARLES HENDRICKSON, a handsome young man who – although not impoverished – has certainly seen and relished better times, enters.

CHARLES
Good afternoon Miss Dawson, Lady Ashby.

BETHANY
Mr. Hendrickson! How kind of you to stop by. Please, sit down and have some tea.

CHARLES
Why thank you, I think I will.

BETHANY casts a sideways glance at GWYNETH. She clears her throat. GWYNETH understands. She stands.

GWYNETH
This has been quite a pleasant visit Miss Dawson, but I fear I must leave you now. It was quite the pleasure seeing you this afternoon.

BETHANY
The pleasure was all mine Lady Ashby.

GWYNETH starts to leave, then pauses.

GWYNETH
Miss Dawson, I forgot to mention how wonderful you looked at Margaret Smithson’s ball. You look lovely in white.

BETHANY
Why thank you Lady Ashby.

GWYNETH
Good day.

GWYNETH exits.

BETHANY
Would you like some tea Mr. Hendrickson?

CHARLES
Thank you, I would.

She hands him a cup of tea. He takes it and sips it carefully,

CHARLES
I’m so glad we’re friends Miss Dawson. I really am.

BETHANY
I’m glad we are as well.

CHARLES
In fact, I would venture to say you are one of my dearest friends. I feel like we can talk about anything.

BETHANY
I feel the same about you.

CHARLES
I really enjoy the chats we have. You are an excellent conversationalist.

BETHANY
Why thank you. You are as well.

CHARLES
Hmm.

He sips his tea, looking out pensively.

BETHANY
What are you thinking about? (Pause) The body politic? (Pause) Philosophical theories? (Pause) Me? (Pause) Emmaline Watson?—

CHARLES
I’m thinking about where I should go for dinner tonight. It’s awfully superficial, I know. No politics or philosophy. But I suppose it says something that the most important I have to make it whether to go to the King’s Head or the Marvel’s Inn.

BETHANY
Indeed.

CHARLES
Actually, I do have something of the utmost importance to discuss with you.

BETHANY
Yes?

CHARLES
It’s about a decision. One a bit weightier than choosing my dining for the night.

BETHANY
Yes?

CHARLES
I’ve been thinking about this long and hard and I believe I have come to the correct decision. I’m not sure why it took me so long – the second I came to it, it seemed the easiest thing in the world.

BETHANY
Yes?

CHARLES
I’ve decided to ask Emmaline Watson to marry me

BETHANY
What?

CHARLES
Tomorrow, at her tea party. I’ve thought it over quite carefully, and I whole-heartedly believe I’ve made the right decision. I wanted to let you know first, since you’re one of my dearest friends.

BETHANY
No, no no.

CHARLES
No?

BETHANY
You don’t want to marry Emmaline Watson.

CHARLES
Why not? I thought you two were girlhood chums—

BETHANY
You two are completely incompatible! You’re, charming and handsome and wonderful, and she’s…

CHARLES
You were expecting me to propose to you.

BETHANY
Yes!

CHARLES
I am quite fond of you Miss Dawson – really, I am – but I have decided upon Emmaline. I feel that the two of us – we’re much better off as friends.

BETHANY
I see.

CHARLES
I was really hoping you’d approve. Your approval means so much to me.

BETHANY
But what I say won’t change your mind.

CHARLES
It won’t,

BETHANY
Emmaline is a lovely girl.

CHARLES
That she is. (Pause) Well, that is what I came to say.

BETHANY
 I see.

CHARLES
I hope to see you again soon.

BETHANY
Same to you.

CHARLES
Good day Miss Dawson.

BETHANY
Good day Mr. Hendrickson.

CHARLES stands up, then pauses.

CHARLES
I think I should kiss you hand?

BETHANY extends her hand, her face attempting to suppress her contempt.

CHARLES
Good day.

BETHANY
Good day.

CHARLES exits. Pause.

BETHANY
Lizbet!

BETHANY runs to a chair. She removes her sash, and stands on the chair.

BETHANY
Lizbet!

LIZBET runs in.

LIZBET
Yes Miss, what – Miss!

BETHANY
Lizbet, help me hang myself!

LIZBET
Are you sure you really want me to?

BETHANY
Yes!

LIZBET
Miss, I don’t know how I’m supposed to act in this situation.

BETHANY
Help me!

LIZBET looks doubtful and walks over. GWYNETH walks in.

GWYNETH
So, what is the—My god!

LIZBET and BETHANY look at her.

GWYNETH
You two! Get down from there right now!

They reluctantly step down.

GWYNETH
So I take it Mr. Hendrickson did not propose.

BETHANY
He wishes to wed Emmaline Watson!

GWYNETH
Is that not what I said? (BETHANY wails) I suppose this is not a time for I told you so. Bethany, you need to pull yourself together.

BETHANY
But why? Mr. Hendrickson did not propose! He knows I wished him to – and he’s going to propose to Emmaline Watson tomorrow!

GWYNETH
And I wish the most happiness for the two of them. Now buck up and realize that it was not meant to be!

BETHANY
Oh, and I’m expected to go to the tea party tomorrow and witness this all and not shed a single tear of true emotion.

GWYNETH
Perhaps it would be best not to go.

BETHANY
No! I must. I will not let my silly emotions get in the way of my public image! I refuse to let them sadden me into isolation. I will go in there with a smile on my face and a witty conversation on my tongue and Charles Hendrickson will rue the day he chose Emmaline Watson over me!

GWYNETH
Whatever you say darling.

The clock tolls.

GWYNETH
Oh dear I would love to stay but I promised Donald I’d meet him—

BETHANY
No inconvenience Gwyneth. I shall be fine.

GWYNETH
I pray that you are. Lizbet, I am putting you on suicide watch. See that Miss Dawson gets nowhere near poisons, pistols, ropes or knives.

BETHANY
You shouldn’t worry about me taking my life. I’ve already expended that impulse.

GWYNETH
Poisons, pistols, ropes or knives.

BETHANY
Good day Lady Ashby.

GWYNETH
Good day Bethany.

GWYNETH exits.

BETHANY sits primly. LIZBET looks at her, worried.

LIZBET
Are you sure you won’t be offin’ yourself Miss?

BETHANY
Why yes Lizbet I’m quite sure. I wish to be buried in my blue satin gown, which has not been pressed, and I know no one in this household would have the decent courtesy to press it in time for my funeral.  No, suicide is completely out of the question. I have no idea what could have come over me a few minutes ago.

LIZBET
Perhaps it was love Miss.

BETHANY
It was the crushing of expectations. And the utter humiliation of rejection. Oh, I was made a fool of! And I’ll just be made a fool of again next week at Emmaline’s tea party. I’ll have to waltz in all alone and watch them compact their utter bliss – which ought to have been mine! – while I sip what will in all likelihood be lukewarm tea with far too much honey in it. No one in the Watson household can make a decent cup of tea, and they always insist on doing it for you. Pft. (Beat) Of course, I could always go with Mr. Sherman Grey; I’m sure I have an invitation from him somewhere in the garbage heap.

LIZBET
Oh no Miss, you don’t want to go with him! He’s a bloody tool!

BETHANY
Lizbet!

LIZBET
Pardon my slang Miss, but absolutely every time you return from an engagement with him, you’re always in the foulest of moods and complain for hours about what a row you had!

BETHANY
But I can’t just walk in alone! Mr. Hendrickson will see how pathetic I am and I don’t want him thinking me pathetic and the only way not to be pathetic is to come on the arm of a richer man. No, I must take Mr. Grey: it’s the only way to avoid complete and utter humiliation.

LIZBET
But would it be worth it Miss? Better walk in alone with your head up high and be miserable with yourself than walk in with your tail between your legs and miserable with yourself and your escort.

LIZBET begins to dust.

BETHANY
Perhaps he won’t be that miserable.

LIZBET
Oh yes he will be. He always is! What with his strutting around ways, his arrogant airs – every time he comes over here, acting like the all-powerful master, saying, (voice deepens) “You ought to do this” and “You ought not do that” and “In my humble opinion” – although you know it’s not humble at all, and it drive me bugging mad and I don’t get how you—

BETHANY
Lizbet!

LIZBET
Yes Miss?

BETHANY
Do that again!

LIZBET
Do what again?

BETHANY
That, that thing you just did.

LIZBET
Dust the mantelpiece?

BETHANY
No—

LIZBET
It’s clean enough with one dusting.

BETHANY
No no no, the way you, strutted about and talked like Mr. Grey.

LIZBET
I’d rather not be a parading monkey if you don’t mind it much Miss.

BETHANY
You’re not a parading monkey at all Lizbet! You are a gifted imitator!

LIZBET
Why thank you Miss! I always wanted to be an actress! I mean, (deepens voice) Why, ‘twas nothing Miss Dawson, just one of my, many charming and exemplary talents that no one else could ever possibly aspire to attaining. No pithy stage could hold my talents!

BETHANY
This, this is lovely! This – (revelation) Lizbet, I think I’ve struck upon a brilliant idea.

LIZBET
Miss?

BETHANY
You are a brilliant imitator. I am a brilliant dresser. I have an eye for fashion – for women and men.

LIZBET
I don’t—

BETHANY
Tonight, I will teach you the manners of a gentleman, and next week, I shall dress you in a man’s clothing. Then, we shall take you to Emmaline Watson’s tea party, and introduce you as a newly arrived gentleman!

LIZBET
This does not sound like a good idea at all.

BETHANY
It’s an excellent idea! A marvelous pretense! A brilliant stratagem! Under those circumstances, I will retain my dignity and refrain from misery!

LIZBET
Don’t I get a say in this?

BETHANY
Of course not Lizbet – whatever made you think you would?

LIZBET
But Miss!

BETHANY
Of course you have a say. But I have a say too, and what I say is this: Think of this brilliant chance you’ll have to mingle with the upper crust. Think of the wonderful implementation of your talents. And think of the all the tea and crumpets you’ll be eating – not serving. You’ll finally get to experience a tea party from the point of view of the guest, not the maid. (Pause) And besides, I am your employer and I order it so. Unless you wish me to terminate your employment you will comply.

LIZBET
I’ll do it.

BETHANY
Oh excellent! Now, I’ve a whole host of manners and terms of etiquette to teach you before next week if we’re ever to pass you off as an English gentleman – stand up straight girl! Straighter!

LIZBET
I’m standing as straight as I can Miss!

BETHANY
Oh we have quite a bit of work. This time next week Lizbet, you will be a perfect gentleman!

Blackout.


Act II

Watson household garden. Very airy, very flowery, very lacy.

EMMALINE WATSON, a pretty young girl in a wheelchair, sits by a table, adjusting the flowers in the vase. A pensive, serene look engulf her face.

MRS. KITTSON, her motherly nurse, enters.

MRS. KITTSON
Emmaline? Emmaline!

EMMALINE
Yes Mrs. Kittson?

MRS. KITTSON
Ah, Emmaline, there you are my dear. I thought I’d already lost you and the guests aren’t even here yet.

EMMALINE
How much longer until they arrive?

MRS. KITTSON
The party was supposed to start, five minutes ago, so I’d put it at ten, fifteen minutes. Twenty, if they’re really fashionable. Oh look here, I’ve marked all seating arrangements with the most darling cards.

EMMALINE
Am I next to Mr. Hendrickson?

MRS. KITTSON
On your right hand side.

EMMALINE
Thank you Mrs. Kittson.

MRS. KITTSON
You’re welcome my dear.

EMMALINE
I see you put Bethany Dawson on my left.

MRS. KITTSON
Yes. Her and her plus one.

EMMALINE
Sherman Grey?

MRS. KITTSON
No: Mr. Grey submitted a separate RSVP. This is a mysterious stranger.

EMMALINE
Bethany has such a penchant for making friends. She’s so vivacious. Gregarious. Confident. I’ve always been so jealous.

MRS. KITTSON
You are a perfectly lovely young lady and you have no reason to be jealous of anyone. Though you could always pick up a few of Miss Dawson’s conversational skills. Which is why I put you next to her.

EMMALINE
Is everything a learning experience Mrs. Kittson?

MRS. KITTSON
As long as I have my way.

EMMALINE
And I suppose you must always have your way.

MRS. KITTSON
Someday my dear, I will be saying the same to you.

CHARLES enters.

CHARLES
Miss Watson?

MRS. KITTSON
Mr. Hendrickson! You’re so early!

CHARLES
I thought the party started eight minutes ago; I’m late.

MRS. KITTSON
Yes, but all the best sort arrive at least fifteen minutes late.

CHARLES
Oh… I wasn’t aware…

MRS. KITTSON
That they do, and you would do best to go outside and not ring for another seven minutes. Propriety must be observed.

EMMALINE
Mrs. Kittson, don’t you think we could bend the rules of propriety for one occasion? Mr. Hendrickson simply didn’t know better: we can’t expect him to wait outside like a misbehaved child.

MRS. KITTSON
Yes, I suppose you’re right Emmaline. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Hendrickson, to be so in Miss Watson’s favor.

CHARLES
I know it.

[stuff happens]

Act III

LIZBET dusts.

MR. FINN enters.

MR. FINN
Mr. Sherman—

SHERMAN GREY barges in.

MR. GREY
Mr. Sherman Grey. Yes, yes, it is I.

LIZBET
Sorry Mr. Grey sir, but—

BETHANY wails in the other room.

LIZBET
Miss Dawson is ill-disposed at this moment.

MR. GREY
Well—

BETHANY enters.

BETHANY
Ill-disposed? Mr. Grey, sir,  I am never too ill-disposed for your company.

MR. GREY
I actually did come to see you Miss Dawson.

BETHANY
Excuse me?

MR. GREY
No, I came to see Mr. Edwin Denton-Shire.

LIZBET
Mr. Denton-Shire?

MR. GREY
Yes girl, Mr. Denton-Shire. He struck me as one of those cultured gentlemen who are well-versed in the intellect of the world – perhaps one of the few men in the world who could consider himself my peer. I was hoping to continue our conversation that had been so rudely interrupted.

LIZBET
Perhaps Mr. Denton-Shire does not wish to talk to you.

MR. GREY
Miss Dawson, I thought you had the class to teach your servants to hold their tongues. I hoped to continue our conversation before Miss Emmaline Watson comes to interrupt.

BETHANY
Miss Emmaline Watson?

MR. GREY
She expressed an interest in calling on Mr. Denton-Shire today. Silly girl – she will completely disrupt our conversation again: the conversation of intellectual men—

BETHANY
We would not care to deny you such conversation. Lizbet! Get Mr. Denton-Shire!

LIZBET
Must I Miss Dawson?

MR. GREY
The cheek! If you were my maid girl, I should not stand for such retort.

BETHANY
Precisely.